How to actively observe problems around you to discover idea-founder fit
Pramod Rao didn’t quit his job as the VP of Marketing at Zomato because he had an exciting high-growth startup idea in mind. All he knew was that he was ready for a new challenge. In fact, after quitting Zomato, it took him 18 months, 7 startup ideas and lots of self-doubt to finally land upon his big startup idea!
Today, Pramod is the cofounder of Threado – a startup that recently raised a $3.1M seed round. Threado is building the command centre for community builders. He started it almost 2 years ago, in August 2020, after an impressive 8 years at a billion dollar startup - Zomato - where he led their marketing as the lucky employee #13.
We’ve all been told that patience is important. But it’s difficult to be patient when you’re making a scary career pivot. Pramod’s story will make it easier. It will drill this idea in your mind so that whenever you feel impatient or anxious, you can go back to it to find comfort and confidence.
Listen to Pramod’s story in his own words
Actively observing problems
After 8.5 years of being at Zomato, Pramod didn't have clarity on what he wanted to do next.
He even started consulting on the side to ease his parents concerns during this transition period. But soon, he realised that it was not for him because he always felt like he was “two degrees away from where the action was happening”.
So, he quit consulting and put all his focus on what’s next.
Problem was he didn’t know what was next! So he followed a simple formula –
“Observe problems in the society around him and try to solve it.”
This pursuit of problems led Pramod from one startup idea to the next. He would start solving one problem, then discover that it wasn’t the right fit for him. Or that it wasn’t a good problem to solve.
To get a sense of how this played out, look at some examples of ideas he tried:
- His first idea was to help people discover tutors (like, yoga teachers and music teachers) in their housing societies and help tutors get more audience.
- He then wanted to build a time management solution because he believes that no one has solved it well.
- Then, he wanted to do something non-tech. So he explored the D2C space. He wanted to build a health drink that can be a whole meal alternative, like Soylent, in India.
- In trying to build the above idea, he discovered another problem - the difficulty of finding contract manufacturers. So he spoke to different brands and saw that there was a real opportunity in digitising the supply chain logistics of the FMCG space.
- Finally, after 18 months and 7 abandoned startup ideas, he started Threado in 2020. He noticed the increasing importance of online communities on Discord, Slack, Whatsapp etc. This gave him the idea of helping community admins and members by building a better platform for hosting communities.
He built the MVP for this using a no-code app-making tool - Glide. But soon, he realised that he didn’t want to start another marketplace. He had been building marketplaces for eight years at Zomato and wanted to explore something different before starting another one.
After a month and a half, he ran into the problem of actually building it. He had created some prototypes but he needed a technical co-founder to build it.
He spent a month or so figuring out how to build that. He met a lot of food consultants, met a lot of D2C founders. But finally, he quit this too when he realised that not a lot of people cared about this problem too much.
He spent a good 2-3 months on building a supply chain management B2B platform. But then COVID hit and all manufacturing came to a standstill.
So he started a passion project. He learnt coding and built the MVP of a community forum tool. But when he put it in the hands of beta users, he sensed some serious reservations. This made him pivot to a completely different product although under the same brand of Threado.
Today, Threado is a command-centre for community builders. It plugs into whatever platform their community lives on and gives them actionable insights, automation workflows and the ability to activate more members.
It took him 8 idea pivots to reach here.
What helped him was actively exploring each idea instead of just passively thinking about it. He was either building a prototype, talking to users or validating the market. Since he was actively pursuing the solution, even when he hit the wall with an idea, he would end up discovering another idea adjacent to it.
3 Guard Rails for finding the founder-idea fit
Pramod believes that with Threado, he has finally found the founder-idea fit. Meaning he is now working on a problem worth solving, that connects well with the dots from his past.
These are the “guard rails” that he put on himself to help him find it:
- “Have a right to win. By using your experience and building for a persona that you have experienced yourself.”
- “Work on a problem that's large, global if possible.”
- “Just get started. Don't wait for a tech co-founder from the start.”
Pramod’s work at Zomato was community-centric long before “community building” was a thing. Zomato started out as the restaurant discovery app that relied on user-generated reviews. As the Head of Marketing, it was his responsibility to create a platform where users wanted to share their experiences with others.
This makes him empathise with the persona that he is currently targeting with Threado.
The idea of community-led growth has emerged only in the last 3-5 years. So, the entire community industry is very new and awash with problems.
And yet, the opportunity of is big. Community-led growth is a new marketing model that has the potential to be adopted by every company, small and large. If done well, a community can even be the competitive advantage of one company over a competitor.
As I mentioned before, Pramod learnt coding to build the first MVP of Threado. He took Stanford’s online classes to learn web development with Python and Django. This allowed him to start working on it right away.
Even though he eventually discarded that version of Threado, the momentum it gave him is now sewn into Threado’s history. Plus, having a deep understanding of the technical challenges made it easier to onboard a technical co-founder.
Preparing support systems for the mental turmoil
“It took time, it led to several things not working out and there's a lot of anxiety during that phase. This is where having a support system helps. Otherwise, by the end of the sixth or seventh startup, it just felt like I should just go and get a job.”
Changing directions every few months comes with a lot of anxiety. But it is crucial to discover the idea-founder fit. Pramod says that none of it would have been possible without the support systems that he gave himself.
He believes it is crucial for all founders to have a sturdy support system. It includes 3 elements:
- Family - his family was very supportive. Especially his wife. This was important because parents don't always understand some of these decisions.
- Peers - he was very proactive in reaching out to other founders for help and mentorship. He found a mentor in the CEO of Zomato, Deepinder Goyal, who advised him to take time to think through his next venture. He also joined communities and networked with aspiring founders who were also exploring what’s next for them.
- Long runway - most importantly, what helped him was planning for a long runway. It ensured that he didn’t feel the pressure to land upon his next idea in the next month. This gave him the freedom to explore.
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