What are you building – a business, product or hack?

Are you wondering if you are on the right path with your startup? Are you seeing a sudden uprise of competition?

These are the kind of challenges that an entrepreneur faces all the time. It gets even more challenging in an environment where everyone is advising to reduce burn.

I have been wondering if there is a way by which entrepreneurs can predict what to expect in future. Anticipation can help plan better. I do realise that it is impossible to make accurate predictions, but after meeting more than 250 entrepreneurs in the last nine months (as entrepreneur-turned-VC), I see a few patterns emerge.

building a startup

Thinking through this framework would either force you to think deeper about your business and create a defensible strategy or allow yourself to fail fast at a low cost. It starts by asking a basic question –

What are you building?

I find startups building roughly one of three types of products – Business, Product or Hack. Let’s see how to identify which bucket you belong to and what to do about it.


If you are building a business, then at some point of time you need to be able to sustain as a standalone business with revenue and profits. Any successful business has to be able to withstand pressure of economic cycles. In today’s technology world, I see a few key characteristics of a good business.

  • Is your business defensible? This is one thing that is most underrated in entrepreneurial setups. Any guy trying to replicate your business must be forced to spend either 10X more money or 10X more time than what you have spent. This is why network effect is the most beautiful way to build defensible business today. If this is not true, then you would always find yourself fighting with a strong competitor.
  • Are you building a faster horse to compete with a car? Every few years a new paradigm emerges and creates new winners in an otherwise already existing market. People who get stuck with past baggage and don’t move to a new paradigm generally become redundant. For example, businesses that are trying to build SMS solutions in 2009 by arguing that the world is still largely on feature phones are no longer alive.
  • Are you over dependent on another organisation for sales/distribution? Quite often I meet entrepreneurs who win one large partnership (often with an established company) and assume that this partnership will make them big. Only later do they find out that they are either not big enough for this partner or this partner starts treating them as competition. Most new-age lending companies are trying to partner with our four e-commerce platforms. And I can’t imagine a reason why e-commerce giants would allow any lending company to become big on their shoulders.
  • Do you have unique insight into how the market/customer or technology works? While competitors can copy the front-end and visible product, they can’t copy the deep insight that’s driving the product. Best example for this was redBus. Everyone used to think, redBus was an OTA, but internally we always worked to solve the pain of eliminating the unpredictability of a bus traveler. Such businesses get clean runways to execute before competitors become aware.
  • Do you have a concentrated set of suppliers? If you do, then sooner or later you will be fighting for margins with those suppliers. The moment you attain a bit of success, these suppliers will come hunting for you. Good example of this was the music streaming service Dhingana. The service itself was compelling, but labels weren’t happy seeing someone become big.
  • Are you 10X better than replacement? Just because you launched a new product doesn’t mean consumers will move from current behaviour to your product. For example, quite a few laundry service companies cropped up recently. They all cited that they have a huge unorganised market to capture. However, the proposed solution didn’t seem any better than the current alternative of giving laundry to your local dhobi.
  • Is there another large company that has the right to win against you? If that company launches your proposition as a new feature, you will become redundant. This is not a breaker, as long as you can build defensibility.

It’s impossible to get favourable answers to all the above questions for your startup. But by asking these questions, you can probably tweak your strategy to solve for as many variables as possible.

If your startup doesn’t qualify as business then it might be in category of product or hack.


If you find that another large company has a right to win against you, then please think hard on how you could build defensibility. Please don’t assume that a larger company will find it hard to execute. There are many ways to build defensibility. If you can’t figure out defensibility then it is probably best to get acquired by the large company by making yourself as attractive as possible.

In case you are not able to figure out your own distribution and are too dependent on another company for distribution then also, it is probably best to get acquired.


If you are neither a business nor a product, you are probably a candidate for this bucket. In such cases, instead of trying to claim yourself as a business, showcase your skills to a larger company and get an attractive job.

So many things are ambiguous in the startup world that you may not be able to find the right answers all the time. But in my view asking these questions is better than ignoring them.


2 thoughts on “What are you building – a business, product or hack?

  1. A wise man once told “Judge a man by his questions and not by his answers”. Thanks for this wonderful question set, to tweak ones strategy.

    Here are answers to these questions for our Business

    Are you over dependent on another organisation for sales/distribution?
    Precisely, thats how we started.
    While our days, when we were supplying to ecom majors, Yes we were OVER DEPENDENT on few ecom majors. Hence now we have turned the table around where we have crores as our sales points and thousands as are our suppliers.

    Are you building a faster horse to compete with a car?
    Cant agree more that “Every few years, a new paradigm emerges”.
    After our learnings from being a retailer and ecom supplier, we are focused and geared to take advantage of pushed efficiency requirement in retail environment and be a trade enabler platform with zero learning and zero investment in technology for crores of Ethnic wear MSMEs and individuals across India. Essentially its a car and not a faster horse.

    Is your business defensible?
    Defensible for it is a technology platform and is focused on building a Franchisee Network (thereby generating repeat business) in Indian Ethnic Wear Female.

    Do you have a concentrated set of suppliers?
    Survival of the fittest applies. Though in our case concentrated set of supplier doesn’t exist owing to ethnic wear business nature which has more than 50000 SME manufacturers/wholesalers in our operating city itself.

    Are you 10X better than replacement?
    Current acceptance and 100% MOM growth with positive gross margins, constantly improving repeat rate without any deep discounts, tells us ” YES WE are 10x better than replacement” as we are replacing old process of trading with more efficient and fitting product and process in Indian Ethnic wear Female.

    Is there another large company that has the right to win against you?
    We are a business with differentiated set of customers, with a very unique workflow for its associate business.

    Do you have unique insight into how the market/customer or technology works?
    Based on our 5 year experience in this domain and being on both side of the table (played retailer as well as supplier) We are working to eliminate the losses/bottlenecks of a retailer and an individual by an highly efficient and accepted workflow-product, while it looks like a supply business.


  2. Great points Alok. Does business come first or the product will come first?

    The very best startup ideas tend to have three things in common: they’re something the founders themselves want, that they themselves can build, and that few others realize are worth doing.

    Source: http://paulgraham.com/startupideas.html

    Founders themselves can build is an important criterion. Otherwise, one would be building another “operations” business. e.g. Redbus was coded by original founders in the first version. Same goes for Flipkart, Google, Facebook and now Snapchat. For the most successful cases, products had come first and business was built along the way!


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