The internet craze is back!

Looking at the newspapers in India these days, you would be forgiven if you felt a sense of deja-vu.  An internet gold rush, new models coming up every day, massive PE investments, fresh millionaires… did we just get transported back to Y2K?

Yes and no, it seems.  Yes – because the stories and the mood are the same.  No – because the underlying activity is a lot more real this time around.  Business models are built on revenue models.  There are now more than 80 mn internet users in the country.  Among the more attractive consumer segments (SEC A and B), internet penetration is near total.  A true web-generation has emerged.

How will is this panning out from a business perspective?  Well, travel has already moved online with a vengeance (perhaps repaying us for all those long hours we spent in queues trying to get tickets) – when’s the last time you didn’t buy a ticket off the net?  But that’s not the only segment.  Snapdeal claims to do 10,000 transactions a day (and are now in the market to raise 200 Cr).  Flipkart (valued around a 1000 Cr)  is rumoured to do revenues of 75 Cr.  If that sounds small –  compare that to the 200 Cr odd that Crosswords and Landmark make after dozens of years in the business.

The party’s just begun – and barring another recession, we’re certain to see mind-boggling levels of activity in this space.  And hopefully, we won’t be experiencing a sense of deja-vu in 2021!

Guest post: And the moral of the story is…

Guest post by Aarti Shyamsunder, who has posted here earlier.

Fairy tales, fables, fiction. We grow up on them, and then forget them, and try to forge some legends of our own, in business and in life. We battle our own idiosyncratic evil witches, look for fairy god-mothers and Prince Charmings, wearing our glass slipper occasionally but watching it fall away as well. Into the abyss of profit margins, quarterly results, research and ass-kissing.

It may seem quaint and naïve to believe in fairytales, but it’s not that different from believing in modern myths is it? The myth of a fearless leader who will lead us to triumph over recessions and corruption, of high-tech gadgets and flashy cars that will let us live happily ever after, and of that elusive promotion or bonus that will bring us the ‘crown’.

So instead of these delusions, how about bringing the magic of those ancient stories back into our work lives? If we look carefully, there’s probably more to them than advice on how to snag royal spouses. Here are a few ideas to get started…

–          Goldilocks and the Three Bears: The story of the little girl Goldilocks who wandered into the home of the three bears, and found that while Mama Bear’s and Papa Bear’s stuff was beyond her reach, Baby Bear’s porridge, chair and bed were all ‘just right’ for her. This story has inspired many analogies, including the idea of a Goldilocks Planet where conditions are ‘just right’ for life as we know it. Taking inspiration for business, one of the best-established axioms is from Goal-Setting Theory – goals that are challenging, specific and achievable are more motivational than mere ‘do your best’ goals. We may have come to know and love these as ‘SMART’ goals but it’s more fun to think of Goldilocks goals, right? Set your sights on something that’s neither too easy nor too difficult, build on ‘just right’ successes and move that dial up (to 11, even!) towards more and more challenging goals.

–          The Frog Prince: This fairytale has undergone many avatars over time. Some involve a spoiled princess who has to kiss a frog in order to retrieve a golden ball that’s fallen in a pond, others require her to let the frog spend three nights on her bed (with her in it! Hmm..shady!). In all versions, it ends with the frog miraculously transforming into a handsome prince who of course, marries said spoiled princess and they live happily ever after. Be that as it may, this story has some interesting implications for entrepreneurs and change agents. Starting up a new business is not all glamorous, and one may need to wade through swamps after elusive golden balls, kiss more than just frogs and watch them turn into worse creatures instead of morphing into handsome princes in the form of angel investors. If one keeps at it, though, and tries new approaches, the fairy tale could come true…just be open to the form that the frog prince might take!

–          The Emperor’s New Clothes: Now this story is one for the times. Duped by weavers who claimed to make cloth that would be invisible to anyone who’s ‘unfit’ for their role, the emperor parades around naked until a child calls it like he sees it (or doesn’t see it, rather!). So many business metaphors here. How many times have we come across such weavers – literal ‘spin-doctors’ – who confuse and confound us with their theories and their data? And claiming to not understand them would make us seem unfit or foolish so we hold tight, until it’s too late and the world finds out that we have no clothes on. Also, think about the vain-glorious and foolish emperor who is too blind to accept that he’s being taken for a ride – sounds like a lot of our leaders, right? But let’s not forget the good part – the part where the voice of truth and innocence is heard and validated. Let’s stay in touch with that voice within us that’s unafraid to question and comment on what is going on.

So what’s your favorite fairytale and how closely does it mirror the truth of your work? What about it inspires you, and what moral does it hold for you? With due apologies to Mr. Hendrix, let your circus mind run wild…butterflies and zebras and moonbeams and fairytales…if it’s good enough for a song, it’s good enough for life!

Headline bingo: this one’s a winner

Now I am a discerning news reader, but there are times when my self-control slips, and the mouse-wielding hand is guided by the eyes to the crass and vulgar. I am glad to report that some headline writer in the ToI family has come up with the winning formula, capturing centuries of human breeding and social selection. Combine the desi male tendency for lecherousness with desi aspirations, and you have a winning combination. The only other word that could have finished out the headline was “BMW”. It’s all there. I’m telling you!

The winner of the screaming headline of the year goes to “Munni & Sheila seize sizzle IIMA classroom“. Need I say more?

I had excited visions of said ladies actually taking over one of my classrooms (CR-1 for Section A) for an impromptu performance. I can imagine Yogi’s bathroom songs would go well with the performance, as will the desktop drumming that everyone in India is an expert at. Now to add to the mix, one could imagine that lecherous male hooting would be replaced by orderly tempo shouts and announcements of random quizzes, as behooves IIMA’s students and their future glory. Rapturous hoots of “Munni ka tempo high hai” are met with equal gusto from the Sheila camp’s “Sheila ki le li, zig zag zig zag”, (WIMWI folks- I KNOW why it’s “ki”). Wait, remember the Prof who took his shoes and watch off for every class? We could have his shoes stolen by the class clown, and somehow the class could be dancing around a pair of marketing prof shoes to the beat of his stolen watch! Yes, yes, yes! Sheila ji, Munni ji, please bring it on! The sizzle, the steak.

Puerile fantasies aside, the actual article was interesting, but not quite Sheila/Munni material. Why the world needs to know that there’s a class on contemporary Indian films…I don’t know. But, hey!, the diversion was worth the time.

Link here. Nothing exciting in the article, really, but the headline was a winner.

ymMBA: Dog of Dance

Series of posts titled “Your movie MBA”, where we’re using famous hindi movie lines to make management gyan more approachable. Today’s theme-customer segmentation! The source material is illegal phone-taps, so reader discretion advised.

Follows this base post. And oh! This is fictionalized.

In the wake of 2010’s 2G scandal in India, newspaper offices have become used to receiving strange packets with USB memory sticks full of illicitly recorded telephone conversation. One such package arrived at our doorstep yesterday, marked simply “Gabriel’s Dogs, 1994“. Our curiosity piqued, we plugged in the USB drive to hear the inner workings of the IT industry in its infancy. The year was 1994, and this was a recording of a conversation between Virendra, VipInTa Technologies’ founder, and Haema, the company’s relationship manager with Gabriel Electric. Haema, as readers will recall, later became (in)famous as a corporate lobbyist and her other phone recordings have already been made public. It appears that Haema’s calls were being tapped much earlier in her career as well. This was one of the recordings. The uncut transcript is below.

Haema: Veeru, this is me. I know it’s late…sorry…but I need to talk with you urgently ya!

Virendra: Haan bol! Did you get any sleep? Those crazy guys at Gabriel have made me completely sleepless. I don’t know why we have to do this renegotiation tamasha every year. Why don’t they bloody ask for our first-borns and right arm as well? Buggers!

Haema: No ya! I didn’t get much sleep either. I was working with Balu on the financials. If we give Gabriel’s guys any more discount, we will make no money on the deal at all. Balu is furious, and I am ready to give up now. It’s your company, ya!, you tell me what you want to do!

Virendra: Arrey…we gave them a discount last year as well. They keep coming back every year to arm-twist. Tu aisa kar, you tell them that you’re not able to reach me. Let them give us some more time.

Haema: What are you saying Veeru? This is our largest client, and they are negotiating with all the other desi companies. I can’t just go and tell them I can’t reach you. Tell something else…should I just give the discount, and we will try to be better prepared next year?

Virendra: Basanti..<audio garbled>

Haema: Hellow?! What did you say?

Virendra: <muffled audio> Basa…ton ke saam…<muffled audio>

Haema: Can you repeat? Your voice is cutting off…Hellow?! Should I call back?

Virendra: Basanti, in kutton ke saamne mat naachna! <translated: Don’t dance for these dogs>

<Editor’s note> Customer segmentation is a very important part of a company’s strategy. Not all clients are alike, and some clients are not worth having. VipInTa had run into a very big problem- their biggest customer, Gabriel Electric, was now a problem client. Gabriel’s men routinely came down to India to ask for discounts, and the relationship had become toxic. Veeru had to decide whether to continue to give discount to the single client that gave them 40% of revenues, or to walk away and take their chances with other more profitable clients. They chose to walk away, and the rest is history. The company still doesn’t do any business with Gabriel’s men, but happens to make the most profits in the industry. Those who danced for Gabriel’s negotiators have had to sell their companies for a deep discount. (Non-fictionalized version of the story here at #19). (Non-fictionalized reference to a company that likes dancing for Gabriel is here. They sold the company in early 2011, at a fraction of the valuation of the other companies in their industry. Cheap clients make poor business partners!).

Not all customers are alike. Learn to pick well. That’s your bollywood line for the day.

Basanti, in kutton ke saamne mat nachna! Can there be a more iconic bollywood line? For those who slept through the 1970s, the line is from Sholay, and involved Hema Malini (as Basanti) and Dharmendra’s character-Veeru. Veeru is strapped to a pole, and the arch-villain Gabbar’s henchmen have asked Basanti to dance on shards of broker glass as a life-line to save her boyfriend Veeru. Incensed, Veeru is asking Basanti not to dance. She does. He lives. Happy Ending, bollywood ishtyle.

Your Movie MBA: Bring us your dialogs

Keen to revitalize our flagging blogging enterprise, we have come up with a uniquely desi formula. We will use iconic movie dialogs from hindi movies to deliver management gyan. In what we hope will be seen retrospectively as a brilliant marketing move that sparked international frenzy and fandom, we will use this platform to advance dubious management insights based on famous movie lines.

That’s the plot, or the twist in the plot. Mogambo, khush hua?!

We could choose hollywood lines as well as bollywood, but our desi hearts are etched deepest in hindi. Nary an NRI meeting is consummated until someone brings forth a gem from deep inside. Who can reject the cultural significance of “Mere paas Ma hai“, or “Jaani, yeh bachchon ke khelne ki cheez nahi hai“, or even “Kitne Aadmi thhey“? Who amongst us has not used the line “Thoda khao thoda phenko” to explain to their host why the excess pulaoo at the party must be thrown away?



Broker ya Party?

Basanti, in kutton ke saamne mat nachna

Aaj Andhe Hain

So what time is it there (infographic)?

Do you know what time it is in London right now? New York? Wouldn’t you want a simple way of finding out when you can schedule that pesky conference call? You’ve come to the right post. (6ampacific? That’s America-centric, it appears).

Harvard Business Review published a fantastic (and flawed, more on that later) infographic that I will shamelessly reproduce for your convenience. As you see, the big brother of the business world – time-wise – is Mumbai. At 1pm IST (assuming people have come back from lunch at the Samovar, and assuming they don’t stick to the popular definition of Stretchable time), there are more countries working with India@1pm than at any other time in any other country.

Except San Francisco. San Francisco is asleep at 1pm IST. So, if you did try my advice, please don’t try this at my home. Call your friends in Portugal instead. They’re open when India is.

If conference calls were trunk roads, India would be Rome.

PS: What’s wrong with this graphic is that Singapore and LA have less time shown on the chart than other places. I swear we west coasters work just as hard. Promise!

Time time ki baat hai

Watch it, Eh!

Indians and the funda of materiality

In a recent issue of the Economist, I came across an article on the Chinese takeover of global companies. What caught my attention was this offhand comment quoting an unnamed business exec, about the relative difference between negotiations with Indian and Chinese bidders

One oil executive ran an auction of a firm that ended with an Indian and a Chinese bidder (both were state-controlled). The Indians had “no concept of materiality”, he says, and were mired in nit-picking. In the final stages they returned the draft contract riddled with amendments. The Chinese firm returned it clean, and won.

Why is that? Why is it that Indians (and now, people of Indian ethnicity living everywhere) are being projected as a community of nit-pickers? Could it be true that Indians truly lack a sense of materiality in our legal dealings?

Fetish for detail + One-Upmanship + Failing grade in Negotiations 101. This seems to be the formula Indian companies seem to be taking to the negotiation table. The lawyers seem hand selected for their bookish knowledge, and their ability to parse legal documents in order to write length academic arguments. As they approach their deals, they could consider it their primary responsibility to red-line every term in the contract. Never mind that the negotiations are meant to be  win-win exercise and all that BS. No, No! Any dialog is an opportunity to score points, and the more red ink I piss on the other person’s contract, the bigger my score-card.

As India and Indians acquire a more stable and prominent position on the world business and political stage, I am sure desis will learn to let go of petty schoolboy taunting, and focus on the big prize.

Till then, everyone will just have to tolerate our eye for detail as a cultural trait. Sorry, Sir…what to do, we are like that only!

Fixing workshop design

This is a continuation of my previous post here. I’m talking in this piece about how to improve workshop and meeting design to get the best out of people.

Start with recognizing the humans in the meeting: It’s surprising how many meetings start without enough time spent in introductions and pleasantries. Many people (of the teutonic bent, perhaps) consider introductions a waste of productive time. Let’s get on with it! That’s a big mistake. How can people speak their minds freely if they don’t know who’s listening to them? How do people get over their natural respect for authority and participate in meetings, if their presence are not even acknowledged?

I’m not suggesting that people spend 2 hours doing ice-breakers and introductions. What I have seen working is to deliberately spend the first few minutes of the meeting in light banter, making sure to address the junior-most person in the meeting directly. Put out name tags in front of everybody. When someone speaks up for the first time, ask them to introduce themselves. Simple stuff.

Amit reminded me of the fantastic anecdote from Dr. Atul Gawande (surgeon and fantastic author) about how he saw a notable improvement in operation theater dynamics by simply insisting that the doctors and nurses introduce themselves to each other before the operation began. What this did was to lower the nurses’ fear of speaking up. When they saw the doctors make a mistake, of miss an important observation, they felt they had the permission to speak up. The team made much lesser mistakes as a result.

Imagine the END first: Once again, so many meetings begin with a PowerPoint agenda slide that fails to excite people about the real destination of the meeting. Are we going to walk out of this meeting with an agreement on the key points of difference? Are we going to walk out of this meeting with a fully built prototype? Are we going to end this meeting as friends?

Everyone who comes to the meeting has some expectations of what they’re about to go through. It’s best to start by making sure that everyone has the same picture in mind, so that everyone can work together to get there.

Tell a STORY that sparks imagination: In the same vein as the previous point. It’s not enough to present dry facts and data throughout the meeting. People get bored by these. Instead, be ready to tell stories to spark everyone’s imagination. If we do it right, we could be the BIGGEST account in the company! or This new product will make us all very rich! or We’ll be able to achieve things that people haven’t been able to achieve in the last 30 years. We’ll be superstars! Not everything has to be rah rah, of course. Here’s another story Our company is in deep trouble. If we don’t pull this through, we will soon have to file for bankrupcy. We’re all going to have to look for new jobs then!

Stay Rooted in Reality: Another problem with mindless statistics, stupidly written presentations, and poorly crafted agenda slides is that the conversation can get very abstract. It is very important to have a Laloo-style earthy person in the room to bring everyone back to ground reality. Always keep checking if the data and decisions that are being discussed are connected with reality. If not, someone is blowing smoke in your face.

Pace: Carry, don’t Tarry. The more people you have in the room, the higher the probability that someone is drifting away into daydreamland. The pace of the discussions needs to be slow enough to carry everyone along, but not so slow that the police book you on loitering charges. Carry, but don’t tarry.

Pause and Refresh: Amazing how many people think that the death-march is the best way to get full value out of the meeting. On the contrary, inserting in time gaps into the meeting allows everyone to absorb everything that has happened so far, and be mentally prepared to enter the next conversation. Otherwise, you’re likely to get “stack overflow”.

What does it mean?: In case you haven’t been wasting time on the internet this summer, please put the phrase “double rainbow what does it mean” into Google. You will soon be taken to one of the most infectious internet memes of the year. A hippie dude flips out when he sees a double rainbow outside his house, and then spends the next 3 minutes running around, gasping for breath, invoking the almighty, and wondering “what does it mean”! Humans are a meaning driven species, and it is very important that all meetings end with a “what does it mean” recap. People will derive meaning anyway. It’s best if they share the same meaning as you.

Workshops don’t need to be boring!

I was in a series of day-long workshops earlier last week. These were intense affairs, with about 10-15 people attending in person, and a few folks dialed into the call. The meetings ran non-stop for 7-9 hours with minimal breaks for breakfast, lunch and coffee. In one case, the meeting started at 7am (and in a time-zone three hours BEFORE mine…which means it’s 4am in my body-clock). As the day dragged on, I could see that people were wearing thin, drifting away into daydreamland, losing track of what is going on. Some checked out of the meeting mentally, while others would display a remarkable awakening in the middle of someone else’s piece, speak their piece, and then go back into zombie-land. Workshop design needs a rethink. That’s where my doodle comes in.

The days-long-workshop is one of the evils of the modern workplace. These tend to be somber affairs, and mostly bore the heck out of the attendees. Given how useless these meetings tend to be, it’s a surprise that people continue to organize them in the first place. Maybe they make the drudgery of daily work seem lees boring!

It doesn’t have to be that way. These meetings can be made to come alive through a series of small changes. Spend sometime scanning the note below. I’ll be back with more details in my follow on post.

(c) Rustey 2010

Abject poverty and extremism in India…

In an earlier post, I had talked about the growing Maoist-Naxalite pressure on rural India as a possible Black Swan event. Here is a fantastic article on the subject of growing Naxalite violence in India. This is perhaps one of the best articles I have seen on this subject in the western media. I have some comments on the issue which are below the blurb, so read on…

Fire in the Hole: How India’s economic rise turned an obscure communist revolt into a raging resource war.

But plenty of Indians have missed out. Economic liberalization has not even nudged the lives of the country’s bottom 200 million people. India is now one of the most economically stratified societies on the planet; its judicial system remains byzantine, its political institutions corrupt, its public education and health-care infrastructure anemic. The percentage of people going hungry in India hasn’t budged in 20 years, according to this year’s U.N. Millennium Development Goals report. New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore now boast gleaming glass-and-steel IT centers and huge engineering projects. But India’s vast hinterland remains dirt poor — nowhere more so than the mining region of India’s eastern interior, the part of the country that produces the iron for the buildings and cars, the coal that keeps the lights on in faraway metropolises, and the exotic minerals that go into everything from wind turbines to electric cars to iPads.

…and another from the same article…

In a sense, however, India has already lost this war. It has lost it gradually, over the last 20 years, by mistaking industrialization for development — by thinking that it could launch its economy into the 21st century without modernizing its political structures and justice system along with it, or preventing the corruption that worsens the inequality that development aid from New Delhi is supposed to rectify. The government is sending in Army advisors and equipment — for now, the war is being fought by the Indian equivalent of a national guard, not the Army proper — and spending billions of dollars on infrastructure projects in the districts where the Maoists are strongest. But it hasn’t addressed the concerns that drove the residents of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand into the guerrillas’ arms in the first place — concerns that are often shockingly basic.

So, as ultra-educated and semi-resident Indians, what are we to do about this? I used to think earlier that this was a propaganda war, and it was just a question for the Delhi Sarkaar to build out an outreach and communication program. After all, what could be wrong with progress in the form of mining jobs and development? Who would argue with that, and why would people come in the way of progress in such a violent manner.

Damage caused by mining: If you want to read up on the damage caused by mining, check out this latest article in Wired Magazine, which brilliantly outlines the problems faced by a Superfund site after the mines have dried up. It’s not online yet, but I will post the link when it’s live.

My views have changed. Unfortunately, this is an armchair expert’s view, formed by watching movies like Avatar, Peepli [Live] and Hazaaron Kwhahishen Aisi. It is clear that development and industrialization has asymmetric benefits. People who “donate” their land rarely get much good out of the exercise. Does that mean I support the Naxals? No! But I can understand them better.