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

All things must pass…fads and fashions explained visually

Been traveling the last few weeks, and forgot to post this fantastic infographic.

The WashingtonPost had a great online article about how electronic items track on their way from gee-wiz to junk. The infographic shows clearly how fads start, stall, decay and die! Added bonus is the story of Moore’s law at work in terms of falling prices of items as volume ramps up.

Link to WaPo article.

As proof, look at the sales of  “standard cellphones” which start off as being expensive and exclusive, and with the reduction in prices, slowly gain volume until the late 90s, when suddenly the market explodes and the sales volumes grow 10x in the next 10 years, while prices continue to come down. Eventually gravity catches up in 2007, and the market starts climbing down from it’s peak, never to return. Corded phones didn’t have such an explosive rise, and didn’t have such an explosive fall either.

Today’s hottest category is smartphones, but the smart money is already able to see that this will eventually boil over as well. What I found interesting was that there was no other *new*category of devices that can displace them in the near future- this means that the  smartphone category may not fall off a cliff, but may plateau.

10-year-rule The other sexy take-away for me was that all this talk of overnight innovation and success is not borne out by data. Very clearly, all these categories existed (see other charts on the link) for at least 10 years before they exploded. There was an interesting WSJ editorial a couple of weeks ago about how Steve Jobs’ genius was not his marketing savvy or finicky product design, which were both great attributes, but his slowness to respond to the market. The ipod entered the MP3 player market when the market was already mature. That meant that Apple did not have to create market, just transform it.


What is an old economy business model?

At the time of the dot-com boom, we all started differentiating companies as being new-economy vs. old-economy.  The way we thought about these companies was a bit like this:

Old-economy stocks represent large, well-established companies that participate in more traditional industry sectors and have little investment or involvement in the technology industry. In contrast, so-called new-economy stocks are heavily involved in the technology sector and the more successful companies are able to build value at markedly higher growth rates.

But over the last decade, I think that distinction has become a little less stark.  Traditional manufacturing companies have regained some of their edge, and newer technology businesses have started looking a little less exciting.  This is probably more true in India, where technology companies are largely services oriented.

I think that today the way we think about old economy companies is more to do with the mindset of the management team, than the choice of industry. And central to that mindset is an obsession with making money.  Here is my take on how an “old economy” company thinks about money:

Cash is king, queen and knave.  P&L statements are for the birds. What matters is how much cash we generate, and how much of it flows to the owner

Profits are only one driver, and an inefficient one, of cash. After all, one has to pay corporate taxes on profits, and dividend distribution taxes thereafter.

What you don’t pay is yours to keep. An expense ain’t an expense unless you actually pay your supplier.  There are more fish where that one came from.

Tax planning, the (mucho) smarter way. Instead of paying taxes, find ways to take what the government collects from others.  Capturing those subsidies is a great starting point.

No compromises on capital investments. Especially when it flows back to my own, privately held companies.

Debt = Equity – shareholding. What if we don’t pay back the bank?  No, really.


The power of 35%

Its the mathematical magic of compounded growth.  35% growth, year-on-year, for 10 years – and your revenues are up 20 times from where you are today.  For a 5 cr company, it means that you’ll be reaching the coveted 100 Cr number.

Too often we get consumed by the magnitude of the target.  For a 5 Cr company, a 100 Cr number seems unattainable.  But if you look at it as 35% annual growth, it’s a little less intimidating (especially if you’re a start-up, or if you’re in a high growth market).

Simplify your life, focus on the 35%.

Facebook spam profiles revisited: the plot thickens

One of the most enduring posts on this blog has been my post on facebook spam. When I wrote the post last year I was cautious enough to not name names, and to leave the obvious conclusion unstated- that some person had made fake profiles using pretty women’s photos. That post has been at the top of this blog’s most visited posts, for whatever reason!

Over the new year’s break, I revisited the story to see what’s going on. It was time something interesting happened. My patience was rewarded! Before you read further, (1) please read my previous post, (2) google “anupama kumar”, and (3) look up Namita Uppal on facebook, making to sure to scan through her “wall”. Come back when you’re ready.

What did you find? You found what was obvious a year ago! Some guy…most likely “Hassan Sayeed” (4) see him on facebook now in two glorious profiles one and two, has created fake profiles using model-quality-women’s photos, and is using social engineering to “Friend” more people. Then, he is using these drone profiles (really, drone profiles?! They should be called “queen bee profiles”) to drive traffic to his own facebook page for weight-loss products called Inches Off.

Very clever ploy, and one that most people find difficult to ignore!

Now imagine the plight of Ms. Anupama Kumar, mother, actress, model and now, unfortunately, identity-theft victim? She’s now posting on “Namita Uppal’s” wall to ask her to change her photo. One fake profile identified. Scores of other profiles to go!

This year- Go to 11

As we begin this year I am reminded of a witty quip made half a lifetime ago by my friend Arvind Mathur, a couple of years junior in college. To welcome the fresh batch of students at our college, we had set up a talent show and asked people to fill out a form. Being clever and all, we thought of tripping the freshers with a googly. We asked- “What is your name? Please tell us why“. We got the usual lame answers about the meaning of people’s names, going somewhat like “My name is Gaurav because my parents are proud of me”. Gaurav means pride. (As a side note, meanings of first names are a big deal in India, but a completely alien concept here in the US. Peter means father and rock, but John? John’s just a number between 1 and 3). All answers were lame except for one guy- Arvind, who wrote back an answer that has stuck in my mind even though I am sure he has himself forgotten it. He wrote, “My name is Arvind. Why? Because I am used to the best“! No tripe about what the name means and whether it’s unique or not. No sir. I don’t settle for less in anything, so why would I compromise on my name?!

Consider this your guidance for the rest of this year! Get used to the best!

For the new year, my sincerest wish is for everyone to set their dial to 11. Don’t settle for artificial limits placed on what is possible and what is right for you to do. Don’t give in to nonsense about what is safe and what needs fixing. Ignore those naysayers who ask you to stay within the limits of zero-to-ten. Don’t freeze at 5 because that’s the safe thing to do. Don’t balk at 3, thinking the guys at 5 will scoff at you! Don’t panic when you first redline past 9. Don’t stop, keep going, keep up the momentum and push the pedal harder, until the rattle becomes a hum and the noise trails off, pushing limits you didn’t think possible, harder until you lose your fear of the ordinary, what was extreme now appearing  normal and what was normal appearing inadequate, gathering momentum till you don’t remember, and don’t care, where you started from, aware more of your new-found energy than you are of your two bit start (don’t stop), afraid to stop doing what you’re on to, because that would be harder, ordinary rules of grammar and logic stop applying to you anymore, destiny asking you to go on, not stop, because now you are a force unto yourself, a force of nature that doesn’t stop when the gauge hits 10.

Go to eleven, because you are who you are, and in what you do, YOU go to eleven. Let others stay cozy at a mediocre 6 on a 10-point-scale.

Stop doing things out of habit. Stop doing things you’re not good at (except if they are hygiene items like brushing and flossing). Stop doing things that take up your time and mindshare. Clear out all that clutter, and create space for things that you are good great at. Things that you can go to eleven on. Then go to eleven.

Speaking for myself, this means I want to be a net contributor of content, not a net-consumer of content. I want to convey more ideas more succinctly than anyone has ever done before. I have replaced my twin-blade razor with a six-blade razor. My expensive “good” car with an even more expensive “great” car (Oh! Joy!). My ballpoint pen with a fountainpen and bulletproof ink. (Take that, forgers!). My high fiber cereal with a triple-dose-fiber-max cereal-o-saurus. I’m pulling all stops. I am going to bring passion and energy to my favorite projects, leaving other projects to fate and others’ goodwill.

Starting 2011, I am planning to go to 11, and so should you.

– – –

PS: The “goes to eleven” reference is a pop-culture reference from a mocumentary “This is Spinal Tap”. An excellent waste of time on this subject is here: TV Tropes Up to 11

Guest Post: Turning corporate mantras on their head

This is a guest from our friend, Aarti Shyamsunder. Aarti works for a large IT services company from their Mysore campus. She loves old movies, fine wine and long walks on the beach. No, seriously, she moved to Mysore because she could smell the surf from her high-rise apartment! She’s an industrial/organizational psychologist in an IT and business consulting organization. Her role involves working in leadership development, assessment and research. She lives and works in Mysore, India where she relocated about a year ago from the United States. Thanks for the post, Doc!


SARTNAM: Turning corporate mantras on their head

Recently, cooling my heels at Bangalore airport waiting for a (much-delayed) flight, I was casually eavesdropping on conversations happening around me. Bangalore being Bangalore, I was surrounded by mostly corporate types on business trips. Listening to the buzz of corporate jargon I was tempted to shout out “Bingo” every time someone said ‘synergy’ or ‘leverage’ or ‘strategic fit’!

It got me thinking about corporate mantras and how useful they are. Usually, clichés are clichés for a reason – because they apply (and appeal) to the lowest common denominator. However, is this true of all clichés, corporate mantras included? See what happens when we turn some of them upside down…

1.       “We reward innovation” – There’s tons of research around how creativity can be stifled by extrinsic rewards. Innovation is not something that can be incentivized (Bingo!) – it emerges from individuals and their context. What about innovating on the kinds of rewards we give instead? Money, hate to break it, dear HR department, isn’t everything.

2.       “Deliver today, innovate tomorrow” – This mantra focuses on delivering and living the not-so-romantic QSQT (Quarter Se Quarter Tak) life while postponing innovation. As if delivery and innovation need to be mutually exclusive. With the right culture, encouragement from leaders, resources and outlets for creativity, this needn’t be the case. Serendipity, as it turns out, is indeed too important to be left to chance and organizations that plan for this can be highly innovative and highly productive.

3.       “Profit is an opinion, cash is real” – From my limited understanding of this (I’m just a lowly psychologist, not a worldly-wise MBA J), it means that profits or earnings may not necessarily be visible to the world, but cash – in the form of shareholder dividends and such – is real and tangible. Now I’m thinking of good-old motivators like profit-sharing and gain-sharing (Bingo! Bingo!). Archaic and quaint though they may seem, they certainly seem(ed?) to work. In fact, one very successful formula calls for more and more variable pay based mainly on profit-sharing as one climbs the corporate ladder. This adds uncertainty to the monthly paycheck but also places accountability on senior leaders to be productive and profitable.  So profit can perhaps be made more real and tangible after all. As for cash – well, just like stupid, cash is as cash does.

4.       “Kiss up, kick down” – While this isn’t a corporate mantra organizations will actually endorse, sadly it’s often the way things work.  Telling the higher-ups what they want to hear regardless of how true it is stifles growth, and distances the masses. So does the command-and-control of said masses that goes with this culture. Now, think about kissing down and kicking up instead – nurturing talent and growing your employees, while questioning those above you and constantly challenging the status quo. If this sounds refreshing, perhaps it’s time for this mantra to be turned upside down!

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!

Re-Wilding Old Corporate Foxes

Amit and I haven’t posted for a few weeks now. Sorry. Been in meetings. Really. Meanwhile, on long flights I had time to think about what’s going on with large companies with lot of people.

I was reminded of the fantastic story I had heard years ago about the Siberian Silver Fox. Apparently there is a fur farm in Siberia that systematically shot foxes (for fur) that were aggressive, leaving only the tame foxes to breed. One out of line growl. Bam! Fur jacket. Only gentle purring? Love shack, baby! In a space of 40 years, 10 generations and 45,000 foxes, the fox became tame, domesticated and available as house-pets. Instead of the aggressive foxes that started the farm, “selective breeding to create genetically docile animals had resulted in a breed of ultra-tame foxes that make good house pets ‘as devoted as dogs but as independent as cats, capable of forming deep-rooted pair bonds with human beings.’ Link here.

As with foxes, so with humans. Companies that start out hungry and aggressive end up, after several generations of selective hiring and grooming, becoming docile and domesticated. Down boy. Here’s a bone. Good boy! Now beg!

No wonder big companies have an innovation problem. They have systems optimized for performance, and individuals are selected for conformity. Over time, the individuals and the company lose their ability to think differently, to perceive the world differently, and to create any new products. Successful companies become evolved, but secluded, ecosystems. Not much new blood is added into the companies from outside, and the insiders get used to walking, dressing, talking and thinking like everyone else. Then, the companies fail and make way for other companies to take the baton.

Who’s thinking different? Everyone, and no one. Most companies that are successful today probably hired a lot of smart people early on. Then, the systems, the processes, the performance reviews and the insider cultures breed a new species of employee. One that doesn’t think different. One that conforms.

Companies have to learn to de-anonymize to allow people to create their own identity. People that are clever want to be recognized for their clever-ness. They need an avenue to express their intelligence, creativity and ideas. Not everyone will be a Steve Jobs, obviously, but within small groups each one of the employees can be a rock star. Lost in a sea of heads, people will either learn to tame their personality in order to fit in, or leave and find themselves elsewhere. That’s a pity.

What can companies do to de-anonymize? Companies can take diversity seriously (instead of being a buzzword). They can deliberately hire – and make heroes out of – different breeds of thinkers and workers. They can create opportunities for people to find themselves in small groups. None of this is difficult, or terribly revolutionary. But it must be done.

Tribes, Stories and Recognition. Creating small tribes or communities of 100-150 people is one way (I had written about Dunbar’s number here). Alternately, giving people a compelling story that binds people and gives them purpose is another way to allow people to explore their own sub-story. In tech-savvy companies, using the magic of social media to create new ways to providing recognition and individual fame (however ephemeral). These are all simple ideas.

Meanwhile, you can buy a domesticated fox for $6000 here.