Board Meetings

As part of the investments I have in about a dozen (mostly early-stage) companies, I have to attend some of their Board meetings. They give me a good opportunity to catch up with what’s happening (though I do talk to or email many of the CEOs every so often). And as much, I think the way some of the Board meetings get done leaves a lot to be desired. Here is my wishlist:

  • The info pack for the Bpard meeting should be sent to the Members at least 3-4 days in advance, so there is an opportunity to review it in advance
  • Up front, the “Key Decisions to be Made” should be clearly stated. The Board can help provide clarity and guidance, and it is up to the management to come out and ask the right questions of the Board. Many times, these end up coming right at the end when there is very little time for discussion.
  • It is very important for the Board meeting to be properly paced so that all key issues are covered. Someone has to play timekeeper so that all issues are covered.
  • The ideal time for a Board meeting is at the end of a quarter, so all the numbers are there for discussion.
  • A historical perspective should be provided: enclose the presentation of the previous Board meeting along with the key decisions made, and what actions were taken on these points.
  • After the Board meeting, a summary of the points discussed and decisions made should be sent across to all.Again, this seems obvious but is not done often enough.
  • There should be discussion on competitive activity in the marketplace. This provides the wider context. It is hard to absorb the information about a company in isolation.

Web 2.0 Summit and San Francisco in November

I will be on as a “High Order Bit” on November 5 (Wed) afternoon at the Web 2.0 Summit. Here’s what I’d like to talk/discuss in my 15 minutes:

  • how the digital infra in emerging markets is different from the developed markets,and why I believe the next generation of innovations can come out of countries like India
  • the $100 PC and how computing as a service (with thin clients) is what Middle India needs in their homes
  • the mobile data opportunity in emerging markets — thinking of a “VAS operator” and “mobile computing operator, and how SMS subscriptions are the starting point to building such a business
  • my views on an “IT Operator” for SMEs in EMS (emerging markets)

I am planning to be in SF all of that week (Mon to Fri evening). This will be my third visit to San Francisco this year. After New York, I quite like it — at least one get around the city without too much difficulty. All the shops that I need to frequent (a book store, a toy store, the Apple store) are all within walking distance at Union Square. And now I also found an Indian restaurant which serves some Jain food (no onion or garlic) — Amber. My choice of food is usually limited to Indian, Italian (cheese pizza) and Mexican, in that order of preference!

MyToday Surge

After we launched MyToday in October 2006, we grew slowly for the first couple of months. We had started with CRICKET, but then launched some more SMS channels. I remember a picnic we had gone on New Year’s Eve and us celebrating the 10K unique subscriber figure. All growth was happening word-of-mouth. We had done some initial promotion on radio and through flyers, but nothing after that.

It was the New Yearof 2007 which brought a tremendous surge in growth. And the channel which powered that for us was BIBLE. The word-of-mouth growth for that had to be seen to be believed — every day saw a few thousand subscribers signing up. This was complemented by NEWS and CRICKET (perennial favourites). We also had a few ads in Mumbai local trains up that month. Suddenly, the positive spiral of growth was at work and it was like going back to the early days of some of the websites that I had launched. People loved the fact that the SMSes just came to them — they were casually interested in News or Cricket, and this was a good way to stay updated with what was happening.

Once we had the initial base, there was no looking back. Even though there have been plenty  of challenges in the 20 months since Jan 2007, it has been a wonderful ride — one that has opened up new vistas in the mobile space for us. And it all came to that one decision that I had to make — to go the SMS route or not.

For entrepreneurs and managers, at times like these, we have to make an instinctive call. We of course need to evaluate the pros and cons (financial and otherwise), but one is headed into territory where it is a map and not a compass that is at hand. The direction is known, but not the specific route. For us, the direction was to create services which could reach large numbers in the mobile space. When one path did not work, we choose another — rather than wait for the environment to change. And that made all the difference.

MyToday SMS and Mobile Web

Continuing with the thinking around the decision to launch free SMS subscription services in October 2006, it seemed such an obvious decision to make given what has happening. But there is always legacy that one has to deal with. In my case, the legacy was wanting to focus on the mobile Internet — I always believed that the way the Internet (fixed line, PC) grew, it was only a matter of time before the mobile Web could become a key part of my daily life. And I knew how to do portals — I had 13 of them in IndiaWorld in the late 1990s. All one had to do was create content for the small screen — and people would come. I was very wrong then.

There was another legacy that was there — that of doing things with RSS and the PubSub paradigm on the fixed Internet using Ajax. We had spent a lot of time and effort developing some very innovative sites to showcase the “new new” stuff — along the lines of a public aggregator. But, given limited development resources, we had to make a call a few months earlier then — do we focus on the desktop Internet or the mobile Internet. I picked the latter.

All this time, SMS was very marginal in my thinking.  It was good for person-to-person interaction, but too limiting, especially for one coming with the email-PC Net view of the world. Luckily for us, we had done some work around SMS in the company over the past few months — so we had an option available for us to quickly do more with it. It is one thing I have always believed in — in the early stages of a venture when one is not sure of what will work, one needs to be able to create options and opportunities to figure out the best path forward. Just the opposite of focus, I guess! It is something which has served me well over the years.

In my mind, at that time, doing SMS services was actually going a step backward. But I put my ego aside and decided to give that approach a try. It did come down to a decision I had to make — Go or No Go. Luckily, I chose Go despite some misgivings. And that was how MyToday Dailies was born.

The Mobile Web dream has not died — it remains. And there are some very interesting things we will be doing soon, which I will share in the days to come.

MyToday Start

In the coming days, I will share our experience in building MyToday and the decisions we made at some of the challenging moments in the business. We haven’t got everything right, but when I look back at the past two years, we definitely made more right decisions than wrong ones. And in a growing business, that can make all the difference.

It is amazing to see how quickly business plans evolve. Making one is important only so that one knows one pathway to the future. There are many more roads – and they may lead to different futures. As a business, it is important to make decisions which constantly create better situations than one finds oneself in.

We found ourselves in one situation two years ago. We had launched a mobile portal hoping that it will become central to the lives of millions of people in India quickly. A few months after launch, we quickly realised that reaching out to the small percentage of people who had GPRS activated mobiles was going to be very difficult. This, combined with the fact with 3G still seemed a distant future, meant that either we could wait for a long time, or try something else.

It was then that I asked my team – what would we do if there were no constraints of any kind, financial or otherwise. What could we do to create a service that would grow and become central to the lives of millions. One of the ideas that emerged from the brainstorming session: free SMS subscriptions. At that time, it seemed like an extremely dangerous path to tread on given that each outgoing SMS cost 45 paise (about 1 US cent). If we became successful, we could die under our own weight!

That is when I made a call – let’s do it. There were a couple factors which weighed in my mind when I made that decision almost exactly two years ago. One, SMS pricing was a function of volume and the cost to carry an SMS on the mobile network was extremely low (in fact, close to zero).  So, there was potential to bring down the cost of an SMS substantially if we became successful in building a user base. Second, we didn’t really have ay other alternative if we wanted to be a player in the mobile data space — we couldn’t possibly wait for an indeterminate period waiting for GPRS usage to grow or 3G to happen. Both of these were beyond our control.

So it was that we quickly turned around our publish-subscribe platform (made for RSS feeds to be consumed on the mobile web)  to support SMS. I was still somewhat skeptical but at least we were going to do something where we had much greater control on our own destiny. Our team had done some work on SMS — despite my opposition — over the past few months, so it was easy to get a solution going quickly. (Till then, I could not imagine what one could with just 160 characters of text.)

The first day that I actually experienced the service (receiving cricket updates when I was outside the office) I was a complete convert. And, that was how MyToday Dailies was born. Today, MyToday has over 3.7 million subscribers and 11+ million subscriptions, all via word-of-mouth. It is India’s only media on mobile. It has started us on an amazing pathway of things that we can do in the mobile space. And it emerged because something we had originally planned for didn’t work — and we were smart enough to realise that we needed to change direction quickly.

Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded

“Hot, Flat and Crowded” is the title of Thomas Friedman’s new book which was published a couple weeks ago. I bought a copy last Sunday at one of the local bookstores and have just started reading it. The first chapter reminds me of a lot of what we need to do in India — Nation-building. Much of what Friedman talks about is in the US context on the imperatives, but they could be equally applicable for us in India. We need big, bold thinking — which unfortunately has not been associated with our political leadership. We need innovation across many fronts — especially education, energy, the way we urbanise and create new cities, transportation solutions for moving people, and the right, smart use of the mobile broadband world that can emerge. On many fronts, we are getting it wrong in India. And for that, perhaps what Friedman advocates for the US can also be applied to India.

Don’ts of Public Speaking and Panels

Over the past month, I have given four talks and have listened to many panel discussions. Here are a few suggestions to speakers:

  • Respect the time limits that have been sent. This is not as easy as it sounds. Given a microphone and the opportunity to make points, we all tend to go somewhat haywire. And it is that rare event that ends up sticking to published schedules. Speakers need to make sure upfront how much time they have – and then stick to it. This requires preparation and practice. If the time is short (5-10 minutes), I now like to prepare my remarks in advance and time myself so I know exactly how long I’ll be talking.
  • Prepare your talk in advance! Again, I have seen too many people get up and just start rambling. I used to do that myself – so I cannot blame others. The solution to this is – once again – preparation and practice. It is amazing what 30-60 minutes (at a minimum) of preparation can do to a talk and the story that comes across.
  • Don’t start by apologising. Many times, I have heard speakers starting off their talk with “I stand between you and lunch” or “It is hard to speak after lunch and I hope I will manage to keep you awake.” Speakers who do this cut into their own time with these attempts at unnecessary humour. Cut to the chase straightaway — people want to listen to you. Use humour in the context of your speech.
  • Answer the Question asked. Many a time, I find panelists answering the question they have an answer for, rather than the question asked. Again, this is just not done. If one doesn’t know, it is okay to ask someone who may know to take a stab at answering it. Give short, pithy and relevant answers.
  • A Tip for Moderators. Please lay the groundrules for the panelists clearly well in advance, and make sure they adhere to it (time and content).  Also, try and speak to all the panelists once so you know who they are and what their strengths are. Don’t be afraid to cut off ramblers — that’s what you are there for. Also, keep the panel discussion on-topic — if there are questions that are not pertinent, have them taken offline. In short, be an active presence to make sure everyone gets the most out of the discussion.

Apple’s AppStore

I bought an iPod Touch on my recent visit to the US — only for trying out the AppStore. I could have re-hacked my existing iPhone but there’s always a risk with the process going wrong and me ending up with a brick. Or, I could have bought the Rs 31,000 iPhone 3G in India. I figured just buying a new iPod Touch at $230 (Rs 10,000) was a cheaper and safer option.

It is an absolute wonder — I am amazed that no one else thought that up before. (Of course, one can keep saying that about Apple.) I spent the first 2 hours after my return to Mumbai going through the AppStore and downloading various free (and a couple paid) apps. It is amazing the variety of applications that have been created. This is what the mobile operators need to realise — open up, and see the creativity that you can unleash. And all this will drive more usage – and perhaps, more customer loyalty. This is the central theme behind the mobile computing operator that needs to be created in emerging markets like India.

Batman on IMAX

I watched “Batman: The Dark Knight” on IMAX during my US trip. I had finished off my meetings and work for the day, and so decided to take a few hours off and check out the movie (had not seen it in India). The IMAX experience is quite amazing indeed. There are some scenes which simply take your breath away.

The movie itself was okay. I had to read the story on Wikipedia after the movie to get some of the finer nuances that I missed out during my viewing. It was quite long – about 2 hours 20 mins, and as is the practice in the US, without an interval. Overall, it was good while it lasted, but no hangover afterwards.

Air Travel

I have made five international trips this year – with one more to come in November. I have visited USA twice, Spain (Barcelona), Thailand (Bangkok and Phuket) and Singapore. Except Singapore, all the rest were on business. This is more international travel than I have ever done before in a single year!

On my most recent trip, I managed to encash my Delta frequent flyer mileage accumulated over the past decade for a free round-trip business class ticket to the US (New York). I have attempted to do this at various times in the past, but one never actually manages to get a confirmed ticket on the desired dates of travel. For me, the going leg was confirmed while the return leg was waitlisted (with a confirmed seat available 3 days later than the date I wanted to return).

Till 48 hours prior to departure, Delta refused to confirm the return leg. And this was not because they didn’t have seats, but because there were no additional seats available ‘in my class of travel’ which is the reason always given. I am sure that was true, but with empty seats surely they could have given me the confirmation. But No. So, asked for Air France, which is a partner of Delta – and lo and behold! I had my confirmed business class seat — it cost me $125 in additional charges, but that was small change. So, any wonder that airlines aren’t doing well — Delta could have gone me a seat on their own flight, but would now have paid Air France for flying me from NY to Mumbai.

Anyways, so much for that rant. In praise of Delta, I must say that they have the best business class seats that I have travelled on (Air India, Air France are the others I have flown). Delta uses a fishbone design which looks a little weird when you first see it, but once you want to sleep, you realise it has the most space – both in length and breadth. Quite an innovative architecture. Probably much more expensive since they can fit fewer seats, but definitely more customer-friendly.

Mobile Marketing Keynote

I am giving the keynote today at an afaqs event “Mobile Conversations” for which we are also the Presenting Sponsor. It is primarily focused on advertising agencies and brand managers. Here is the text of the talk I am giving, along with the accompanying presentation. (For regulars of the blog, you may find some repetition but it is still nice to see how the story comes together.)

Hello. I am Rajesh Jain, Managing Director of Netcore Solutions. In the next 15 minutes, I want to take you on a journey through the magical world of mobiles.

As marketers, we are in the business of fulfilling wishes of customers of our brand clients and there is perhaps no better channel than the one that the mobile now offers to make dreams come true.

With over 300 million magic lamps in the hands of Indians – and going to 500 million in the next 2 years, the new era of marketing is rising ahead of us. We will have little choice but to embrace it – because our customers’ customers already have! The question really is: how can we do magic with mobiles? And that is what I am here to share with you today morning.

[SLIDE 2]

My contention is that Mobile Marketing will be a much bigger opportunity in the next 2 years than the Internet has been in the past 10. And I should know – having started India’s first Internet portals as early as 1995, and now having created India’s only mobile media.

India has, for all practical purposes, missed the Internet boat. The Net has not become a utility in our lives because something else has. The mobile has become our lifeline. It is the way we connect, communicate, share and increasingly, surf. The audience is there on the mobile. And as you are so well aware, advertising dollars follow the audience.

In the next two years, Mobile Marketing through its two avatars of advertising and invertising will be bigger than Internet advertising. I will show you how. But let’s start by seeing why.

The global growth in Internet advertising is in fact a good starting point for our discussion. Internet advertising went from about $1 billion to $50 billion in 8 years. If someone had told you in 2000 that the Internet search box would see the creation of a company with $25 billion in revenue – more than then top 10 US newspapers combined – and $120 billion in market cap, it would have sounded almost impossible. So, things can change – and change quickly.

Indian media is riding a high, but as we have just seen it does not take much time for eyeballs and advertising dollars to switch. In fact, if you just look at the attributes of the mobile, it is not difficult to see why there really is no competition with anything that has come before – and why the switch may happen faster than we can imagine.

[SLIDE 3]

The mobile is with us all the time, always-on, always-available. It knows where we are. Our mobile number allows us to be uniquely targeted. Messages can be sent to us immediately. Mobiles also allow instant sharing – whether it is an SMS that we forward to our social circle, or richer media like a photo we click and send to family and friends.

The mobile is the fulcrum for the social lives of the young already. And in a short order of time, it now has become the largest distribution platform – eclipsing every other medium that has come before it.

It offers a variety of touchpoints – from SMS to MMS, from Voice to WAP, from games to videos. It also allows us to respond to the world around in multiple ways – we can send an SMS in response to an ad that we saw at the back of a bus, or make a phone call right away to get details of an attractive offer, or click on a link in the SMS we’ve just received to get more information.

This wholesomeness is what makes the mobile such an attractive marketing platform. But to realise its full potential, we will need to master a new lexicon.

[SLIDE 4]

In essence, the mobile is about creating engagement and building relationships.

For each of us, it is about Me like no other accessory. It has as Mass a reach as you can get in India. It supports not just text not also multiple forms of Media – for many of us, it is our camera and personal radio station, and soon, it will become our very own multiplex. Also, the mobile is ideal for use in life’s various Moments – those Free Moments when we are waiting or just bored, and those Now Moments when we need to find something fast.

The mobile is also the foundation for what I call the N3 Web – the incremental web that is the real-world around us. It is about the Now, the New and what is Near.

To be successful on the mobile, marketers will have to adhere to 3 Ps – making sure information is Pushed to people at the right time so they get it effortlessly – with their Permission, of course. The Information sent needs to be Personalised so it feels like it is something they’ve always wanted.

SMS will be the first and most important channel that will tower above all others in the relationship. Of course, people will Search – just like they do on the Internet, but their hunt is for Answers, not an array of links. In short, what they want is Simplicity – which makes the mobile and the brand relationship more meaningful.

To make the most of mobiles, marketers need to think along two dimensions – mobile advertising and mobile invertising.

[SLIDE 5]

We are all aware of what advertising is. Invertising, in comparison, is Invited Advertising. The consumer wants to know more about a product or a service and invites information related to it.

[SLIDE 6]

What is the difference? Advertising is information tagged to content that people are interested in. It could be linked to a search keyword showing intent, on a website that they are seeing for cricket scores or their social network updates, or it could be on a content-laden SMS that have opted in to receive.

Invertising is information as content that people choose to receive. They thus create a direct relationship with the brand.

So, advertising helps in acquiring new customers, while Invertising is about reducing the incremental cost of contact while engaging with them. Advertising will tell me when a new mall opens near my house, while Invertising can ensure that I know what’s happening there every weekend – as an SMS that is delivered to me on Friday afternoons.

Invertising is the new kid on the block – and one which has potential that is transformational for the way we think of marketing.

[SLIDE 7]

In the past, there has been no easy or cost-effective way to build a deep relationship with one’s customer base. Now, with every customer walking around with a mobile phone, this seemingly impossible task becomes trivial – if we can get the customers to opt-in to receive interesting and relevant information on an ongoing basis, delivered straight through to the screen in front of them all the time.

Invertising creates a hotline to every customer – one where a brand can control the conversation, and which the customer actually wants! Invertising works because customers want to stay connected with the brands they like, the shops they visit, and the companies whose products they buy.

  • Imagine the mobile handset company sending an SMS a day for the first 30 days after you buy a phone telling you about a new feature on the phone you just bought.
  • Imagine your favourite bookstore telling you about the new titles that have come in and the special offers they have this weekend.
  • Imagine the toy store providing weekly customised recommendations after you’ve SMSed in the gender and date of your birth of your kid.

Are there companies that do that already? Indeed!

[SLIDE 8]

  • TimesNow uses Invertising to pull in people to their TV channel when news breaks – like when Abhinav Bindra won the Gold at the Olympics or when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated.
  • FabIndia sends out multiple SMS every month to its subscriber base telling them about what’s new.
  • Meri Saheli, a women’s magazine publisher, complements its print cycle with daily messages on a variety of topics to a subset of the subscriber base that has opted in.
  • Western Railway is now publishing regular updates on its services and new trains and facilities they are coming up with.

[SLIDE 9]

Invertising is built around PUSH and PERMISSION. The customer is in control and therefore happy to be given information that helps in their decisions.

There is no better channel to send this information than on SMS. There is no better way to do it than to give your customers the right to opt-in and opt-out. There is no better frequency than daily.

A brand can take 20% of its customer base – the most profitable ones, who are also the most vulnerable to competition — and build a daily relationship with them for just Rs 2 per customer per month. Now, doesn’t this change the dynamics and economics of customer retention?

[PAUSE]

We have seen how Invertising can make a difference to a brand. What can Mobile Advertising do?

[SLIDE 10]

Advertising can be done on multiple channels that are available on the mobile. One approach is to run ads on websites that people visit on the mobile – and this is not very different from Internet advertising. We are also seeing the emergence of advertising linked to Search and therefore a user’s Intent – on Voice (services like JustDial), WAP or the Mobile Internet (Google, Yahoo and Microsoft), and SMS (much of it being unsolicited spam). In the coming months, we will also see ads replacing caller ring back tunes.

I want to focus more on SMS Ads tagged to opt-in content because this is new, and has much greater potential in a market like India where  over half the subscriber base uses SMS, but only 3% actually use the mobile Internet as of now.

[SLIDE 11]

SMS Ads can be branding ads reinforcing the brand message, or click-to-action ads (where the action can be an SMS reply, a voice call or a click on a URL). Ads can also be sequenced to tell a continuing story over multiple days building customer curiosity.

[SLIDE 12-13-14]

In an interesting ad format innovation, HUL’s PureIt and Colgate’s MaxFresh ran campaigns which invited people to subscribe to short SMS channels which reinforced the message they were communicating and increased the probability of purchase.

[PAUSE]

So, whether it is awareness (reaching millions) or generating responses (leads), I believe that there is no other medium which can have the same impact that SMS is going to have in the coming years in a mobile-centric market like India.

[SLIDE 15]

So, are you Ready to embrace this future?

[SLIDE 16]

The opportunity in the sunrise industry of Mobile Marketing is going to be large. In my view, as I mentioned earlier, this can be bigger than the Internet advertising market and worth Rs 1,000 crore in 2 years.

[SLIDE 17]

This will come from a mix of three primary streams – SMS Advertising, Mobile Internet Advertising and Mobile Invertising. In each of the cases here, I have made some assumptions on usage and monetisation.

Mobile Invertising is where brands will pay for to build the hotline to their customers. For Rs 12-24 a year, which brand would not be interested? And as customers, we would be more than delighted to get communication from a selected number of brands. This is a blue ocean opportunity – one that has not been hitherto tapped.

Taken together, mobile marketing can take-off to be a Rs 1,000 crore business opportunity for all of us. More importantly, it can deliver value that is several times that to brands.

[SLIDE 18]

What is needed is the Vision and Will to begin. The mobile is a medium that lends itself to creativity on how it can be used. It can morph into what we want it to become. As we have seen, there are many early initiatives that have already been taken. More importantly, the audience is there – waiting to be informed, entertained and delighted. Mobile as a Medium is ready to go mainstream.

[SLIDE 19]

What I have shared today is from my experience at the frontlines of the mobile revolution that we are leading in India. In the past two years, by using the power of SMS, Push and Permission, my company, Netcore Solutions, has built MyToday into India’s only mobile media.

To subscribe to any of our 50+ SMS channels – ranging from News to Cricket, from Health Tips to Beauty Tips, from Jokes to the best movies to watch on TV tonight -people just have to send a single SMS. It could not be easier.

Here are some figures that will speak to how HUGE the potential is.

  • Our free SMS subscription service, MyToday Dailies, has grown to 3.7 million subscribers in less than 2 years – all via word-of-mouth. We continue to add thousands of new subscribers daily.
  • We send 12 million SMS everyday – accounting for 4% of India’s SMS traffic.

The daily SMS we send has become a habit for MILLIONS of people. The right-of-way we have because of that habit we created can now be monetised in various ways: from ads to leads, from paid channels to transactions.

We recently had Nielsen survey over 2,000 subscribers of MyToday. Here are some amazing statistics. The average age of the subscriber base is 25 years. 75% of the 3.7 million subscriber base is less than 30 years. Nearly 80% belong to SEC A and B.

75% of the subscribers read every SMS that they receive. For the vast majority, MyToday has become the primary source of receiving news and information.

40% of subscribers read all ads, and 30% of them have taken action on the ads that they have seen. No other medium comes close to generating awareness or response as SMS ads tagged to targeted content that subscribers want to read.

In short, MyToday has created Media on Mobile in India. And we have worked with over 120 advertisers in the past year who have run more than 200 campaigns to showcase what’s possible and deliver results. In addition, more than 100 enterprises use Netcore’s Enterprise Mobility services. Over a dozen use Invertising.

[PAUSE]

To summarise, Mobile Marketing can help brands build deep, lasting relationships with their existing customers via Invertising. It can also help them acquire new customers cost-effectively by reinforcing their message and generating responses via Mobile Advertising.

[SLIDE 20]

The Magical wonderland of Mobiles awaits us. We can choose to enter through any of the various doors that invite us in. But, enter we must!

Because, we can be, for millions of Indians, the Genie who makes their wishes come true on the magic lamp that they have in their hands.

12-year Tech Cycles

I had written about this once before on my blog a few years ago, but it become very apparent to me as I was listening to the various talks at CTIA. Technology disruptions seem to move in 12-year cycles. Early 70s had the microprocessor revolution, 1984 saw the emergence of the personal computer, 1996 the adoption of the Internet, and now in 2008, we are seeing the rise of mobile data. (Coincidentally, cellphones first made their appearance around 1984 also I think — I remember seeing signs mentioning 25 years of cellphones at CTIA.) One could probably go back beyond the 70s, and find similar cycles.

In India, we have a terrific opportunity in the mobile data space to lead — but I have said this before about many different areas, only to be a disappointed time and again. We have a huge subscriber base for mobiles and we have a fraction of that for the fixed Internet (especially from homes). What we need to do is create a platform for driving mobile data usage. The government needs to make sure the 3G auction happens quickly and fairly — so we don’t end up in courts. Operators need to make sure they use the 3G spectrum not just for more efficient voice, but for actually pushing data services – or if they don’t do it, allow others to do it with sensible data plans and open networks. What do I think will happen? None of the above. I hope I am wrong…we don’t have another decade to waste in India.

CTIA Takeaways

I attended CTIA IT in San Francisco last week. Here are three takeaways as I listened to some of the keynotes, panels and walked around the exhibition floor:

  • 3G + Smartphones + Flat-rate Data Plans = Wireless Data Explosion. We are not there yet at the mass-level, and actual situations vary from country-to-country. In India, neither do we have 3G nor do we have the unlimited data plans. So, it is going to take time. The US is actually moving ahead well on this front now — from having been a laggard for many years. Of course, Japan and South Korea continue to be the leaders in this space.
  • To win in 3G, build 2G audiences. This applies to operators and service providers. 2G is here and now. Create services that build reach. So, when 3G comes, it is easier to migrate people to a richer set of services than starting afresh. This is also the reason why I believe that the Indian 3G auction will primarily only have bidders who have the 2G customer base. Building 3G greenfield networks and acquiring customers from scratch is non-trivial and very expensive.
  • Mobile data needs a new breed of companies. Like on the Internet where a new set of companies dominated, I believe that on the mobile in emerging markets, a new set of companies will emerge to dominate. The mobile operators of today will not be able to realise the full promise of the future. We need a new generation of Mobile Computing Operators. In developed markets, the Internet players have a good chance of winning because the mobile becomes just another channel. In emerging markets, without the deep legacy of the fixed Internet, the market is wide open.

Public Speaking

Jezra Kaye (who once helped me prepare for a presentation at PC Forum) quoted Churchill: “I’m trying to confrim that the following quote truely is attributed to Winston Churchill – If you want me to speak for two minutes, it will take me three weeks of preparation. If you want me to speak for thirty minutes, it will take me a week to prepare. If you want me to speak for an hour, I am ready now.”

I have not forgotten these words or the effort that was needed for me to give that 2-minute talk at PC Forum in March 2006. In the past two weeks, I have had to give two short talks as part of panels I have been on. And for both, I ended up spending quite some time preparing.

The approach that I followed in both cases was to create a written talk and an accompanying presentation which helped move the story forward. I then read my talk during my allotted time, moving the slides forward as I spoke. I had to go through multiple drafts to make sure things came out just the way I wanted and I stayed in the time band given to me.

Reading a talk does take away some of the spontaneity but it helps me stick to the script and make sure I cover points without deviation and in the time window given. Over time, I hope to be able to do away with the paper in front of me also, but I think it will take me a few years to get there. (I saw John Chambers of Cisco once — he is indeed the gold standard.)

Of course, I could have just talked in front of the audience as others do — it would have meant more eye contact and appeared more natural. But I have decided that telling the story right and in sequence is more important, especially when one has limited time. That’s why the script and the preparation.

I have to give a keynote next week at a Magazine conference in Mumbai. I have 40 minutes. That should be easier!

…From VAS Operator to Mobile Computing Operator

Yesterday, I outlined the first part in a pathway to creating an innovative plan in the mobile data space. Here is the second part.

How do things change in a 3G world? They become even better. SMS can continue to be the trigger for driving people to the mobile Internet. Rich Media, Richer Monetisation.

With this multi-monetisation model, the groundwork is in place for the final horizon. This involves leveraging the richness of 3G with an i-mode-like open content and applications platform, and microbilling to create a data MVNO.

No one has done an MVNO in a data-centric world. No one has created an MVNO where the focus is not on voice tariff arbitrage but what better handsets with more screen real estate and high-speed networks can enable.

I call this entity a mobile computing operator – one which combines the power of mobility and computers with the openness and variety of the Internet. This is the endgame in the world of mobiles – a future that will emerge first in markets like India.

The market opportunity in India alone in two years could be worth $1 billion. The potential opportunity globally could be 5-7 times as much. At $7 billion, this would be equivalent to Paid Search in 2005. From there, replay the Internet revenue story in the mobile world with a five-year time lag.

With every new platform, there is a new global winner. A different paradigm is needed in the mobile space. And there is no better market than India for launching the new paradigm and the next platform.

From SMS Subscriptions to VAS Operator…

I gave a talk recently in which I outlined a pathway to creating an innovative plan in the mobile data space. Part 1 is here. Part 2 will come tomorrow.

Seven years ago, if someone would have said that the Internet Search box could create a company with $20+ billion in revenue and $130 billion in market cap, it would have been thought well nigh impossible.

SMS subscriptions stand at the same stage today.

The free SMS subscriptions are the foundation to building massive, direct-to-consumer reach. People love receiving SMSes if they have opted in for them. This creates the right-of-way, which can be monetised in multiple ways: from ads to leads, from email2sms to invertising, from transactions to paid channels.

Creating a prepaid model with consumers such that cash collection is independent of the mobile operator is the next step. This creates an equivalent to today’s mobile operator – except that the focus is not on Voice, but on VAS.

The final step in this phase is to build a feet-on-street sales force, which can create neighbourhood and niche communities, enable local advertising and drive location-based services and commerce.

Amazon Kindle

I have been using the Amazon Kindle for a few months. And on this trip in the US it has been particularly useful on the long flights that I’ve needed to take.  I like reading fiction on it more than non-fiction. I download a couple of books in advance and then read them on long journeys like this trip. It puts one in a different world for some time — after I am done with my business thinking and cannot sleep!

I just bought a book online from Amazn — and it ‘whispered’ its way to the Kindle in seconds. Quite an experience! And a glimpse of what the magic of mobile can do. (The Kindle has a built-in CDMA network connection.)

Some of the fiction books I have read recently are:

  • Final Theory: A Novel by Mark Alpert
  • Moscow Rules by Daniel Silva
  • The Whole Truth by David Baldacci

Two I am planning to read soon are:

  • – Rules of Deception by Christopher Reich
  • – The Last Patriot by Brad Thor

Overall, I like the Kindle very much. So should happen, one doesn’t think too much about the electronics of book reading, but is lost in the world the author creates.

7 Lake Street

That is the address in White Plains I lived at for 2 years (1989-91). And that is where I found myself earlier this week.

I was in White Plains, New York for a business meeting. I had some free time, and so I walked around downtown and went outside the building that was home for 2 years for me while I was working at NYNEX. The apartment building was still there, and for a few moments, time stood still. And then I moved on. That seemed like a world apart. At times, it can be quite a strange feeling going down memory lane.

I also walked around downtime — so much has changed. There is now a big Wal-mart — unimaginable in those days. And the Galleria Mall has also changed substantially. And yet, some of the smaller shops (a deli I remember) are still there — a constant in a changing world.

Even driving from JFK to White Plains along the Hutchinson River Parkway brought back many memories. I used to know all these roads and the bends and curves so well. Now, it seemed familiar and yet so strange.

That was a brief interlude with a part of my past life. Now, back to the future!

Reinventing Indian Politics

Reading the front pages of most serious Indian newspapers can be quite depressing. Even as we have stood on the threshold of breaking through on the economic front, the absence of real political leadership holds us back to a frustratingly large extent. There isn’t much we can do at this point of time – or in the next 5-6 years. But beyond that, we can create a very different Indian political leadership.

What will make this possible is the growth of digital devices (mobiles and PCs) and their increasing use by the voting class. Within 5 years, pretty much everyone who can vote will have a mobile. And the mobile is a 2-way interactive device capable of much more than just receiving and making voice calls. Also, literacy levels will be higher so hopefully just the offers of money will not sway voters, and they will be in a position to think before voting. Income levels will also be higher – and so will be people’s aspirations. Mass Media’s reach will be nearing saturation levels. Into this world can someone stride and transform the Indian polity? Just like Obama promises to do for the US.