With Family in Pune

I spent Diwali in Pune this year after probably 20+ years. There was a time in the first half of my life when almost every vacation was spent in Pune with my maternal grandparents and three mamas and their families — all living together. My sister, and my nine cousins (mother’s side) were all there — some married, and some soon to be. This was a reunion that hadn’t happened for a decade or more. It was great fun! We did the Lakshmi Puja at night and then after dinner and firecrackers, got down to some serious stuff.

Playing Cards. With small bits of money. I jokingly suggested that instead of cash we could use some of the shares of the public companies (given how battered some of them have become)! We played Rummy through the night. It must have been a few years since I played cards of any kind! Rummy was preferred over Flush because of its higher intelligence quotient. By the time we finished, about Rs 300 had changed hands — I accounted for Rs 80 of the losses! Given that there should be a couple of my cousins who will be getting married in the next year, we can expect more much card nights in the next year — giving me a chance to recoup some of the losses.

There was fun and mirth all around. And an invisible bonding that started happening. I am the eldest amongst all of my generation — about 17 years separate me from the youngest. Through the years, we have all grown. There was a time when I used to spend more time talking with my mamas and mamis (uncles and aunts) since the ‘kids’ were too young. Now, time is monopolised interacting with my generation! There were times when I always felt lost between my older uncles and aunts, and the too young kids. But somewhere, the passing years have narrowed the gaps.

Perhaps, my enduring memory will remain of me singing (!) and putting one of my cousins to sleep on the swing in the lawn of their house about 25 years ago. Now, that same cousin will have her first baby next month.

Ice Creams

I remember four distinct phases of my life associated with Ice Creams. The first is as a kid in Pune going to the shop on East Street (I forget the name now) for the Vanilla Ice Cream. They used to give some stickers or collectibles with every cup and I remember  stocking up on them. The late night trip for the Ice Cream was one of the memorable parts of the vacations I used to spend with my mamas and grandparents.

The second Ice Cream crush was in IIT during my college years. Vadilal’s was the place just outside the Powai campus. Since meals in the hostel were barely edible on most days, I learnt to use Ice Cream as a calorie replacement. That is when I graduated to Chocolate Ripple as my favourite. The late late night Ice Cream trip was an experience in itself. Time was irrelevant as there really was little else to do other than gorge and cack (talk).

The third Ice Cream era in my life was in the US. The objective remained the same – using a big bucket of Ice Cream as a replacement for dinner. Only, in this case, it was an alternative to my own cooking! The diversity of ice cream flavours available was an absolute delight, and I kept experimenting. The super-sized Ice Cream packs would last weeks.

That Era ended about 15 years ago after I returned to India. Suddenly, I stopped eating Ice Creams. When I think back, it was perhaps a combination of two things – the fear of falling sick (somehow I had associated the notion of the cold ice cream being bad for my throat), and the fear of becoming fat with all those calories given that there was no time for any exercise in life anyways. And so, my love affair with Ice Creams ended.

Until recently. My three-and-a-half-year-old son, Abhishek, is responsible for the arrival of the Fourth Glorious Ice Cream Age. It probably started with me eating his unfinished vanilla ice cream. That brought back the delight I had experienced as a kid. Then, as he started finishing off on his cup, I started getting my own – chocolate or the chocolate-vanilla combo. Abhishek also likes Strawberry now. A few weeks ago on a visit to a mall near home on a Sunday evening, he insisted I eat a cone (to my utter dislike) just like him. I did – and realised that while they aren’t bad, I definitely preferred the cups!

And so it was, that I found myself recently at Delhi airport, getting myself a Baskin Robbins Chocolate-Vanilla cup for dinner – and going back in time thinking about the rediscovery of my intermittent love affairs with Ice Creams.

SMS and the Mobile Internet

Three years ago, I thought 3G was about a year away. Today, it is probably still a year away. What has happened in these intervening years is that I (and the rest of us in Netcore) have discovered SMS. Or to be more precise, SMS subscriptions. It has been a fascinating experience building up MyToday’s SMS services. When we started, we probably had no idea how things would turn out – at that time all we wanted was something that got us more than a few thousand regular users on the mobile platform.Now, as I look ahead, I see a very bright future for our SMS services. I cannot see SMS disappearing or fading away for the next 3-4 years, even if 3G does come soon enough. And that seemingly plain SMS can be the gateway to a wide array of services which the Mobile Internet will bring forth.

At the same time, the time is now to start building up a plan and set of services for the Mobile Internet. Even though usage in India is probably in the sub-10 million range (with about half sticking to operator portals), I do think the numbers will grow substantially over the next 3 years – driven by the killer combination of mobile devices that are more like handheld computers, and data networks which actually deliver on the promise of speed to make the promised future a reality.

For us in Netcore, it will mean adding a third dimension to our business. We have a Mailing business which is focused on enterprises. We also have our SMS-centric business focused on both consumers and enterprises. And now, we need to work on amplifying the investments we make in the Mobile Internet space. The key differentiated thinking needs to be built the N3 Web that I have talked about in the past – make the world of Now, New and Near a reality on the magic lamp in our hands.

Diwali

It is the Festival of Lights once again in India. Diwali is also the time when we do a little puja at home, and my father will write out a detailed review of the past year covering the lives of all of us in the family. It is a tradition that goes back as far as I can remember. Once he is done, we all read it – and in it are the emotions he so rarely shows us otherwise. I always end up being deeply touched at the end of every reading. Maybe, I should start the Diwali Yearbook – so Abhishek can read them when he grows up and see his growing years through the eyes of both his grandfather and his father.

I don’t burst any firecrackers. It wasn’t always the case. As a kid, most Diwalis were spent in Pune and firecrackers were always the cornerstone of the celebrations. I stopped sometime around age 14 or 15 – when in school we were told of how kids like us put their lives at risk to make the firecrackers. Something snapped, and that was the end of the firecrackers at Diwali for me.

The two days of this Diwali will give me good quality time with Abhishek since I will be travelling from November 1 to 9, and miss him on two successive weekends. Today, we are in Pune for a day to celebrate Diwali and be with all my cousins, some who have come from far and wide. In fact, my 85-year-old maternal grandfather’s 11 grandchildren will all be together after probably a decade or more.

Two weeks of the Lenovo Ideapad S10

I have had plenty of opportunity to use the new Netbook that I bought a couple weeks ago. So far, there are more things to be happy about than to complain about. My biggest issue is with the placement of some of the keys on the keyboard. While the keys themselves are okay in size, the compromise in terms of placement of some of them makes one be a little slower in typing because of the extra care that needs to be taken.

Others have mentioned the battery life limitation – it runs somewhat over 2 hours. For me, that’s more than enough. I am not that big a laptop person – I also like to use paper and pen in my real Notebook!

Overall, I am quite happy with the Ideapad S10 – it is small and compact, and packs quite a punch. The display is sharp and not too small for making presentations or writing documents. The true test will come when I use it for a week on the US visit that I make in early November. From the looks of it, I think it will do just fine.

I will still not recommend it for heavy duty laptop users, but for others looking for an inexpensive, desktop-alternate that is small and light enough, I think the Lenovo computer will work just fine.

Blog Past: Entrepreneur’s Enigmas

A post from January 2003 which is as relevant today on the dilemmas that an entrepreneur faces:

The life of an entrepreneur is a confused one — full of choices to be made and paths to be taken (or not). Every day brings forth its own enigmas, leaving the entrepreneur is a perpetual state of being caught between multiple worlds. And, surprising though it may seem, it is the entrepreneur’s own making. It is a decision he has made of his own free will — a life of continuous flux, uncertainty and unpredictability.

The life of an entrepreneur is, for the most part, a lonely one. He has few others he can talk to who can understand the situations he faces. Enigmas are an inherent part of an entrepreneur’s work and life. We will explore some of the enigmas that entrepreneurs face, and how they tackle these challenges.

Even today, 16 years after I started the walk down the path of entrepreneurship, the engimas are all there — decisions that have to be made with seemingly contradictory but equally appealing paths that go ahead to the future.

Weekend Reading

This weekend’s links:

India needs a CTO and CEO

Even as there is talk of someone like Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, possibly becoming Chief Technology Officer of the US in an Obama administration, I think we in India need to start thinking beyond the politicians we have to get professionals into leading positions in administration.For starters, look at the complete mess that is India’s telecom policy now with the 3G policy ‘evolving’ every few days depending on who has convinced whom in the government to suitably modify the variable rules. More broadly, we need our own Chief Technology Officer who comes from industry and applies the right thinking based on what the country needs and not what the political parties want.

Another department which can do with some cleaning is Education. Here too, we are damaging careers of millions of young students with flawed policies and mistaken controls that prevent the explosion that India needs to educate its next generation.

There are many other departments where apolitical thinking can make a big difference in setting the right foundation for the future. This government had an opportunity 4 years ago when they started the process of governance. But the accumulated “IOUs” proved to be too much for the coalition with power centred in the Left. Perhaps, the next government will do it. India is running out of years to bring about Change.

NayaNaya.mobi: What Nikhil and Rajiv Said

Following our launch of NayaNaya.mobi, Nikhil Pahwa of Medianama suggested the following:

What I found most interesting about MyToday.mobi and NayaNaya.mobi, is that they’re displaying the entire content from a particular article, within the MyToday ecosystem. Take a look at content from Rediff, Afaqs, and Glamsham. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if entire articles (not excerpts) are stored within the MyToday ecosystem, then it is essentially publishing the content…While some media organizations might be fine with their content being made available on the mobile, others will not, particularly if MyToday mobile gets monetized.

Rajiv Dingra from WATBlog responded:

Some blogs have wrongly reported that MyToday plans to monetize the modified content by other publishers by placing ads on them. Which is clearly not the case. The content of the site is modified for mobile viewing which is stripping images and even the banners and showing text in its place like top banner or frame etc. Essentially the model that Nayanaya is following is no different from what In.com is following i.e. aggregation but for the fact that In.com shows the entire page of the content providers (including ads) in an iframe. Check example of DNA via in.com while Nayanaya is modifying content to be viewable on mobile and hence the banner images are stripped away.

Does that mean that the traffic isn’t reaching the publishers? Or one is using entire content from publishers? Not really.. Each time a user clicks go to article the nayanaya website pings the original content site i.e. traffic and modifies the content to be viewable on mobile. Same is done by In.com as well.

Rajiv’s interpretation of what we are doing is correct, while Nikhil’s is wrong. Let me also clarify further on what we are doing and why we are doing so.

The mobile Internet needs a different set of services from what one has on the fixed/desktop Internet. NayaNaya.mobi is an effort in the direction of creating portals which can be consumed on the mobile in the few minutes that one has — those free/empty moments. This should help drive interest and monetisation opportunities for everyone on the mobile Internet — including mobile operators and content owners.

NayaNaya is a public RSS aggregator organised as a river of news, like I explained in my initial launch post. The problem with RSS feeds is that the link that they provide to the full article is most often the full-blown HTML version meant for viewing on the PC. This creates three problems when viewing on the mobile: the time it takes for the page to download, the messed-up formatting because most browsers will not be easily able to render multiple columns, and the cost of downloading (because of the images that also get downloaded). This is where mobile transcoding is an intermediate solution — until sites automatically recognise the browser and redirect to a mobile-friendly version of the page. (This may take a long long time coming in a universal manner.)

Transcoding fetches the requested page in real-time and creates a mobile-friendly page (single column, images resized or eliminated) for ensuring that at least the text on the page can be read. Many search engines also do this. The result is that graphical ads get dropped. That’s a minor irritant for now — given that traffic is still small. Over time, what it will do is create interest in the actual mobile (news) sites themselves and get people going to them.

We also clearly state “Page Modified” at the top of the transcoded page, with a link to the original version of the page. This approach at least ensures that readers who click through are not hit by high data charges should the resulting page be big in size since it is the PC version that they will be accessing on the mobile.

These are of course transitory steps in the road to the creation of the true, mobile Internet. In the coming years, I do expect that websites will get created specifically for the mobile and their navigation will be very different from the PC version.

In the interim, should sites want to create a special RSS feed with their breaking news and link the items to their mobile versions, we will gladly incorporate the change directly. Or if they want their RSS feeds dropped from the NayaNaya sources, we will do that also.

Our intent is, as I said, earlier to create usage of the mobile Internet in life’s free moments. NayaNaya is a small step in that direction. I have been using it for the past 3 months, and find it extremely useful to get quick updates on what’s happening.

Additional reading: WATBlog’s interview with me.

Talking to People about One’s Business

One of the principles I have followed through my career as an entrepreneur is an openness to talk about the business I am doing. I have found that this has more rewards than risks. Yes, there is a risk that someone may ‘steal’ an idea but if it were that simple to create a replica, why bother doing it in the first place!

For me, the biggest reward is that talking to others helps me refine the way I think about what we are doing. The best ideas come when someone challenges what we are doing or asks a question on a track which we may not have thought much about. To get the right inputs, it is important to be willing to share what one is doing. Openness gets you more than you have to give.

NayaNaya.mobi

We have recently launched NayaNaya.mobi and a number of related mobile portals (NayaNews.mobi, NayaBiz.mobi, NayaCricket.mobi, NayaTech.mobi, NayaMovies.mobi…). They complement our MyToday.mobi. They are all for primary consumption on the mobile phone, but are equally useful on the PC also. While MyToday is a deep and wide portal, the NayaNaya family of portals is all about the theme of “breaking news, 24×7” in different verticals. They aggregate news headlines from multiple sources and show it in a light, mobile-friendly format, organised like a “river of news” (to use a phrase popularised by Dave Winer). So, if you have a few minutes to spare any time during the day and want to quick check on what the headlines are, then NayaNaya is just the site you’ll want to check.

Would love to get your feedback on it — and what we can do to make it better and more useful.

Amby Valley

I recently made a day trip to Amby Valley near Lonavla to give an invited presentation to a company we are working closely with. It was the longest talk I have given in recent memory — just over 1 hour 40 minutes. I covered a wide variety of topics in the digital space. (I will not be able to post the presentation here since much of it was specific to the company.)

This was my second visit to Amby Valley — had made a sightseeing-cum-picnic with a friend’s family about a year-and-a-half ago. The drive is quite scenic once you get on the Mumbai-Pune  Expressway. It took me 2 hours 15 minutes to reach — left early morning at 7:30 am. (The return journey was a little longer — I left Amby Valley at 7:15 pm and reached home 2 hours 35 minutes later.)

Amby Valley is beautifully done.The only challenge is the approach road once you get off the Expressway. The expanse, the picturesque setting — it feels like a different world. Probably ideal for a weekend home for those who like to get away. I for one haven never been of that sort so I guess it will be a few years probably till I get back to Amby Valley again!

Blog Past: An Entrepreneur’s Early Days

I wrote this Tech Talk series – An Entrepreneur’s Early Days – about five years ago. Here is how it began:

An idea fertilises with a mind to give birth to an entrepreneur. The life of an entrepreneur is not an easy one. Extinction in the form of death is always lurking around the corner — the first mistake can be the last. And yet, as the entrepreneur progresses from childhood to maturity, there is a thrill that nothing else can quite match. For adventure seekers, an entrepreneurial venture is the ultimate challenge. So, what are the challenges that entrepreneurs face during their early years? This is what we will examine in this series.

The start of a new venture is always filled with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. But if one can set aside the fear of failure, there is an absolute delight in taking new ideas to the market. Of course, many will not work. But as many entrepreneurs will tell you: It is the journey which also matters.

Venture Craziness

The past few days have seen plenty of back-and–forth on commentaries by VCs about the impending doom and gloom for entrepreneurs and the capital raising scenario. Presumably, they are going to have twin challenges of drawing down on the commitments made by their LPs (limited partners) and meeting the needs of their existing portfolio companies who are now going to find it harder to raise capital or get liquidity events. This means that new funding is going to get hit big time. And some funded companies will also see challenges unless they are profitable.

For entrepreneurs, they need to forget about the craziness around and just focus on the business and market. The stuff that’s happening has little or no impact on the business of most early stage companies — in most cases, their revenue base is too small to see any negative impact from “market conditions.” So, any sales person giving market slowdown as a reason for not meeting targets needs to be given a talking to!

I also think this is a great time to get alternative / disruptive ideas to consumers and businesses. Everyone is much more receptive to  discussions about solutions which provide better RoI. (And without a simpler, cheaper solution, entrepreneurs don’t really have much of a chance anyways.)

What I find hard to fathom is the VCs who are re-negotiating existing termsheets to drive companies to accept lower valuations. For the entrepreneur, it is like getting into a marriage with a gun to one’s head.  If one needs the cash, there is little choice to accept the lower valuation since there is no alternative. But if one can doesn’t need the cash, I would recommend walking. Valuations are not based on what the Dow Jones is currently trading it. Ventures will not see exits for 3-5 years in most cases, so what’s happening today in the world is irrelevant. I do get the sense that some investors are using this opportunity to try and get assets on the cheap in a manner which is not quite right.

So, for entrepreneurs, the message is to keep the focus on building the business — just as a BSE Sensex at 21,000 doesn’t really help one much, neither does a 10,000 index negatively impact anything other than some sentiment. Get past all of this and go get customers and generate cash the old-fashioned way.

Croma and Invertising

Continuing the thread on my experience in buying the Lenovo Ideapad S10, I walked in and out of Croma without them attempting to build a relationship with me. They could have used Invertising (which we offer to our enterprise customer base) to reduce the cost of next contact with me and build a hotline with me. The should have asked me to sms a START CROMA to opt-in to a channel which would provide periodic updates on new products, special offers, etc. I am as interested in getting the info from them as they are in sending it to me. But now, they have no clue who I am wven though I spent Rs 25,000 with them. I want to “invite advertising” from Croma into my life. An SMS once a week would have the ideal way for them to connect to me — along with giving me the option to opt-out at any time.

This is what retailers, brand owners and others need to think of. Every customer walking in to their store has a mobile in their hands. How can retailers like Croma delight them with information that they want? This is the magic of Invertising.

Croma Buying Experience

I bought the Lenovo Ideapad S10 from Croma (near Chandan cinema in Mumbai). Their tagline is “We help you buy.” They can surely do better on that front.

The S10 was being promoted with a Tata Indicom CDMA USB modem free (worth Rs 1,999). The actual purchase of the S10 itself was easy and smooth. And then came the issues. First, at the payment counter, they said I needed to pay Rs 1,000 more for the modem. I pointed out that the offer was quite clear. Rs 1,999 and free. After a few minutes, they agreed. Then, they refused to give me the modem unless I activated it immediately. They pointed to the “Conditions apply” fine print with the offer. It took me four levels of managers to talk to for about 15 minutes before they reluctantly relented and gave it to me. Presumably, the store gets an activation fee for the USB modem. But from a customer viewpoint, I did not want to get it activated right then and there since they would start billing me immediately. And that point was not highlighted when I made the purchase.

Second, while buying, I was told that there was a 60-day trial version of MS-Office on it. This was good for me since I planned to use it for a presentation the next day and it would have saved me the hassle of connecting an external CD/DVD drive to install MS-Office. On starting up the S10 in the store, there was no trace of MS-Office. The salesperson had miscommunicated to me.

These minor issues took the sheen off what should have been a pleasant buying experience. There was a disconnect for me between the advertising byline and the actual experience, which could so easily have been avoided.

Lenovo Ideapad S10

“Mom, I had gone to some malls and did some shopping.”

“So, what did you get?”

“A laptop.”

“WHAT?”

“Yes, the smallest, cheapest, thinnest (almost) laptop.”

This was the conversation I had at home on Sunday after buying a Lenovo Ideapad S10 for Rs 25,000 ($550) from Croma in Mumbai.  I had been looking for something light to replace my HP Pavilion for some time. I don’t use my laptop much — except when travelling. And so, wanted something very light and small. The new Netbook class of machines (pioneered by Asus) is now getting company with Acer, Dell and Lenovo having launched their models. (The model I bought has 1 GB RAM and a 160 GB hard disk.)

I used it for an hour at home, and it does look good. The 10-inch screen provides a 1024-pixel width display. It uses the Intel Atom processor. The keyboard looks very usable — but I haven’t tried typing a whole lot yet. I had read the reviews online and the S10 came out quite well. The Dell Inspiron Mini 9 would have been the other option but they aren’t selling it yet in India.

The buying experience could have been better — which was a surprise considering the way Croma advertises itself. More on that tomorrow.

BHAG

I first came across the phrase “BHAG” in Jim Collins’ book “Built to Last.” It stands for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals. It is something entrepreneurs need to embrace as they seek to build out their ventures.
If one is going to spend the next few years doing something, one might as well try and change the world rather than doing something that is incremental. Essentially, one needs to put aside the fear of failure and take up big challenges. The odds of failure are of course high, but that is true for any start-up.

That’s one reason I like the mobile data space where we are working in Netcore. Given that the mobile is already the most important device in our lives, there is a big lag in the services that are available on it. The current model of services only being made available via operators is going to change — operators will open up their platforms to a wider array of content and applications that their subscribers can access. It is in this context that the mobile offers a plethora of opportunities to create interesting services.

Mobile data  is where the next new business models and digital leaders will emerge. As long as they have BHAG in their DNA!

Blog Past: The Making of Abhishek

Every Sunday from now on, I will link to one of the posts from the archives. This will point you to some of the writing I have done through the years that I think is still relevant and topical. Wherever possible, I will also provide a small commentary to place it in perspective in today’s context.

This Sunday’s post from the past is the one which gets me the maximum feedback — the story of how Abhishek was born (written in July 2005), a story of “one couple’s dream to have a baby and another couple’s determination to make that happen.”

As I look back to that period, memories have started fading – being replaced with the joyful images of Abhishek through the years.  Even now, as we recount the story sometimes to people we meet, it seems remarkable how we lived through the emotional upheavals of that period. I also got periodic emails from people who read the story and want to know more about experience or want a reference on the doctors (Dr. Aniruddha and Anjali Malpani). I hope by putting our story up there we have made a difference to some people who faced a similar situation to the one we did.