Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • 10 Emerging Technologies of 2009: A futuristic look from Technology Review.
  • Why Great Companies Get Started in a Downturns: by Matt McCall. “Innovation does not take a holiday, and in fact, thrives during difficult times when pain & need are greatest.”
  • What vs How: by Seth Levine. A mistake many of us tend to make. “The idea stems from a tendency that companies have to focus not on what they do, but on how they’re doing it.  In my experience this tendency is particularly true of technology companies and very prevalent in early stage companies.”
  • Start-up Static: by Joel Spolsky. “A new business is like a shortwave radio. You have to fiddle patiently with all the dials until you get the reception you want.”
  • Location-based Services: A discussion on business models by Claudio Schapsis. (via Karishma)

In Pune

I came to Pune yesterday for my cousin’s wedding. This is cousin #4 of 7 (the children of my three mamas) who is getting married. All my mamas live with my grandparents in one big joint family, so it is always fun to spend time with everyone.

Last night, my aunt, Saroj (Kering) launched her Recipes book (Festive Indian Recipes) at one of the Crossword stores in Pune. Saroj was the architect of one of my IndiaWorld portals, Bawarchi.com. It is a dream come true for her — a promise she had made to her late father. Navneet has published the book, and it should be available in stores nationally soon. Incidentally, Saroj is also the mother of Anand, whose wedding I have come for. So, double celebrations all around here!

Making Notes

One habit I have is making extensive notes. Most people who know me will rarely find me without a notebook (the paper one). I use by notebook to make meeting notes, write ToDos, make lists, and most importantly, think.

Over the years, this habit has gotten more and more ingrained. I have standardised on the notebooks I use (hardcover, spiral, 240 pages) and the pens (blue and black; BIC round stic fine). I finish one notebook in about 2 weeks, and one pen in about a week.

Making notes ensures a number of things:

  • When I write down, I tend to remember better. So, I may not refer to it again, but it just helps focus attention on the moment.
  • In meetings, when I get an idea, I tend to write it down in the book so I don’t forget it.
  • I love Lists – so they help me organise a day and ideas. Of course, on most days, what gets done is very different from what I had planned!
  • I also have the ability to go back to recall meetings in case I need to. This hasn’t happened often, but it has been useful the few times it did.
  • Most important, it keeps the mind free to think and concentrate, knowing that the book will have a record for me to refer to later.

When I see Abhishek (who is now nearly 4 years old) remember things with no notebook, I wonder…!

Creating a Website

It has been almost a decade since I created a website. Today, the “Friends of BJP” website will be officially launched. How times have changed. Using WordPress with a free theme and a little assistance from a couple colleagues, we got the site to look reasonably like we wanted. And as I used many of the WordPress features for the website, I was very impressed by the capabilities of what can be done.

Creating a website (albeit a blog-like look) is so simple nowadays, especially for content that is updated frequently. A far cry from what it used to be 10 or so years ago! Makes me wonder why more corporates don’t just use blogging platforms like WordPress (it actually can do a lot more) or complete content management platforms like Drupal for managing their websites. And keeping them updated regularly.

Elections 2009: An Opportunity to Learn

The past month has been quite an experience in doing multiple things at the same — something I have not been particularly good at in the past. Spending time on “Friends of BJP” is almost like doing a startup. There are about 6-7 of us who are all putting in time whenever possible to get it off the ground. There are no hierarchies, and everyone has to do whatever is needed. It is very unstructured at this point of time — and it is probably 15 years since I’ve had this kind of experience! As a friend put it, getting work done with peers whose salaries you do not pay requires a very different skillset.

And in all of this, some of the NetCore commitments in terms of meetings (internal and external) are still there. There, I am trying to let others take more and more of the decisions, and yet be around in case I am needed. It is not easy letting go. Luckily, in may cases, I have no choice. Maybe, I will finally learn delegation!

I really wish many more of us would take these kinds of opportunities — to bring about change, one needs to first understand how things function. Some commented on my post yesterday that I should be supporting a new political party. Consider the realities of Indian politics — there have been only two new national parties that have really emerged in the past 30 years (BJP and BSP). Change in India cannot wait for another generation. We have to work with one of the two national parties, and bring our mindset and skills to help them do things better.

These elections offer a great opportunity to do an ‘internship.’ Indian elections will be over by early May, so its only a couple more months that are left. I am sure both the Congress and the BJP can do with all the help people like us can provide. We may have our issues with both parties, but they remain the only real options for India at this point of time. So, if you can do it, take the first step. Leave ego at the door, and go to work with an attitude to learn. We will end up with a better understanding of what makes India run. And that is what will help us bring about the change India needs — not in a generation, but between two elections.

Friends of BJP

Since writing the “I Support the BJP” post a month or so ago, many of us have been working together as part of a group called “Friends of BJP” with the underlying belief that India Deserves Better. The goal is to galvanise the youth and professionals to engage with the political process to bring about transformational change in India.

The Friends of BJP is a subset of the educated civil society that is BJP-leaning, and willing to be vocal about it. We are not part of the BJP. We also do not agree with everything the BJP says or does. It is our belief that at this point of time the BJP is the better alternative. It is not a selection between black and white, but opting for the one with the lighter shades of grey.

We intend to support the BJP in 3 ways:

  • OUTREACH: helping grow virally support of the BJP via the use of social media (mobile and online) and drawing room meetings.
  • IDEAS BANK: provide a channel for members to channel inputs in multiple disciplines for the manifesto and to the BJP leadership
  • VOTES and SEATS: help the BJP win more (urban) seats by using the assistance of members to get 1 lakh new vote(r)s in every constituency

The event we did at NSCI in Mumbai on Jan 29 saw over 200 people attending. Since then, we have been working to put together many things, and hopefully, we will be able to make a difference in the coming elections. The Friends of BJP website (updated daily) has more information on all that we are doing, along with some insightful perspectives on the political landscape from some of us.

We are also organising two interaction meetings with Arun Jaitley on Saturday (Feb 28) in Mumbai (10:30 am, Ravindra Natya Mandir, Prabhadevi) and Pune (6 pm, New English School, Tilak Road). Attendance is free and open to all.

To stay in touch with what we are doing, you can do the following:

  • sms 4BJP to 575758 (will only work within India)– we’ve already got 15K subscribers in just two days on this channel
  • send a blank email to sub@friendsofbjp.org to subscribe to the newsletter
  • subscribe to the RSS feed

My hope is to bring forth an emergent democracy with a government that truly works for the people, combined with right, irreversible policies in key areas that fast-tracks India’s development process. Idealism, perhaps. But with the tools of technology (mobile, Internet, social media) now available with us giving us the ability to self-organise, I believe that all our voices will be hard to ignore.

Some of you may not necessarily agree with my choice of political party, and that’s fine. The more important thing is for each of us to be more vocal, start an active discussion, and be India’s biggest ‘votebank’ and swing vote, instead of sitting out this election in silence. The end goal has to be the same — bringing about faster and better change in India in our lifetime.

A question for all of us to think about: what are the best ways we can make a difference in the next 75 days? And in case you’d like to do more, here are some ideas.

Blog Past: Vision and Worries

This series from Oct-Nov 2005 is about an evening with CEOs of IIT-Madras’ Tenet group companies. “The topic for discussion was on what are the worries that each one had as CEO of their company or on a personal level. The job of a CEO can be a lonely one; so the idea was to share insights and learnings in a group with others who perhaps may have faced similar situations.”

“I spoke that evening about three worries…The first worry I spoke about was maintaining a work-life balance…The second worry that I discussed was Talent…The third worry I talked about that evening was being blind-sided about the future.”

Weekend Links

This week’s reading:

  • Top 30 Innovations of Last 30 years: from Knowledge@Wharton.
  • Smart Roads, Smart Bridges, Smart Grids: from the Wall Street Journal. “If we are going to spend billions of dollars to fix our ailing infrastructure, let’s make sure we do it right. Here are the technologies to make that happen.” India can also learn a lot in using these emerging technologies.
  • Harvard’s Recruitment Process: from Business Week. “For the class of 2010, which will start in September, Harvard received a near-record 23,000 applications. Of these, it accepted a mere 2,100—or just 9%—ranking it as the nation’s most selective college.”
  • Why VC Returns Languish: by Will Price. “When you cut through all of this data, what you see is that VC’s portfolios have filled up with deals while there has been little liquidity.  With 1,930 companies funded but only 7 IPO’s (and another 300 M&A’s), you have a lot of overhang in the existing company portfolios.”
  • Study on Serial Entrepreneurs: An article on peHUB on an HBS study. “Successful entrepreneurs have a 34 percent chance of succeeding in the next venture-backed firm, compared with 23 percent who failed previously, and 22 percent chance for new venture-backed entrepreneurs.”

Book Reco: The Choice

Eliyahu Goldratt is known for his Theory of Constraints. His latest book is “The Choice.” In it, he explains his fundamental system of beliefs (and to his daughter through a variety of business situations and conversations.

I read it fairly quickly once, and need to spend more time reading it again (and again). Chapter 2 was an eye-opening experience in thinking. That is the kind of thinking we all need to be applying to our organisations and work. (It is the kind of thinking that sets an Atanu Dey apart from the rest of us.)

Here is a review of the book by Dr Ted Hutchin. An excerpt from the review:

…People spend a great deal of time trying to develop and implement complex solutions that they know will not work, when a better way exists: using the effect-cause-effect relationships that exist in all organisations. It is these Effect-Cause-Effect relationships that determine every aspect of our lives and they are what Eli defines as “common sense”.

So it is now important to understand what Eli calls “inherent simplicity”, namely the application of a thinking process that allows us to delve into the causal relationships within problems to determine those few (and there may be only one) key areas upon which to focus. It is the discovery of common causes that leads to the understanding of inherent simplicity.

Highly recommended reading the book!

We Versus Vodafone, Day 3

We had a meeting with members of Vodafone’s Value-Added Services team yesterday. The meeting turned out to be inconclusive, with both sides re-stating and clarifying known positions.

Vodafone’s key issue: their (perceived) loss of business – past, present and future – if their subscribers switch to our free services. Besides, they don’t make any money from our free services.

Our contention: paid services are being only used by a fraction of their subscriber base (perhaps under 10%), and the ones we attract with our free services are in the other 90% who would have not paid Rs 30 anyways. Also, the quality of service Vodafone can offer is far superior than what we do. (For example, Vodafone’s cricket updates provide updates every few overs. We provide 2-4 updates over a full day’s play.) In addition, our services actually allow Vodafone to monetise that other 90% subscriber base (via pull services, GPRS data traffic, P2P sms revenue since people tend to forward MyToday SMSes to their friends and family.) We also offered Vodafone the option of promoting their VAS services to our Vodafone subscriber base.

Vodafone’s comment: “we understand your position but do not sympathise with you.”

We are also told that our mobile Internet portal has been blocked for the past 18-odd months since it offered a way to subscribe to our free SMS services.

They agreed to revert within two days with a final decision on whether they will unblock the shortcode for MyToday subscriptions and open access to the portal.

So, that then is the story so far. Will it be a win-win settlement or an all-out war? We will know very soon. The implications are large either way – for mobile operators and VAS companies with alternate and innovative business models.

We Versus Vodafone, Day 2

Following up on yesterday’s post, I first wanted to thank everyone for their support and suggestions. Besides the comments left on the post, various other blogs have also discussed it. Medianama discusses Content vs Carriage. WATBlog asks what it will take for the telecom operators to change their attitude. Pluggd.in and Atanu Dey have also chipped in, and discuss different aspects of the issue. There is also a discussion on India Mobile Forum.

One clarification: what Vodafone has blocked is the shortcode for Vodafone subscribers to opt-in (or opt-out) for MyToday subscribers. We do not use Vodafone for sending the SMSes to existing MyToday subscribers so that part continues. Vodafone subscribers cannot now subscribe or unsubscribe to MyToday services.

Vodafone also called up one of our large media partners and threatened them that they risked their shortcode being blocked if they continued to work with MyToday and promote the media partner’s own recently-launched free SMS content services (which are powered by MyToday).  Talk of arm-twisting.

We are examining various options at this point, and I will keep you all updated.

We Versus Vodafone

Today’s Business Standard has an article about Vodafone blocking our shortcode to stop people from subscribing to our (MyToday) opt-in SMS services. The real unstated reason for the block is that Vodafone believes our free SMS services are competitive to their paid services (Vodafone Alerts). So, rather than let the market and consumers decide, they chose the path of blocking a service which has grown word-of-mouth to 3.8 million subscribers in India in the past two years.

[On a side note: Since about 18 months ago, Vodafone has blocked access to our mobile portal (http://mytoday.com) for their Vodafone Live subscribers (which comprise the bulk of the GPRS subscriber base).]

All this is despite TRAI recommending last week in their MVAS recommendations that opt-in services override NDNC, off-deck services are permitted, and operators should not block short codes or mobile portals.

The British may have left India 60+ years ago but their Colonial Cousins still seem to be hanging around the country.

What do you think about this? And, what are our options? I’d love to hear from you.

  • Talking to Vodafone is nigh impossible — their pre-condition is we shut down the free SMS services.
  • We can go the legal route  – but that will take forever. We cannot even go to TDSAT since they only recognise disputes between telecom licence holders. (That is why we had asked TRAI for a light VAS Licence — so dispute redressal can be done quickly by TDSAT rather than the courts.)
  • What ‘Gandhigiri’ can be done to take on this Goliath?

Blog Past: Constructing the Memex

I wrote this six years ago – and the idea still lingers, though it is coming alive in different shapes and forms on the Web.

…Imagine if each of us could build out…personal directories – outlines of topics and connections to other directories, people and documents. Much of this would happen automatically as we browsed and marked pages of interest, embellishing them with our comments. When we search, it would first scan our world of relevant information rather than the world wide web of documents.

In other words, each of us would have a microcosm of the information space, created and updated continuously by what we did. It would ensure that our ideas would have a context, that we would never forget something, and that we could leverage on similar work done by millions of others like us. This is the real two-way web – linking not just documents, but people, ideas and information.

Vannevar Bush imagined just such a system – in 1945. He called it the Memex.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • New Middle Class in Emerging Markets: Special report in The Economist. “For the first time in history more than half the world is middle-class—thanks to rapid growth in emerging countries.”
  • What ails Entrepreneurship in India: An interesting persepective by Gaurav Mishra. “Let’s look at two inter-related demand-side issues that are holding back innovation in India — the low internet penetration in India and the (comparatively) low purchasing power of the Indian middle class.”
  • Tech Start-ups Failing: A report in The Wall Street Journal. Depressing reading. “Many start-ups survived last year by slashing costs and deferring development projects. But as demand for their products continues to deteriorate and funding dries up, these young firms are now running out of lifelines. Many are calling it quits, recalling the dot-com bust earlier this decade.”
  • The Secret to Success: Save Customers Money: “That is the advice from three venture capitalists who invest in the three major Silicon Valley sectors: information technology, health care technology and green technology.”
  • Why Small Payments Won’t Save Publishers: by Clay Shirky. “micropayments — small payments made by readers for individual articles or other pieces of a la carte content — won’t work for online journalism.”

Complacency vs Urgency

Bringing about change in any situation is not easy. Part of the problem arises from complacency – people in their comfort zone happy with the status quo. It is in this context that John Kotter’s book “A Sense of Urgency” can lend perspective on how to effect the change that is much needed in organisations. As the book’s back cover puts it:

True urgency is a gut-level determination to move and win, now.

Its practitioners are unusually alert. They come to work each day determined to achieve something important, and they shed irrelevant activities to move faster and smarter. Those with a sense of true urgency are the opposite of complacent—but they are not stressed-out, anxious, generating great activity without much productivity. Instead, they are moving boldly toward the future—sharply on the lookout for both hazards and opportunities that change brings.

 

 I have just started reading the book and would strongly recommend it to managers and entrepreneurs who need to bring about change and either do not know how to do it right or have failed in previous attempts.The right sense of urgency can make all the difference.

In Hyderabad on Saturday

I am speaking at CDAC’s Decennial celebrations in Hyderabad on Saturday. My talk will be on Emerging Technologies and Entrepreneurship. I plan to cover the following:

  • views on tomorrow’s world
  • how India can play a leading role in creation of some of these enabling solutions
  • how entrepreneurs can build the building blocks for the future
  • learnings from my 17 years as an entrepreneur

Hyderabad is not a city I visit very often. This is my first visit in about 15 months – and the first after the new airport opened.  There was a time a long time ago I used to visit Hyderabad frequently in the early 1990s — when I was trying to sell (unsuccessfully) image processing solutions to R&D institutions.

Op-Eds

I try and not miss reading The New York Times Opinion pages daily. And that quality of journalism is what I miss in the Indian dailies.

We need better, more thoughtful, less biased agenda-setting writing. The Indian Express still has perhaps the better of the op-eds, though there is a lack of consistency in the writing. I like reading Shekhar Gupta’s columns, but he doesn’t write often enough! Now that the election season is here, perhaps we will see much more incisive analysis from the dailies. This is also an opportunity for Indian bloggers and news portals to fill the void.

I wasn’t always interested in the NYT op-eds. It was the US elections last year which got me interested, and then I got hooked.The diversity of views and columnists is something I’d love to see in the Indian’journosphere.’

Entrepreneurship in India

Sramana Mitra wrote to me saying that Forbes has requested her to write a series on Entrepreneurship / Innovation in India, and she was keen to get more inputs from me and Emergic’s readers. Here is a discussion on her blog about the theme.

My thoughts:

  • Entrepreneurship is happening in India, but there isn’t enough of it and there isn’t enough of capital being invested into early-stage companies.
  • There are two issues: lack of angel funding (whatever little was there has now almost dried up) and lack of the first-round funding. Ventures need about Rs 1-5 crore to get started, and about Rs 5-15 crore in first-round funding. Most VC funds in India are either not investing in tech-focused cos. or need to invest $5 million (Rs 25 crore) given their fund size and the commitments they can make. India needs smaller funds with smaller overheads, with more operationally focused partners to mentor and guide early-stage companies.
  • The digital opportunities in the Internet and mobile space both have challenges. The Internet cos. are dependent entirely on advertising (which has stagnated) and the mobile cos. are hamstrung by low revenue shares from mobile operator payouts.
  • I continue to believe that the big opportunity in India is in building direct-to-consumer cos. in the mobile space, but this requires courage and capital.
  • Also, exits in India are few and far between. M&A needs to be part of the process and that is simply not happening in India.
  • Result: we have lots of small companies (since one can start) but few achieve scale. That is what needs to change.

Elections 2009: We Can’t Look Forward Because We Look Back

As both the major national political parties sounded the bugle for the forthcoming elections over the weekend, it was depressing to see none of the them articulate a vision for India going forward. None of them is saying why we should elect them and what’s different about them. We keep going back in time even as the need of the hour is to look ahead and put forth a vision with clear deliverables of what we can expect from them in the next five years.

As a friend put it, the parties seem to want to fight the 2009 elections based on what happened in 2002 (Gujarat), 1992 (Ayodhya), 1984 (Punjab) and 1975 (Emergency). What about 2014? No one even seems to be thinking about that. We cannot look forward to the future because we keep looking back to the past.

Maybe this is a reflection of what India wants. I doubt it. India’s people want to look ahead, but our polity and policies hark back to the past. If one party invokes Gandhi, the other invokes Nehru and Indira. We still have time to alter the agenda for the elections. And I hope the discussion will be about next 5 years rather than previous 60. Because India deserves better.