Watching TV

I watch very little TV on my own — though inadvertently, I end up with quite some TV “inhaling” given that my wife loves watching many of the serials in the evening. I watch cricket occasionally and some of the news channels. And then there is the rare movie. Very little overall.

One of my all-time favourite programmes was “The Week with David Brinkley” which I used to watch on Sunday mornings in the US when I was studying and working nearly 20 years ago. I miss a programme like that on Indian TV — one where there is some serious discussion with people who matter, rather than those interested in giving soundbytes. But then, I guess the world has moved on quite a bit during this time — and our attention span has also shortened with so many conflicting pressures on our time and the diversity of alternate ways to consume news.

Some of the TV serials are quite interesting — and have always been. The one I like is “Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai” on Star TV at 9:30 am. Has an old-fashioned charm and simplicity – so far. The one programme I still remember from a decade or so ago is “Rishtey” on Zee TV — hour-long stories based on relationships.

Elections 2009: Up Close

It has been a very interesting week. We did Friends of BJP events in Bangalore (Mar 21), Delhi (Mar 26) and Ahmedabad (Mar 28). I was there for all of the events. Travelling and interacting with different people gives a closer glimpse of the unfolding political scenario in India (which is fast-changing). All our events were extremely well-attended. The on-ground feedback and reading the media coverage leads me to the following conclusions about our forthcoming elections:

  • The race is to reach 175 seats in the 543-member House. And there are three contenders: Congress, BJP and the so-called Third Front (a motley aggregation of regional parties). If any of them can get to that figure, then they have a good chance of forming a government at the Centre.
  • Every small party has a desire to be part of the government – and will go to any efforts to make that happen! Whatever combination comes to power, we are in for a period of instability at the Centre. The dependence will be very high on smaller parties – any of whom could withdraw support at any time, and pull down the government (as happened during 1996-98).
  • The main battle is still between the Congress and the BJP to emerge as the single largest party. No government will be possible at the Centre without one of them — unless as a combine they end up with less than half the Seats in the Lok Sabha.
  • There is no national issue which means it will end up being a collection of multiple state verdicts. In an earlier era, anti-incumbency was almost a given but as some states have shown, good governance and a strong development focus can ensure an advantage for the incumbents. In short, the electorate is willing to recognise and reward good performance – which is a great change in Indian politics.
  • I think there is a growing recognition that because of the uncertainty which is likely to emerge in the post-election scenario that we may end up with another election in 2 years. As a result, 2009 has become a testing ground for many ideas and theories – for example, the decision of the Congress to go solo at a national level in an effort to rebuild its base in the Hindi heartland (UP, Bihar, Jharkhand).
  • The past two weeks have seen a shift: because the UPA has all but crumbled, the Congress is no longer the clear favourite. The BJP has not completely capitalised on this opening. And with more than two weeks to still go before the first votes are cast, there is a lot of excitement and drama still left! There is no better reality show than the political theatre that accompanies Indian Elections.

It is fascinating to watch what is happening. For a few of us at Friends of BJP, this is like a political internship. Even as we understand the reality of Indian politics, we are brainstorming on the role we in Middle India can play to transform and re-invent Indian politics and governance.

Blog Past: Letter to Arun Shourie

This is the time when Political Party Manifestos and IT Vision documents are getting published. It reminded me of the time five years ago when I wrote a letter to the then Minister of IT and Telecom.

India stands on the cusp of a revolution. There is optimism all-round and in certain quarters, even fear of the growing prowess of India. This is a good start, but only the first step in what is a long journey. This is an opportunity for change and growth that we in India can simply not afford to lose. There are a billion dreams at stake.

So, these are my suggestions to you. The goal is not to find fault with what is happening. Rather, it is to provide specific inputs so that you and your government can continue to catalyse the positive forces that have been unleashed in the marketplace.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • How About Free? The Price Point That Is Turning Industries on Their Heads: From Knowledge@Wharton
  • Sprint Looks to Power Gadgets Beyond Cellphones: From Wall Street Journal. “As Core Business Slumps, Wireless Carrier Aims to Use Its Network for Dashboard Computers, GPS Devices.”
  • Social Media is Here to Stay…Now What? By Danah Boyd. “I’m going to share my research in three acts: 1) How did social media – and social network sites in particular – gain traction in the US? And how should we think about network effects? 2) What are some core differences between how teens leverage social media and how adults engage with these same tools?3) How is social media reconfiguring social infrastructure and where is all of this going?”
  • The Art of the Tutorial: by Guy Kawasaki
  • How Kindle will Change the World: From Slate. “The Kindle 2 signals that after a happy, 550-year union, reading and printing are getting separated. It tells us that printed books, the most important artifacts of human civilization, are going to join newspapers and magazines on the road to obsolescence.”

Mint on Low-Cost Computing and Novatium

Wednesday’s Mint had a front-page story on low-cost computing which discussed Novatium and quoted me:

Novatium says its services are primarily targeted at 45-50 million first-time computer users or cybercafe goers who don’t have a computer at home and can use this with the ease of an appliance.

Countering the arguments that netPC is after all not cheap, Rajesh Jain, co-founder of Novatium and founder, managing director of Netcore Solutions Pvt. Ltd, says this device aims at changing the concept of computing itself. “You can’t take a computer and sell it cheaply.”

Novatium’s Jain, too, thinks these products and services should thrive independent of government support. He has a value-added-services road map for the Nova NetPC, but admits that the road is ridden with challenges.

“We need to get into a large number of services, create newer mechanisms for micro-billing…something akin to Apple’s App Store where others can start offering services for as little as Rs10-20 and create new revenue streams,” Jain says.

Elections 2009: The Digital Connection

I had two journalists call me on Wednesday wanting to talk about the role of the Internet and mobile in the Elections. Here is a summary of the points I made:

  • Internet reaches about 50 million of 700 million (7%) voters; so overall impact is small. Question is how much influence does this group have and that is not clear.  Unlike in marketing products where the audience is top of the pyramid and therefore highly desirable, in a democracy, every vote counts the same – and there are no prizes for coming second in a constituency!
  • The mobile (and especially SMS) can be a game-changer in this election. SMS can reach upto half the voting population (about 375 million of 700 million), and messages can direct and non-targeted. Also, many interactive services (find your polling both, who are the crminals contesting in your constituency) will increases the appeal and use of SMS in the election.
  • One thing which I am seeing increasing use of is email. Chain mails have started giving viewpoints different from what we are seeing on the traditional mass media.
  • Social media (Facebook, Orkut) can amplify reach, but these are still early days, and their impact will be limited.
  • Thus, email and SMS forwarding, along with the social networking sites, can help spread messages fast, but their impact will be mostly restricted to urban constituencies.
  • The big impact will hopefully be in an increase in voting percentages in urban areas, given all the awareness campaigns that have been taking place.
  • So, equating India 2009 to US 2008 in terms of the impact of digital media on elections is incorrect — India is probably more similar to US 2000 or US 2004. These are early days, and therefore the goal should be try out lots of experiments. Then see what works, and build on that for the state elections that will keep happening and the next general elections.
  • Overall, this is a good start – and with the 2-way tools that we now have at our disposal (email, SMS, blogs, websites) we have started on an irrevesible to citizen involvement and engagement in governance, which is what democracy is all about.

Boom in Indian Magazines

I used to love the variety of magazines I’d see in US bookshops and magazine stands. Now, the same diversity can be seen in India. More and more niche magazines are coming out, and each one seems to be different from the others of their ilk. This is happening even as the newspaper coverage has perhaps become less interesting and at times too flippant. I think the Indian reader is ready for some serious and insightful magazines.

One magazine I picked up twice from a nearby bookshop was “The Caravan.”  Here is how their website describes the magazine: “The Caravan is a literary magazine for the curious mind. It is a collection of interesting and narrative stories on domestic and international politics and social issues, culture, including the arts and literature, travel, sports, science and technology, environment, education and business.”

What attracted mewas the longish cover stories on politics – one on Mayawati, and another on fringe saffron group. I may not necessarily agree with everything they write, but this long-form journalism is increasingly missing from the likes of India Today and Outlook, and definitely absent from the dailies. And TV has become too sound-byte focused and very repetitive. At times, it becomes quite hard to figure out the deeper background and context of what’s happening. And that’s something that could be a good niche!

Life’s Different Experiences

Change is always hard. We all like the status quo. For me, the past couple months have been a different sort of ride — working on various activities as part of the Friends of BJP team. I had not given it much thought when I started off on it — it just seemed an interesting sort of thing to do, and one had to move quickly since it was a “limited-time” opportunity given that elections were due in April-May.

The experience of working with different people in an absolutely new space has been very good. There are lots of things I am learning — about India, about working in groups, about people, and about politics. Change, every once in a while, is good.

Life gives us opportunities to do different things, but many times we let these pass by because we are fearful of the unknown. We don’t know what we don’t know. And so, we stick to the tried and tested routine.

I think it is important – even necessary – for us to put ourselves through different experiences, because that is where learning happens in step functions. Not all of it may be good, but it adds to enriching us in different ways. So, my recommendation: next time there is an opportunity to do or try something different, give it a shot. The joy of learning new things can do wonders for us!

Elections 2009: A Fascinating Contest

It is amazing to see the daily dueling between various political parties. The only thing that seems to matter is their desire to maximise seats in the Lok Sabha (especially for the smaller, regional parties) so that the ‘bargaining’ power is higher after the results are declared. As someone put it, the real elections will start after the elections are over.

Almost every permutation and combination is possible, except perhaps the BJP and Congress supporting such other, and the Left supporting the BJP. This is one of those elections where every senior leader thinks they have a fair chance of becoming Prime Minister.

I just hope the Indian electorate is smart enough to see through all of these machinations, and vote sensibly. At a time when we face a multitude of challenges, we need a government that is stable, can make bold decisions, and will not be held hostage by some of the smaller parties greedy for power.

As part of Friends of BJP, I am getting to see and understand Indian politics up close. And that’s helping me think through what changes people like us can do and how we can go about doing it. I will write more on this in the days to come.

Blog Past: A Presentation at PC Forum

Three years ago that I did a presentation at PC Forum which taught me a lot about public speaking from Jezra Kay, a professional speaker coach I had to do a 2-minute pitch for Novatium. Easy, right? Think again!

Jezra started off by quoting Winston Churchill who said something like: “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.” Jezra said that we would need to practice till I could internalise the talk – every word of it.

Practice? Me? I thought I was ready! But after a couple mock ‘pitches’, I realised that she was right. I was no way close to ready. Writing the pitch was just the start. The words did not flow well. My delivery left a lot to be desired – because the mind raced ahead to what I was going to say next. I had work to do.

For the next three hours, we worked on my two-minute pitch.

I no longer take talks that I have to give lightly. And I think it has made a big difference. But there is still plenty of room for improvement.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

IIT Memories (Part 5/5): Theme 4 — Luck Matters (or It’s Destiny)

I had a choice in 1984 – between going to Carnegie Mellon or IIT. I spoke to a friend who had gone to CMU and he recommended IIT. I stayed back in India.My first night in IIT was a long one. I found myself making noodles for a senior at 3 am in the morning. Ragging was what helped me open up as a person, giving me the courage to look at an alternative life beyond academics.

The sale of IndiaWorld came at a time when I found myself unable to raise venture capital – and in a short span of two weeks, suddenly ended up with two competing offers. The IVF treatment Bhavana and I went through for five years had taken enough of an emotional toll for us to do one last attempt – and that resulted in Abhishek.

At every stage in life, there is that something unexpected that happens – just when we least expect it. Luck matters, but we have to be in a position to leverage the luck that life throws our way. Every challenge in life is a Surprise Test – we fail some, and we crack some.  The one thing I learnt through IIT is to take these ups and downs in one’s stride – and maintain an equanimity that keeps one grounded in the good times and doesn’t depress one during bad times.

IIT Memories (Part 4/5): Theme 3 — Do Different

During my years in IIT, I tried to learn to do things I hadn’t done before. Like going on Himankan, a trek in the Himalayas. I did it because I thought I couldn’t do it. It was tough during those 12 days, but the memories are still so vivid as I tell four-year-old Abhishek about the night our tent collapsed because of a snowfall and we crawled out to see the most gorgeous white we had ever seen!

Through my 17 years as an entrepreneur, I have tried to do things which are different and path-breaking – from Internet portals to thin clients to direct-to-consumer mobile data services. At times, it seems like Mission Impossible. But sometimes, not knowing how about “mountains beyond mountains” is what helps us keep climbing.

IIT Memories (Part 3/5): Theme 2 — Passion Matters

As part of my efforts to grow my involvement in cultural activities in IIT, I contested for Hostel Literary Secretary in my second semester, going up against a senior. My “infectious enthusiasm” carried the day and I won by 2 votes out of 200. As I campaigned, the only thing I had to show were ideas and a passion to engage and listen.

As an entrepreneur, whether it was selling Internet websites and advertising in the mid-1990s or selling mobile solutions now, I try and bring that same passion – because that is perhaps the only differentiator in the early stage of a venture. I have to sell a dream and get people to believe in me, since there are few case studies to go by.

IIT Memories (Part 2/5): Theme 1 – Overcome Fear of Failure

All it takes is one Test at IIT to bring us all down to Earth and accept failure as part of life. I still remember getting 3/20 in my first Physics Test. Having been used to topping all through school and college, this was a rude shock. But not the end of life. After my first semester in IIT where I focused only on academics, I realised that I had little hope of emerging as a topper even with my best efforts. And so it was that I started focusing on extra-curricular activities, and in three years rose to the top student post (General Secretary – Cultural). If we fail in something, perhaps there is something else we can succeed at.

This learning has been true through my life. In business, I have tried multiple things and only a few have worked. Failure has been the teacher for me. If we can overcome our fear of failure, there is much that we can do in life that we like and can excel at.

IIT Memories (Part 1/5): Two Decades On

As I was preparing for the “My Story” talk as part of the IIT-B Alumni Association’s “Kal, Aaj aur Kal” event in Bangalore on Saturday, a lot of memories came back about my four years from IIT (1984-88). While I could not describe many of these since the talk became a panel conversation, I thought I should share some of that here.

My year of graduation – 1988 – neatly bisects my life so far into two (about 21 years on either side).  For me, IIT was a transformational experience. It would be fair to say that a lot of what I learnt in life, I learnt in IIT. And most of what I learnt in IIT, I learnt outside the classroom!

Now, more than decades after graduation, I can perhaps look back at those four years and see my life since graduation through the prism of those four years. Over the rest of this week, I will describe four themes which permeated through IIT and my life since then.

Before that, to put my life in context, here is a chronological outline of the past 20 years:

  • 1988: Went to Columbia Univ, NY for MS (EE)
  • 1989: Completed MS in 9 months, and then joined NYNEX S&T, White Plains, NY
  • 1992: Returned to India to become an entrepreneur.
  • 1992-1994: Tried lots of things – multimedia databases, electronic parts catalogues software, image processing software, etc. Nothing worked. Had to do a reboot at the end.
  • 1995: Launched IndiaWorld, India’s first Internet portal.
  • 1997-1998: Grew IndiaWorld family by adding 12 more vertical portals (Samachar, Khoj, Khel, Bawarchi…).
  • 1999: IndiaWorld was acquired by Sify for $100 million.
  • 2000: Worked with Sify
  • 2001-2005: Back to NetCore, a company I had founded in 1998. Tried multiple ideas beyond the mailing software business that we had – blogs search engine, enterprise software, thin client-thick server software, digital dashboard, etc. No success in these new areas.
  • 2006-now: Focused on mobile data services as the new area, and launched MyToday (SMS subscriptions and portal), even as Mailing business continued its growth.
  • 2006-2008: Also invested in 15 companies in the digital space.

Blog Past: The Company

In this series written in May 2004, I look at the institution we all belong to, The Company.

If there is one thing common to most of us, it is that we are part of a Company. Be it a startup or an established one, be it small or big, be it a local one or a global multinational, the Company is where we spend the better part of our adult lives. It is the mechanism through which we effect change (or get changed), where we build relationships (friends and business), and through which we generate income. The Company is a unique institution that binds us all together. Each of use has our own Company stories.

…In my first Company, the goal was to prove that I could build and manage a successful business. In my second Company, the goal is bigger and bolder – I want to build something that will last and make a difference, and to do well and do good. Perhaps, they are all the same. Only time will tell. For me, the Company is an all-consuming love affair. It is an instrument of innovation, of bringing forth new ideas and revolutions into the world.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Entrepreneurship Special Report: from The Economist. “Despite the downturn, entrepreneurs are enjoying a renaissance the world over.”
  • How to be a (Software) Program Manager: by Joel Spolsky. “A good program manager combines an engineer’s approach to designing technology with a politician’s ability to build consensus and bring people together.”
  • The Rise of the Social Nervous System: by Joshua-Michele Ross in Forbes. “As ever more people get connected, we see an acceleration in the way the Internet is used to coordinate action and render services from human input. We are witnessing the rise of a social nervous system.”
  • Counting People Visiting Websites: from Technology Review. A simple problem, seemingly?!
  • MEX Manifesto 2009: To challenge the industry on the key mobile user experience issues for the next 12 months.
  • Monetising Social Networks: by Bill Gurley. Learnings from Tencent in China.

Missed Opportunities in Telecom

There doesn’t seem to any sign of the 3G auction taking place in the near future. That is a big disappointment, but not entirely unexpected. This is what I had written in early Jan:

My feeling on what will happen is that the 3G auction will probably not happen in Jan. And if its gets delayed further, we start moving into pre-election territory when the code of conduct will start coming into effect, and it could end up being delay to the end of the year after the new government takes over in May-June. I don’t think theincumbent operators will be too unhappy with this — no one is really clamouring for 3G.

It is inded very frustrating to see this happen. I had thought 3G was a year away three years away. We still seem to be in the same situation. Not only are we in India losing the opportunity to experience a new generation of services on the mobile, but Indian companies and entrepreneurs are losing the opportunity to use the domestic market to build mobile data capabilities which could then be leveraged globally. In other words, India could have become a global leader in mobile data services — mobile social networking, location-based services, data MVNOs, mobile broadband infrastructure, etc. But that becomes harder without a domestic market to first launch and test the services. And given that the domestic Internet market isn’t growing fast enough, digital-focused companies will have a tough time building out scale.

We need to understand that telecom infrastructure (wireline and wireless) can be very useful given that we have been a laggard for as long as we know. Just adding 10+ million voice connections is not good enough. The game needs to shift to data services. And there, we haven’t even gotten started yet.Hopefully, the next government will take steps in this direction, but given our past record, that is probably being way too optimistic.