Blog Past: The Company

From a series written six years ago:

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.

In this Tech Talk series, we will look more closely at the idea of the Company through three books: The Company, The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, and The Living Company. We will end with Peter Drucker’s thoughts on the future of this amazing all-encompassing institution.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Mobile World Congress: A review by Strand Consulting. “We believe that 2010 most probably will be remembered for being one of the years with the least slide-ware and most focus on the world we live in and the market our customers are a part of.”
  • strategy+business on Tatas: “As of 2010, Tata is a $70.8 billion commercial enterprise, employing about 350,000 people in 80 countries, across an eclectic array of industries — including hotels, consumer goods, mining, steel manufacturing, telecommunications, trucks and cars (including the much-publicized $2,500 Tata Nano), electric power, credit cards, chemicals, engineering, and IT services and business process outsourcing. Not even General Electric sells such a wide range of products and services.” As the article puts it, the Tata empire is “too good to fail.”
  • Charlie Munger on the US Financial Situation: From Slate. “A parable about how one nation came to financial ruin.”
  • How India’s Green Revolution has wilted because of subsidies: from Wall Street Journal. “[India] now produces less rice per hectare than its far poorer neighbors: Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.” Quite a shocking story.
  • The Wedge between Mandi and Retail Prices of Vegetables: by Atanu Dey. “The intermediation has to be looked at. But to maximize loot, the government can limit the number of intermediaries. The intermediaries make a killing and they pay the government for the license to operate their killing machines.”

Budget Day

So, today is another Budget Day in India. And in a few hours, we will probably be discussing how yet another opportunity to change India’s policy climate was missed. That’s really been the story for most of the Budgets that have presented. I hope I will be surprised, but the likelihood is very high that it will yet another damp squib, with lots of money being thrown to the social sector to reinforce the votebanks. For Union Budgets, every year is an Election year.

I am waiting for the Finance Minister who can actually do away with the need for such a publicly awaited event like the Budget. India’s challenges have straightforward solutions, but that doesn’t seem apparent to the decision-makers. Or maybe it is apparent, but politics that attracts votes always wins over prudent economic policy that results in development.

An Advisory Board

I cannot overemphasise the importance for early-stage companies to create an Advisory Board.

The founder and management team, more often than not, are very closely involved in the business on a day-to-day basis.  As such, they can do with inputs from an Advisory Board which meets once a quarter or so to review the business and give critical feedback on the future plans. The semi-detached view can help in opening up new lines of thinking which the management team sometimes misses because of their proximity to the daily operations.

What is needed for this relationship to succeed is complete candour on both sides. If it can be made to work, the Advisory Board can be a tremendous advantage for the start-up.

School Alumni Day

On Sunday night, I went for my School Alumni Day to St. Xavier’s High School (near Metro, Mumbai). It was the first one I had ever attended since passing out 28 years ago. Thanks to the efforts of a few, about 50 of us ended up coming (out of a batch of 200). It was an amazing evening. Meeting with schoolmates, trying to recognise them and then bring up memories associated with them – it was full of fun and emotion. We also met with some of our teachers – and for one and all, those were perhaps the happiest moments of the evening. For three hours that evening, we forgot all about the world around and went back in time with each other – whom we had grown up with.

Two common comments I got were: “Where’s your beard?” and “You have lost a lot of weight.” Now, you can imagine what I must have been in school – an overweight, 15-year-old with a big beard! I have to see if I can find a photo of myself from that era!

Three India Books

There are three India-related books published recently which are good reading and which their own unique appeal:

  • Arun Shourie’s “We must have no price”
  • Jerry Rao’s “Notes from an Indian Conservative”
  • Business Standard’s “India 2010”

Any other recommendations from what you have read recently?

Blog Past: Good Books: Latticework

From a post written in 2004:

Robert Hagstrom’s book Investing: The Last Liberal Art talks about the need for a latticework of mental models. It is inspired by Charlie Munger’s thinking that one needs to have a framework of the best ideas across multiple disciplines. This may seem contrarian to what we are always told the need to specialise. While the title of the book may imply an emphasis on investing, that is not necessarily the case. The book is a great tutorial in thinking through challenges we face from multiple different angles. As Hagstrom suggests: Innovative thinking most often occurs when two or more mental models act in combination.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Real-Time Revolution: by Joshua-Michele Ross in Forbes.  “Why the real-time Web makes business sense.”
  • Raising money: by Joel Spolsky. When to go to VCs and when not to.
  • A ‘Stop Doing’ List: by Jim Collins (from 2003), via Atanu.”Suppose you woke up tomorrow and received two phone calls. The first phone call tells you that you have inherited $20 million, no strings attached. The second tells you that you have an incurable and terminal disease, and you have no more than 10 years to live. What would you do differently, and, in particular, what would you stop doing?”
  • Virtual Goods and the Power of the Rental Model: by Bill Gurley.
  • Rules for Radicals: from Saul Allinsky’s 1971 book. “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Off-deck Mobile Ecosystem

If India’s mobile data (VAS) ecosystem has to grow, then there are two pre-requisites that need to happen:

  • a guarantee of Net Neutrality, so that operators cannot arbitrarily block services they believe compete with them
  • the operator’s billing platform as a service for a fee of 10% or so, a la Docomo’s i-mode in Japan

Taken together, they can drive innovation like what has been in Japan and some other countries.  The first will open up the creation of new services, and the second will give service providers a way to monetise by making available a micropayments infrastructure leveraging the cash balance that mobile users in India already have.

But, who will bell the cat? What India needs is an equivalent of TRAI that focused on the needs and expectations of consumers. This innovation can drive the creation of dozens of startups which is what India needs. Unfortunately, I can’t see that happening anytime in the near future.

Trivial News

India’s challenges are monumental, but what we are all concerned is with the trivial.

Open any newspaper or watch any of the TV news channels, and you will see the seemingly inane topics that are being highlighted and discussed. Sometimes, I wonder if we deserve any better.

Like for the past two weeks, the Mumbai newspapers have been discussing the Marathi Manoos issue, how a specific individual travelled the city’s sparsely filled local trains in the afternoon, and then the release travails of SRK’s My Name is Khan. If we spent even a fraction of the time talking about our education system or the urban infrastructure in the city or the food price rise, we may actually create a better city and country.

3G Disaster in India

Just when one thinks things cannot get any worse in India’s telecom sector, our government makes the unbelievable happen.

We should have had 3G services in India 3-4 years ago. But we took a detour to giving more 2.5G licences since that could enrich the powers that make decisions by a few billion dollars. In addition, since one can only make money from auctions before they actually happen since money can be taken for skewing the rules, there is little reason to hurry the 3G auction along.  So, we wait. The latest we hear is that the Defence department will only release spectrum later this year, so the auction will take place sometime next year, with services rollout in the second half of 2011. And to top it all, TRAI goes about wanting to publish a consultation paper on 4G!

Of course,  the government owned telcos (BSNL and MTNL) have been offering 3G services for the past many months – and we have barely noticed.

India could have led the world in mobile data, and India’s companies could have been on the forefront of innovation. But who thinks of the world beyond themselves in our government. It is still not too late. I hope better sense prevails and we can get the 3G auctions done quickly with services launched before end of the year.

Strand Book Festival

If you are in South Mumbai and love books, make it a point to visit the Strand Book Festival at Bajaj Bhavan at Nariman Point. It is on till Feb 28, from 10 am – 8 pm daily.

As always, there is a fascinating collection of books. I spent almost two hours browsing through the collection and buying a few. It is easy to get lost in a world of books in a way that’s not possible browsing online.

One of the books I bought was George Johnson’s “The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments.” As I started reading the book’s preface, there was a reference to St. John’s College. And my mind hyperlinked to a book by Robert Hagstrom: “Investing: The Last Liberal Art.” It has a chapter on the liberal arts curriculum of the college centred around reading and discussing the world’s great books. I commented to Bhavana that going to St. John’s is an option Abhishek should explore when he grows up.

Talking to Others to Clarify to Self

While I ended up doing many meetings through the time I stayed in Tokyo, not all meetings had the same level of usefulness. Over time, I have learnt not to worry about the success rate of meetings – new opportunities creation requires many meetings, and one should not aim for a 100% success ratio.

As I put forth my ideas to people I met, I also found me talking to myself. Each meeting helped refine some element of what I was proposing – either via a question that was asked, a comment that was made, or a criticism that was voiced. I like that approach of building up ideas because one can only do so much in a vacuum.

Given Japan’s leadership in broadband and mobile space, the context that I was exposed to was very different, and that helped in improving on my thinking. Too often, we end up with a very narrow perspective because we don’t tend to meet people with experiences and cultures very different from our own.

I am convinced that all of us involved in the process of ideation and innovation needs to take some time to travel. What I accomplished in these few days of meetings in Tokyo would probably have been impossible to do sitting in an office in Mumbai. Of course, ideation is only one part of the process – execution is what also finally matters.

Blog Past: Black Swans

This is a from a series written in August 2004:

I realised that these two words capture the essence of the dream of every entrepreneur. So, I decided to dig deeper to understand about black swan events. This column shares my learning and discusses the possible opportunity for a black swan in the technology industry in the coming years. After all, somewhere the next Google is being born even as we speak. We don’t know where, and we don’t know who. So, why cannot it be us? Why cannot one of us spark the next black swan event?

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The New Golden Age: from strategy+business. “Linchpins of the golden age will include the worldwide build-out of a new services-oriented infrastructure based on dig­ital technology and a general shift to cleaner energy and environmentally safer technologies.”
  • The Future of Web Content – HTML5, Flash & Mobile Apps: by Jeremy Allaire. “Most of the debate and discussion over HTML5 vs. Flash vs. Native Apps has little to do with what is the right technical approach, or whether something is open or closed, it has to do with the expressions of power and control that drive the businesses of the Internet’s dominant platform companies — Apple, Adobe, Google and Microsoft.”
  • The Tea Party Movement: from The Atlantic. A look at the activism that has grown in the US over the past year. Can something similar be done in India?
  • From Sampurna Swaraj to Sampurna Azadi: The Unfinished Agenda: A talk by CK Prahala. “We have to “reimagine politics and governance” as it is practiced in India. We have to address the issues before us – corruption, separatism and inequality by working to change the circumstances that create them.”
  • Our Greatest Weapon: by Atanu Dey. “Our weapon is knowledge. Our challenge is to wield our weapon with ruthless efficiency. We have to bring out into the open all that the government has hidden from public view.”

The Clue

Continuing from yesterday’s lament about what’s wrong, a clue can be found in reading this 1993 paper from American Political Science Review by Mancur Olson entitled “Dictatorship, Democracy and Development.”

The paper was recommended to me by Atanu. In his preamble, he explained: “A decent understanding of political economy is a good idea for someone who wants to understand the nature of society and more so if one wants to participate politically in it. [Olson’s paper] is not easy reading. It is harder to read than say “Tipping Point”. But it is much shorter and you have to do the thinking yourself but when you do, you internalise the concepts very well.”

India can have a different future, provided enough of us are capable of thinking about what got us into the dismal situation we are in, and are then willing to rise and do something about it.

Airport Approach Road

I have said it many times before, but it is something that bears repeating.

Compare the road out of Mumbai airport with that of a Tokyo or Beijing. After multiple governments and efforts, we still haven’t managed to build even half a decent approach road, leave alone something that can be called an ‘expressway.’

The answer as to why we find ourselves in the soup we are in as a nation more than 60 years after Independence is not hard to find. But many of us don’t have the patience to think through to the root cause.

I will provide a clue tomorrow.

Japan: Culture

The discipline and process-orientation of the Japanese is legendary. Things work like clockwork in the country. Much of it is built on a strong cultural foundation. We in India also have a rich culture, but we seem to be giving in short-shrift.

In Japan, culture unites. In India, culture divides. In Japan, culture creates ties that bind. In India, culture is creating schisms that are threatening some of the fabric of the country.

In Japan, culture is visible everywhere – right from the airport as you see the attendant at the bus stop bowing as the bus goes ahead on its way. In India, in our eagerness to embrace the modern, we are forgetting the things that connect us together. That is something we have to change.

Japan: Manga

During the visit, I decided to also explore the culture of Manga comics. I found a few in English and started reading them. The stories were amazingly engrossing. Thedrawings are black and white line art, and some of the comic books are also quite edgy.

Seeing the craze for Manga made me think about Comics in India. I, like many others, grew up on a regular dose of comics. It started with Amar Chitra Katha – buying their new comic every two weeks as soon as it was published. Then, when I was old enough to make my own buying decisions, I ‘graduated’ to Phantom, Dennis, Mandrake, Bahadur (remember Indrajal Comics?), and the like. I also remember reading a lot of the Commando comics (stories from the World Wars). Most of these comics were rented from a nearby library. I later explored Tintin and Asterix, but never quite got into them.

Somewhere, through the years, the craze for comics in India has reduced. I hope that changes. Perhaps, if we can simplify the drawing to a variation of the Manga style (eliminating the need for colouring), we can open up new markets within India.