Palitana – Part 2

We did the climb up to the temples on Sunday. The 3,200 steps seemed much tougher to climb than the last time I did them. I stopped many times en route, even though the common wisdom is that one should just continue. Bhavana made Abhishek walk-and-talk and set a fast pace, and they made it to the top faster than all of us.

The toughest part of the climb was from steps 1,000-2,000 – the middle path, as it were. The destination is still away, and one is tired from the first part of the climb. After that, it is a countdown to the top.

There was a slight drizzle as we did the climb. At the heights, the low clouds made it almost surreal. Inside the temples, there was no artificial light. The rituals being done now were probably exactly how they have been done for hundreds of years.

In a sense, not only is one climbing up, but one is also going back in time.

Palitana – Part 1

Like we had done two years ago, we went to Palitana in early August just before Abhishek’s school re-opened. Abhishek was the one who was keen to go, and my in-laws obliged him!

Palitana is one of the more well-known Jain temple sites. The main temples are situated on the Shatrunjay Hills. The climb is quite an arduous one (more on that later).

We took the overnight train (Bhavnagar Express) from Mumbai. We reached Songadh next morning on time at 10:30 am, and then took a 45-minute auto-ride to the dharamshala we were staying at. The monsoon season created the green and cool setting, which made it quite nice.

We spent the next two-and-a-half days there, a day longer than the previous visit. That made it a very relaxing visit. The dharamshala we were staying in was extremely comfortable. As I remarked to Bhavana, this is the kind of ‘vacation’ I would love to do – peace and quiet, away from Mumbai.

Blog Past: Navigating NetCore

From a series I wrote a year ago on the challenges of being an entrepreneur:

For me, every year as an entrepreneur is one to be savoured because of the learnings.  Just because I did something right in the past does not guarantee success in the future. Building a business is hard. There are moments of joy – but there are many more moments of pain. However experienced one is, situations are different and have to be dealt with accordingly. More than anything, one has to be optimistic and keep the big picture in mind for what one wants to do. It is that vision of the future that keeps the enthusiasm and morale high even during difficult times. For me, the journey matters as much as reaching the destination.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Information Overload is Nothing New: by Peggy Noonan (WSJ). “Step back, or aside. Think what you think, not what they think. Everyone is trying to push. Don’t be pushed.”
  • A Smartphone Retrospective: by Marco Arment. How the mobiles have evolved in just 3 years – in pictures.
  • The Future of Internet Search: by Esther Dyson. “When people search, they aren’t just looking for nouns or information; they are looking for action.”
  • Taking the Mystery out of Scaling a Company: by Ben Horowitz. “If you want to do something that matters, then you are going to have to learn the black art of scaling a human organization.”
  • PM and The Speech-Writer: by Chetan Bhagat. The state of our nation and our leader. “Talk about poverty, reducing it, of course. And education. And stuff like we won’t tolerate injustice and inequality. Oh, and use the word superpower a couple of times just don’t mention a specific issue or put a real opinion.”

Boosting Mobile Data – Part 2

To create a micropayments infrastructure, we need to build on what already exists. Mobile operators in India have created an amazing network of points of presence where one can buy airtime. They know how to handle cash that users pay. (Cash remains the preferred payment mechanism given the low penetration of credit, debit and cash cards in India.)

Today, mobile operators cannot use the cash balance that is there with them for purposes other than voice and data services. Besides, the high incidence of taxes (10% service tax and 15% spectrum and allied charges, for a total of about 23% on what the end users pay) makes it difficult to use the cash balance for real world transactions.

Suppose, we were to change this and allow the cash balance that operators have to be used for third-party non-voice services for a fee of say 10%. Credit card companies charge merchants about 2.5-3% for transactions. Operators could play a similar role for small transactions (say, under Rs 250 or Rs 500).

This would be a game-changer in India. Application and service providers could now create services and leverage the cash balance that users have for collecting their payments. Consumers already know how to refill their accounts with cash given the ubiquity of the mobile prepaid infrastructure.

If we can even imagine India’s top 20% (10 crore) mobile users spending Rs 50 a month on new services, it creates a new annual market of Rs 6,000 crore ($1.3+ billion).

More importantly, it will create interest in computers, software and the Internet amongst the youth, and out of that we could see the emergence of India’s Tencents and Googles.  A decade ago, many in India were fired up with the potential of the Internet only to be disappointed by the market. This time around, the potential of the market can delight many in India.

Boosting Mobile Data

I have written on this topic earlier. I needed to write a brief note recently – so I took some of the earlier ideas, and updated them.

As voice becomes a commodity on mobile networks, the action is shifting to mobile data services. In this context, India’s user base is only second to China. This availability of a domestic market can help India become a large market for mobile data networks as networks become faster (3G and 4G), and as devices become cheaper and better. Since mobiles and data services are a global phenomenon, Indian companies can also emerge as global leaders by leveraging technology platforms, content and services they create for the large domestic market. India thus has a unique opportunity to create an industry in the next decade that can replicate the success of IT services in the past two decades.

To make this happen, there is need to encourage the creation of off-deck mobile data ecosystem. There are three pre-requisites that need to happen to drive this ecosystem:

  • a guarantee of Net Neutrality, so that operators cannot arbitrarily block services they believe compete with them
  • remove the WLL and spectrum charges of 13-15% that are levied for VAS, so that the cost of mobile data comes down
  • the operator’s billing platform to be available as a service for a fee of 10% or so for micropayments, 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 two will open up the creation of new services, and the third 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.

Continued tomorrow.

A Tale of Two Train Terminals

There is Shenzhen Train Station and then there is our very own Bandra Terminus. I happened to pass through both in the past month, and the experience is instructive for all who think India is on its way to becoming another China.

Shenzhen Station has a massive access area, no traffic jams due to taxis, direct linkage to the subway system, cleanliness and high-speed trains. Not to mention a road.

Bandra Terminus, which is becoming increasingly the point of arrival and departure for long-distance trains on the Western line, has none of the above. Case closed.

I want to dwell further on one aspect – the lack of a road to connect it to the rest of the city. There may have been a road once upon a time in Mumbai – right now there are only potholes. One has to drive on the road to see how bad the situation can actually be. Of course, this is a recurring situation since we citizens don’t hold our corporators and politicians to accountability, and keep voting them or slight variants back to office.

MobiGyaan Interview

Excerpts from my interview in MobiGyaan about MyToday:

Why did Netcore introduced Premium (Paid) version of MyToday?

Our focus is on direct-to-consumer services. There is so much more which can be done with SMS. We want to create a publishing and micro-payments platform through MyToday that can spur innovation, create new monetisable moments for publishers and content providers, and present consumers with a much wider array of choice. Much like the AppStores have done.

What are the target number of subscribers you are aiming by the end of this year for MyToday Store?

This is a unique model and a first-of-its-kind service. We will take it month-by-month to see how it grows. The opportunity for such services is very large, but there are many things that need to fall in place for them to succeed. Our focus is on making that happen. If we can provide a very good experience for consumers with the content and the publishers via the platform, then we can create a positive feedback loop in the months to come.

Blog Past: Data MVNO

From a post I wrote last August:

What kind of data services would the Data MVNO offer? Here are some starting examples:

  • SMS subscriptions (push-based microcontent)
  • Voice portals
  • Content downloads (mobile games, apps, etc.)
  • Video downloads / streaming
  • mCommerce

What is common to all of these services is that consumers pay for each one of them. Offering them free in the hope of getting ads is not going to be a business – as has been seen in the Internet space in India, where the top home-grown portals are losing in excess of Rs 150 crore a year even after 14 years of the Internet in India.

There are three things which need to come together to offer such a service in India:

  • Reach: distribution and relationships to reach the top 100 million target audience
  • Cash Balance: enabling people to pay to create prepaid accounts independent of the mobile operator
  • Open Publishing Platform: to allow content publishers and service providers to create content. This is similar in concept to the iPhone AppStore.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Why they were able to raise money: by Jason Baptiste. “These reasons are beyond the usual Brilliant team in a huge market with a killer product.”
  • The importance of frugal engineering: from strategy+business. “Providing new goods and services to “bottom of the pyramid” customers requires a radical rethinking of product development.”
  • Booking vs Revenues vs Collections: by Fred Wilson. A simple yet important topic that I have seen many entrepreneurs and managers get wrong. “Think of the bookings to billings to collections as the way revenues “flow” through the business.”
  • Reclaiming the Imagination: by Timothy Williamson (NY Times). “Imagining turns out to be much more reality-directed than the stereotype implies.”
  • How to win the Clash of Civilizations: by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. “Huntington also said that a civilization-based world order is emerging in which states that share cultural affinities will cooperate with each other and group themselves around the leading states of their civilization.”

42 to 43: Part 5

Looking ahead to the next year, there are two primary themes that I expect will dominate my thinking and time. The first is MyToday, and building it out. The potential is large in India, and outside. But we have to do lots of things right to make a success out of it. It is a challenge – a service like that hasn’t been created, and the odds that we will succeed are also low.

I know that there are many paths which will lead us to failure. At the same time, there are also a few paths which will lead us to success – entrepreneurship is about discovering and walking down those paths.

The second is going to be on how can I help play a role in building a better India. It is a question each of us should be asking, and then working out our plan of action. For me, right now, this is an activity that up about 20-25% of my time. My hope is that in the next year, if I can make MyToday a success, then I can devote an increasing quantum of time and resources to this.

Somewhere, as India goes from 63 to 64, and I go from 43 to 44, I hope our paths will cross.

42 to 43: Part 4

The past year saw Abhishek start his formal schooling – LKG, and moving to HKG a couple weeks ago. School has opened him up a lot. It has reduced the time we get to spend together on weekdays since he has to sleep by 8 pm, and I only get home on most days by 7:15-7:30 pm. He is also much more independent – lost in his world of trains, autos, cars, taxis and buses, and of course the obligatory TV watching in the evening. I look forward to the time we get together. There is much he has to talk – and question, and increasingly, comment on.

The political endeavour that I have – to bring about political and policy change in India by 2014 – has been growing slow on the execution front. But there is much that has happening on the thinking side. The past year has been disappointing as we give the impression of a nation adrift – at a time when there is a need for decisive action. For the most part, India has been let down by its political leadership – who in turn have been elected by we, the people. India needs a dramatic change if we are to fulfill the potential of a growing youth population and bring hundreds of millions out of poverty.

The one thing I have had to drop from my list of activities is investing in early-stage companies. I stopped because I do not have the time to spend with them, given the time that NetCore needs.

Continued tomorrow.

42 to 43: Part 3

I made four international trips during the past year – which is more than I have done in recent times. The first was to the US last September – Washington and the Bay Area. It was a short trip – about 9 days. The second was to Japan (Tokyo) in January – to understand how the mobile internet (and especially mobile social networking) has grown through the years.  The third was in April to Singapore for a presentation at the Mobile Marketing Association event. The fourth was a vacation in China – Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Shanghai.

There was a time when I would travel a lot internationally. The period between 1999-2004 saw me filling up passport pages with visas and stamps quite rapidly. Those were the years when I was searching for new ideas. Many of the ideas that I tried then did not work out. As I was telling someone the other day, the risk of failure is built into what I do since I am trying things which few have attempted before.

International travel all by myself is something I like to do every few months since it works as a mind refresher. The long hours in the flight give me time to think – with no interruptions. What else can one do belted in an airline seat?!  I hope I can continue the international travels this year.

Continued tomorrow.

42 to 43: Part 2

For the first time in many years, I have been directly managing a team. It is not something I am good at – in IndiaWorld, Bhavana had done much of that. But given the early stage of what we are doing, the hands-on involvement is critical. It reminds me of the early days of IndiaWorld – there was an idea with potential, but one had to get lots of small decisions right every day to move it forward. MyToday is at that stage now.

My logic for MyToday is driven by the fact that the “consumer pays” segment in the digital space in India is 10X larger than Internet advertising which in itself is 10X larger than mobile advertising. Almost all consumer payments in the mobile space are processed by the operator. Unlike Docomo’s approach in Japan with i-mode where it shared 91% of the revenue with content/service providers, Indian operators have had the opposite mindset.

What India needs to drive innovation in this space is the creation of a thriving off-deck marketplace – with payments. That is easier said than done. And that is what we are hoping to do. As I look ahead, the next year is going to squarely focused on building this ecosystem out – from creating an open publishing platform to enabling easy micropayments. It hasn’t been done before – and that’s why I am so excited!

Continued tomorrow.

42 to 43: Part 1

Once every year, I turn the mirror inward to look at my life -on my birthday. It is that time of the year once again.

The dominant theme for the past year was about NetCore, the company I run. I spent the better part of the year focused on the business – more than I have in the past many years. Part of the reason was that there was nothing else to do – the political side of things via Friends of BJP took a backseat given what was happening within the BJP during the first part of the past year. In addition, as we expanded the consumer side of what we do in NetCore, it required a lot more attention from me.

The enterprise side of our business in mailing and mobility has grown well. The hope is that they will continue to grow and be cash generators for the future as well, achieving increasing scale and profitability. That will allow us to invest in the consumer businesses – on the Internet and mobile. In the Internet space, we acquired Greynium -with a bet that the future of the Internet in India will be about local (local languages, locally relevant content, and local needs).

The mobile space is where we have a path which is different from the rest of the industry. Our focus is on direct-to-consumer services – mobile-linked identity, content and payments.  The first step in this direction came with the launch of MyToday, the SMS AppStore. It will take time to put all the elements in place, but the start has been very good. Each day is brimming with new ideas on how we can grow it. A few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle still need to fall in place, and that’s what I am now focused on.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: 41 to 42

Today is my 43rd birthday. I will write next week about my journey from 42 to 43. For now, here is the last post from my 41 to 42 series:

As I look ahead to the 43rd year of my life, there are many things I would like to make happen. I don’t know how successful I will be, but it is important to have some goals.

NetCore’s foundation needs to be strengthened, so we can grow revenues at 100% or more each year for the next few years. This will mean getting our VAS Operator idea to work.

I want to help create a centre-right policy foundation in India – one that can provide the intellectual underpinnings for the BJP and other centre-right leaning parties.

Education has been an area of interest for some time, and this year will hopefully see me take some steps in creating initiatives both at the K-12 level and the other end of the spectrum (in higher education).

I want to do a lot more of two things year: blogging and meeting people to open up new business opportunities. My best ideas for the future come from these two activities.

I have not been able to spend much time in the past year with the dozen-odd ‘Emergic ecosystem’ companies that I am invested in. This is something I need to change in the coming year.

I also need to start paying attention to my health, which will mean more vigorous exercise.

Finally, I want to be with Abhishek as he continues his voyage of discovery into the world.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • CK Prahalad Interview: from strategy+business. A tribute to the management guru. “In interviews conducted before his untimely death, C.K. Prahalad — the sage of core competencies and the bottom of the pyramid — looked back on his career and talked about the way ideas evolve.”
  • Right to Food in India: from the New York Times. “India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nations.” Shouldn’t we be holding our leaders accountable for this? Instead we keep voting them back to power.
  • Foundation elements for business: by Seth Godin. “The goal is to build these elements into the very nature of the business itself, not just to tack them on.” (via Vinu)
  • 10 tech-enabled business trends: from McKinsey Quarterly. “Advancing technologies and their swift adoption are upending traditional business models. Senior executives need to think strategically about how to prepare their organizations for the challenging new environment.”
  • Pricing Models: by Seth Levine. “Beware of too many pricing tiers. Relative simplicity is helpful in many things related to building companies and pricing models are no exception.”

Ending SMS Spam: Part 5

The Internet has not yet penetrated deeply and widely in India. SMS, other than voice, is the only mobile service that works on every mobile in the country. Even though there has been recent misuse of SMS by companies violating the NDNC (National Do Not Call Registry), the solution is not to create a “Do Call” Registry. That will be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It will only worsen the situation.

As we have seen, there are a number of creative technology solutions to not just reduce, but eliminate, SMS spam. They involve strengthening the implementation of the current system. In doing so, we will help make SMS alerts, updates and “invertising” (invited advertising) an integral part of transactions in India – just like email is in the developed markets.

SMS remains an integral feature of mobile data services worldwide. Even with 3G, SMS usage has not decreased but only increased. The power of push and immediacy is what gives SMS its strength. What is needed is to create a solution that is a win-win for businesses and mass-market India.

Ending SMS Spam: Part 4

Here are the three tech interventions that are needed for these solutions:

  • Every SMS should sent have a clearly identifiable alphanumeric SenderID. Mobile numbers should not allowed as senderID, unless they are in response to a request originated by the user to that shortCode or longCode over SMS. This will prevent companies from putting arbitrary mobile numbers as SenderIDs preventing them from being traced.
  • Every SMS being sent out should be through either a centralised system or an operator-specific system. This system should store the message copy, and do the actions outlined in the next point. For this, operators (or TRAI) should charge a small fee of something 0.02 paise per SMS to fund this new technology investment. Given that about 500 crore SMSes are sent each month, this will create a pool of Rs 10 lakh per month which should be more than enough to fund the additional technology needed.
  • All messages should automatically have a footer appended to them. This footer will have a phone number (toll-free) that a customer can call, along with a 3-digit numeric code that identifies the message. This will make complaining very easy. I just click on the number at the footer of the message, type in the 3-digit number – and I am done. There is no need to call the operator. The code with the complainant’s mobile number will uniquely identify the offending message.

Continued tomorrow.