TRAI’s SMS Licence Raj – Part 1

I used to wonder what the 1970s and 1980s would have been like for many Indian businesses. India was then under the licence permit quota raj. The government had the power to make or break any  business. A single rule passed by a bureaucrat could hand over a market to a competitor – or if you were on the right side, give you the golden key to a world of profits. Business acumen was not enough.

It was a world that we had only heard about   when we were growing up – since people like us  were in school or college at that time. They were stories but we were not involved in them.

I returned to India after a short education/work stint in the US just as the Indian economy was opening up. Reforms were the buzz in the India of 1992. And for most of the two decades since then, many sectors in India have been opened  to entrepreneurs, especially in technology.

As an entrepreneur in the digital space, I thought that the licence raj was something  I would never ever experience. I was wrong.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Organising a Better Conference

Given my posts about conferences, here is what I had written a year ago:

Here are some learnings from the Gov 2.0 Summit (and others I have attended) on how to organise a better conference:

  • Format: Most conferences I have attended tend to either be presentations or panels, or some mix of both. Presentations by speakers who have not been adequately briefed can get boring, monotonous and disjointed very quickly. Panels with too many people ensures the same disconnectedness and randomness of thought. Instead, what is needed is a judicious mix of multiple types of sessions: a few presentations (where speakers know exactly what they have to talk), many 1:1 conversations (which bring out the real thinking of a person), and a few discussions with a couple people and a knowledgeable moderator. Most sessions should be about 15 minutes.
  • Deadlines:  And of course, it is highly critical that every session sticks to the time allocated. There needs to be a countdown timer visible clearly to the speakers and panelists, so they know how much time is left at any point of time. Every speaker needs to be told clearly that there is no excuse for overshooting the time limits.
  • Briefings: Speakers need to be adequately briefed, and the organisers/moderators also need to spend time discussing with the speakers and panelists what their session is about. I have been on panels where the first interaction is 10 minutes prior to going live! Every person on stage needs to know their role.
  • Social Media Integration and Audience Interaction: A backchannel needs to be created using Twitter and Facebook (and SMS in India) for people in the audience to provide real-time feedback. There needs to be some time allotted for audience interaction.
  • Moreover: The other details are equally important: nametags that don’t flip over so one has no idea who the other person is, making available videos and presentations soon after the conference, having a sponsor/exhibitor area, and so on.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Why Education startups don’t succeed: by Avichal Garg. “Most entrepreneurs in education build the wrong type of business, because entrepreneurs think of education as a quality problem. The average person thinks of it as a cost problem.”
  • A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute: from NYTimes. “[The] 160 Waldorf schools in the country…subscribe to a teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks. Those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.”
  • The Global Innovation 1000: from strategy+business. “Booz & Company’s annual study shows that spending more on R&D won’t drive results. The most crucial factors are strategic alignment and a culture that supports innovation.
  • The hazards of confidence: by Daniel Kahneman. “Our predictions were little better than random guesses, but we continued to feel and act as if each particular prediction was valid.”
  • Sharad Pawar Interview: from the Indian Express. A remarkably candid interview. “The government is taking on a massive burden. My estimate after handling the ministry for seven years is that the food subsidy will be around Rs 1.15-1.20 lakh crore and this will affect the overall economy. I am worried that the subsidy will almost be the same for fuel, around Rs 80,000 crore for fertilisers, and NREGA is another Rs 40,000 crore. If so much is spent on subsidies, what is left for development?”

Why Gujarat is Different

En route to Ahmedabad, Atanu and I got talking to the person next to us. He was from one of the world’s largest multinationals. He narrated a story that is worth repeating.

His company wanted to invest $1 billion into setting up various manufacturing facilities in Karnataka. It took them many months to get the land. Even after the land was acquired, the politicians did not stop interfering and demanding bribes. Given that the company does not compromise on integrity, there was no way it could do the pay-offs. Their CEO then met with the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi. Within four days, the land had been allotted. Even as the factories are coming up, the rail head has been built, the road has been constructed, and the link to the port will be established soon. He said this story was not unique — many other companies had faced similar challenges in other states, and then come to Gujarat to find a different world.

Leadership matters, and what India needs at this stage of our evolution is strong and decisive leadership. We need to keep this in mind when we vote next.

Airport Security Blues

Atanu Dey and I were waiting at the depature gate at Mumbai airport for our flight to Ahmedabad. A lady with three young kids (including one in a stroller) was stopped and asked to go back  upstairs to the security check since one of her bags did not have the stamp. She said there is no way she could do this – with the kids in tow and all her bags. (She had just arrived from a long flight from Chicago. ) The airport authorities refused to budge. Atanu pointed out that the failure of the security folks to stamp her baggage tag was not her problem. The heartless people, who were of course just following the rules, refused to budge. There was commotion and an impasse.

The way the rules are made are quite silly. And people who follow these silly rules don’t even understand the logic and question what they are doing. And for anyone trying to suggest that the rules are faulty and need to be changed, we will have the bogey of national security be thrown. But the reality is that in no other airport in the world have I seen this stupid stamping system and then the stamps checked by 3-4 different people by the time one boards the airport. They only see the stamps, nothing else.

I tried to search for someone who had an extra baggage tag with the stamp that could be transferred to the lady’s bag! But given that most passengers had boarded, that was hard to come by. I finally decided to take the lady’s bag up to security check myself and have it stamped. (Luckily, there is no rule which says that the passenger must be present when the stamp is done.) Always a workaround.

As Atanu said afterwards, why is it that we don’t think about how to make things better? Out of that simple desire come the Steve Jobs of the world.

Presentation at eGov Conference in Ahmedabad

I chaired a panel on ‘Role of Digital Leaders and Bloggers in eGov 2.0’ at the ICEG and KSS conference in Ahmedabad last week. My presentation was brief, and we had an excellent interactive discussion between the panelists and the audience. This is what DailyBhaskar.com had to say about one of the points I made:

Rajesh Jain, one of the earliest Indian bloggers and a participant at the seminar said, “The government should be the servant and agent of the people. Its restrictive policies must be changed and those that are an infringement of privacy must be pushed back.”

His suggestion about ‘Open Data, Open Government’ was supported by author of ‘Transforming India,’ Atanu Dey and Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of medianama.com.

The speakers said that the government must be transparent and publish all its reports on the web for the people to refer.

My presentation:

Two Ideas for Conferences

Recently, Dr. Aniruddha Malpani asked me to MC a conference on Information Therapy. I haven’t MC-ed anything other than company meetings, so this was an interesting opportunity to do something different. Having attended many conferences, I have seen what can be done to make them more interesting. And of these, two of the most important are ensuring the conferences runs on time, and giving people an opportunity to voice their opinions through comments and questions. I decided to try both.

For ensuring the conference runs as per schedule, I set up a countdown timer (via a GiantTimer app on an iPad) right in front of the speakers. This way, they knew how much time they had left. When the limit was reached, the timer went beep-beep, and even the audience knew! This ensured near-perfect punctuality.

For feedback, I asked people to send SMSes to a number I had set up and linked to a page where they and I could see the questions coming in. After every speech, I made it a point to read the questions, and try and get answers. This real-time two-way interaction ensured an excitement and interest that was a novelty for people.

Dr. Malpani has more.

Netcore acquires Ravience, a mobile marketing services provider

An announcement we made last week:

Digital real-time communications company Netcore Solutions today said that it has acquired Ravience, a Mumbai-based mobile marketing services provider, for an undisclosed sum. Ravience is focused on helping brands engage with their customers using its multi-modal response management suite ‘Responage’.

Since its incorporation in 2008, Ravience has achieved several customer wins at leading brands and digital agencies, helping Brand Managers in analysing and optimizing campaign responses generated through various mediums like Mobile Web, PC Web, SMS, Email and Voice.

The platform integrates various stages of digital campaigns – starting from media, visitor management, response management and finally lead management, thus filtering higher quality leads and identifying their sources.

Responage also allows rapid creation of mobile websites which are compatible across handsets, visitor analytics and validation of responses. Veerchand Bothra, founder of Ravience, said, “Usage of mobile-web is exploding with increasing penetration of smartphones, launch of 3G and aggressive pricing of data plans by mobile operators. Ravience’s platform helps enterprise customers convert clicks and responses into consumers on the mobile platform.”

This is Netcore’s second acquisition in 18 months after it acquired a majority interest in internet portal company, Greynium, which operates OneIndia, India’s largest collection of local language portals. Netcore’s Chief Executive Officer, Girish Nair, said. “Ravience complements Netcore’s offerings across SMS, Email and Web channels, and its closed loop digital campaign management platform. Upon integration, the Netcore-Ravience platform will be a unique end-to-end offering for enterprises to create, manage and enhance digital campaigns.”

Netcore Solutions is one of India’s largest digital real-time communications companies, with its email and SMS solutions being used by over 2,000 enterprises.

Blog Past: A World of Screens

From a post a year ago:

During my US trip, as I walked through the train and looked at people around in the conference, I could not but help notice that so many of them were just looking at their Screens. Laptops, mobiles, iPads, Kindles, and so on. Screens have become the centre of our lives – and we are giving up a lot as we move attention away from our surroundings.

I know we can all multi-process and all that. But, it is not the same thing. Focused attention on a speaker at a conference requires putting the Screen away. Losing oneself in the world of natural beauty that passes outside the train window requires putting the Screen away. At least for some moments, we should immerse ourselves in the Moment that matters rather then that email that needs to be answered or the website that needs to be surfed.

In some ways, I am still of the old school of thought wherein I like chunky time to think – that is becoming harder with interruptions aplenty from emails, SMSes, status updates, tweets, etc. Maybe our brains will rewire to make us productive with all these parallel tasks. But until that happens, I want to minimse the micro-moments in my life!

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • How Fox News changed the face of journalism: from Washington Post. India needs its own Fox News. “Fox has become a very real force in America’s culture and politics. It has altered the national dialogue with its different sensibilities and given conservatives a platform.”
  • Steve Jobs model for Education Reform: by Rupert Murdoch. “If we can engage a child’s imagination, there’s no limit to what he or she can learn. “
  • Business in India: A special report in The Economist. “Indian businesses are rewriting the rules of capitalism in a distinctive and unexpected way.”
  • Development and Governance: by Atanu Dey. “Good governance is about how government employees — from the minister on down to the clerk at the post office — consider to be their primary objective and function: to serve the citizens. Good governance is distinct from development. Development is about the infrastructure. Good governance precedes development, and is the more important bit.”
  • Redistribution is not inclusive growth: by Arvind Panagariya. “[In India], We tell the marginalised to stay where they are. Indeed, we do everything to bolt them down to their rural location offering employment and free health and education if they would stay where they are.”

Citizens and Politicians Engagement: From Confrontation to Constructive Co-operation – Part 5

Today, representatives and citizens are seen as two separate entities, creating an “us versus them” feeling. This needs to change. One way to do this is to create the equivalent of a “Social Causes for India” project. These 5-10 hours from each of us can make a huge difference in bridging the chasm that exists and also make for a much more integrated, wholesome and happier society.

We can think of many other ideas to improve trust and foster engagement between the twin pillars of our democracy – citizens and elected representatives.  It would be good to hear from you as to what you think can be done. Our individual passion combined with the collective power of political class can help create a better nation.

Citizens and Politicians Engagement: From Confrontation to Constructive Co-operation – Part 4

Fifth, political parties must explore the concept of primaries to foster inner-party democracy. At one time, Indian political parties used to have this. But this has slowly disappeared. By bringing primaries, we will ensure that local issues have importance, and it will also give importance to local leaders, who in turn will be more accountable to their constituents.

Finally, we need to discuss more about the role that we citizens can play. From what we have discussed above, the role of citizens seems quite narrow — confined to debate, sharing issues with elected representatives and voting. This cannot be all. Citizens need to help their elected representatives and do some volunteer work during their spare time. Involvement in actual work builds up trust and improves bonding between elected representatives and citizens.

Continued tomorrow.

Citizens and Politicians Engagement: From Confrontation to Constructive Co-operation – Part 3

Third, technology can help complement the face-to-face interactions. All elected representatives must have web pages, email IDs and mobile keywords wherein citizens can send feedback, suggestions and grievances to them. A time-based response mechanism must be set up. Companies do this, so why not the political class? The need is for a citizen relationship management system, which I am sure our technology companies can help create.

Fourth, citizens have a very important responsibility in a democracy – to vote. Only half of our eligible base actually votes. This needs to change. Innovations like e-voting have to be deployed to ensure we can get as close to maximum voting as possible. This will also reduce the influence that special interest groups have. For this, citizens need to ensure they are registered as voters.

Continued tomorrow.

Citizens and Politicians Engagement: From Confrontation to Constructive Co-operation – Part 2

First, there need to be forums where citizens can debate issues amongst themselves. The problem today is that there are too many claimants for the civil society mantle. Instead, what needs to happen is neighbourhood forums where citizens can debate and arrive at a consensus. These deliberations have to become the foundation of our democracy.  Citizens must be careful to weed out extreme positions since they will not take the discussion forward and only end up polarising the debate.

Second, the outcome of the citizen meetings need to be formally discussed with elected representatives periodically at open meetings. These can take place once every 2-3 months. A common complaint that citizens have is that elected representatives only show up just before elections asking for their vote! This needs to change. Elected representatives must be accountable to their constituents and interact at public meetings on a regular basis.

Taken together, these two steps will allow for a frank exchange between people and the elected representatives.

Continued tomorrow.

Citizens and Politicians Engagement: From Confrontation to Constructive Co-operation – Part 1

Even as Parliament gets down to discussing the details of the Lok Pal Bill, we need to take some learnings from what has happened in August. First, India’s middle class and youth have genuine reason to be unhappy. Anna tapped into their discontent about corruption, and struck a chord. There is a need to address this discontent. Second, there is anger against the political class. This too should be addressed. This needs a dialogue between people and politicians. We have to move from confrontation to constructive co-operation.

India’s democracy needs to become of, for and by the people. India’s government must become an agent of the people. We need to create greater trust and deeper engagement between people and politicians. After all, our shared goal is to create a better future for our nation.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Government 2.0 to India 2.0

From my Gov 2.0 series a year ago:

The Greatest Challenge for our Generation

India’s governments have through the years have failed in providing the most basic services to the population at large. A radical rethink is needed on the role of government and the government-citizen interface. The time has come for us, the citizens of India, to help in fixing government and governance in India.

The challenge is to rethink and re-architect India. The first version created in 1947 was doomed to fail because of its origins in continuing the institutional legacy of the British Raj, combined with flawed economic policies by a political leadership that should have known better. Those fundamental mistakes have hurt us badly and continue to do so. Without a recognition that we are on the wrong path, we cannot hope to make any changes.

India needs Gov 2.0 to create India 2.0 – because the first experiment has failed. We need to come together to define the country we want for our children – much like the Founding Fathers of the US did during the American Revolution. It is time we had an Indian Revolution.

That then is the great challenge to each of us – the generation born in independent India. We need to put nation before self, and change the construct of the government, and its relationship with the citizens. And in doing so, we need to create an environment and mindset of continuous thinking and improvement. This can be the greatest gift we can give to the next generation.

Weekly Reading

This week’s links:

  • What’s next for Apple? by Matt Mullenweg. “Here are six things I think are inevitable for Apple to do over the next decade, from most to least obvious: maps, iCloud, payments, TVs, search, and cars.”
  • A Google Engineer on Google+: from SiliconFilter. “Google+ is a knee-jerk reaction, a study in short-term thinking, predicated on the incorrect notion that Facebook is successful because they built a great product. But that’s not why they are successful. Facebook is successful because they built an entire constellation of products by allowing other people to do the work.
  • Smartphones: Technology replacing Contact? by James Steddum. “how do you keep those devices from becoming a dependency? How do you keep yourself from letting them take the place of direct human contact rather? It’s something to think about as technology continues to evolve and permeate our lives.”
  • US VC Scene: by Fred Wilson. “The internet investing market is transitioning….Investors are moving into new areas like cloud, peer to peer marketplaces, and trying to take what worked in consumer into the enterprise.”
  • The Decision-Making Flaw in Powerful People: from strategy+business. “Overflowing with confidence, many leaders turn away from good advice.”

Big Brother Watching Everything – Part 2

Look at the details of a tender put out by the Home Ministry, as reported by Medianama in June. Everything that can be monitored will be monitored. Every move we make is being watched, every word we say online, every link we click, every mail we send, every SMS we send, every location we visit — everything is planned to be tracked (or perhaps already is). And we haven’t even started talking about the UID info.

At some point of time, this goes beyond the norm. We are supposedly citizens of a free country. Given some of the steps the government has shown itself capable of taking, there is little to say when the limits will be crossed and citizens who have opinions different from what they think is right can find themselves being harassed by officials.

It is one thing to say that the threat to terrorism is very real and hence this is called for. But there have to be safeguards for individuals.

As a society, we need to think harder about how intrusive we want the government to be in all our lives. The time is now. Because once the pattern is set, as we have seen from the US, no future government is going to undo it.

Big Brother Watching Everything – Part 1

Under the guise of internal security and some random reasons, our privacy and rights are being deeply impacted. Let us put various elements together:

  • According to a friend I spoke to, the recent restrictions on SMS have less to do with telemarketing and more to do with the government’s desire to prevent recurrence of April and August type mass mobilisation of people through SMS. Hence, the restrictions like 100 messages daily per SIM and the planned 5 paise termination charge on SMS. Apparently, the government folks were quite spooked with the way SMS was used to garner people and spread protests across the country.
  • Digvijay Singh has filed cases against 8 websites and 22 people. This is a test of the new IT rules. The eventual goal here is to muzzle what people say on the Internet and social websites. Or at least scare people and websites enough that makes them fall in line.
  • The new rules for launching TV channels have increased dramatically the licence fees to be paid. This will constrain new launches. Also, from what I have heard, news channels are under the scanner for the comments made by anchors during the August protests.

There’s more scary stuff.

Continued tomorrow.

Service Tax Change hurts Small, Growing Businesses

In April, the rule regarding payment of service tax was changed. Earlier, payment had to be made when the money was collected. Now, payment of the tax has to be done on billing. In India, it typically takes 3-4 months for most payments to come in, and there is always some issue with some bills – write-offs, changes, etc. Taken together, this hurts cashflows for companies, and especially smaller, growing businesses, because money now needs to be paid to the government upfront rather than when the real cash comes in.

I am not a finance or taxation expert, but as a business owner, I can definitely saw this is not a good step for business. Over the past few years, paperwork has increased manifold with all the government rules and regulations, and now the cashflow is being hit. I am surprised that this issue has not been raised more vigorously by business owners and industry associations.

I hope someone sees the light. India’s growth needs to come from entrepreneurs, and rules like this make it much harder for entrepreneurs to succeed.