Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Local will be the biggest opportunity: by Bill Gurley. “Over the next five years, this massive opportunity will come into focus as local businesses embrace the Internet and adopt new interactive technologies that increasingly automate the connections between their customers and themselves.”
  • South East Asia Mobility Report: from Mobile Monday, by Madanmohan Rao. “Southeast Asia accounts for one tenth of the world’s population, with Indonesia’s population alone around 240 million. The region reflects a diverse mix of cultures, economies, innovation dynamics andmobile/Internet diffusion patterns.”
  • Peter Diamandis Interview: from Wired. Peter is the X-Prize founder. “He soon realized that the same forces that enabled a small team of amateurs to make a lunar lander could empower cadres of bright, idealistic people to solve earthly problems.”
  • The Voice of the Storyteller: from NYTimes, the last in a series on better writing. “Writing style begins with clarity: Find the right words, and decide what to leave out. Then shape your sentences. Turn a phrase, play with sound, listen for cadence. Think about tone, and select a point of view.”
  • India needs drastic reforms, not cosmetic ones: by SL Rao in The Telegraph. “The needed reforms are structural and systemic, prioritizing decentralized governance, and administrative reform. “

Transforming India Speech – Part 4

Policy change is not going to happen   until we have political change.    India needs a new leadership.   India needs new politicians who believe in these new objectives —   good governance and development.

Policy change  needs the politicians in India to change.   And that will only happen through one way – changing people’s voting behavior.

India is a democracy at the end of the day.    We get a chance to elect our leaders every few years.  The ballot box is the way the change needs to be done.   Middle India, for the most part, doesn’t bother to go out and vote.  It’s probably about 20-25% of people in middle India who actually go and vote.   You know a long time ago, there was  an apocryphal  story in which someone asked Laloo Prasad Yadav, who stayed as  the chief minister of Bihar,one of the poorer states of India  for about 15 years, “How do you think you got   re-elected?  You kept getting re-elected  without even  doing any substantial work”.    He said,  “It is not the people who vote for me;    it is the people who don’t vote for me who have kept me in power.”

They did not vote against him, and that’s the reality again and again in India.   That needs to change.

Transforming India Speech – Part 3

The first one is that we need a change of policy.     We need to change the policies that got us into this current mess.   We need policies which will get us out of there. Bt for that,   we need to understand why we got into this mess.

In most cases,   we need policies which are the opposite of what are being currently followed.   The bad policies need to get replaced by good policies. Only good policies will help us grow faster, and the good policies   emanate out of the objectives of the government.

The objectives of government in India, for the most part since independence,   have been extraction and exploitation.   Development and good governance have not been the objectives, as we have seen,  except probably for a few of  the 60+ years that we have  been free.

The government needs to change from being in business to being a referee.    We have to change from controls to freedom,   from maximum government that we currently have in India to minimum government.    The government controls are stifling for entrepreneurs and big businesses. To a large extent, big businesses get by,   by paying money or through their influence.  For small businesses,  it is very hard if you want to do it honestly.

This is the reality of India that we need to understand.   This is because there is control that people have,   and that control leads to corruption.   Corruption is the symptom of the control.   The controlled economy has to go.

Transforming India Speech – Part 2

It’s not the people that are the problem; it is the system.   What’s missing is governance,   and what we need to do to transform India,  is to transform governance.

We’ve heard a lot about  ‘the what’ of transforming India – all  good ideas on what needs to get done.    In education,   we need to get rid of government controls. We need 100 new cities in India. In  energy, we need to look at renewables. In rural,   we need to build infrastructure and services  and not just  give handouts. We need to focus on manufacturing –  and not just agri and services.

The solutions are all there.   We have conferences like these, we have regular columns that people write, we have  Vision 2025   documents that come out.    But the real action is not happening,   as we have seen.   The prescription is there, what’s missing is the doctor.   The road map is there,   what’s missing is the driver.    The vision is there,    what’s    missing is the leadership,   and the will and vision to implement it.

We need to look beyond the platitudes that we keep hearing, and we heard some of that today morning.    The focus really   has  to shift  to  HOW.    How are we going to transform India?   And the   ‘how’ has 4 elements.

Transforming India Speech – Part 1

This is a lightly edited transcript of the speech I gave at Columbia University on April 14, 2012.

I would like to start with a story. A couple of months ago I was asked by the Gujarat government to take a look at the technology at the Checkposts that they have. They were trying to automate even further the checkposts, and wanted to see what recommendations I could make from a technology stand point.

So I visited  a checkpost on the Gujarat-Rajasthan border.  A checkpost is at an inter-state boundary,  so vehicles which cross into a state have to pay appropriate taxes.   The Gujarat side of the checkpost, at Shamraji, collects about 30,000 dollars (Rs 15 lakhs) a day from vehicles passing through.   A kilometre   down the same road  is the Rajasthan checkpost.   They collect 6,000 dollars (Rs 3 lakhs) from the same set of vehicles.

The Gujarat side,   is completely automated and what the government was looking to do,   was to fix a couple of places  where  there  could be potential leakages, and hence pretty much eliminate any room for bribes or leakages.  You drive down to the Rajasthan border,  you  have  one person standing there,  no automation and in front of us the person was basically taking bribes from truck owners to let them go through.

Rajasthan’s story is pretty much what you see replicated across the rest of India.   The same checkpost story,   the same thing  happens  even at the Gujarat- Maharashtra border.

Recording and Transcribing a Speech

I have given two speeches in recent times – one was at Columbia University in New York on Transforming India, and the other one was at an education conference in Delhi. On both occasions, I carried a small recorder with me so that I could record my speech. I then put up the audio (with a little bit of editing) on the blog. I also thought it would be a good idea to put the transcripts of the speeches. Reading is much easier than listening, though both have their own benefits.

I got the transcription done professionally by a freelancer. I then read through the transcript and made some minor edits. One tends to be a bit looser in speaking and that doesn’t read so well!

Since I will be travelling on vacation for the next couple weeks and won’t have much time to do writing, I thought it would be a good idea to put up both the transcripts of both the speeches in short parts. I will be back with some fresh writing once I am back.

Blog Past: Daily News Cycle

This is what I wrote a year ago:

It is easy to miss the forest for the trees. Reading the newspapers daily is a bit like that. So much noise, so little signal. Especially in the past few days with the political events that have been taking place.

The focus has to be on India’s development. Very little of what we are seeing nowadays is taking us in that direction. That is the unfortunate part. And many of us get caught in the maelstorm of the news that comes through and the instant discussion that takes place on who is right and who is wrong, and the implications.

The reality is that public memory is very short – 90 days, as someone once put it. Street protests and satyagraha did not get India’s freedom (contrary to the history we learn), and neither will it get black money back, a Jan Lok Pal Bill or end corruption. As a friend puts it, all it will do is increase sales of candles.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Periodic Table of Social Media: via Business Insider. “I’s still confusing, cluttered and ever-changing, but the periodic table provides at least some hope of creating a strategy to navigating the big social media networks.”
  • Minding your digital business: A McKinsey global survey. “Executives expect that new digital technologies will transform their businesses, but many admit their companies are far from prepared in developing capabilities and meeting challenges.”
  • On Freedom: by Atanu Dey. “India is a classic case of a people who have collectively, at least in the last couple of centuries, never really valued freedom. What will it take to awaken them to the great wonders of being a free people?”
  • Disrupting journalism education: by Jeff Jarvis. “Journalism education should be even more disrupted and disruptive than journalism, the industry.”
  • How the inventor’s mind works: A quote by Henry Poincare (1908). “To create is to choose the right combinations.”

Working across Time Horizons – Part 5

Here are a few starting thoughts on how to create a multi-horizon personal plan:

  • Start by writing your obituary
  • Based on that, decide on 2-3 key things you’d like to get down in the next 1-2-3 years
  • Get out of the comfort zone. This is perhaps the most important mental decision that needs to be made.  It is much easier to make today like yesterday, and tomorrow like today. Determining one has to change is sometimes harder than the process of change itself.
  • Start allocating some time today for these activities. One of them could be to focus on health. That would mean a 30-minute spend daily on either walking, gym or yoga. The benefits of these will accrue in the future, but the work needs to start today.
  • Try and meet with people outside the regular set that you would otherwise meet. Attend conferences or talks that are not directly related to the immediate future. Read books which are different. All of this is about changing the current context to something that spurs a different line of thinking.
  • Do a review every few months to see how you are doing, and course correct as needed.
  • Above all, think like an entrepreneur and as a CEO of a startup. Don’t worry about failure. Focus on the journey.

Working across Time Horizons – Part 4

This same thinking of working across multiple time horizons can also be applied to our personal lives. In most cases, we tend to take things as they come. But with a little planning, we can also make things fall in line the way we would like them to.

For this, one needs to spend time thinking about the future and what one would like to accomplish. As I have said before, a good way to think about this is to write one’s obituary and then work backwards. This is never an easy exercise, because we mistakenly believe that there are many variables we do not control.

In fact, if there is personal clarity about the future roadmap, we can start working towards them, and then we will find a new richness to interactions because we are not thinking just of the here and now. We will find that there are opportunities where previously we would have seen them as not useful conversations.

Crafting a person multi-horizon plan can add a new dimension to life, especially for those in their late 30s and early 40s, where half their work life still lies ahead.

Working across Time Horizons – Part 3

In Netcore, in the past, we have never managed to have sustained profitability for us to think beyond the quarter.  I have always wanted to create a situation where we have a solid base for today, and then can start looking at the future. I have believed that we have to make today’s business profitable and sustainably so. That foundation now exists in Netcore.

In the past too, I would experiment with multiple ideas in Netcore. But when you are loss-making, it becomes hard to justify such investments. And come a moment of truth, one ends up sacrificing the future products to ensure today’s solutions deliver results.

Each of the business areas we have in Netcore now has a roadmap for the future. Here too, some ideas will work, and many will fail. But the good thing is that there is a plan that now goes across time horizons, and is funded by today’s profits. Working across time horizons is one of the joys of running a profitable mid-sized company.

Working across Time Horizons – Part 2

To think beyond, it becomes important to have two key resources: money and a team. Money needs to be invested in product development that will not give returns for the immediate future, and hence could be a drag on margins. The way to look at this is as an R&D budget that does not impact EBIDTA. In this case, it is important to differentiate between incremental product enhancement features that continues as normal business, and the genuine breakthrough product development that becomes part of R&D.

A separate team needs to be created to look at new products. It will be hard to take existing team members and have them double as working on both the needs for the next month and for the next year.  The now and urgent will always take precedence, and little new development will happen.

Making bets on the future is always difficult, but these have to be done to create new avenues for growth. At some point, the revenue streams of today will start to slow down. If there is no new set of products, then the company will have difficulties maintaining its momentum.

Working across Time Horizons – Part 1

One of the things I have realised is that when you are running a mid-sized company, you have to work across multiple time horizons. This is not so when you are running a startup because there is a straight clear focus, and the most important thing is to reduce or eliminate mistakes that could cause the company to fail.

As a mid-sized company, one has the products and the sales to give a momentum. The immediate future is not in question. Like a roadroller or an express train that takes time to stop, it is hard for sales and customers to disappear overnight. So, at least the next 2-3 quarters will not be an issue in maintaining sales, revenues and perhaps, profitability.

The question is about what happens beyond that. There is a need to think and plan now for products that will be available in some months or quarters which can create future growth opportunities. Work on these needs to start today, else it will be too late going forward. This is perhaps one of the more important differences between a startup and a mid-sized company because it needs a mindset shift in thinking.

Blog Past: BJP’s Project 275 for 2014

I wrote this series a year ago:

1.     For the BJP to form a govt at the Centre, it needs to focus winning not just 175 but 275 seats (or 225 + 45 with the three current NDA llies). Winning 275 needs a dramatically different strategy from trying to win 175. To get to 275 seats out of 350-odd seats, the BJP needs to ensure a “wave” election with a 75% hit rate. That needs to be focus of future efforts. A summation of state elections will only get us to 175-odd, and if the Congress manages 150, BJP will not be able to form the government.

2.     A wave election last happened in India in 1984. BJP’s approach needs to be to work towards creating a wave in 2014 – across the country, and especially in the 330-350 seats where the BJP is competitive. No one, as far as I can tell, is thinking of what it takes to create a wave. 2014 may still be three years ago, but a lot of groundwork will need to be done to make this happen.

3.     Switch focus from maximising allies to maximising seats for 2014. All strategy needs to be focused on this.

I think various factors are coming together to create the foundation of a possible wave election in 2014. For one, look at the 90% hit rates that have happened in places in Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. (Assam came quite close.) The same concerns and issues have resonated across a state. I believe that something similar can happen nationally in 2014.

Based on the above, the BJP’s focus needs to be to maximise seats and hit rate, and not maximise pre-poll allies.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The $20 billion mobile advertising opportunity mirage: by Jean-Louis Gassée. “If the industry hasn’t cracked the mobile advertising code after five years of energetic and skillful work it’s because there is no code to crack. Together, the small screen, the different attention modes, the growing concerns about privacy create an insurmountable obstacle.” Also see: WSJ’s article on mobile turf wars going global. “Japan’s little known Gree and DeNA Go After Zynga in the US.”
  • How to be a more coherent marketer: from strategy+business. “A recent survey highlights the challenges facing today’s marketing organizations, and reveals a path to differentiation.”
  • The Slow Web: by Jack Cheng. “Timely not real-time. Rhythm not random. Moderation not excess. Knowledge not information. These are a few of the many characteristics of the Slow Web. It’s not so much a checklist as a feeling, one of being at greater ease for the web-enabled products and services in our lives.”
  • India’s Economy: by Bibek Debroy. “When the history of the Indian economy is written twenty years down the line, we will look back at the 2004 to 2014 decade as one that was just as damaging as mid-1960s to mid-1970s, if not worse, because the world has changed.” Also see Sadanand Dhume’s WSJ article on making a moral case for reforms. “The question still stands: How should reforms be packaged in a country where about a third of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day?”
  • The Top Ten: A website and book, by J. Peder Zane. “…the ultimate guide to the world’s greatest books.”

2 days in Hyderabad – Part 5

I spoke to some people during the visit, and it became quite clear that life was not easy. There was a huge water problem in the city. Water was delivered by tankers costing Rs 10,000 per month. Power cuts were frequent. In fact, all power to industries nearby had been cut off for a few days.

At one time, Andhra Pradesh was one of India’s rising stars. But somewhere, it has lost the plot. A high price is being paid for poor governance. Perhaps, the combination of corruption and the Telangana agitation are taking its toll on a state that should have been driving growth in India.

What I find surprising is that people aren’t angry. It is almost like a frog in boiling water. Sometimes, I wonder what it will take for us to get furious and demand good governance and development – at all levels.

2 days in Hyderabad – Part 4

The next morning was for the drive to Kulpakji and back. Lunch was at Taj Mahal in Abids. It is a vegetarian restaurant, and the food was excellent. After that, a short drive took us to Salar Jung Museum. I was eagerly looking forward to it, but was quite disappointed. Somehow, the rich history gets lost in the presentation of the objects. The musical clock too was a letdown, given the crowd which had gathered and waited.

The next stop was Sudha Cars Museum. Abhishek loved it. It takes only 15-20 minutes to go through, but provides a glimpse of the innovative thinking possible. After that, it was a drive through the city to reach Banjara Hills and Karachi Bakery and the adjacent Bikanerwala.

Our last stop for the day was the Birla Mandir.  The temple is beautifully built, and the views of the city from the top are spectacular. The following day was for Balaji Temple (about 30 kms from the city), and then the drive to the airport.

2 days in Hyderabad – Part 3

We landed on a Sunday at 11 am. We then went to Secunderabad Club, where our relative had organised our stay. After lunch, we went to Snow World. Abhishek was very keen to experience snow, and short of taking him to Kashmir, I guess this was the next best option. I stayed out. The queues were long, but the experience was good.

The next stop was Golcanda Fort. A bit from Wikipedia: “The most important builder of Golkonda was Ibrahim Quli Qutub Shah Wali, the fourth Qutub king of the Qutub Shahi Dynasty. Ibrahim was following in the spirit of his ancestors, the Qutub Shahi kings, a great family of builders who had ruled the kingdom of Golkonda from 1512. Their first capital, the fortress citadel of Golkonda, was rebuilt for defense from invading Mughals from the north. They laid out Golkonda’s splendid monuments, now in ruins, and designed a perfect acoustical system by which a hand clap sounded at the fort’s main gates, the grand portico, was heard at the top of the citadel, situated on a 300-foot (91 m)-high granite hill. This is one of the fascinating features of the fort.”

We engaged a tour guide and spent an hour walking up, down and around the fort. Without a guide, we would have been totally lost to the amazing history of the fort. We then stayed back for the light-and-sound show, but that got a bit boring towards the end, and so we left early.

2 days in Hyderabad – Part 2

We were there for just over 48 hours, but packed in a lot. The heat was high, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm for sightseeing.

An important incentive for us to go to Hyderabad was to visit the Jain temple of Kulpakji. The temple is said to be 2000 years old. It is about 80 kilomteres from Hyderabad, and took us just over an hour and a half to reach (we left early morning). A new road is being constructed in many places – that accounted for the additional time.

We like to visit a new religions destination each year. So, this year, the trip got organised around Kulpakji and we also spent time going around Hyderabad. I used TripAdvisor and advice from a local relative to work out which places to visit.

2 days in Hyderabad – Part 1

Abhishek’s vacations start late May, and go on till mid-July. So, our summer travelling is appropriately staggered. We started this year with a short trip to Hyderabad, a city I have been to many times.

Hyderabad was where I had closed the deal with Sify in the Satyam campus 13 years ago.  I used to visit Hyderabad often for some of the Sify board meetings which used to alternate between Chennai and Hyderabad. Later, I used to visit Hyderabad to meet some of the NGOs which were doing work in rural development. I have also spoken a couple times at ISB.

And so it was, a few days ago, right in the middle of a hot summer’s day, that we landed in Hyderabad and found ourselves on the impressive 11.6 kms PV Narasimha Rao Expressway (a  4-lane elevated road) driving to the city.