For the past four years, I have been blogging daily. Somewhere, the ideas are becoming repetitive. So, I decided it is time to take a break. I will continue to write occasionally.
Blogging has been something I have been doing for the past 12+ years. Perhaps, it is also time to think of a different format. Let’s see. Will think during this break!
Thanks very much for your support, and I hope to be back soon.
Just as the Rajdhani pulled out of the station, it came to a halt almost immediately. Apparently, someone had pulled a chain. There was much activity, and as one of the other engine drivers explained to me, this one is a very special train. It cannot be even a minute late – its performance is monitored centrally in Delhi. I had experienced the on-time arrival the previous day.
What struck me was the passion and pride with which he spoke. That point – “It cannot even be a minute late” – stayed with me. And I brought it up in our company sales review the next day — that the focus has to be on achieving our full targets, and not be satisfied with being short by a few lakhs. Seeing the passion in the railway staff brought home the point that much is possible if we have the right mindset — even in a government job.
And on that hinges the future of India. How can we transform ourselves into a modern, developed nation in a generation?
Abhishek likes trains, so during one of our recent bus-train rides, we decided to go to Mumbai Central station and watch the Rajdhani Express arrive from Delhi. It came in right on schedule at 8:35 am, after a 16-hour journey from Delhi, at an average speed of 86 kms/hour. Abhishek was thrilled – and so was I. Something about trains, especially the long-distance ones, delights the heart!
The next day, we decided to watch the train leave the station. We arrived at 4:30 pm for the scheduled 4:40 pm departure. We walked the length of the train to the engine. There, one of the engine drivers invited Abhishek in and showed him some of the controls. It was an amazing experience for Abhishek. What struck me was the friendliness of the railway staff. Seeing Abhishek’s interest, one of the other engine drivers (who was not on the Rajdhani) showed Abhishek more details in a stationary engine across the platform, and even switched in on and showed what happens inside.
For Abhishek (and me), it was an experience to savour. It was the first time I had been in an engine, and reminded me of the time around 14 years ago, when I had sat in a Cathay Pacific cockpit when it was about to land in Hong Kong.
I had recently gone to pick someone up at Mumbai Airport’s Terminal 1A – the one that serves Air India and Kingfisher. It was like a ghost terminal — a complete contrast to what used to be once upon a time. It was almost like going back in time 15-20 years when there was just a single airline serving the country. The display had only Air India flights with the occasional Kingfisher one.
Both airlines have gone through difficult times of their own making. With Kingfisher, one is not sure which flights will go, and with Air India, there seems a general reluctance to now fly it even though flights seem to be operating as per schedule. So, the terminal is there, but the passengers are missing. A huge infrastructure lies in semi-waste, even as the other terminal is jam-packed with flyers.
Perhaps, the airport authorities should consider shifting Jet or Indigo to terminal 1A so ease the load on 1D. In the morning, the security check queues are extraordinarily long in 1D, and with 1A largely empty, perhaps some changes are in order given the new realities.
Banning bulk SMS seems to have become the natural reaction to any law-and-order issue. The government did it around the time of the Ayodhya verdict and did it again last week. Leave aside the fact that the fear spread was because of P2P SMS, rather than A2P SMS. The government had to be seen doing something, and so hitting a soft target like bulk SMS came easy.
What is lost out in this is how critical SMS has begun for so many establishments. SMS has become part of many business processes. A ban like this hurts everyone. And there is no way to protest. It hurts businesses like mine even more since we have to go two weeks without revenue and sustain overheads of a 150-person team for the SMS business. This sort of government interference is just not done. And I don’t think it is going to stop here.
The more I think about it, the more I can understand why the perception is that business in India is hard – not just setting up, but also ongoing operations. Over the past two years, the government and TRAI have constantly been interfering in the SMS business with regulation and arbitrary orders. This is not what creates a healthy environment for entrepreneurship and enterprise.
This year has been disappointing for most of India on the rain front. Its been the same in Mumbai. The delight of sitting on a Sunday and watching the rains come down heavy and hard through the window has been almost lost this year. Until yesterday for some part of the day. It suddenly felt like monsoon season rather than an extension of summer.
I hope it rains some more. India needs it. But we should also be doing better with the rain water that we get. Much of it just flows away. Water is part of the triad of FEW – Food and Energy making up the other two components. FEW problems are what the world has to gear up for. And perhaps, none more so than Water.
This year, potholes in Mumbai seem to also be fewer. Either because of the lesser rainfall or maybe we have genuinely figured out how to do better roads. I think its probably the former!
An entrepreneur has to make decisions with incomplete information. Many times, an instinctive call has to be made. On many occasions this year, I have been called upon to make such calls – both in Netcore and in Niti. One is never quite sure when making the decision, but that doesn’t mean that a decision can be postponed. Many times, I cannot fully explain the reasons for the decision other than a sort-of gut reaction. An entrepreneur succeeds not if he makes more right decisions, but if he makes fewer wrong decisions. Each day at work is about reducing the risk of failure. As I look back at the year and many of the decisions made, I think very few calls turned out to be wrong.
Many times, we wait forever to make a decision. We agonise. We think. And as we do so, time passes us by. By nature, I tend to take some of the decisions even though they have some risk. It is not about throwing caution to the winds. It is about creating opportunities where they are none. Sometimes things don’t work out as planned, but that cannot be the reason to not open oneself up to the unknown. Entrepreneurship is about recognising and converting half-chances. I saw this very clearly this year as I was back in start-up mode with Niti.
Looking ahead, we now have a good foundation to build on. We can now dream higher in Netcore with the strong base that we have. That will require a different mindset. What got us hear will not get us the next 10X growth. In Niti, this year will be a test of all the things we have been working to put together. We have to now make these various projects come together to achieve a common purpose. It promises to be yet another exciting year.
Between Netcore and Niti, it has been a very interesting journey. Like Paulo Coelho writes in his book, “The Alchemist”, once you start a journey, the world conspires to help you along. And that is exactly what has happened, especially in Niti. I have met some amazing people who have provided rich additions to the thinking. And that has helped enrich our execution.
When I look back at the year, if there are two things that stand out. First, one’s focus has to be clear. In Netcore, we set the focus on profitable growth. This helped us whenever we faced choices and needed to make decisions. There will be many moments of doubt, but one has to stay the course. Profits are critical for us to ensure financial independence. It was the principle I had followed during my IndiaWorld days, and had then forgotten this lesson for many years in between.
Second, it is important to get started. As long as one knows the general direction of the goal, do not wait for a map to be laid out in front. Instead, navigate with a compass. But, start walking. This is what helped get Niti off the ground. And as we moved along, many others joined the journey and the fog started lifting. There is now a sharp clarity. But If I had waited a year for this, it would never have happened. Action creates its own roadmap.
Niti (New Initiatives to Transform India) was the new addition in the past year. For the past few years, I have written often about many things we needed to do to transform India’s future. For the most part, it was just talk. Without putting in time and money and thus building a capacity to execute, the ideas would remain on paper. So, this year, I decided that the time had come to make Niti a reality. With a leader at the helm, I started putting together a team of people so we could start on a wide portfolio of activities.
Over the coming months, we will start launching the various projects across media and technology. The focus is what I had outlined in my speech at Columbia in April – changing minds to change people’s votes to bringing political change to bringing about the right policies for India’s development. The economic mess that we now find ourselves in now is a direct consequence of flawed policies through the years. Unless people know and realise this, we will not be able to bring lasting change in India.
My approach to Niti is that of an entrepreneur – think of the problem differently, and see what out-of the—box, disruptive solutions are possible. The constraint is time, not money.
In Netcore, the period from last September to December was marked by many changes – both internal and external. We had a few senior members of our management team quit, and we had new regulations from TRAI which saw a sharp drop in the SMS business overnight resulting in immediate losses. Those were tough months as we had to navigate troubled waters with looming uncertainty. When the government starts regulating a business, all bets are off.
In retrospect, we managed it well. We cut costs in our mobility business to align with the new normal. We also focused more on our email marketing business which had quietly grown to good scale over the past couple of years and, quite literally, became the oxygen of our company.
We made profitability our number one objective. Our goal was to ensure that we could sustain and grow it. That would give us the money to make the right investments for the future. We have no external investors in Netcore, so I can make decisions quickly and with a focus on the long-term.
All of this has helped tremendously over the past year. Even as the mobility business has improved, the mailing business has grown from strength to strength. I have a good team in place to handle the challenges going forward. We can now think along multiple time horizons with the added confidence that tomorrow will be substantially better than today.
Every year for the past few years, in the week of my birthday, I have been reflecting back on the year that was and looking ahead to the year that is coming. It is, along with the New Year, one of two opportunities annually to take stock of one’s life and work.
The past year has been a fascinatingly diverse one. On the one hand, there has been the work at Netcore in building out the digital communications business. And on the other hand, I started work on Niti, with a number of ideas to see how we can make a difference to India’s future. Most days, the two streams juxtapose themselves creating for a richness in a day that I could not have possibly imagined a year ago.
The past year has been primarily about building the capacity to execute so we can look ahead with greater aspiration and ambition to the future. Ideas fail not because of good intent, but because we do not put in the resources and time to get things done. Ideas also fail because we try and do too many things. The past year has also been about narrowing focus to a few things which I think can make an impact.
From my musings on my last birthday:
Today, I turn 44. And after 7 years, I am once again travelling internationally on my birthday. This trip is not as much about work as it is about thinking through how I am going to bring about the political and policy change in India that I have written about.
This August 15 comes at a time when I am in transition. Over the past few months, I have been delegating more in Netcore and increasing slowly the time spent on the other activities, which are largely on the political side. Not direct politics, but more on the peripheral side, as a supporting player.
Going ahead, I need to start a new innings – a second life, as it were. As an entrepreneur and change agent in the political sphere, working to build what I think of as the third pillar of the Indian Right. BJP and RSS are two powerful pillars, but there needs to be a complement to get centre-right policies and transform India.
Airports are just one example of where the dysfunctions become much more than nuisances and irritants. They reflect a mindset that says “we don’t care” and “take it or leave it.” Surely, we can do better than that.
Even as we need big ideas to speed up our growth, governance and development, we also need small ideas that can improve daily lives – not just at airports, but all around us. What would it take to install GPS devices in buses and then broadcast “time to arrival” at bus stop displays? Our bus stops have stayed the same since my childhood. What would it take to have fast-track options at toll booths? What would it take to stop having odd figures like Rs 82.50 for toll payments – why cannot these be rounded off thus saving time for the driver and the toll collector?
If we just look around us, there will be many things we will see which can be improved. And if we can see them, surely those whose job it is it improve them can also see them. Why then do these improvements not happen? Why is there not a belief that we need to make things better?
These may be seemingly minor irritants in a process designed to safeguard us. But, surely, we can learn from other countries. Surely, we can look at each process and determine if it is still relevant and useful. Someone has to be thinking about what can be done better.
What we need to do is to learn from best practicses elsewhere in the world. Others have done things before us. We need to simply copy them – and then see if we can improve on them. Here, we seem to be going retro.
Like with our announcements at airports. I have said this multiple times on the blog, but the tenth “last call” for a flight or eight “paging announcement” for that missing passenger has to surely be too much. We have LCD screens showing departures put next to each other which both show the same thing instead of showing the next sequence of flights. Simple things like these – surely, we can do better.
Consider the process of stamping of boarding passes and baggage tags. All they do is create delays. There is no logic that is served other than employment and once again, the false sense of security. I have yet to come across another country which insists on doing this kind of stamping and then employing more people down the chain to check the stamps.
We build new airports, and then paralyse them by not building or using the aerobridges. I don’t understand the logic. Why not plan and build aerobridges to make the passenger flow streamlined and faster? In Mumbai, a new terminal was built and we still have our buses. Even on some international flights, we use the buses.
The drop-off and pick-up points are so messed up at some of our airports, that honking is a continuous background sound stream. Go to Mumbai’s international airport for a midnight drop and you will know exactly what I mean. See the chaos at peak hours at Mumbai’s pick-up points where yet another chit is handed out to cars to ensure they depart within five minutes. The result: a long line of cars honking at each other to get out quickly. Space is obviously a big constraint everywhere since we have voters occupying a large part of the Mumbai airport land.