Monday, August 10, 2015

Breathing Life into a Brand

Listening to the radio and hear Amitabh Bachchan rap to sell a hill station in Gujarat – the discussion initiated next was like a college assignment being presented and debated in class. So may be so far he has endorsed electronics, hair oil, chawanprash, Gujarat tourism, polio campaign, cars, chocolates, cola and more lately, even baby products e-retail website. In our MBA class, we had him endorse condoms, sanitary pads and fairness cream as well. Though the very active debate was around two very similar sounding terms – brand

At one point, say brand ambassador and viable options in mind were Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar. These two men are like an asset a brand could buy and the halo of dependability and trust to hover above. When controversies involving pesticides in cola and worms in chocolates were boiling and these gentlemen were the ones to bring in an assurance by virtue of their self-image. That is what the biggest difference between a Brand Endorser and Brand Ambassador – they are not just the face for the product but build the whole personality of the product around it. They are people who bring the brand in a flesh and blood to interact with its audience. 

Getting a brand ambassador in today’s time is an expensive affair. Using the ambassador in the right way involves the marketing team to build a whole strategy to present a human face (or human manifestation) of a company that interacts with its audience and take the brand far more than what advertising can achieve. But in my opinion, in a socially interconnected world, an interaction of the consumers with a brand ambassador is usually only limited to shaking hands, clicking selfies and letting the world know that ‘I was there’. The brand, the brand values and what the event was about is somewhere lost. While they still are crowd pullers, I often wonder if the brand actually is deriving benefits.

Which brings be to a question – while we know that in most cases, the celebrity is paid and is acting more as an endorser than a brand ambassador, should we be actually limiting the term brand ambassador in a select few instances.

Interestingly, I see brands interacting with its audiences in so many ways before and after a purchase. There are so many people in an organization that interact with hundreds of business associates every day. It might be selling or buying a product or service, managing vendors and clients, building new business prospects or maintaining relations with existing and lastly – looking after existing, past and future employees. What amazes me at times is considering the amount of word-of-mouth that propagates from these avenues, these sides of brand building are not given prime attention.

For instance, take the case of Google and there is just nothing negative one can identify with the company. People are mostly happy with their products in every way. Call them for a query and they are genuine to revert. As for the business side, no one coming out with woes in terms of unfair practices, non-payment of dues or social injustice. The employees are happy and often talking about their superb environment at work. There are times when even they are working long hours but overall, it is one of the most desired places to work. Apply to Google and even when you don’t qualify, they appreciate your efforts on mail. And all this with no brand endorser or ambassador.

Having started my career in a customer facing role, among the first lessons taught by my manager in those days was to realise that bigger than the name of a company was how every person who had a card with its name behaved in every aspect. How soon people respond, how they respond and what impression they manage to leave on the client. A large part of business is the invisible relation with customers and the approach that people involved followed. Stand up and accept responsibility, be honest and face the music were some of the lessons I had to learn; keeping aside the rush of blood nature I had then.

Counter to this are something I observe and find appalling. As more and more avenues of communication have developed, if anything that seems to have gone down the drain is responsibility and responsiveness. While walls of every big organization are plastered with messages talking customer centricity, responsibility, ownership, open-doors etc., the degree to which these are actually practiced in reality can be an eye opener at times.

Yes, one cannot attend to calls while in a meeting or between something, But it baffles me as to how often people feel no urge to call back to people they could not attend to. The same goes towards replying to emails. A reply saying “no new update” is much appreciated that no revert. Can a brand be connecting to its audience as a human through a brand ambassador when the integral human representatives cannot live and function each day with simple human courtesy?  

I feel there is an inherent and integral need for brands to focus on building brands inside-out. Let every person who is a part of the company, live and breathe its culture on a daily basis. Let every contact point experience the brand in every way and build its equity and preference for real. If that can happen, may be brands can cut down on spends of a brand ambassador and be a living brand in the true sense.

Monday, August 3, 2015

WhatsApp – The King of Apps?

Talk business or technology, the quintessential question always remains – what next and where do we go from here? Develop an idea enabled by technology, build a viable business plan and get investors to fund the project is fast becoming the way to become an entrepreneur. In most cases, we have now become an app driven community and every person who aspires to come in with a billion dollar idea that can change the world look at apps. What is also means is one has to look back at the millions of apps and programs that already exist in the market to even identify an untapped need. The gap between a concept and an innovative concept is now just growing by the day.

Yes, the advent of a smart phone has actually expanded the horizons of consumer targeted technology and there might be almost every possible need of a common man that the entrepreneurs have been investing for through an app. Even a super niche function like identify the quality of printing on paper (which was something reserved for specialized equipment) is already present in the market and available for free on an app. Most phone applications have evolved from an internet based websites and services. While a few are specially created for the mobile space, there is one undisputed king which only resides on the mobile- WhatsApp.

Now to be fair, WhatsApp is not a complete innovation of sorts. Messaging and media capabilities existed via SMS and MMS for quite some time. The Blackberry Messenger was one thing that made the biggest buzz for buyers outside the corporate domain. The success of WhatsApp possibly came from being amongst the first and versatile data based messaging app that was not limited to any particular mobile operating system.  Its capabilities of sharing photos, videos and forming groups was something that gave rise to social communities through mobiles. In terms of convenience: a voice note just in case you are bored to type or have just one small thing to talk.

It might have taken people a fair amount of time to accept an email or an SMS as a formal form of communication. It has hardly much time to be taken WhatsApp to be taken serious.  To my experience, it has become a means to be at two places without actually being there. A film set is being erected, an event stall is being constructed or anything remote that might take for a person to travel to; it has now become a common practice to send across images or videos over WhatsApp to the approving authority and seek feedback instantly.

Another common practice, form a group on WhatsApp with people work
ing on a project and you have everyone on the same page as if an email update. Groups are a great way to spread information rapidly. The last I know is a short film being released exclusive content on WhatsApp. WhatsApp has also put up a strong fight to voice calling apps like Viber with its calling capabilities. So in a way, WhatsApp has so far had most bases covered in terms of voice based communication and file sharing abilities. So where does it go now?

I guess it might just take a few dips in the near past to believe that social platforms tend to die out the moment they stop evolving. The example of Orkut, Hotmail, Chat Messengers are all examples where they got beaten or replaced by others that had better functionality or enough excitement happening to keep people hooked on all day.  The areas where WhatApp still might lack is Video Calling facilities against, say Facetime. Or the fact that you can connect only by exchanging numbers and not a onetime connect that’s possible via Skype.

One thing that WhatsApp has achieved so far is forming communities within users. Ranging from friends, business circles or even a virtual classroom notice board, it has been adapted in many ways. But if WhatsApp could form communities for a social or a professional outfit, it can be the next stage of brand campaigns or even online PR initiatives. The way news and information (much of the times even improper information) travels via groups has an overwhelming viral effect.  

Having already seen how politicians used WhatsApp during the state elections in Maharashtra, it is already become a mass broadcast medium. If marketing via WhatsApp was an idea so far, what is interesting though is that women with their ever expanding social circles and gossip groups are one strong way that Tupperware ladies have already started taking advantage of. All Tupperware does is create short videos of their products and information previously that required demo is now going across through demo videos.

The final word from me, WhatsApp needs to make a good use of its penetration and evolve into different forms for people and their needs. It has already achieved success over smart phone users which might be at par if not above what Facebook has with the same group – but it is how it will grow and endear itself to the future users that will decide the way ahead. For now, I guess there will be little debate that possibly the most subscribes app makes WhatsApp the king of its domain for now. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Picking up the tabs for Europe

Read a joke on the internet yesterday; “A Greek, an Irish, a Spaniard and a German go to a pub and have a fun time… at the end of the party, the Greek, Irish and the Spaniard put up their hands for not having money and finally it was up to the German to clear up the mess”. Doesn’t sound funny right? The joke in fact is that this is the scenario that is currently running across most of Europe as it looks down the barrel of the financial crisis that has the potential to threaten every single country.

It is funny in a lot of ways that the most powerful and resilient economy in Europe today is one which has actually experienced some serious political turmoil, change of guard, partition and unification all over the last century. Germany has been subject to paying up for the wars in Europe and has seen inflation that has been just mind boggling during the Depression. In the recent past, Germany has faced the difficult balancing act of offsetting debts of a low industrialized East German economy in the 90’s. Yet again, it is Germany which is having to so a salvage – this time it is most of Europe.

So where did Europe go wrong?

Through the ages, Europe has always been a restless baby. They have fought for power and control within the bounds of the continent or its colonies. It is not uncommon that while Europe made the best out of the Industrial Revolution, the monarchies never really allowed any country to have the relations that kept trading easy to do. It was the post-war Europe where countries finally allied for better relations in trade and removal of tariffs at many levels that got them back on track.

The end of the cold war and the unification of Germany in 1989 gave the idea of a unified free trading and economic zone of Europe as a whole a firm rooting. A common currency, the Euro gave a lot of member nations a tough time marking their own currencies at parity. But this was just a hiccup as in the long run, it ensured that now every member nation had easier access to resources and facilities in better developed nations and also borrow finances to fuel their economic development.

Sadly, this was the space where most countries have got it wrong. When taking a bank loan, we are always asked to issue a collateral or bring in a guarantor to support.  It is a further must for the two to be presented if your own credit rating is weak. The smaller countries like Greece were never in a shape to manage their global debts against their own incomes (usually taxes). But with easy access to global finance and backed by the fact that they are a part of Euro, borrowings increased beyond manageable levels. Public spending on government funded projects, pensions, tax waiver and all kind of populist policies have meant the money borrowed is never coming back.

It wasn’t surprising that when the slow down hit the world in 2008, it was the smaller economies in Europe that had money either invested or borrowed from the US went down. With United Kingdom not a part of Euro and France playing a second fiddle; it was up to Germany to assume the role of big brother and pull up the debt of all these failed economies. But not without conditions towards imposing austerity measures to be implemented by the countries failing to bear its own debt.

But this is easier said than done. When Government implements measures to cut down spends, it means that people are likely to lose jobs, spend less and in turn end up paying lesser taxes. Less tax means the government earns less and cannot repay its debt. What this means is that even with stronger economies in the Euro picking up the tabs and bad debts, this cycle might not end. This is a space where today we have 17 countries linked by a common currency and trade agreements – but the political will, tax structure and the ways to earn an income and spend are vastly different among the member countries.

The Utopian plan would be a uniform currency, tax policy and governance style across the member nations – which is definitely unpopular on a political front. But one thing for sure, the vicious cycle of debt ridden economies has begun. People are going to have a tough time and recoveries are going to be slow and harsh. As for the immediate, someone is going to have to step in and pick up the tab for all of Europe.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Start Ups and Hiccups

We always like to idolize people who stand apart from the ordinary and make themselves noticed in a crowd. So while most people around me in college looked up to Edison, Einstein and Hawking as gods, the business minds admired the Tata, Birla and Ambani clan as inspiration. Deviation from the regular job to entrepreneurship might have clicked in the mid-80’s and the era of economic liberalization had started to build the foundation of entrepreneurship.  People who had a sufficient understanding and experience of how to do business in their domain floated on their own. This was what I shall term as the conventional approach: Learn the rules – master the rules – break the rules.

But this chain of order has now been smashed and a new order on the path of entrepreneurship has been established in recent times. It’s the culture of friends and roommates from some of the much revered technical and business schools hatching an idea, finding investors and taking on the world to break the established business practices. It is this radical and rebellion of sorts that makes people like Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal (Flipkart), Rahul Yadav (, Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal (Snapdeal) the new age business idols for the current generation.

Every single start up story has almost a similar beginning – the feeling that there is so much we can do to make things better and establish a new order. While some start up entrepreneurs have worked before they went on their own, most these days have an idea developed and launched from their hostel rooms and possibly find an investor in the idea even before they graduate. Not to mention symposiums from established giants like Microsoft Ventures have become like a breeding ground for start-ups and investors to come together and find mutually beneficial interactions – even leave the place with a deal in hand.

There is nothing to deny the fact that the entrepreneur culture is redefining the way business is done and services are provide. Technology and internet is changing the face of what we believed was the only way to do things. I’s sure we all have seen the infographic about Airbnb, Uber, Alibaba, Facebook and YouTube changing the face of various industry verticals and the perception that business can be done only in a defined manner.

While all of might be aware of the success stories, what is the success rate and why do the start-up acts fail? An idea at most times is like the USP or the competitive advantage that gives a start-up an edge and immediate traction. But this can only be in existence as long as the other either don’t catch up or innovate beyond to surge ahead. This is the space where things get a little dicey. Not to mention, investors are in for a long haul and look at break even and profits – not able to deliver is not an option at this stage.

Rahul Yadav has been in the news across for the last two weeks after being sacked as the CEO by the investors. It is not that his venture is not able to deliver; but the fact that every growth phase also needs to be made robust with consolidation and firm rooting before the next level was greatly overlooked. This is the space where great ideas need to be going together with great managers. The people who are needed to hold the company together and possibly also pull off a few decisions that keep the creative minds at rest for a while. It is the evolution of an entrepreneur from a rebel or maverick into a leader that counts at this point.

Three things I have cited recently amongst start-ups as I hunt for job opportunities:

Firstly, the scores of start-up companies which have come up and are looking for people to work with them because they have lost their way. From a number of interactions with such people, I have been able to discover a few startling facts. Yes, most start-ups begin operation with angel capital which is usually the pocket savings of the people involved. With expenses and investment in technology and infrastructure, the ideal turnaround time from the idea to implementation and acceptance needs to be under a year.

It baffles me when there are start-ups with having invested close to two years don’t even reach a beta stage. In one case, the marketing function was required to deliver results in 8 months where a target market was yet to be defined. Not to mention, the idea was already finding feet with established players like Evernote and Google to make the app redundant even before release. In another, a start-up with no clients or established service offering was looking for funding and needed media presence (castles in the air) to achieve this. I feel this is a case of tunnel vision and people often lose touch with reality having invested too much time and effort into their own obsessions.

The second being the fact that people are looking for like – minded people over more than anything else. So an IIT/IIM start up is more skewed for people from IITs and IIMs. It is not surprising that job portals can now have posts asking for a start-up partner, tech partner etc. from the premier institutes only to join the ones with ideas.

On the first level, it sounds good; like minds will gel and people will deliver. But how about another line of thought – an idea is no one’s domain and every IIT/ IIM is groomed to believe they are an invincible lot designed to rule the lesser minds. So how can one accept orders from another equal or not move out to pursue his/her own dream during the formative days? May be I’m wrong, but this seems like a complete recipe for a power struggle in the making.

The third and the one I believe is the breaking point – rapid expansions with no control on costs or break even periods. Most start-ups are technology driven and technology obsolesce cycles are shorter than even what Moore’s Law would have defined. Who could have thought that Orkut could have died and Whatsapp could have almost wiped Blackberry messenger. Not to forget, we are still debating if Amazon has ever reached a break-even point to date. Amidst such confusion, investors are pumping in billions in anticipation of backing the next big idea. These billions are being spent on expansions and hiring people at amazing pay scales. Offices are like party zones and massive monies are spent under employee welfare. So the big question is will there be a pay back to the investor at some point in the recent future and how long will the party last?

It was funny at times where I came across start-ups that were over 5 years old and were yet to make a big impact. Having spent their initial investor monies, they had now taken over a few other smaller players in a bid to attract more funding. Open fissures amongst the founding team, power struggles and crumbling client and revenues were just too evident.

I’ll like to end with a lighter note, a series by TVF called Pitchers which revolves around a bunch of guys preparing to build a start-up. The manager accepts the resignation of this employee, but runs him across a list of names – all his classmates but only a few who made it big. It is easy to think of a start-up, it is much tougher to manage the hiccups. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

India’s darkest hour

"Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; Great men are almost always bad men.”… The words of Sir John Dalberg-Acton, 8th- an English politician talking about the monarchies in Europe attaining status of demi gods.

Time and again it has come across in history that great leaders went on to reach a status of total power over their subjects. They were good as leaders, decisive and ruthless against external threats and also with a sense of care and concern for their people. But at some point, the power and sense of judgement turned foes and leaders turn into demons.

Exactly 40 years ago - 25th June 1975 is one such date in the history of unified India- when a democracy went through a phase of Political Emergency with everything and everyone coming under the direct rule of one person- the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A period that might have been the darkest hour of unified India till date.

So why is this even relevant today? Its past, history, dead and buried…. Yes, it is. But what remains to be recalled is how a country can drive itself into doom without realizing the effects till very late. I openly say that I am not a fan of Mrs Gandhi (I’m not Nixon as well) but I do feel that as the 2nd longest serving Prime Minister of India, there are actions of hers (especially post 1971) which continue to affect us even to date. 

Though I was not around when it happened (if I was, I’m sure I’d have been in jail for writing something like this), I have read a lot of accounts from journalists, historians and other who witnessed the drama unfold to help me find understand the times. Not to mention, my journalism classes and “India after Gandhi” by Ramchandra Guha (I regard this as the most in-depth account of India post- independence) to be the basis of my writing.

Mrs Gandhi was not a politician, not even someone who might have has anything to do with the freedom struggle or a nationalist. An estranged daughter of Nehru; she was more like a personal assistant who was not even a member of the Congress party. But the unofficial influence got her to be the Party president in 1959 and a cabinet minister for I&B in the cabinet led by Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1964. All this while, her party leadership was more of a coy to keep away an ambitious Morarji Desai; the infamous Kamraj Plan. Even on her appointment as the Prime Minister in 1966, the tag of “Moom ki gudiya” did reflect the fact that no one had faith in her abilities to lead India.

The concentration of power started to happen when Mrs Gandhi on being expelled from the Congress due to fall out from the senior leaders, formed Congress (I) and pulling along the entire but 65 members of the existing people in power. Nehru was a Socialist, but his ideology of keeping government away from business was well defined. Indira broke this line and prior to the 1971 elections, 14 banks were nationalized and the allowance to the princely state heads was abolished. This naturally led to a lot of dissent amongst the people, but opportunity presented Mrs Gandhi very soon.

December 1971 and the Bangladesh War saw Mrs Gandhi take the ruthless path against Pakistan and paid no heed to the fact that the US Navy was on alert during the conflict. The fact that even an opposition leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee deemed her as “Goddess Durga” was a testimony to the way she handled the situation. The populist slogans like Garibi Hatao won hearts of the people and the whole country stood behind the lady. With a lot of support, Congress (I) swept the state elections in 1972 without anything given away to the opposition. It had become a scenario where “Indira is India” was actually happening.  But this was possibly where things went wrong and the power structure turned amorphous. Indira Gandhi self- conferred upon herself a Bharat Ratna – much like Nehru.

Failed monsoon, rise in unemployment, rising inflation, the pending expenses of a jubilant but costly war with Pakistan and the state resting with all the powers for finance and wealth; it was just an explosive situation. With her son Sanjay Gandhi acting as an advisor, draconian powers were unleashed on the people. While students and youth came out on the streets following an able socialist like J P Narayan, new leaders like George Fernandes crippled the railways with a strike. Former royalty stripped of their privy purse used all their might against Mrs Gandhi. Adding fuel to the fire was the Allahabad Court verdict regarding election malpractices which dismissed Mrs Gandhi’s membership to parliament.

Was it the romance with power or the fact that you have people’s support behind- not prepared to step down and the social uprising at hand; a Political Emergency was imposed. It was now a crazy circus that was controlled by Indira and Sanjay Gandhi for the next 21 months. What followed was definitely something that I feel was short of the Simon Commission Report.

Ordinances were passed and constitution amended in a manner by which all political opposition was crushed with people suspected of anti-government activity being imprisoned. The press was gagged and power to newspaper offices and presses was shut off. How can one not talk about the courageous R P Goenka printing blank spaces in Indian Express as a mark of protest against the government imposed censorship?

Ruling with an iron fist got a whole new meaning and fear became the currency of the government machinery. Civil liberties were curtailed and with brutal activities like forced population control programmes and dismissal of any state government not in tune with the central power was the biggest blow to democracy. Certainly the darkest hour – and a trauma for all those who saw the worst of it.

I’m happy that such things might never happen again in India. Changes in the constitutional framework have now eliminated the possibilities of an Emergency being imposed unless absolutely critical and agreed upon by 2/3rd of the parliament. Media today is much more deep rooted and India is no longer in a space to be isolated from the rest of the world. The biggest difference – people now have access to ways and means where they cannot be dominated by a force that is suppressing them and anything that is against national interest meets stiff opposition.

But the impact from the days of the Emergency is still around. Dynasty politics is now deeply entrenched in our system. The son-daughter distant relative of a politician becoming a successor is a common thing for today. Also, the feeling that an MP’s relative is above the law is somehow still a law. Going back to privatization of the financial system is still work in progress. There are some other misdoings from the tyrant leadership in those days which led to a lot more complications – but 1975 to 1977 was by far the worst we saw as a nation in terms of a democratic state turn into a pseudo dictatorship. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Argumentative Non-Resident Indian

The cabin of my very first boss in life had a very nice statement printed on a wall behind his back- “If you don’t like something, try to change it. If you can’t; then change your attitude”. I can safely say this was taken on to a very different level by most of my classmates from the engineering days – Don’t wait to find out if there can be a change; it is easier to just change the country you stay in.  These were the people who even before fishing graduation had the dollar dreams and education loans for their MS degree already in place.

Frankly, I have nothing against anyone who chooses to take this way of life. I guess the universities abroad need Asians to fill up their seats as much as they looking to move out of their land. The idea of life for an average Indian looking to settle down abroad is having a house and a car of his own with 24 water and power, good civic amenities and yes- a fair skin wife (firang is the ultimate but unfulfilled dream). It is when the erstwhile Non-residential Indian turns in the Not Returning Indian and the attitude changes.

Just a point of context- a few days back; Mumbai had its first spell of heavy rains for the year. In a space of 24 hours, Mumbai got about 260mm of rain (2400 mm being an annual average) and coupled with the rising tides gave the city a few new lakes for the day. The trains were out of gear and the traffic was at a stand-still. As unforgiving social media is, tonnes of pictures and comments were floating around the network. My engineering college group on WhatsApp was not isolated from it and soon the pictures and jokes started making the rounds. But what also started was some NRI ranting.

“India will not improve, BMC just doesn’t care, BMC has abuses built in its name… take a piss and Milan subway is flooded… etc…” 

Honestly, I don’t give a damn for such ranting as it has been over 10 years I have heard these people complain of how backward India is and we cannot offer basic amenities to its citizens. Frugal arguments like a change in government doesn’t change a nation and 65 years on we still in dark ages are just pitiful in my opinion. But what was massively surprising was that no one from India was complaining or cursing the authorities. Not that we had got used to it and settled in to the fact that things can never change- but we do see ground level activity and can understand grass root problems.

While we claim that people lack civic sense, the BMC now sweeps roads twice a day to maintain basic cleanliness standards at a high level. While storm drains are cleaned every year, the amount of filth that is washed in with rains has private level origins. The challenge to build new infrastructure and replace the aging structure is a tight rope walk. But sadly, we have an ever bursting urban population and cannot control migration. But sadly, the NRI eye catches only what it likes to see and the counter measures are neither appreciated nor observed.

While the argument was on its high, a comment was made claiming NRI money drives India. Is that a fact? I can safely say that most personal investment from overseas is in to residential spaces to make immense of the exchange rate disparity. Most of this population already have properties bought as investments in India and left either vacant or on rent to the residential population. Bottom line- is this money actually helping India grow or is just pushing up the realty prices for the locals making housing more and more expensive? Not to mention, aren’t the investment returns are more to the personal benefit as interest rates and property appreciation is much better in India than in; say US?

In words of Kennedy- it is actually never about what the country does for you; but what we as citizens have to offer. Are we doing our individual bit in helping it change or just expecting a few local bodies to deliver once we have elected them? Politics and corruption are rampant; but do we challenge the system against it or be a part of the same chain? In my opinion; an NRI giving up a lucrative job and setting up something in India, building about a change is always appreciated by people. But these are very few; the ones who don’t mind travelling in public transport. The others are the – jaldi se AC chalu karo variety who just don’t care for the country.

The argumentative non-resident Indian is only just happy to stay in a cozy comfort of their foreign land and critique matters where they don’t have a clue of the ground reality. I don’t have an issue with then; but I do believe that unless you can make a difference, keep it shut.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Manipulation Game

I learnt this a part of economics- The Circular Flow of Income.

Industry produces goods: people buy the goods with their wages :: People work for the industry making the goods: Industry pays people wages.

This was simple and pretty basic. Then there was the government which taxed the people and industry to provide for the infrastructure for both. The next layer was financial institutions which gathered surplus from the wages and loaded it to the governments and industry to bridge gaps and grow larger. In return, people earned interest and bought more goods…. And so the cycle grew larger with a global perspective and international trade come in.  

In an ideal world, we have actually set in motion a perpetual growth system that is worldwide and self- sustained. But somehow this never happens. There is always a rouge element which tries to play folly and break the complete cycle. In most cases globally, a government- industry- financial institution nexus has often played havoc and has left communities, countries and even entire financial structure around the world jeopardised. Enron, the crash of 2008 are just a few examples which have left a mark on global economy.

Living in a world where nothing seems to be robust leaves a lot of gaps for me to think in all the places where greed and instant profits are linked to a scenario that seems a calamity but seems like a cover- up for a larger plot. I can’t help but speculate that sometimes it almost seems like a crisis is being created to manage the financial bearings. When companies issue stocks, they are borrowing from people with the idea of mutual ownership and sharing of profits. When the company buys back their shares; dividend is no longer a liability to be paid. A recent article by Jayant Vidhvauns in a Marath daily drew my attention that this is actually a big possibility. (

Let’s take the recent case of Maggi in India. A legendry brand that’s almost 30 years in existence and stands to take 70% of the instant noodles market. It contributes in the range of 20% of Nestle India’s revenues and is almost a habit for most people who have grown with the brand. We always knew it was not healthy, had MSG and other flavouring agents. So why all of a sudden did one fine morning in June we got alerted? How did this happen to a company that was over exceeding analyst expectations? Why all of a sudden did the share prices fall for a few days and bounce back? Its hard to imagine how many shares might have been bought back by Nestle within the sessions it was running low and how much money was lost by the investors in the process. 

I can’t help but question, is this a planned move to buy back shares in a bid to retain profitability? The company has recovered its shares in the few sessions of panic sale and now the stock is back on track. People have lost money- the company lost nothing. As for its reputation: the entire set of packaged food market with all its competition has gone sluggish; so no loss of market share. The losses in sales are going to be far less as compared to the dividend to be spread amongst shareholders.
Now wait a minute… How did Cadbury’s get worm infested in 2003? Never happened before or after? But that was the time Cadbury got "Delisted" and there was an active buy back. How come Coke had pesticide residues one year and is sharing happiness ever since with no issues? Not to mention the pesticides later got bottles from all the brands and no one lost anything in the market. 

I don’t have enough evidence, study and the understanding to put my finger on things. But one thing is for sure; there are more ways to manipulate and control the business outcomes- especially when big numbers exchange across over a matter of few days. Shares have often been subject to allegations of insider trading, bubbles and scams- but this seems to be a new way that even the regulators might find tough to manage and distinguish as a rouge activity. No matter if you agree or call me a skeptic-  Business today is not just a PnL statement- it is an entire manipulation game. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Ever Lasting to Lasting as long as it does….

I recently read an article in the newspapers talking about the expansion joints on the flyover bridges in Mumbai getting worn out and not much being done towards repairs. While this is actually not a one off occurrence, I was a bit concerned as two of them were in around my home. Apart from the fact that I do take them often to go around, they offer a bigger potential problem of traffic snarls for me. (

So even though a part of my concern was the likelihood of inconvenience, it is also to be noted that the flow over at King’s Circle is just a few years old and with no real heavy vehicular traffic, this might actually be due to bad construction rather than wearing due to higher traffic.  Considering I have witnessed some of the flyovers for over 30 years myself and some in South Mumbai have been dated to far earlier, it just brought me to a thought- do we still believe in the ideology of ‘Built to last’? I mean, there was a time when contractors gave municipal corporations a guarantee on its construction, but I believe they don’t make them like that anymore.

But this change in attitude is not limited to large capital projects. I have a desktop which has been upgraded from time to time due to technology getting obsolete. My dad has been using an IBM Thinkpad for 8 years and except for its battery has never had a problem. So has been the case with all the mobile phones I used. Most have lasted 3-4 years and I was forced to upgrade rather than change as the phone I was using had gone bad. Well, that existed until very recent when my first smart phone lost its mind and somehow screwed the motherboard chips. While I’m comfortable with the idea of a new purchase, my parents are seeing it as a sign of splurging.

But that is exactly where the difference in ideology makes its presence most felt. My parents have grown with the “Built to last” feeling deeply rooted. Every bit of furniture used teak and meant to last two generations with minimal repairs until the design loses its appeal in total. That is where some cupboards designed for me as a kid became less of a use as I grew up and felt the space wasn’t designed for my growing and changing needs. And this is not just me; I do see study desks, book shelves and pin- up boards sitting idle that once were hot possessions for my friends and family.

As against this, a colleague of mine bought some very cheap furniture with composite boards last year with a very simple thought- “This will last a few years and serve well until then… possibly the needs with my kids in teens, I might have to redo the room in a few years and Mickey Mouse will be replaced by Miley Cyrus”. I did agree with his point and got a study desk and book shelf that flaunted books rather than hid them behind closed doors. Also, it gave me the chance to look for my room a few years down.

The thought that I am perplexed with is what is driving this attitude of short term planning and change- over of assets. My dad has a car that is a decade old and mine is under 5. But given a chance, I’m looking to change the car and my dad doesn’t even run the thought in his mind. My argument is the car gets outdated while his opinion is that the car should last 15 years until the RTO forces a replacement. Even for capital purchases, my generation seems a bit more comfortable replacing things; in fact if observed, the next generation has an almost instinctive buy and dispose cycle.

My argument got me a response from a friend saying, “You know they don’t make things like they used to make before”. Against it, my car mechanic or electronics repair shop often say , “Iska life ab khatam ho gaya hai sahaab- aur kitne saal ragadoge???”. It possibly is a reflection that idioms like my old faithful, built to last might have run their course. That old mechanical lift in a building in Fort draws an awe; a swanky automatic door lift in a plush new office complex somehow always has an odd shake in between to send down the shivers.

Though I’m tempted to say that possibly the boom of the “China ka maal” mentality has much to play with the change in attitude; one thing is for sure… We no longer crave for ever lasting; it’s now about compromising to enjoy the good as long as they last. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Indian Railways- A force that keeps India on track

Two things happened this weekend which seeded the thoughts to realize how much India relies on its railway network and makes a difference in so many lives around the tracks. The first was I set foot into a long distance train after a gap of about 4 years and though travelling by train is not the kind of stuff you tend to forget, it was an eye opener in a few ways. To complement the experience, the next day I had the another thing come in the form of an interview of the Railway Minister Suresh Prabhu; who was taking the opportunity to talk about the one year in office for the new government at the center.

So to begin; it was not the first time I was taking a train from Dadar to Sanjan- that falls between large industrial areas of Tarapur- Boisar in the South and Vapi in the North, and is served by a few through passenger trains and regular shuttle service from Virar to Vapi. The best choice of train is the Firozpur Janta Express which is a long distance and hence takes limited stops in comparison. But as fate might have it, it stood cancelled for the day. The reason for the cancellation actually brought out a key reason to justify that how important are trains to Indians and how deep is its impact.

As a mark of protest and arm twisting, a community in Rajasthan had broken onto the tracks and paralysed the passage of all trains. Now they sure did manage to catch the eye of the government and open up discussion forums- but the blockade ensured that the most convenient train from Mumbai to the industrial belt to its north was not going to run. The result was a bone crushing rush on the next available train that ran an hour later.

Now a standard coach is designed to accommodate about 90 people in an unreserved 2nd class sleeper- but Indians are indigenous. A seat for four had at least 5 and the side seating for 2 was shared by 4. The berths are occupied by 4 more people taking the average seated population to 22 per compartment and 198 across the coach. Not to mention the standees who were at times on one foot, crammed around the wash room and gangways. Even by moderate estimates; every coach was carrying three times its designed load.

While most were complaining about the inconvenience of not even getting sufficient air to breathe; for the regulars, it was just a deviation from the normal as business continued relentless over the phone and serious discussions across the aisles. Sure a few grumpy souls argued about who stepped on whom, the spirited ones saw the glass half empty and searched for every nook for that one step space to get away from a one-legged struggle and root both feet on to the ground. 

By the time the train crossed the first industrial belt and I got invited to sit and join a daily traveller group; I had an epiphany of sorts- Railways is not just a means of transport, it’s a way of life. Even on the move, it’s a place to make friends and also do business within the circles. As a mode of transport it is still damn cheap and hence preferred by the common man. Not surprising is the fact that disruption of rail services has a big impact on the common man… enough to make governments sit up and take notice.  

Now even while trying hard to stay aloof from the in-coach space haggles, I managed to catch glimpses of some rapid activity in terms of additional infrastructure being readied along the existing tracks. It is a long standing and delayed project for the Mumbai-Delhi freight corridor that is finally taking shape and new bridges, underpasses and desired land being marked all across. Yes, it might finally happen in a few years that passenger trains and freight may run on separate lines, at higher speeds and no interfere with each other. But considering the DC to AC conversion around Mumbai happened just last year, I am not sure few years might be how few in reality.

And this was the void in my mind which was answered the very next day by the Railways Minister.
Infrastructure has long been an area ignored as most Railway Budgets have focussed on new trains and super enticing packages for passengers. But when more trains come on the same tracks, you will always have the problems with congestions. If more trains are a solution to curb the rush; better tracks and facilities are as important. Conversion of a single to double track, changeover of older tracks and overall safety need to be enhanced and this all demands time and monetary resources. Fare hikes and selling land is not an option- nor is changing the accounting methods to make losses look like profits.  I can’t agree more with the minister’s words.

It was thereby nice to see some visible changes around which were both encouraging and path breaking. For example, the water cabins have long been the site of leaky taps, muck and water puddles and the haven for algae. But seeing a clean water source with an RO unit and people not having to hop and jump around pools of water was a welcome sight. So was the fact that there always was an active cleaner on the platforms to sweep away any thrash away from the rails. Yes, some personal discipline towards not throwing thrash around the place and out from windows has to be injected into the passengers.

Few things are very very clear for me – Railways in India are more than just a transportation system. For the common man, it still is the cheapest and comparatively faster mode of transport. It is the lifeline for people who have to travel daily along a length and if 3 Cr people travel each day, it might also be the safest mode in India. Yes, the lack of development in infrastructure and no long term vision has led to almost a threatening situation – but as much as anyone else, we need to take care and make immense for all this. End of the day, it is these trains that keeps people, the flow of good and the entire nation on the track. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Breaking the digital code- Online profiles

A flip side of being a frank and non- judgemental person is people can look forward toward testing their own views and opinions with you. I love this part of being associated with people for a good set of reasons: firstly, I like the idea of being taken seriously at some point in time by everyone around me and such instances; apart from stimulating my own though process on the topic,give me an opportunity to place some arguments across that promote a healthy discussion.

So even if my answer means nothing to questions like – how do I look, does this outfit suit me, do you think this will work a charm or am I dressed to the occasion; I like to be honest and spare a lot of my uncharacteristic words in response.

I recently had a person ask me to run a check on a LinkedIn profile (that was the 3rd such request in the last 2 months) and though I have no real expertize in this area of building professional profiles, it has been something I have looked into for myself development and understanding.

Now the first time I made a ‘Resume’ (which people uncannily pronounced in a manner suggesting a continuation), I had actually aped something that existed in my brother’s folder and crossed it with a senior batch topper. Well it possibly had something that worked, as it earned me my first job as a graduate fresher in an MNC. The next one I made had a bit too much of gimmicks and when I met a job consultant later in life, he was appalled by how can a person with 3 years of experience have a CV running four pages. What he suggested did make a lot of sense and has become my basis to plan every profile I have made in future.

What I’m about to share now is something that can be applied to every single place where you might have to put up a profile for yourself and compete against a million others wooing the same opportunity in life.  Trust me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a professional profile, matrimonial, social media or dating- this is like a marketing effort and rules seldom change.

The first question that needs to be addressed is what are people seeing your profile looking out for? A recruiter is looking for domain expertise, a marriage prospect is looking for a love, nurturing and life-long companionship, while life is a bit less formal when it comes to social media and dating apps. No rocket science eh? And it is actually not. The essence is in how you make yourself appealing against other who might be in the exact same boat as you with the same intent and persona.

So how do you make yourself the brightest star in the sky- a simple way: Differentiate. People today work on impulse and do not have a lot of time to run across profiles. It is all about catching the eye in 5 seconds and keeping the person interested for the next 5 minutes.

Differentiation is the art of being a common man with an uncommon appeal. May be being an engineer or an MBA is no longer the most appealing, but an ambition driven professional with the moon as his destination is the way forward. This is the place where strong and decorative words like aficionado and expert in a certain domain becomes a smarter pitch. A title for an achiever; especially for doctors, lawyers, PhD, Post-docs acts as the filter to make you stand out. Bottom line- short words with big baggage are an anchor.

What is a Matrimonial sites once got me a super response- it’s a sheep farm. Profiles and pictures are just too exhaustive and repetitive in their appeal. Every girl is well educated, sweet and homely with at least one pic in a saree, salwar kameez and western outfits. All guys are mature, well settled and caring with pictures in glares, kurta and suit being a must. Every family is open minded and modern life style compounded with a traditional outlook. This can be further elaborated with pictures against the Eiffel Tower with a 10% portion of the pic resembles the person in contention. Just a thought- will a girl in denims in a bowling alley lack appeal. Or a guy in shorts in a candid expression not ring a bell? Will use of a casual approach hurt the institution of marriage? I don’t think so… might just set things right I guess. 

Now the most awesome profiles I find are on dating apps. The reason they are awesome is that they seems to follow the “farm animal” philosophy to the core. 5 pictures and an Instagram link and I’m left to wonder… so are you a model or just crazy with selfies. They have everything: selfies against a mirror in the ladies washroom where you can’t help but notice the WC, selfies at an angle where the bosom and cleavage is exaggerated and yes; selfies with dogs and kittens. People seldom realise that a dog selfie is a turn off- especially it the dog is having some psychedelic green eyes due to the flash and looks like suffering from glaucoma. And read the profile- “too much to say, why don’t you discover…”- so right; I have to be the dog chasing cars now eh?

Bottom line- I guess it’s time we did realize what we plan to do and build digital identities with some logic and purpose which can help distinguish people rather than making them sheep. Talk a bit about yourself to say what is the one thing that defines you. Be original and you will be unique- being an ape is going back in evolution. 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Flush of Social Media

Humans by our very nature are addicted to storytelling. The trait is so much in our system that from a village chaupal, a beer tavern in US, a local train in Mumbai to the water cooler on Madison Avenue, everyone is involved in it. Take a topic in a group and by all means we shall have five people contributing 20 anecdotes in no time   complete with elaborate background settings, reasons and analysis.

These stories running along the grapevines used to run along the social hear-say at the speed of sound. In many occasions, it led to complete misinterpretations with disastrous consequences. For instance, a bank once ran out of ready cash under fear that it was going down and all the savings from its customers were going to be wiped out. The Ruskin Bond story named, ‘The boy who broke the bank’, has actually happened in reality; just a real world reminder what a powerful source is this giant web of a social network.

In today’s digital age, the influencing power of social media is unchallenged. These days an incident from an event can go online and even before the event is over, there might be public reactions and outcry already on its way. Things now spread at the speed of your internet connection and the web of social networks is vast and invisible in most cases. There is no need these days for a BBC to announce news; in most cases, the news is already out and a news channel is now merely reiterating what one might already know.

Apart from chain mails, RSS feeds and threads were once considered the hubs of social chains. Today, the ability for anyone to publish a blog, tweet, post on Facebook or YouTube and just share on a messenger app has created the viral effect to multiply and propagate This has become the very reason why brands have become more aware and careful while handling social media; one slip and the things can go haywire.

While most will agree there are both advantages and pitfalls for a brand to be present in the social domain, there is a new avenue coming up for brands with the advent of social media hubs. Websites like ScoopWhoop, Bayside Journal etc. are creating content which on any other day might have passed off as petty articles fit for a tabloid paper. But the fact that these people have gathered teams to generate the much liked content, it is now turning out to be rage on social media as the articles most people love so share within the circles.

This growing popularity has now created a new trend of branded content which can be termed as created for social media but in reality, a very strong brand oriented content. Say for instance; the site comes up with an article named “12 reasons I love online shopping”, it does have the desired stickiness for the audience to just go on and see if the so called reasons do apply for them. What most people spot at the bottom, is a link to an e-commerce portal with a special discount sale running on the day. Another example on the same lines, “10 things to do which you won’t regret in life”, and amidst the most enchanted desires to visit some places, having a hobby and spending time your way is a plug for a small monthly investment or an insurance which a bank is trying to push.

This is an art of contextual content which has its ends towards commercial use. I can say that far long ago, we had tried our hands at such content for aphrodisiac and contraceptives- both categories where a direct approach was not the most palatable. So what we got in was a funky blog named, “Pillow talk’ and “12 most intensely intimate scenes from Hindi movies”. The numbers in 2009 were just a few thousands, but in hind sight it was a first in our books. Yes, the commercial success might have been low and hence it was discontinued. A mistake on our parts- we did not use Facebook as a channel where the content was shared or reposted.

Today I see that content led marketing efforts have come of age and if there is anything to credit the success, it will be the strong penetration and proliferation of social media. People want to share links and information more than how they are feeling on a day- that’s a change on the user end. At the same time, if they do find attractive content which can resound with their life and ideas, they are more than happy to share. Brands have realized this and with RoI and tactical marketing reaching a new high; this new flush of social media users and well-crafted content for social media can define the next big thing. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The land of ironies- India

I got one of those ‘Be proud to be an Indian’ mail today; yes, might be for the Nth time it has found its way in. I believe it’s something that goes around in circles and lands up in your lap as you are just another point in multiple overlapping social circles around you. The content is usually the same; we have 33% Indians in NASA, Microsoft, most number of doctors and engineers on the planet, the birth of zero and ayurved and the recent addition being to fact that we sent an actual probe to Mars at a cost less than a Hollywood movie about events in space. Not that I have an issue with such mails, but considering at times information in two mails actually conflicts, I often am at loss to understand who these mails are actually meant for.

Yes I can brag about what I read in the newspaper or a book and be the king amongst friends until they get the same mail, but when people around me do read, this mail has actually no value. But then it occurred to me that this mail was designed to turn me into Akshay Kumar from Namaste London and give that mega stats studded response to someone from the west who feels India is a land of snake charmers and tantriks. Yes, we love to believe that the west has just forgotten to update their knowledge about India and still love to live life in the 18th Century. But coming to think of it, India has so many ironies woven in itself that I wonder why any foreigner should not believe in the folklore. So let’s just start here with what I have seen and experienced in India which kind of build this mythical idea of India.

I had a German visitor who had come down to India for his first visit and even though a well- traveled person otherwise, he had been told to look out for the elephant on the road. It took me two days to tell him things like; you landed on a world class airport, we moving around in cars that are much the same in his hometown in Germany and the only reason you are here is because we are buying the same high end automation systems in India, why should we have elephant in cities? On day 3- I was welcomed to a 15 minute video and equal number of photographs of an elephant walking on Worli sea face the same morning. By the end of the day, I was left with a feeling of being egged into submission that he was right.

But this is just one of the things that has got well entrenched in the minds of people that they just refuse to look further. Like a friend of mine went to Italy on a holiday and found the levitating sadhu outside a museum in Florence. Attractions in India for the less informed is yoga, Kamasutra and finding peace with some vague baba or spiritual guru who talks in a language they don’t understand; but who also gives an English translation. The more informed are coming to India for its English educated and well trained work force, its highly attractive and high spending consumer segment and its dynamic youth population. It is quite stunning that we invite large corporations to come into India and invest in our technological knowledge and the first return gift or memento for the visitor is chosen from Fabindia or Bombay Store as we talk about our rich handicrafts.

Now that’s about some ironies that build the face of India for people abroad. But ironies in India exist on practically every level and every product or service that exists in this country. Take for instance we have a toothpaste with salt and a toothbrush with charcoal bristles- I guess if that was what was needed right from the onset to keep my teeth healthy, people in India had been using salt and charcoal for cleaning their teeth since ages. Lemon and orange beverages mostly have a line saying- Contains no fruit juice, contains added flavour- apparently the dish-washing liquid I clean the glass with has real lemons. .  The flower decorations in almost every house are plastic and the air is carrying the floral scent emerging from room fresheners, reed diffusers and scented oils.

There are a lot of other ironies I am actually curious about. Like why do I get all the unsolicited calls from banks for credit cards; but when I have something to do with my own bank account or credit card, I usually have to either be on hold or go through the first minute on IVR menu to get my job done. For some reason the pizza delivery guy is more inclined to make space for himself to surge ahead in traffic while an ambulance driver keeps either honking or fighting for space. Also if you are waiting on a signal, the guy in the first lane right at the front is the most lazy to start off on the green- the 7-8th car is the first to honk tough.  For a city like Mumbai, it is home to the most expensive real estate in the country along with the largest slum area having a GDP at par with some African nations.

As Indians we may take the pains to scrub our tongues clean, but the rest of social hygiene is out of the window when we colourfully decorate walls. Homes are spic and span; but the filth rests supremely on the courtyards and around buildings. It is actually both surprising and disappointing. A Hindi movie named Shanghai had an interesting line about India- ‘…sone ki chidiya; dengue- malaria, ghar bhi hai, gobar bhi hai….’ I guess that sums up my sentiments about ironies for now.  

Sunday, January 18, 2015

A car which changed India

As we forged our way into year 2015, we are leaving behind one of the legendary cars that changed India and its auto industry. The journey of the Indian passenger car segment has been marked by model which then became milestones in their own right. The Maruti 800 which came out in 1983 broke the shackles of the License Raj and built the aspiration for the car in the minds of the Indian family. While Maruti build on the aspiration with its simplicity, Hyundai and its Santro marked the rise in aspiration of the common man to move from the necessity of mobility to the mark of driving in comfort.

In 1998, Hyundai came into the small passenger car segment with the Santro (inspired from the elegant city of Saint Tropez in the French Riviera) which was then dominated by Maruti (80% share) with the basic 800 and the Zen with a  more powerful 1000 cc engine. A new entrant in the small car segment was another Korean, the Daewoo Matiz. The rest like the Ford, Honda, Toyota were out to focus on the mid-sized saloon segment. Coming in as a challenger to the dominant force is not a mean thing; but for a car which even towards its closure in 2014 is selling up to 30,000 units a year, there has to be something special.

The first success for the Santro came from its tall boy design which was a novelty in itself. Yes, the purists claimed it looked much like its name in Korea, Atoz which sounded like an auto (rickshaw), it gave radically more head room in the cabin as against its competition. This also meant that an Indian woman could get in without much trouble of managing her saree and having to almost kneel to get inside. The other part was the fact that Santro has a better ground clearance than most in its category. And while air conditioning as a standard accessory was not available initially, the cost differential between an AC and non-AC was just a few thousand rupees.

The turning point for Santro was the 2003 launch of the Santro Zing which had the AC and power steering as a standard option. This was the major blow to have an impact of the market which Maruti was slowing losing its grip on. With no major improvements on the Zen and the delay for the tall boy Wagon R meant Santro went on to gain in leaps and bounds within no time. The only possible area where Hyundai could have lost the battles was costs. But using a single vendor approach for economies of scale and an 80% localization of suppliers, the Santro was the largest selling car within two years of its launch. Between 2003 to 2010, the Santro sold anywhere between 1,00,000 to 2,40,000 units year after year. It was the simple looking, comfortable interiors design, zippy but fuel efficient engine and the distinction that it was not a Maruti built its first base for Hyundai loyalists of today.  

In a city like Mumbai where driving might be a pain almost all throughout the day, Santro found a new lease of life in the last 5 years. The iconic black and yellow Premier Padmini was on its way out into the oblivion and there were already new contenders in the form of Maruti Wagon R, Alto, Omni, Ecco and Tata Indicab waiting to fill the gap. But the Hyundai Santro today has a dominant present as the new face of the black and yellow Mumbai Taxi. I am yet to see a cabbie who is not happy with the change to Santro. The ones who moved over directly from the Padmini to a Santro find a whole ocean of difference in the driving experience. Their most common appreciation comes in the handling and the power steering that have helped reduce their fatigue and work longer shifts. The ones who tried others and are now driving a Santro just say “yes uss se accha hai…”.

It is kind of funny that the Santro will be discontinued from the same year as the legendary Ambassador has taken its final bow. But one thing is for sure, if the Ambassador left its legacy as the car that was the one which enjoyed the decades of the Licence Raj, the Santro will be remembered for a car that established India as the global small car hub. What we will also remember is the fact that it pushed the wheels of the Indian auto towards previously perceived luxuries of power steering and air conditioning into standard specification and made our ride a little more joy. 

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A man, a lady and the Indian attitude

The last time I wrote on mobile based apps being a new form of social media, little did I know that I was going to take it a step beyond my experimentation phase and possibly adopt it as a patron. A part of the evaluation process was to try and gauge if the latent need for social interaction was something very personal to me or was there anyone else under the some with similar interests. (yeah that’s where I draw the Star Trek analogy). This meant I had to get some positive responses and some level of interactions before I could get an understanding of what are people looking for on these apps.  Not to mention, it also gave me an insight into how the social fabric of the country was changing and what could possibly be the next stage.

One thing is for sure; tinder, two, badoo, woo, or zoosk- it is easier to change and upgrade applications; you cannot change the way people behave or their attitudes. Yes- most of the new and updated apps have a decent level security perimeter to get rid of obvious leaching and stalking. But even today, the initial thought that you can live a pseudo life on the internet with not even a hint of your own real self is still prevalent. Even with parallel verifications over email and login via Facebook accounts, there is still no dearth of fakes who can circumvent this. After all, it doesn’t take much to create a fake profile on a social media platform.

From the friends I made, I gather a collective feeling that the idea of dating is still something we Indians just cannot fathom. Somehow, friends as a relation between members of the opposite gender comes too low down in priority on a list of possible associations. So the idea of ‘Fun’ is still connected with sex rather than shared interest or activities and just hanging out. Now though some talks did make me a prince amongst the frogs, but it was also painting a picture that people are unable to rise above their ingrained mentality of what you do with your online life. It was not uncommon of people blatantly getting on to just casual sex or a life beyond the limitations of marriage. From my perspective, the profiles online were mostly unsure of what they were doing there or what they seek in life. Not to mention, there were a few escort and more than services hunting for clients.  

On an overall, there were also some very plain assumptions that were being made about people; much on lines of what we hear people talk in defense for improper conduct towards a gender and possible actions. Like if a person was in their 30’s and single; separated etc. it does have some perceived notions which in ways define the character value of the person. We sometimes forget that a person single beyond their 30’s may have had some priorities above just being in a committed relation or simply the fact that you don’t meet the right people at the right hour- but we have a compartment for them. A person who has legally separated is at times a scum lower than even someone who has had multiple partners with no strings attached or any real level of committed relations. I’m not sure what is a bigger flaw; the failure in one relation or a something else from a social perspective that builds the divide.

I believe we as Indians have come leaps and bounds in terms of updating our technologies and lifestyles to match up to the rest of the so called developed world. I guess what now remains is overcoming our shortfalls of the limbic brain instincts to evolve to a more evolved attitude. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Retail Challenge -Breaking the Time Barrier

Retail has been a super dynamic sector for the whole of last year. Flipkart, Snapdeal, Amazon; all have been trying in more than one ways to woo consumers towards them. So far it was a war based on pricing, same day delivery and loyalty discounts etc. which was more or less related to how each one can score over the other. All put together, they were giving the physical retail a run for its money- though in a small sample survey I conducted, multi-brand retail stores were still in contention along with the e-retail as the choice for place of purchase.

To be honest, I was expecting the top three e-retailers to break the barrier of price- delivery- service with some master stroke, considering they have been hiring the best marketing brains from across and have the deep pockets and funding to build the required backend to change the status quo. But I have been swept off my feet by the most amazing response from a physical multi-brand mobile store- Sangeetha Mobiles. With a back-end technical collaboration with ebay, Sangeetha Mobiles has come up with with a promise so big that it might be a game changer- mobile deliveries in 47 minutes to 1 hour and 47 minutes flat. (Currently in Bengaluru, Chennai & Hyderabad)

Impossible??? Just imagine that you have even 10 franchise stores in a city and a backend hub to process the orders which a spoke can deliver- in 1 hour and 47 minutes for a minimum order of Rs. 5000 is most definitely doable. And if you doubt- they have a timer on the ordering page where it says “Order now and get it in…” which is applicable from the time of  transaction confirmation. More so, after 1 hour and 47 minutes, they claim to call the customers and confirm the delivery has actually happened in the stipulated time.

Considering Sangeetha Mobile is pretty big chain in the south with outlets in Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and other southern towns and is easily miles ahead of places like UniverCell- it can actually deliver on the promise. While there have been so many people I have heard talking about Omni Channel Retail, this is the first and practical example I’m seeing from India. The process as I believe might be pretty simple; the order is taken on the back end which will process the payment and the fulfilment will be done by the local franchise or retailer. I have no concrete idea on the backend and process from any source but I feel this is the positive way it might be happening.

So why am I excited? Well for a change, it is the physical retail which is changing the game and trying to get into a space where the e-retailers might be possibly slower. It is going as per the basics of competitive advantage to play in a field where they are confident of their own strength. What’s more, Sangeetha Mobile is now offering a one year warranty against theft, water & physical damage) + 1 Year pick & drop repair service + 1yr extended brand warranty. This is the first time I am seeing anyone come up with such options for customer service post sales.

Now, there were some questions I had in my mind. What’s the whole gig about 47? Well it seems the first store they had was a Shop no 47 and hence… Then I have my reservations of what might happen if a model is not available close to your place, but I’m sure there is a solution for it as well.

What is refreshing though in the entire thing is the positive intent and freshness of the thought to think differently to counter the competition. It is a move to change the status quo and take the challenge to take on the rest in a bold manner. More so, I’m pleased with the outlook towards the after sales service (most difficult to replicate) which the others have been ignoring for the longest time. 

Monday, January 5, 2015

The rat race and humans

Over the Christmas Eve and the days to follow I was on a binge watching mission of a HBO TV series called ‘From the Earth to the Moon’. Intriguing as the concept is, based on one of man’s greatest ambitions since the dawn of time the series was complete in the sense that it did not focus so much on the lunar landings alone- but the whole saga that unfolded in the political corridors, scientific community and the public at large after JFK made that bold statement to put a man on the moon within 8 years. This came at a time when all that NASA was doing then was well short of even taking a man into space, something the USSR had already managed. Just one of the reasons why I see projects involving Tom Hanks in a very different light than the rest- the research, the perspective and the narrative is most unique and comprehensive.

So just to paint a picture of the times: USSR is leading the space race and the president has made a bold public statement. Man in space is still a distant dream; both in terms of technology and achievement. But still within a gap of 7 years from the presidential address, the brickwork of probability was turned into the flights of possibility. Aircraft test pilots were now trained to go beyond the stratosphere and aircraft builders where building space crafts. Every person in every single department was in a run up against time and every failure was costly in terms of money, time, political ideology and at times even human life. Till the day Apollo 11 landed on the moon, everyone was eager to know the answer to the question; can man actually do it?

So at the cost of sounding filmy- who was the first man on the moon? Yes, Neil Armstrong. Who was the second??? And I guess there might be still be a few who will name Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. But what do we know about Michael Collins, a man who sat there closest to these two men a few miles above and was pivotal in their safe return. How come Apollo 11 has become legendary and only two from the crew of three is who we recognize? How many of us know about any lunar mission from Apollo 1 to Apollo 17; or the fact that the Apollo programme was built on the learnings that came along from the Mercury and Gemini missions that were like test flights for the lunar landings.
The simplest explanation to all this came to me in an astonishing manner the human mind and memory actually works.  We as human are trained to be rats running a race to go from point A to B. The winner takes it all and there is no medal for coming in second. We have actually been tuned to be more oriented towards attaining goals and once achieved, we fail to recognise all the people and their efforts that went into reaching the goal. The worst is once the goal has been reached, our level of interest in the details dwindles and no level of achievement that might follow has any relevance in our minds. We at times tend to forget that there is a larger bunch of people and their sacrifice that hides behind the achievement of the larger goals.

Imagine the number of people who work behind the scenes to make every single flight possible. There are the ones who built the actual space crafts, the ones who built the simulators and prototypes. And then there were those who sat in the mission command in Houston not even blinking an eye lid when missions like Apollo 13 went haywire. We as people simply refuse to accept the people behind the larger picture. And this is not an American phenomena- even in a movie like Swades, SRK is asked if he is in NASA, is he an astronaut. Not in the same league, but the moment people know I worked in radio, I’m asked if I was an RJ… cause astronaut or an RJ- they are the face and that’s what matters to people.

The series also brought to the fore another aspect of human nature- something we call the short span of the public memory. After Apollo 11, possible Apollo 12 and Apollo 13 were missions where people were still attached to the TV with a curiosity of what happens next. When the last two missions got down to some serious scientific research, public interest and limelight both just vanished. In fact, a near flawless Apollo 17 was not even telecast as the romance of space had ended and the swinging 70’s were no longer having the attractions for it.

Today, no NASA missions actually attract notable mentions. India had a boom once the Mars probe Mangalyaan entered orbit; but on January 2nd 2015, hardly any media carried its 100 days in orbit - nor has ISRO posted anything special on its site. This is what we should accept is our instinct of a rat race… we are all tuned till the first step; the ones that follow just never seem to matter.