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.