Saturday, December 31, 2005

On Temples


For me, temples spell tranquility and in terms of tranquility nothing like a Kerala temple; heres a view of one from our village. The Kerala temple is a marvel. It connects you to god instantly. The air inside is filled with the fragrance of sandalwood and oil lamps. A mild chant fills the air and the many lamps light up the dusk (which is the best time to visit them). The peal of the bell announces the arrival of the devotee to the grey stone deity often decked in gold or silver and surrounded by many a lamp. The priest can be seen in the sanctum sanctorum busy offering the god some prasadam or decorating the diety (alankaram). The multi angled mirrors behind the deity magnify the effect of the lamps in font. A small prayer said and the priest offers some sandalwood, tulsi in banana leaf pieces and the visit is complete. A few minutes are always spent in silence sitting at the outside of the temple.

The Kemp Fort Shiva "temple" in Bangalore is a perfect example of how a temple would be, if incorporated as part of an amusement park. Peppermints for prasad, make believe shops, make believe wish fulfilling ponds and what not. Not my idea of a temple.

The big reputed temples in India like Tirupati (lesser so) or others are too crowded or commercialised or both to afford the peace of mind that one seeks in a temple especially during any festive season.

The only ones that come close, IMHO, are the Birla temples that dot many cities in the country. White marble, green lawns, large airy surrondings, they are almost the complete antithesis of the Kerala temple. But they are tranquil and that to me is the best quality of a temple. On this tranquil note, let us welcome 2006.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Haldirams, MTR and regional brands

Haldirams is the one food brand that comes to mind when one thinks of regional food brands which have made it big at a national level. MTR is trying to get into this exercise in a big, ableit in a slightly different way and one hopes it succeeds, because most of its products are, really, high quality, the kind that has come to be expected from MTR.

I wish some of the other regional food brands would take some risks and try for a national presence. The ideal place to sell these goods, among others, would perhaps be near multiplexes (regional movies, regional food!). I wish Grand Sweets of Chennai, Sathyanarayan Chivda and Chitale bandhu of bhakarwadi fame from Pune and the many others get into the act and expand.

The VCs will readily fund any of them.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Two Indias

Many years ago, India was one and the same, an India that lived, ate, schooled, worked, enjoyed and died together. They travelled on the same buses, the same trains and lived in the same localities.

Today, there are atleast 2 Indias. Look around yourself, ye elite blogging crowd and it will be fairly evident. Especially in a place where the haves can have a salary of 25000 per month, whereas the havenots take an entire lifetime to earn that (or a year, depending on the position on the bell curve). Theres an India that uses public transport, travels sleeper class and eats where food is available. There is another India that uses their own transport except when it is absolutely necessary to use a bus (only airconditioned). They prefer a flight to the crowded cramminess of a sleeper class train and their own car or taxi for anything else. Food can be taken only at select establishments.

No this post is not about asking them to give up those comforts and step out into the open, nor is it about socialism. It is not about rolling back reforms or about how must give to help the have nots.

It is about how our reforms have touched only surface of society and how the political class is preventing everyone from enjoying the benefits of reforms. The problem is not in the reforms but that there isnt enough of reform. It is how our highly "educated" remarkably political class that is holding back the have nots because of shortsighted policies. If they built better roads, generated reliable electricity and dismantled some archaic labour laws we would be better off as a country.

If farmers could earn more through contract farming, they would be better off in their own areas and not find their way to the slums in the cities. If retail FDI were opened up for sourcing, many more would find employment in those sourcing agencies apart from creating many entrepreneurs who would otherwise end up pulling rickshaws. It would help handicraft artisans to create and sell their product to a greater, bigger, lucrative market. If our labour policies were easier on companies which want to downsize we would have a significant populace who would have jobs for atleast part of the year. (Now because of the policies on downsizing, companies refuse to hire. Like the rent control policies in Mumbai led to thousands of flats being locked up. Landlords would rather keep their flats locked than let them out in rent creating an artificial boom). If we let the companies access our mines or set up steel plants in remote areas, there would many more jobs.

The generation which is a have today is just a generation away from the have nots. Many of the "haves" parents scrimped and saved yesterday for a good education. Today, a generation later with offshoring, they are reaping the dividends. More reforms are needed so that we give the other India a chance to reap those benefits and this happens, by increasing opportunity and letting everybody move faster, rather than by choking opportunity or creating speed breakers.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The maturing of big stores in India

Some years back, the first Shoppers stop was launched in Bombay. A visit to Shoppers Stop was, to many, a visit to a posh store where the "rich" shopped, while, we, the middle class, shopped, hunting for bargains in Dadar, Ghatkopar or in the wholesale areas of Crawford market. That was atleast about 10 years back, probably 15. Then there was, what I call, the hesitant Indian shopper, who would think twice about getting into any place that was airconditioned or bigger than a standard saree shop or had self service or too many attendants or all of the above.

It was an opportunity that the smaller retailers should have taken with both hands. That was the time for them to show how much value they could add with lesser overheads, greater personalized service and, well, providing real quality to the customer. But, I think, that 15 odd years down the line, the smaller guys have lost a lot regardless of whether Shoppers Stop has gained or not. (I would reckon SS has gained a lot, considering its numerous outlets.)

But what have the smaller retailers done? They have learnt from the SS's of the world, printed price tags, and stopped giving discounts. They have increased their prices and margins, while SS has tried reducing its costs, thus making the gap narrower and narrower, while being sure of quality (at a place like SS).

But they should have built greater relationships with customers, which is not happening. Most small retailers have a very narrow view of making some short term money, especially from the new customers, and they, over time defect to the bigger players. Look at the slow decay of Dadar in Bombay or Brigade Road in Bangalore and at other high streets in India and if anybody says its only the ambience, they are wrong. Small retailers have long since stopped offering "value" to the customer. (For items like mens shirting, there is no difference at all wherever one shops. Womens clothing is waiting to be picked up since quality here is still very subjective.)

This is one of many reasons why SS and the other stores will keep getting bigger (better if they can stock quality stuff and continue to provide value). Whether they will go that way or fall by the wayside, we will see in some more years. So, today, SS is a place where people walk in with confidence and pick up stuff. It is no longer the prerogative of the rich. Stores like Big Bazaar, that prides in selling cheaper, have perhaps also made this transformation of the hesitant Indian shopper into someone who can walk into any big retail outlet.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Brand Finance, interview in Bworld

This weeks Businessworld (26/12) has an interview with Haigh and Krishnan of Brand Finance, a UK based independent brand valuation consultancy.

Some nuggets:

Why are Indian brands not able to make the leap globally? What do they need?
David Haigh: Take the case of Indian tea. Indian tea companies should go and buy one of the posh English tea brands. Not Tetley (which was bought by the Tatas) because it is not posh and it is what workers and builders drink. Tatas must be targeting the mass segment, which is why it must have bought Tetley. But there are lots of smaller brands like Whittard, Jacksons of Piccadilly and so on that Indian companies can acquire...

Unni Krishnan: Think of what is happening with Hindustan Lever Limited (HLL). In the last two-three years, Levers has gone through some of this self-fulfilling prophecy. They bought Quality and merged it with Walls. It is in a bad state. They bought Modern foods, saying that it will be the biggest foods business. They bought Tasty Bite, which again is not doing too well. So, they've bought all these brands at a significant value and haven't been able to extract full value out of them...

Is that because of the pressure of quarter-to-quarter profits?
U: Absolutely. One has only a certain pool of resources to invest in these brands. You might be destroying a value-creating brand and under investing in it. Later, somebody else picks it up and extracts the value. And that's what happened with the tea business. When Levers cut all these high-performing local jewels, there was an immediate mushrooming of local brands. If you go to Gujarat, Maharashtra or Punjab, you'll see many local brands like Wagh Bakri, Sapat and Marvel respectively. Ten years back, all these guys were consuming either Red Label, Taj Mahal or some local Unilever brand. The moment they cut these brands, they just gave the entire tea industry an open field. So, from a 65 per cent share in the branded tea business, they have reached 26 per cent.

D: Five years from now, they will think these local brands are great and pick them all up...

Why don't we have strong international brands, especially in sectors we are strong in, say, IT?
U: i-flex has a powerful brand, Flexcube, which has been continuously rated as a top-selling banking solutions brand for the last five years. There is nothing else in this area. Infosys, one of India's most valuable brands, can't be protected legally since the high court in Karnataka came out with a judgement that the Infosys name is generic to the category. There is a guy in Chennai who uses the Infosys name along with his company. Now Infosys has gone to the Supreme Court. This goes back to the fundamental question of where the value of the business lies.

Infy CEO Nandan Nilekani might say that they have a global delivery model. If you tear it apart, we have cost arbitrage and good quality IQ people. But can it be sustained for the next five years? If a Flexcube is valued very high, it is because i-flex has a brand, a defendable IP and that's why Oracle bought it for a huge sum. The key question is: are Indian IT companies developing intangibles, or are they trading on cost arbitrage?...

For some great reading, read the whole piece...

Recruitment billboard, Bangalore!


Need I say more?

Friday, December 23, 2005

Why Indian IT must move up the value chain, an analogy

One of my favourite analogies of the IT services industry in India is the auto garage. Once you see the analogy, it is fairly easy to see why (and how) the garage has to move up the value chain.

As a garage, your margins are low. The real margins are in cars. When a car manufacturer offers you servicing, it is more convincing, than when the garage offers a car of its own brand.

Or to use another example, if your interior designer offered to work on plumbing and carpentry in our house, we are more likely to accept, but if your plumber or carpenter offers to do up your home, you are sure to think twice before accepting the offer.

Thus too, India IT, which is now more at a low value addition stage (more or less). They need to move into niche high value areas, be it semiconductor design(Wipro) or Consulting (Infosys) or something else. From high value service providers it is easy to "create business" for the core business, thats IT services, rather than the other way round.

Wipro makes its moves

Wipro has acquired another in the space of a few days. Close on the heels of its previous acquisition, a semiconductor design firm, Wipro this time has snapped up mPower Inc.

...Wipro Technologies on Thursday announced the acquisition of the US-based mPower Inc in an all-cash deal worth $28 million.

This amount includes the takeover of the Chennai-based MPACT, a joint venture of MasterCard and mPower. MasterCard, which owned a 49 per cent stake in MPACT, has entered into a strategic engagement with Wipro Technologies.

mPower is a $18-million finance software services and technology consulting company....

IT and IT services, the type of work that is being done so far and the scale are miniscule compared to the possibilities that exist today. Our companies have to scale up the value peak and one of the way to get there is to get there is by acquiring niche, high value service providers.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

India, repackaged

As a spoonful of Rajbhog icecream from Amul melted into delicious coolness in my mouth, I wonder why nobody thought of it before. Amul is the first national brand that has an unabashed Indianness in its ice cream flavours. Theres Rajbhog, Anjeer, Kulfi which are a world apart as compared to the sundaes and butterscotches of the other brands (Amul has those too).

Brand India is being repackaged. If, some years back brands wanted to sound foreign, today sounding Indian is in (or perhaps makes marketing sense or is the last resort of those segmenting scoundrels). Either way there is an explosion in Indianising offerings in India. Thanks to Channel V Quick Gun Murugan or McDonalds Aloo tiki, Indianising is here to stay.

Amul is not alone. Dabur has been in this "packaging India" business for years. Himalaya is a recent entrant. Cadburys has one of its sweet flavours as "Kalakand" and a separate "Mithaaee". A few years back, it would have been infra dig to sport Indian names such as these. But today, Indian is the new chic.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Indian IT - new directions, Wipro

Wipro has acquired an Austrian semiconductor design firm for about 56 million USD. (from Business Standard)

...This is Wipro’s fifth acquisition and the second largest in terms of deal size after Spectramind...

...NewLogic’s estimated 2005 revenue is close to $20 million and the company employs 120 professionals. This acquisition will strengthen Wipro’s ability to provide semiconductor IP cores and complete system-on-chip solutions with digital and analog mixed-signal RF design services.

The acquisition also provides Wipro with access to 25 patent filings and over 20 customers such as Philips, Agere and Infineon in the product engineering domain.

The key element which this acquisition brings to Wipro is a royalty-based business model. So far, Wipro, in research and development services, has been banking on the licensing model which involves support services to customers...

and interestingly,

...Hans-Peter Metzler, CEO of NewLogic, will head the new business unit and focus on meeting growing customer needs for innovative SoC solutions...

What does NewLogic do? From their website...

NewLogic Technologies is a leading global semiconductor design service provider and supplier of system intellectual property (IP) cores for complex wireless applications such as WLAN and Bluetooth.

NewLogic's portfolio of IP cores includes silicon proven digital MACs and modems and complete radio transceivers. We have a team of about 120 engineers and provide digital, mixed-signal and analog/RF design services including system level design, specification, layout, verification and test.

Very interesting acquisition this.

The juggernauts of Indian IT; Infosys, Wipro and TCS are all taking steps, slightly different from each other (which is good) towards being bigger yet nimble players in various pockets of the large IT world. TCS, at this time, seems headed towards a process-product-service model. Wipro, on the other hand, prefers a string-of-pearls strategy of acquiring small and medium firms rather than a big bang acquisition (courtesy ET).

This blog tracks Indian IT with passion. It is one industry that is now on the fringes of greatness, holds great potential. How much of it will be realised only time will tell.

Public transport to public culture

A beautiful piece by Gurcharan das on the Delhi Metro, where he wonders if the culture of the Metro (neat, clean, efficient, respect for fellow travellers) will flow outwards into the city (or vice versa). Read the entire piece which ends with

..."But a new mode of transport is a powerful way to bring about a civic and demorctic revolution in what has always been an unkind city. After all, Mumbais superior public culture originated, in part, in its better transport system."

Similar thoughts echoed in me as I saw yet another overcrowded Bangalore bus make its way across the city. Bangalore is a city that has BMTC buses, yet there are many run down vintage "maxicabs" that ply on various routes in the city. The public transport culture in Bangalore, reflects that in Pune and other smaller cities in India. People prefer their own bikes (bicycles to cruisers, anything) and when they can afford it, they move onto their cars. The arrival of the IT industry and subsequent comeuppance of the urban "elite" has made the public transport, more "public" and "its not for me". Add to it the chauvinism of the BMTC powers that be that boards are written only in Kannada (thankfully numbers are in English, but thats really a small mercy) and it makes the buses for "them" and not "us".

All over India, public transport has to move from the "public means cheap and dirty" mentality to a "comfort" mentality that is virtually absent (except Mumbai which actually has some good options like AC buses). It took a Madhu Dandavate to upgrade our wooden sleeper second class coaches into some semblance of comfort with two inches of foam. Much of our public transport is decrepit and rundown; any lesser and they would classify as goods transport.

The way to get people to use public transport is by adding more comfort, otherwise there is no way people will give up the usage of their airconditioned private vehicles. A comfortable public transport, will, over time, translate into better public culture.

Black money boom too

India today, this time has a big story on the black money boom. Nothing much can be found on their website without a subscription, but the fact is that the black money market seems to be growing from strength to strength.

Theres a property boom, theres a stock market boom (78390 crores entered India by way of Participatory notes, says the article and much of it is suspected to be money stashed abroad by Indians) and the former more than the latter has a propensity to create ever greater sums of black money. Try buying a property and you will be told, 50% (or whatever) cash. So, what does a salaried full tax paying individual do? Go withdraw all his white money and convert it to cash? If that is not possible, how else? (Aha, there are markets for everything. Channels that convert black money to white, oops, vice versa.) The IT department should simply buy houses at the registered value for some second sales. That will set the cat among the pigeons.

Two banks and a depository service were recently censured by SEBI over benami accounts. I am pretty sure this the tip of the black money iceberg. VDIS not withstanding, hawala, black money are all growing with the boom in India and sucking the air out of our real boom.

Solutions? none that I can think of. But lest the point be missed, make no mistake, greater than the real, white, boom in India is a bigger, blacker boom. The boom of black money.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Design challenges, phones and roads

A few days back, as I made my way home in the company cab, I was handed over a phone by the driver. He wanted me to change its ringtone. Now, the phone, a Nokia 6600, was a sleek new phone, unlike mine which was a purely "talk only" phone. I tried fiddling with it for a while and while some of the controls were counter intuitive, I finally figured it out. But I was unable to locate the ringtone he had saved; perhaps he had not managed to save it at all. Thing is, he could not read English very well, the only familiar language in the menu of the phone. Wish there were some regional variants on Nokia phones (I am not aware if they are) and on some high end phones, please. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the English literate populace that aspires for a high end phone. So, as a designer, if you had to design a phone for illiterate people, how would you do it?

Drive along the highway and you are sure to see signs that direct you. So, how does a driver from Haryana find directions in Karnataka? They usually know Hindi. How does a driver from Kerala find his way in Punjab? I am not sure. They probably ask their way around. So, if you were to design roads for India with its diverse population, how would you show directions?

Symbols? Pictures? Anything that, over time, can be universally recognised for what they stand!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Honda Asimo, move over BPO?

Can he be a real competitor to Indias population led tech boom?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Of servers and stamp duties

The Maharashtra government had asked banks, bond houses to pay stamp duty on their transactions over the last 10 years. What is stamp duty? See here.

... According to market estimates, unpaid stamp duty on direct deals — transactions where no brokerage was involved — during this period could be close to Rs 700-1,000 crore...

Todays ET reports that these institutions have "informed" the state government that they will "shift" these deals "outside" Maharashtra.
How? By converting the current back up server that collates all these deals to the main server which I guess is located in Maharashtra. Where is the back up server located? Hyderabad! At the click of a button (almost!), transactions are shifted out of Maharashtra.

Maybe the Maharashtra government can now think of ways in which this can be prevented?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

We work 9 to 5 only

Imagine you are a salaried worker. What would your work hours be? The usual 9 to 6 or some variation of it? If you want to visit a bank? It means you would have to take a half day leave? If you wanted to visit a shop, it has to be in the evening? Especially in the urban areas where the number of salaried individuals is so high? The service industry should revise its timings to better serve these customers.

The best time for places like banks, dry cleaners, opticians and many other services to offer their services is at the beginning of the day from about 7 am and then again perhaps during lunch hour (for those who work in a 9 to 5 job) and late in the evenings.

9 to 5 just does not work for these industries. ICICI bank works 8 to 8 on all days. HDFC bank works on Sundays and is off on Wednesdays. Airtel offers a check pick up service, while Bangalore Electricity Supply works 9 to 5 or even lesser. If only there were competition!

Let those Kiranas go

The argument against retail FDI is based on "Save the kiranas". I say that the Kiranas should not be construed as the saviour of Indias economy and poor. In fact, there is no reason why we must all get together to save the Kirana.

Fact is, few kiranas pay taxes. They avoid (evade) tax and pay some to the customer. The customer finally pays for it by way of some extra cess and service tax when the finance minister cannot balance his books.

Fact is, kiranas offer employment rarely to anything more than the number 1, which is the entrepreneur himself. The boys who work there would be better off in schools or educating themselves.

Fact is, kiranas are inefficient, in terms of economies of scale.

Fact is, kiranas are as archaic as our small scale reservation policy.

The entry of big retail (whether Indian like Big Bazaar or foreign like Walmart) will allow the economy of scale to be passed on to where it belongs, to the end customer. The more the retailers, the greater the sourcing. Where do they source their produce from? The farmers. So who gets better prices? (I am imagining that they will be permitted to get in contact with farmers directly).

Our craftsmen and artists will be exposed to demands from the various parts of India and they too will hopefully grow from their niche markets into more profitable markets. Why do I think so? If there are 5 retailers, each one would want to differentiate. One or two of them will offer handicrafts in their stores. That itself will start creating a demand pull for crafts.

Home products and furniture is a fairly unorganised sector. A lot of order can be brought here too. Every sector that retail FDI touches, will make organised, ergo, result in better revenue generation for the government. Eventually, the salaried class will be spared some stick and the rich farmer may also end up paying a few rupees as tax.

Heres an Indian express edit that supports retail FDI

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Democracy = division?

Its panchayat election time in Karnataka and ET had a small report on it the other day. Karnatakas infrastructure destroyer-in-chiefs party has a manifesto that does not mention the word "urban" at all. The manifesto is all rural. The article quoted him saying that they had deliberately left out urban problems out of the manifesto.

The way Bangalore is going, I am wondering what is urban and what is rural. I am also left thinking if only urban areas require roads and electricity. I hope Karnataka does a Bihar and throws these dinosaurs out of contention and into history, where they belong.

But thats not the point. Anytime we read about democracy, we read about votes being split caste wise, religion wise, dissected into sub castes and regions. Then there are alliances both in existence and created by imaginations of political analysts.

This brings me to the question, is democracy only about division? Is it democracy that is dividing our people? Into urban and rural? Creating or magnifying some imaginary grouse? Deepening schisms that exist instead of alleviating them? Creating mountains of molehills?

Every 5 years or whenever a government falls we have to stand on one side or the other; sometimes, it is like a Venn diagram with barely any intersection. Nobody wants the intersection; indeed every party is busy carving out another division. India has to progress, one way or other. If this were the mantra of all parties, that, "we will bring opportunities to you, here", we could all be united instead of sowing seeds of dissent every place, every time.

Why divide in the name of democracy?

Monday, December 12, 2005

A bird in hand....


This is the new ad from Airtel. Free internet for phone owners who dont have the internet or for those are going in for a new connection. So, what happens to people who already have the Airtel internet connection? "Sorry, sir, this offer is not for you."

Sure it is a good idea to get in new customers, but why not extend the offer to customers who are already with you too? Their word of mouth does matter. Or did they make a mistake by selecting you earlier?

This happens at many other levels. Heres one example. When someone joins a company with x years experience, the policy states that with x years of experience you will be designated as a janitor. Then within a few months they begin to hire new employees with the same x years of experience as janitor manager. So what happens to the janitor who joined early? He now has to jump appraisal hoops and wait for a normalization for his chance and be evaluated by a candidate who is a janitor manager simply because he joined a few months later.

In both these examples, the common factor is, why dont companies first take care of those that they already have before trying to please those who arent theirs?

Friday, December 09, 2005

TCS - seeking growth in BPO

In all of the Indias IT services fraternity, TCS is one company which seems to be thinking on its feet. There has been an odd acquisition here and there by the other biggies, but TCS has been doing more in this space than any other.

The latest report is here, that TCS is eyeing BPO units in Europe.

...“The company will continue to acquire firms till we have a substantial presence in the BPO business and for the next one year, the focus will be only on European markets,” said Vandrevala. (TCS Executive Vice-President)

The company is also hopeful of clinching two outsourcing deals of over $100 million each. Vandrevala said the deals were likely to be finalised over the next one-two months. While one deal was stuck with the UK’s largest telecom vendor, the other was with one of the biggest banks in Europe, a company executive added.

TCS is targeting to increase its revenue from the BPO business to $200 million over the next two years, up from $45 million at present. The BPO segment accounted for a small fraction of the company’s revenue of $2.3 billion in 2004-05.

In comparison, the BPO business of Wipro contributed $148 million to its revenue of $1.86 billion. Infosys’ BPO revenue was $43 million out of its total revenue of $1.6 billion....

I like the approach of TCS to acquiring business in the BPO space. In the past few months, it has acquired FNS (Australia), Pearl(UK), a Chilean BPO and now looks to expand in Europe. The difference in this approach is that TCS is treating BPO like IT. In IT companies have small satellite offices across the globe, but BPO has been treated differently by the BPO companies. They have a huge center in India and perhaps some associates travel for a short duration. With their presence in various countries, nearshoring is an option. Nearshoring is a good way to connect to your clients who want to "see" operations, at times. Some work can be nearshored, while the bulk can be offshored.

As this model builds up in scale, TCS needs one breakthrough product (easier said than done to create, but one or a few acquisitions can get them there) to offer entire process outsourcing (and which one that will be can be deciphered from their recent acquisitions) to big clients.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Deccan flies to 46 cities

Air Deccan now flies to more destinations than any other airline in India


...screams the copy. Air Deccan connects 46 cities. Jet airways is second with 44. IA has 41 cities on its route list and Alliance air has 31. Sahara, Kingfisher and Spicejet have 24, 12 and 11 cities on their routes.

Of course, the footnote states that IA+Alliance combined flies to 58 cities, but 46 cities (215 flights every day) is not a small achievement by any means.

Also note that their first flight was in Aug 2003, thats only 28 months back. Pretty good growth I would say by any reckoning. (the pic isnt that good though...)

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

One year on!

This blog has completed a year. Two cheers for Venky. One for inspiring me to start a blog. It was a year back at the Strand book exhibition in Bangalore that I ran into Venky (partly because he now could be run into, unlike his earlier self). "So", I asked him, "do you still write". "I blog", he said, and in his characteristic dry wit self deprecating style that almost can be patented, added, "but dont know how many read it." By then I had started reading blogs, but had never thought of starting one myself. I went home, inspired and decided to take the plunge.

Personal stuff was not my bailiwick. Daily humour did not seem possible. And honestly, I did not have the analysis skills or experience of Swami or Seth to back it up. I was not as prolific as Rajesh either.

It surely had to be my passion. Business and money (writing about) the main topic, perhaps a little travel, business, economics, outsourcing, infrastructure, Bangalore all thrown in. And it had to have streetside perspectives as well as strategy, insights, views (my two cents, basically).

The second cheer goes to Venky for writing in a comment one day (those early days when I would post once a week and hope that people would queue up to read) that essentially said, "You would post more often". So I did and I have kept up (almost) the one post per working day routine, more or less.

And then my first post was linked (thanks Anup for linking on Masala pasta). I felt elated, needless to say! Some early inspiration also came from Abi.When I was blogrolled, ahem, alongside Tom Peters in a case or two, I felt wow!! Then I subscribed to my blog on bloglines, there were actually 3 or 4 subscribers already.

So, one year down the line, its my time to thank each one of you who have visited the site, linked to it, commented on it or just browsed and left their footprint on sitemeter. Special thanks to Venky who inspired me to start a blog, the few who read my sites and commented on it in the early days (Abi, Kaps), then the few who read my sites once in a while and give feedback (Niti) and the some who were tortured by me every now and then to "please read this" (Naresh, Venky, Manoj (who was supposed to be a part of this blog), Paddy (no blog yet), Richa (inspired by me!), Suja (wife, who now knows more about me from my blog), Krishna (started and stopped), Kishor (he plans to start a blog every week), Shankar (started and stopped) among others, the ones who blogrolled me; Desipundit of course.

I hope I can continue writing and you guys find it interesting to read along! The goal is to reach someplace, and this is but a stepping stone! Let the comments flow on this one! I have fixed the comments to allow anonymous comments (with word verification!), so dont hold back!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Winners curse?

Strange as it may seem, sometimes it pays to be ignorant, atleast for a while. In my first job, there was a strange fascination with the newly installed ERP system. So, there was a set of people who knew the technology and a set of people who did not. The initial days of the system meant a fair amount of hard work on the systems front, so those who knew the system ended up doing a lot of work, while those who did not, escaped, till the system stabilised.

Sometimes knowing a particular skill can be a winners curse (the original winners curse is different). My first boss did not know excel or as he put it, "I dont understand computers", so we did all the work. Like cooking, for instance. Knowing cooking means you can be called in to cook (or expected to cook) when you dont want to, while ignorance may grant you benefit of doubt! Husbands (or wives) who are the sole drivers in their house would empathise!

Monday, December 05, 2005

Tomatoes and hotels

Our weekly visit to a vegetable market in Bangalore is my lesson on street level economics. Spread over a length of about 2 kilometers on the side of a road, it is a pristine market in all its glory.

Last week saw us shop for tomatoes (among other vegetables). At 15 rupees a kilo, it was quite expensive and as we picked them up for weighing, my eyes fell on a crate that had the squashed, slightly rotten, black spotted on the side, second grade tomatoes that were packed (strewn) in a blue crate. I asked the vendor,"So, what do you do with these?". The answer I expected was, "throw", but the answer I got surprised me and shocked me a little too. It was a nonchalant, "I sell it to hotels. They cant afford 15 rupees a kilo".

Aha, so this is what goes into our sauces, chutneys, red, green and yellow gravies. Once ground, bathed in spices and cooked well with a smattering of good filler (cheap, bulky and tasteless) vegetables nobody will know the difference! Sure there may be hotels that use only good veggies (I hope), but his statement ( and the prevalence of such crates all over the market) gives me very little hope.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Freakonomics

Freakonomics - a much touted book "A rogue economist examines the hidden side of everything" As I walked into a bookstore eager to spend money gifted to me, the cover beckoned. It had the visually appealing image of a cut apple revealing an orange inside. Plus I had read the blog, so expectations were high.

Chapter 1, impressive. Chapter two, less so. Chapter three, well, ok. Then there are flashes of inspiration here and there in the book, but by the end of the book, I am left wondering, is this the everything that the title promised? The answers to the questions on the back of the book existed, but I had hoped for more. The book does not disappoint in answering what it sets out to answer, but I guess my expectation was a bit too high. Then again th books lacks a global perspective (the perspectives seemed very American).

The book does one thing and does this splendidly well. Its explanations challenge and defy conventional thinking and that is one thing that will book will do. Challenge, help, dare and force you to think differently, unconventionally. It also makes one seek unconventional answers to conventional questions. It also, to a lesser extent shows us how we are ready to believe anything that supports our "theories" and how these beliefs may be little more than "superstitions".

I am already thinking contrarian!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Roads, death traps

A few days back, I happened to be travelling along the road to Bangalores proposed international airport. I had travelled this road about two years back befor this. The road works were under execution at that time. The road was riddled with diversions, twists, turns and difference in levels. Well, work was going on.

From then to this time (no, dont expect anything), the roads had not changed. There has barely been any movement in construction of the road. Diversions are surprising (like playing road runner on a video game console). There are times when you ride in the direction opposite to traffic and there are times when oncoming traffic is forced in your lane. Nobody knows which side of the road one must be at any given point on the road except on some strecthes.

Result? Accidents. A biker travelling towards the city was crushed under a truck coming from the city in the opposite direction of traffic. Sure the trucker was arrested (because he escaped alive), but I am pretty sure, it was less a mistake of either motorist, than it was an accident caused because of the way the road is.

If thats the state of a so called superhighway in the making, on internal roads pothole (stones, puddles, mud, tyres, garbage) appearances are so sudden that they would classify as expert in gaming levels, only here people could pay with their lives. There is gravel all along the sides of many roads making it a death trap for motorists, especially bikers, who have therefore to ride through the faster traffic on the right.

Roads are essential for development, but good roads save lives. Not just the life of the jaywalker but also the drivers on the roads themselves. Roads arent about the rich travelling and the poor jaywalking. Roads are needed by everybody. Sadly, our roads are less about good infrastructure and more about improving roads atleast to the extent that lives arent lost needlessly on our roads.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Rajasthan and Haryana show the way

(Where Karnataka sleeps...)

Reported in the Indian express that Rajasthan is using the expertise of the IT majors (expertise - read efficiency, transparency) and not money to fuel its mid day meal scheme for children.

This is a better way to do it than hand over such well intentioned initiatives into the hands of corrupt officials. The IT majors are known to get their office buildings commissioned in a maximum span of 6 months. How about getting them to manage some of the flyovers and road constructions (not for money, but for an eye on quality and corruption)?

Governments should not shy away from using the expertise of companies. It should focus on getting things done rather on protocol and who "should" get things done!

Heres Haryana and what they plan to do...

He has an exemplary approach to development, with the goal of "prosperity for Haryanvis" (i.e. improve per capita GDP). Having taken stock of the opportunities ("the world is coming to India", so they will come to Delhi, and Haryana is close by), he plans to enable and empower Haryanvis to exploit these opportunities.

How? By improving infrastructure [power supply and roads (and, presumably, communications)], education--so more Haryanvis can get knowledge-based BPO, manufacturing and service jobs, ensuring law and order, and facilitating regulatory clearances.

This is exactly what both farmers and city dwellers everywhere need. There is broad acceptance in India, except for "outliers", self-servers, and the confused, that the essential enabler for people is infrastructure: access to energy, transport, and communications--the "hardware"--together with basic health services (including clean water and sanitation), basic education, law and order, and orderly markets....

Nice to see other states wooing the IT companies while Karnataka takes pride in "showing them their place"

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Real estate ads, trees and Bangalore

Bangalore is going through a property boom as are many parts of the country. The hope, as usual, is that the rise will continue for ever. Bangalore, for its part, is trying its level best to crash home prices and send industry packing with ever worsening infrastructure, but to no avail.

Anyway, thats not the point. Because of this property boom, one gets to see of lot of ads in the newspapers about upcoming projects. This is how the typical ad of a building looks like. A nice building surrounded by "acres" of greenery. Streets with trees, plants on the footpaths and surrounding plots with lush flora. Take a closer look and you will find few trees, if any, within the compound itself. Why? With land prices going northwards, the area occupied by a tree is worth lakhs of profit either as a building or parking space or converted into landscape with some dwarfish plants and pesky grass.

Bangalore is one of those funny cities with greenery in company campuses, parks, along (some) roads (paths) and in the military areas. Buildings and apartment complexes have few trees if any. Townhouses or houses built on plots have no trees (the ones who have a house and trees in their own plot are extremely rich or stupid depending on which way you look at it). These, incidentally, are the very people who organise morchas on roads to prevent trees that obstruct traffic from being cut down.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Business mags online strategies

While on Businessworld, a thought on the various strategies used by business magazines with respect to their websites. Businessworld has a website which has free registration (if you are from India) or a paid subscription (if you are from abroad). BWorld has a section called web exclusives. BusinessIndia, I am not sure has any presence on the web. BusinessToday on the other hand has a some sort of a snooty presence on the web accessible to subscribers only.

If I were the magazine owner (or editor), I would have a presence on the web part of which is free content (for example, the current issue or some part of the current issue). I would also have some sections accessible only to my (print and net) subscribers or on payment (archives qualifies as a good example). Meaning, I would use the free content to generate more print sales and subscriptions on the web. I would also rather have print exclusives with more analysis than web exclusives. A shorter version and dynamic content could be purely on the web. I am pretty sure with BRICS, there is a demand for India specific business analysis. Perhaps letting everyone access case studies (the market for it is the MBA students market, which will stick with the magazine once they are hooked) is a good idea, perhaps letting them contribute is a better idea.

In my analysis, BW seems to have got it somewhat right, but it can be tweaked some more. BI, I am not sure if it has any presence, but its print edition is more volume and less analysis. BT offers the web only to subscribers, which I think limits its subscriber base and takes it off the radar for most. Globally, I like the Businessweek website, thats the path I would like these mags to take.

1 rupee tickets?

What I last wrote on Deccan set me thinking. That Deccan airways, though popular because of its cut throat fares, does not really serve the populace it intends to serve (those who think flying is unaffordable etc. etc.). Its 1 rupee and 500 rupee tickets are usually hunted down by bargain hunters (for techies in Bangalore it is almost a hobby) and many trips are made because "paanch sau ka ticket mil gaya" and not because anybody really wants to fly. Deccan typically announces cheap tickets by way of newspaper ads and on those days the website is as crowded as a Kumbh Mela (thats the physical equivalent when the website begins to crawl). The 1 rupee and the 500 rupee tickets disappear in minutes from the time it is opened for booking.

Should Deccan tweak its system, to ensure that the tickets go to make flying truly affordable for those who need it (I mean Senior citizens, disabled, perhaps someone who needs to travel on an emergency) ? or should it just continue the way it does currently? Is there any reason for it to do so?

Can I have my Web 2.0 please?

Wheres my share of the fad? A new word is being used, Web 2.0. This week (or is that last weeks - cover story is on the Slide of the Rupee) Businessworld has a story on how the major Indian portals are planning to cash in on the high valuations to raise capital from the market.

The article begins thus "Web 2.0 is showing its first traces in India and the Indian Internet companies are buckling up for it. Over the next year or two, four of them, Indiatimes, Naukri, Rediff and Sify are likely to go for IPO's and list in India."

Well, they have every right to go and list themselves but this has got nothing to do with Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is a definition that has no real shape or form yet and if one goes with what is "agreed upon", none of these portals qualify. They are as Web 2.0 as our Maruti is a Mercedes. Perhaps the magazine takes Web 2.0 as a mere resurgence of the web (and companies and stocks, a la Baidu in China). In which case too, these portals fail since there are barely any web portals listed in India.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

24 hour pharmacy

Ever gone to a 24 hour pharmacy shop? At an odd hour like 4 am? By 24 hour pharma shops, I dont mean the kinds that are attached to a hospital, but the stand alone ones. Ideally, since it is night and access to a doctor could be difficult, the person who takes the night shift has to be the best staffer since very often patients approach them with vague requests. This may not be the best strategy, since it is the doctors who have to be consulted, but this is the situation a night duty staffer in a 24 hour pharma shop usually faces. But, obviously, the most experienced staffer in such a shop is the one who is a veteran, hence he does not have to "take" the night shift, so it is the rookie who gets posted many a time!

Much like the forward short leg at cricket which is inevitably (atleast in the Indian test team until recently) manned by rookies, while in theory it has to be the best fielder at that position.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

BPO jobs are going

We love to do this dont we? Just when the BPO industry in India gets going, there are our bunch of devils advocates. (I am from that part of Indias population that thinks that call centers are great opportunities and not slavedoms).

The latest trends that emerge are that, wages in the service industry in India are going up fast, hence industry may shift out. The other is that talen in India is becoming scarcer. And where are those jobs going? Philipines and some other "big" countries.

The first argument first. Wages. Have wages ever remained in any industry for more than a few years. More so, have wages ever remained constant in any industry in a booming phase? Add inflation. Add the fact that companies are making profits. Which direction would wages go?

The trick to labour cost is not a direct function of wages, but an increase in productivity. It is like trying to convert your income of thousands into crores by saving 10 rupees. Unless your income increases, your savings will never increase, scrimp as you may. It wil help, but only just.

Similarly, labour cost. Experienced people come at a cost. A pretty high cost. The top technical architects, solution designers cost pretty much the same in India and the US. We score because we employ freshers where the US employs experienced people. So, when wages are going up,
what do our companies do? They broaden the base. Substitute more freshers where they could use experienced people. How? By tweaking processes. But processes can help only to a limited extent. Can you make a coconut tree climber into a pilot only by handing him a book on processes? No. A certain level of skill is required. (When does knowledge become skill? Training and practice but thats another story.) So to cut costs, companies hire freshers and put them through a rigorous training and increase their productivity. Is this simple? Take my word for it, it is not. So, say our pundits, work is going to Philipines.

At last count, Philipines had less than 1/10th ( 87,857,473) of our population (India: 1,080,264,388). Even if we assume all of them are fresh engineers (okay, so this is a long shot) or people willing to take up call center jobs, they are still some way away. (Read the above riff on productivity and processes). Yes, some jobs will go to Philipines and other nations, but they wont go away entirely unless we do something really bad. Bangalore is trying its real best to send the entire industry out of the city and if it succeeds in driving industry away, may be we can all go to Philipines.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Retail FDI and the false arguments

There are many well known arguments all of which are against bringing retail FDI into India. The most heard ones are that it will destroy the kirana (should they really be saved- more on that later), it will destroy the social fabric of india, sourcing from China will wreck indian industry and it will reduce the availability of jobs. Jobs. It is a myth that kiranas provide jobs. Apart from self employment for perhaps a family or two, kiranas by their very nature employ family memers or child labour or underpaid labour imported from villages. Organised retail, on the other hand will provide more in- shop jobs. Walk into any big store and you will know what I mean.

Yes, retail FDI will cause a fair amount of unemployment, but that will mostly be for the middlemen who would have been eliminated because of direct sourcing. This is especially true for farmers. The sooner the farmer gets into the mode of talking to the ultimate buyer, the better it is for the industry. The sooner we bring some semblance of process to the farming sector, the better it is for us.

It will not kill the kiranas, maim them yes. It will surely reduce the quantum of business going to the kiranas, but the cause is not the entry of big stores. The cause of it would be changes in the buying patterns. People would buy more and at less frequency. Between these big ticket visits, the kiranas would fill the gaps. And then again, unless you are really close to a big store, where would you go to shop?

The kirana. The big thing about organised retail (foreign or Indian) is the fact that it will eliminate the profits made by the kirana (and some of which is passed onto the customer) by way of tax evasion. It will open up newer sources of taxation too- the rich farmers (and there are many/all of them) who dont pay a rupee as tax.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Kingfisher vs Jet

I had the chance to travel on Kingfisher airlines, one airline which has taken a contrarian stand from the current lowest cost strategy. Kingfisher has positioned itself as a value carrier, which means it, in theory matches the service level of Jet (easily the best in India) while not being as pricey as Jet. At the same time, it is not as cheap as Deccan.

I liked their flight for quite a few reasons and it was not because of their in flight entertainment or air hostesses. They are courteous, punctual and good to their passengers. But importantly they have brought back a small joy in flying. This is a novelty not for regular travellers though, but is a good thing for the one off traveller. A small pouch (smart idea in these days of mobile phones) with earphones, pens engraved with Kingfisher (What else?) is presented to each traveller. A neat brand building strategy, especially considering repeat travellers would pass it on to someone. The food is good too, as good as Jet once used to be (I would rate Jets food as slightly below par these days).

Deccan needs to improve

Air Deccan has to get out of the image of the cheap service. Cheap tickets should not mean poor service or low punctuality, something that will cost Deccan in terms of repeat purchases.

Deccan would do well to remember that many of its travellers are not necessarily the segment it is targeting. Deccans avowed aim is to make it easy for anybody to fly, but right now it is attracting people who can fly other airlnes, but who are looking for a bargain. If it loses such people, they will be move to Kingfisher and perhaps Spice.

For reaching out to the real common man, Deccan has to make its service better for better word of mouth goodwill (there isnt much of it these days) and expand the reach of its ticketing outlets. Its quite painful to spend a hour or two in the airport for a flight of an hour especially considering that airports are far away from many townships in India, unlike railway stations. And some airports in India (notably Bangalore), due to space constraints, even the lone coffee vending machine has been removed in the boarding area, so if you are caught there after security check and your Air Deccan flight is delayed, just fast!

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Infy, Wipro, TCS as venture capitalists?

I am not sure if I have heard of this one in India or if something of this sort is starting off (Nirmalabs is not really the same thing). There were rumbles of such an incubation facility within one of Indias big IT firms, but not sure how far it has gone. The top tier IT companies with their cash and their expertise can easily kick start a whole new series of businesses and ideas in India.

The time is ripe for Infy, Wipro and TCS to shed their "We only operate in services" image and reality by using some of their cash, expertise and perhaps even infrastructure to incubate some new ideas either conceived by their own employees or tie ups with IITs and IIScs (TCS does some of this already). That will ensure that India does not remain relegated to the role of service provider for ever.

Friday, November 18, 2005

What is it about reading blogs?

From not knowing what they were (blogs), to reading blogs to getting hooked onto them to creating ones own, it has been a while.

Emergic was the first blog I began to read sometime in May 2004 or thereabouts. The person who introduced me to blogs, Manoj, said it was a good source of information among other things. What it was I never quite got it before I hit Emergic. From emergic, during one of the blogsurfing tours, one of my early stops was Seth godins blog. That seth godins blog is nothing short of remarkable is something I neednt say and it got me clicking here and there collecting links, adding them to favorites so much so that one point, I had almost a 100 blogs to read.
Businesspundit, The carnival of the capitalists were among the ones that I never missed. How can I miss the amazing blog on Creating passionate users!

The best part of a blog of someone like Seth and Tom Peters; is that these are direct thoughts, more often than not written by them directly, and not added with vishesh tippani of some arbit editor! The other is that blogs are where information circulates (as an idea) until it finds its way in a book (Freakonomics and The Long Tail being the prime examples).

Slowly, I shifted from reading newspapers to reading blogs. Blogs like Seths make (force?dare?) you think, question and come up with answers and slowly incorporate it as a part of daily life. I am not into personal blogs, but thats because of a personal (dis)like.

Finally, I like a bit of analysis, some humour, forgotten quotes, history, new perspectives, something new that I havent heard of, something that forces me to think or somebody who points to any of the above! Every morning, I go through my bloglines list to find any or all of this!More power to the morning cuppa with blogs!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Toy design


The above images are the images of a toy phone and a real phone. Needless to say which is which. The toy is amazing to the point of being nearly real in terms of its behaviour (its actually better) and that it has immense learning value. I am pretty impressed, but my child is not. If its not the behaviour that distinguishes it, apart from the bright colours of the toy, then what is? Even very small children seem to know which is a toy and which is real. The child knows exactly which phone is a toy (which he does not want) and which phone is the real one (which is the one he wants). I am not sure if this is entirely because of the way it looks or behaves (design), he perhaps observes that none of the adults use his phone to talk, so he wants the phone which everybody uses. There are two remote controls in our house but he wants one which is the one "in use" or perhaps "in vogue".

The other point is, are toys made bright and colourful and attractive so as to attract the child towards it or attract parents towards it? No prize for guessing if toys were grey and white and looked like the ceiling, how any buyers they would attract. Children do get attracted to bright colours (and I have seen that), but I guess they are also fairly smart to realise that these things are toys and what the adults use is the real thing!

UPA CMP is new Class XII lesson

reports the Indian express

...this was done to ‘‘explain to the students what a manifesto of a coalition looked like.’’ However, the opposition coalition’s manifesto finds no such mention.

The new syllabus has also a lot of notable omissions. While the previous one had mentioned Kargil war, the new one has not....

Great! Lets have some lessons on Laloo Yadav (why stop there?), eulogies of some corrupt ministers and paeans to some family loyalists! With visionaries like these ru(i)nning our education...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

TCS, SBI JV

Reports Hindu Businessline:


...Tata Consultancy Services and State Bank of India have formed a joint venture company C-EDGE Technologies Ltd that will offer technology and consulting services to the banking, financial services and insurance industry (BFSI).

The 51:49 partnership between TCS and SBI, targeting the BFSI sector is a surprise of sorts. TCS is associated with SBI as vendor for rolling out a core banking solution for the latter. Also, TCS last fiscal had nearly 35 per cent of its revenues coming from the BFSI vertical...

Read the whole report here.

ICICI is already into IT. SBI is following suit with help from TCS into a new company. There are many examples. Mahindra diversified into IT a while back. So did ITC and L&T. Wish SBI had got onto the bus earlier than now!

Malls and prices

Are malls driving up prices? I had taken the example of readymade garments in a post a week back and the more I think of it, the more it seems likely.

A perfectly simple glass of orange juice would cost atleast 25 rupees when it shouldnt be worth more than, say 10. But it is the corn available in those small ice cream cups that takes the cake. 25 bucks for corn? The corn with your regular street vendor would cost you perhaps 5 bucks at the most!

But then, smartly dressed people, perceptions of hygiene come at a price dont they?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Outsourcing 101

Take the example of a house in a village a hundred years ago. They did everything by themselves. They grew their own food, most of their vegetables, fruits. Water for their farms came from their own well. Many even had their own ponds for a bath. They made their own snacks, pickles and to a large extent were self sufficient.

A hundred years later, very little is being done at home. Home means just the core functions. A basic family unit, their incomes, their outflows and their fun. Everything else is outsourced. Cleaning the home, washing the clothes, cooking and a whole bunch of other stuff are outsourced to either machines or humans or businesses. Pickles, papad, sweets and other items which were hitherto made in the house are now purchased from a shop or sourced from someplace else.

Those who oppose outsourcing sitting here in India ought to think of this perhaps.

English, modified

Ever heard of ghaaslet and paana? They are corruptions of (I presume) gaslight and spanner (this one I am pretty sure of) and mean kerosene and spanner. Ghaaslet is Marathi and paana is perhaps hindi (workshop language)

These are not the only such words and there are probably many others. Rockel (again kerosene in Marathi) is perhaps a corruption of Rock oil, but I wouldnt know. God Tel is literally sweet oil (meaning edible oil in Marathi) and I realised the connection on seeing sweet oil written on the side of a Goods tanker train.

Know any more such corruptions (and not official words) in any language?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Unions in BPO?

So, the BPOs are set to be unionized. If our left parties have their way that is. What is the function of a union? It is to safeguard workers rights. Unions are the product of the industrial revolution when "evil capitalists exploited poor workers". Is it the same today? I leave you to guess. Heres my take on this subject.

Unions reduce productivity. There may be exceptions, but as a rule unions reduce producvitity. In an auto company I briefly worked for, unions had a target of producing x vehicles per shift when they could have easily produced 5x vehicles. But there was an agreement in force because of which they had a target of x vehicles. They came in on time, made the x vehicles in no time and duly took a nap till the shift ended. (Also Bajajs story in their new Chakan plant is only too well known to be commented upon.) Imagine if BPO associates stopped taking beyond 10 calls per person per day. There are stories of good unions, but they are mostly unions which are run by the workers, without any political affiliation. The moment there is a political affiliation, the business loses its edge, one way or other.

Unions breed corruption. There are a few ring leaders who can be bought at the right price (visit any movie of the 70s with the angry young man and you will know what I mean). Now the BPOs are as egalitarian as they can get. You need not speak a certain language or be born in a certain place to hold your job. Your performance is the only criteria for your entry into the job, holding your position, career growth and exit.

And there can be many other reasons on why unions are damaging to the growth of industry. Stories of industries which died out or were driven out due to unionism abound, much more than stories of "evil empires" built on the "blood" of workers.

Truth is, unions are passe. Collective bargaining, the whole idea behind unions is mostly collective blackmailing. Today with job mobility and international companies by the dozen, employees are free to choose and it is the employer who loses if his employees are not a satisfied lot. If the company policy is "not good", word spreads around very very fast and attrition is there for everybody to see. Salaries are low or the work environment doesnt measure up, the grapevine has it all. In the real world when workers were illiterate and ignorant of their rights a union would ideally work toward safeguarding workers rights (rights on the job, safety) and improving the lot of the workers. The number of unions which have had a positive effect can be counted on the fingers. Today, BPO associates are educated, nay, well qualified, amazingly networked and pretty sharp. They are fully aware of their rights (and responsibilities). They perform and keep their job. Else they can be fired. Companies pay them well and keep them happy. Else the company loses out. Where does one need a union here?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Newspaper clippings nostalgia

When I was a little boy, one of my favourite hobbies was to collect paper clippings of interesting things. It ranged from new technology to future directions to science to automobiles. I started collecting clippings from the time I was about 8 years old and it continued till about the time I was out of school (matriculation). It then reduced in frequency and continued for a few years after that.

This bunch of my paper clippings occupies a small amount of space at my parents house. Every visit there and I take a few minutes out to see my collection. I have never felt like throwing it out, since it is really more than just a paper cutting collection. It represents the working of my minds in those days. It shows the evolution of my thoughts and of the hopes I had in those days.

An article from Mid-day sometime in the 80s screams "Flying trains by the 90s" for Mumbai - aha, nothing has changed even 15 years after the 90s began.
Yet another one in 1985 from the now defunct Evening news of India says "Star wars will rage". Hmm, so they do.

Between assorted pictures of Navy frigates and fighter aircraft, lies my whole paper clipping collections. I remember, as a schoolboy I could spend hours poring through it.

This time around, with my few minutes around it, I realised how the internet has made paper clippings obsolete...

Dollar store

At the Vashi Center One, a mall, is a store that calls itself the Dollar Store. Modelled on the likes of the Dollar Stores across the US, this place prides itself on selling items in the range of 49 to 99.

Inside are cheap imports - not just from China, but also from US, Europe and perhaps even the Middle East. Thats not what I like about this store. What I like it is places like these signal the end of cheap snob value. No visitor from abroad can pass off some cheap brand as a gift.

That the store is packed with bargain hunters (some import surplus Lego toys were available for 99 bucks) is testimony to their success.

The average Mumbaikar has a way of using dollar in his day to day world. 5 rupee coins are known as 5 rupya dollar!...and now its the Dollar store.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Irritating decoration


This irritating decoration can be found outside shops.
Shops which sell utensils, electronic goods, sweets (as above) and even shops which sell potato chips.
The idea is borrowed from the traditional Indian decoration for a pandal and gives the appearance of there being some special offer.
But there aint no special offer.

All marketers are liars, anybody?

For 70 rupees...


This car is worth 70 rupees. Thats the MRP (maximum retail price) on the package. It includes transportation costs (all the way from China), distribution costs and anything else you want to factor in. At this price, it earns the distributor, the end seller and even the manufacturer a profit. I wonder what its cost price would be if each of these entities have to make even a semblance of a profit.

The car is no ordinary push pull car nor is it a clockwork thingie. It car is a remote controlled car (see the control box in the background), the kind, atleast for me, of which is out of reach due to budget constraints. A branded car like this will not come for less than a 1000 rupees. Sure, this thing is not a handcrafted model Ferrari, and is quite tacky in fit and finish and finesse, but it is a remote controlled car, no frills.

70 rupees! For 70 rupees, one can barely get a kilo of apples. I can get a little over a litre of petrol. 70 rupees is a little under 2 dollars and I dont even want to go into what 2 dollars can get you.

Thats Chinese manufacturing for you.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Mobile service providers and banks

Indian mobile phone service providers are pushing the bar on innovative schemes. Theres the small recharge of 10 rupees (1 USD = 45 INR approx). Very recently such a small recharge could have been labelled unserviceable. Another service provider has a lower entry fee. Tata Indicom has come up with a 2 years incoming free without recharge. Advertised with a tagline - Insaan phone leta hai tarakki karne ke liye (Humans buy a phone to progress in life), it is a perfect pitch for a vegetable vendor (Incidentally, the protagonists in the ad are vegetable vendors or small businessmen), though I am not sure how many vegetable vendors would own television sets. Whichever way, these pitches are aimed at the right set of people. Profits at the bottom of the pyramid. I especially like Tata Indicoms pitch, because it locks the customer for 2 years in which time if he moves up in life, Tata Indicom will be with him. Customer development?

Coming to another much touted success segment, Indias private banking group. Indias private banks are models in the exact opposite sense. Citing high service costs and overheads and technology costs they have kept banking (especially banking technology like ATMs) away from the lower strata of society. (Most nationalised banks are a few steps better. Minimum balance is Rs. 100 for an account without a cheque book.)

Unless I am horribly wrong, there isnt any private banker who has tried to service the group which needs savings and benefits more than anybody else. In the age of micro payments and self help groups, where are the banks? Is a zero balance account that difficult to service? Micro savings and micro withdrawals are possible, but never tried. Why? Because our service is expensive.

Our banking sector can penetrate the population as much as the mobile service providers. This seems to be true the world over (with exceptions perhaps in Africa and Bangladesh), with banking being restricted to a financial elite. Where is the innovation?

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Banks, technology and advertising

Of late in magazines, billboards one can see a spate of ads on new "technology". New technology mostly relates to SMS banking, a service in which you can get your balances et al by sending SMSes. Alternatively, it is a service that alerts you when cheques are cleared, cheques deposited on behalf of the bank. Some banks offer a service called an ATM locator service. So, if you are in the middle of nowhere, send an SMS and get a list of ATMs near that location. Then there are ads proclaiming online services and the like.

My question is, do these ads work? Are they necessary in the first place? Are they reaching the target audience?

Most people in the olden days (read 60s, 70s, 80s) chose a bank based on the proximity of the branch to either their office or home. Other than that, they also opened an account with the bank which was most convenient at the place where they had to send remittances. So, most of the people in our building had an account with Sangli Bank (even though we had no clue about its standing as a bank). A great section of the populace opens their bank accounts only with this reason.The added attraction is that some banks offered locker facilities and hence it was important that this branch was nearby so that one did not have to commute too much with valuables.

Today, its been ages since I ever visited the branch of my bank, but since I have a salary account at XYZ bank, I have an account there. This is the second biggest reason (IMHO - no data) for people to open new accounts. Related similar reasons for businessmen - proximity to their own offices, clients, special foreign/LC services, flexibility, good managers (service) and so on.

Point being, if Corporation bank (assuming it is a small bank that wants to take on the ICICIs) advertises it that has a new mobile service, well, I dont care nor does the average Ramu on the street. This advertising is not going to draw more account opening enquiries. It may increase awareness to a certain extent, but only to a limited extent.

The way for banks to win new customers is by getting more corporates to open salary accounts with them or by getting new businesses to work with them or by capturing the populace near their branches, ATMs and so on. Advertising their new technology prowess is best done through direct communications with their customers, Point of contacts (ATMs, drop boxes and the like) and so on. Any other advertising is a waste of good money, money that should be used to improve services. Money that should be used to remove unnecessary charges from the monthly statement. Money that should spread the word of mouth goodness of the bank.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Of malls and retailers

Chennais high streets may be gaining in terms of footfalls as Kaps notes, but elsewhere in Mumbai Dadar, once the high street of Mumbais middle class, is slowly being relegated to the background of the festival shopping network (There was a good article in TOI a few days back, but I couldnt locate it online). With malls every nook and cranny, people no longer need to go to these streets to get their shopping done. One can lament about the decline of these stores, but I believe that this is partly their own undoing.

Linking road in Bombay and to a lesser extent Commercial street in Bangalore are two examples. Both these places offer things that are, quite simply put, difficult to find in a standard mall. Linking road and Comm street offer a fair amount of variety that is definitely more than a standard mall.

There is no surprise in a mall. There is a mandatory Pantaloons or a Shoppers and then there is a Mc Donalds or Pizza Hut and a food court. There is a grocery shop and then there are a few other shops. The malls in India are rapidly resembling malls in the US, where apart from the mall architecture, there is no real difference in the outlets in any mall give or take a few.

This is where the streets can score over the malls and streets like Linking road and Commercial street do. So, what about a place like Dadar? Dadar may or may not be the right example, but Dadar here is the euphemism I use for any of the non branded stores. When I go to a non branded store, I look for lower prices. Prices at these places need to be lower than the price at the average mall or department store.

My experience with these places has been that the prices here are usually lower by about 20 odd percent, but quality is lower by about 50%. Design and elegance is still lower. So, the average shirt in a non branded store these days could cost about 600 odd rupees, but if I pay about 800 rupees, I can get a good branded shirt in the nearby mall. This shirt which costs 600 rupees will look sad in front of (say) an Indigo Nation shirt in terms of fit and finish and worse in terms of design. A part of the factor is, I believe, smaller retailers (and perhaps smaller brands, just by virtue of being a brand) in their quest for higher margins from a slightly lower footfall have hiked up their prices to just below branded prices, but have not kept pace with the quality. Many customers would rather have the security of good quality when they buy than a lower price without any guarantee.

Unless the smaller retailers pull up their socks and deliver innovative stuff like the Linking Road chaps, it is the end of the road for them, sooner or later and its only a question of time.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Diwali observations

The Chinese have taken over Diwali well and truly. Houses all over Mumbai have Chinese lights in their balconies ( a very Bombay thing to hang glittering lights in balconies during Diwali). Dirt cheap and almost use and throw (you wont meet anyone who has had these lights for 3 years). They are cheap LEDs, I think and in any case quite unlike the bulbs we owned in our house for 15 odd years when each Diwali meant a few trips to the electrician apart from some of our own pottering with testers and wires.

Visit any mithaiwaala and you will see a range of items. Many of them have stopped making samosas, dhoklas for the diwali festivities. Why would they. These are items with low margin. When they can sell Kaju Katli for 500 bucks a kilo, who will spend time making Dhoklas which sell for less than 100 a kilo!

Take a look at any mithai shop and you cant miss the ubiquitous display out in the front. Exquisitely wrapped dry fruits in colourful cellophane paper, silver and gold cardboard boxes with transparent displays are put up in front of the shop. This year, apart from these boxes, is the rapid proliferation of Haldirams (mostly) and a few others. Haldirams has seized the opportunity to launch festival packs of its sweets and namkeens more than anybody else and it too finds a place on the display of most of the shops and making the most of the instinct to pick up something that is tried and tested, yet different.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

More ATMs or less

SBI has the largest number of ATMS in the country (I am not sure if this includes the ATMs owned by their other State Banks (the State Bank of Mysore, Bikaner, Travancore etc.). What better way to do it than through an unpredictable advertisement.ICICI was perhaps the largest until recently. But is this the best way to go?

Many of the smaller banks have formed networks by allowing inter accessibility to each others ATMS. Some banks charge the customers, while some others give inter accessibility free. Anybody who has been at an ICICI or Citi ATMs will swear by the queues it has on most days. Since these banks have their own network which is pretty big, they do perceive a gain by offering inter accesibility. On the contrary linking up offers the benefit of less queues in general. I can choose to withdraw from the ATM near my house (a UTI bank ATM which appears abandoned except for a lone security guard) thanks to my bank which allows me to use networks of other banks.

Two contrary strategies each with their flaws and advantages. IMHO as it has always been, the way to the future is collaboration and we will get to see more of it than banks building their own ATM networks. On a seemingly related note, why did we never see a bank branch that serviced more than one bank?

Is your plate heaped?


A couple of days back, I had some Bhelpuri from a roadside vendor. He served his stuff in a smallish plate, but filled it with heaps of Bhel. The customers who were around were quite a delighted lot that the plate is filled with heaps of Bhel, failing to notice the fact that the plate was a smallish plate. The optical illusion of a filled plate (even if its small) creates an amazing effect of plenty.





Likewise, check out the accompanying visual of coffee tumblers, a species uniquely South Indian with the twirled edge. Tumblers are available in many sizes as you can see. The average south Indian home has coffee tumblers available in a few sizes (these are from my home), but go to a hotel or a cycle coffee wallah and the tumbler size mysteriously reduces to the size of a thimble (almost). But, and here is the trick, the vendor serves an overflowing cup of coffee.

Like the previous example the effect of a heaped plate or an overflowing cup can have great visual effect and leaves the buyer thinking, thats a good bargain! So, when you are serving customers, is your plate heaped?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Look ma(nager), no hands

Picture a team working on a technology project. Given the proliferation of the Indian IT industry, this is a fairly common scenario. The team organisation structure is usually broken into lead, module lead and software engineers. Then there is a manager. How it works is that the sofware engineers and the module leads are expected to be the most competent in technology.

The lead may or may not be technologically competent, but the lead will surely not be technologically incompetent. what is asked of the manager is either technical competence or domain competence. What happens if the the manager is neither?

Manager to Lead: Can you send me the status reports?
Lead: I just sent it to you.
Manager: Can you come over and explain it to me?
Lead: (Duh! You are a manager arent you?) Ok.

Manager: Have you made any process changes (read, innovative practices etc.)in the last few weeks?
Developer: (You never gave me any ideas, so how do you expect me to keep innovating myself?)

The role of these team members is interpreted as, the module lead takes care of delivery of individual modules. The lead is expected to take care of overall delivery. The manager is expected to take care of processes and perhaps the deliveries of all the leads who report to him or her. What happens because of this is that the manager spends his time asking for and receiving status reports, does a bit of planning and little else.

The manager has to be a catalyst in the team. Asking the right questions, giving the right direction, coming up with innovative work practices. The lead has to be the fulcrum of the execution of these practices apart from working with the manager with his problems and arriving at solutions. All this should free up the developer in doing his work best. But what happens is that the developer is trapped.

The manager may or may not be a stud in technology or domain, but what he has to have is the interest in dirtying his hands, atleast occassionally. The lead necessarily has to dirty his hands. If every problem reported by the team is dismissed with a wave of the hand, saying it doesnt exist or worse, with some off the cuff solution, it prevents the team from actively working towards solutions for the betterment of the team. Well, you dont dirty your hands, so you dont know it. The lead can very well perform the role of a manager, if he is sufficiently well connected to the roots, not otherwise. The manager has to be more than just a mail id to which status reports have to be sent.

If both play hands off, it is a recipe for disaster.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Diwali Dhamaka - Bharateeya Blog mela



The Bharateeya Blog Mela finally found its way to interim thoughts..., after a few chills, thrills and spills along the way. This mela is being hosted from Bombay (my home city) as I am here, the week of Diwali. Let me begin by wishing all readers a very Happy Diwali.

While you are here, do take a look around at interim thoughts..., a weblog that looks at business, brands, globalization from perspectives varying from streetside spectator to active participant to global gyan. And I hope you visit the site long after the mela has departed to another camp! After that shameless plug, lets move on.

I thought a lot about the format for the mela and then decided that no format was the best format after all, lest it distract readers from the variety of posts. I have included every single post that was nominated. Organizing the blog mela is a great thing. It is like getting to read the mela in advance.

So, sit back with a warm cuppa coffee this long Diwali weekend and enjoy.

Since its Diwali, lets begin with flowers. A colourful (both visually and verbally) post from Akshay on Petals, Toil and Business at Dadars phulgalli. And the other item in the news, which is of course, onions (unions if you are a leftist) and in limerick. Amar Akbar Anthony (dont miss their blog description) has a hilarious one on the upcoming cricket series between England and Pakistan.

Now for some stories at the way my adopted city is going. Last week was a particularly bad week for Bangalore. It was on record the wettest October for 49 years, but in real terms the rainfall received was very little as compared to the downpour in Bombay. Bangalore and traffic is by now an oxymoron as are Bangalore roads. The situation is really bad and many people have lost any whiff of optimism they had that the situation will improve. 7 cms of rain and the city went for a toss. By now mails on the floods with pics have been circulated, but heres the blogospheres take.

Vijay takes potshots at the "farmers son" who is intent on driving Bangalore atleast a hundred years backwards in terms of infrastructure.

Vasanth nominates Mohanrajs post on rain tormented Bangalore and the flickr link has some more pics.

RS Sathish on a related note wonders from afar if Bangalore is a dying city. The premise is warranted, but some of his observations would change on a closer look. IMHO, walk in a deserted street in any city and your fate would be pretty much the same. He ends it on an optimistic note hoping that Bangalore finds a new lease of life. I hope so too.

Niti at her "Perspective" blog writes a wonderful post on names.

..."If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard . . . Would you like to know its name?" Ursula K. LeGuin, The wizard of earthsea...

Jammer thinks aloud on Blogging, Freedom of speech and Article 51A on the fundamental duties of a citizen of India. Yes, I too wish that the constitution is simplified.

Gargi, has a thoughtful post on the right to information, while Vivek muses on governance.

Varun thinks aloud with a post on Politics in crisis and about the recent earthquake as to why we dont have a crisis management plan? Arzan has a fiery post on the Tragedy that is Buta Singh. I personally it is more than the man, it is the tragedy wrought upon the governors office by successive governments.

Gargi has a nice photoblog at Adarsh Nagar, as does the ultimate quirk at his blog.

On Business theres a nomination for Why small idea driven start ups do not get the respect in India. This is something I dont agree with wholeheartedly. Many an idea has found its rightful spot under the sun and many havent. So, generalizing it to this level, umm, not my cuppa.

Gawker does a flip flop and argues for Creationism to be taught in school, yes, you read that right, for.

Whats a BBM without Bollywood?

Sunil has a new script idea for Mahesh Bhatt and with some more on films, heres Adityas review on the Asian film fest at Pune (and theres more at his blog) and TTGs tribute to his car pool partner.

Prasenjeet nominates this post on the argumentative Indian from Varnam and then his own 'India in Regress'

The topic being women, and heres Sakshi with a hard hitting post on domestic violence and Vijay with his thoughts on women and Indian mythology

Sakshi also has a post on Independent women in India ending with a profile of (just?) 4 women bloggers. There are many very good women bloggers out there in the Indian blogosphere and the blogosphere is richer thanks to them!

Dippu writes about the cultural confusion that so many of us undergo at various levels. Jinal, over at Style Station is pleased meanwhile that South Asian is a category (I would prefer Indian not lumped with South Asian though!) and waits for the day when an Indian family/festival is used as part of a mainstream ad clip (that would be something). Arzan writes in about the "World cant wait" movement among the desis and how it is really, a lost cause.

The Indian blogospheres management expert, Gautam has a post on Talent hunting at the mall , (wow! this is some IT boom - visit a mall and get recruited- almost) and nominates another one on how to identify indian talent. Here R A Mashelkar speaking in the IE series is quoted on Indian talent. A really good read.

Heres a new blogger nominated by Vishnupriya with a thought provoking post.

Last but not the least, take good care of yourselves and heres a post on how to take care of your heart (and its not your mushy mushy stuff)

Thanks Nitai(who is hosting the next blog mela) and Shanti for schedule scrambles (alls well that ends well).

And a thanks to Amit "Indiauncut" Varma and Desipundit for the booster shot with the nominations post.

Do put in a word in the comments for bouquets and brickbats. Also in case I have missed any of the nominations, put in a comment and it will be taken care of!