Sunday, March 30, 2008

Apartment available...

For the past few days, I have been observing this tower being advertised in Navi Mumbai for, hold your breath, UAE. It even says "Free residence visa" for buyers. The price is a steal, for those used to Mumbai prices.

But a big question to those looking to buy and also to those advertising. Why, except for our fascination with "phoren"?

But with real estate becoming so pricey in Mumbai, it wont be long before Mumbaikars are content with small matchbox houses in their city with a vacation home elsewhere...

Shashi Tharoors Eureka moment

Of course, it is not entirely his eureka moment, but I wonder what the authors of the study were smoking when they came up with this amazing correlation. Why some engineers become terrorists?

Now this whole hypothesis is nothing short of amazing, nearly pukeworthy. By this correlation there are other possibilities, may I suggest Mr. Tharoors to look for some other common factors (superset, subset, whatever) for which one does not require an engineering degree, just an open pair of eyes and an reasonably active brain...

Also towards the end of the piece, the amazing solution to rid the world of terrorists, therefore, is,
Perhaps the solution lies in making it compulsory for every engineering student to take at least 20% of his courses in the humanities. Problem solved...

Saturday, March 29, 2008

White models

Why does a builder (or anybody) for that matter need to use white models while advertising for a building in a suburb of Navi Mumbai?

At one point, it was used to convey an upmarket image, but today after being tortured with images of TV shopping with dubbed voices in Hindi, I guess it is not such a great idea. This is just one example; I noticed more examples around.

Not sure if anybody even notices it anymore...

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Increasing efficiency

Mumbai style. The bus conductor distributes tickets before the bus arrives at the depot. A smart way to quicken turnaround times.

Arguably, the best bus service in the country, BEST has always been efficient, far better than any service than I have seen anywhere. In Bangalore (with its Silicon city tag) they dont have a system better than shouting for communicating between driver and conductor even as of 2008. A simple bell system is beyond them. The ticket punching system in Mumbai which indicates the stage a passenger boards and alights is simply superb. The day pass system introduced in Mumbai looks like a regular ticket - and has the same punching system.

And it has kept pace with the times. Smart cards (and portable card readers for the conductors), passes and even better buses including air conditioned services.

If only other bus services in the country could learn from the BEST...

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mineral water paani puri

Who has not heard of paani puri, the ubiquitous dish of Mumbai alongwith the iconic Bhelpuri and its ilk? Back in the 90s, the popularity of this dish was under immense attack with the scare around water borne diseases. So, what did these hawkers/hoteliers do? Simple, switched to mineral water. And renamed it Mineral water paani puri or Bisleri paani puri. Of course, it added to their margins, but it brought more customers since they could now be sure of the hygiene around it, atleast relatively.

Morning walkers like a glass of herbal juices - ergo, a whole platoon of herbal juice suppliers have mushroomed all across the country where you have people walking in the morning. Come rain, summer or winter, they are there with a small table and various herbal concoctions for the walkers. The prices are pretty steep, but there is a big market for them. The early bird does get the morning walkers, indeed. Until then, there was nothing one could sell to morning walkers, but hey, there are out there, a market, until someone figured what they need.

Out on the streets, innovating in ways like this is commonplace. Various dishes like this keep emerging at the food and street level. Each vendor tries to do something different and keep his clientele happy. Almost every gulli has a special food vendor who is well known for something special he does with his or her food and keeps his or her clientele happy.

Now if only some bigger organizations learnt to do the same...

Notes on nature

Right on the web here, at Wild wanderer.

Lots of trivia on nature in general and related to Bangalore in particular. Coming from an accomplished photographer, seasoned birdwatcher and a good friend, it is a good place to watch if you are interested in nature...Check it out...

Sunday, March 23, 2008

What has changed 1

When I read a newspaper, it was supposed to improve my English, improve my understanding of the world we live in and do a few other, generally good things. This was many years ago.

Today, I dont trust the media. I am not sure; indeed, I am pretty sure. What the media prints is deeply motivated by their own or their funders (as opposed to founders) ideologies and hence what we hear are obfuscated versions of the real news. I am not even sure if we get to hear the real news. (This post triggered the thought). The last few weeks, what I read about the Hindu have only reinforced it. Here and here. Before you think that only the Hindu has allowed its standards to fall, the rest arent too different.

Where is the independent view? Where is the analysis? Why sell tripe under the name of analysis?

Again, in these newspapers there are still good individuals and good individuals pieces worth a read. Praveen Swami, Swami Aiyer, Swapan Dasgupta (To me, the Pioneer is a half decent read, better than these old "stars"). And this is only newspapers. TV? Lets not even talk about it.

But if you ask me, I would rather read blogs.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Chicken, the new national bird

I like this one by Jug Suraiya. Chicken indeed. An idea with immense potential.

Imagine. From Butter chicken to Chicken 65 (how convenient), we own the bird. We can also commemorate/invent Chicken 47, Chicken 99. We can make movies on the lines of Chickenheart.

The ending of the piece is particularly apt.

Can't move mountains? Find convenient molehills, turn them into mountains, and then move them. That seems to be the recipe. Not just for the health minister but for the entire sorry mess which might aptly be called Indian chicken curry.

Towards smarter pricing

After going through stores with almost every item being priced at x rupees 99 paise or x99 rupees, I am totally put off. Perhaps there are others like me, who think the same way.

So, if you are a new shop, instead of doing what is being done, a transparent pricing may be the best way ahead. The Bata pricing strategy may be a thing to do away with (Bata itself did away with it some time back, but many others still follow it) and herald more simpler transparent schemes to get your customers.

9.99 /kg for a watermelon? In India? Yuck.

Friday, March 21, 2008

The question box

Given my limited reading and recent crazy schedules, I obviously did not find this anywhere in the media, but its a cute little idea. Its a while since I bookmarked it meaning to write about it.

The Question box indeed. Read it at Boing Boing(via)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sugar and oil

Saw this on a pack of Khari biscuits recently, "100% sugar free health snack". See pic and see what goes into Khari biscuits - tons of fat.

By that logic, Sugar is a "100% oil free health snack"

There are no laws on what label can go where is it?

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Snapshots from hell

Snapshots from hell was a book I immensely enjoyed when I had read it for the first time. I read it recently, a second time, and it was still enjoyable, brought back memories of the first time, which was when I was doing my MBA. Perhaps a similar book for the Indian context is in order (I guess someone has written one already), but heres how it went (not worth a book) when I did my MBA - not from any of the Ivy leagues in India, but from Mumbai universitys factory that churns out Engineers and MBAs with ease.

The first thing about the MBA in any of these schools (and I generalize here) is the uniformly young age - it is one of the things people seek to get a job. There were very few people with some years of experience. In retrospect, an MBA is more valuable if you have some experience, it helps you get a perspective - besides it helps you switch careers as it were.

The second thing, mostly derived from the first is that the rich experience you expect from getting a mix of smart people in a room is absent, traded for a mix of opinions, perceptions and what not. The class lacks a work ethic of any sort - the course ideally should be treated as work, but people treat it as college (or worse).

Most people treat it as some sort of an advanced B.Com course with a strict emphasis on exams and passing and getting some marks - many students enroll themselves in coaching classes for some subjects during the MBA. At either end of the spectrum, it is equally disastrous leading to nobody trying to gain value out of the degree.

There are a few, who plod through the course for what it is worth. Using the library, using the course to touch stuff you wouldn't have had exposure to (finance chap trying out operations during an internship or a special project), using the course to start and run a business (or an initiative) - this is the stuff that people who do an MBA should be doing.

At the end you have a few people who know a few jargons, but little else. I famously remember this question being asked at an interview (not to me), "Have you read Competitive Advantage" and the answer was a famous, "I havent heard of it." In retrospect that was a better answer than claiming to know the topic, but at the end, the MBA was seen as just another degree that will take you towards a job..."I have an MBA, therefore I want a job."

Today after quite a few years, I can see how, "I have an MBA" is a bad pitch for a job - almost as bad as "Promote me because I am x years experience". People hire you and promote you for what you can do or expect you to do. Use the MBA to get that value...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Informal versus formal

A few weeks back, I was to receive my passport. The postman landed at my place and seeing that I was not at home, my mom was, he left a note asking me to come to the post office. I reached there, told them that I was indeed I and he took me at face value and handed over my passport. Ideally, he should have validated my ID.

This is India - the land where "trust"/"mutual agreement" means a lot. Often to a lot of peoples chagrin, some of these mutual agreement or word of mouth deals go sour. Family, friends, partners, the whole hog. Partners, families promise something and since there is no real, legal, enforceable agreement, find that they are cheated out of it too.

Take the demant account for instance. One of the persons I worked with many years ago had multiple demat accounts "operated" by his family members - including his driver and grandmother - all of which he obviously, operated himself. (This was prior to the time internet trading caught on, but even here you can be pretty sure there are many who trade in others names.) So, if you see a statistic that many grandmothers are into trading, there is a good probability that someone else is merrily trading in their name.

This is nothing new. Heard of benami transactions? Well, a lot of land that "on paper" belongs to a lot of people, in reality belong to "others" - read bigwigs - who do so, so that there are no tax hassles. Which is why far off relatives of "important" people are as important as the people themselves.

The foreign car import scandal was one such scheme. Someone would import the car posing as a tour operator or a person who is transferring residence and an agent would simply sell off the cars to "those who wanted it." Hawala money? Nearly the same story. An informal but highly organized network of people channels money right under the noses of official systems. Black money, lets not even talk about it.

Stock market? Same story. For every analyst, there are probably tons of tipsters out there. Many of them do not even use the tip themselves, they just pass it on, as a social service and some of them act on the information and some of them do not. Some of them in turn (like the weather report joke) find their way back as a "research" item. Insider information? Thats a laugh if you ask me.

When you rent a house using a lease agreement, quite a few landlords try to cheat you off the deposit - and this despite it being a gentlemans agreement.

So, what is the connection with this blog? The things that you think enforcing a process will solve, often does not resolve it in India. People just find ways and means to get around processes using an arrangement like the one above. And when in doubt, go for the written agreement.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Foreign visitor in India?

Heres the guide to a visiting foreign traveller in India. This is mostly a corporate and semi tourist reference and is not really a tourist or a backpacker reference guide.

So, if you end up thinking that we welcome every guest with a tilak and/or an aarti, we are to blame. And no, we rarely ever do that - it is mostly a tradition in certain communities and reserved for people you meet after a long time or on festive occassions like a wedding (and there too for privileged guests). And, yes, the elephant showering petals thing went out of fashion long ago with the Maharajas. We light a traditional oil lamps on many an occassion, but that rarely goes without a pooja, so all this is basically a show - a show created perhaps by some Rajasthani themed dhabas and 5 star hotels to create an exotic image of India that still continues.

Oh, did you attend a cultural training session? Well, beware of some of them - what they peddle went out of fashion centuries ago - when India was all about exotic stuff - nowadays most of it is really like any other urban civilization with its quirks. Want a cultural session? Visit a temple here. It will give you a great idea of the cultural aspect of this place, better than these sessions.

To see the one thing that we cannot improve, look at our traffic. We cannot put on a show on something like that, even if we wished. It is this bad, every day.

Expect your conversation to be around, "Is this your first visit to India." If it is, great, atleast for those who are entertaining you. If not, expect some level of disappointment among your hosts, but fear not. They will find some thing about your visit that makes it a first - like a first visit in winter or the first visit when it rains and take it forward from there. The conversation will then range from multiple levels of education on what India really is and is not and that is shaped as much by opinion as by circumstance.

The follow up question to this is usually, "Do you like India" and the politically correct answer is always, yes. You know that dont you? This can lead you into simple question and answer sessions like, Do you like Indian food? The correct answer is either that it is too spicy with a rolling of the eyes or that I love Indian food with all its spices. The latter will take you down paths of how the food you have tasted is not really spicy and how some cuisines are the spiciest and how you might want to try it sometime.

Traffic and driving is another of those questions for which the answer is really easy, unless you are really brave and venture out to try a drive in India.

From here, it might lead you into Indian customs, history, marriages, Bollywood and its many variants and cricket.

A word of advice here. Every Indian is an cricket player, statistician, opinionated journalist and selector rolled into one. If you really want to know about cricket, read wikipedia - dont ask, except for polite conversation. Or better still invite yourself to a game that they play - they will end up organizing one for you even if they dont play it regularly.

Bollywood? Dont bother with mainstream - and its a whole topic in itself, even for this blog. The opinions you get around this, is like a Bollywood movie in itself. Too many overlapping dialogues and lack of a single story line with multiple sub plots all of which dissolves when the boss speaks.

If you are white, expect people to think you are American and speak English. At worst, the hope is that you speak English and then all is forgiven regarding your country of origin. Anything less than that and you will cease to be the center of attention, though you will continue to be a topic of many.

Everybody wants to help you, assist you to make you feel at home in "their" country. And for the most part, everybody is quite proud of it too, though it may not appear at first sight. For many, including 5 star handicraft shops and beggars, you are just a chance to make some money.

And oh, the lonely planet guide is pretty good. So good, that many Indians themselves use it.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Overdependence on IT

Once you have a system, and I mean an IT system to support your business, have you thought of it enough to prevent it from taking a day off? Do you enough in place for a failover and backup plan? Or is it just a wishful thinking that nothing will go wrong. What if it does? Do you have a plan B?

A couple of days ago, I was at a retail shop buying grocery. The system had shut down - it was not a power supply failure and one of them said, "The Bombay guys have to do something". All hell broke loose there. Fortunately, there was a manual way to weigh, but there were no price listings available and there was obviously no way to print a bill. Most counters did not have a calculator as back up. Things came to such a pass that at one point the shutters had to be downed waiting to figure out a solution.

The same question again. Your system can make you lose customers if you have not planned for a back up. Do you have a plan B with your system?

Friday, March 07, 2008

How to write about Indian IT

The Indian IT industry is a pretty big industry by most standards. It is an industry that will employ close to 4 million people, contribute about 7% GDP for the country in 2008, give or take a few (Nasscom).

But there are many who simply cannot stomach the fact that this is, in fact, an industry. They are those who missed the bus either in the job market, stock market or even in setting up a similar business. The choices they made in hoping for something better did not work out and the IT industry happened and India suddenly found itself on the growth path, much to their chagrin. By creating of millions of jobs (and for every job it creates, there is also a multiplication factor) resulting in the improvement of standards for millions of Indians, it has made them envious. So, if you are asked to write about the Indian IT industry now, heres how you go about it.

Start off with the facts and figures, (Nasscom is a great site for facts on the industry). Then add almost immediately that a billion dollar industry be built by pure luck or pure circumstance or both. Of course, it is as easy as Ctrl+Alt+Del. So, wear your blinkers.

The cost advantage is the first thing to attack. With the rising value of the rupee and the increase in wages in India the cost advantage has to come down. This much is true. But even taking it at face value, a 1:3 gap is still a big gap - effectively you can hire 3 programmers for the price of 1.

Then, make a general assumption that Indian IT services does only data entry. Will low value added jobs and easily automatable tasks go out of the door. Of course, they will sweet people. And guess who is doing it? Those idiot Indians themselves - many companies have automated themselves out of data entry jobs. Ask around and those dumb call center guys will tell you. They will tell you how they did not like data entry work and how they innovated and created an application that did the work for them. Guess who made money on it? Guess whose productivity improved? Guess which customer was happy? And guess who is managing those applications? Guess who got some more work.

Indians in IT dont think. Indians in IT cannot think. Indians in IT are stupid. Repeat till you are convinced. That was easy, wasnt it? But how did they automate their work? Did they think about it, did they? But isn't India the back office, those million minions, who just do? How did they think? Well, like anybody and everybody else, they have a head and they often use it, some times more than a hat stand. Now, most of these thinking does not result in VC deals - because they were executed for their customers. Some of them will and some of them are.

Now, you have to get a bit angry that the standard of living has gone up and you are unable to get cheap servants and drivers and houses anymore regardless of the fact that you too benefited out of this equation in some way. The employees have everything, a job, a family, a house, a cook, a maid. Well, did you ask the cook and maid where they were working before this? Maybe you should. Also check how their kids are doing in school - since they surely would be going to school? Check with these employees about the condition of their fathers offices and working conditions. To say that the present generation is not thinking or complacent is somewhat less valid than a statement that all journalists who write about Indian IT are stupid.

There is a talent shortage, there is a talent shortage, there is a talent shortage in India only. Philipines and China, apart from Morocco and Hungary are the best destinations because there is no talent shortage there. How? Any figures on attrition in China?

Finally, paint a simple forecast that the industry will die in 2015. So, like I said, the industry is dying because of the dollar value reducing, the Indians refusing to think, rising wages and because everybody has a good standard of living. It will help if you also take a piece of data and use a minuscule piece of data to come up with this grand analysis.

Once in a while it will help if you include that the industry is dominated by upper caste Hindus, there is caste discrimination. A comparison to sweatshops (like the ones in more progressive countries) or children working in IT companies might be helpful if you want to sound particularly odious. And there are more facts you can include - let me know if you need more info.

Anyway, here are some facts: Did you know that in many companies salary is adjusted to company performance? Not sure in how many industries in the world, will you see such a radical compensation structure. Count on the fingers of one hand please.

Also, future contracts exist and are available, so currency risks are hedged - somewhat, but this is a big risk. Did you know that some of these companies have margins of some 30%? They can bring it down to 5% if they wish - and they still havent, not as of 2008. Why? Because customers are willing to pay. How can you assume that currencies will move only in one direction?

Did you know that many of these (stupid, dullard, non thinking) companies are present in "nearshores" and "smartshores"? Already? To take advantage of lower cost or proximity to customers? Did you also know that some of them sit with an excess of 2bn USD in cash which they can use to buy out companies - as they have already done (yes, they have) - consulting firms, BPO operations, chip design firms - the whole hog.

Even if you do, act as if you dont care. You are out on a hatchet job remember.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The coming death of Indian IT

Here is one forecast. WSJ had run about 6 months back. A still earlier one from BW. Indeed, articles celebrating the birth of the industry and the imminent death have always run parallely.

For all you aspiring writers out there, this is a compelling story. Forbes has run one, but surely IHT, Guardian, Economist will need many more pieces written like this one. Take this piece, template it and use it.

The tone is vaguely familiar. You can feel for the writers. They cannot believe that 10-15 years down the line, some entrepreneurs in the country have created an industry - without a product and they still cannot live with it. IT services is an industry, people, wake up. So, now that the industry is established, the best way to shill is to do so about their imminent death.

Except that there is one major assumption here. The assumption is that the industry will roll over and die, just like that, when change comes and hits them.

Bangalore auto

What is a MH (Maharashtra) registered auto doing in Karnataka (Bangalore to be precise)? This is not the first time I have seen such an auto, though I finally managed to take a a pic only very recently.

As far as I know, operating an auto is a regional or a local permit (even autos in Navi Mumbai/Thane are not allowed to ply in Mumbai and vice versa). Ditto for a taxi where permits are given statewise - and they are tourist taxis.

Even if it was allowed why would anyone register in auto in Maharashtra and get it to Karnataka to drive? How would it benefit anybody to do so?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Web over newspapers

More Americans turn to the web for news, it says. And so they will, and so will we all. This is a surefire trend.

Mind well, that I am not predicting the end of newspapers (and they will be around for a long time) - their influence or perceived influence will go down. TV will be another casuality.

So, newspapers and television will cease to be so influential since all news reports will be verified by alternative media leading, to hopefully a sanity check, unlike the denial they are in now.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Vodafone introduces a new P in marketing

One of our phones is a Vodafone serviced one. (When Hutch became Vodafone etc.) The phone has always at the receiving end of SMS's exhorting us to buy ring tones we do not want to download, contests we do not want to participate in and a lot of other junk.

Now, ever since Vodafone took over, it has gotten even worse. They call you up using an automated line with a human voice pestering you to buy things you dont want and offers you have not solicited. And, if we cut the call before it is over (we dont even know how long it lasts since we now disconnect almost all unknown numbers) you get a friendly SMS, almost instantly. The SMS reads, "Hello. We tried to reach you on your Vodafone Prepaid to offer you lower calling rates @ just Rs. 39. For details call us back at 55505 (Toll free)."

Of course there are a few variants, but the standard operating procedure is this, call up and send an SMS.

My question to Vodafone. Whoever taught you that in marketing, there is a fifth P (apart from the already known 4) in marketing, Pester? It is wrong. Pester power works only when there are kids at home, not on a phone service. If you pester your customers too much they will leave you. The same applies for shops where you have a nosey attendant standing beside you, almost watching you browse - the small inclination that you would have to buy would fly away when you see an agent nearby wanting to "help". I remember this used to happen in Bangalores Kemp Fort some years back. I visited that place exactly once and decided to never visit it again because of this.

Vodafone, well, I think we will hang around somehow till number portability, but then again, customers are not to be taken for granted. A simple thing to do is this, at the end of the message, leave a tip, SMS cancel to this number if you dont want to hear these messages again.