Month: February 2010

Starting Up: How Hard Is It Really?

After being out of a regular job for well over a year now and now slowly moving into what can be called doing a start-up, I have to say the feeling is very similar to the year 2000 when I started working for the first time in my life. It was the fag end of the dot com boom and the onset of the bubble being burst at that time. The feeling was eerily similar — high potential, high paying domain having had the rug pulled from underneath its feet. The digital domain in India feels no different at the moment. There is paucity of ideas, there are a handful of winners and there is an overwhelming stench of defeat and listlessness. A lot of the feeling is quite justified — we needed a significant course correction, one that was brought about by the unintended consequence of the global financial crisis — but a lot of it is not justified either.

In the midst of multi-million dollar valuations, payouts that dreams are made of and other assorted vanities of the charmed world we inhabit, it is quite often easy to lose perspective of the larger picture in life. A lot of the thoughts behind this post were triggered after reading this post, on how difficult it is to do a start-up. For people accustomed to a particular lifestyle, going from a regular salaried life to doing something on your own can be a difficult proposition. Then again, how difficult are the things mentioned in that list? A vast majority of the world's population live without even the downgraded lifestyle mentioned in the post. For that matter, most can't even dream to have that downgraded lifestyle. It is as simple as that.

See, I am not someone whose heart bleeds for every poor person in this world, but I don't also have the illusion that what we are doing in terms of start-up is some epic struggle. A lot of people in the world work 13-14 hours a day under the most trying conditions without even knowing the words IPO or what an exit would mean. Yes, most of them are not creating the next Twitter, Yahoo! or Google, but if sacrifices were all it took to do a start up the world would be teeming with success stories. Yes, there is a lot of risk associated with doing a start up, but it is not the end of the world, nor is it earth-shattering. For most parts, it is like everything else in life with an associated risk factor that you try to negate to the extent you can negate.

The larger point to the post is the sense of gloom out there because funding has dried up, VCs are not spending a great deal of money in the digital sphere and there are a lesser number of people looking to break out on their own right now, compared to two years ago. It is not that the opportunity has gone away with the disappearance of the gung-ho sound bites. The opportunity is still there, but the opportunity to make a quick buck is certainly not there anymore. The joyride is over for most, but India has never been a nation of joyrides. It has taken a lot of balls to make things happen here, having not had it easy has not stopped many so far.

Think about it – someone like me, who belongs to a strictly middle class upbringing is the son of parents who earned much less all of their lives than I did in my last job. Yet, they managed to 'innovate' enough, even with limited cash flow, to buy land, build a house, a cycle, scooter and a car (yes, the Maruti 800!) educate two kids and still have something left to take care of themselves in their old age. If going lean for months on end is what a start-up is like, there is a whole generation of middle class parents who are successful entrepreneurs. And better still, they did it in an environment where opportunities were scarce and the going was tough. But you don't hear much about their supreme lifestyle sacrifice.

Then there are the entrepreneurs — ranging from the millionaire panwallah next door to the numerous businessmen out there. They have lived thorough the license raj and lot of them have prospered, as many as those who have burnt. You don't hear them speaking much about the tough times either. Risk is a part of living. There is risk in getting out of bed too, for, as the Gauls would tell you, the sky may fall on your heads. Everyday people invest, innovate, transact and follow the entrepreneurial spirit in the normal world in different ways. The chap who collects garbage from my house makes 3000 rupees a day reselling all that he collects. A local money lender I know gets returns on his principal that most investors cannot even dream of.

They all have risks associated with what they do, but we seldom hear about them in blogs or tweets. As I am writing this, it has been a constant struggle to not attack the start up ecosystem for all its flaws. But what I will say is that the opportunity is still out there. Yes, the way we have gone about it so far has largely been shown as a dead end, but that is where you need to correct our course and move in a different direction. Do not give up. We are a country that has come this far because of our ability to persist and do 'jugaad'. We are the nation of the imperfects and the chaotic. It is tough going at the moment, but ignore the easily trotted out stories of gloom or delight. It is time to do what we do best – put our heads down and work quietly away.

Filed under: Misc, Start-ups

Mangling Data in Elgg

Typically, all data in Elgg has inbuilt access information attached to it. This little piece of information, along with the enabled/disabled flag, determines to a great extent if you can actually access a piece of data and change it.

Knowing the different ways in which these combinations can work can make a developer's life much easier.

1. access_show_hidden_entities

This a hack in the core itself, but one that you can't do without. This will enable you to access entities that have been disabled. Users, when they are not fully registered (email not verified), will be marked as disabled by Elgg, if you need your internal functions to access these entities, this method comes in pretty handy. Do keep an eye out for future Elgg releases, the team has specifically asked not to use this code in plugins, so use it at your own risk.

2. Get/List all entities

There are times when you would want non-admin users to access bits of data stored within Elgg's data model. This is also valid in cases where you want to list data that is not owned by you. Most of the front end usage won't require this, but there are situations where this is required like a heavily moderated website where it makes sense. In those situations, you can set $is_admin to TRUE for the duration of the get/list entity call and reset it to whatever the original status was.

if(isadminloggedin()) {

$astat = TRUE;

}

else

$astat = FALSE;

global $is_admin;

$is_admin = true;

#your get/list calls

$is_admin = $astat

Do use this very wisely as you don't want regular users running around on the site with full admin privileges.

3. Permissions Check

Permissions check allows you to write to entities that you don't have permissions to access. Kind of beats the whole purpose, right? But there are cases where this is very much valid, like in case of objects that are to be shared between restricted set of users. Again, this is a function that should be used with a lot of care and cross checked for contexts and conditions in which it is allowed to operate.

Filed under: Misc

Lessons Learned From A Two-Week Social Media Blackout

When I decided to go on a hiatus from the social networks (read Twitter and Facebook, two of the products that I use most), it had more to do with trying to get a handle on things in both professional and personal life than anything else. Over time, my use of these sites had become more of a crutch to support increasingly bad management of time and effort. Nothing spectacular happened because of the blackout. The world did not become a better place, nor did any of my problems vanish magically, but I did get to focus a lot more on matters that needed dedicated and sustained attention.

For me, the first rule about doing such a blackout was to not tell anyone about it. I was not totally offline and was easily available over email. I had forsaken instant messaging services a long time ago and I rarely use them (Skype, mostly) other than for work-related short stints. It was well over a week before the first messages of 'all ok?' started coming through and even those maxed out in the single digits (including the DMs on Twitter that I did not get to see till today). If this were a popularity contest, I would certainly have lost it hands down, but taking it account my largely asocial self, we are working on a flawed foundation there.

It was not easy going at all. Day one was hard. I am a compulsive 'command + tab' and 'command + n' user. A bad habit and muscle memory are like two peas in a pod – perfectly made for each other. Two or three days into it, things became much easier. I was working with more focus and it was getting more OK to not know immediately what was going on anywhere within seconds of anything happening. More importantly, it was OK to not have a smart ass comment or a snarky response to something or the other. Week two was not something that was part of the original plan, but it so happened that I was heading out of town to the Himalayas for some R&R and it worked out perfectly fine to extend the hiatus for seven more days.

Having popped up back about 11-hours ago on Twitter and Facebook I don't think I missed much. Some observations:

1. Yes, there is a certain delay in knowing what is happening out there, but that actually works out much better for me, with significantly reduced noise levels and better reporting.

2. There are a lot of easily offended, highly opinionated people out there. A lot of times the realtime world feels like a nerve that is ready to burst.

3. Real life (the one without Foursquare, Latitude, GPS etc) is not a fallback. In our part of the world, it is still the primary option.

4. Unless they do eventually get into the payment/shopping space, Facebook will be so passe in 5-years.

5. 12157 tweets and 1115 followers down the road, I still could not explain Twitter to a digital non-native in either 140 characters or even using 140 sentences.

6. I have grown to love email even more.

7. The importance of 'social' in your life is vastly overrated when it does not involve meeting people face-to-face.

8. Both Twitter & Facebook have scaling issues (not speaking about technology). After a point, both become more about distribution than interaction.

9. There is something absolutely lovely about enjoying an icy cold breeze going up the Himalayas and not wondering how to fit the feeling in 140 characters.

10. We are, sadly, slaves of the refresh button.

Of course, none of these need not necessarily apply to anyone else. But it is an interesting experiment. I would suggest that you give it a shot and see how it works out. Obviously, don't tweet about it while you are at it.

Filed under: Social

Media, New and Old Are Getting Played And How

We are at a very interesting stage in the way content is produced and distributed in our lives and two recent developments serve to demonstrate the challenges that are coming our way.

The first is the Apple iPad

The fact that it is not available in the market as yet has not stopped every self-styled pundit from predicting whether your mom (or grandmom) will line up to buy it and change the fate of the world, or if it will bomb.

In the months before the launch announcement, the degree of speculation regarding the device reached heights unseen before, all based on guesswork and 'informed' deep-throats. Now that it has been announced, the race is on to predict whether the world will end or if it will be rescued because of it. The fact is that nobody knows how it will do in the future, not even Apple, for that matter.

Both media and the blogging/tweeting brigade loves a sensational headline and the iPad is now an excellent muse for that.

The second development is Hiphop, which is Facebook's PHP-to-C++ convertor/compiler.

When the news first filtered out that Facebook was up to something that had to do with the guts of PHP, it caught on pretty fast. The story ran with the implied notion that Facebook was developing a new PHP runtime of its own because normal PHP was getting to be too slow for it.

This was tweeted and written about in a lot of publications, citing the original post as the only source. The original post itself was largely speculative and had zero comments from anyone who could be qualified enough on the situation.

Speculation, guesswork etc are are fine within the realm of publishing content, especially news content. The problem kicks in where nobody bothers to correct these wrong assumptions once, they have been found to be wrong.

Since that time, Facebook publicly unveiled the project which turned out to be anything but a new runtime. The project – HipHop – converts PHP code into C++ and allows you to run it as a compiled binary. Nothing outstanding or exceptional about it. But the merit of the project itself is not the issue here.

The problem is when people who write about these things don't do their homework, nor won't they update previously published erroneous stories. Case in point is the RWW story: Facebook Rewrites PHP Runtime With HipHop. The post even has a comment by David Recordon, who is both a Facebook employee and a noted geek saying the story is wrong. The author responds to the comment, but the story stands uncorrected.

What is common in both the cases is how well both bloggers and media are getting played these days. Yes, the whole PR/Media loop is a bit of a game of cat-and-mouse and on an average the good and the bad tends to balance each other out, but that is no longer the case anymore.

Companies are now using the desperate need for journalists to brand everything as a 'killer-this' or a 'flop' that they are playing them more than ever before. Even with the bloggers they are now extending the concept of exclusive previews. Look at the case of both the the Nexus One. Some of the prominent bloggers were given units to play around with, but it was under an embargo/NDA. This has an interesting side-effect of effectively silencing a bunch of thought leaders while leaving the floor open for rank speculation and calculated leaks and it worked extremely well for Google. For a me-too Android phone, it got excellent coverage and Google could really control the message too very well.

In the case of Facebook's HipHop, the company seems to have gained enough mileage from the launch, but what remains now as urban legend is that the PHP runtime is not 'fast enough'. This, when tweeted and retweeted by people who don't even understand what is being talked about, slowly gets into the public's psyche, eventually trickling down into purchasing and platform decisions.

Looking at the information landscape these days, it is a worrying picture that I get to see. There are near-zero sources of information that are either accurate or objective or both. Yes, we all love to be read more and as firms we would love to have our products sell well, but there has to be limits to all of these things. There is little wonder that I don't miss reading much news as it breaks these days. The real flavour of it comes to the surface a few days down the line.

Filed under: Media

Of Missed Opportunities In Indian Media

Publishing content online is 2/4th measurement, 1/4th experimentation and 1/4th instinct. It is sometimes a science, sometimes an art and a lot of other times blind guesswork. After reading the Afaqs story that asked whether print publications in India are getting their story wrong in online, my thoughts went back to the year 2000, when I started out in online media in India. In the years since, I have worked in a variety of media publications and in various roles (editorial, technology, product, operations etc) and if there is one thing that I have seen done wrong consistently, it is that we never get the measurement part of it right.

But, I must digress here for a bit, for the noise surrounding pay walls and the end of free content online has been near-deafening of late. While I did spend reasonably lengthy amounts of time with The Indian Express, Indiatimes and CNN-IBN, my rather-confusing CV does not always mention two smaller stints in the years since 2000. The first was with a publication called The News Today, which was later renamed to The Newspaper Today. The second was a pathbreaking product called Tehelka. I did not last at either of those two places, I won't start on why, for those are reasons that don't fall under the scope of this post.

The difference in those two websites from the many other media websites that used to be online from India was that both were online-only publications. While Tehelka is for many readers a niche activist print magazine, in its first avatar the magazine was an online-only publication. Even though most of the notoriety associated with it was due to the spy-cam episode, the website had original content over which much effort and money was spent. The Newspaper Today was the online-only newspaper by India Today Group Online (ITGO), from a time before when Mr. Purie went rogue on digital and spent the following years undoing some good work the group had done earlier.

Both were ambitious projects. Both were products that were way too ahead of its time. But the cost structures involved in both products at that stage were impossible to sustain. I highly doubt if the outcome would be any different if those two products were to be launched again in 2010. In the years that followed, I left Tehelka and then The Newspaper Today (where I filled in for a week while a certain P.V. Sahad was looking after the business section) and went on to work at other media houses. India Today tried doing a pay wall with its magazine sites, which also came to naught. Tehelka fought for its survival in what became a political battle, the old website and concept was killed and it later emerged as a print magazine. ITGO became India Today Group (Not) Online and Mr. Purie wiped out the years from 2000 – 2005 from his memory.

So, is there a point to this post? Yes, there is one. It is a point that is missed almost entirely by the digital content publishing fraternity in India. The first is that we don't measure anything right. Measuring right is not just getting the distinction between your 'hits' and 'page views' right, it is also has to much with the ability within online media set ups here to delude themselves year in and year out. This is the typical conversation that happens between editorial and management in most operations:

Management: Okay, we have done n million this month. Your target for the month to come is two times n million. Can we do it?

Editorial: I do not think so, but we can try.

Management: I don't care. Just get me the results.

What follows is the usual predictable cycle. Editorial will use every trick in the trade to push up numbers (slide shows, steamy stories, 200-word stories that paginate thrice, iframes and whatnot). There is a marginal uptake in the numbers (especially if it has been an eventful month) and in the next review, after management expresses its disappointment with the two times n not being accomplished, the sign that there is some uptake is cited as going in the right direction and the same conversation and events are repeated.

I am not touching the concept of SEM in all of this. Doing SEM for news content is outright wrong. The value in publishing news for companies is to get sustained usage. SEM rarely succeeds in doing that. Additionally, the cost per click for event-based keywords are often obnoxiously high, resulting in user acquisition numbers that can never be offset by the inventory it generates.

Across the board there is a significant lack of internal honesty within media companies to address the issue of measurement. In the ten-years that I have worked in the companies, I have rarely seen a news website (please exclude business websites that do portfolio managers from the list) clock over 2 million page views in a day as an average in India. I find it impossible to believe that even with the small addressable opportunity we have here, the 2MM glass ceiling is still there, which is reflective of issues that have little to do with the opportunity size itself.

For years we have now run after the following metrics: page views, visitors and unique visitors. Everything is set, measured, sliced and diced based on this. As long as those three determinants are positive, everyone is happy. Management will then pile on to the sales team to flog the new inventory. But what exactly do the people who buy that inventory get for the money they spend? They get splits according to geography and in certain cases splits based on content categories. Thankfully, at least in some of the organizations there are now numbers being tracked in terms of cost per user and cost per page view, but these are only used to set targets for sales teams.

The part that I am getting to is that we do not think of our readers as nothing but a means to generate more inventory. There is no real engagement of the user. There are users who invest real time and effort into interacting with our products, but in India we have no culture of nurturing them. And no, don't give me that drivel about crowd-sourcing. I have done that for a few years and let me tell you, it is more expensive to maintain and curate than internal content. Anybody who will tell you that crowd-sourcing is the fix to all your ailments has never run something of that sort at a decent scale.

The fact is that unless we change the economics of doing online news in India or the model (from top-bottom to bottom-top), we are going to be exactly where we are not even a few years down the line. I do sympathize greatly with the opinions expressed in the Afaqs piece, but really, you don't more of the same beaten-to-death strategy that refuses to work and expect different results. What I fear for is that this 'introspection' of sorts by them will be used as a cover to gloss over the significant issues the industry itself won't look at and it will eventually result in a situation where everyone will scale down and kill any possible innovation across the board.

Filed under: India, Media