Month: December 2012

2012 Review

One of the main reasons why I do these reviews (have to force myself a bit at times) is that it gives me a good reference point to go back and look at how far I have come (or not). The 2010 review makes for interesting reading. At that point I thought I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to do, but looking back, it is clear that I had only a clear idea of what I did not want to do. It has taken a good two-years since that time to figure out what do I want to do – to build the best digital consulting firm in India. Nothing more, nothing less.
I don’t ever remember a year passing by as quickly as 2012, but it has been a good year. The main agenda for the year was to stop dealing hands-on with technology and build an offering around strategy for products, people, processes and technology. The critical part of this plan was to transition the clients who stood by me since 2009 and other than for one client that part has been completed. Revenue was good, even though I did not hit the outlandish target I had set for myself, I managed to take the first watchful steps into the domains I wanted to get into a year-ago.
In the rest of this post ‘ll try to summarize some of the learnings and changes from this year:
Traditional Industries/SMEs
I had taken a swipe at this in 2009, but failed miserably in trying to approach it with a ‘know-it-all’ attitude. Backed by better experience, in 2012, I revisited this domain and instead of trying to re-architect entire organizations, a low-friction approach using minimal disruption was used. This approach seems to deliver better results and a deeper understanding of the domain being addressed has also changed my perspective of what a solution would look like for an SME client. The  opportunity to add value here using mostly commonsense and decent tooling is immense and I hope to do much more business here.
If you know any vendors or start-ups who have the Indian SME/SMB space as their focus please point me in their direction. I am not looking at accounting products, I’m looking more in the direction of CRM and Business Intelligence for Indian SMEs. You may laugh at how realistic is to roll out a solution for the traditional ‘laala companies’, but look at their numbers and you’ll understand that it is a massive sector.
Mobile
This was a blind spot for me and there’s no hiding that fact. 2011 changed a lot of that in trying to put together a mobile ad network for a client, 2012 brought in a lot more of understanding and perspective. The mobile ecosystem is a different and unique beast compared to either traditional web or television. The execution opportunity (becoming a success by bettering what’s already being done) is immense here, but sustaining a leadership position and growing a global audience is a significant challenge. In the Indian market the gaps are gapingly huge at every part of the ecosystem and only the extremely foolish will take anything for granted. If you are foolish in the domain, you’ll always stay hungry. And I don’t mean that in a nice way.
Another interesting aspect for me is the fact that I’m still using the same phone I bought in 2010, but with the latest build of Android. The phone still does 100% of what I would want a brand new top-of-the line phone to do for me, with more than acceptable levels of lag. My secondary phone is a sub Rs 7000 Android phone that does 90% of what I want it to do, albeit somewhat sluggishly. There are new phones in the market that cost around Rs 10000, which can give some of the flagship phones of both iOS and Android a run for their money. It is incredible how quickly this market has matured since 2010 and in the process decimated some of the big players.
The tablet revolution still does not find me as a consumer in 2012. This has little to do with how good the products are on both iOS and Android these days and it has more to do with my growing gadget-aversion. It is hard these days to travel anywhere without resembling a human bomb with wires sticking out from everywhere. Chargers, connectors, cases, storage media, USB hubs — the list is endless of the things I need to carry on me these days and I don’t like it one bit. I had resisted the touchscreen revolution till late 2010 (in fact, I was more or less forced into it) and I find the same happening for me with tablets. They don’t make my life easier yet, when they do I’ll sign up for one.
E-commerce
This was somewhat a lesser blind spot for me, but I have managed to cover most gaps in understanding the domain in 2012. Ideally, this is the real first wave of e-commerce in India, even though we have had various forms of it online since 1999 in India. In 1999, e-commerce was a solution looking for a problem, in 2012 it is a solution that actually addresses a problem. There are many fundamental issues with the domain, but that’s to be expected when you are growing markets that are very change-averse. The next 2-years will see both operations and customers mature a lot and it is then the real fun will begin. The biggest change for me here is the gradual demise of transaction starvation and the growth of the market. Second biggest change is the commoditization of the nuts-and-bolts parts of selling online.
Social
Ideally, I should say more marketing than social. Social is just another channel for marketeers. Having set aside a lot of the traditional hype related to anything social, it was an interesting concept for me to attempt to measure social at par with various other business metrics. It is still a work in progress and my opinion of the domain has undergone a drastic change because of that.
Conclusion
2013 will be a big year. The years since 2008 has been a slow buildup towards this year, everything else along the way has been a process of trying to learn just about enough to understand what I really want to do. It will call for changes that are very much out of my comfort zone. It will call for an ability to learn and adapt at a pace that is far beyond what I have ever done so far. If I were to say that there is no fear in plunging into all that, setting aside what is now an extremely comfortable position, I’d be lying. I’m scared, but I’m not apprehensive and I am fairly certain that I can accomplish what I have set out to do.
Meanwhile, here’s wishing all of you a great and successful 2013.

Filed under: Frontiernxt

Is 'My Airtel' App A Hint Of Airtel's Future?

Text message from Airtel prompting me to upgrade to Android ICS from Samsung.
Text message from Airtel prompting me to upgrade to Android ICS from Samsung.

The image on the left is a message I received from Airtel on the 29th of December, 2012, suggesting that I should upgrade to Android 4.0.4 on my Samsung Android device and it says I should visit the Samsung India website to get the process going. This is interesting for a few reasons:
1. The device has not run stock Samsung firmware after 2010 and for a while in 2011. For the past year and a half it has only run various custom ROMs, mostly various builds based on CyanogenMOD.
2. As far as I know, Samsung India does not have my phone number registered with this device. In fact, I am fairly sure that I have not registered for anything with Samsung India regarding the phone. The phone has never seen a Samsung service center.
3. The obvious suspect is Airtel. The device resides on their network and I have the ‘My Airtel‘ app installed on the device, which has permissions to read phone state, identity, network and location details. It is fairly trivial for the app to gather the required details and suggest an upgrade.
4. The lesser suspect is Google. The phone has always been wired to a Google Account and from that point it can access the firmware number, mobile number, location, carrier details etc. But the message originated from the same source that Airtel uses to send other alerts. Unless there is a formal tie-up between Airtel and Google, this will not be possible.
If it can be confirmed that the Airtel app was used to trigger the SMS, it should give us a hint that Airtel is fairly serious about the app. The app is shown to be in the 500,000 installs range by Google Play and it has a decent number of 5-star reviews. If it now triggers firmware upgrade text messages based on the model/manufacturer, it will be another significant move by Airtel to move out of the ‘dumb-pipe’ trap that telcos are desperate to get themselves out of.

Filed under: Android, India, Mobile

Why do Investors and Start-ups Ignore Small Businesses in India?

Every enterprise, be it micro, small or medium these days have a common set of requirements at the digital level. In an earlier era, office automation or digitization involved the installation of computers and digitization of documents. Today, the story is vastly different and the requirements can be roughly summed up under the following categories:
Connectivity: This covers portables (mobile phones, tablets, laptops), desktops and miscellaneous devices (IP-enabled webcams). They all need to hook up to IP networks (public & private) over wired and unwired networks. As the SaaS slowly makes its way through this space, ubiquitous IP connectivity will become the norm and any solution that will provide a simple, single point interface to manage all of that infrastructure will do really well.
Document & Information Management: This covers content management systems, file management systems, documentation systems (not limited to accounting, shipping and taxation roles), internal and external websites. Current solutions are either at the extreme high end or at the lower end where the integration nightmares put off smaller enterprises. Another neglected fact is that every sector and sub-sector has different requirements that needs solutions tailored to its needs.
Storage & Disaster Recovery: Network-attached, role-restricted devices and services are again non-existent at a lower price level or unaffordable at the higher end. Most of the smaller companies I have interacted with badly need a plug-and-play solution that has an optional cloud component.
Communication: Email, collaboration and IM servers and services. Needs range from simple email to secure web conferencing at the higher end. Various pieces of this exist in the market right now, but there is again no single easy-to-use managed service.
Business Intelligence: I am really surprised that something like ActiveCell for India does not exist in the market. A significant chunk of the SME/SMB space has decisions driven by instinct than information. If it can be packaged and made to work right, the opportunity is considerable.
There are obvious challenges to addressing the small business space, especially in India, the usual bugbear of payments being only one of the significant problems. But the transition to a younger leadership in the space is also changing the game. From a generation of leaders who were unfamilair with technology or computers, we have transitioned to a world where a sizable chunk of the leaders now have Blackberries and are familiar with various digital products.
Another important fact is that to make selling to SMEs in India is not just a case of running another A/B test or a smart Adwords campaign. The one thing that works well for sales in the segment is boots on the ground and as amply demonstrated by the success of Naukri.com, it is not a challenge that cannot be overcome.
In 2013, I am hopeful that we’ll see more action in this space both from investors and entrepreneurs.

Filed under: Business, India, Start-ups

Change The Thinking

Last evening, I had the opportunity to attend the Delhi chapter of Hacks/Hackers (terrible name, if you ask me) organized by Anika Gupta and  Shrey Malhotra. The idea was to get both hackers (better known as programmers) and hacks (better known as media professionals) on the same platform to figure out ways to reboot journalism. I won’t go into discussing the problems and opportunities in media and elsewhere. It is a topic that needs a different discussion. What I will write about is how we can probably do a better job of coming up with ideas and figure out if they are feasible at all.
At most of these events, I find a lot of bright people (both young and old) interested in trying to come up with different solutions to what they think is a problem. While these ideas do address some problem or the other, not all of them have enough merit to make the transformation from something an individual would love to use to something that can support a healthy growing business around it.
It was with this concept in mind that I asked everyone gathered the following questions:

  1. If you were given Rs. 5 crore, with the only condition being that you’ll build a media product, what would you do?
  2. How long do you think that money will keep you going?
  3. How long do you think it will be before you’ll break even on that money?

Unfortunately, I asked the question towards the end of the session and at least Nikhil thought it was an attempt by me to crowdsouce a business plan. Nobody else attempted an answer and that is where we have to change things first. Ideas are like stones in a river, there is always more than enough in there. To succeed as a business, you have start at the point of being able to answer the three questions (OK, you can change that 5 crore figure to anything you like) about your idea.
Understanding these key numbers (traction, revenue, OPEX), even to the limited extent you can project them, will help you look more effectively for the size/kind of investment you need. It will also give you a good idea about timeframe/runway you’ll have at different investment/traction levels. It may look like too much icky work for either a hacker or hack, but if you are going to wade into creating a business/product or come up with serious enough suggestions to reboot any business, you have to learn to work with these numbers.
Short of that, all we’d be doing will be idle ‘ideation‘.

Filed under: Business, India, Media, Start-ups