Values

Now that I am officially off the gig that I was busy with the last year and a half, I have been pondering what is to come next? There are a couple of ideas that I have been playing with and a few interesting conversations, but I figured it would be a good idea to write down the broad contours of how I would like to work in the years I have left.

  1. Ethics: In the world where growth-at-any-cost is the popular, investor-friendly option, ethics often go for a toss. Doing the correct and decent thing is not often highly rated. I am actively trying to stay out of environments like these. The environment produced by such companies are toxic and it has an adverse impact on everything important to me.
  2. Remote-friendly: We are in an age where we at least the newer companies should actively try to shut down daily commute to the workplace. You need not create a workplace that is purely virtual. You can easily keep an office, but you can require your employees to come in only on select days when everyone is guaranteed to be in the office. Otherwise, build a culture that encourages and thrives on remote work.

    Of course, this is not going to be easy and culturally it is nearly-impossible to retrofit this once a non-remote culture has really set in. But the modern commute really has to die or reduce drastically. It makes our cities crowded, more polluted, adds stress that produces nothing additional and cuts time that can easily be used for more positive things.

  3. Good people: Find smart, good people to work with at all levels. From co-founders to co-workers it is important find the right kind of people to work with. It is worth it investing in both finding and training the right sort of people to form the core of the company. The right ones tend to stay longer with you, work better and keeps everyone happier.
  4. Make it better: For the customers you serve, the employees you work with and the industry you work in. This results in happier people and better output all around.
  5. Work is not everything: Allow people to explore other things when time permits. If times does not permit (for years in a row), you are not planning it right. 

Lifestyle As A Luxury

As you can see, the title is an obvious play on ‘Luxury Lifestyle’. After five-years of working on my own, what I have come to realize is that I have a lifestyle that is considered luxurious, mostly by people who work a regular job. Luxury, in this context, is not being able to afford a fancy dinner every evening, but the ability to go for a walk or a run in the evening when the streets are starting to fill up with the evening rush hour traffic. It is the ability to take half the day off, on a weekday, to have a nice lunch by yourself out in the winter sun, or catch a movie all on your own.

Like other luxuries, this one also does not come for free. I have had to give up having what most would call a regular life — owning a home, family with kids etc. — to support this lifestyle. To be fair, it is not an exact correlation or causation, as there are other factors too that have played a part. I did struggle through most parts of the five-years on my own, trying to bridge the gap between what I don’t have and what everyone else seemed to have, only to realize recently that it is a gap that remained unfilled not for a lack of ability, but for a lack of willingness to fill it.

Like other luxuries, as long as it delivers contentment for you and if it feels right, the price is always right. I, for one, find it hard to own something extremely expensive. I’m one of those people who merely don’t own things, they are owned by the things they own. Thus, even the thought of owning a luxury car (not that I could probably ever afford one) is an unsettling one for me. I would probably love to rent one some day and experience it for a short period of time, but not own one. For someone who loves owning one, doing exactly that is the way to go forward. You don’t owe an explanation or justification to anyone for what makes you truly happy.

That said, luck is a significant part of being able to live this lifestyle, unless you are someone who is extremely good with their financial planning. I am not one of those people. This is partly because of one of the bizarre outcomes of subsisting on very little money when I moved to Delhi. When a time came where I had more than what I needed, it really didn’t get me much joy, especially as I tried to buy my way into respect, consideration and love. Money, for me, is something that is necessary to have at a basic level. It is nearly impossible to live without it, or live without someone who has enough of it to take care of you.

But, I digress.

You need a good share of luck as being unwell or getting into a serious accident can dent seriously even substantial bank accounts. No matter how careful you are, or how gifted you are, the fact is that you cannot control most of what happens to you. If it does go wrong badly, a lifestyle like mine won’t be possible. The corollary is that even the most accounted-for and provided-for existence cannot account for or provide for all eventualities. Should there happen a massive global market crash, odds are that me, a newly minted millionaire and the beggar on the road are all going to be on the same boat pushing up the river of survival.

On Media And Hypocrisy

This post is not going to be about the business or technology aspects that I normally tend to cover here and it quite a rant, so feel free to skip.

The past couple of days have been really hard watching the terrible events at Tehelka unfold. Even though I have worked for a very short period at Tehelka during the really early days, I can’t claim to personally know either Tarun or Shoma and I have no clue about the identity of the victim either. The industry, though, is one where I have worked for a good decade and more and my relationship with it has been a troubled one. I still have very good friends in the industry and I do consulting work on and off in it.

Sadly, the incident and how everyone is reacting to it sums up my major problem with Indian media. We behave like entitled holier-than-thou cretins in the best of times and in instances like these it gets worse. Even senior journalists shed any modicum of responsibility they have towards bringing out the facts and everyone essentially turns into armchair inquisitors. Combine this with the readily-available lynch mobs that form only too easily on social media and reasonableness is nowhere to be seen.

Before I continue, I’d like to make one thing clear. What seems to have happened (‘seems’ because we need a proper investigation to look into it and I fear what comes out will be worse than what we know right now) is terrible. While I do enjoy the odd Tehelka story forwarded by friends, I am not a regular reader of the magazine and even while I am aware of its thinly-disguised bias or agenda, I find it has a significant role to play in providing a counterbalance to the fringe at the other end of the spectrum.

That said, it is also sad to see an organization slowly being bled to death like this. I have no idea why Shoma is doing what she is doing, but whatever she is doing is destroying the organization one statement at a time. It may well be the case that she is trying to save a dear friend or the company from a potentially devastating legal scenario, but saving it like this won’t leave an ounce of credibility left on the table when it is all over and done with. For the subjects that the magazine tends to cover, credibility is everything.

When you ask for exceptional things from the people you cover (honesty, courage, moral standards, fairness), it is only natural that people would expect at least a similar standard when the story is you. The internal emails that addressed the incident were so Clintonian in nature that I almost expected a diatribe on the meaning of “is” somewhere along the way. Not only were the choice of words extremely poor, but it also displayed a sense of denial about the gravity of the accusation.

Even so, the victim has every right to choose the manner she sees feels is the right way ahead. Unless you have been in a similar situation, which (fortunately), I have not been in, you cannot imagine even the smallest thing about what she is going through. So, pretending to understand and know what is the right thing to do for her is nonsensical. Similarly, it is for the law to determine what course it should take and pursue matters to the logical conclusion; it does not matter whether Tarun has recused himself or not.

Which brings us back to my main problem with the industry — which is that we are a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites. It is not uncommon for a senior journalist to be on a prime time show and criticize the hell out of a celebrity caught in a DUI/hit-and-run case and go straight to the Press Club for more than a drink or two, which is often followed by driving home drunk. Should a cop pull you over in such a state, the ‘press’ privilege is flashed and you go scot free.

I can bet that pretty much every single senior journalist raging at Tehelka has, at some stage of their career, known about some instance or the other of harassment or abuse in their organization that was hushed up. Media organizations, especially the news desks, are high stress, hostile environments to work in, especially for women. If we exercise the same degree of fairness and action that we are clamoring for from a Shoma, in organizations that we work in, a lot of these problems would not exist in the first place.

The fact is that most of us don’t and when it comes our own responsibility, all kinds of excuses start showing up.

It is hypocritical to be shocked by how Tehelka is handling this as this is how almost every media organization handles incidents of a similar nature. This is certainly not the first case of “drunken banter” the industry has seen. I am more shocked by how everyone is pretending this to be the case. It will be enlightening to do an assessment of the level of support for women on the issue of sexual harassment is in media organizations in India. I will not be surprised, if the results are shocking. Yet, every journalist out there is pretending that Tehelka is somehow a unique story.

It is not.

The sad reality is that this incident is yet another instance of everyone washing their hands off the problem. When the December 16 gang rape happened, the undertone was of a problem that is precipitated by poor, unwashed migrants who have nothing to do about their raging hormones. For the educated, cultured and privileged, such problems are always nicely compartmentalized away. It is something that happens to “those people”.

The sad reality is that in almost every family there is an uncle who is fond of pinching/fondling young kids a bit too much. The number of friends I know who have been sexually abused as kids is just way too high. These stories are all from so-called cultured, well-to-do, educated families where the solution is to hush things up. The unwashed gets the blame because there is nobody influential enough in their lives to ensure that there is no coverage, but they are, by no means, the only ones who are raping, molesting and harassing both the young and the old.

That said, lynch mobs or not, I consider it a good thing that these horrific stories are starting to come out. The first step towards solving any problem is to acknowledge that we have a problem in the first place. On that front, at least the well-to-do are in so much denial that only the shocking truth in more such revelations will show us how rampant abuse of every kind is in our society. But it will get a whole lot worse first, when we face up to our true selves, before it gets any better.

Quitters, Speculators And Spectators

If you, like me, consume news and information mostly fed by the usual tech/digital sources, odds are that you would not have missed the outrage du jour — Google’s cumbersome attempts at streamlining the identities of their user base across their product lines. The right or wrong of it aside, I think we need something new to get worked up about every couple of weeks. Consequently, the highly-connected community goes through phases of quitting Facebook (because of privacy and UI/UX concerns), Twitter (because of how they treat the developer ecosystem) and Google (too big a list to be listed here).

At the end of each of these episodes, a bunch of geeks will go and attempt to build products/platforms that aim to provide a viable alternative. A handful actually will quit and a fraction of those will write blog posts about the whole experience, while most of the users stick on as the benefits from using these products outweigh their negatives. In a sense, quitting digital products is like weight-loss these days, only that the former is at best a niche hobby, while the latter is a multi-billion dollar industry.

Through all of this, the normal users (including my parents) seem to not care much. More of them are now exposed to the same products and engage with them without the worries that seem to affect us to no end. The number of people who seem to agree with Zuck’s assertions on privacy or Google’s assumptions on why enforcing real names and a singular identity is much bigger than what a vocal minority comprises. But, unfortunately, our proclivity towards pushing the ‘one right way’ to use a product or a platform, is something that blinds us to all of this.

That said, I deleted my personal Facebook account in 2011. I have a friendless, hidden account that work compels me to keep (same as a Google+ account I have) on the side to admin pages and I don’t miss it much. My concerns were really not related to privacy. I’d be very surprised if it is no longer impossible for the state to get its hands on any piece of information, should it want to. On that front, technology has always provided only reasonable safeguards and not an absolute one. Privacy is a social expectation and that technology can help in delivering. Most of us seem to not comprehend that minor, yet significant, distinction.

Anyhow, coming back to Facebook, I quit it because it was absolutely the best time sink I could ever find. I would waste hours mindlessly clicking through pictures and profiles and, even after trying hard, it was impossible for me to use it in a productive manner. The problem was with me and not with Facebook. It was as simple as that. Which, once again, brings us back to the same point, that technology and platforms are only amplifiers and enablers. They cannot provide motive by themselves. We, the people, provide that motive. So, instead of trying to fix technology, a lot of problems in the world can be solved if we try to fix our own (often) not-so-good motives.

Speculators

Speaking of motive, nobody seems to agree anymore on why bitcoin moves in any direction at all. It is, frankly, amusing to see the volley of “it is so dead” stories pop-up every time it drops in value and the corresponding “second gold” stories pop-up every time it goes up in value. For me Bitcoin is just a different form of derivative. In fact, it is exactly what a derivative would look like if it did not have its origins in the financial industry. But, that does not make it any less a derivative (which is mostly glorified legitimacy-clad-speculation).

In a world that is increasingly depending on speculation to work as they key driver of growth ($4 billion valuation for a 3-year-old company should be enough proof of that), bitcoins are a natural fit. The greatest attraction towards it is that there is no regulatory authority for bitcoins. But, as it is with any fringe phenomenon that goes mainstream, there are already workarounds being put into place. We have started to see legitimate speculators now move into the domain and it won’t be long (especially if it sustains its current levels of volatility) before cartels are formed around market movers. And we’ll be back to square one then.

Spectators

It has now been nearly four-months since I decided to quit Twitter for a week. The reason why I quit, I’ll save it for another post. It really has nothing to do with platform issues, tech or time-wasting. I do swing by regularly, read a bit of my timeline and go away. On most days it is painful an experience. The amount of snark and vitriol on display is amazing; so is the lack of consideration towards both individuals and organizations. It is almost like we are constantly on the lookout for a mistake or an error that we can put out on display as someone’s stupidity.

Once I accomplish what I need to, I will re-engage on Twitter, but this part of it troubles me a lot. Yes, it is wrong to say that everything is negative, there is a decent share of positive, which is what brings me back regularly to read up on the timeline, but I honestly believe that most of us are far better people than we allow ourselves to be seen as.

Adventures In Entrepreneurship Of An Asocial Person

For someone who would rather not interact with anyone at all, if I could help it, trying my hand at entrepreneurship was probably the most illogical thing to do. See, the thing with taking risks, for smart people, is to take manageable risks. And for an asocial person to attempt being an entrepreneur is akin to trusting an addict with the keys to the contraband store. The end results are not often pretty and quite predictable. And that is as bad as it gets when it comes to taking manageable risks and getting it miserably wrong.

It, honestly, is not fun to face the end of the year (well, yet another year) with the same conclusion — that you need to try harder and that for all the effort, results are just not there — at what is effectively the fifth year of trying out entrepreneurship as a means to make a living. As the opportunity costs mount, derision is abundant and faith — from yourself and from close ones in yourself — is non-existent, the logical choice is to be logical (and smart) and bail while you still can.

I have read probably hundreds of accounts of where I find myself right now. Yet, living it feels like nothing I have read before. Yes, I know the drill. You should reach out and find the support in people around you and it will all become bearable, if not a whole lot better. That is the theory, real life is quite a bit different. Since the choices that led to now have been only mine, the failure exclusively belongs to me and me alone. Success — well, that finds many owners.

The dull, dark and dreary stuff aside what I can tell you is that entrepreneurship is the best test of who you really are. And I don’t mean, by entrepreneurship, freelance gigs. Actual entrepreneurship tests you like nothing else. Everything begins and ends with you. And, should you fail, it will all exclusively belong to you. Considered as a coin toss series, in this game, the odds are loaded against you. Lose — it is all yours. Win — it is a collective effort.

In short, it is not for the faint of heart. Those who have succeeded, you have my greatest respect. Those who have failed, you have even more of my respect. Those who have failed and outlived the failure, I respect you the most.

At an earlier phase in my working life, I have really held it against the talkers in the business. I mean, how could you, without anything to back it up, talk your way into a fine deal? It looked unjust, much on the lines of a lot of successful managers being good only at managing people with no other core skill of their own.

And, as always, life becomes the greatest teacher. Business, is the best social activity out there. It is all about people. You need to be able to read people well. You need to be able to read people well to understand what they are looking for and appeal to the part of them that needs appealing to. That, is the primary enabler of a deal and not any other ability of yours. Thus exists the baffling bias towards who can paint a pretty picture better without having a clue about how to bring that picture to life.

Business is all about the persona, it is all about the narrative, it is all about being able to trust, just on a hunch. The longer you survive trying to do this, the more you realize that the overbearing bias towards a positive narrative and the persona is not an aberration, but a reasonably reliable social signal that is valid within a particular context. The popular exposition of this extends from not being fired for having Microsoft or Oracle as a vendor to understanding why that four figure (in dollars) tux is well worth the price you have paid for it.

If you are smart enough, you will realize that value is not what you perceive as value, but value is what the key players in the game perceive as value. There are probable instances of overlap there — between what you think as value and what the crucial players think of as value — but it is a rare overlap to find, should it be the case that you are asocial by nature.

For me, it is a journey that has taken five years too long. I wish I could have seen and known all of that I know right now, when I started out in 2008. But, as life will make it amply clear to you, there are things you learn by thinking and imagining and there are things you learn from experience. This is something that took me five long years to come to understand. It is frustrating as hell, and I won’t lie about it. But there is no other way I could have learnt all of this.

But, for all the losses, I am not giving this up. This is what I will sink or swim with.

Onward and upward!

Encryption Is Not The Answer

The strangest reaction about the entire privacy mess that is unraveling is the quest for even stronger encryption. If you ask me, that is trying to solve the problem at the wrong end. We can, in theory, go in for unbreakable-grade encryption and hope to keep everything away from prying eyes. That would have been fine if the problem we are dealing with was limited to having an expectation that your communications will be private by default.

The question we need to ask is if all this snooping actually delivers the results that we are looking for. And it is a particularly tricky one to answer as a certain amount of force, once applied, will produce at least minimum level of results. Any sort of enforcement, once deployed, will result in at least some impact on crime anywhere in the world. So, yes, you will catch at least a few bad guys by doing things to catch the bad guys.

Thus, things turn a bit more nuanced than the binary “will it” or “won’t it”. It also becomes a question of efficiency and effectiveness. And this is where the tenuous contract between the state and its subjects comes into play. Historically, this has always been a clearly understood tradeoff. In exchange for giving up absolute freedoms and an absolute right to privacy, the state provides you a stable and secure socio-economic environment.

You Are With Us, But The Data Says You Are Against Us

The efficiency and effectiveness of any system is not always determined by how wide a coverage can the system aim to accomplish. A good example of this is prohibition. That system worked by outlawing production of alcoholic beverages. The coverage was complete, yet, it was hardly foolproof and led to other major problems. In instances like these, the contract is greatly strained and other than the exceptions of war or episodes of tyrannical rule, it inevitably breaks.

The power of any state, especially democratic ones, is drawn heavily from allowing the majority of the population to feel the state looks after their best interests. This keeps the state and the subjects on the same lines of the divide, even when the state has always been more powerful than the individual. This works well only when the system assumes that the majority of the participants are good people, with reasonable margin for error.

The same tradeoff, in free societies, allows you to keep knives at home without suspected of being a killer, even as many (albeit a smaller number) have killed others using a knife. If one fine morning, the state starts treating anyone who has a knife as a potential killer, the system will eventually break down. A state’s power may be considerable, but it is still a power granted by the majority of its subjects. The moment a state makes almost all of its subjects suspects in crimes that may or may not happen, the contract breaks and it breaks for good.

If you concern yourself with the systems — the design or study of it — one that will stand out before long is that there is no perfect system or law. The best ones are the ones that aim to get it wrong the least number of times, with allowances for fair redressal than the ones that aim to get it right all the time and try to be absolute. In a healthy system, the subjects don’t have an expectation that the state will always be right and the state does not have an expectation that the subjects are always wrong. This is what keeps the tradeoff a viable option for both parties and like any good bargain, it requires both parties to behave within expected lines.

A healthy system is less likely to punish the innocent, even at the cost of letting more of the guilty escape punishment.

The breakdown aside, there is the question of efficiency. Systems that try to examine every interaction will always provide the initial rounds of success. Over time, though, the participants in any evolving system (consciously or sub-consciously) adapt to the examination and soon you have a system that tracks everything, yet it catches nothing as you have now given the majority of the population an incentive to be evasive (for the fear of wrongful prosecution). It is easier to find 50 bad apples in a batch of 200 than it is to find them in a batch of 200,000.

In one fell swoop, you have made every subject a potentially bad person, leaving the utterly distasteful task of proving the negative as the default. Even if you ignore the issue of false positives, such systems are impossible to sustain over longer periods of time as they get more and more expensive through time, while becoming less efficient.

Role Of Computing

Major developments in computing in the new millennium can be broken down into two things. First is the ability to capture vast amounts of data. Second is the ability to process them in parallel and find patterns in them. Collectively, we have come to call this “big data” inside and outside tech these days.

We have always had the ability to capture data. The concept of accounting itself is almost as old as the human civilization. Data has always been part of our lives; it is only the extent of the data that was captured that has grown over time. Given enough resources, you can capture pretty much everything, but data itself is worthless if you can’t process it. This is the reason why we never thought much of big data until now.

One of the greatest silent revolutions of computing in the past decade has been the shift from identification through the specific to identification through patterns. In the late 1990s, when the internet was taking its baby steps to becoming the giant it is today, the identification of you, as an individual, was dependent on what you chose to declare about yourself.

There were other subtle hints that were used, but most of anyone’s idea of who you were was dependent on what you chose to disclose. Over time, that changed to observing everything you would do and figuring out really who you were likely to be, based on the actions of a known group of people whose actions match your actions, even if what they have declared about themselves have nothing in common with what they system has decided they are about.

In daily life, you see this in action in contextual advertising and recommendation systems. In fact, almost the entire sub-industry of predictive analysis depends on making inferences such as these. This, aided by the vast amount of public data that we produce these days, has meant that profiling a person (provided there exists a vast amount of profiled known data) as of a particular type can now be done in seconds, compared to weeks or months earlier.

“If he looks like a traitor, walks like a traitor, and talks like a traitor, then he probably is a traitor”

The above line could easily fit how any overly suspicious state thinks of its subjects, but it is just an adaptation of the most famous example of inductive reasoning called the ‘Duck Test‘. The earlier concept of knives in societies will make a lot more of sense when seen in the light of this test and big data.

Even in earlier times, we could collect all information about every knife made and sold in a country, but mining useful intelligence out of it was a hard job and even harder was to get it done at a reasonable speed. After all, there was no point in finding out now that Person A, who bought a knife 6-months-ago, was likely to commit murder, which he in fact did 4-months-ago.

The advances in computing now enable us to predict who all are likely to buy a knife in the next four months and given the profile of activity of murderers in our records, we can also predict who, of the lot of knife buyers in the last three moths, all are likely to commit murder in the coming months, at what time of the day and which day of the week.

That has to be a good thing, right?

Not really.

How Wrong Does Wrong Have To Be To Be Really Wrong?

If you are smart, the truth that you quickly learn from dealing with large amounts of data is that it is an imperfect science. The science is good enough to build an advertising business that will wrongly recommend tampons to someone who is very much a male or wrongly suggest an ex-husband as a potential mate on a social networking site; but it is nowhere close to being good enough to identify potentially bad people, based on patterns and inferences.

If we go back to the earlier point about what constitutes a good system — something that gets it wrong least number of times, systems that are built on aggregating data (or metadata) are terrible ones. It is not that these systems don’t get it right; they do and probably even to the extent of 70-80% of the times, but they also get it terribly wrong the other 20% of the time. When you get an advertising or recommendation system wrong, it causes a bit of embarrassment and maybe much ire, but you get a surveillance system wrong and you wind up putting way too many innocent people behind bars and destroy their lives.

People who work with big data in advertising and other online operations will be the first ones to tell you that these systems need constant tweaking and that they’re always prone to known and unknown biases based on the sampling and collection. In working with big data sets, the first assumption you make is that you are probably seeing what you want to see as what you are collecting often has the bias of your desired outcome built into it.

The Sordid Tale Of Bad Outcomes Born Of Good Intentions

With all of these flaws, why is there this major attraction in intelligence, law & enforcement communities to wholly embrace these flawed technologies? The answer lies in how the nature of conflict has changed in the 21st century.

Once upon a time, wars were simple affairs. A strong army would, more often than not, decimate a weak one, take over the lands, wealth and people of the defeated and expand their kingdom. These used to be pretty isolated and straightforward affairs.

Modern warfare bears little resemblance to any of that. For one, absolute might has become of less relevance in these times. The fear of a lone bomber these days cause more invisible damage than an actual bomb that kills many. This asymmetry has brought about a substantial shift in placing an absolute importance on prevention than retaliation.

The good intention is prevention. The bad outcome is all the snooping and data collection.

Enforcement and intelligence, anywhere, loves preventive measures. The fine balancing act of imprisoning 20 innocents to catch two really guilty to save 20 million has always been a debate that rarely finds a conclusion that is agreeable to everyone.

What makes the outcome so dangerous is that such profiling is based on actions that are performed by the majority of the population who have absolutely nothing in common with a person looking to blow up something.

Problem is that drawing such inferences gives enforcement and intelligence a magical shortcut to identifying subsets of people who can be further investigated on the basis of their belonging to the same bucket of people. Given how the inferences are made, it is easy to be bucketed in the same group if you have the same usage profile on a handful of harmless websites as a known suspect has.

And given the fact that pretty much everyone would have done something that’s not entirely right at some point in their lives, this also opens up a vast avenue for abuse by an overactive arm of enforcement, purely based on suspicion than any actual fact.

More Encryption Is Not The Answer

Coming back to where we started from, the fact is that encrypting anything and everything does not keep you safe from any of this. In fact, using so much of encryption will probably identify you as someone suspicious from the outset and that suspicion can be used to procure permission that will either force you or organizations that are intermediaries (ISPs, web hosts, the list is endless) to cooperate.

Another reason why encryption fails is this: even on a fully encrypted loop, if the other party you are communicating with is susceptible to pressure, all that is required is for the other party to silently cooperate with whoever is investigating them. That requires no brute forcing or any other fancy tech. It just requires a single weak link the chain and, unfortunately, the chain has many weak links.

In conclusion, the problem at hand is not a quandary that is technical in nature. It is one that is about the relationship between the state and its subjects. In a rather strange twist of fate, this is exactly what the terrorists wanted the modern state to become — one that lives in fear and lets that fear oppress its subjects.

Once we reach that point it is a endless slide down the rabbit hole and I am afraid we won’t realize the extent of that slide before a lot more of damage is done.

 

Why The Y Combinator Model Does Not Work In India

Y Combinator exists in an entirely different environment from what we have in India. For any healthy VC/seed/angel funded start-up ecosystem to exist, it requires two things as must-haves. The first is the existence of reasonably sized exits at regular intervals via the IPO route or through the M&A route. The second is the existence of large enough markets to support at least two to three profitable players in any domain.

YC exists in an environment where the two conditions are well satisfied, leading to a situation where there is a considerable premium on a quicker access to funds (for the start-ups) and good talent/concepts (for the investors) where there is often an excess in supply on both sides of the table. India, on the other hand, has a real shortage on both fronts – good start-ups and good investors.

The main problem is that the Indian market for digital goods and services is tiny. In a non-existent market, neither product finesse nor pricing can make much of a difference. There is barely enough size in the digital domain to sustain large profitable companies. At best we see companies that are small and profitable or one market leader who is struggling to grow in its domain or diversify out of it.

In such a situation you can't get into the early-stage/start-up investment scene armed only with effort on your side. For the fight in underdeveloped markets the right gun is money and you need plenty of it. If you walk into it with effort and connections as the only weapons you won't go anywhere. Sustaining a first-mover disadvantage is a costly exercise in greenfield areas. If you don't have the money to sustain your portfolio companies, the effort alone won't save it. It is a finite non-scaleable factor.

In trying to sustain the number of portfolio companies mostly through effort than funding, the incubators/seed/angel investors won't be able to give the companies the time/effort required to grown them. Thus they actually reduce the ability/probability of the portfolio companies to succeed.

At the current market size I don't see the possibility of any of the smaller-scale funds being able to do a great deal of good. Their possible exits are so small that I can't imagine too many LPs being happy with the rate of return the GPs can bring to the table. If you invest in the region of ~10 lakh per company, the domain that you are investing into is also likely to be very small. Since we don't have well developed markets, it is not possible to start small into a big product.

That said, the parties who can play big in this – the VCs – are also increasingly moving away from their traditional roles and behaving more like PE funds. This is understandable since there are not enough big success stories in the market that can come close to the kind of rate of returns required by the VCs, thus they wind up investing in established companies than early stage companies or start-ups.

This is, obviously, not a healthy state of affairs. In fact it is quite regressive and it does not bode well for the country as a whole. Everyone can see the untapped opportunity, but the overall direction we are headed in is making it extremely unlikely that we will ever tap into it.

Decline of Branding, Context And Death Of The Homepage

As we move further into a heavily aggregated, curated and crowd-sourced world of distribution for media, one challenge that the established players (in both digital and traditional) face is a loosening of grip in the context and branding related to the content they publish. In a world that existed before the advent of Twitter, Facebook and the aggregators like Techmeme, the sole point of distribution for publications was their own website. Briefly, there was a belief that RSS readers would change that, but it never picked up enough momentum to be ever called a tool that was used by the masses.

A common theme that I am hearing consistently from publishers of all sizes is the increasing volume of referral traffic from the new distribution channels. While this windfall in traffic is definitely is not a bad thing, it also points to a future where the concept of a homepage will gradually decline and your primary mode of reaching out to your audience will become something over which you don't have anything beyond a small degree of control.

Leveraging these new channels also mean that you are exposed to risks like fake profiles & accounts (seen in the case of the fake Twitter ID of BP) and change of terms of service that is one-sided, leaving you open to a significant loss traffic and revenue if you were to run afoul of the rules of the platform you are riding on. This also brings about a problem of a loss of branding and context when you are not a primary source for the information you publish.

Death of branding in such a situation happens in two ways:

1. The platforms enforce their own rules regarding appearance. Twitter, for instance, only allows you to put up a background image that can't be linked to anything else. Compare this with your regular home page. The difference is significant. In the matter of Facebook the difference is even more stark.

2. There is also the loss of form factor since most of these platforms allow you to access the data over their APIs, which further strips the content of any form of branding. You look and feel similar to twenty other accounts a user may follow. There is little difference between you and the “what is your favourite kink?” quiz.

Death of context happens when you get linked to contexts completely outside your control. In the pre-social world, linking was from the homepage/section page, to the story page, which was a completely controlled environment. In the current world, for a controversial topic or publication, there is always the chance that you get linked to something that has a “LOL” attached to it. With real time search results now being made a part of regular search results, the chances of these results erasing the original context is a major problem.

To get around these issues a two-pronged strategy is required:

1. Ensure that your readership/audience is engaged on all major platforms primarily from your own accounts. You need to own the conversation on the platform. This, though, is not for everyone and it can be major problem for smaller players in terms of cost and sustainability.

2. Capture the interaction of your regular audience on your own domain, thus providing a substantial value differentiation in what a member gets on the external platform and your own domain. When you find the people who interact and contribute consistently, reward them and incentivize others into doing the same.

In short, the new forms of content distribution are wonderful things, but do not grow it at the cost of your own domain by neglecting it. Build proper funneling strategies to measure engagement, retention and churn. If you value your own place in the pecking order, don't sign your death warrant by helping build a distributed iTunes store.

Giving Back

This year I have supported three Open Source initiatives that I have probably used the most. Elgg, NeoOffice and Wikipedia have contributed greatly to my ability to earn a living, learn a lot more than what I would have otherwise ever known and build and express a lot of ideas and concepts. These are not major contributions and they have been made in a personal capacity, but I do intend to push it up a notch every year and once the company steadies itself I will institute a proper program that will identify more initiatives and contribute a lot more.

A lot of what we are able to do on the web these days is possible due to the work of a handful of people who have often worked for nothing in return. If some of the software that enables us were to be billed at the level that most shrink wrapped software is billed, the internet as we know it would not exist today. You can argue about the validity and feasibility of that model, but you can't argue that all of us have benefitted greatly from it. Even though most of the stalwarts who have put together these things have not demanded money as a must-have in return for what they have created, it is a good gesture to make any contribution that you can make.

If it is possible for you, do try to find one of those that you like and contribute in whatever capacity you can.

Notes: September 23

Online Publishing

I have been watching the recent discussions on the existential crisis in media, aggregation and other related topics with interest. Not so long ago, I was part of the brigade whose primary responsibility was to publish content in various domains. And one thing I can say (this includes myself too) is that we really don't have much of a clue. Most of the current strategies can be roughly split into 1) Continue doing what has been done all the time and turn a blind eye to the elephant in the room 2) Try anything and everything, hope something sticks.

Everyone is constrained by the scale available in the publishing business, which means that even with a big money push, you can't flip it since there is a glass ceiling that you can't seem to break through. Even the cluster-of-verticals strategy is limited by cost. Just because content is abound does not mean that it is cheap to create, especially if you are focussed on quality. The numbers simply don't add up. What is then left is to explore brand new forms of advertising, which has shown some promise, but even that won't go too far before market saturation catches up with it.

The Instamedia story is pretty interesting on this front. If you take away the corporate speak, the company runs a set of vertical blogs and has a content publishing and monetization platform. But $10 million is still a pretty big round, which I think will compromise the company's approach to the business it is in. I know, there is the age-old wisdom about raising as much money when you can, but I do believe that the size of the round will create a lot of trouble for them. Businesses like Instamedia work only at a particular scale/burn rate. Mess around with the economics of it and you will see the model evaporate before you can spell the word.

Leadership

One lovely thing about the rags that cover the industry is that everyone is an expert in it. Companies are never built in a day, nor are they taken apart in a day. Both processes take periods of time that are much longer. In this context, I find all the rucks about whether Carol Bartz should be fired or retained to be quite funny. I can bet that 90% commenting with a great deal of expertise have never sat on the board of a company or been in a leadership position in a company that is even 1/1000th of Yahoo!'s scale.

I have no love lost for the big Y!. I find the company to be overstaffed, way too layered and stagnant. But, you need not always build a Twitter every year to to be a successful company and if the market valuation is the only benchmark you are going to use to see how successful a company is, I guess you would then term Microsoft as a pretty dismal player.