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General Thinking

Just Imagine

Just imagine, if you were to go back to 2010, tapping a slab of glass a few times and expecting a cab to appear would have seemed like magic. It is commonplace and normal today.

Just imagine, if you were to go back to 1990, sitting and home and clicking a pointing device and accessing an entire library would have seemed like magic. It was commonplace in 2010.

Just imagine, if you were in 1980s Delhi, going to a grocery store and being able to buy milk would have seemed like magic. It was commonplace by late 1990s.

You don’t need to travel centuries to see how our lives have changed. A few years or a decade can be life-altering. Human ingenuity has meant that we have always kept our heads down and kept moving forward.

What is going to seem like commonplace in 2030? Something that solves a problem in a way that you cannot even fathom in 2020?

The current situation has opened up a broader set of possibilities than previously imaginable. Inertia does not exist; apart from in the stock markets. Things are changing fast to reach another ‘commonplace’. Also, unlike the startups that were founded in 2010; you would not even be needed to bribe your user into changing their behaviour. They are in a place where they are more than willing to.

COVID has exposed the fragilities in our systems. The more optimised, the more fragile. In education, transportation, supply chain, healthcare, real estate, hospitality; opportunities are many; solutions are few. Can you let your imagination run wild? Find a solution that seems like magic.

Now is the time – Just imagine.

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General Thinking

Brave

The times these days require one to be brave. To visit a supermarket nearby; to work outside; to just run an errand; you need to be brave. The pandemic has caused that kind of fear in the hearts and minds of people.

But this blog is not about that. Sometimes you discover something and want to share it; this is about that.

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Internet was being introduced to consumers, Tim Berners-Lee wanted to create a system through which all content creators who put their creation online would be able to monetise it. He had imagined an internet where every time a hyperlink was clicked, the site to which the user was directed would receive a small micropayment from the user. 

Unfortunately, before he could build something like this, Mozilla was released and it opened up the Pandora’s box. The Internet grew faster than anyone could have imagined and the genie once let out of the bottle could not be put back in.

In truth, if you think about it, it was solely because the internet was a free platform that it grew as quickly as it did. While Tim’s visions would have been great for content creators, it would have drastically slowed down the spread of the internet. Think about it, Google performs 63000 searches per second. Each of those searches leads to a click. Imagine having to pay for each click, even a small amount. It would have slowed the growth of the internet in critical ways.

But, it is this very same attention that the largest internet companies have been able to monetise for their benefit. Google and Facebook have built their entire empire on hogging your attention. The unfortunate consequence of this has been the current situation where the world is so divided. If there is a certain kind of content that can help me hold your attention, I show you more of it. Over time, the reinforcement just turns into your belief. 

Is Narendra Modi good or bad? If you watched a video about all the things he has done wrong and I keep showing you more and more of those – he is all bad. If I show you videos of how he has stood up for your community and keep showing you more and more of those – he is all good. The truth is somewhere in the middle. 

What if this attention could be monetised with your permission, rather than how it is being done today? A way where you chose what you give your attention to rather than deducing the same in sinister ways and forcing your thoughts that way. 

Brave is a new browser that has taken a step towards making that distinction. Brave uses BAT the Basic Attention Token to reward its users for using its browser. They indulge in permission marketing and present notifications for ads you might be interested in seeing. You can further use the crypto tokens to contribute towards sites that you like or would wish to support. You can do this by donating the BAT tokens.

Arguably this does not eliminate Google and Facebook. Nevertheless, I feel it is a step in the right direction. It puts the power back in the hands of the user and allows the monetisation of the same. It is a brave experiment and I hope it succeeds.

Learn more about Brave

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General Thinking

Two Steps Forward One Step Back

When people write history, they like to smoothen the curve and make it seem like a constant journey from one milestone to the next. But history is, if anything, really messy. It is a process of attempting to move forward while repeatedly falling back only to find your way again. Between 1800 and 1900, many discoveries were made which improved the lives of people substantially. Just before the first world war, the magic of electricity changed the lives of people in unimaginable ways. 

This was followed by 2 World Wars separated by the Great Depression, it was certainly a huge step back. From the ashes of war emerged a stronger world that moved forward in meaningful ways. This led to the improvement of the quality of lives of many across the world. Life expectancy increased, job opportunities multiplied, and access to education improved. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had a little more than 1 Billion people in the world. By the end of the century, we had more than 7 Billion and still managed to create employment for more than 90% of them. For any person living today, no matter which continent, it is normal to feel that the world is taking a step back. 

A pandemic, global climate catastrophe, an unbelievably bad economy and incredibly bad leadership – everywhere! Seems all bad.

It will change.

Even if you were to look at the stock market charts or the share price movement for any company, zoom out! All you would see are mountains – peaks and troughs. This would be true, no matter how successful or unsuccessful a company is. This is the only truth of life.

You take two steps forward and one step back.

As an individual, you need to be able to see your lives through the same prism of this forward and back movement. Unfortunately, in life, much as in the case of history, we are taught to expect life to be a smooth curve upwards. We feel disappointed and let down whenever things do not play out that way. Do not expect a smooth curve; life will take you back and forth. My mother told me, life will keep coming at you like waves. It is this nature that gives life meaning. Otherwise, life would become far too boring. 

What makes this narrative even worse is when you measure life only from one dimension.

Your Narrative

I have myself suffered and watch several entrepreneurs suffer through challenges in life. In the early days, cash tends to be short in supply. If your plans do not pan out the way you had imagined, you can find yourself cash-strapped. In a world where success is measured only by the size of your bank account; it is normal to feel that you have lost everything. Rather than a step back it feels like you have jumped into a bottomless abyss. 

Invariably what I have also noticed is that these individuals grow immensely as people. Their ability to absorb pressure, their ability to analyse practically and the insights that they possess, sharpen a great deal. The world cannot see this or measure it. It is a travesty when the individuals themselves have no realisation of what they are gaining and fixate only on financial success. 

Life is a series of disappointments, hiding moments of contentedness OR life is a joyful, hiding moments of disappointments. It is only a question of how you choose to look at it; it is the same. It is all in your head and a reflection of your mental toughness and outlook toward life. 

When you feel you are taking a step backwards, always remember there is some other facet of yourself where you are taking a step forward. Keep moving!

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General Thinking

Reimagine

In the year 1940, Alcoa came with the portmanteau by blending the terms Imagination and Engineering to create the term Imagineering. Disney took up the term in 1962 and called its Research and Development wing – Walt Disney Imagineering. The idea was to imagine something that did not exist and then to turn it into reality.

We are having the greatest Imagineering opportunity of the century with the difficulties that the current situation has unleashed.

In 2008, we last saw a recession that wiped out many businesses. It was an opportunity to Imagineer. Companies like Airbnb were founded at the time re-imagining the way travel and vacations were organised. For many, it was another way to look at the business and it was also a way for many to get involved. The tailwinds of those changes brought about Blockchain. Slowly but surely blockchain is in the process of changing the way many industries function. In certain cases, it is even transforming governance. 

In 2020, we have been offered an unprecedented opportunity to re-imagine. The number of industries that seem to have one foot in the grave is not small. Real Estate, Fashion, Travel, Tourism, Aviation, Restaurants, Weddings, Education (Infrastructure), Gyms and others are facing existential challenges. I have probably left out several others that are suffering to no ends due to the pandemic. 

In each of these industries, there is an opportunity to reimagine a new future. Not necessarily one where one uses the internet to create a virtual paradigm but one where we could dream of new ways to do things that are completely unlike the old. As Airbnb did, instead of hotels, they got people to stay at other people’s homes. It is far more environmentally friendly, affordable and has the potential to offer a better experience than a standard hotel.

It is time again to think what the future would need and how that future must be enabled. How to make things possible for the people and industry in a way that enhances possibilities and while creating opportunities for many. At the end is that not what startups do and excel at? 

What kind of world do we imagine for ourselves? What possibilities have we ignored simply because it sounded strange in the world that we lived in? Now is the time to roll out all of those business models and test them out in the market. You never know, you may just find a gem or the next major revolution.

Never in the history of this world has the world been so willing to change and at the same time had the wherewithal to affect it in a very short time. What change are you going to bring to the market?

As I had mentioned in my previous blog, whatever you plan to do, do it soon. The change will come like a tsunami and before you realise the opportunity would have vanished.

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General Thinking Entrepreneurship

2016 : FoodTech :: 2020 : EduTech

In 2016, there was an explosion of food-tech startups. These were not really food-tech. Frankly, there has never been much food-tech in India. What was deemed food-tech was just food delivery startups. It also happened to be a time when more and more wealthy Indians were getting involved in investing. Having seen Flipkart come from nowhere and make Billions had fired up the imagination of many!

There were a few issues.

Most of the “food-tech” companies were cloud kitchens that delivered, with an app slapped-on. Even worse, they were providing an undifferentiated product. Still, further, they were often priced below cost because “customer acquisition”. Everyone has to eat and if the food delivered home is going to cost less than cooking people are bound to buy. Investors were also focused only on the user base. The trouble is when you lose money on every single transaction scaling fast means only one thing – losing more money.

Eventually, dozens of them went out of business and many of the wealthy who had just entered the “Angel Investor” pool swore never to invest again. 

The rise of the education

Now you hear EduTech all around. The reason – all of the educational institutions have been shut down due to the current pandemic and this has disrupted the rhythm of educational institutions which are a well-oiled machine. 

Institutions run an intake and graduation cycle. Students cannot join when they please. But with no clarity on when the pandemic might end this cycle is being tested.

Around the world, almost none of the parents finance their children’s education so their children learn. Here in India, children are sent to educational institutions with one express purpose – getting a job. Have you ever heard anyone discuss how good any professor at any college is before deciding to join? In the United States, they go to college so that they may have a lot of rich friends – Network.

The schooling system we have is a result of a compact between the industrialists and the politicians. To supply trained labour for the industries. In India, this same compact translates into engineering colleges that produce engineers who can’t engineer anything! They can join IT firms for paltry pay.

How is an app going to live up to this? Substandard engineers – sure. Jobs?

Investors are again making a misplaced bet. The question that they should be asking themselves is what ‘piece of paper’ will guarantee a job in the future? Can they bend policies to their will? 

Byjus although highly valued; is still a conduit to get into IIT or IIM. They started with CAT classes. Their popularity is because kids who study with their assistance have a better chance of getting into those hallowed institutions; implying job placement.

Byjus probably should purchase an HR company and commence placement. In the words of techies, they will then have a full-stack! 

Where is education moving to and where will it end in the next 5 years? Will the industry stop demanding degrees? This is not just about a few startups, but the industry as a whole? 

Will they be willing to hire those with certifications from private organisations? 

How will the politicians (college owners) who have hundreds of millions to be lost in revenue react to this? 

These are but, some of the questions that investors have to be asking themselves while going gung-ho on Edu-tech.

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General Thinking

Should Startups Worry or Should Reliance?

Reliance has raised more capital in the 2 months than all of the startup eco-system did in 2019. Indian startups raised a “record-breaking” USD 14.5 Billion in 2019!

Many investors and founders across many industries are worried about what might be possible with that kind of capital in their war chest. I think it is Reliance that should be worried now.

When working with startups we often say – once you raise money, the real pressure begins. You can’t be slow and deliberate anymore, investors want returns. Till such time that you raise capital, you are only answerable to yourself, not after. Also, with deep-pocketed investors, if you falter and your valuations fall, they can easily buy you out and throw you out of the company.

Building Products

I have worked with a fairly large number of startups and seen how tough it can be to get a product right and get users to adopt it. It takes several iterations before you can declare that a product has the right ingredients to grow. The best thought out business plans require a fair amount of revision. Growing a product is not just about getting the product right but also constant engagement with the users. 

Often several assumptions are made and they are subsequently tested in the field. This is part of the reason slavishly copying another product rarely results in success. You have concluded without understanding the reason for arriving at that conclusion. Name one company that has been a runaway success consequence of a slavish copy. (Without giving it away free)

Have you heard of this app called ‘Hike’ which is owned by a company that has 100’s of millions of high paying users? Instead, an app developed by an 18 member team called ‘WhatsApp’ rules the world.

Reliance and Products

Reliance is not a product company. Reliance is a ‘license’ company. Right from the outset, their success has hinged on being able to extract licenses and political favours which have put them in the front. License for oil, license for telecom and license for retail (in the form of FDI limitation). 

Which was the last Reliance product you loved? (Not because it was just cheap)

Winning on products is a whole different ball game. It is not just about getting access which others do not have. It is about excellence. You have to be able to compete in an open market and succeed at that. No license is going to make it impossible for the other company to do business. Reliance is doing its level best to irritate e-commerce competitors. The leverage is always the law. Not the ability to compete and win. While that may be, it is not possible to turn every industry into a policy nightmare.

Product and Customer

Deploying a product successfully is about making a lot of cheap mistakes to arrive at the right formula to be able to put all the wood behind that arrow. If you are armed with USD 20 Billion, you are probably going to make huge mistakes and mistakes from which you may not be able to recover. Companies that get funded heavily before they hit the market often flame out. Reason – expensive experiments.

The reason for the expensive experiments if something called the base effect. If I have 100 dollars in capital and I need to deliver 100% growth, I need to make a 100 more – easy. If I have 20 Billion and investors have come in assuming I will double it in 5 years. Well…

Somethings money can’t buy.

Google is the latest company to invest in Jio Platforms. Google was once seen as invincible at anything Internet and then Facebook came along. Google launched a competitor Google Plus. It was a monumental disaster. Nothing Google could throw at it, including listing it on the home page of “Google.com” could save it. The reason – Network Effect. People go to Facebook because their friends are on Facebook. Google Plus, by comparison, was a ghost town. It is the same reason Hike failed. The same reason Jio Meet is not Zoom. It does not enjoy a network effect. 

So when it comes to the Indian 5G network, Reliance will have an upper hand in the highly regulated license driven space. But that will certainly not translate into successes in the area of Education, Healthcare, VR etc. 

Also, you know what happens to all-star teams?

Customer and Products

I mentioned earlier that it is important to make a lot of cheap mistakes with products. When you develop a product you are often trying to find a product-market fit. In other words, the right customer for your product.

Jio Platforms is busy launching a bevvy of products which is completely divorced from its customer base. Jio has an ARPU of hundred something rupees. A very small number of its existing customers are going to be able to afford a Jio Glass or the numerous other products that have been debuting. 

Finally

Reliance needed the fundraise desperately because they had piled on a lot of debt building Jio. The dominoes began to fall once Facebook stepped in and made a huge purchase. Everyone who had a few Billion in cash sitting around invested.

Having rid themselves of the debt, Reliance now has to undertake a metamorphosis to become a Product company. This is easier said than done. I think it is Reliance that has more to be worried than the startups that its businesses are going to threaten. 

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General Thinking

Rich get richer

While the poor get poorer.

Some countries and regions are currently under lockdown. Others are perhaps open to business. In both cases, travel and visits outside have been limited severely due to fear. Many businesses, such as retail and restaurants have been hit and have no hope of recovering anytime soon. This has immediate implications for the real estate business as well.

Industries that employ a large number of workers such as Aviation, Travel, Hospitality, Automobile, Retail, Real Estate and several other service businesses are succumbing.

On the other hand, not too many knowledge workers have been hit by the pandemic. They can work from home and deliver the output. The major product launches that companies like Apple, Google and others have been able to make is a testament to that fact. To the contrary, a restaurant waiter has no hope of income.

Even in a country like India; take a developer who earns say 3 Lacs a month. Normally about a Lac would be spent on essentials, a Lac kept aside for savings and then the rest on discretionary spends. This discretionary spend would go towards pubs restaurants, retail, etc. In the current environment, it is also going into savings. There is no way for them to spend this money even if they wished to. Yes, you could buy good, but how many?

As another example, take the financial markets. Those were not affected even during the lockdown. Yeah, they fell briefly. But if you were to assess the state of affairs, with the financial markets as your only proxy, you would think nothing is wrong. Apple, for instance, is 50% more valuable than it was in January. The same is true for stocks and indexes around the globe. More have recovered to their January levels. So money is being made.

But not being spent.

The longer the pandemic lasts, the more this trend accelerates. The worse it would become for those employed in lower-paying jobs. At the same time, the wealth accumulation taking place at the top end keeps accelerating. Also, money compounds. 

The direct result of this trend is going to be increased disparity between the rich and the poor. Still worse, this disparity will keep growing as each day goes by. 

In all likelihood, the current situation is expected to prevail for several months if not another year! Besides, this is not just an India phenomenon; it is global.

So the real question is; what is all this accumulated wealth going to be doing? How will this money get spent?

Would people hoard it up and wait for one side to fall flat on their face, only to then go bargain hunting? Would try to buy out assets on the cheap? 

OR 

Would this result in more risk capital being available for entrepreneurs in the future? More enterprise creation to meet the needs of the new order? Would the people who are currently struggling to make ends meet find a place in those enterprises? 

I do not suppose that it will be the latter, but one can hope.

There is a precedent. In 1918, the Spanish Influenza caused a loss of life and brought about a similar trend. People of means accumulated more wealth. It unleashed a decade long trend which culminated in the Great Depression of 1929.

I hope we learn from our past.

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General Thinking

Efficient businesses will perish

Some of the most efficient businesses are the ones that are being forced to swallow the largest losses today.

Nasim Taleb in his book ‘Anti-fragile’ talks about systems that can withstand a black swan event. A once in a lifetime shock that can be hard to predict and overcome.

Capitalism promotes profiting at all costs. This relentless pursuit of margin requires squeezing every bit of productivity and efficiency out of the system. You want things to function in a manner where not an extra moment is available to an individual.

Since time is the ultimate resource, this has also resulted in wastage of an unforeseen nature (of every other resource) just as long as it can save time. This path to generating more and more profitability has resulted in a focus on more and more efficient systems.

Highly efficient systems are incredibly inflexible.


Efficient Businesses

This of a Toyota assembly plant which is just in time and second perfect. What if you have a miss a beat?

In the US the food industry is highly efficient. The production chains are very tightly controlled and the food production system was the first to suffer when the pandemic forced a shut down of these efficient lines. Millions of Hogs had to be culled and buried as there were no buyers since restaurants had all shut down. Highly efficient systems buckle in the face of change.

In India, the banking system has the same nature of efficiency. What happens when people do not pay up their EMIs? The financial system struggles and the struggles reverberate throughout the system. The pain is yet to surface but it will.

Part of the reason startups survive at all is because they are inefficient. This makes it possible for them to pivot, change direction and business models. Startups are constantly undergoing shocks. Shocks where their assumptions about the market or customer are constantly being proven wrong. The only option that they have is to change.

When you realise that the customer is not going to buy the solution you are offering, you change. Or perish. Building a startup is like going through a series of black swan events. The only difference is these were caused by your assumptions.

A very efficient system is like a very very very sharp knife. The only thing it will do; is cut. You have to ensure that it is kept pointed in the right direction. If not, you could end up injuring yourself.

In a world that is increasingly unpredictable; one where our denial of science will result in the increased frequencies of such unprecedented black swans, it pays to be less efficient and more flexible.

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General Thinking

COVID – What the numbers reveal

COVID is a virus that has affected 0.1% of the world population. It is highly contagious and has been able to circumnavigate the globe. 

Worldmeter

On the surface – the above graphs make two things obvious :

  1. More people are being affected by COVID than before
  2. Fewer people are dying due to COVID than before

The spiking numbers during March were all the European countries reporting proper data and then taking proper steps. Made the Europeans looks like people with shit immunity and completely ill-prepared.

But there is more to the story than that. Authoritarian countries have for certain been misreporting case numbers. China for starters claims even today to have had 83,000 cases. 

The United States has 20 times as many and climbing. Even they did not scramble to build a hospital in 10 days! 

COVID and Politics

China most certainly had a much higher number of cases than reported – an order of magnitude higher – 20X / 30X / 50X what was reported. Which implies that both the graphs above are only partially accurate. The outbreak in Jan and Feb was much larger and even the deaths were more numerous.

Russia is currently passing off several COVID deaths as caused by other pre-existing conditions. This is important for Putin to be able to stay in power. In Pakistan, hospitals have ‘Full House’ boards outside of them denying patients entry. India is still dissuading testing if the symptoms are not very pronounced and Delhi has had patients turned away from hospitals because of their inability to accommodate them. 

Testing is not at the level it should be across the world. The US is leading at 25 million tests followed by Russia at 15 Million tests done. 

All Asian counties are Middle Eastern

UAE and Bahrain have tested more than 25% of their population! UK, Russia and Spain have tested 10% of their population while the USA and Italy have tested 7.5% of them. 

More generally the European countries have got a lot of testing done and this has resulted in the control that they have been able to have over the virus. 

I think more than New Zealand, UAE should be commended for the steps taken to curb the virus despite being a major transit destination with flight activity. A country not very well known for its science and one whose success is heavily attributed to a natural resource that they did nothing to acquire. 

More broadly, I think the Asian troubles are not over. 

Most of the larges Asian countries have not tested enough. They do not have the infrastructure to handle patients, hence even active cases might not find a healthcare facility to turn to. Also, a large number of poor means that their death may not even find a record until a long time has passed. In addition to this, political expediencies mean misreporting of numbers is rampant. Without a huge ramp-up in testing, the way out of this mess could be far away.

Asia will be the reason COVID will rise once again in the winter.

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General Thinking

On Faith

It is 2015, the economy is doing well. People are doing well and jobs are being created. Investors see the great potential and are willing to take bigger risks and invest in those who can find an appropriate opportunity. These are good times to be in.

Entrepreneurs who ventured out during these times faced some of the harshest competition that they could have faced. Incidentally, it was the same year that 80 startups were delivering food in the city of Bangalore and we began to be assaulted by insane traffic jams thanks to the “scaling-up” of two cab-hailing startups Ola and Uber. 

It is easy for entrepreneurs to struggle through the difficulties during these times and have ‘faith’ that things will eventually work themselves out. It does not take monumental effort to imagine a world where everything is alright. After all, there are so many people around who seem to be alright. It is just a question of time.

Fast forward to 2020. It feels like you are living inside a dystopian novel. There is a global pandemic that has locked up half the population of the world, indoors. There are earthquakes, locust attacks, the likelihood of war and mass protest. Anyone of these would be enough to form the basis of the dystopian novel. We seem to have the entire buffet.

Investors are wary, unsure of themselves and their philosophies. The market cannot be predicted over the long term. Instead of growth people are talking about contraction. Every company around seems to be laying off people and every founder has a sad tale. There are very few ventures being launched by comparison and competition if at all is restricted to a few industries. 

To be hopeful of the future and to have ‘faith’ that everything will be alright is not easy. It takes a unique individual to have faith and to fight through these tough times knowing no downturn has ever lasted forever.

These are the situations that separate boys and men.

It is easy to have faith when you are flowing with the river. True faith is when you believe despite the river flowing against you. 

I often site the story of Steve Jobs to emphasise faith. His belief in his company and the fact that – A world with Apple was better than a world without one. Steve Jobs took over Apple at the end of 1997 and the company was at the brink of bankruptcy. No sooner had he started working on a way out, the dotcom bubble burst and the market collapsed. It takes a special person to have faith when their company is teetering at the edge of bankruptcy and the markets have collapsed.

Things are bad now. But they won’t be bad forever. They will turn around and there will be a better day. Do you have faith?