Saturday, May 30, 2015

Martians, Modi and A Challenge for The PM

For the fear of being left behind I thought it imperative to opine on my Prime Minister for whom I voted and also wanted to write a non economic, easily comprehensible, data-free article that anyone can understand especially my international audience.

I haven’t been as amused lately as I am now, looking at the various marketing machineries for Modi who has been creating an aura of invincibility and humbling the achievements of Mangalyaan in comparison of what the Ironman has achieved in the last 1 year.

Let’s ignore the following few things in the credit of Modi and imagine that aliens from Mars are responsible for these and not the government:
  • Rate of increase of farmer suicides
  • Slowdown in industrial production
  • Lack of tolerance towards the Christian and Muslim communities that has exacerbated in the last 1 year
  • Real Interest rates still high because of a high spread retained by the banks and government having no real control over anything
  • Unemployment rates going up by a few hundred basis points
  • And not a single big infrastructure project having taken off the ground with hundreds of billions of dollars stuck in stalled projects

Now let’s safely assume that a few of these amazing global tailwinds were all because of Modi’s charm that he spread, during his global sojourns:
  • Crude oil prices dropping from $110 to $55
  • Inflation is well within the comfort levels of the Central Bank
  • Dollar inflows into India that took our forex reserves to USD 350 Billion
  • Easing of tensions with Iran thereby making the Middle East a bit more stable.

While the captains of the industry aren’t getting enough opportunity to praise Modi for what he has done for the country or its economy, since no one dare displease him, my report card for my Prime Minister is as follows.

I am a common man – very middle class –  simple things matter to me.
Each day, as I read about the plan for 100 smart cities in India, I only look towards the skies and musingly ask God – "Are you kidding me?!".

I keep looking for the ‘acchhe din’ or good days that were to come with Modi.
So much talk about a corruption free country. But just recently a policeman in Bangalore fined me in cash and even gave me a discount upon negotiation. Was fined because I went on the wrong side of the road. A pertinent point to be mentioned here - Bangalore is the only city where, on a few roads, one must drive on the right side instead of left and those new to the city are supposed to know this by birth!

It's all a big sham!
Governments have only marginal utility.

For a commoner, it's like selecting an outsourced security guard for your premises at minimum wages with minimum expectations and hoping that when one day the real need arises – this fellow isn’t sleeping.  Otherwise most of the time – he's just half dead - although he's still there.

While a lot of columnists and senior journalists are busy writing the government’s scorecard, discussing his performance in incomprehensible semantics, I want to give Modi a simple task –

India approximately has an area of 3.2 million sq kilometres. Mr. Modi, please pick up any 100 only hundred sq kilometre (.03%) area of your choice anywhere across the length or the breadth of this country and convert it into a place where:
  1. An hour of rain doesn’t inundate the area and choke it
  2. Where an innocent pedestrian can walk without tripping over
  3. Where a person on a wheelchair can roam about without cursing every single day of his existence
  4. Where a tourist can drag his suitcase without a hassle, between roads and footpaths
  5. Where traffic lights work and roads have adequate lane markers
  6. Where a pedestrian has more respect (like everywhere else in the world) than the speed defying typical Indian driver on wheels
  7. Where a lady can walk without feeling uneasy or being visually stripped naked by passerbys
  8. Where someone who must be punished, is punished without blaming the 10 million pending cases in Indian judicial system 

Just maintain it for one year for the world and your voter to see.

And then we will do the swachh bharat and talk of 100 smart cities – please.

In the meanwhile it would help to spend some time in your country rather than making innumerable  trips abroad unless you want to cover it all before the oil prices start going up.

You are a good man Mr. Modi – and I think you've got the vision right. But vision must be followed by strategy, which must be followed by execution and metrics – and my Report Card says – you still have a very very long way to go. In the reportcard, at best, you get a Minus B.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

BlackBerry And The Art Of Becoming Irrelevant in the Business World

Around the time when Mark Zuckerberg was floating around in the dorms of Kirkland House figuring out Facebook (FB) or allegedly plagiarising the Winklevoss brothers' ideas, the market cap of BlackBerry (BB) was about US$64 billion.
Fast forward to 2015, the market cap of FB is at about US$225 billion while BB is less than US$6 billion.

There was a time when owning a BB was associated with busy high-level corporate executives who always felt the need to be connected and have uninterrupted access to their e-mails while on the move. The BB Messenger also known as BBM -- an Internet-based instant messenger -- was a really clever innovation, a sort of wonder that allowed people to remain connected without paying exorbitant prices on GSM texts.
The BB was seen as a well-guarded bastion when it came to security. The best of the hackers around the world could not break the encryption codes of BB. Some pockets of US government including the White House still completely rely on BB since there isn't a platform as secure as this. BB owns some 44,000 patents that form the bedrock of its intellectual property.

But when Android was taking over and becoming a preferred platform for mobile software, BB couldn't see the train coming head on and made three fundamental mistakes that have rendered it irrelevant forever.

These mistakes are similar to those that many companies make in today's business scenario.

1. Overconfidence in one's ideas and existing business models

The clich├ęd saying "change is the biggest constant" is more conversational than truly understood by the majority. Polaroid, Kodak, Xerox have all become irrelevant and BB had ample opportunity and intellectual capital to correct its course at the right time. But hubris isn't only personal and human, it's organisational as well. And hubris can do you in. Resistance to change and resistance to new ideas and new paradigms can be suicidal.
BB was an amazingly evolved tech company and was at the zenith of its popularity. But its pride and its belief in its supremacy didn't allow it to evolve and open the platform for creation of apps and allow developers to use that platform for creativity; Google's Android did. When BB's market cap was about US$64 billion, Google's was about US$35 billion USD

On most occasions I disagree with Michael Porter but here I vehemently agree. BB had created an amazing barrier to new entrant and it just scuttled it away.

2. Delay to act in the face of an approaching train

Imagine you get stuck on the tracks of an oncoming train while you are with a group of people who are only going to follow you and listen to you (read CEO). You are supposed to shout at the top of your

voice and get your followers (team members) out of harm's way. And yes you have to
scream on the top of your voice. You cannot say,Excuse me - there appears to be a moving object that vaguely looks like a speeding train and if I ain't incorrect it is seemingly moving in our direction and for our safety, we must just step aside, please. What you need to say is Get the *&^% out of the way.

Strategy strategy and (oh my God!) strategy. This word has consumed more than 80% of the educated world especially the folks from business schools. And there is less action and more strategy in the corporate world today. Parkinson's Law.

Someone within BB needed to see the onslaught of WhatsApp. By the time BB figured out that their BBM messenger had to be on an open platform, and WhatsApp had to be BB compatible - it was too late. WhatsApp spread like an unstoppable virus and before you could say Jack Robinson, WhatsApp was a 300 million strong community. Jan Koum started WhatsApp as a small initiative to circumvent the inflated GSM texting costs and that became the nemesis for BB.

3. Failing to protect the consumer's interest / pocket

I love the phrase ceteris paribus. All other things remaining constant, the cost to the consumer must be the lowest in an efficient market. You cannot have a product that's pricey, not-so-good looking, expensive to use and still running on technology that's at the end of its product lifecycle.

BB hasn't thought of introducing a dual SIM mobile phone till date. In fact, until they launched their OS10 about 24 months ago, consumers had to subscribe to a BB plan with a fixed minimum monthly cost of Rs 300 (approx US$5) in a country where average revenue per user (ARPU) is Rs 95 or about US$1.5. Frequent travellers, price-conscious consumers figured out the virtues of carrying two SIM cards for various purposes and taking full advantage of various talk-time plans. Samsung with its duos range at the right time of "need lifecycle" launched dual SIM phones and changed the game forever. Almost all manufacturers now make dual SIM phones but Samsung is far, far ahead of the curve and BB still hasn't figured it out.

BB wrote its own obituary way too soon due to inaction or absence of speedy action at the right time.

Don't let that happen to your company.

Manu also writes in Huffington Post

Sunday, May 10, 2015

License to Corruption

Research and data can throw rather interesting theories and a recent one by Uma Karmakar, a Harvard Professor and Bryan Bollinger of Fuqua threw up an interesting argument.

Their research drew a correlation that shoppers who brought their own bags to recycle would tend to buy more organic versions of food. One green action led to another. But the same people were most likely to buy ice cream, chips candy bars and cookies. These shoppers weren’t replacing green items with junk. They were just adding junk to the cart.

Uma’s research says:
You do good and you give yourself a cookie
If I behave well in one situation, I give myself license to misbehave in another.
I get a diet coke – I get myself a hamburger.
If I have carried my recyclable bag, I have helped the environment – so I have earned the icecream.

In consumer psychology ‘licensing is the key’

License to indulge or licence to be corrupt


Corruption isn’t only in financial parlance. Corruption is a simple word that means questionable intent wherein individuals don’t do what they are supposed to do or they do what they aren’t supposed to do.
‘Corruption in my most simplified connotation is diluted intent’

A simplified parallel can be drawn between the research above and over zealous and tom tomming ceos and executives in positions of authority and also between politicians who pretend to be paragons of virtue. And if you look around you there will be ample to locate.

People who are loud and brash and are over confident of their performance and cannot stop tom tomming are the people that boards and top leaders must watch out for. As corporations grow, more than often we would come across executives who are always on the right side of everything, who would always be too good to be true, whose integrity would always be seemingly unquestionable, who would always get loud in tricky situations to create a facade of invincibility. These could be the very people who would have hidden traits of Jeffery Skilling of Enron, Martha Stewart or Carly Fiorina who would put their businesses and its reputation in harm’s way.

Politicians aren’t terribly different either. The most corrupt politicians are the ones who indulge maximum in public service. India has a huge concept of farm and gas subsidies paid by the combination of fiscal deficit and tax payers money. But a fraction reaches the end user and yet the powers that be seldom show a real intent to weed out this structural flaw in public distribution because this money in some form or the other finds its way back into the politicians personal coffer.

The more money is allocated for infrastructure, the more we hear of people vanishing in open gutters during rains in India, the farmer suicides is now a global debate and yet no serious intent has been shown by the polity - for how else, but through corruption, would the elections be financed in India which is really the root cause and forms the bedrock of all corruption.

Bertrand Russel rightly quipped – Fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.

And next time be on a watch when someone tries to take the recycling of grocery bags to a level of obsession or talks too loud about ones virtues of honesty and righteousness.
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