Saturday, February 11, 2017

Lessons from a Daily Commute

I drive to and from work for around an hour and a half each day - usually on my motorcycle - on the chaotic roads of Chennai surrounded by aggressive drivers competing for every inch of space. I tried to draw parallels between the chaos I witness on the roads and the journey of a typical startup in the chaos of market forces. My personal goals on the road are much the same as that of a startup - survive, reach your destination in shape and never relax until you get there.

Traffic on Old Madras Road
Photo courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jace/65091602 under Creative Commons


This is a brief journal of the startup lessons I thought one can draw from such a commute.

Keep Safe Distance

That common sense adage is not just a good safety tip to protect you from ramming into the car in front. It also ensures you can see beyond that car in front of you. Do more than just chase the leader. Anticipate the widening road and rev up to glide past. Spot the buffalo strolling across to block the leader, and swerve away to jump ahead yourself. None of this is possible if you spend your energies staring at the tail lights of the one you chase.

Respect Privacy

 On the bustling roads that take you to work, often it is faster to jump into by-lanes and bypass peak time traffic on busy intersections. These by-lanes are lined by the homes of people who chose to live away from it all. Respect their privacy and avoid honking loud or racing too fast, lest speed breakers spring up through complaints from the residents. Milk your new-found advantage, but not at the expense of your users and their privacy.

Learn to Give Way

There are the obvious occasions where you have to pull up to one side to let the ambulance breeze past. No one likes a jerk, so just do it. Then there are the less obvious occasions where blocking someone in a super hurry might not be the best thing to do. If the chasing car rams into you, you are the jerk competing unfairly. If the passing car overspeeds to oblivion, you are the sagacious plotter who always knew. When you must block to compete, be tactful and look competitive!

Stay Lean, Stay Agile

Potholes. Patch up jobs after overnight cabling work. Stray animals looking for food. Sand and stones overflowing from a road side construction project. An idiot coming at you from the wrong side. How else do you dodge these challenges but by remaining agile? The swerving and slaloming is easier if you are also on a lean machine. Maybe that is why I prefer a motorcycle rather than a car to take me to work.

The typical Indian commute is never far from chaos. What other startup lessons can you draw from your daily commute?

Sunday, September 11, 2016

An Aggravated Customer is an Opportunity

Every business has a human dimension - it must because all businesses eventually serve humans. This human dimension best comes to life when the business meets the human who is paying up for the service offered. When the human paying for the service is not very pleased with what they receive in return, we have an aggravated customer.

Too often, businesses tend to accept the aggravated customer as a natural side-effect of running a business - something that needs to be dealt with - because the show must go on. Businesses that look at an aggravated customer as a problem are missing out on a huge opportunity.


Here is an alternate perspective on receiving an aggravated customer.

Rejoice! 

You have a customer! Someone actually believed you had something worthwhile to offer and signed up. You must be doing something right. This calls for a celebration, followed by an appreciation of what you did do well so far.

They Hung Around!

The customer didn't simply walk over to your competition. Or just abandon the whole idea of leveraging your unique offering. There was something worthwhile, other things they believe can be fixed, a promise of better returns in the future - they hung around hanging on to that hope. Don't kill their belief. Reach out to them, now!

Learn!

If you care to listen, they will share. Patiently filter out the abuse, the frustration, and dig deep with them.

Empathize. Relate. What might be unique to their circumstances? You might just realize a whole new customer group existed you were never even aware of.

Understand. Confirm. What would they like to be taken care of? You might draw parallels with other problems you've seen and start seeing patterns.

Offer. Solve. What might be a possible resolution? You might just develop a new offering within your business - something someone might be willing to pay for.

You actually found someone who will give feedback voluntarily. Someone to learn from about your offering. Someone to bounce ideas off. Someone who dearly cares about what they deserve from you. Businesses would normally kill for that opportunity.

Celebrate your Aggravated Customer

Other businesses will brush the customer off by pointing the customer at their terms and conditions. They will try to teach them how to experience their business, to learn to accept their flaws. They will hide behind their vast number of customers who never grumbled, and convince themselves they are as good as they can be. You will be different. You will treat your aggravated customer as an opportunity, and treat them with the respect an intelligent, paying customer deserves. After all, they made the smart choice to choose you.

Note to: VFS, I have some ideas for how you could improve your services while making more money at the same time. You missed your opportunity.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

When Premium is Wrong

It's all around us - pay more to get treated like a king - the Premium Business Model. Pay more, arrive later, jump ahead in line, spread yourself out, get a shower while others stink. Premium lounges. Premium seating. Premium visa appointments. Premium parking. Hell, there's even such a thing as Premium darshan at temples - which is borderline discriminatory - but we'll let it pass. I have nothing against the concept. You have it, you like to splash it, and keep yourself in relative comfort - sure, knock yourself out.


Despite the premium everything, humanity persists, and must persist over everything else. Businesses eventually have to be just, because being humane and considerate is the ultimate customer experience. Imagine suggesting that people with physical disabilities should purchase premium to jump the line. Or parents with twin wailing, tired, hungry kids must buy premium to get served first. An airline could say "Just travel when you can walk yourself" or "Just travel when your kids are all grown up", but they won't - it's bad business.


If you directly serve consumers, pay close attention to where your premium model starts differentiating on humanitarian features, as opposed to material features. Because being inhuman through a premium model is bad business.

Note to: VFS Chennai, where 1 year old infants are held with their parents for 3 hours for a Visa appointment, without being allowed to carry infant food inside.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Persistence wins Mannequins

As a visual medium, cinema continues to capture our imagination, bind us into a story and take us on journeys we never thought possible - all in under 3 hours. As a visual medium, cinema also silently influences the masses, sometimes consciously, and other times subconsciously. That influence is both a powerful boon and a dreadful bane. While I don't insist on only making cinema to preach goodness into the people, I do have two sincere requests to those who make our Indian movies.

It is 2016 - please weed these out of your movies already.

If you persist, she will say yes

It's simple. You like a girl? Just keep pestering her. Stalking her. Get to her friends via other friends. Sing songs to her. On the streets. In college. On the phone. Never give up. Prey on her mind. Eventually, she'll be yours.

Every "hero" you can think of, has portrayed in reel life what would amount as "eve teasing" in real life. Think Shah Rukh in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Salman Khan in Wanted. Govinda in almost every movie.


Please put an end to this rigmarole. People die because the idea catches on. 

Mothers or Models

Struggling to list a handful of movies where a strong female character, or even a realistic female character was portrayed? Producers do have massive challenges reaching the masses in a patriarchal society. Woe betide the one who puts a woman in the forefront. Who would pay to watch that? 

Since I promised not to force movies to preach to the masses, I will stick to the Model problem. Male actors don't really need to look young or hot. They just need to be good actors. Why do we have a different bar for females? Like the beautiful landmarks songs are shot in, the hills and forests and oceans in the background, female actors only need to dress smart and look pretty, and carry home a paycheck. 15 minutes since the last song? Time to roll in our pretty thing. Too much drama and seriousness? Time to roll in a hot one.

Can we please stop using women as mannequins? They are real people. As real as the men who are portrayed in those same movies. And have their own stories to share. 

Please put an end to this rigmarole. You certainly don't want your daughter to think she is worthless because she isn't pretty enough.

PS: Hat tip to Siddharth for breaking the mould.
 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Happily Ever After

Marry, or stay single? Get hooked for life, or retain your freedom forever? Is it worth turning your nomadic existence into a three-legged race?

Some endure, others fall by the wayside (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

I once received sound advice on this matter that I feel altered the course of my life. I believe more people should be exposed to that line of thinking before they make up their own mind.

Are you a friend magnet?

It all boils down to one simple question - are you confident that no matter where you are, what your circumstances are, how old you are, you can always surround yourself with friends. Because here is a fact of life - friends come, and then they move on in life. Or you decide to move on. You have to make new ones all over again. If you stay single but your friends don't, you are competing with their families for their time.

Loneliness is always around the corner. Unless, of course, you find yourself so many friends the odds of your being alone approach zero. And remember, you must be capable of this mighty feat under all circumstances. Congratulations - you have now defeated one of humanity's greatest anxieties!

Mission Possible

Now, if you are one of the rare few who has already found their purpose in life, and are willing to dedicate everything you have to that purpose - time, money, life itself - congratulations! No, really. You don't need this advice. You don't fear loneliness. You accept your vulnerabilities. You are single-minded in what you want to spend your life on, because you realize there is no finish line to your purpose.

For everyone else, what my friend's father said is worth considering. A marriage is not about living happily ever after. It is about sharing your vulnerabilities with a companion. Within a socially acceptable bond. If  you're lucky and you both strive hard enough, you each also have a best friend for life.

So what will you choose for yourself?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

A Highway To Hell

Telecom operators control our access to the Internet, but have recently started to challenge the openness and the content-agnostic nature of the world wide web claiming it affects their bottom-line. Should we care? Here's my take on making sense of all the #NetNeutrality fuss using an analogy.

The State and Central governments in India have long been unable to sufficiently fund road and highway-building projects in the country that are key to connecting producers to consumers and disparate communities together. The solution they arrived at was to invite private entrepreneurs to build this infrastructure on a Public-Private-Partnership model so that the projects did not wane for want of public money. In return, the private investors were allowed to charge a toll for all traffic that passed through the roads they setup. Just so we are clear, the roads were still defined as public property. The builders were only allowed to milk their investment for a finite period, usually between 5 to 15 years.

The results are clearly visible around us. Some of the most modern highways we are proud of today were built using this model. Travel times were cut, fuel savings were achieved, value was delivered to both producers and consumers of goods and services who previously could not connect with as much ease.

Toll Plaza Ahead

When you pull over at a toll booth, you pay based on the size of your vehicle. Cars pay less than SUVs which in turn pay less than trucks and buses would. The toll is defined to tax heavier vehicles and ones that can carry more load more than the lighter ones. Sounds fair, right?

One fine day, an established road-preneur starts wondering how they could make more money out of their investments. They look at statistics about the kind and count of vehicles that pass through their toll-booths. "30% heavy trucks! I wonder what they carry?" A little more investigation reveals that most trucks are carrying raw materials like fruits, vegetables, minerals, sand from producers to consuming industries. These industries then ship their finished goods out, some of which again pass through the toll-booths.

The Revelation

"Multi-million dollar companies would have no market or raw materials without my roads!".

This is when a smart, canny road-preneur hits upon a novel toll scheme. Tolls are charged not based on the size or load of the vehicles, but on what's inside them. People can travel for free. Cars and buses only have to pay a nominal fee - way less than what they are used to paying. 70% of the traffic is now elated! Essential goods can also ship for free - milk, medicines, vegetables, grain. How benevolent! Everything else will have to pay extra to be shipped past the booth. Iron ore, sand, cement, steel, food products, dairy products. This is how the road-preneur gets a share of the gravy train the industries around the roads have generated.


The New Order

Industrialists start to get apprehensive. Their production costs are shooting up. Some distributors won't take their goods anymore. The road-preneur senses another opportunity. For a handsome price, a good producer can ship their goods past the toll-booth to distributors for free, forever!

Not all industrialists can afford the handsome price. Only the large ones can. Groceries have fewer selections on the shelves. Construction companies have to deal with cement and steel monopolies. Prices shoot up everywhere.

And then, the road-preneur decided to go too far. For an incredibly handsome price, trucks loaded with smuggled weed and cocaine would pass through free and hassle-free at that. Despite inspecting the contents of the truck, the toll-booth operators would turn a blind eye and not report this to the local authorities.


Up In Arms

Roads and highways are a public property, no matter who constructs them. The Internet is the same. A property for all of humanity.

Road-preneurs were given the land they built on, which was again public property. Telecom operators rent the public spectrum to build their infrastructure on. They lay cables under our lands.

For their hard work and enterprise, they will be rewarded with a means to extract a profit by tolling the traffic on their roads. This is as far as we can allow them to go. Charge by load. Not by content. Not by clout. Or by any other metric that makes the roads more accessible to one over the other. Telecom operators are also handsomely rewarded for connecting us to the Internet. Charge me by data. Any further, and you risk becoming a social evil.

Take Action today. Don't let TRAI be bullied by the vested interests of telecom operators. Save The Internet.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Chennai Police Does Deliver

This is a story about a time when the cops did not ignore the call for justice from an ordinary citizen. About a time when an ordinary citizen was pleasantly surprised to see his plea wasn't dismissed as a minor matter. When the interests of those who stand up to violence were taken care of.

I have had few interactions with cops outside of passport application related verification and a chance encounter where an officer offered me and my brother a ride. Most of my perception about them came from the standard channels - newspapers, stories and anecdotes from shared perspectives and sadly, movies. Given this background, I was not optimistic about redressal when life decided it was time for me to visit a police station and register a complaint.

It begins with road rage

I was riding to work one morning on my 2-wheeler when I slammed my brakes to avoid hitting another bike crossing the road, and in my anxiety screamed at him "Aaaaaaarggggh! What are you doing??" (in Tamil). As I watched him park his bike, he walked over to me. I expected him to engage in verbal jousts where I struggle to exchange abuses in Tamil. After a "How dare you shout at me?" (again in Tamil), he lands a punch with his right fist on my cheek. I am still perched on my bike, and I am now trying to find both my own balance and the one that perching on a bike requires. I lose the latter as my bike topples to the side. The former is naturally in check given the size of my aggressor.

A crowd gathers. Of course it does. No one is interested in resolving this. I urge my aggressor to come with me to a police station. He refuses. After the crowd pushes, he asks me to pillion behind him to the station. I refuse to trust him. I tell him we can just park our bikes and walk over. The crowd gets restless. One middle-aged guy comes out of nowhere and screams loudly at me "Deeiiiiiiii. Shut up now. Enough of this." (In Tamil). I refuse to let my aggressor leave. I try to block his escape path as he mounts his ride and prepares to leave the scene. The screamer screams again as I tell him I cannot let this guy go because he has punched me. Another person asks me to note the vehicle number and go to the cops. A lady cleaning the streets nearby is watching all this. She comes over and advises the same. As the perpetrator departs, in my heightened levels of stress, I am not even sure I noted the registration number right a few seconds after I did.

Meet the cops

I walk over to the nearby police booth. It's too early and no one is present. I call the number printed on the booth. Someone at Nolambur Police Station (W7) answers. I describe to him what I had been through. He asks me to find the station and come meet him in person. In 10 minutes, I meet a lady Constable seated at the entrance, and then I meet him for the first time - Constable C. Johnson. He was the person who answered my call. He listens patiently to my story, asks a few questions for clarification, and then asks me to lead him to the spot where the incident occurred.

Once there, he asks around to understand where we exactly were, to confirm that this belongs to his jurisdiction. No one claims to have seen the incident though. I urge him to ask the cleaning lady who is still at work in the area. He walks over to her, and I can see from a distance that she makes a punching motion with her hand. She was probably the witness that mattered in the end.

Constable Johnson asks me to return to the police station and lodge a complaint. The lady Constable guides me through this. Constable Johnson joins us later to complete the formalities. He calls a few resources to see if they can help him establish an address for the registration number of the perpetrator's bike. He is told they do not have this information, probably because it is a recent registration. He urges me to try and find apps or any other online tool that could help him get the address, because his only recourse now is to visit a Regional Transport Office (RTO) a long distance away to get the same. I meet the inspector on duty as well, who assures us that they will help us. A CSR is registered and I am asked to get on with my day as I normally would.

Hope runs low

As I await an update from the cops, I hear many accounts, including one very violent road rage incident, that have been without redressal for years. Anything but positive. I decide to give it my best shot by visiting the station personally every day.

On Day 2, I don't meet Constable Johnson. Another lady Constable on duty reveals that on that particular day he has been allotted a night shift. So I could either meet him after 9pm or the next day after noon. The lady reassures me that they will do their best and that I should not be too concerned.

I realize how gruesome their schedules can be. Day duty one day, night duty the next. I see other cops catching a few much needed winks on steel benches. Not the best conditions for a citizen's first line of defence.

On Day 3, I visit the station once again well after lunch time in the hope that I could meet Constable Johnson. The lady from Day 2 greets me again and informs me that he is having his lunch. I decide to wait, but Constable Johnson overhears this and calls me over. He updates me that since he was busy with another case of a daughter missing from her home, he requested one of his colleagues to visit the RTO and get the registered address for the bike. He asks me to be available around 8pm in the evening, in case they are able to nab the guy from his home.

Closure

At 8.30pm that night, I receive a call from Constable Johnson who urges me to rush to the station. They were able to get an address, and find the perpetrator and have brought him to the station. I take my brother with me for support. When we get there, we find a small crowd gathered. I manage to find Constable Johnson within that assembly and he asks me to identify from a distance whether the guy they have brought in is indeed the same person I lodged a complaint against. I was starting to fear I am forgetting his face, but as soon as I saw him, I realized I hadn't. A few more questions to reaffirm and match my account with that of the accused, and Constable Johnson advised us to let them proceed to register a case against the accused. The Constable informed us that he would be fined and a case would be lodged on his record.

As we walked away, I felt a sense of justice return to the whole affair. That perhaps this means our cops aren't as inadequate as we make them out to be. That perhaps they do care about our welfare sometimes.

I had a whole speech prepared to egg them on to perform their duty. One that involved reminding them that we look at them as our protectors. And that they should ensure we always come to them when seeking protection, and not go instead to a goon who can deliver instant justice in return for money. That all we wanted was to ensure perpetrators do not go about their lives in the confidence that their actions have no consequence whatsoever. That the small guy has no recourse.

I never got to deliver that speech. And I am glad for that. Glad to know that even if this is a small matter, we can all seek a little reassurance that the system does work at times. There are those in the police force who do their job. Who work long hours. Who work gruesome shifts. Who talk politely and reassuringly. Who take our feelings seriously. I salute them.