Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Announcing FirstPhera.com

After many many months of scrambling, here it is - FirstPhera.com - easily the coolest wedding website creator for wedding couples. In addition to fabulous designs, we provide a very rich text editor, blogs, discussions, rsvp, task list and guest list functionality. All this for a very affordable price point of zero!

We named it FirstPhera to connote the idea that this is where weddings should start. With the popularity of matrimonial sites and the continuing abuse of wedding related names such as shaadi.com, saatphere.com, vivaaha.com and so on - we wanted the name to be somewhat tangential to it. Admittedly, many people still mistake us to be a matrimonial site - but then we have no brand equity, yet.

For those of you who are getting married, or even those who are already married - I encourage you to try it out. With free form pages, guest book, blog and photo albums, it is easily the richest personal website/blog solution out there. For inspiration, you can check Himani and mine at www.firstphera.com/himani_vikas
FirstPhera.com - you be the judge.

PS: We are in private beta. To get an invite code, just send us an email at feedback AT FirstPhera dot com

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Please don't say YES when you really mean NO

I read this book when I was very young, not sure how young - but it was definitely before I appreciated its importance. As humans we often end up taking more work than we could or ought to - just because of the fear or absurdity of saying No. If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it.

Of the first 9 business meetings I had after moving back to India, none of them said "No" to me - and yet nothing good came out of them. And then finally, My first "NO" arrived in the 10th meeting. And in an weirdly ironic and somewhat sadistic way, it felt wonderful.

Please do yourselves and others a favor. Just say NO, if you are not going to do it.

SMS - the ultimate goldmine

6.30 AM - Ahmedabad Airport
7.35 AM - Mumbai Airport
7.35AM - SMS from Hutch Customer Care - “Welcome to Mumbai”
7.36 AM - SMS from Hutch Customer Care - “Our Hutch Customer care number in Mumbai is 98201.98201. Please call us for any questions’
9.51 AM - Great deals from Big Bazaar. Save 60% on all footwear, clothes, etc.
10.14 AM - Download ringtones from ChakDe for only Rs 5/tune
11.01 AM - Call me asap. Dinner at our place at 7PM today
And so it goes…

I know a lot of the above SMSes are crap, but do you notice the gold here? The fact that mobile is a giganormous market in India and that Indians are SMS happy folks is well-known. But - the amount of data that is generated through SMS and the advertising opportunities it provides us is simply mind-boggling.
Consider this - a SMS enables an active communication between the sender and receipient. It knows precisely where the sender is located, where the recipient is located, where they both live, and it knows what we are talking about. I mean, WTF - if this together does not provide the ultimate advertising opportunity, I am not sure what does.

Imagine how much better the above set of messages could have been -
6.30 AM - Ahmedabad Airport
7.35 AM - Mumbai Airport

7.35AM - SMS from Hutch Customer Care - “Welcome to Mumbai”.
Sponsored message:
We invite you to try our breakfast at Hotel XYZ. Breakfasts from Rs 75
Message from Makemytrip: Booked your hotel yet? Hotels in Mumbai from 1900. Return flights to Ahmedabad from 1700

7.36 AM - SMS from Hutch Customer Care - “Our Hutch Customer care number in Mumbai is 98201.98201. Please call us for any questions’
9.51 AM - Great deals from Big Bazaar. Save 60% on all footwear, clothes, etc.
10.14 AM - Down ringtones from ChakDe for only Rs 5/tune

11.01 AM - Call me asap. Dinner at our place at 7PM today
Sponsored message:
Florists in Bopal, Ahmedabad, Buy bouquets from Rs. 25 OR

Dinner gifts from Rs. 125 at Big Bazaar

The last message here is probably one of the most common messages I receive - and is perhaps one of the most information rich messages - it tells you where I am going, when I am going and why I am going.

Granted, its not easy to mine the myriad of short hand words that people have started using for SMS, and interpreting context from less than 10 words of SMS is hard. But there is gazillions of data already, so its certainly doable. And when it does happen - SMS will be free, phones will be subsidized, no one will care about voice plans (who cares about voice anyway, its intrusive and its completely un-minable). And that - I think would be the googliest thing ever…

Anyone got a million dollars to bankroll this idea?

Friday, September 07, 2007

How cool is Web 1.5

Definitions aside, what if we take the best of 1.0 and 2.0 and throw the crap away.

Think about it - all the massively profitable companies from the Web 1.0 world are largely transactional companies - Ebay, Amazon, Expedia, Google, (insert any billion plus dollar company here)... These are real companies with real products and a real business model - and they make money the good old way - just sell stuff people want. Sure - Google is not transactional per se - but, arguably, it does offer a product customer wants, i.e. "information"

Now - moving on to Web 2.0 - we have YouTube, all social networking sites, most of Y! properties, millions of blogs and a whole bunch of other sites profiled on Tech Crunch. These are the sites where most of the engagement, page-views, energy, VC money and start-up activity is. But, I can think of hardly one site that actually has demonstrated the ability to make profits. Yeah - You Tube did sell for a billion six-fifty and Facebook valuations seem to many many times more - but, profits - we don't know and the jury is still out whether those are sane valuations anyway.

The point is that while Web 2.0 does really well to give users a voice, engage them through RIAs and actively pushes the envelope on web innovation - it has seldom translated to making profits. Which makes me wonder - "Should we rather take a Web 1.0 product and combine it with Web 2.0 marketing? - i.e. give them a pretty face, give our users a voice, engage them and enable them to be active advocates of your product and keep iterating?"

Case in point - Kayak (same ol' travel product, but smarter and funner), 37 signals (kickass product + fanatic users), Google Maps (a simple, but real product + viral distribution), amazon (your stuff, our store)., facebook (same old social networking + crowd-source apps).

I am not giving up on social networking sites. The jury is still out on whether all the gazillion or so user-engagement hours are monetizable? The argument of course is that these eye-balls have been monetized on TVand they are are only shifting online. The problem is that this money should have never been spent on TV in the first place. TV got the dollars because marketers had full-time jobs to do and could hardly ever measure the ROI of their investments. And there in lies the bane of the web, ROI is measurable and its hardly ever positive in the short-term. Which brings us back to Web 1.0 - sell a real product, but please please - sell it well - Web 2.0 style

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

60 years of political mess, 5 years of economic growth

Being in India on Independence Day after 10 full years (last time I was here at the same time was 1997), I was shocked to see the pride and enthusiasm in everyone around here. Initially, I thought this was all because of the 60 year mile-stone, but then 1997 marked the 50th year of independence, which, arguably is a bigger mile-stone than this one.

Then what possibly is the reason behind this rejuvenation across the board? This seeming patriotism feels just too good to be true. Something seems amiss...

And then it dawned on me, as soon as I opened the 60-page Times Of India, that this day felt eerily similar to a July 4th weekend in the US. Yes - its not patriotism, not nationalism and not a new-found pride. Its not the government and has nothing to do with our culture or history. It's the corporations. And its the media. The reason we are all excited is because (1) Today is "SALE" Day and (2) Because there are 24 different news channel, 4 different news papers, 16 different FM channels, 25 different super-markets and millions of bill board signs that flaunt the Tiranga and talk about Independence Day

How amazing is it, that just 5 years of sustained and solid economic growth makes people so excited. Reliance Mega Mart offered 60% off everything, Big Bazaar had 20-40% off and the news paper had almost 30 pages of ads (and 5 pages of news, of course!). With such amazing offers and a free holiday - celebrating Independence day has never been so exciting.

I believe now. Pride, culture, history, patriotism, national heroes - nothing matters more than commerce, profits, sales and discounts. Reliance, Adani, Infosys, Tata, Wipro and others - you are our true national heroes. We salute you.

Oh - By the way: The road just outside the Reliance Mega-mart is jammed for 2 kms and I see cars parked along the road all the way. Amazing shop, amazing merchandize. Disgusting infrastructure...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Are we social introverts?

Ever wonder why the most popular consumer gadgets in recent times are the cell-phone and the Ipod? One of them (the cellphone, i.e.) only works for social interactions. And the other one (Ipod) makes you completely unsocial. And the two together - complete us - mostly.

Is there really a need for anything else?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Apple's Safari for WIndows? Poor strategy

There are a few millions of us who believe that Steve Jobs can do no wrong. We think Apple connotes a quality, excellence and brilliance that no one else deserves. Much like Google can do no wrong and God can do no wrong (ok - this might be a bit too spiritual, but you get the point!), we think Apple can just not make anything half-ass. The Mac, the iPod and its billion variants there-of and the iPhone are all good examples of how much "trust" and "premium" we as consumers put on Apple

They why, pray why Steve, the hell did you release Safari for Windows? I do think it's a good thing and I'd love for Apple to provide me a way of not using IE - but such a lame-ass version? Is there one real reason in there that would make me change? Nope, sorry. Unsurprisingly, the bloggers responded scronfully (see here and here).

This might be a fuckin' screw-up. As consumers, we build trust in a brand that can never wrong me over a long period of time. By launching a lame-ass beta version of a browser, Apple is just telling me it is, afterall, mortal. It can do no better than Microsoft. All the credibility that it earned from me over time with its iPOD is slowly draining. Damn.. I feel robbed. Apple, Sony and Porsche are three brands I'd give my life for - now its just two of them.

Disclosure: This posting was done on Safari. My first and last one on it for a long time though...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Web 2 point Oh - half done, almost!

Dan Farber describes the 6 levels of user participation in the social web media. The report of suggests that 48% of US adult online consumers create, collect, critique or read blogs or use a social networking site. The other 52%? They are still using hotmail, i guess...

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Of India, Web and Online Travel

There is clearly a lot of enthusiasm in India regarding Travel. There are five big VC-funded companies, two large portals (India Times and Rediff), several international behemoths (Travelocity, Expedia, Mobissimo) coming in quickly, a rapidly rising LCC business model and gazellions of new hotel rooms being constructed. Its hard not to get excited about this industry, no?

But wait, hold on a sec. Let's dig a bit deeper -

a) Research reports suggest that the Online Travel Market in India was at $300MM in 2005. Phocuswright projects it at $2B in 2009. Evalueserve is more conservative and estimates it at $1.2B in 2010. The former is a travel consulting and research firm and has a clear interest in being optimistic. Evalueserve probably is a bit pessimistic at least to the extent it supports its report on an overheating VC market. Well, let's say it will be $1.6B in 2009. Lets also assume a healthy 25% growth rate after that until 2015. That pegs the market at 6 BILLION DOLLARS. Dr. Evil, are you listening?

b) Currently, OLTAs are 14% of online travel. Lets assume they garner 30% of total in 2015, which is quite optimistic, I think. For context, OLTAs account for 40% market share in the US, but have a slower growth rate than supplier-directs. With a popular and flourishing LCC market in India who love supplier-direct sales, the 30% expectation is quite generous.

c) The current split between Air and Hotel is 90/10. Air is just more attractive and appealing to consumers. Its the first thing they think about when they think of travel. Traditionally, Hotels pay higher commission rates, and the level of commission rates are inversely proportional to how full the hotels are. Now, in India, there is severe capacity crunch. Hotels in the top-5 metros are running at close to 80% occupancy rates (HVS). With the minimal need of additional distribution channels, a highly competitive OLTA market and no strong brand or traffic generation record, I can't imagine a Hotelier paying an Indian OLTA anywhere near that level. Air is equally grim, if not worse. Load factors are equally high and LCCs just don't use OLTAs.

In their latest filing, Expedia reported ~15% gross margins. Travelocity and Priceline are close. This, for a company that probably has a huge leverage with its suppliers, commands a 40+% market share and drives a significant portion of its business through Hotels and Packages that are higher margin businesses. With no volume, brand and power at hand, I'd guess the Indian OLTAs would be happy to take 6% home.

d) Expedia with all its benefits of scale, reported ~17% in operating margin, with sales and marketing accounting for the bulk of its costs. Given recent trends in the US travel market, I suppose Expedia is only trying to maintain its market share through its advertising. The Indian OLTAs are trying to create a market, then grow their share and then protect it through advertising. Ouch - their spends will be much much higher. At the same time, travel is a high-touch business and the infrastructure in India sucks and shit just happens - so good luck cutting down on customer care costs. Well, lets just say these OLTAs are sharp and super efficient and will in fact manage 20% operating margins.

e) So, fast forward to 2015 - and we have all OLTAs fighting for a $6B * 25% * 6% * 20% = a whopping 18 MILLION dollars per year in profits. And that will be split between 10 different agencies? At a P/E multiple of 30 (remember we are in 2015 now, when growth rates will slow down), the entire market would be roughly worth half a billion dollars.

Ouch... it seems like the real winners in all this will be the LCCs. The OLTAs are driving awareness of booking travel online through their beefed up marketing and focussing on price-based messaging. If price is king and online bookings make sense, then LCCs rock. And why would would I buy an Air Deccan ticket on Makemytrip. I am trusting Air Deccan with my life to fly me from Point A to Point B. Sure, I can trust them with my credit card.

Ah well, here are my predictions for 2010 -
1) Of the current lot, Makemytrip will succeed thanks to its strong start and dominant market share. One of Cleartrip, Yatra or Travelguru will be a distant second (think Elong in China) - thanks to their VC backing. The other two (my guess - Travelguru and Yatra will die or get acquired for cheaaaaaaaaap.
2) Travelocity and/or Expedia will do very well, very very well. It will provide differentiated value to suppliers by marketing them to the high-net worth business and leisure segment traveling to India. Both will grow organically like they did in other Asian countries.
3) A meta-search player will emerge big (possibly Rediff?) - and will give each OLTA a run for their money. Airlines will love it for driving traffic to their sites
4) A specialty vacation package business (like pleasant holidays) will realize that dynamic packaging is bogus and will focus on good-old pre-packaged vacations to leisure travelers online. It will offer great prices, rich content and excellent customer service. It will also succeed.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Is herd mentality really bad?

In his post titled "Herd mentality and Indian startups", Pranav cites some interesting examples of how almost every successful internet model (mostly in US) is quickly flooded with their indianized me-toos. While I do think Pranav is being harsh on budding entrepreneurs (you can argue that his blog itself on indian startups and entrepreneurship shows herd mentality given the many that appeared before him - try webyantra, ileher, business india 2.0); he does raise an interesting point.

Why is this happening? Lets dig a bit deeper.

First off, I don't think herd mentality is bad - I think its terrific. There is no bigger motivation than trying to replicate a proven business and success elsewhere, and its this drive that takes people through all the hard work and no money phase of a startup. And its not any different from how other things in life work - doesn't almost everyone want to be a sofware engineer right now? isn't every Bollywood movie a love story? do we really need a 100 different types of car models to choose from? But if its a formula that has worked for someone else, then why not?

Secondly, the idea in itself has no meaning. Its all about execution. If ideas is all that's needed, all VCs would be billionaires and all B-schools would be selling ideas, not degrees.

Third, and most importantly, almost all web 2.0 startups are a product of software engineers. They build great technology, decent interfaces and then just hope for traffic. What happened to marketing? Ask them and they will you - "Aah, that's not a problem at all. We'll get blogging coverage, buy google keywords and its all going to be viral". Good luck to these guys! Think about marketing first. People don't need 8 photo sharing sites and 6 DVD sites. But they do need one. How do you get to them first? How can you make them remember you forever? It's all about marketing, baby! Product is a distant second.

Finally, its all about economics. The field will become even in the long-run. If a business is easy, cheap and profitable - then it will get competitors. Ultimately, all markets get reduced to a few handful quality companies. Its just a matter of time.
Figure out how you can make your business difficult and profitable. Thats what gives you unfair advantage. Don't look at how google got to where it is - look at where they are and how difficult or impossible it will be to displace them. Its f***'ing scary...

Ask this. The internet population in India is 38ish million.
a) Are all of them taken? The answer is probably yes for social networking and matrimonial sites, but definitely not for DVD rentals
b) Is there a reason they have to be loyal to their current brand? Again, given how much time they have invested in their site, this is a yes - for social networking sites. For photo sharing sites and travel - probably 'no'
c) Is the cost to switch them over to me too much? matrimonial sites - may be ( I say may be because what if you mareketed your product to 17-year olds? They will be ready in 5 years and they will only come to you). DVD rentals - should be easy! Travel - even easier.

Like it or not, I think there is still room for a few more sites in a few of these categories।

Friday, April 20, 2007

What is it that drives you?

What is it that makes us violate the speed limits? adrenalin? the 65mph odomoter reading that calibers upto 120? is the cars in the lane next? the person next to us? or just the heck of it? whatever it is - it is freakin' fun, isn't it! I love cars that drive fast. I love employees that work fast. I love waiters that serve fast. speed is f***'in fun!

Just peep into your body odometer... if it has been reading below 70 for a while - something's wrong. CHANGE your life - find something else. If nothing works... go test-drive a porsche... or go carting. or watch a good movie. it'll help rediscover your inner fire. Go ignite!

Just do it!

Do you wake up early in the weekdays than weekends? If you answered yes, you must hate your job! No excuses, just say yes! There is nothing wrong with hating your job. If it pays you well, there must be something wrong about it. Aren't all things good the ones where we have to spend? Be it food, fashion, females?

I always try and register the first word i say as soon as I wake up. If I am saying too much of "Oh Shit" - its time to quit. If I am not eager to wake up for my job - it must suck... I wonder what makes a job fun... Is it work? Is it people? Is it the culture? Its definitely not money. I say - its fun only if it makes you feel special - whether its the client, the boss, the work or the pay-check.

When was the last time you had trouble getting out of bed? Don't remember? Stay put!