Sunday, August 10, 2008

Innovation vs. Improvements

Lately, I've found myself in several debates with various people on what exactly constitutes innovation. The debate has largely been around two areas - (1) improvements cannot be classified as innovation and (2) not all technology successes have been due to a technology innovation

Per wikipedia, "Invention that gets out in to the world is innovation". In other words, if it's already out "there", it cannot be termed as innovation. The key here is the word "there", which could mean the entire world or just your country or may be your neighborhood. If a phone is unavailable in your city, and you make it happen, its an innovation - not technological, but business innovation for sure.

However, if a feature is missing in your product and your competitor has it, then adding it is far from innovation. Apparently, not every thinks so when they say we have brought in a couple of innovations - and then they talked about how you can now search hotels by a hotel chain name. wow! - that's awesome and its only been 10 years since Expedia has it.

Second, most successful technology companies have been wildly popular thanks to marketing innovations rather than technology innovations. Twitter, for example, is a viral innovation done at the right time (many people attribute SXSW as the tipping point for Twitter), Youtube was a widget marketing innovation, Google was more of a usability innovation than an algorithmic innovation and Facebook's innovation was the walled university driven social network that provided exclusivity to its users (admittedly though, Facebook's second tipping came from its applications which was a technology innovation), Dell's was a business model innovation, Apple is a master at design and buzz innovation and Microsoft has been largely successful for its execution innovation.

As much as we'd like to think that cool propreitary technology would make a strong barrier to entry, the reality is that marketing, execution and infrastructure edge provide much stronger barriers than technology. We observe it all over, but we refuse to see it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Indian business strategy: Eat until we burst?

Have been wanting to blog this for a while, but never got around to doing it. Sanjeev Bhikchandani, one of the most candid, outspoken and entertaining speakers I have heard, said something that almost made me fall off the chair. A reporter, apparently disturbed by their incoherent assortment of investments so far, questioned what their growth strategy really was. A normal answer would have been to actually explain what it was, and argue convincingly why it all makes sense together, even though it looks disconnected on the surface. Sanjeev, however, is different and his answer was that he doesn't spend much time on most businesses since they have strong leaders, and his time is only consumed on the larger ones, ex. naukri. And that they would continue expanding as long as they have time on their hands. WTF?

If spare time is really driving growth strategy, how about picking up a hobby or two? I think that'd serve their share-holders better.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Fuckin' tabs

Wide or Deep? Is the question...

Everytime a product manager comes up with a product feature... it goes up as a tab on the home page. Mere mortals like us land on the page, scratch on our heads, bend over backwards and finally leave not knowing where we are supposed to go.

Tabs, to me, are the bane of product management. If you have a new feature for me, tell me when  i need it, don't stick it up on my face and expect me to make a decision. Give me one thing, suck me in, molest me and then show me around to other new cool stuff ya got. 

A naive little search box shows me the world wide web; A tiny cute bird keeps me connected to hundreds of friends feeding me breaking news by the second. And yet, the collective might of 40 tabs put together on a Y!, CNN, Nytimes or FirstPhera (yeah, we too - sigh!)  just turns me off. A book is linear, so is a movie or a track of music. Newspapers aren't, hence they suck and are dying.

Next time you put a tab, think! Who's problem are you solving?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Call me antisocial but

I am getting really sick and tired of people (bloggers & consultants, especially) who talk about social media, social networking, social graph - basically, everything social.

Other words that make me puke - tagging, collaboration, monetization, revenue model, web 2.0, strategy, execution, viral, unique, branding, marketing (strategy)

Here's some words that we use internally, might be meaningless for you, but are quite refreshing for us...

participation instead of social

currency instead of monetization or revenue model

direction instead of strategy

implementation instead of execution

distribution instead of marketing

interesting instead of viral

useful instead of unique

What makes you puke?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Some excuses I have heard lately

- "Uncle fell sick, so had to visit him in the hospital"
- "One of our employees has met with an accident. But we'll definitely deliver by next week"
- "Sent you three emails, but never heard back from you"
- "The person who does this had to visit his village"
- "Have too much work come up. I promise this will be done by tomorrow"
- "Have a friend's wedding to go to"

Heard any lately?

In a country of more than a billion people, getting work done from people is still the most challenging task. What's wrong with us?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Whisper of Mouth?

Nothing's more powerful for marketing than the Word of Mouth. When you reach a point when a single user recommends your product to more than one of his friends, your business tips. But not all words of mouth (or is it word of mouths?) are created equal.

Some are pushy ones - like a person using a "Tell a friend" feature. Its like selling Amway products, more like "Spam an Enemy". All social networks are guilty of these.

Next up are sneaky ones - seemingly innocent but highly disgusting. Most photo sites are guilty of these - "Sign up to see your friend's pictures". The user invites a friend to see photos and you gotta sign up to just see them (and in turn give them permission to spam you for the rest of your email life). Facebook apps, Plaxo's spam - are all great examples. Its like inviting a friend to your wedding and charging a cover fee at the door. No shit! The sad thing is, they work... but are laden with risks.

Next up are actual word of mouths. Its the "real" deal. A user loves your product, talks about it, endorses it and almost sells it for you. Everyone wants a word like this, but they are inherently risky. Users hype up the expectations and the friend can only be disappointed. Ever got a movie recommendation that was just not as good as it was hyped up to be?

And the last ones are "whispers" - these are not active referrals. In fact they aren't referrals at all. You just see your friend using it and love it. The iPod is a classic example. Blogs are another. Evite, FirstPhera, your new shoes, your shirt, your car - are all great examples.

While building a product, don't go for the bang. Try get the whispers!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Contextual Ad Messages

Saw this ad-banner on contentsutra yesterday (Feb 20).

Contextual Ad Messages work awesome, and a targeted message displayed at the right time and the right place can work magnitudes of time better than generic ones. Context could be anything - spatial, time-driven, user-driven or topic-driven.

But they are equally risky. Contexts are, by definition, niches and do not scale. Especially time-driven ones, they die down quickly and an ad that made so much sense yesterday makes no sense today - like this one. Apparently, they had the time to do a special creative for Republic Day, but no time to replace it later with the regular one.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Customers are Babies

I was reading a feedback email from one of our users saying "Great going guys!Keep up the good work.....", which evidently drew a smile from me. Right next to me was my sister-in-law teaching her toddler how to say "thanks" and smiling victoriously when he finally said it.

Managing a 6 month old startup and seeing my 2 year old nephew grow up right next door, I can't help but compare my experiences with my brother's. Sometimes we both wonder what they will just "grow up" and pay back. Customers and babies. it seems to me, are remarkably similar in their behavior and our expectations from them.

To state a few similarities...
1. Regardless of what you do, babies cry - customers do too
2. Babies are demaning, they want to be taken care of all the time. They think they are doing us a favor by letting us take care of them. Same with customers. Of course, we suck it up - because longer term, we think it'll pay off
3. Both are influenced by their peers more than their parents or vendors
4. Both are tired of what they have and love what the next door neighbor has
5. They take a loooooong time to pay back. Treat them well, give them the best (whether its education or product experience) and they'll treat you back well
6. They are gullible. Teach them a way to do things and they'll hate to change it
7. They are weird. You think you understand them and know what they want, but it's hardly right.
8. A smile from your baby, a 'thank you' from your customer - both worth a full-day's worth of work

And now, a few things we do with our babies, but probably not to our customers...

  • We never knowingly misguide our babies
  • We recognize that sending kids to work instead of school when they are young is only a short-term win and a huge long-term loss.
  • Within the resources available, we try out utmost best to provide the best to our kids
  • We absolutely love our babies. We think they belong to us and protect them from others
  • Finally, our ultimate goal is to make our kid successful when it grows up.

We make our customers successful, good things will follow...

Saturday, February 16, 2008

What's your last name? 16D?

There's a lot of debate around the true battery life for the Macbook Air, but what surprises me is that 5 hours is supposedly the bare minimum battery life people expect from a notebook. Why? Because that's roughly what is needed for a coast to coast flight in the US.

Well, unless you actually live on the plane, why bother? Who wants a notebook up there anyway?

I travel a lot and see far more people sleeping, reading, listening to music or watching a movie than using a laptop. If a laptop was really that important - why don't we demand a shape that fits in the tiny tiny air space between you and the front seat back or a motion resitant keypad that lets you type in peace even where there's turbulence.

How silly would it be to judge a book positively only because it was exactly 150 pages thick making it just enough to fit in a 5-hour flight?

Its a stupid obsession which hopefully will become irrelevant once all airlines add power outlets to their seats. Then, I suppose, we'll debate which notebook offers short & thin aircraft friendly power chords.

Its not a website, damn it!

When we first started working on FirstPhera, people often asked me "How's the website doing?", to which I'd immediately respond correcting them that it's a business, not a website.

This distinction might be minor and probably unimportant to most, but it's perhaps the most important thing for the entrepreneur to understand. What is it about "websites" like, or that unequivocably classifies them as a business vs others that are just websites.

My first thought was, well, Business = Website + lots of Revenue

Easy. But this seemed too simplistic - lots of websites have revenues these days, thanks to adsense, and yet, it does not tell an entrepreneur what needs to happen to become a business. This formula could easily be construed as turning on advertising on a website site and resting in peace. Nope, that wouldn't work.

A business needs to keep churning revenues over the longer term.. something differentiated... something sustainable. I suppose a better equation would be -

Business = Website + lots of Revenue + sustainable competitive advantage

That's better - if you have revenue and if your spare parts running the machine are better, you should produce more and last more.

But, where does the advantage come from? I wanted a formula to turn my website into a business. And this doesn't tell me that. So, I broke competitive advantage further down into the core components of the business

Business = Website + lots of Revenue + [better product + greater customers + better distribution]

This feels much better. Its suggests - you ought to have one of
a) Better product - either better quality, wider range or lower costs
b) Greater number of customers - your customer acquisition needs to be cheaper than your competitors - whether its because your uncle works at a major broadcasting channel or you have kickass strategic partnerships
c) Better distribution - need to be better than others at getting your products into the hands of your customers

Do this, and do it right for a few years and ultimately it'll become a brand
Ultimately, a kickass business is one that is a
Brand + Website + lots of Revenue + better product + greater customers + better distribution

What's your formula?

Friday, February 15, 2008

When P<>NP is good

Back in grad school doing my Math major, I dreaded problems where P <> NP - which in layman's terms meant that the problem exploldes in complexity beyond a certain size and gets impossibly harder to solve.

Now, as it comes to marketing, I dread situations where P=NP. Now, I do want the problem to explode, to reach a tipping point.

I had thought I had solved the equality problem. The quest continues...

Thursday, February 14, 2008

When "Free" is too cheap

Its getting awfully hard these days to charge money for your products - especially if you are delving in the digital soft goods world. Everyone wants a "Deal" and many a time, no thing less than "free" would suffice.

Unless of course, there is emotion involved. Imagine gifting a free rose to your valentine. Or buying a cheap discounted engagement ring for your spouse. Or framing a 25-year old wedding photo of your parents on a used frame and gifting them on their 25th anniversary. These are, supposedly, precious occassions and they command unprecedented prices.

We recently got an email from a guy who wanted to gift a wedding website to his sister as a present. I asked him to just go online and build it for her. When I mentioned its free, he got turned off. Despite the fact that he'd have to spend a good few hours putting her stories and pictures and building "emotion" in the site, the "free" stuff was an overwhelming turn-off. I offered him that we'll design it for him for Rs. 2000. He loved it - and paid up instantly!

Same stuff, same underlying value. But just because its paid for, it just "feels" precious.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Generation Gap

Ever wonder while growing up that your parents just never got "it". And ever tell yourself that when you grow old, you are not going to be like them? That you will be open-minded and try understand the younger generation?

Well, good luck.
I am 31, and am probably going through the worst identity crisis - I neither belong to the young, cool and hip school & college-going generation, neither am I a responsible, "mature" and boring adult, yet. I do not understand why my 20 year old brother loves Abercrombie, and I really do not understand what my 12-year old niece does on myspace and giggles all day about while chatting with her friends.

And now it dawns on me that the speed at which the world is moving, the generation gap is only going to get larger over time.

Which means that entrepreneurs have to try harder. Most businesses start off, because an entrepreneur was frustrated with a problem he/she was having and decided to fix it with their own business. Over time, the problem did get solved, but the entrepreneur slowly graduates to a different "phase of life", however the user generation does not. And there-in starts the generation gap - between the business and the users. Newer problems surface for the users and its time for another business to startup and fix it.

The key to stay successful is to try and pretend to be your user's generation as much as you can. And if you simply suck at it - just hire someone who can understand the user better & trust that person.

The world changes, the problems change, and your solution ought to adapt the faster than your competitors.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Wedding Website at FirstPhera = "Cool"

Seth Godin is my favorite blogger and there is seldom something he says that doesn't make you wonder "Why didn't I think of it before?". Although, chances are, you did think about it; just not as cleanly as he does.

In his latest post, Seth talks about how the brilliance of marketing is in associating your product with a desirable attribute, such as fun, respect, success, kindness or hope. That, the marketers do so all the time, is no surprise. All you need to do is look at the tag line all brands sport. Ex. Buying travel from Hotwire = "Smart", buying quizzes for your kids = "intellectual", Macdonalds = "fun".

To be clear, these associations are fabricated by the marketer, but they are vital; since it presents the product to the consumers in a language they understand. The genius of marketing is when these associations become "facts".

And perhaps no industry is more ripe with false "facts" than the Indian Wedding Industry.

Photography? Of course, we need a 1000 photos and a 12-hour video. Its "memorable"

Food? Oh Yeah... we need mexican, italian, punjabi, chinese and 16 different types of soups. It befits our "status"

Engagement Ring? Nothing smaller than a 1.5 carat diamond would do. I just "love" her so much...

Honeymoon? Has to be at least 5000 miles away, its "romantic"

The value of a wedding website is hard to convey, and it was clear the first time I talked to my dad about it. So we needed an abstract to associate ourselves with. The question was - what is it?

Wedding Website is a "smart" thing to do since it replaces invitations and saves money?

Wedding Website is a "fun" thing to do since you get to share stories and pictures almost like your wedding is already there.

Wedding Website is a "cool" thing to do since it's different and very few are doing it this way.

We opted for "cool". What do you think? Feel right?

Friday, February 08, 2008

Profiting from the default? Risky proposition...

While searching for a link to place on the book "The Brand Gap" in my previous post, i googled the term, almost assured that the top result would take me to an page.

Here's what I got instead -

The top result is a "Google Books" (not linked intentionally) page. Not only is it not presented as an advertisement (which is what it is), but its presented much more neatly than the Amazon search result.

Google Books has a page rank of 8, Amazon has 9. Amazon had 40 customer reviews of this book and searchable pages. Google has none of this - and yet, it deserves to be the "default result"?

The primary reason why Google has been such a success is because it played right with the smart users, the "mavens" as the Tipping Point calls them, and their word of mouth helped its exponential growth. Microsoft, on the other hand, profited immensely from the lazier lesser mortals who accepted the "default" - be it the default browser or the default word processor and didn't bother to give its competing products a look.

Sure, it works, as long as you believe the world is ignorant. Unfortunately, it isn't, and bad publicity spreads faster than good. Beware!

Are the default options in your product driven by your needs or your consumer's?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The world of logos

A few months before we launched, I was looking around to get the logo done for the website. Having no prior background whatsoever, I picked up a book Brand Gap - in the hope of teaching myself how to do a logo. And equipped with my new found knowledge, I asked the designer to "make me something" that has the following characteristics -

1) Must be exquisite - like a bride wants her wedding to be
2) Be imperfect - there should be something (invisibly) wrong with the logo, to invoke curiousness
3) Be different - yawn... everyone says that!
4) The brand name and the icon must be integrated, i.e. if my competitor swapped our icon into its brand name, it should look broken. Classic example - Apple
5) The icon must convey weddings
6) Keep it fluid. We'll never get it right the first time

Next, I gave her my personal favorites - '

And what emerged, thanks to her creative brilliance -

Curious, deep meaning and yet fluid. I could change the colors of the icon where ever I want. The stylized yellow element on the right part of the icon represents "f " and "p" - so it'd not fit anyone else and it also represents a "heart". Finally, the two faces on the left (yes, its two, not one :) - stands for a couple wedded together.

What do you think?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Microsoft Weds Yahoo

Curious what a Microsoft / Yahoo marriage would look like? Check out this hilarious wedsite put together at the FirstPhera blog. Its fun :)

Thursday, January 31, 2008

We serve you all

Check out the top line on google search results. For the ignorant dumb mortals - it shows how to save a nano-second while searching.

Why? I can't imagine more than a very small fraction of population finding this useful. Secondly, who cares? Finally, where do they make keyboards with "return" key these days? Stupid!

Download until I die

Windows thinks that it will take me 48,851 days (~133.83 years) to download a 134MB file. This was while I downloading at a quick speed of 1 meg every 2 seconds.
Did they just do the math wrong or is this some sick prank? Sure, things are just slower at Microsoft these days, but how sluggish is that :)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Customers are smarter than you think...

Marketing is THE most difficult, painful and important task for any consumer facing business. All of us who are in the process of building a consumer brand will recognize that and will agree that often times it's tempting to do things that arent' quite right. But, what the heck! In the long run, we figure, when you are a "BRAND", no one really gives a damn about a few wrong things you did while getting there.

That is, ofcourse, true if you are still living in the 90s. Things have changed. And thankfully, whenever I am tempted to think otherwise, I come across stuff that keeps me honest. Here's two recent posts I came across recently, about two internet brands in India that are quite big and I quite respect.

The first one is apparently a complaint by a BharatMatrimony user being spammed by the company despite unregistering. Feedback from others - mark them as junk, and you will be saved from further pestering.

Individually, we consumers, may not be as smart or as big as a business is, but as a community, we are much smarter and much smarter. Lets ship stuff that helps leverage this power and not get caught in pretty short-term gains.

The second one, though quite different, is interesting, nevetheless.
Cleartrip apparently is cross-selling hotels to air customers. This is a common strategy, and almost everyone does it online. And those who don't do it are either stupid or dead. The difference here is that cleartrip seems to do it on the phone, through voice! And while this might work for a number of their customers, one of them got irritated and wrote back on its blog.
Hrush acknowedges, and hopefully they'll stop.

The reason, I hope they do stop, is because online travel is largely a business of breaking "ties". When price is equal across all, and inventory is the same, we consumers decide on the intangibles. Having read this post, now I am worried that I'll receive calls from them after i make a booking and I'll be reminded of this every time I am on their billing page and they ask me for my phone number. Ouch... not a good thought for your consumers to have, when they are just one-step removed from paying you money.

Build it slow... build it right. And if you fail, just because you didn't cheat, that's ok. Die with dignity!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Fools rush in

I could not help but laugh off the reaction by the hordes of dumb investors who were affected by the stock market blood bath in the last few days.

The news snippet below, cited by - is worth a chuckle :)
In Mumbai, a huge number of ambulances were pressed into service between brokers’ offices and nearby hospitals to reach persons complaining of chest pain or uneasiness. Doctors in hospitals across the city were hard-pressed to examine the increasing number of patients being brought in with chest complaints and related illnesses. The ICUs of almost all city hospitals were full. ECG machines in several hospitals reported to have failed as the volatile signals were too high to measure. According to unconfirmed reports, hospitals have placed orders for large number of new equipment to meet the massive demand. Fire fighters had a tough time in various parts of the city trying to bring down people from the terraces of high-rise buildings as they threatened to jump to their death having lost all their savings to the market crash.

In another news, there were heavy protests outside the finance minister's home with angry investors shouting slogans like "Chidambaram Murdabad" blaming him for the market crash

We blame the finance minister for a market crash, the umpires for a lost cricket match, the local policeman for a traffic jam. When don't we just own up our stupidity?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Yahoo sucks... big-time!

Google's dominance in the search market is well-documented. Its always surprised me quite a bit that Y! just cannot make any gains in its market share. Sure, Y! has more cluttered interface, its focus might be somewhere else and its algorithm might be inferior. These things are obviously fixable and it might over time.

But what makes Y! so unpardonably pathetic is that their SEM program sucks. True their overhyped Panama platform might help make some algorithmic gains over time, but why does the interface suck? They may not be smart enough to match keywords and serve ads, but c'mon guys - don't tell me you cannot a simple usable interface for your advertisers.

Between Y! and Google, the former has generally demonstrated better ability to produce fantastic UIs, but SEM is another beast. Make no mistake, Google's adwords is far from being ideal and could very well do with a more thought-through design, but Y!'s looks like a school-boy project.

If as an advertiser, where Y! clicks come at a 70% discount to Google's, if I still cannot make myself to increase my spend on Y! SEM, there is a serious problem. Not being able to drive customers to pay you is one thing; but when you do not have the etiquette to accept more money from a paying and willing customer, you are doomed, i think!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

No Chaos! Just Unconference @ Barcamp Ahmedabad

All you techies, geeks, web/mobile/startup enthusiasts, techno-philes or phobes, etc. - be sure to attend the BarCamp (un)conference at IIM Ahmedabad this coming Saturday the 19th.

For those who don't know, BarCamp is just what it sounds like, well almost. Its a camp of like-minded people to hang out and talk about fun stuff related to internet, mobile, technology, startups, etc. Its open, its democratic and its fluid. No pre-appointed speakers, no agenda, no sales pitches and unfortunately no beer.

Daniel Tardiman explains here why its called so. While Ahmedabad has been a bit slow to get on the BarCamp scene compared to our more techier brethrens in Bangalore, Hyderabad, etc. - there's no reason why we can't leapfrog them in quality.

For more info, visit the wiki and register yourself. And if you wish to get in behind the scenes action, become a groupie here

When - Saturday, Jan 19th. 9.30 AM - 5PM
Where - New IIM Campus, Ahmedabad

I am considering doing a talk on Startups there. Hope to see you there!