Can Flipkart be Saved? Can Arithmetic be Altered?

It is no news that Flipkart is faltering. Fighting bravely, but faltering. Struggling to keep up with Amazon in the game that they themselves played against all the Indian players earlier – the game of the last man standing. A game that relies on having deep pockets.

Let me pause here for a moment before going ahead. You cannot take away from Flipkart everything that they have done right. The deep pocket by itself wouldn’t have taken them where they have reached. It was the execution that attracted the money in the first place. And they continued to excel at the execution after the money came. If any Indian e-commerce player deserved the money, it was them.

 

But life isn’t fair. Even if you have worked the hardest and have access to the best coaching centers, you are not guaranteed to be the exam topper throughout your life. In the form of Amazon, Flipkart has encountered a rival unlike any of the homegrown ones. Amazon has an even easier access to money and a much longer experience of good execution. In Indian market they even benefited from the ground Flipkart had already prepared. When Amazon came, customers as well as sellers were already sold on the Indian e-commerce story. They didn’t have to stand outside distributors’ office just so they could get their catalogs and stock information. They had it all readily available for them. But they didn’t squander the advantage away. They went ahead and built on top of it. Did local things that even the local boy Flipkart hadn’t done. Tight integration with and extensive use of India Post, for example. The stamps tell the story!

There is more. Even now Amazon isn’t standing on its current laurels. They are taking the full advantage of the long staying power the money gives them. They are serious about even a category like books which, at best, has been written off as a marketing cost by their Indian counterparts, and at worst, has been removed from their offerings altogether. They aren’t giving up on Kindle or eBooks in India although it is a given that eBooks in India have a long, long way to go. They do things like incentivizing sellers for listing regional language titles. They have invested in Westland Books. And did anyone notice that they have quietly entered the second-hand book market through Junglee? (Refurbished mobile phone are there too.) They became a formidable force in the publishing industry in the US. In India, they might very well be the one to build a market for books like nobody else has done before.

Given Amazon, can Flipkart do anything right to fix things? Can Flipkart aim to be profitable? Even if it is in select categories? Why would Amazon not undercut them in whatever category they wish to? Can private label really save them? In how many categories? And by what margin? Once you go beyond consulting-speak these are the fundamental questions that must be asked? And unfortunately, they do not seem to have an easy answer. Amazon doesn’t have an obvious weakness. So “not focusing on the competitor” is not going to work for Flipkart, because really! What is the differentiator? When it comes to Paytm and Snapdeal, customer service can be. But when it comes to Amazon, unfortunately not.

I don’t want Flipkart to be decimated. Not out of any patriotic feelings, but for very selfish reasons. As a business where a decent amount of our revenue comes through established e-commerce channels, I don’t want to be dependent on one player. As a customer, of course, one can’t want a monopoly. And in either of the roles, I don’t trust Amazon to be nice. It is a ruthless company. All its nicety is only good business. It can be terrible. For sellers, of course. But also for customers.

As much as I want Flipkart to be in the game as a strong player, unless a policy change creates some major hurdle for Amazon (I can’t imagine what that would be) or the funding issues are somehow sorted out for Flipkart (for the long term), the situation looks pretty bleak. You can’t alter the basic arithmetic. If the other guy is willing to lose money, and has all the advantages you have, how do you get customers? Become a niche player, an MBA case-study would have pointed out the solution. But can you? Given the amount of money that has gone into making Flipkart the leading generic e-commerce player, the idea of it becoming a niche player sounds laughable. Can it tackle Amazon through some other means? By not fighting head on with it? Using something else? What? Amazon has AWS. Flipkart has? eKart? Now logistics is an industry that can very well be disrupted for good in India. There have also been attempts at making eKart a business in itself, hopefully a profitable one. But can Flipkart, the poster-boy of Indian e-commerce, with billions sunk into making it so, pivot and become primarily a logistic player? I have a feeling I will get worse than dirty looks if I were a consultant suggesting this.

What then? I believe in miracles. I also believe that miracles are made from hard work. But I don’t think you can plan and PR your way into being miraculous. I would pray for the miracle. I am not holding my breath for it, though. Another round of funding could postpone the problem for a year or two, of course. But it isn’t going away.

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Flipkart-IIT-IIM row is pathetic on so many counts!

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I had difficulty in putting down a coherent response to the controversy. Because it reveals so much that is pathetic and wrong with our systems, with our people, with our mentality, that even writing them down makes me feel enervated. But here is an attempt anyway.

  • We are talking about (supposedly) some of the best educational institutes of the country, right? (If they aren’t the best, what would all the swagger be about?) Why can’t they produce students who are confident of their competence and ability to provide value, and hence finding a good job? Why are these students okay with being portrayed as a bunch of miserable, starving victims whose last morsel has been snatched away from them? Flipkart was a day zero or day one company at most of these places, right? So these students are supposedly best of even the best, crème de la crème. Are they going to go crying to Mommy every time they face a problem in their careers? Are our best institutions so proud of producing such self-entitled wimps?
  • When they get those ridiculously high salaries, it is all good because — market forces, right? The world must accept that. That world, then, is not obliged to shield them when market forces start working against them. Get it? Market forces?
  • The entire placement system itself is so reflective of the greed and the herd mentality – the slots based on salary numbers quoted, the manipulations to ensure “good placement records”, and then this brouhaha that the compensation of 1.5 lacs is not enough. Go get another job, for God’s sake, if you need money, instead of twiddling your thumbs for next six months. What more? So many of you would have changed your jobs within six months of joining anyway. Your placement committees would not have compensated companies for their loss in that case.
  • IIMs don’t even realize the irony of crying foul, do they? Don’t they prepare their students for an “ever-changing”, “increasingly fast-paced”, “risky” world of business? Aren’t they supposed to train for dealing with ups and downs, including and especially the external factors? When they chose to make Flipkart a day zero or day one company, did they not know that they were adopting a high-risk, high-reward strategy? That Flipkart was not a profitable company despite its size and salary numbers? That it was dependent on VC money and that it could dry out? If I were an alternative employer, I would still hire the “stranded” IIT graduates if they can code. I would definitely not hire these management graduates who didn’t understand what they were doing in picking up  Flipkart in the first place.
  • And now the childish response of “banning” companies. Welcome to History. A year later, when the same or similar companies dangle the carrots of high salary numbers, you will go crawling back to them, even proudly featuring the number of students they picked up in your next year’s placement brochure. Or wait! The students will apply to them anyhow even if you don’t allow them back through the formal channel. If they want they will bypass the campus placements and the placement in-charges will cry foul yet again. So, how about some calm career counselling for your students, ridding them of their sense of entitlement, and instilling the need to do something useful, instead of this playing-the-victim game.
  • I have long maintained and continue to maintain that educational institutes should stop behaving like placement agencies. They should get out of the business of getting jobs for their students. Instead, they should focus on educating students well so that they don’t need such crutches. Have job fairs by all means. Let there be a platform for companies and students to interact. Arrange for counselling and advice. But let the transaction that is a job offer be a business between the individual student and the employer. Stop creating those week-long concentration camps that are known as “placement days” or some equivalent of it. I don’t expect institutes lower down in the reputation hierarchy to do this first. Will the best ones take a lead?

The evil facebook ad reporting

Recently I started using Facebook Ads for Pothi.com. And ran into a problem that must be familiar to most Facebook advertisers. The click-through numbers reported by Facebook were nowhere close to the numbers reported by Google Analytics.

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So, we searched around and put into place some more tracking setup so that we could have more accurate data on traffic coming from Facebook Ads. But the traffic number tracked on our site was still about only 25% of the Facebook ones.

Then we studied the potential reasons on Facebook’s official page about it.

Some of those are reasonable, but 75% of the traffic not being reported was still too much! Then the following caught our eyes –

EvilFacebook

Umm… What?

Because a person saw my ad on Facebook (correction – Facebook served the ad, whether the person saw or ignored can hardly be known!) and later visited my site, it will be counted as Facebook’s conversion? Even though he didn’t click on the ad.

Pothi.com is not a new venture. We already have many customers, many of whom are on Facebook, many of whom might be served the ad. Later they log in to check the status of their order or their sales dashboard, or to upload a new book, and Facebook takes credit (and money!) for that??

I might even be running other promotions elsewhere. And it is one those other promotions that brought this person to my site. But that too will go to Facebook’s credit (and pocket)?

No wonder my real cost of clicks from Facebook is four times of what they claim.

When I advertised for InstaScribe, since most of the traffic was coming from Facebook ads, I think this problem was not too big. But with Pothi.com, which has an existing user base and traffic, this is just ridiculous. Time to reevaluate Facebook Ads!

Dear Policy Makers, Please Ignore Paul Graham

Have you ever subjected yourself to clueless actors and actresses weighing in on issues like democracy, justice, legal systems, capital punishment and what not just because theirs is a face people like to see on screen[1]? No? You should watch at least one such interview to feel what reading Paul Graham on income inequality is like.

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Paul graham is the ultimate startup thought leader and I have grown up on startup Kool-Aid. So, no disputing what he is and where he can make sensible arguments. But hearing him on a broad policy-making issue like income inequality with his startup tunnel vision – no, make that software-and-internet-driven-startup tunnel vision – is quite like hearing a pretty-faced actor lament that scorching heat is bad for skin, when asked about the lack of rainfall in an agriculture-dependent country where agriculture thrives or dies at the mercy of rains.

He (oops, his article, I mean. Don’t accuse me of ad hominem, okay?) creates a strange picture of the people concerned about increasing income inequality. Apparently these people want to make the rich miserable in their attempt to decrease income inequality. They are misled because they are looking at statistics. You know, those fancy numbers that say that top x% of population owns most of the wealth and bottom y% owns so little. Statistics is apparently vile; economists are idiots for taking them seriously. Why? Because it doesn’t deal with individuals. Which individuals is he concerned about? The startup founders who get rich and are in that top x% of people statistics talk about. Why should they be dealt with separately? Because unlike the real bad guys on that top x%, whose wealth is earned by taking it from others, because they play a zero-sum game like that of the wall street, these founders are not getting rich by taking money from someone else. They are creating (new) wealth and are getting rich with that. It would be a travesty if someone were to even hint that all might not be well with them being rich.

There might be something to be said about that, but very well. Let’s assume that startup-rich are different kind of rich. So, just how much of the wealth with the top x% of population is this startupy wealth, which has been created and not taken from the others? And how much of it stays in the same systems instead of being passed on to wealth managers who – gasp – take it to the wall street to earn more from the zero sum game?

Bah! You are asking for statistics? Hasn’t it already been clarified that statistics is vile and economists are… (And didn’t Zuckerberg just give away his entire wealth to…)

Oops! My bad! But unfortunately, statistics doesn’t become useless just because someone says so, not even if that someone is Paul Graham. If there is any validity in what he is writing, and if the genuinely created wealth is in an imminent danger of being robbed away by income-inequality alarmists, then the first thing one needs to look at is the number I asked for above. There is also the issue of defining what is “created” and what is “stolen” wealth. But I am assuming we will be supplied with a workable definition by Paul.

My guess is that the proportion of this kind of wealth will be minuscule. If not, I must leave the burden of proof with him.

Meanwhile, dear economists and policy makers. It is not a given that you guys have necessarily gotten the income inequality issue right.  Do go ahead and keep looking not only for answers, but also for the right questions. Is income inequality the evil or a symptom of something else that is evil (or not evil)? What needs to be attacked, if anything? Explore, but among all the things you have to do, you can safely ignore Paul Graham’s concern that you are hunters out to kill some precious animal.

[1] With due respect to the actors and actresses who are actually quite clued in to these issues and totally justified in talking about it. I am not talking about you, of course.

The Entire Point was Innovation

Once upon a time there used to be two kinds of businessmen in our country

  1. Your neighborhood store owner, and
  2. The big shot rich family heir, who had the money, the connections, and the power to beat the license raj, the immaturity of the market, the lack of infrastructure and all other impediments to make more money.

[Allow me the above simplification and try to refrain from poking holes in it, because that is not relevant to the point I am going to make.]

Innovation

Then came the excitement of the 1990s followed by the awakening of the 21st century. We were introduced to a third kind of person – THE ENTREPRENEUR. His was the story of a well-educated (often) techie, who innovates, changes the face of an entire industry, or even creates a new industry altogether, generates a lot of value, and as a result not only makes tons of money for himself and his shareholders, but also creates a breed of well-paid, well-pampered, well-off and happy employees. What this guy’s venture does is scale well and quickly, thanks to the technological innovation he has brought in.

Blinded by some such one-off, spectacular successes, there came a crop of career investors, and in their wake similar entrepreneurs, who decided that they could scale the creation of well-scaling companies. It sounds like a great thing, but it isn’t. Because what they intend to do simply doesn’t happen. You can’t have super innovative, commercially viable unicorns at the rate that would justify the number of career investors in existence.

But that is not a problem for careerists. Theirs is not the only job in the world which we would have been better without. Learning from a number of such situations, we have, by now, well-developed systems to keep and justify such jobs. There is no innovation that these investors have to do there. They just have to keep looking busy. They have to keep going gaga over a new “industry” every six months and express great faith in business models which even a school student with basic arithmetic skills making a back of the paper calculation would know to not work.

But those suited-booted experts, those smooth-talking, confidence-oozing honchos must know something that the school student, and we, do not know, right? Wrong. If one could mathematically measure it, most of the expertise in today’s business world (and here I am not talking about just our career investor) would be rehashing of profound-sounding bits from the latest fad or, in case of those who claim more consistency than that, forcefully fitting every situation into one theory they are hung up on. The suited-booted, smooth-talking, confidence-oozing careerists are no exception to this.

The result? Startup investment decisions that even a school-student would not make with his own money, and rightly so.

So long as it is a game played among people who only have themselves to answer for, who have the cunning and understanding of the system to salvage personal financial gains even from the most doltish of the business decisions, so long as it is between the investor who would take his cut of management fees and move on to do more exciting things and the entrepreneur who will become an investor by virtue of having been an entrepreneur who got a (shady?) exit or will join another investor-funded cushy job with much fanfare and even buy an apartment worth crores in a posh area of the city using his exit money, I don’t care, I don’t crib. This is real life for you, kiddo. There is a system to be gamed. If you have the desire and the “street-smartness” to game it, get rich. Else earn you livelihood in small chunks the hard way or carry out the tough task of making some real innovation and changing things, where the chances of success are really thin. Don’t crib.

But the recent trends are disturbing on another level altogether. Now there are people in the equation who do not understand the game at all. And (lest I be declared too patronizing) even if they do gain the understanding, they don’t have the power, money or “expertise” to manipulate it in their favor. I am talking about the taxi-drivers, the delivery boys, the novice real-estate agents and the data collectors on the fields, who have suddenly seen a spectacular (considering the base) rise in their incomes through admission to the game being played by these career investors and their chosen entrepreneurs.

What? Am I moronic enough to grudge these guys a better income?

No. I grudge the fact that no one is paying attention to the basic arithmetic not working. Despite all these “world-changing innovators” in the picture, the basic economics of driving a taxi, delivering a package, or finding a match between a property and a potential renter has not changed. The same people are doing the same things in the same manner (oh yes – there is an app thrown in between, and a fancy team behind all this, but that doesn’t make a difference in the cost of providing the service), but doing it cheaper for the consumer. How?

Well Uber and Ola investors are subsidizing our rides, some others are subsidizing our food, and yet another set is subsidizing our e-commerce deliveries. Some part of this subsidy budget is also being passed on to those low-paid blue collar workers, so that enough of them can be hired to cater to the subsidy-induced demand.

So there is no real sustainable reason behind the increase in income that these people are seeing. Sooner or later the money will dry up (“industry will consolidate” to use official speak). And this time it won’t just be a game between our expert investors and hot-shot entrepreneurs. This time these blue-collar workers will get hurt. Those whose incomes have gone up from six thousand a month to twelve thousand or from twenty thousand to forty will be affected too.

So what, you say. They would be back to their original income levels, but at least in between they would have made that extra bit of money. If you do say this, then I am sorry, but I have no better way of responding to you: You are an insensitive brute.

That is not how things work, not even at much higher income levels, but definitely not so as such low ones. Twelve thousand a month is hardly a great income to have in a place like Bangalore, but going from six thousand to twelve thousand makes a huge difference. It will change their future plans and current lifestyle decisions. And when they are back to six thousand a month, they will be worse off than what they had started with, which itself couldn’t have been very good. Loss of the same amount brings more misery than the pleasure experienced by the gain of it (if you are fond of economics, please read Behavioral Economics for confirmation). To show them the dreams which would not sustain is more brutal than to have left them to their fate and status-quo.

What is even more infuriating is that many of the businesses where the mindless amount of money expecting 10x returns is being pumped in are not unsustainable in themselves. We have been taking cabs for decades, our food and grocery has been delivered to us for quite some time and these businesses have given employment to many people. It would be a noble idea, still, to make these businesses work in a way that gives better incomes to those employed on the lower rungs. But our money-bloated ventures are not figuring out a way of doing that. Instead they are destroying even the existing ecosystems with their subsidized offerings. Once you start subsidizing, everyone else has to either play the game or get rooted out.

When the money runs out, what will these changing-the-world-and-improving-the-lives-of-destitute entrepreneurs do? Will they stay on in rough times earning less themselves but supporting these employees until the business can be built back up the right way? No! They will do the financially prudent thing, cut their losses, participate in industry consolidation, come out decently well-off themselves and then move on with the proud tag of serial entrepreneur in their Linkedin profiles, leaving their once precious employees and “partners” to deal with their fate.

The bad news is already coming in. Firings in the companies that hired people without sustainable business models and unsavory (to our tastes) protests by employees (“partners” in some cases) who see their incomes vanishing. Despite that news stories like this one are happily being written with no one wondering if this is eventually good for those people.

What then? Should the income for these people not go up? Must they keep working with wages that don’t allow them to meet even the basic needs of their lives?

No. But if the change has to come the capitalist way, it should happen through innovation and sustainable business models. That route won’t show “results” at the same jet-set speed as pumping in money to subsidize products to an already over-catered set of cash-rich, time-poor people. But it won’t have such fragile, short-lived results either.

After all, the third kind of entrepreneurship was supposed to be all about innovation and not about mindlessly pumping in money like the Reliances of the world. Where is the innovation right now? Creating another app on bloated budgets should have long ceased to count as innovation. The last food-“tech” innovation was probably done at DRDO, using which the ready-to-eat packaging was created and brought to the market.

By all means, try to change the world, but for the better please! And sustainably.