Business & Entrepreneurship

A Managerial Success

In my latest stint at Meesho, I worked on some fantastic projects about which I will probably talk from time to time. But while taking leave from my team, which was an incredibly difficult task, I realized that there was something else I should be more proud of than my projects. It was the fact that I had managed and partially built a vertical (org) with diverse teams to be absolutely aligned to the org’s objectives. It was a motivated, engaged and committed team that would take ownership, and not just carry out the tasks. This was a team that looked forward to coming to work every day. And it is when the team members spoke that I consciously realized what were the things I had done right. Even if it feels like bragging I am going to record them for my own reference as well as for anyone who finds these useful. Most of these things are not extraordinary or out of the world. Any advice on managerial effectiveness you get would perhaps list them. So much so that they almost sound mundane or cliched. But their power is that they work.

I had direct reports, some of them with teams of their own, and also folks with a dotted line reporting – mostly in tech. My org included product, marketing, content, design, community, and ops folks.

Practices that worked

  1. Monthly 1:1s with direct reports: The company had not put this formally in place, but I started this practice nevertheless. I scheduled only 15 minutes for each conversation. Some people may find that too short, but that was mostly enough. And if in any 1:1, we realized that there was more stuff to be discussed, we scheduled it separately. Many a time nothing new comes out in these meetings, but just setting aside time for one builds trust and gives assurance to the team that their concerns and long-term aspirations would not be lost in the day-to-day grind of work. And then sometimes important things come out. I got to know things that were bothering people, things they would like to happen differently, or the direction they would like their career to go in. Most of the time, these things were addressable. Even when they were not, it made things a whole lot better to just explain to them why something can’t happen the way they want. Finally, this was the opportunity for me to give them ongoing feedback instead of piling it up for the yearly appraisal. It is super important to explicitly tell people what they are doing right. It can do wonders for their motivation and confidence. It is also important to give negative feedback on an ongoing basis and not pile them up for the time when it becomes so bad that it is unresolvable. If somebody’s performance does eventually become a problem, it should not come as a surprise to them. And the way to ensure that is having that feedback included regularly in 1:1s, which also gives them an opportunity to work on it.
  2. Weekly sync-up with a twist: There was a weekly sync-up with direct and dotted line reports. But the most important agenda here was not for me to get updates from the team (which also happened), but to give updates from my side to them. Almost everything I discussed with the leadership group or with my manager which could impact any of the team’s work at any point in time, I presented to the team in these meetings. It also included updates on the initiatives taken or launched by the different teams in the org. The team members usually explained the work that was done, but what I tried to ensure was that every other team understood what was being done and why. This means that developers, marketers, and ops folks were explained how A/B worked and why we did that, product people and developers were told how events were conducted and what determines the turnout, and developers and content people got to know how Facebook ads worked. It felt odd sometimes, but people do really want to know and they appreciate someone making an effort to help them do that.

    There was an organization-wide exercise that was carried out, where everybody was supposed to call two users each and get feedback from them. In one of the weekly sync-ups, everyone shared what they had learned from the users. I used that opportunity to talk about the most prominent issues raised by the users and what other orgs in the company were doing about it. While the calling exercise was meant to inculcate user empathy in everyone, this discussion and information on what we are doing about the issues raised were important to give people confidence in the company they were working for.

    General team updates were also provided in these weekly sync-ups, but anything that needed detailed discussion was scheduled separately.

  3. Ongoing communication: The communication did not wait for weekly sync-up. I used the org chat group to regularly update people on org’s activities, especially the outcomes of any recently launched projects and regular summaries of any ongoing problem we were working on.
  4. Monthly sync-up with the entire team: I started a monthly sync-up for people who were not my direct reports. The format and purpose were similar to the weekly sync-up with direct and dotted line reports. To keep everyone aligned to the org’s objectives as well as the company’s direction and to clearly communicate why things were done the way they were being done. A review of the user-calling exercise was done in one of these monthly meetings too with a similar conversation about what the company and other orgs were doing about the issues raised.
  5. Educate: Wherever possible, I tried to take time to answer *any* questions anyone in the team had and help them learn anything they wanted to learn. This resulted in explaining funnels and charts to the content and education team, explaining tech to the product team and explaining the concept of contribution margin to everyone who was interested. And wherever I didn’t have an answer, I communicated that and if possible pointed them to the right sources. Over time, this was expected to evolve in different team members taking up the responsibility of educating others in their areas of expertise.

One of the things that I hadn’t yet implemented, but would have liked to do was to keep some open 1:1 slots for anybody in the org to book, primarily for those who were not direct reports and hence didn’t have regular 1:1s with me. In G-Suite’s business accounts Google Calendar has this nifty feature which lets you designate some appointment slots in your calendar that anyone can book.

One overarching philosophy of managerial effectiveness for me is to know that each individual is different. And their differences need to be kept in mind, especially while managing the direct reports. An awareness of their unique strengths and weaknesses, or even eccentricities, can help foster a much more productive work relationship than would be possible in trying to treat everyone the same.

In my own experience, the one single biggest contributor to one’s job satisfaction is their relationship with their manager. If that relationship is good, even a mundane company and job work. If that relationship is not good, even the dream company and job won’t work. So, having succeeded in that area with at least a few people is very gratifying for me.

Business & Entrepreneurship

Feedback on Personality is Useless, even if Right!

I was looking for an article that lucidly explained why, in a professional setting, giving people feedback on their personality (problems) is not useful (typically to your subordinates, but even to your peers or others). While the advice to avoid bringing in personality in the feedback is almost universal, it is usually buried under “99 things to keep in mind while giving feedback”. There is this one article I found that specifically addresses the issue. It is perhaps an extract from the book Radical Candor. While it covers most important things (read it), the problem is that the examples it employs are too extreme, which may make people feel that they aren’t making the mistake the article describes when they indeed are. Nobody who has cared to search the Internet for “how to give feedback” is likely to be giving feedback like “you are a jerk” to anyone, which is one of the examples in the article. You would have to be a jerk yourself to give feedback like that. But that’s not what giving feedback on personality is like. You can totally not act like a jerk and still give the wrong kind of feedback. I will perhaps be rehashing mostly what has been said in the article, but let me do that with examples that may actually make the point better.

Consider this. There is a salesperson who isn’t doing well. And they are shy. “You are too shy” seems like valid feedback, doesn’t it? Sales is a job where shyness will hamper the work.

But it isn’t useful feedback. Why? There are two possibilities. First is that the person is indeed shy. If they are, they can’t change their personality. So, the feedback is not actionable. The second possibility is that the person isn’t really shy. Their behavior might have something to do with the circumstances. Maybe they feel threatened, maybe they lack confidence. In that case, you have simply given the wrong feedback. At least being called shy is not particularly offensive. But what if you thought someone had an aggressive personality which was coming in the way of their work and gave them that feedback, but you were wrong in assessing their personality. In this case, they will feel misunderstood and unfairly treated, and they would be right.

So, the bottom line is that no good is going to come out of giving someone feedback about their personality. In the best case, you are right. That they have a personality-related problem, but they can’t change their personality. So, you will not get the improvement you had wanted. In the worst case, you are wrong. And have unleashed a different set of managerial problems for yourself. And your feedback is still not actionable as a wrongly-diagnosed personality problem

I would like to emphasize the hard reality of both these problems. First, personality is really not solvable. People don’t change much. Not even for love, much less for work. Even personal relationships that are started in the hope of a partner changing themselves eventually result in disappointments in the best cases, and disasters in the worst.

And the danger of being wrong about personality problems is also pretty high. The reason is called the fundamental attribution error. When it comes to other people, we have a tendency to assume that their behavior reflects their personality, and not the current situation. We would assume that if they are arguing, it’s because they are quarrelsome by nature (and not because they have been provoked or put in a bad situation!) So, even if the behavior you observe could be explained by a personality problem, it need not be because of that.

Given this rather high probability of being wrong about personality, and the uselessness of giving even the correct personality-related feedback, why would you ever want to give feedback like that?

So, what to do if you feel there is a personality problem hampering someone’s performance? You give exactly the same feedback as you would have given if the source of the problem was not their personality. You give feedback on what the problem is (you didn’t meet your sales targets). You can perhaps go a step further and point out the behaviors that are inadequate, or are desired but missing (you did not follow up enough with most of your leads). Perhaps the person is able to act on the feedback and you realize later that personality was not really a problem. Perhaps, despite a personality problem, they are able to solve the specific problem with their conscious effort, or by working around their weaknesses. In which case all is well. And if because of the personality problem or despite not having the personality problem, their issue is not resolved, you take whatever is the next logical step. Perhaps an underperforming salesperson does need to be let go, whether or not they are shy!

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Business & Entrepreneurship · Thoughts

A Translation Apocalypse

What is common between a Facebook joke about funny subtitles and a controversy around the results of one of the most important entrance exams students of this country take?

Bad translation!

The joke in question showed a screenshot of a movie scene with its English subtitle. The song fragment bahne de, mujhe bahne de from Hindi was translated in the subtitles as give me sisters, give me your sisters, instead of let me flow (or let me drown if you feel the need for more intensity).

A Hindi speaker can immediately figure out what had happened. The word for flow here sounds like the word for sisters in Hindi. The two words don’t have common origins. In their root forms, they are sufficiently different. It’s just this particular form of the verb flow that sounds similar to the plural form of the word sister. The pronunciations and spellings are not exactly the same. They are similar enough that you may make a typo and write one for the other in Hindi. But a native speaker is not going to confuse the meaning of the two words. Even if they had exactly the same spellings, there is ample information available in the context and this translation mistake cannot be justified.

And NEET organizers apparently mistranslated 49 questions! This happened in Tamil, a language that I don’t know. So, I won’t understand what the exact mistakes were. But a similar issue had come up in another exam a while back. There clearly putting English questions through Google Translate and blindly pasting the output had been considered sufficient work for translating a crucial question paper. While so much attention is focused on whether students will get grace marks and if so how much, nobody seems to be asking how so many errors crept in. Does it happen more often than is reported? And even when there aren’t outright errors, what is the quality of translation in these question papers?

Unfortunately, bad translations are not a one-off issue. In fact, they are so prevalent that nobody seems to care. In literary circles, people debate a lot about good and bad translations, the challenges of translations, losses in translation and what not. But it doesn’t get discussed enough outside of it. The result is that a lot of documents, manuals, websites, instructions, etc. are translated every day and they are translated poorly.

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Just Another Odd Translation!

Typically, these translation jobs will go to some agencies claiming expertise in all languages and a fast turnaround time at a reasonable cost. The quality is, at best, implicitly assumed and never checked. Most of the time, nobody even thinks about the quality. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between ordering pens for the office, which nobody uses except to sign documents, and ordering translation of your most crucial content. As for the “expert” translators who work on these jobs, they are typically any graduates who can claim to know the two languages. Sometimes they might be agency employees; most of the time, the agency will pick a freelance translator. Their credentials will be their past work – sometimes for big-name clients – but of the same shoddy quality. It was not flagged because nothing ever is. Most of the translators at work around us have never bothered to really study the nuances of the languages they work in; they seem to have no notion of the complications involved in a good translation, and nobody ever asks about the target group for a translation job which should matter a lot in how something is translated. They mindlessly do the word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation without caring about whether the output would make sense to a native reader. When you encounter a weird sentence or phrase in your native language (listen closely to announcements in the airports and metros, read signages that would originally have been written in English), try translating it mechanically back to English and see if it doesn’t start making sense. The translator, however, is not aware or doesn’t care. Access to Google Translate has made things worse. Many of these “professional” content creators and translators have no idea how Google Translate works and how it can’t be used blindly. Sometimes it results in funny or wrong output like the examples mentioned. But meaninglessness and unreadability are much more prevalent. Corporates, governments, NGOs – everybody is getting these poor translations done every day. Nobody has a mechanism to check, because nobody seems to realize that you can’t take translation for granted. Translation is a specialized skill that needs the understanding of both languages, their similarities, their differences, their colloquial expressions, their phrases and idioms, their regional variations, and very importantly the target audience for the output. Nobody is being trained for any of that. A few great translators might be producing great literary output, but things that get used every day by common people are at the mercy of those who don’t care. Neither the person ordering the translation, nor the one doing it. Without realizing it, we are in a translation apocalypse.

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A laughable Hindi translation of “organic”, but in Tamilnadu, I will excuse it!
Business & Entrepreneurship

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.

Business & Entrepreneurship · Thoughts

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?
Business & Entrepreneurship

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.

GoogleAnalytics

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!

Business & Entrepreneurship · Thoughts

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.