Business & Entrepreneurship · Technology

To dethrone a good king, you need to change the game

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

I had written about it on my blog a long time ago. The news of Google and Barnes & Noble tie-up to take on Amazon is making me write it again. This move is a non-starter. Google has the cash to keep such non-starters running for a long time. But it won’t do anything for Barnes and Noble. And it will pose no credible threat to Amazon.

To understand why let’s start by talking of Google’s core business – Search. Most website owners are unhappy with Google. Why? Because Google keeps changing algorithms and “punishes” websites in search results. They don’t make the “rules of the game” known. They are “undemocratic” and “opaque”.

Too bad! Let’s come up with a search engine that will be nice to webmasters. Brilliant idea, right? Except, it won’t work. Consumers will continue searching on Google because Google works for them. Webmasters’ troubles do not concern them.

Similarly, the frustration of “industry” folks – the publishers, the booksellers, the distributors, and others looking to subdue Amazon – won’t translate into an opportunity to build an Amazon competitor. The customer mostly does not care about these frustrations.  By customer, I don’t mean the loud voices on industry blogs, but the real customer who reflects in those sales numbers which Amazon has aplenty. Amazon is a business entity shrewd enough to know when a customer cares and will cater to his needs. They are not idiots or egomaniacs; they will do whatever it takes to advance their business interests.

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Technology · Thoughts

Knowing People

Palash Sen may or may not have been guilty-as-charged. But everything people are trying to defend in the cloak of defending him, everything that they did, they still do, and are obviously guilty about, depresses me. Although it doesn’t come as a surprise; which is even more depressing.

The evil of this world connected through social media is that you end up seeing too much of the ugly side of people. The sides that you would have been blissfully unaware of in the good old world of occasional and effortful communications. The sides that people often don’t reveal in the face-to-face communication, but feel emboldened enough to reveal in the online world.

Some would say it is a good thing if you know people’s real selves. I just won’t like to know it for so many people. It is too much to manage, especially when you have a bloody life to live!

One thing I have done is to actively block people I don’t want to know any further. When it is in your face, maintaining the discipline of ignoring is so difficult. I am also a mere mortal. I haven’t been accepting facebook friend requests from people I don’t absolutely know in real life for quite sometime now. But it turns out that I do know a whole lot of people I would rather not like to know.

Sounds holier than thou? Yo! In your face, jerks! Especially the sophisticated ones.

Business & Entrepreneurship · Technology

Educomp might be dead, education is not!

The fateful Forbes article, if you go by the dysphoria, seems to have sealed the fate of all education-related startups. They are all doomed. Why? Because e-learning is dead! Why? Because Educomp is in trouble.

I hope when I put it that way, the ridiculousness of the tremors in investor, startup and media community becomes a little more obvious. Fine! Educomp has been the poster-boy of education and e-learning in India. But if Yahoo! being in trouble has not meant that Internet, online content and online advertising are dead. Educomp being in trouble can hardly mean that the business of education is dead.

What these FUD-rumour-mongers need to do it is to come down from their pedestal, stop taking a 100,000 ft high view of things and get into some nuances and bother their heads with some details. If we go by the article, Educomp’s troubles seem two-fold:

  1. It diversified too much in search of quick growths, in areas that were not quite its core strengths (even if it all fell under the umbrella of education), could not manage the capital requirements, did some financial engineering to continue to make it look good, but ultimately could not avoid getting noticed by share market, investors and sensational journalism.
  2. It’s original idea of “smart classes” was not taking it too far. From the anecdotal evidence schools were not adopting it and from the accounting evidence, they were not paying in time, if at all.

If #2 happens and there are investors and large number of employees to manage and give answers to, I would not be surprised that haphazard, hasty response results in #1. What startup investors really need to be concerned about is #2. Is there still an opportunity to bring value to education system using new technology, products and offerings? Or have all hopes died with Educomp?

Once you get past all the marketing jazz and buzzwords, what was Educomp’s offering? Multimedia content for school syllabus. Delivered over CDs. This is one of those concepts that sound right at a high level. Everybody in the world is wary of only “theoretical” knowledge spouted at the kids. What we need to show kids is how stuff actually work. What better way than animation, audio, video, right?

Possibly! But did someone do a field test to see which concepts are best explained through animations? What kind of animations manage to work better than a teacher explaining it in the class or the good-old textbook? Was there any measurable evidence of better learning outcomes? And given what matters the most to Indian parents, did the kids’ performance in exams improve? Beyond the ads, did jumping mathematical formula, instead of the one written on a boring board, really make kids more excited about going to the schools? Did teachers think that their lives became easier, or did they find it difficult to finish the syllabus while multimedia content took its own time to play and kids still sneered at everything in the classes?

All said and done “Smart Classes” are not about “technology”. The only “technology” involved is the use of multimedia content creation tools. The rest, and the most, of it is content play. And who is creating the content? Are these education researchers, who have an insight into how children learn? Or are these thousands of animation diploma-holders, who are going through the same “boring” textbooks and putting some graphics and sound around the same old content? My educated guess is that it is the latter.

Why should it be surprising, then, that the users did not adopt it? That nobody cared to research if the offering would work for them and it did not work? And that when the ultimate users (teachers and students) did not adopt it, buyers (management) stopped paying for it?

Content is not about technology. It is, unfortunately, tougher than technology. If it has to work, it can not be created trivially. Investors and journalists like to jump on the sales number. Those numbers can create initial euphoria. But if you are not monitoring how effective your actual offering is for the users, sooner or later the euphoria will die down. Accounting tricks and clever financial engineering is not going to make up for the basics faltering. The return in financial markets are governed by the value created in the market for real goods and services. It does not matter how complex we make the financial system, there is no evading the basics in the long run!

Educomp bet on usurping the educational content, did not do a great job of it despite creating some sales & marketing success, and instead of taking feedback and improving on its core idea, made some bad (in the hindsight, at least) diversification decisions. They are in a soup. They might be able to come out of it, or they might sink.

But this doesn’t prove that education does not need technology. Or even better content. There are real problems surrounding the quality and scalability of education. Someone needs to do a better job at these and create real value, which can justify the investment a customer would make in buying their offering. And if you are an investor, don’t run away from education sector. Or any sector for that matter. Instead of starting and ending with macro numbers, forbes articles, valuation in last round and valuation in next round, take some time to get into the details. Put yourself into the shoes of customers and ask these simple questions

  1. Will I pay for it?
  2. Will I pay enough for it?
  3. Will enough like me pay for it?

Then put yourself into the shoes of the founders/team and ask

  1. Will I be able to deliver what enough customers will pay enough for?
  2. Can I create the team, if it doesn’t already exist?
  3. Can I develop the technology/product/content?
  4. Can I provide support after sales and keep getting revenues?
  5. Can I do all this for a price that is lesser than customer’s life-time value?”

After these “small, little” questions have been answered, feel free to do the due-diligence on “stuff that really matters from 100,000 ft”.

I seem to be spouting things from Management textbooks. But I have kept the finance textbooks aside for a moment. Too few investors seem to do that.

This is true not just for education, but for any sector. And education, dear world, is definitely not dead! We have a large population of people looking to improve their lot in life through education. It is for us entrepreneurs to figure out how to make a profitable business out of it. The key will lie in creating something of value before creating newer buzzwords.

P. S. Disclaimer: I am working with Aurus Network, which is in Education domain (but is NOT a competitor of Educomp). This is, however, not a marketing article!

Technology

MS Word 2010 Tip: Convert SmartArt to Image

SmartArt feature in Word 2007 onward is very helpful, but the output is proprietary and only MS Office understands it. You might want to convert it to an normal image to use it at other places. I needed to do it to convert one of the books to e-pub. The conversion tool I was using could not handle the word art.

Office suite itself provides this feature, but not in Word. Copy paste the SmartArt to a powerpoint slide, right-click on it and select “Save as Picture” and there you have it! The SmartArt as an image. You have the options of various formats to choose from. Pick up the one you need.

Technology

Microblogging integrated with wordpress.com

I would like to have a twitter like blogging platform integrated with wordpress.com. So that small, little messages can be posted on the blog and it can be displayed in the sidebar. I can show stuff from my twitter stream here (which I am doing currently), but there are things that I do not want to post for my twitter stream audience, only blog readers.

Just a thought.

Business & Entrepreneurship · Technology

Guruji tries to do a Baidu with Music Search?

Will India have a Baidu equivalent? That’s a question often asked in the Internet circles. As much as people would like to believe there is a threat to Google in India in the same way as in China, there hasn’t been a significant one till date – in the search market at least. “Why” would deserve a post by itself.

But on to the music search for the time being. The interesting part of the story in China is that Google was actually a leader and then badly lost to Baidu over the years. The trigger was played by mp3 searches. Apparently pirated mp3 download was a big thing and Baidu helped search for and download those. Google would, on the other hand, try to get rid of those pages, because they violated copyrights.

And now Guruji has launched music search in India. It supports search for several Indian Language songs. However, it does not link to mp3 download sites, as they would be as illegal here as they would be in China I guess :). It links to the online stations like musicindiaonline and raaga etc. How big a killer feature would this music search be? I searched for couple of Hindi songs, and the results were pretty good. However, is it that useful really? Usually we know about a couple of places where we can listen to the songs, and go directly there. Are there stations, which have a better collection of one kind of songs than other stations have? If so, probably there would be some utility in the music search. If not, I don’t think its going to create much of a buzz. But no one can predict the future, so let’s see.