Four Things Our PM Could Learn From Entrepreneurs

four-jason-blackeyeSince I’m tired of the articles that want entrepreneurs to learn X things from Y, here is one that goes the other way round. Four things our PM could learn from entrepreneurs.

  1. Ideas are cheap: It is the execution that matters. Every rookie entrepreneur zealously guarding his idea is told that by the community. Even if you have to go stealth, you do it for the execution’s sake, not at the cost of the execution.
  2. Don’t go at it alone: Have at least one partner, ideally with complementary skills, ideally someone who can challenge you. Don’t start with a bloated team, but take help of specialists for specific skills.
  3. Draw up a (business) plan: Even if you don’t want to raise money. It helps in clarifying your own thought and plan better for circumstances that are inherently risky.
  4. Know when to quit: Persistence is good, but so is knowing when to quit. Know when to gracefully exit instead of continuing to pour money and effort into an idea that is not going to work.

Decision-making

At Pothi.com we allow authors to publish their books in print. Among other things, they can choose from one of the many page sizes available for their book. The books are printed-on-demand; so we keep the PDFs in our system and print them as and when the orders come.

Now suppose one day I figure that there are too many page sizes on offer and I should discontinue one of the sizes. I pick up a size that is not very good for book production from cost as well as aesthetic point of view and decide that we should withdraw the size.

Shall I go ahead and withdraw it? No. I am more likely to look at some data and ask some questions. For example how many and what percentage of books do we receive in this size? How much money do books of this size make us? Can I expect to motivate authors using this size to use some other more suitable size? Can there be people preparing their books in this size right now and will they be disappointed when they come to upload it on my site later?

Then I will go ahead and talk to a developer in the company. They might tell me that if we want to withdraw the size it will disappear from all the books, including the existing ones. That would be problematic because the PDF files in our system are prepared for that size. I will ask them if it is possible to keep the existing books at the same size for the time being and disable the option only for new books. They might then say that it is definitely possible, but it will take some time to make the code changes. How much time, I will ask. Say, one month, they may reply. Mentally I will keep two months in hand for the task, although I will not tell them that they have two months to do it. Else they will take four months.

Then I may go to my author support person and ask their opinion. They might tell me that this size is the default on people’s word processors. Hence we get books in this size more often than we should. When I talk to them a little more, I might discover that people using this size may not be very savvy on technology and design front.

So I will talk to my designer to figure out if books of this size can be automatically scaled to some other nearest size without making them look weird.

I might also ask my author support person to talk to some of these authors and figure out what  it would take for them to voluntarily shift to a different, more suitable size.

Since I am planning to withdraw a size, and not introduce a new one, I don’t expect a problem from the production. But I will discuss it with them anyway. And I might find that they have some paper and packaging material purchased specifically to support this size. So if I withdraw it immediately, that inventory may go waste or may not be efficiently utilized.

After knowing all this, I can take a decision on whether to withdraw the size, and if so when, and how to prepare the affected authors for this.

I am talking about one decision about one small aspect of a rather small business.

What should be done if someone were planning to withdraw notes carrying 86% of total currency value from a country of 1.25 billion people?

Even if you were taking the decision alone and you didn’t know that ATMs need calibration for new notes, and you couldn’t think that housewives may have substantial savings from white money which they may not want to disclose, and you couldn’t divine that limited cash access will create problems in weddings and for farmers, you would ask at least one fundamental question. Do we have enough currency printed to replace the ones in circulation currently?

How on earth was that question not asked?

What was he smoking?

Transcript of my talk at shakTII

Good morning everyone.

I am going to cheat a bit. It is an Entrepreneur Talk. But I am not going to talk about entrepreneurship. I am going to talk about women, which thankfully is not at odds with the theme of this event.

I grew up in small towns of Bihar, never staying in a joint family, technically, but living a life where the circle of extended family and relatives was quite close-knit.  There were usual family spats once in a while, but overall the family members looked out for each other.  They provided board to a young man, a son of a second cousin, who had come to their town for studies or for the first job, and they kept their eyes and ears open to find out how their nieces could get married well within the budget their parents had. The better off ones would also take up the responsibility for more kanyadaan ceremonies than the number of daughters they had given birth to so that the lesser off relatives were relieved of the responsibility of paying for the mandatory gold gift of kanyadaan.

These people didn’t hate their daughters. They kept having daughters until they had at least one son, but they mostly didn’t indulge in female foeticide. Daughters’ weddings would bring entire extended family together. Quite in the style of Rajshri productions’ movies, even though the homes were usually less glamorous than those in the films. At every family function one would be reminded how only daughters can bring real joy in these functions and how everything would be so dull without the daughters.

They were not even indifferent to their daughters. They wanted to raise them right, just like they wanted to raise their sons right.  So… they wanted their sons to study Science and daughters to study Home Science. They wanted their sons to be smart and their daughters to be gentle.

Cut to present day!

There was a discussion going on among some of the IIT alumni, many of them senior, accomplished people, about this event meant for woman professionals. The possible names and taglines were being discussed. A very senior, soft-spoken, well-meaning IITian suggested and strongly defended a particular tagline, because it was humble and sober. I reminded him that the idea of the event was empowerment of women. Why should the tagline be humble and sober? The tagline should portray strength, confidence, shouldn’t it? I was told that humility along with confidence goes a long way. So then I did a quick poll on my facebook account asking my mostly men friends from IITs how often they have wanted their event names and taglines be convey humility and soberness. You can guess the result. The person suggesting the humble and sober tagline didn’t mean any harm. It was, in fact, he who had originally proposed the idea of this event.

Any Harry Potter Fans here?

Do you remember the wise Dumbledore?

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It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.

Most of the women sitting here would not have faced the obvious, brutish discrimination. They wouldn’t have been underfed so that men of the family could have their bellies full, they would not have had to give up their studies so that their brothers could study, they would have gone to the best schools, in fact. They wouldn’t have been neglected or beaten up by their families or husbands. They wouldn’t have any villains in their lives.

And yet! Yet, you feel the need to have a separate event for professional women. Despite there being no villain in their lives, they feel like they are falling behind, they are not achieving their potential, they are compromising.

Why?

Because impediments do not always come in the form of a villain with evil laughter ready to slay you at the first chance.

Impediments come in the form of well-meaning people.

Impediment comes in the form of that loving, proud father of an IIT girl, who told her that she should go for a Ph. D. after B. Tech. Why? Not because it was suitable for her temperament or aptitude, but because academia is a better place for women to be in. After all they have to shoulder family responsibilities later. Corporate life will make it difficult to handle.

This is a true story.

Do men not have families?

Impediment comes in the form of those nice friends, not only men, but women too, who post pseudo-empowering messages on facebook like “Women weren’t created to do everything a man can do. Women were created to do everything a man can’t do.”

Ummm, excuse me? Apart from getting pregnant and giving birth, what is that? Oh wait! Taking care of the family, kids, cooking, cleaning, washing, is it? Men can’t do it? Right! That’s why women should run homes, and men should run the world.

Hope you see the problem. Sorry! Messages of those kind do not empower or inspire women. They just try to make them happy and satisfied with wherever they are. So that the world can maintain its status quo and not ask uncomfortable questions.

Impediment comes in the form of their “natural” urge to be caregivers, which is “respected” and “encouraged” by everyone around them?

What is this natural urge? Look around yourself. Even with the constant social conditioning trying to make them otherwise, don’t you come across women who don’t feel maternal urges and men who are great with kids, babies included. If there wasn’t this incessant social conditioning about what you are supposed to feel, what would the situation look like? My guess? Not the opposite, but very different.

Impediment comes in the form of the “myth” of “choice”. Who am I to question if a woman chooses to put her kids and family above her career? I am no one to interfere with what she does. But I have a right to wonder if the choice is real for most people. Was the choice between whether the father will stay at home or the mother? Unlikely. The choice was between whether nobody will stay at home versus whether the mother will stay at home. When only one person has a choice, that is not much of a choice.

Impediment comes in the form of outraged question “Are you saying making money is the only worthwhile use of people’s time? Aren’t family and home as important? What will you do with all the money if your family is not happy?” Good question. So long as it is not directed solely at women.

Impediment comes in the form of internalized assumptions about your role.  It comes in the form a women working to empower other women starting her case with “We are women. We have to take care of our families before everything else.”

It comes in the form of harmless jokes that imply men can’t cook and women can’t read maps or that women irrationally have upper hand in the relationships.

Impediment comes in the form of the argument that if there are women who support practices that work against women’s professional advances, there cannot be anything wrong with those practices. No. Just because a woman perpetuates it, a discriminatory practice doesn’t become right.

Impediment comes in the form of all the people you love and who love you, including your family, husband and kids.

What do women need today? More maternity leave? Or more paternity leave? Do they need more time to take care of kids? Or do they need their partners to share the responsibility? Do they need to be deified and installed in well-decorated temples? Or do they need to be treated like real persons who may have the similar career aspirations and similar love for their families as men.

I might already have ruffled some feathers here. Still I will end with a blasphemy. I can forgive Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol for Dilwale. I cannot forgive them for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. The movie that made lots of money while promoting and elevating the patriarchal custom of Karwa Chauth by giving it a romantic twist. There is nothing romantic about it.

I know that I have only raised questions and not given answers. But that’s all I intended to do. There aren’t any quick answers. There are no 5 steps to liberation. We have a tough fight. With people who matter the most to us.

That’s all. Thank you. I am not sure what questions I can answer. But if there are any, please feel free to shoot.

Don’t You Feel the Need to Defend?

“Don’t you feel the need to defend Bihar any longer?” asked a friend, casually, as the conversation turned to the recent exam-topper fraud brought into light by the media.

“No. Why should I?” seemed like a callous response, so I shrugged non-committally. Unfortunately for me, the friend is sharp and also knows me pretty well; so she concluded correctly, “You don’t.”

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Udta Punjab might have won the favor of high court, but the self-appointed keepers of Punjab-prestige are not giving up. They feel the need to defend their state.

Another young friend, usually an unconcerned, easy-going sort of a girl, felt the need to condemn the “wrong” portrayal of “Maratha people” in Bajirao-Mastani.

Deriding and defending IITians is a common theme of threads in startup forums. And some people are hurt that despite being from IITs and IIMs myself I am not defending the students in the Flipkart placement row.

Defending your tribe seems like an expected behavior, even demanded out of you. I am sure that there would even be some evolutionary explanation for it. Being with your people helped you survive. So you defended each other. No universal morality or sense of justice was applicable back then.

But for people like us, increasingly, the universal views dominate over the sympathy for our tribe. And for how many tribes can one keep feeling the belongingness? How many groups can I keep defending without losing my own soul? Bihar, my state? India, my country? Navodaya, IIT, IIM – my schools? Google – my most important ex-employer? Bangalore – practically my own city now? My language? My caste? My family? Women professionals? Women, in general?

And why should I defend any of them?

No, I don’t feel the urge to defend. I do, sometimes, feel the urge to contradict someone who is single-mindedly focussed on one aspect of some issue, ignoring any evidence that goes against their idea. But that issue need not be about a tribe I belong to. It could be, but it could be anything else. Yes, I find myself contradicting the notions of many of my North Indian compatriots that Hindi must be a universally accepted language in India. And then I also find myself contradicting the Kannadigas who think that people who don’t know Kannada don’t have any rights to live in the state.

But I don’t feel the need to defend either Bihar, or Bangalore.

Is there something wrong with it? Not feeling the need to defend?

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?