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.


At 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?

Hammocks, History and Horrors: Notes from Cambodia Trip

A quick list before I forget some important observations 🙂

  • For a long time to come, in a word association game, when someone says Cambodia, I won’t respond with Angkor Wat, but with hammock. Hammocks are everywhere. In front of their houses, at the back of their shops, on the tree next to a street vendor’s stall, on the specially placed hooks of their tuk-tuks and perhaps a bunch of other places I failed to notice.
  • Indians could learn something from Cambodians in the matter of traffic. That it is possible to have total disregard for all traffic rules and etiquettes, and yet not honk! Yes – they do everything we do, overtake precariously, jump signals, drive on the wrong side to save a “U” turn, but they don’t honk. In that matter they are completely western. Honking is reserved for dire circumstances, and the definition of dire far surpasses what the westerners or even us Indians would consider so. A lot of near-accident situations are let go of without honking or fighting.
  • Sometime in the course of history, they seem to have replaced horses with two-wheelers. Tuk-tuk, the most common form of transport for the tourists, is essentially a buggy hooked to a two-wheeler instead of a horse. But it doesn’t stop at that. They hook load-carrying carts, sometimes pretty long, street side stalls and even entire shops to the two-wheelers.
  • Small cars are rarely seen. Sedans and SUVs dominate
  • The tourist places are kept spectacularly clean and convenient. No equivalent of kurkure packets strewn around. Do the locals not visit, or do they have better civic sense than Indians is something I don’t know. Tourists just fall in line seeing that everything is clean and there are enough dustbins available. There are special, well-maintained toilets near most temples in Angkor that tourists with a valid pass can use for free. Toilets are fairly usable, with access to toilet paper, in other tourist places too.
  • Everything is cheap for westerners, but Indian tourists are not too badly placed either. If you are used to Bangalore restaurant prices, food is budget-friendly, although the prices near Angkor temples are almost double of that available in Siem Reap markets. Portions, especially of local food, are big and the desis should consider sharing.
  • Transport cost, however, hurts. Every time we stepped into a tuk-tuk it cost at least 2 USD, even for a very short ride. That’s 140 Rs. approximately.
  • Desi bargaining and haggling habits can help a lot.
  • Tips are not necessary or expected but are welcomed. Most workers, even in the tourism industry with its dollar prices, do not seem to make much money.
  • Angkor Wat and other places are amazing. After a long-long time seeing a historical place gave me a feeling of awe. The scale of everything is just unparalleled.
  • Despite all the other convenient arrangements, the onsite information is severely lacking on all Angkor sites. So, you better go with a detailed guidebook (if you have time to explore) or a guide so that you understand what you see around you. Other sites like Landmine museum, killing fields, genocide museum, and national museum in Phnom Penh have functional and well-produced audio tours, which are helpful for those with time to spare.
  • An Indian visitor’s (or those who are well-travelled in India) experience would be markedly different from a typical westerner’s experience. Cambodian religious beliefs are a strange syncretism or mishmash (depending on how you choose to see it) of Hinduism, Mahayana Buddhism including Vajrayana, Theravada Buddhism, and the ancient local religions. Sometimes when I found the guides or locals pronouncing Sanskrit names in strange accents, it felt like their tongues are working so hard at that. I felt like telling them that it’s okay. They don’t need to work so hard. I will pronounce it for them. I know that they mean “shayan” or “abhaya mudra”, when they are uttering some weirdly difficult words.
  • The same mishmash is visible in the temples, bas-reliefs, and most historical artifacts. At times, it can get funny. They have Hanuman and Ravana leading devas and asuras respectively in samudra-manthan!
  • They have some deep affinity for serpents going by their overuse in the temples, statues, and bas-reliefs. Perhaps the Khmer royalty was supposed to be associated with the Nagas in some way.
  • It feels like Indian religion and spirituality got exported in the same mish-mashed form to Cambodia a thousand years ago as it is getting exported to the West now. The spiritual tourists today happily hop from a Buddhist meditation center in Dharamshala to an ashrama in Rishikesh, feeling spiritually fulfilled, experiencing no dissonance that would arise from the awareness of the fundamental philosophical differences. Then they carry an overall idea of Indian spirituality with them back home which accommodates everything together the way it can’t be done in the land of origin of these religions. Intellectually it might be baffling, but people are emotionally happy with many Gods and paths to nirvana and fail to see any contradictions or inconsistency.
  • All the dancing female figures on the temple walls and artifacts are clubbed under a single name ‘apsara’, pronounced with typical Khmer laboriousness as ‘apsaaraa’. But we did manage to locate an obvious darpan-sundari in Angkor Wat.
  • Very strangely, the female dwarpalas are called ‘devata’. And perhaps so are the male figures which are not identified as any specific God or mythological figure. Perhaps there is an explanation, but I can’t figure it out.
  • Even though it felt like everybody around me has already visited Cambodia, the number of Indian tourists there seem minimal. Their tourism scene is dominated by the Chinese and the Korean tourists, followed by the Japanese, Australians, Europeans and Americans. More Indians should visit Cambodia. There is a shared cultural heritage which could be eye-opening to look at. And there is much to be understood about the modern political situation too.
  • Angkor-era temples in Cambodia are like Hoyasala temples in Karnataka. You can go on seeing one after the other and it will never end. But we were fairly happy with our four full days of stay in Siem Reap in which we covered areas near Angkor Wat as well as made a day trip to Prasat Preah Vihar near Thai border. We also had another half a day in which we just strolled through the Old Market, Pub Street and oriented ourselves to the place and its prices apart from seeing the McDermott Photo Gallery.
  • Cambodian history had to be pieced together in a way very similar to that of Indian history. From the archaeological evidence, inscriptions and Chinese travelers’ accounts. (Bless the ancient Chinese travelers!)
  • It is curious that the country first imported Mahayana Buddhism and then shifted to Theravada. I wonder how that happened. Perhaps some reading of history is in order.
  • It is also a weird coincidence of history that they brought back monarchy (even if strictly nominal) in 1990s to hold the country together.
  • But people are quite playful about the status, especially poverty, of their king. “Cambodian king must be the poorest king on the earth today,” joked one of our guides. “Thai king is the richest,” he informed us in the same breath, “I checked on Internet. And the richest business man is this guy called…. Yes… Bill Gates, right?” Another guide laughed when I expressed wonder at the amount of gold and silver housed in the Silver Pagoda. “The king who built it must be rich,” I said. “That was then,” she replied, “Now the government pays salary to our king.” Even in the rich days back “then”, the king was really a stooge of the French.
  • The landmine museum near Siem Reap (on the way to the exquisitely beautiful Bantey Sree), the killing fields near Phnom Penh and the genocide museum bring alive the horrors of 20th-century history.
  • At first, I wondered what could inspire one to make a tourist spot out of their miseries. Perhaps desperation to get those tourist dollars for a poor economy. Perhaps a noble sense of responsibility towards the rest of the world, warning them about the evils of violence even at the cost of disturbing your own peace of mind. But as I listened to the extremely well-produced audio tours of the killing fields and the genocide museum, another stark and sad reality hit me. For the current regime, keeping the horrors of Khmer Rouge alive is a propaganda tool. It is like warning their people and the rest of the world: Do you want to go back to that? If not, let us be in power. Irrespective of how disappointing we are in many other areas.
  • With that realization, the horrors of killing fields depressed me even more. It’s like people are being victimized again and again.
  • The current regime – despite a pretense of democracy – is still authoritarian. People aren’t allowed to protest. The new generation is not happy with corruption, lack of opportunities, poverty. But older people are content just to have no war. This is the summary of the current situation from one of our guides, and might be simplified to sound attractive to Western tourists. But from what I read and heard, it is not necessarily too far off the mark.
  • I am supposed to say that I return with happy memories from the vacation. But I return with a strange mixture of awe and fear and questions. I am happy I did this trip. I came to bear witness, my Cambodian brethren. Difficult as it feels to hope so, may all our futures be more peaceful than the past.
  • We ended our trip on a sweet note with some Cambodian desserts from Teuk Skor in Phnom Penh. I was disappointed with the lack of local desserts in the menus of most restaurants and was happy that I found them.

Read more in High Rises, High Season and Handicrafts (More Notes from Cambodia Trip).

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?


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.


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.

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.