Monthly Archives: August 2006

An NGO’s business model

In June 2005, I went for a month long internship at an NGO called Pradan. Pradan works towards enabling livelihoods of rural people and are active in several states such as Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. I happened to be in Jharkhand, shuttling between the towns of Chaibasa and Hatgamharia (yes, they exist, and you get awesome Papri Chaat in the former).

My intentions of undertaking this exercise was to see first hand what village life was like (and as per my friends – they were seeing first hand what resume building was like – though agree that there is some truth to the latter). Anyway, while my misadventures in that place were many, this post isn’t about those. This post is about what I felt is a dichotomy between what NGOs are trying to achieve and how they are being enabled thus.

An NGO, especially one like Pradan, not considering the ones involving themselves in unethical practices, largely operate this way: They get funds from external bodies both national and international (such as AID, Red Cross etc) which they in turn use to carry out development work. Thus typically, you would have a ‘sales force’ for an NGO who is selling all these bodies the idea that they can put their money to better use.

As a result, they are inevitably dependent on such organisations for all their needs. My question is – why ? NGOs create immense value. I remember I was shocked to see the sheer amount of work that professionals at Pradan do. They wake up at 6:30 in the morning are off to faraway tribal areas accessible through the worst possible roads and are at work till as late as 8:00 in the evening. And this is done on rickety bikes with insufficient nutrition notwithstanding a scorching sun or pouring rain. A man such as myself who never woke up before 10:30 when at IIT (and that was early by the way) had to wake up at 7:00 and do the same (but I think it was the food bit I rued the most). Yet what do they earn? A measly 5000 bucks a month – and this is for the NGOs which pay well.

Obviously, working for a NGO does not figure in the key career choices for most of our qualified youth.

What NGO’s need is to reinvent their business model. One example could obviously be that they could operate on a profit sharing model, however, villagers earn too little to start with, so sharing that with an NGO is a faraway and impractical dream. Yet that could not be the only solution. Someone needs to come up with a better business model, which rewards NGOs for the value that they are creating.

I had thought about this long ago, but could not come up with any potential answer. I recently came across a for profit company who has developed their business model around the needs of the rural Indian population called Drishtee (featured here). It was founded in 2000, and they operate this way: They set up Internet kiosks in rural areas operated by some villagers themselves. The kiosks cater to the rest of the village population which pays a small fee to use the services of the kiosks. Drishtee takes a small percentage of that fee.

While Drishtee is not involved in development the way NGOs are, they have a sustainable business model, and their activities will affect the rural areas they are working with in a positive manner.

Thus ends this post with me sitting here thinking about, and hoping for innovation in the NGO sector.

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Mystery of the entangled earphones

I have always wondered how my earphone wires (or phone charger for that matter) always manage to entangle themselves in the most intricate way possible – even when I put them in my pocket in a fairly pristine condition. I have never understood this. Entropy at work? But how? I mean – how does it get into those insurmountable knots?

Perhaps someone can make a pair of earphones whose wires don’t entangle – that would be some invention.

The sustainability of ad-supported businesses

Day before I attended a conference called Mobile Monday Delhi (link). The keynote speaker was Naresh Gupta – Senior VP at Adobe (their incredible office was the conference venue). He talk dwelt upon how mobile phone technology has had a quantum effect on the human civilization and, more importantly, raised the question as to which would be the next killer app for the mobile. According to him till date there have been only two killer apps 1) Voice 2) SMS/Email, which I largely agree with.

However, in the middle of all this, he made a passing note about how in the future Voice might be free, as it might be ad-supported – so perhaps, sometime into the future, high fidelity voice recognition technology could ‘hear’ what one was talking about and pour in content specific ads. Now I am not discounting that such a possibility exists – Google might be in on it even as I write.

What it made think about is, how the success of Google and its singular business model (at least till date) has made people believe that almost all web businesses can be ad supported. This was echoed by a company called Webaroo, which will enable offline web browsing on smart phones, who stated that their revenue will come from offline Google Ads.

Now, my question is – are ad-supported businesses sustainable? I might be sounding like a fool here considering the size of the online advertising industry and at the rate at which it is growing – (short article here). But If we take it to the extreme – anything and eveything can be ad-supported. So the next book I buy might be free, because every second page will be an ad – or maybe after every paragraph there will be an ad. Even if I just stick to the web, how many companies would want their pay-per-click on every site, which thinks it can be ad-supported but its proposed huge user base is right now just an air-castle? At the end of the day someone is paying for those ads – what happens when the number of ad-supporting businesses become less than the number of ad-supported businesses. Shouldn’t companies be charging for the value they are creating, as against pimping the value someone else is creating and charging a commision for it? Even Google seems to be exploring newer business models – Google Checkout for example.

Maybe my argument has flaws – perhaps offline ad-supporting businesses will never be outnumbered by online ad-supported businesses. But it is a thought.

Someone show me the light.

Scott Adams is a star

Can’t believe it took Scott Adams of all people to make me reconsider the power of prayer. Let me explain – When I was a kid (Class 6-7 kinds) – My mum who is a very religious person – (in the more spiritual sense of the word) – introduced me to prayer.

She is a die-hard bhakt of Hanumanji (its seems a little weird writing His name in English phonemes – but well with no disrespect obviously), so I used to recite the Hanuman Chalisa every night before going to bed. Soon I added Hanumanji’s Aarti and a mantra which went “Shree Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram” to the mix. And you know what, it worked for me – at least that’s what I used to believe. Soon it transformed into a ritual to ask for what I wanted rather than prayer itself – and at other times when I was keeping up the daily recital(sporadically) I started rushing through the Chalisa – mumbling words – mixing up sentences, getting distracted and the like. So after a point I reasoned – there isn’t any point doing it – when I am doing that without any conviction, without any motivation. I felt I was lying to myself and lying to God – so I stopped. My mum said it doesnt matter whether you believe it or not – but I said no – it does not make sense to me. And so it has been till this day (3 years I guess).

Now first you are thinking where does Scott Adams figure in here – and why does this post keep getting longer and longer. The first I will explain as follows and the second – can’t help it – I think I have begun to ramble on a bit too much. Scott Adams has written a book called the ‘The Dilbert Future’. Now I am a huge fan of the comic strip and thought that ‘The Dibert Principle’ was awesome. However, this book is tons of shit (translation in IITspeak – Scott Adams ne dil se hagga uchchala hai – matlab hadh hagga – and I mean really). Some part of it is quite funny I admit (which might be a topic for another post) – but mostly it is bakchodi (He knows he can get away with writing anything and make money on top of it). But his crowning glory is the last chapter of the book called “A New View of the Future” where completely redeems himself and actually ends up making a much stronger point because of the preceding chapters.

He starts by stating one his predictions (among the many in the book) that “The theory of evolution would be debunked in our lifetime”. (I think the following strip sums up his thoughts pretty well and quite hilariously at that. Copyright Scott Adams).
dilbert_evolution

What he challenges is – our understanding of reality – which if insufficient or incorrect, will obviously render our strategies for success (of any kind) ineffective. He picks up things which we accept as axioms 1. Time goes forward 2. Objects Move 3. Gravity Exists and 4. Cause and Effect is only possible through a physical contact. To challenge these notions he picks up both actual incidents (such as the double slit experiment) and suggests thought experiments. Now, I have read some of that stuff during engineering – but Adams deconstructs these concepts in way which are intelligible to all (although as he himself admits some of the details go haywire) – and that is where he ends making a fairly convincing argument. Not that we accept what he is saying is correct, but we accept that there might a possibility that there is an alternate view of reality based on perception rather than vision – how we might be living in an infinite universes like the frames of an animation or how infinitesimal actions – such as thoughts – can make a quantum difference upon enough iterations in our lives (references to the Chaos Theory). Some of the latter resonates with me too – how many times when driving on the road, you have actually worried about getting into an accident and actually gotten into one – it sometime feels so tangible – so round the corner, and when you don’t care nothing happens.

It is in this thought environment where he makes his point about Affirmations – whereby, you write a specific goal 15 times a day and achieve that goal – in Scott Adams case it worked – making him a successful syndicated cartoonist, a 94 percentile GMAT score, even got him some success at the stock market. Obviously you can’t be inane – don’t write stuff like ‘I will win the lottery today’, or ‘I will be a millionaire by the end of this month’ – but give yourself some flexibility. Affirmations seem to be akin to prayer, which Scott Adams also recognises. And he states a lot of incidents from his own life, as stated above, as well experiments which demonstrate, hard as it might be to believe, the power of affirmations or for that matter – prayer.

So, why is Scott Adams a star? He is star because only he could have articulated the argument about a possible alternate view of reality well enough to be so convincing. And at least I am definitely reconsidering prayer – maybe not doing it yet but not denying it either.

I have cut short several of his arguments for the sake of not making this post run into several pages, and of course I can’t put them better than he has. So, spend a weekend reading the Dilbert Future. It will disgust you, amuse you, bore you – but it will also provoke your thinking.

Earlier posts (ha!) can be found here

The few (understatement) earlier posts that I have can be found at crashpodel.blogspot.com

I now write at WordPress

WordPress seems a lot more useful than Blogger. For starters it offers categories – something integral to me whose thoughts fly all over the place. Also, it appears I can directly write posts from Netvibes, which does seem to be the case with Blogger.I can also toss around other reasons which I do not fully understand so I shall spare myself right now.
Sad that I can’t modify the theme for a free WordPress blog. Update: Also not easy to add images to a free WordPress blog.

Only trouble now is porting everything from Blogger here, though the good part is that I have no comments :D