Category Archives: Business

When This Man Talks, You Better Listen

Sanjeev Bikhchandani writes again.

Lessons of history learnt seven years ago“.

The first two passages itself are pretty illuminating.

A little over a year ago, I met a well-known NRI who was visiting India from Silicon Valley.

He asked me how the dotcom I worked for was doing. I proudly told him that we were making a profit, that we weren’t running a dotcom but a business, that we actually charged people for our services, that when we had started out three years earlier, dotcoms hadn’t been fashionable and that we also intended to be around when dotcoms were no longer fashionable. He told me with a straight face that I had a vision- problem and that I wasn’t thinking big enough. If we were making a profit then we couldn’t be investing enough in the business. I was crestfallen, for many regarded this luminary as some sort of guru.

An old interview on Rediff is here.

Blogathon: Carpool your way to solve the Traffic Problem in Your City

Five years ago, it used to take me 40 minutes to reach IIT Gate from Gurgaon (even in a Roadways bus) in rush hour traffic. Today – it is at least 1hr 15mins or upwards to traverse the same distance.

Let me first make an appeal first – we should try and figure out what we can do to help the traffic condition in the city instead of whining about what the government should do to solve the traffic problem in the city. Whether it is (a) the public transport system b) Introducing a road tax  c) Better Roads d) Fining errant drivers – all these processes are basically time-consuming because of either infrastructural requirements or political and systemic issues. Thus, till some of these actually do come to pass, we should look for solutions within our current set of constraints.

An interesting poster from Wikipedia
I think one great way to do it, is to enage in carpools. In my perspective – and I might be underinformed here, carpooling is not terribly popular in and around Delhi (simple empirical evidence includes the sheer number of cars with lone drivers) – whatever car pools there might be – are probabaly within the domains of a college or organisation – which is hardly car pooling because in that case you are just sharing rides with your friends.


What I perceive as a carpool is something that I experienced in Germany, when I had to take a ride from Dresden to Berlin. There you have a website called [I know, no point trying to pronouce it]. The premise is really simple – say I have a car and am driving to Berlin from Dresden – I post that on the website, interested people can call me, and then join me for the ride upon sharing the fuel cost.

Here, as an occasional commuter – I have hardly had the chance to carpool.

I think there is a definite opportunity there which has not been fully tapped.

Some top-of-mind issues which a carpooling service will need to tackle:

1] Besides round-the-week travel which is more structured, it should also be able to cater to occasional commuters.

2] Security is of utmost concern – especially for women.

3] A way for the concerned parties to communicate easily.

4] Finding coherent routes. Say if I drive from Gurgaon to GK-II, I can have people who might want to get off at intermediate stops

5] Coordinating time: With the Indian Standard Time ruling supreme, impunctuality on one person’s part can ruin it for the other person.

So far I know of two variants of carpooling services that exist online. One is a general format where an Auto Classified website also has carpooling as a section. For example, Indimoto carpool section. Here you can post whether you want a ride, or can give one – which are chronologically arranged as forum posts (they look like cheap ads). Issues: the postings are few and extremely infrequent, they primarily cater to round-the-week travel. 

Another much more sophisticated variant is KoolPool. It’s membership bases – so secure and uses SMS to communicate (and even match routes I think). Though they seem to have not signed up very many people (764 in all – assuming 3 per car now and 1 per car before – that’s only about 510 vehicles off the road), even though I first heard of them launching in 2006. But so far it’s only in Mumbai and Pune.

So, I think there is much to be done here: How about a KoolPool variant for Delhi/NCR? How about a Facebook app which enables carpool within a network? How about a variant?

Whatever it might be, carpooling can definitely be a faster solution than government reforms to at least reducing the traffic problem in our cities if not solving it.


Medical Tourism in India

One of my friends has started a medical tourism firm in India called Vaidya Value Medicare. I think medical tourism is a fascinating industry and I wish him all the best. To know more about the medical tourism services they offer you can visit their website.

You can read an old Outlook story on the sector here.

Cleaning Up The House : Part I

The last one was here.

Basically, all the drafts I let ferment for so long that either I have forgotten what triggered them, what I wanted to write, or those which I haven’t been able to give enough thought to. One solution could be to delete them – but then there are some which I believe at least deserve the light of the day. In 4 parts by category.

A: Business/Entreprenuership

Free for all, or invite only?No Pass, No Entry

This thought came up a long time ago – At the first MoMo Delhi meet (August ’06), I had heard a talk from the founders of (now almost defunct) At the time, it seemed like a company poised for success. The only social network that existed was Orkut, this one had a team of two Stanford graduates spearheading the initiative, and promised some cool innovative features.

Another thing which made it cool and exclusive was that at the time it was ‘invite only’. So the question which I was asking myself was – What makes more sense – a free for all, or invite only? Facebook built a quality user base and a brand by being invite only. But are you in turn slowing down growth? Or should one start with invite only and then open it up later (a la Facebook again). How does the domain you are in (social networking/e-commerce) affect this choice. I guess for me, the jury is still out on that one.

Point of Reference

Wrote this post around the time the start-up Slideshare had launched. There definition of slideshare was “Slideshare is the YouTube of Powerpoint”. Evidently, this one line got Slideshare on Techcrunch – and it first horde of users. The takeaway is that it’s extremely important to have a ‘point of reference’ when you are explaining you hot new product/service/start-up to someone who doesn’t know about it.

I think we entrepreneurs often overlook this, only to realise how important this is later. Perhaps it’s because all potential investors talk up a blue haze about differentiation. Or perhaps you get caught up with your own jargon. Or perhaps you are too bullish on making it sound like something completely enw and revolutionary. Remember – everyone you meet has an attention span which last the length of an elevator pitch. I still haven’t perfected the layman’s definition for my company.

Raising the bar
This probably relates to something I read in the Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki. He says

“Shoot for doing things at least ten times better than the status quo. When Jeff Bezos started Amazon. com, he didn’t build a bookstore with a paltry 25,000 more titles than the 250,000-title brick-and-mortar bookstores. They launched with 3000,000 titles in an online bookstore”.

The question is when you are creating something new, do you try and make a quantum difference or an incremental difference over existing solutions? How do you raise the bar?

One company which really works on this philosophy is Apple. The iPods and iPhone are landmark devices – innovative and pathbreaking – and they are built from the ground up with that philosophy. In most cases otherwise, it’s a mix and match of features – look at mobiles for example – put together a camera/mp3 player/3g/insert-your-feature-of-the-week-here and bingo! you have a new model. 

Another hard nut to crack – especially when you are out of ideas on how you can make the leap. Or when your quantum leap ends with a massive crash. Jury’s out on this one too.

The Entreprenurial Spirit
This draft caught me in a pretty intense mood – I have written it in angry half sentences – trying hard to get it out of my brain [Sample this: Opportunity cost is such a shit concept – which no one quite understands but everyone believes makes some sense. Fucking balls to opportunity cost]. I was writing this after having made up my mind about accepting an investment – but then getting dissuaded by my brother with the logic that I should hang on as the valuation would increase. [It’s a different story that we did not eventually take that investment – but for altogether different reasons.]

This is basically a rant against the cold (but often convincing) logic of numbers and objective thinking which becomes even more potent when laced with terms like ‘opportunity cost’, ‘cost-benefit analysis’.

My brother and one of my very close friends (both finance guys) have often evaluated my choices with the following.

a) Have you looked at what is the opportunity cost of leaving your job and doing this start-up? [Also, since I am an IITian my opportunity cost is apparently higher.]

b) If you had been working for 3 years what kind of package do you think you would’ve been getting?

My issue with this line of thinking is that if you think like that you will never be able to take the plunge and start something.

Say I was travelling the world for an year (isn’t that something you would want to do?) – would you still do a cost-benefit analysis see what was the opportunity cost of doing it? I think it’s a thinking with your heart versus thinking with your brain question – but perhaps I sooner or later they have to work as a team.

I even had come with a cool quote: “Doesn’t living every moment count more than living every moment counting? ”

Can you scale up?

A mini post. I remember I had attended a talk by Sanjeev Bikhchandani (you must read his interviews. Most successful people talk for effect, this man is grounded in reality) – and one of the things which he talked about was scaling up. His perspective was in terms of people – when you scale up – the people you have been working with – sometimes even the ones you started with – are unable to take that leap. So you really have to make some hard decisions at that point in time.

I was reminded of this issue – from a resources perspective – after the more mundane event of dealing with ICICI Bank’s terrible terrible customer support. And perhaps that’s why the small guy will always have a shot at being better than the bigwigs, because the latter haven’t scaled up well. Scaling up is a fascinating topic – and I will give this some more thought and perhaps write a full post on this one sometime.

User Behaviour

This one must be a full fledged field of study. Users can be very unpredicatable and quirky – and as online retailers – there is no alternative but to deal with it. This draft just had a thought parked – “What can you do about people who don’t like your product but don’t complain, yet secretly vow never to use that service again?”

Reliance the Behemoth

Reliance, the behemoth that it is, has deep pockets and thus a very big time horizon within which they can plan for break-even. How does that affect the start-up ecosystem – in domains like web, which have been, at least in the west, playgrounds for entreprenuers and upstarts, rather than for big corporations.

Social Networks: Do they breed on voyeurism?

Exactly what the title says. Again an afterthought from the the Yaari presentation I mentioned earlier – one of the founders explicity mentioned this as a social network feature. The thought was – how much contribution does enabling voyeurism has towards the success of a network.The open state of Orkut where anyone could see anyone’s profile, scraps and photos. Or the more controlled voyeurism in Facebook’s news feed.


Phew! that was a lot. And as the dwindling paragraph sizes suggest that I should hold off the rest for later.

Pondi’s Book of Business Ideas : Idea 4 – Indiscover


Product Name: Indiscover

Logo (first draft):

Short Description: A community (web-enabled and physical) of college students across India, learning and sharing the history and heritage of India, and and then reusing that knowledge as part-time tour guides to make some money.

Long Description:

Indiscover marries three things.

a) The ignorance of youth about India’s heritage, culture and history. True for some, not true for others but definitely true for me. And yes I do give a damn about it.
b) The thriving travel industry is bringing in the tourists – sure. but is the ‘content’ matching up to the demand – are there any well qualified tour and travel guides – not Lonely Planets but real people? I had taken a trip to the Taj Mahal back in my college days – in our group were two firangs who decided to hire a guide to tell us what the Taj was all about. This man clearly seemed a lot more interested in urban legends and unconfirmed fables than telling us anything useful about the Taj.

c) We all need pocket money :)

Perhaps they can even meet some interesting new people in the process.

How will it be enabled?

It would make sense to start it as small local communities first in areas with thriving student populations (such as Delhi/Mumbai). Get some historians/teachers willing to participate and conduct “heritage trips” where students travel around learn about a city and “heritage sessions”(on topics where actual locational visits are not possible). Back it up with a web portal where these people can interact, share – not just with their own local community but with others as well. This portal also becomes the resource for travellers to look for “Indiscover Buddies” (that at least sounds better than part-time tour guide).

How will it make money ?

It may sound like a non-profit organisation, but it shouldn’t be (because I think those are inherently unsustainable). Also, unless it makes money – for itself and for the students – it will just fizzle out. It may seem all nice and patriotic to learn about history for a bit – but then everyone will find something else to do.

The question is that do we leech off a small fraction of money that the students get paid or take a different approach. It probably be worthwhile to explore the latter. Can the Indiscover portal provide paid content such as audiobooks, or video tours taken during the heritage walks? Need to give this a little more thought.

Issues: Mindset – The reservations that the youth has about “petty” jobs. While in western countries working at a McDonald’s is probably the first job youngsters do – here such jobs are inevitably for the lowly. Limited Availability and Accessibility – This is a BIG one. Part-time automatically implies limited availability. Accessibility will become an issue as soon as we try and expand beyond the student rich areas. Will a tourist ever find an ‘Indiscover Buddy'(am I overdoing the buddy bit already?) in Khajuraho? Or even in popular places like Agra. Can Indiscover be that grassroot? Perhaps vella college students might be more than willing to actually travel all the way – which poses more problems – who pays for their travel – and whom do they travel with?

Existing Stuff:

Around putting a layer of content on travel. Vertical Social Networking services like OkTataByeBye (A MakeMyTrip initiative), Geobeats – a service with professional travel videos from around the world.

Around learning about India. The only organised thing I can think of are the India Habitat Centre walks (none of which I have taken – but have heard about them).

Learning from the Learned

Great post by Gaurav Bhatnagar of New Delhi Times fame (almost GigaOM fame, but am sure that day shall come for New Delhi Times too). Have read it twice already. Here goes: ‘Don’t forget to smell the roses!’

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.

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.