Category Archives: E-commerce

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) Yaari.com. 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.

Broadband Problems in India

I have been wanting to do a post on what plagues broadband in India for a while – a problem which is probably among the biggest hindrances to the growth of Internet businesses in India.

The latest issue of Businessworld addresses this topic in an article aptly call ‘the Hindu speed of Internet access’. (:D)

A birdie once told me that it had got something to do with VSNL and their monopolistic methods, however, Businessworld lists the following chief reasons for the state of broadband in India (which as per the fraudy definition for India is upwards of 256 kbps, while for the rest of the world upwards of 2 mbps).

a) Evidently the biggest deterrent has been the cost of the last mile (laying down optic fibre to reach the end customer), which is ‘as high as 90 per cent of the total cost of wireline’ to the telecom operators and the government has refused unbundling (access to the last mile network of the largest landline operator, BSNL, to private players.) Also see: An article in Hindu about the same issue and a very good read on Wikipedia about the the last mile – it even plagues the US.

b) The profits from the mobile business are high and the costs low compared to broadband and thus there is no incentive for Telecom companies to push broadband. Businessworld suggests that the answer might be allowing non-telecom players to offer the last mile pretty much like ISPs offer their services.

c)  An alternative solution would be to get the last mile problem solved via WiMax and although companies such as BSNL/MTNL and Bharti have done trials, the rollout has been stuck because India is still to release spectrum. [I don’t fully understand the spectrum issue – in another post maybe]

d) Costs: Retail Broadband costs in India are 5 times those in Japan and Korea. In my perspective that’s only half the story because what’s worse is that downloads are charged for. A 2 mbps BSNL connection has monthly rental of Rs. 3300 and a download limit of only 20gb!

 

The article paints a rather bleak picture indeed for businesses ranging from e-learning to e-governance, and of course e-commerce.

 

Oh, and that doesn’t stop the government from doing a good PR job. They proudly announced 2007 to be the year of the broadband (and have failed to notice that it is coming to a close). Plus stories abound about how we will get free 2 mbps internet by 2009 – “All citizens to receive complementary 2 mbps internet.”

 

We live in hope.

Pondi’s Book of Business Ideas: Idea 3 – Bookish.in

Well, time for another business idea. This is something I have been dying to work on – if only I had the time.

Product Name: Bookish.in

Logo:

bookish logo

For now the dot in i is a dog-eared page, and the text in all its web-do-point-do-ish goodness has a reflection.

Description:

Bookish is primarily an aggregator with three things in one: a) A local book metasearch engine b) comparison site for books c) a platform for physical bookstore owners to sell books online.

The Interface

A Google-simple search box where you can search for a books. It searches through all the physical bookstore catalogues in the vicinity (say Delhi NCR) and comes up with a list of results with price comparisons. Subsequently, depending on what all distribution methods a particular bookstore offers, you can either call them/pick the book up/order it online.

The Need

Relevance to a consumer: There no one-stop-shop for books in India. Either you have to visit 2-3 bookstores to find the book you want, or you crawl through online bookstores pretty much all of which suffer from a lack of good collection of books (by the way I had this view for a bit which it appears has been challenged – to be explained later), and have really trashy websites (This seems pretty chronic). Also some people may not be inclined to shop online and wait for a few days for their books to arrive. Bookish solves all these problems by a) collecting data from multiple stores (so good collection of books – which can technically cover all possible books given enough participating stores) b) best prices (through comparisons) c) consumer chooses mode of transaction (go and pick it up from the actual store/home delivery via phone/online purchase)

What will make or break it?

Of course it has no relevance if you cannot convince physical bookstores that this is a good idea. What’s going for them is – an online presence, increased possibility of purchase and a new sales channel (if they choose to sell books online – By the way, Bookish makes this easy for them by introducing standard packaging methods, courier relationships and customer support. Thus they just need an inventory of books which they already have).

On the flip side they may choose not to share their catalogues – as they may not be too keen on making their prices comparable and thus visible to all. They probably can’t exercise differential pricing then. Or they may prefer an individual web presence rather than a collaborative one (especially us Bhartiyas). Some may even have some sort of a rudimentary or extensive web presence and would rather not be a part of this project.

Add-Ons

a) It can also search through the catalogues of online bookstores and give you the results for comparison – in a much better interface. I don’t know how feasible is this though – most of these sites probably don’t have a formal method such an API to integrate with them and scraping results off them might be illegal – for example, I remember Bixee had some issues with Naukri. (Link)

b) Each book search also links to book reviews on Amazon, popular book blogs and newspaper book reviews. This will be more efficient than Google. Also all book review sources can be voted up or down by users – fine tuning the best set of resources on the web for book reviews.

c) A used book listings area where people can add books they are willing to sell or exchange and even these are indexed in the search results. By the way you may be interested in reading about Alibris when it comes to the used books market. A good analysis is done in the book The Long Tail by Chris Anderson. Meanwhile you can read what it is here and book notes on the relevant chapter in the Long tail here – pretty good. It also mentions LibraryThing by the way – one of my absolute favorite web-based services – just learnt on Wikipedia that they also have a book swapper feature. Here is my page with some functional tags (have to add more books here). (Link)

d) A “Me is a Third World Sucker” feature whereby, people who are travelling outside the country post their trips and other users can request them to buy the books that are not available in India. (Guess I am inspired here from http://www.mitfahrgelegenheit.de/ – an online hitch-a-ride system in Germany which works rather well). Come to think of it, this “Third World Sucker” thing can probably stand on its own as a Pondi’s Business Idea.

How will it make money?

As far as costs of running Bookish are concerned a bunch of things can help – it can keep it’s costs low by not maintaining an inventory at all. Second it can recruit college students to help digitise physical bookstore catalogues and sales (wishful thinking?). It can make money through internet advertising (don’t they all), but also referral fees from participating bookstores and a fraction of the sales done online.


Links and some thoughts on existing online/physical bookstores in India.

Online

Firstandsecond.com: Trashy website. Bad search. “If it’s in print it’s with us!” – Searching for “art of the start” in Books>Title gets no results. Also for the books they dont have, they probably order them from Amazon and then ship ’em to you – which is why they are as expensive as their dollar price and take 21 days to ship. (Link)

Indiaplaza.in: This is where I would like to retract my statement about online bookstores not having a good collection. Looks like after Fabmall rebranding itself as Indiaplaza they have done some serious rejigging in their books section. I found pretty much all the books I looked for (though the search can get better). Also they have an annual membership program for Rs. 500 – and you get 25% off on ALL books (plus a free book for Rs. 500 or less). I had gone there looking for something else and ended up buying the membership. Oh and the “Price Challenge” is a sham by the way – they don’t even reply to those emails.

Prakashbooks.com: Well, I know the site is nothing to talk about – but you get some 20-25% discount and I did get the books I had ordered once.

Also, if you wish visit www.om-books.com, www.landmarkonthenet.com (this site is quite unfortunate considering how amazing the Landmark bookstore otherwise is)

Also an article on online book sales in India here.

Offline

My personal favorite is Midland, Aurobindo Market. Amazing collection and you always get a 15-20% discount. They have just opened in Ph I market DLF. Yay!

Also noteworthy, as per some of my friends (though I haven’t shopped here much), is Bahrisons in Khan Market. Browsing around bookstores in CP is a lot of fun – especially the old/used books’ seller near Nizam’s.

Of the big chains in Delhi (Om, Landmark, Crossword) Landmark is hands down the best – very well catalogued and an equally well informed staff.


To make this post even longer here are some sites I discovered which are doing PBBI kinda stuff.

1. //www.ideawicket.com/images/logo.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

A rocking idea – hope these guys do well. And I wish I can spend some more time on Ideawicket. They are based in Delhi by the way.
2. //www.techquilashots.com/wp-content/themes/glossyblue-advanced/images/header-bg.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Seems similar to what I am doing with PBBI (of course, with some minor readership differences :))

3.//www.lovemyidea.com/images/lmilogo.gif” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Someone linked to this on the Ideawicket suggestion page. Couldn’t get time to look through much, though the site is designed well. It’s an Irish site.

On Music : Online Music Stores in India

It’s been a while since I have really blogged (test posts from blogging softwares obviously do not count). So, getting started again with something which I really live on. Music. Though less philosophical and more functional – I am going to do a series of posts on a bunch of stuff around music. The first one about online music stores in India – or rather the lack of them.

Q. So, don’t you wish there was an online music store in India? (Before you say Soundbuzz, or before you think I am an illiterate fool who hasn’t even heard the phrase peer-2-peer or used some such software, read on).

I agree most of us have our fill (for free!) using BitTorrent or even plain old Google, I think the the lack of a good online music store, is a rather embarrassing gap in the e-commerce industry in India. Infact, I think the e-commerce industry is something can be really fueled and driven by an online music store. Why is this so? Let’s investigate this a bit.

Consumers would ask: Why pay for digital music when you can get it for free?

To begin with, sample this and this. First page results lead you to downloadable mp3’s hosted on pakimp3s.org/indianpad.com or other sites like rapidshare.de. Plus I seriously believe that Indians are among the most guiltless when it comes to piracy (Or as Russell Peters would say : we are cheap). Of course, enforcement is also an issue here, but that needs to examined within a larger context – so later.

I am no saint either because I haven’t spent a penny on music for the last few years (except for buying the occasional song or two on Gomusic.ru and a few audio cassettes to play in my car).

But I really hate it when I can’t find a song online. I hate it when I get viruses acting like valid search results on on Limewire. I hate it when find no torrents, or worse still no seeds for a torrent file. I hate it when I have spent an hour looking for a song and still havent found it. I would pay to get that song online. And believe me this is not that one occasional song, it could be a whole catalogue of old music, which never has enough ‘peers’ compared to newer music.

Providers would ask: Where will I find paying customers?

First off, don’t count college students (or just out of college junta) who are probably the least likely to buy music, especially when the alternative is free.

But consider all these people. People who perceive using BitTorrent or even Limewire/Kazaa as geeky. People who don’t find these geeky but a waste of time – to avoid which they are willing to pay money. People who have bought swanky new iPods/Walkman Phones/or other mp3 players, but don’t have the first clue about how to get music on them (a subset of the first). People who actually buy CD’s. People who think downloading free music is piracy (a possible rarity).

I think all of the above are target customers for an online music store. And, most importantly, before you go on about online piracy – at least provide the consumer an alternative in the first place, because right now there is next to nothing. Obviously when there is no online music store, everyone will resort to downloading free music of illegal p2p networks.

Question no one has answered yet: What is a viable alternative?

This is where I count out Soundbuzz. Soundbuzz, while it does have a good catalogue of songs at reasonable prices – it suffers from that one big thing which plagues the online music industry in the US, and has been a hot topic of debate – DRM.

To put it simply, DRM is copy-protection technology which prevents the music being played on unauthorised computers, prevents conversion to other formats, limits burning on to CDs beyond a specific number and prevents it from being played on incompatible portable music devices.

In the case of Soundbuzz, it sells files in DRM’d .wma format which renders it unplayable on the most popular music players in India right now. So unplayable on my iPOD, Sony Walkman phones and my RAZR V3i. It only played on a friend’s Creative MuVo NX – and that too only if I transferred it using Windows Media Player (otherwise you can transfer songs on to the MuVo using Windows Explorer). Even Yashraj Films sells music in the same format. Also, in the US, inspite of DRM, at least there are enough stores to cater to all possible devices.

Compare all this with the ease with which you could play audio cassettes in any cassette player, CDs in any CD player and MP3s in practically every device.

So which brings us back to our first question with the additional condition – how do strike a balance between the interests of the concerned parties. Providers want to prevent music from from being pirated, yet that should not stifle the choice that the consumer has. That’s going to be the content of my next post – evaluation of the issue of Digital Rights Management in greater detail – and the hope that India might set a different yet successful example. (Chhota muh badi baat?)