About Me

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Mumbai, India
I run an IT Security consulting firm based out of India. We started off from scratch in 2001 when I was 21, and have offices in Mumbai, Bahrain, and UAE. The idea behind the blog is to share the stories of how we run the business, the deals we make, the deals that break, the heartburn, and the sheer joy.

The Ultimate Startup Guide

The Ultimate Startup Guide is an e-book that provides answers to all your questions related to starting and growing a business in India. Everything you wanted to know about entrepreneurship in India from ideation to registration to marketing to hiring. The book contains a large number of practical examples, anecdotes, interviews, and motivational material to help you get started, and to grow rapidly in a booming Indian economy. If you've got the idea, this book will help you through with the execution and realize your dreams. Here are some of the key questions you will find answered in this book:
  • When starting a business, what are the legal issues involved?
  • What form of incorporation is better suited to which type of business?
  • What tax issues are involved?
  • How do I start a business and what are the pitfalls?
  • How do I market my business in the absence of significant funding?
  • How do I get funded?
  • What are the basic accounting concepts I should be aware of?
  • What is a business plan and how should I build one?
The brief table of contents of the book is as follows:
  1. Getting started
  2. Ideation
  3. Forms of Enterprises
  4. Funding
  5. Basic Accounting and Taxation
  6. Import and Export Licensing
  7. Trademark and Patenting
  8. Rules for NRIs and Foreigners
  9. Building a Business Plan
  10. Marketing on a Shoestring
  11. Website and Branding
  12. Women Entrepreneurs
  13. Templates
To order the Ultimate Startup Guide - email me at kkmookhey@gmail.com.

Details of the book are:
Title: The Ultimate Startup Guide
Author: Kanwal Mookhey
Pages: 150
Additional: Companion CD contains numerous templates for building your business plan, calculating cashflow, preparing profit and loss, and balance sheets, preparing invoices, your resume and profile, marketing material, websites, contracts, and many other useful and motivational material.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

10 Questions with a woman entrepreneur - Shibani Jain

Shibani Jain is the CEO of Craftsbridge India Pvt. Ltd. A first generation woman entrepreneur, she has stuck through a lot of ups and downs to build a very unique and inspiring business – bringing India’s traditional crafts and arts to a wider market, using the Internet and direct marketing as tools to ensure the craftsmen get their right recognition and dues. I interviewed her online a few weeks ago, and gained some significant insights into a woman’s entrepreneurial journey.

1. Could you brief us about your company's main offerings?

Shibani: We offer designer and special skill products which map current corporate requirements. We work with special skill groups across the country and our sales help these small rural urban groups to generate income.

We offer corporate promotional and motivational products like desktop products and office accessories.

We arrived at this focus after a lot of trial and error. We tried many other things at first – home textiles which we were exporting; retail sales for domestic markets (garment apparels, etc). We even had our own stitching unit. But then, we realized its not possible to do so much; especially since they were all virtually different businesses – with separate infrastructure requirements, different markets and different production bases. We decided to cut down and we focused on the business where we had the strongest market traction.

2. Since your website is one of the primary marketing channels, what strategies would you advise to promote one's website and make it more productive in terms of customers and revenues?

Shibani: Our website is only 7% of our total business today. I would advise the following for similar ventures:

1. Unique offerings
2. Decent strategic tie-ups/partner sites to ensure you get the eyeballs
3. Constant renewal of offerings and content

The web site is more a promotional tool for us, today than bringing in real business. But we find it useful to refer our customers to our site.

3. What prompted you to begin your current venture? What thought process led to this idea, and what initial challenges did you have to face?

Shibani: I was a web and multimedia designer and always interested in handicrafts. We thought that we could make a difference to this business (even if it was done in a small way to start with) with our ability to understand current market norms, design and bring in professional inputs.

We were also excited by the concept of "customized crafts". Being handmade product, it is relatively easier to customize a product with a special message or specification or color, even in small quantities. We thought of how a "grain of rice" can be packaged nicely with a hand written message and magnifying glass and sent off anywhere in the world.

And we were excited about the fact that we could be the one middle point between the end buyer and the end producer. It was exciting to visualize a situation where we could be the bridge between the rural/grass roots producer who has no market access and the end buyer who has no idea about the craft producer and their stories. It was interesting from a social and creative perspective.

We felt this was possible with a dot com model - with producers on one end and buyers on the other. In fact, we were incubated as a dot com. We made it through incubation funding, but were late in the dot com boom. The bust ensured that no one even heard us out as a dot come investment. The choice before us was either to shut down or change the model. We changed the model and started selling directly to corporate buyers.

4. When the chips are down, how do you deal with those kinds of situations?

Shibani: We have had many times when the chips were down. And we persevered. I did not give up. We evolved and sharpened our model in terms of cutting costs, reducing overheads, sharpening our focus, building systems and processes. We had to go through really tough transitions, like when I closed down the home textiles exports business – it was a harrowing time. We had to let go of trained staff, say no to customers who had started initiatives with us and manage all excess raw material fabric stock which was left over. At this time we simply stuck to our guns, gave ourselves a time line and swallowed our losses on this.

Another transition happened when my partner who headed the corporate business suddenly decided to quit after 5 years of managing this business. We then had to transition and learn many things afresh. The knowledge of the business went with him. We had a huge struggle just to re-educate ourselves about our customer requirements, vendor capabilities and issues and so many other things. But this transition actually resulted in us moving from a one man show into a 'team' approach. We built a team and dependence on one person is much reduced today. We also focused on more documentation, systems and processes at this stage.

5. What plans do you have for the future for your company?

Shibani: We have many dreams – of them one is that of having our brand recognized in the form of retail stores of our own. The other picture is to take our gifts offerings to foreign shores.

6. If you had to do it all over again, what would you differently?

We had very high costs when we started up - manpower, office, etc. I would now start like a garage operation if I had to restart. I would also focus, focus and focus from day one.

7. What drives you to work everyday?

Shibani: The thought that there is so much more to do, that we have only scratched the surface. The fact that I have something new to learn every day some new idea to pursue.

8. What three things would you advise aspiring women entrepreneurs?
1. Be courageous.
Do not worry about the fact that you are a woman and chances are that others will not worry about it either. Very often the problem is not external if it’s not internal.
2. Find and use external support. Today women entrepreneurs have a lot of external support- special funds, working capital loans, network groups- find them & use them well. Am not exactly aware of which ones, but banks like SIDBI, women's cooperative banks are women friendly. To be honest I have not had to find one myself- but they are there- on the net/banking community/funding groups.
3. Manage your guilt well. If you also have a family to look after. Guilt is not good for you/your family/your business. You might as well realize that this is what you love to do and your family might as well realize this too! Honesty is the best policy here in more ways than one!

9. What books or events have inspired you the most?
So many books! From Ayn Rand (We the living, The Fountainhead) at 16, to Herman Miller (Siddhart) at 20 to Celestine Prophecy (colin wilson?) To Conversations with God recently.

I was also influenced by books like "All paths lead to gold" and "Winning" by Jack Welch.

On events – I did a course in Vipassana meditation in the mountains of Igatpuri- this is a 10 day silent course- and it changed my life. It taught me to view life in perspective- and the fact that mind control is the most important control to have. The mind must not dictate you- you must control your mind.

Also every time I see street children in India, I feel compelled to do something. Anything to alleviate the suffering that so much of mankind seems to have. I feel outraged that so little is done and about the unfairness of it all.

I feel sad when i see beautiful, skilled products, sold in a shabby way, at shabby prices and in a shabby manner. I feel bad that the artist who created such a beautiful product is not getting his/her due- neither price nor recognition. I just feel that it’s all a criminal waste.

10. What advice would you have for aspiring entrepreneurs in general, and women entrepreneurs specifically?
1. Out of 10 start up businesses only 3/4 survive. The trick is to persevere and to believe in your picture.
2. Being at the right time and at the right place is important when you start- a good idea is not enough- a hard look at viability is a must.
3. Being an entrepreneur is very tough- it’s even tougher if you are trying to do something different/not done before/charting a different path. I would advise all young people trying to start a business to go in with their eyes open, but also with dreams in their mind.
4. For women I would say- your job is even tougher- like it or not, the family looks at you to keep the home fires running-but the flip side is that you may not have to be the bread earner! Enjoy this freedom and do something that you truly want to do. This is not to say that your success is not important- it is just as important, but you may have the option to choose!
5. For women I would also say, that consider the logistics of your life as a serious matter - like how far is your office from home? How much support do you have (family and otherwise), good help at home!!! These are small, practical and according to me imperative tips for the women entrepreneur. I could never have run Craftsbridge, if these logistics were not in my favor.

Intrepid: Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into answering this long list of questions! Would it be OK, if readers of this blog wanted to get in touch with you?

Shibani: Sure, they can email me at shibani@craftsbridge.com

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Common errors in technical writing

Today I attended a session of the Mumbai chapter of the Society for Technical Communication . The first session was by Gurudutt Kamath, who is probably the most well-known figure in the tech writing community in India. My interest in attending the session arose cause someone I know was also speaking there, and also because a lot of the work that we do involves a significant amount of technical writing. So while, we may not be professional technical writers, consulting does require us to have excellent written communication skills.

Guru (as he is popularly known) was speaking on common errors in technical writing. I think many of these errors occur in daily business communication as well. He made it a pretty interactive session, so the other tech writers also piped in with the errors they have seen occur most often. Here's the list we came up with:

  1. Not identifying the purpose of the document. Each document should have a set of objectives and a context in which it is being developed. Is it a user manual, or a marketing collateral, or something else. This leads us to:
  2. Not identifying the right target audience. If you don't know whom you're writing for, you're quite likely to miss the mark in terms of getting your point across. You could come across writing increasingly dumbed-down documents, or your writing could be so filled with jargon that it would be impossible for the average reader to understand. Having identified the target audience, you need to be sure that the next error is taken care of:
  3. Not getting the right sample audience to review your document. The right reviewers can make a huge difference in the final quality of your writing. I have often had non-technical editors review some pretty technical articles, and miss out on stuff that a more technical reviewer would easily have helped improve upon. Some of the better journals have a peer review system, so you ensure that a wider sample audience reviews your writing. A lot of the times, we end up submitting stuff without review - which is almost sacrilege!
  4. Inconsistency. Whether it's your formatting styles or your use of numbering systems, or your choice of words (British English or American English or apna Indian English), you have to be consistent. This also applies to:
  5. Not selecting the right examples. Guru gave the example of an article, which was about choosing relevant examples, and was woven around Amercian baseball. Now the author might have written the original article for an American audience, but by the time it got syndicated, it was published in other regions, where most of the baseball metaphors fell completely flat.
  6. Common grammar and spelling mistakes. "It's" vs. "Its". Not pressing the F7 key. Enough said!
  7. Wrong references. In larger documents, references to sections or figures within the document can go wrong when the document changes. For a book, that I was recently co-authoring, I had to keep changing the references to snapshots and figures as I kept inserting more, requiring me to renumber the earlier ones, as well as change references to them. Apparently, the right way to do it is to add a reference field, and point it to the location within the Word document, so that when the referenced section changes, the reference changes with it.
  8. Cookie cutter nightmares. Ok, so we've all done this. Opened up a previous proposal or report, and simply pressed File Save As, and the old client name pops up in the most embarrassing places. We once failed to get a customer reference, because during the closing meeting they brought up the point that they had been put off because an old client name had cropped up in one of the documents we had submitted in the project. Based on the inputs from the other participants in the session, this happens to the best of them.
  9. Use of cliched graphics. Using the MS supplied clip art in Powerpoint presentations, not getting the graphics done professionally, and using irrelevant graphics. Of course, Powerpoint gaffes are a whole thesis subject by themselves.
  10. Punctuations errors. I am most guilty of these, especially with mis-placed commas. Just don't seem to get them in the right places! Other errors include inconsistent quotation marks, misplaces colons and semi-colons, the use of ;&amp instead of 'and', etc.
Guru recommended "The Elements of Style" as a good first book to get your technical writing in good shape. Others also recommended the "Microsoft Manual of Style" and the "Chicago Manual of Style". Guru also has a whole series of articles on common errors on this website.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Changing chartered accountants

I keep harping to everyone about getting a good CA when you start your business. Looks like I should have been taking my own advice.

When we started out, the first CA we got was someone who came in through family contacts. He had been doing the income tax returns for some family members, and we thought it's a good idea to give my company work to him as well. When we were running a small operation, and ledger entries were a dozen a month, it was all good. But as we started to grow, this person proved unequal to the task. Minor hassles such as taking all our files and papers over to his office suddenly became major hurdles in getting the work done. What used to be one box file, was now a dozen and then some.

We started to look around for another CA, and just when we found one, we were told that we needed a no-objection certificate from the first guy in order to start dealing with the new one! Sheesh! Now this was a really delicate matter. Not only was the first chap doing my accounts, but he was also doing those of many more family members now. This meant he was privy to a lot of accounting information.

Anyways, the break came recently and in a very unexpected manner. We moved a couple of family member accounts away from him, since he lives at one end of town, and we at the other. That was an excellent reason to tell him that the entire process of dealing with someone who rarely visits us at home or office was proving to be too cumbersome. The next day he called us to say that he was upset at this decision, and had therefore decided not to do the rest of our accounts either. Of course, this decision comes at a very precise moment - 31st October is the last date to file our company income tax returns.

Thankfully, we have a good accountant working for us. Recently when doing the returns for my father, his insight into some of the laws related to stock investments resulted in a significant tax savings. This was something the CA should have been doing! Again the fees of a CA or the salary to an accountant is usually well worth it in terms of the savings they bring in and the accounting discipline that helps keep a better handle on one's cash flow.

The same situation occured with the Company Secretary. After promising to bring our documents up to date (we had been very lax on this front), and even taking half his fees in advance, he never showed up again. This is the same guy who had done our initial registration. Finally, we got a new CS to work for us, and filed in all our returns with the Registrar of Companies, and ended up paying a lot of back arrears and penalties as well. Yikes!

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

HP's boardroom scandal - update

I had posted earlier about the HP scandal that forced its chairperson Patricia Dunn and Chief Ethics Officer Kevin Hunsaker to resign. In the post I mentioned that it would have been best if HP had made a clean breast of the entire issue at the first instance, and not waited until things got muckier.

The latest news is that the California Attorney General has indeed filed criminal charges against Dunn, Hunsaker and the others. The most interesting note is the use of computer forensics to unearth much of the evidence in this case. Although, one accused is reported to have destroyed his hard drive with a hammer - pretty effective I must say. I'll go out on a lark here and predict that the new HP CEO, Mark Hurd might have to end up resigning too, because its quite likely he knew pretty much enough about the whole "pretexting" investigation to make the call that they were indeed crossing the line.

CNet News has a comprehensive coverage of the entire story, which promises to reveal a lot more about what went on behind the scenes at one of America's largest corporations.

Another related item on corporate ethics is Steve Jobs' apology to shareholders where certain stock option grants were pre-dated so that they were shown as being given on an earlier date when the share price was lower, thus bringing immediate benefits to those who received them.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The simplest SEO formula - it still works!

Whenever I speak with any budding entrepreneur, I cannot help but stress the importance of search engine optimization. Over half our business comes through enquiries generated through our website. In fact, in the first four years we never had a dedicated sales/marketing team, and still managed to earn 6-figure revenues through consulting.

About a year ago, we shifted our domain from a .co.in to a .com. And also changed our branding to reflect our global aspirations. As a result, all the SEO that we had done on our original domain came to naught. Our Google page ranks for the new website were less than 3 on most pages, and our website was simply not turning up in search engine results. So obviously, business enquiries almost suddenly dropped. We took it up on priority to boost our page ranks and get back to the levels we were on with the previous domain. And from that emerged vindication that our SEO formula still works, and is as simple as this:

  • Build a nicely designed website - everything is logically structured and your services, products and company profile are well presented
  • Add good content to the website. Ours carries a lot of articles that our team writes, and a couple of blogs
  • Identify the keywords that you think potential customers would search for
  • Add these into your title and meta tags
  • And the key to it all - have other high-ranking websites link back to you. This is main challenge, and you got to put up great content, which people will read because it's interesting, not because you're trying to sell it to them directly.
A couple of days ago, the latest Google crawls had just finished - our page ranks were 5 or 6 on all the pages, and we were figuring in the top 5 results for most of our identified key words and phrases. And the most significant proof - business enquiries through our website have gotten back to their previous levels! So if you're getting into business - any kind of business - pay attention to SEO, and you'll go a long way in aiding your sales and marketing efforts.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Asian Women Entrepreneurs Fair

This seems to be an interesting event - the 3rd Asian Women Entrepreneurs Fair. However it is being held in Bangladesh, and seems a slightly politically hued event (what with a Minister for Commerce and Water Resources inaugurating. But very much a step in the right direction. If nothing else it would be an excellent platform to network and grow business. I wonder if anything of this sort happens in India?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Communication disorder

This article by Wired News laments the sorry state of affairs with regards to our ability to communicate. While cellphones and emails have increased the amount of communication we do on average, it has greatly killed the art of communication. A survey quoted in the article, conducted by Yahoo! and OMD shows that the average family is doing 43 hours of multi-tasking work in one day!

Look all around at the emails and SMS's we receive and the horrible spelling and grammar of it all. And how frequently people will end up chatting on IM with someone who is in the very same room! I hate it when someone who could have picked up the phone and spoken to me about an issue would rather send me an email or worse still chat with me on IM. Chatting has to be the #1 communication killer, especially when other options are easily available.

While email would ensure putting things on the record, I'd personally prefer the following order of communication:

  1. Meeting in person. Especially in business, a face to face meeting can have far greater positive outcomes than simply email or phone communication. It is quite likely that a client or partner may be more convinced about doing business with you if you go visit them than if they have only spoken with you or emailed you.
  2. Phone call. It is extremely tedious at times to give an explanation of an issue over email. And how often do we feel tempted to resort to emoticons to convey the emotion behind our message, even in formal emails. Because very often the text of the email simply fails to communicate the tone of the message. Just pick up the phone and talk! There's nothing like the sound of a human voice at the other end of the line to change the way the other person perceives you.
  3. Emails. Compared with the blasphemy of doing business or personal communications over SMS's with their 160 character limits, I'd prefer email any day. Also, when doing business internationally, emails are one of the best means of communication, unless you use Jajah.
  4. Chatting. It's cheap, but it's horrible in terms of actually getting one's point across. While I might be mid-way through answering the first question, the other party is already onto their next point. Grammar and spelling are usually the first casualties.
Sidenote: The one mode of communication that simply defies logic is the scrapping that happens on social networking sites such as Orkut. Intimate, personal conversations all out in the open, and a nightmarishly clumsy way simply to keep track of conversation threads. Maybe I am a bit old-fashioned, but send me an email instead of a scrap...

Monday, September 25, 2006

Review: Bootstrapper's Bible - Seth Godin

In one word - brilliant!

If you're starting off a business from scratch, or struggling through the pains of keeping your overheads low and competing with the big guys, then the Bootstrapper's Bible by Seth Godin is for you. It's available free for download here.

Some gems from the book:

  • A brilliant idea will kill you. Go for an idea that is likely to make you money, not necessarily something that you personally think is great. He gives the example of the Inc. 500, which is a list of the fastest growing small companies, and almost all of them are bootstrapped, and many of them are in boring, mundane lines of business (the #1 company makes toothbrushes).
  • Don't get too caught up in trying to become a Bill Gates or a Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs. What may have worked for them is often an exception to the rule. While their business models get all the hype, very few people can actually replicate them.
  • Focus on sales and advertising. Often entrepreneurs - including yours truly - focus on the services and the products, and shy away from marketing. Personally, I have always felt I am really bad at marketing (so my next big challenge is already staring me in the face), and so haven't focused on meeting customers and pitching to them. But the importance of this is simply too great and very often overlooked by bootstrappers.
  • Get a mentor. And some pretty cool ways of going about getting mentors and dealing with them so the relationship doesn't go bust.
  • Ideas for calculating your cash flow. Based on what you've been spending and earning in the past 9 months. And the best point about getting credit from suppliers instead of trying to get money from banks or loans from family/friends. Very neat!
  • Just start! Don't plan so much that that's all you end up doing. Go out there. Get in front of customers. Talk to partners and vendors and peers. Get your idea into execution, even if you're holding onto your current job. Whatever you do, don't just sit around waiting for the right time, the right idea and the right execution plan. As Goethe apparently said, “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”
The only downside would be that he doesn't directly stress the importance of practical things like search engine optimization or partnering with the right companies to get outsourced business. But at a strategy and thought-process level this book hits the mark.

Entrepreneur success story - Javed Habib

Most of us in Mumbai who may have opened Page 3 of the newspapers could not have missed reading about Javed Habib. With his long list of celebrity clients, he is the most prominent face of Habib's hair and beauty enterprise. Started by his father, they clocked a turnover of Rs. 10 crore (USD 2.2 million) last year, and are planning for an IPO in the next fiscal!

They already have salons - many of them through the franchisee model - not just all over the country, but also in New York and the UK. They also have their own training institutes to teach the stuff. Amazing, how far you can take something as mundane as a hair-cutting salon.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Why ethics makes good business sense

Another corporate scandal - this time at one of the more respected companies - HP. As the story goes, HP found out that one of its board members was leaking confidential information. They hired private investigators to find the source of the leak, and probably gave them carte blanche. What the PI's then did was to impersonate the directors and obtain telephone records and other personal data on seven directors, nine journalists, two employees as well as family members of those targeted individuals.

To add insult to injury, the HP board simply dithered over taking any concrete action once the scandal was outed. And even before that when they knew that the PI's had overstepped the line by a big margin.

Now, Patricia Dunn who headed the board and oversaw the investigation has been asked to resign, and Mark Hurd has taken over. Hurd then comes out with a statement on the scandal, which has some real gems in it:

"I understand there is also written report of the investigation addressed to me and others but I did not read it. I could have, and I should have."

A director is implicated as being the source of leaks. A high level investigation is launched. A written report of that investigation is available, and Hurd says he knows about the report, but didn't read it!

"In, I believe, February 2006, I was informed by the investigation team that they intended to send an email containing false information in an effort to identify the source of the leaks. I was asked to, and did approve the naming convention that was used in the content of that email. I do not recall seeing nor do I recall approving the use of tracer technology."
What's naming convention?

He refused to take questions about it later on.

While pressures from Wall Street, venture capitalists, customers and employees always creates an emphasis on results, when those results come at the cost of corporate ethics, you know the truth will out someday, and the shit will hit the ceiling fan. Even now, HP should have made a clean breast of the entire situation, given that they're going to have to answer a Congressional committee on the same issue, and more "facts" will come tumbling out.

If nothing else, ethics in business makes sense because you know that the fallout from the truth emerging into the public domain will probably create a far greater loss than the gain you are looking at. In HP's case, they were of course motivated not by financial gain, but from the eventual cost of sensitive information being leaked out. The question that begs to be asked is which loss will be greater?

Monday, September 18, 2006

Charan Gill - curry tycoon brings Scots to India

Chanced upon a very interesting rags to riches story - Charan Gill landed in Scotland with nothing to his name, and worked long hours at dockyards, before getting an apprenticeship at a restaurant. As the story would have it, he started to manage a franchise of that restaurant chain, before branching out on his own, and making his millions with a 16 chain restaurant with a turnover of £12 million.

Advertising tactics included finding a guy called Rick Shaw, and having him make deliveries in rickshaws! Also, having curries delivered by chopper.

He sold off his chain last year, and has now started a new venture to promote Indian markets to the Scots.

Also worth reading should be his autobiography "Tikka Look At Me Now". Proceeds from the book sales will go to the Harlequin Charitable Trust. Very cool stuff, I say.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

All right, so give me something I can actually buy!

For a car enthusiast and constant traveler, the one thing that hurts me most about India is the sheer lack of variety in the cars that are available for purchase. Add to that the exorbitant prices that most cars are at, especially when compared to the prices the same models command in other countries, and you begin to really feel you've got a bad bargain.

Let's take the Honda Accord for instance. In India, a standard Accord is priced somewhere in the Rs.16-17 lakhs range, approx USD 40,000. If you add in all the options, and road tax and insurance, you end up at a bit under USD 50,000. And suddenly you feel (quite rightly) that you've bought yourself a high-end car. Globally though, the Accord is a mid-range car usually priced at USD 20,000 to USD 25,000. Or the Mitsubishi Lancer, which in India is again somewhere at the upper end of the mid-range cars along with the Corolla - USD 20,000 I think. We were recently looking at a car for our Middle East office, and a brand new Lancer comes in at approx USD 12,000 - that's about Rs. 6 lakhs - almost half what it would cost in India. The same goes for other run-of-the-mill models such as the Skoda Octavia or the Ford Mondeo, which are considered status symbols in India. For God's sake, all the taxis in Dubai are Camry's!

And now comes news that Audi has launched its drool-worthy Q7 priced at a whopping Rs.61 lakhs or USD 140,000! Enough to dry up your throat for a pretty long time.

And that's only the pricing saga. Look at the sheer lack of car models on Indian roads. Where are the cute Peugeot's? Or the Mazda 6? Where're the two-door sports cars? I mean do you expect me to buy sedans, when I should ideally be buying a sleek two-seater coupe?!? Even Hyundai hasn't bothered with its Coupe, and neither have Honda, Ford or Toyota. The least they could have done is offered coupe versions of their already popular models. So one wouldn't have to pay a foot and an arm to guys like Dilip Chabria and look like wannabes in the bargain. Or end up only dreaming of the super-sexy
Mercedes SL-class roadster, which comes in at a cool USD 200,000 only, if you please.

I now live in a constant state of mortal fear that I'll be hitting a mid-life crisis when these models actually become available and affordable! Sigh...just give me a good car, with a price that makes sense. I am already paying a pretty penny for fuel.

PS: I have been informed through reliable sources that Harley Fat Boys will be available within the Rs. 3 lakh price range. Anyone know more on this? Though the cynic in me says that this might be just another case of a multinational dumping obsolete, slightly remodeled, renamed vehicles.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Starting young, really young!

Here's an interesting article about three young Brits who've started their entrepreneurial journeys really young.

Jake Lunn is 10 years old and has an online business selling customized napkins to yacht owners. He's saving up money to buy his own yacht some day.

Oliver Bridge, aged 17, sells large-sized shoes at Biggerfeet.co.uk

Sarah Green, aged 20, sells furniture online and turnover is expected to hit £400,000.

What is noteworthy is they all bootstrapped their business, and their offerings are primarily online, although sales are of actual goods - napkins, shoes and furniture.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

You know you're in Mumbai...

Back home after a few weeks, and feels good. You know you're in Mumbai when:

  • You're out driving, and it's all nice and sunny, and in two minutes it begins to pour and everyone is scampering. And then two minutes later the scene is exactly the same as it was earlier, except everything and everybody is now moving through a sheet of rain
  • You have to meet a friend who lives on the other side of town, and both of you whole-heartedly agree that it is best served by taking a local train instead of driving through evening rush hour.
  • You have to attend a friend's wedding with three elaborate functions, and your friends and you are conspiring to get away by attending only the reception. Mostly because of work, but also because if we attend just the wedding, that's all right too, yes?
  • When you have to navigate half a dozen rickshaws, two BEST buses, random cyclists, and twenty pedestrians just to get into your office lane.
  • When out of any 10 random conversations in the day, the probability that one or more of the following topics will be covered is very close to 1:
    • The stock exchange, and the latest hot stock tip
    • The situation of potholes on the roads
    • Which movie is playing, and what's the latest Bollywood gossip. Not that I care, but did you know that Dia Mirza is seeing Kunal Kapoor!
  • You don't hesitate before calling people up on weekends, cause hey if I am working, so should he!
Ah, good ol' Mumbai...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Posting now at blogcritics.org

I've just signed up to post at blogcritics.org. All posts that would not neatly fit into the categories of this blog are likely to be posted there. The first one is on the aftermath of the Israeli-Lebanon war.

"I have a dream" speech day

Just a bit of trivia. Today is the day when in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I have a dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial, culminating the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The audio and text of the speech are available online and the video is also available on Google video. The sad part of course is that in my lifetime, I don't remember any leader having delivered a speech that comes even close to giving one goose pimples the way King does. There's some real passion, a clarion call for action and accountability ("we have come to cash a check"), evocation of Biblical references, emphatic repetition (especially of the key phrase "I have a dream"), and most of all a compelling vision of the future where all men and women will be treated as equal.

Here is an interesting analysis of the speech.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Asia's top young entrepreneurs

One of the key factors in a country's economic success is how conducive the overall environment is to entrepreneurship. This includes the regulatory, financial (credit availability), and social environments that influence how many entrepreneurs are created, and how many of them are successful. One of the most heartening things that has happened in the past few years, not just in India, but other Asian countries, has been the number of young entrepreneurs coming up.

Businessweek.com recently selected 20 of these young capitalists as part of a special report and has a competition going where you can login and vote for your favorite candidate, who will win the best Asian entrepreneur of the year award. Here are my favorites (disclaimer: I have a bias against scions of business houses):

  • Arif Ayub, Softflux, Pakistan. Offers all sorts of software development, management consultancy and then some, with 70 employees and targeted revenues of $120 million by end of the decade. Ooh boy. The dude also has a private equity fund Saltflow!
  • Sasikanth Chemalamudi, Habits, India. Is a creative learning company, and is also involved with projects in rural India to promote self-employment. Probably the only chap on the list with a strong social entreprenuerial streak.
  • Mao Kankan, Majoy Entertainment, China. Tthis guy takes online gaming to a whole new level. Players actually play from the same physical location, and games involve players shooting each other with infra-red pistols. Bring it on, I say!
  • Kentaro Iemoto, Clara Online, Japan. This guy is simply amazing. Battles and survives brain tumor at 14, launches his company at 16, and now manages six data centers.
  • Victor Lang, Global Futures, HK and Chicago. This is one of the most unique ideas I have come across. Provides educational material for those interested in learning about international conflict resolutions and diplomacy. They also host simulated UN conferences!
  • Hendy Setiono, Baba Rafi, Indonesia. I am a foodie, so this choice is now biased. This guy runs a chain of fast food outlets from portable booths to shopping center outlets.
The biggest disappointment is that there are no women in the list. They could easily have found a number of women with great ideas, and who are possibly already more successful than the 20 on the list. The other downside is that a majority of the entrepreneurs are in the ICT space, with four of them offering solutions in the mobile phone space.

PS: Of course, I would've qualified too, except that I'm 26. Anyone doing an under-30 list?

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Pitching to venture capitalists at TIE-ISB

The latest update is that our business plan for "Venture Pitch" at TIE-ISB Connect has been selected (from among 225 submissions). The plan isn't built around any unique remarkable idea. We're simply asking for venture capital to expand geographically into the US and Europe, and also to focus on a couple of niche areas within the overall information security services domain. If any of you are going to be there, drop me a line, and we'll catch up over some Paradise Biriyani! Oh, and if we do manage to swing a deal, watch out for more posts on venture capital, and such like.

Women entrepreneur updates

Follow up on my earlier post on women entrepreneurs, here's a roundup of interesting events on the subject:

  • Tehelka has a really good article on how adversity produced opportunity for women in Kutch to become entrepreneurs in the sale of embroidered clothes and other traditional Gujurati crafts. A very interesting note:
    • "After the earthquake, craft also became a valuable rehabilitative tool, not just for economic rehabilitation but also for expressing their resilience and emotions through their creativity."
  • CNBC's TV18 (yes, the one with my favorite anchor - Shereen Bhan) has a program called Young Turks. My repeated attempts to land up on the show have resulted in naught, and now I've given up. However, they're doing a very interesting series of shows on women entrepreneurs - right from party and event organizers, interior designers, to someone who organizes Bombay Heritage Walks (thanks to Astha J for the tip). So if you get the channel on your cable, do check it out - airs every Thursday at 7:00pm.
  • Moneycontrol.com has a very interesting article for women on the advantages of being on your own, and ideas for various opportunities and how to tap them.
  • The FICCI Ladies Organization made a trip over to Russia (yes of the oil barons, and mafia, and Mercedes' jams at crossways) to promote foreign trade, which has been stagnating at $2 billion for more than a decade now.
To paraphrase Shakespeare, "There is a tide in the affairs of women, which when taken at the flood leads to fortune..."

The greatest high from being an entrepreneur?

Running one's own business has lots of ups and downs, pretty much like everything else in life. Only in this case, the sine curve is more acutely experienced, because the highs are often of your own making, so the joy from successes is higher. And often, you have only yourself to turn to for recovery when things go wrong. So which are those moments, when one feels simply great, when the adrenalin rushes in, and you know you made the right choices, and when at the crossroads of life you took the right path?

There are many moments where one might think - this is it! This is exactly why I did what I did. It could be when a big deal comes through, something you've been obsessively thinking about and working on, and somewhere at the back of your mind you know the odds are so high against you getting such a deal, and then it finally does come through. It could be when a long-pending payment comes through. The relief and joy of seeing the cash in the bank. It could be when a client writes a testimonial that just makes your day. It could also be when you go out and in a flurry of instant gratification buy yourself a spanking new possession.

But I think the greatest high comes when someone else does something amazing. You've heard and experienced all about it being a "people" economy, you've gone through the pains of constant turnover and people quitting even before a year is over. But then, there comes along someone who works for you, and she's joined you as a novice, fresh out of college. And you've seen her working diligently and quietly, with a determination that harks back to your own days of struggle. And you know she's determined to get there, and you've helped her along, mentored her. And then she comes out with this absolutely amazing piece of work - which you honestly have to admit - is simply the best piece of work ever produced at your firm. And it's not just a fluke. In fact, it epitomises the rest of her work, but this piece is in the public domain, and it gets her and your firm positive reviews. That's when you know you made the right choices, and took the right turn on the crossroads, because nothing beats that kind of a high.

I would have loved to have pointed you to the work that the lady in question produced, but anonymous blogging has its restrictions, and this is one of them. But way to go! Now, if only I could have two more people like that...

Monday, August 21, 2006

How to start a sole proprietorship in India

I had posted earlier about the ways in which you could start your own business in India. One of them being a proprietorship firm.

A proprietorship firm has advantages such as being relatively easy to get up and running - not too many company and tax related formalities to be completed. Far fewer records need to be maintained, and compliance levels are also lower. You could start a proprietorship while still being employed at a firm, although most firms would see that as a violation of their policies, and it might even be unethical under some circumstance. You could run it out of your own home - no need to have a registered office or such-like. However, if you are running it out of a commercial place, then you need to check in with the Shops and Establishments Act. I think in Mumbai, you'd have to fill in some paperwork with the BMC.

However, the biggest disadvantage is the lack of credibility. For some strange reason, people tend to have more faith in companies with a board of directors than in sole proprietors. For the same reason it is also difficult to get loans, since you'd have to put some of your personal property as collateral. In a private limited company, you always have the option of trying for a debt-for-equity swap.

I was advised pretty early on to convert operations from being a proprietor to a private limited company. It also has to do with the fact that a proprietor is usually perceived as a small enterprise with limited capabilities to satisfy large customers. So it's largely suited if you want to get up and running quickly, and the large majority of your clientele is not likely to perceive that as a credibility issue.

As a proprietor you could be up and running the very day that you decide you want to be on your own. So just:

  1. Think up of a trade name, ensure it is not trademarked. You probably simultaneously want to apply for a trademark as well.
  2. See if you can get a .com or a .in for it and set up your website. I cannot overstate the importance of a good website, with effort spent on SEO to help you get more business.
  3. Go to your local bank branch, ask for the form they have for proprietorship firms and have that bank account ready just in case people are lining up to buy your stuff.
  4. Get some stationery printed - letterheads (actually these you can simply design on your PC, get some good quality A4 papers and print as you need), visiting cards (sigh, well, we still need these around), and if you're really moneyed, get some brochures designed and made up as well.
  5. Register for tax other than income tax. Your income from the proprietorship firm would get included into your personal income and would be taxed accordingly. However, you would be able to write off certain expenses incurred as part of running the enterprise. Do check with a good CA on what you can, and cannot, write off as an expense. In addition, you will probably need to consider:
And that's about it. So go make some money!

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The demise of a Web 2.0 and some lessons

So everyone (ok everyone in the techie/geekie sphere) has been talking about the demise of Kiko, one of the more talked about Web 2.0 startups. Kiko was/is an online calendaring tool, and was climbing up the popularity charts until suddenly things started to go awry. The launch of Google's calendar and 30boxes was, of course no co-incidence, but the common presumption that Google entering any market is going to kill off all startups is probably quite wrong.

In two wonderful insider analyses, Richard White and Justin Kan (kudos on the straight-from-the-gut posts) list out what they think really went wrong. So if you're another Web 2.0 entrepreneur in India or elsewhere, give these a read, and then some. White says:

  • Stay focused: The team kind of lost focus on the main product, right when Google calendar and 30boxes launched.
  • Release early, but not too early: Don't be so enthused about getting all those cool features out that you end up releasing a kludgy, buggy version that actually turns users off.
  • Don't add way too many features, that you don't even know your market needs or not.
  • You got to be able to make the leap from "Technosphere" to the mass market - the everyday Outlook calendar user, who sees little value in suddenly using the new online calendar/word processor/spreadsheet/whatever that you're so kicked about.
He also says that it wasn't the lack of a business plan (my kinda company) or the entry of Google that really spelt the death-knell for them.

Kan mentions some of the same points, as well as:
  • Working from home may be great in keeping the overheads low, but it could often come at the cost of productivity, and may I add, team spirit.
  • Getting the right people on board is essential for any company, but can spell life-or-death for a startup.
  • Get your investors involved, and don't hesitate to ask for help
  • Build incrementally. Don't aim to build the mother-of-all products right at the start.
Dharmesh Shah has also posted an excellent article on the subject, which may or may not be accurate, but has some great lessons for Web 2.0 startups in any case. There is also an interesting discussion on at Techcrunch, with Richard responding to comments.

I think I'll pipe in as well:
  • Think customer, not features. As techies, we tend to focus on what we think is cool, while we forget that we're actually building a product not to show off how kick-ass our programming skills are, but to actually solve a problem or a pain area
  • Consider user inertia. Often great ideas fail simply because user inertia is too great. You got to give the average user (whom you are planning to reach out to, right?) enough reason and motivation to switch over to using your Web 2.0 product instead of their desktop utility. So is your Mom using your product yet?
  • Don't buy into your own hype. Hype and product viability/success are usually inversely proportional. Remember Segway? Or the entire saga of the dotcoms? Don't get carried away by search engine rankings, website hits, interviews, or newspaper column inches. Stick to the parameters that really signify whether you'll make it or not - critical mass of users, and user feedback.
  • Budget for marketing and PR. Technically, you might be the next Google. But you got to put enough moolah behind your marketing efforts. Most products don't sell themselves. They need to be sold - aggressively. Ignore the moralistic standpoint that if it is so good, it'll sell itself. Sorry, it simply won't.
And if it still doesn't pan out, you could always auction it off on eBay!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Who's next? The search for a successor - Part I

I've been running my current firm for more than five years now. And it's about time we looked out for someone else to come along and take it from here. Another entrepreneur once told me, "The real point of running a business is to give it away, not to hold on to it for your progeny to take over". Well, I am not giving away the business, just hoping to hand over daily operations to someone. And hoping that this will give me time to take on a more strategic role rather than an operational role. And maybe even allow me the time to tinker with infosec technology - something I don't get to do much nowadays.

It's been quite a journey though. I remember starting out in 2001 after dropping out of college, with absolutely no idea of how to start and run a business, leave alone offer consulting services in information security. Those first few years were spent running the entire shindig out of a 278 sq ft office at Churchgate with a fast depleting startup capital of 2 lakhs in the bank. Buying spare parts from Lamington Road and assembling the PC's simply to save on a couple of thousand bucks per PC. Keeping the AC's shut off, taking the bus instead of a rickshaw, taking on whatever work came our way simply to pay off next month's bills. Evading old friends and relatives who would simply never buy any sort of rationale (some of them still don't!) The daily trip from Andheri to Churchgate, struggling to find the sweet spot of time when the rush in the locals would be just about manageable (I think I finally discovered it to be the 9:35am for the Andheri local to Churchgate, and evening is anyone's guess!). And today, we stand on the edge of an exciting new leap with offices in Mumbai and Bahrain, and partnerships across the world. I say, it's been one helluva ride!

But it's time to get some more hands on board. So with the objective of finding the right person for the post, we posted on Monster.com a while ago, and oh boy, were flooded with almost 600 resumes for the job. Using a divide-and-conquer strategy, we split the resumes among four of our team members, and asked them to use liberal criteria to sift through the bunch:

  1. Experience - at least 5 years
  2. Should have an IT background, preferably in consulting or software services, or even better in infosec. So let's avoid those with backgrounds in retail or manufacturing. Since they won't have the right people and project management skills.
  3. Should have either strong HR or Marketing skills. It would be impossible to find someone with both strong HR and strong Marketing skills. But if he/she has one of these, then we only need to find only another senior marketing manager or a senior HR manager to complement him/her.
  4. Avoid any personal prejudices in the selection.
  5. Let salary not be a criteria at the first round of selection.
This helped us get down to about 200 resumes. From these, we further shortlisted another 100 as really good ones. And when I mean good, these were pretty impressive. I think the sheer talent at the senior and middle management levels in India is amazing. I liked one chap particularly who listed angling as one of his hobbies. Sounds like my kinda guy! Except that I am the one who wants to go off and do some angling, while he's running the show! Any other takers?

Doing business in 2006, World Bank report - lessons for India

The World Bank has released its annual "Doing business in 2006" report. Here are some of the observations about India:

  • In the rankings of how easy it is to do business in a paricular country, India, though making big gains on collateral recovery and ease of registering property, ranks 116 - 25 places behind China. (pp 9)
  • India ranks among the countries where it is most difficult to fire people. Others in this list include Angola, Cameroon, Togo, Tunisia, etc. (pp 29)
  • The Indian state of Maharashtra halved the stamp duty from 10% of the property value to 5%. Pakistan reduced its duty from 3% to 2%. (pp 35)
  • The reduction in stamp duty in Maharashtra resulted in a 20% increase in stamp duty collections as evasion reduced (pp 36)
  • India was the top reformer in the area of credit and sharing of credit histories, by establishing a new consumer credit bureau and implementing a much faster proceeding for enforcing collateral agreements. The time to enforce security/collateral agreements fell from 10 years to 6 months because of a new summary proceeding requiring minimal court involvement. India still prohibits the sharing of credit histories with non-financial organizations, though. (pp 39 and 40)
  • A study in India indicates that tax reform would increase productivity by 60%. (pp 57)
  • India still lags sorely in terms of bankruptcy reform. It ranks amongst the worst performers in terms of the number of years it takes for bankruptcy proceedings to close - 10! (pp 75)
  • Starting a business in India, on average required: (pp135)
    • 11 procedures
    • 71 days
    • 61.7% of per capita income is average cost
    • 0% of per capita is minimum capital required
  • Dealing with licenses in India, on average required:
    • 20 procedures
    • 270 days
    • 678.5% of per capita income is cost
  • In terms of hiring and firing workers:
    • 90 on 100 is difficult of firing
    • 79 weeks of salary is cost of firing
  • In terms of taxes:
    • Taxes have to be paid 59 times in a year
    • 264 hours are spent per year on paying taxes
    • Total tax payable is 43.2% of gross profit
So broadly speaking, reforms occured in credit and duties on property transactions, but are sorely lacking in bankruptcy laws and the job market. The government expectedly refuted the findings as 'presenting too bleak a picture based on limited inputs'. In this case, I am actually tempted to agree with the government. From personal experience, the regulations were never really a hassle in starting my company, and with the right accountant and company secretary working for us, the entire process is more or less pretty painless.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Indian Postal Service - getting a move on?

It seems like the after much noise about the potential for the Indian Postal service to turn itself around into a new age enterprise, there is finally some action happening. According to this report, India Post is going to attempt to launch banking services. Other interesting stuff that you can already do at your neighbourhood post office is file your income tax returns, pay utility bills, fill up various investment and savings forms, and, um...that's about it.

Here's an interesting presentation on leveraging the reach and ubiquity of the postal service. The World Bank organized a seminar on "efficient service delivery (postal, financial, ICT) within the context of a commercially viable postal institution. "

I wonder why all the various attempts at creating e-choupals by ITC and others do not simply leverage the existing infrastructure of the post offices across the country (150,000 of which 1200 are already connected via VSAT). Why reinvent the wheel? I think the postal service should be looked at simply as an existing massive infrastructure, where the actual delivery of mail will continue to be a loss-making enterprise, but something that cannot be done away with obviously. At the same time, you have this huge opportunity to deliver everything else, right from FMCG goods to electrical utilities (Italian Post delivers vacuum cleaners among other things), agricultural produce and most of all information. We love to drop the phrase "reaching out to the farthest corners of the country", well here's how to do it. On the other hand, India Post cannot simply be privatized, since the first thing a private player might do is cut off the loss-making mail delivery service, especially to remote villages.

But what's needed more than anything else is the iron-will, vision, and continuously innovative strategy to turn around a PSU behemoth like this one. What is not needed is retrograde government regulations designed to reduce competition - especially from cheaper, efficient courier services.

I remember during a trip to Italy last year when people spoke in almost revered tones about Corrado Passera who turned around Poste Italiane to a profit-making enterprise. When he was called in to the rescue in 1997, it was a basket case (losing $1 billion annually), and now not only is it profitable, but has ventured into services no one thought could be delivered by a postal service. It has embraced technology, allowing people to write stuff online, which it will then print out and deliver to the remotest villages in the country, and has other cool offerings. And although, its traditional postal service is still loss-making the other unconventional services more than make up for it resulting in annual profits of $400+ million and a valuation of $13 billion with prospective privatization around the corner. Passera of course has moved on now to turn around Banca Intesca along the same lines. It remains to be seen if Jyotsna Diesh and Dayanidhi Maran can pull off a Passera.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Independence day, what?

It's 15th August, and another Independence Day dawns on us. For some it's wonderful that this time around it's on a Tuesday. So if you skip work on Monday, you get a 4-day weekend. Yay! For some it's that day of the year when once again patriotic songs are blared on FM, the PM asks our neighbours to desist from terrorism, news channels go around streets sticking mikes into random people's faces and asking what they think of I-day (sigh), movie channels show the regular topical movies, and next-door celebrities lecture on national accomplishments and failures, and the usual yadda-yadda.

For me, it's time to get on the soapbox and mouth off on what I-day should be all about!

It should be independence in the truest sense - in the mind to begin with. Independence from outmoded ways of thinking, from truisms we've had handed down to us from our parents, from cliches we fall back on every time we are challenged out of our comfort zones. Here's how:

  • Think person, not region. Next time you meet someone, stop yourself from thinking which region of India he/she comes from - Gujurati che, ki Punjabi hai, ki Marathi aahe. And for Chrissakes, Madrasi doesn't even mean anything any longer! And obviously, don't let their religion affect your opinion.
  • Think beyond ancient history. Every time we need to talk about why India is great, we talk about Aryabhatta, and the zero, and the Takshila University, and stuff that happened aeons ago! Simply forget about all that. Think what we need to do in the next decade that is going to make us proud, not what we did millenia ago. Think about the common person innovating and making a difference in villages, small enterprises, civil society activities, and NGO's.
  • Think about staying back. If you're in college, and all around you are giving their GRE's and TOEFL's, stop and think. Consider the India option. Seriously, people are returning back from overseas because it's more lucrative, challenging and fulfilling out here. So think about it. At least give it a fair consideration.
  • Think about the other. Before you jump to conclusions on national and international issues such as reservations, censorship, privatization, Kashmir, the Middle-East conflict, consider the fact that there are more than just two sides to the issue. That things are often more complex than news soundbites would lead us to believe. That often people's lives, dreams and aspirations get drowned in statistics. That a life lost is a life lost, whether to a terrorist's bullet or to an air force bomber.
  • Think entrepreneurial. Yes, it is possible to start your own business in India and do well. The bureaucratic red-tape isn't what it used to be. Heck, I've never paid a single bribe in the five years that I've been at it. So the environment is conducive, and the time is right now.
  • Think investments for tomorrow, not just spending for today. Yes, it's tempting to splurge as soon as you have some money in the bank, but I tell you its a bigger high to splurge on returns from invested monies!
  • Think financial independence. Get independent as soon as you can. Even if you stay with your parents, earning and living off of your own money is absolutely great for your confidence. Get a part-time job, write, blog, review, do whatever you can to earn your subsistence.
  • Think alternate careers. The notion that IAS, medicine, engineering, accounting are the only worthwhile careers is passe. Enough said.
  • Think global and regional. Yes, we're on the global stage, and yes we've got far greater opportunities than our parents ever did. So go out there and win it! But don't forget there's a whole other India that our middle-class existence refuses to admit into consideration. What's a lifetime worth if it's all been spent in the pursuit of self-centered material comfort?
  • Think gender sensitivity and equal consideration. We come from thousands of years of patriarchal hegemony. This hegemony is so insidious that we don't even realise when it comes into play. That has to change, it is inevitable. The next few decades are going to see an emergence resurgence of the feminine - at the workplace, in our homes, cities, villages. Embrace this phenomenon. It's vital to our success as a society.
  • Think beyond cricket. Seriously! 8 hours spent watching 13 men amble around a park! Ok, maybe it's not that trivial a game, but there's a lot more to sports and games than just cricket.

Ok, off the soapbox now!

HSBC "security" flaw - FUD anyone?

The security industry has been often notorious for employing FUD - Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - tactics to try and sell products and services. Here is another example of how misleading this can be.

Security "researchers" claim that there is a flaw in the online banking portal of HSBC, in that attackers who manage to install keyloggers on an HSBC user's system can learn the logon credentials of that user. Well first of all, in order to get a keylogger onto a desktop, the attacker would need to be able to break into that desktop. And second, if a keylogger does get installed, there's a lot more to lose than just your banking credentials. Potentially, every keystroke - your chat conversations, emails, passwords, everything - can and will be emailed to the attacker's email address. Now HSBC could have a virtual keyboard, but even that is exploitable.

Now, let's think from an attacker's point of view. What is easier and more lucrative? Sending millions of phishing emails and then capturing the logon credentials of an average 1% of users who fall for it, or locating HSBC customers, installing keyloggers, and then getting their logon credentials. I think I'd put my money on the former, and that explains the millions of phishing emails spamming our mailboxes everyday.

Here's a saner analysis of the whole story.

Who picked up the story? None other than the venerable BBC. And here's more. The researchers admit that HSBC is probably not the only bank affected by this issue. Well, duh yeah! Any site, any application, and any desktop is pretty much vulnerable once a keylogger is installed!

MS06-040 - Blaster redux? Probably not

The security world is abuzz with the damage potential of one of the security vulnerabilities patched recently by Microsoft. Security bulletin MS06-040 deals with a buffer overflow vulnerability in a service called "Server", which is present and running on Windows 2000, XP and 2003 operating systems. As the bulletin states
"An attacker who successfully exploited the vulnerability could take complete control of an affected system. An attacker could then install programs; view, change, or delete data; or create new accounts with full user rights."

The fear is that it could snowball into a mass-exploitation platform similar to what happened with Blaster, Slammer, CodeRed and Nimda. There is already news of a bot, which exploits this vulnerability to take control of the remote system, and use it as a zombie to launch co-ordinated attacks - most typically distributed denial of service attacks. Here's what Stephen Toulouse had to say at MS's security blog.

But here's why I think this is unlikely to happen, at least at the scale at which it is being hyped up:
1. Security awareness levels are much higher than they were in 2003 and earlier.
2. Most medium and large organizations have patch management systems in place, which would mostly automatically download and push the patches through.
3. On desktop systems, the Windows Automatic Update service, desktop firewalls and updated anti-virus software may combine to significantly mitigate the threat.
4. The security industry has a bit of a natural tendency to over-hype potential vulnerabilities. Recollect the buzz around the WMF vulnerability. Nothing came of it. Plus, we haven't had a really big worm since Blaster, so the scene is getting kind of boring.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Segway i2 and x2 launched

Dean Kamen has always been sort of an inspiration (inspite of the failure of the Segway). An entrepreneur and inventor, the dude owns an entire island, which he has gone on to declare an independent state! He made his millions with the invention of of a mobile dialysis system and followed that up with an all-terrain wheelchair.

The Segway originally launched in 2001, was preceded by headline-making articles about what the invention was going to be about, and some really whacky suggestions were being put forward. Unfortunately, it never lived up to its hype, and people really didn't stop walking as Kamen had predicted.

Now, they've launched the next versions - the i2 and x2. The former is a simplified version of the original thing, and the latter is an all-terrain version. The price is still a pain, and at $4995 it isn't exactly cheap. While the need for an environmentally safe mode of transportation is tremendous, I personally don't think Segway is the answer. Plus, the major polluters of the next few decades are going to be the Asian economies of China and India. I somehow, can't imagine riding a Segway to work in Mumbai!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Promises and Lies: Restoring Violated Trust

Via an article in the Economic Times, I came across this interesting study called "Promises, Lies and Restoring Trust" done by Schweitzer, Hershey and Bradlow of the Wharton School at UPenn.

One would assume that once trust has been broken it would take a really long time for that trust to be rebuilt, the study shows that this is not really the case. Broken trust can be rebuilt by assurances that the violator then sticks by. This is not only by actions, but "words do matter" as well. However, if the violation of trust has been accompanied by deception, then rebuilding takes much longer, and must be accompanied by actions and not just words. Even so, in this case, trust may never fully be restored. As Bradlow says, "It’s okay to screw me over, but don’t deceive me as well. If you screw me over and lie about it, it’s going to take even longer to recover from it.”

Often I have a golden rule when signing contracts: would I be doing business with this person or company even in the absence of this written contract? If yes, then the contract is simply to cover our respective asses in case things go horribly wrong, but it's not something that will really prevent one party from screwing over the other party if they really want to. Which is why, beyond a simple non-disclosure agreement, we do not have employees sign any binding contracts or agreements. If we don't trust them enough to have them on board, then we probably shouldn't be having them on board in any case. This might change however with more senior management positions, where contracts would explicitly state their responsibilities towards profits and results.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How to sue AOL, anyone?

Ok, so everyone knows about the AOL controversy by now. And everyone also knows about the scary stuff people have been searching about on AOL. Besides the various avenues of misuse that this has opened up, I think one of the more fascinating aspects is the insight it gives into the times we live in. I downloaded the files and did a quick search for the term "how to", and besides the sexual terms that would be expected - some of them really bizarre - here are the one's that make you think:

how to tell if a girl likes you
how to say i like you in spanish
how to talk to a girl in 6th grade
how to ask a girl to prom
how to keep a girl from falling off the bike
how to fall in love
how to get a girl to go out with me
how to impress girls at the age of 9
how to make your crush like you
how to say you are so handsome in french
how to know if he is the one

Too late for some
how to delete aol history pages
how to delete my history
how to clear keyword search


how to become a private investigator
how to feed the tiger
how to apply for an audience with the pope
how to get an egg in to a bottle
how to have a heart attack

There's hope yet

how to be a good boyfriend
how to say i am sorry
how to humanely euthanize a mouse
how to make women happy
how to find yourself
how to mend a broken heart
how to let go
how to promote good citizenship
how to have a family meeting
how to be a millioniare without already being rich
how to be humble
how to be an environmentalist
how to quit smoking
how to become a social worker
how to develop employees
how to start a small business
how to balance life work family
how to treat a lady
how to get over depression
how to help someone off drugs
how to get marijuana out of your system

how to make your husband fall back in love
how to be popular
how to apologize
how to cope with the loss of a mother
how to be a convincing liar
how to protect on overcharging plumbing
how to leave a verbally abusive relationship
how to keep the school from druging my kid
how to kill oneself by overdosing with insulin
how to communicate with a woman
how to punish evil people
how to speak with ellen degenerous
how to live with a former stripper
how to work spells
how to earn extra cash
how to meet fairies
how to deal with a four year old who was relenctant to enter play with his classmates.
how to levitate like david blaine
how to roll a very big joint
how to kill yourself
how to tell a wife her husband is having an affair with you
how to read a book
i don't know how to love him
how to flirt
how to illegaly buy a handgun on the internet
how to get anorexic
how to tell someone to quit calling you honey and dear
how to say get lost to a married lover
how to know when you want to be married
how to cut all ties with your family
how to delete internet explorer
how to kill people
how to fake an illness injury to get workers comp or medical leave
how to hack
how to lie with statistics
how to hide drugs from a police dog
how to become anorexic
how to tell your family you're a victim of incest

And finally
how to cancel my aol service

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Book review - Adventure Capitalist, Jim Rogers

A one-word assessment - avoidable. Jim Rogers is the second half of the widely successful Quantum Fund, who's other half is George Soros. The book is about a 3-year round-the-world-trip that Rogers makes with his fiancee, whom he also marries during the course of the journey.

The book is insipid, unengaging, and offers no great business or economic lessons. It fails as a travelogue, because the coverage of the countries and places is so dry and boring. None of the natural beauty, cultural intricacies, or business environment is captured as one might have expected. The only significant take-aways from the book are helpfully summarized on the back-cover of the book:

  1. NGO's in Africa are a waste of money and are not helping the problem at all
  2. The next few decades belong to China
  3. India will be Balkanized, and so will Pakistan
  4. Angola and Bolivia are the countries to watch out for
  5. You learn more about the investment climate of a country by talking to the people rather than government information
  6. Commodity markets are the most lucrative investment avenue
So there. You already know all there is to learn from the book. Oh, and also that Rogers manages to gobble down exotic stuff like snakes and horses, but stops short of monkey meat. Here's a funny, but fictional exchange between Rogers and the Dalai Lama.

Book review - The Wealth of Man, Peter Jay

Peter Jay's The Wealth of Man is a sweeping summary of the history of man's economic growth. Along the lines of David Landes' The Wealth of Nations, it traces the human economic saga from pre-historic days to the Greek and Roman civilizations, to the transfer of the economic engine to the Levant, and the parallel economies in India and China. Jay also fascinates with trivia of how horses were domesticated, why spectacles were invented, how Isaac Newton influenced the use of the gold standard for British currency, and how Greek literature was actually preserved due to it being translated into Arabic during the European Dark Ages.

The repeated cycle of growth, which Jay describes as a waltz motif is:
1. Humanity discovers a revolutionary paradigm-changing and this results in a huge spurt in economic growth - discovery of agriculture, or the industrial revolution.
2. Tyrants, thieves, and other assorted malicious characters wade in to exploit this economic growth.
3. Social, governmental or legal structures are put in place to regulate the exploitation of the economic engine and prevent its plunder.

Jay's style of writing is extremely pleasing to read, and anyone with an interest in history or economics should definitely give it a read. His humor is just right, and his negative remarks against laissez-faire economics or other global economic phenemona are neither disparaging nor caustic.

I have two reservations with the book, though. The first is with the depth of the book. At 400-odd pages it is barely enough to cover something as complex, diverse, and expansive as human economic growth. It serves as an excellent introduction, though for a deeper intensive study of the subject. The second reservation is his almost complete lack of analysis of the impact of religion on economic growth. There is not even the mention of Max Weber's groundbreaking studies in this regard, and this leaves you with a feeling of having missed one of the main acts in the entire play. For instance, he mentions that it was Europe that led the way with the Industrial Revolution, and for no apparent reason, China and India missed the boat completely. That religion and the culture of the people may have had something to do with this is covered very perfunctorily.

Payperpost - interesting idea

In the 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Ries talks about narrowing your offerings, and often creating a whole new segment that didn't exist earlier. While bloggers have been trying to make money through the pay-per-click programs of Google and Yahoo, advertisers have not directly been targetting bloggers. Or rather no channel exists to bring bloggers and service/product providers directly in touch with each other. Until Payperpost that is. The equation is simple - companies target bloggers, and bloggers get paid. Not just for carrying ads, but also for writing up on the products and services. While A-list bloggers are always being courted by companies to write up about their products, Payperpost brings the idea to Average Joe blogger. It is still in beta, but I think they have a winner on their hands. As a product/service company, you know that an article in a newspaper or magazine is likelier to build credibility than an advertisement in the same publication. This same idea is now leveraged in blog-world.

And no, they didn't pay me to post this.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Book review - Maverick, by Ricardo Semler

If Ricardo Semler's Maverick does not herald the demise of the patriarchal, pyramidal, authoritarian corporation, then I am not sure what does. This book is brilliant, and if you are an entrepreneur running your own show, worrying about people problems, then this is the book you got to read for some great insights.

The essential message of the book is one of trust in the innate goodness of humanity. No watch clocks, no cameras monitoring shopfloor workers, open profit sharing, salaries set by people themselves, machinery arranged as the workers decide, factory locations decided by the workers, cafetaria and other numerous collective enterprises promoted and run by the employees. Semler says, his happiest days in office are when he doesn't have to make a single decision. If you really want your people to buy into your vision and into your company, there's only one way to do it - let them take over. Step back, and guide/mentor them, but let them try to run the show and benefit from the profits.

While you get the book, hop over to Semco's website, and click on the "SEMCO Management Model".

Book review - The Ultimate Consultant, by Alan Weiss

Alan Weiss is popularly known as the consultant's consultant. I read the "Ultimate Consultant" a while ago, and would strongly recommend it. If you earn your living from the much-maligned, and highly-paid profession of consulting, then this book is a must-have. Alan Weiss' books reflect his experience and expertise in winning and successfully executing consulting assignments.

This book is part of his Million Dollar Consulting series, and presents very highly practical and effective techniques for any consultant. The book is primarily aimed at the consultant who has been in practice for about 5-6 years, had built up a decent income and is beginning to plateau. How does she then push herself to the next level and into 7 figure incomes? What techniques are effective to avoid the downward slide that the plateau will eventually end up becoming?

The only downside of Alan's writing is that most books tend to be rehashes of earlier stuff. For instance, I recently bought his "How to Acquire Clients", and although it presented a different perspective, the strategies were pretty much the same. On the other hand, the investment in these books is completely worth it because one good idea put into practice properly could result in significant revenues. For instance, I was reading the second book while traveling, and one of the things he mentions is to immediately start networking among professional bodies in the country where the project is being executed. I did this, and landed up a nice little training engagement.

Opportunity for networking with VC's and entrepreneurs

The Indian School of Business (ISB) along with The Indus Entrepreneurs (TIE) is organizing a TIE-ISB Connect seminar to bring together venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, angel investors and the rest in Hyderabad towards the end of September.

You could submit a draft business plan by mid-Aug and the final plan by 10th Sept. If selected, you get to present, and maybe even get funded!

If you're going to be there, drop me a line, and holler "Intrepid" in the general direction of the Hussein Sagar Lake, and we might just bump into each other.

An article on this is here.

The main site is here.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Entrepreneurship courses in India

Can they teach you how to be an entrepreneur? Apparently, yes. :) I do wonder what the courses actually do cover, but there's been some interest on this subject. So here's a roundup of some of the institutes around the country that have entrepreneurship courses:

  • Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India. This seems quite promising, though haven't heard from anyone about it earlier. These guys offer a post-graduate diploma in entrepreneurship management.
  • Almost all the IIM's have courses on entrepreneurship and they get a full house too. I am not sure what the eligibility criteria is to get into one of these courses. IIM Bangalore also has the N.S. Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (NSRCEL) - a catalyst for entrepreneurial activity. IIMB's program is in collaboration with Universitas 21 Global. IIM Calcutta has the Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. IIM Lucknow as well has a Centre for Entrepreneur Development and New Venture Management.
  • FICCI has a course on entrepreneurship too. Eligibility criteria is graduate/diploma with at least 3 years of experience.
  • National Institute for Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development (NIESBUD), Delhi has a 6 month course.
Here's a slightly old, but relevant article on Businessworld on entrepreneurship courses in business schools.

Friday, July 28, 2006

What does it take to be an entrepreneur

I often get asked by potential entrepreneurs, what it takes to be an entrepreneur. I don't claim to be an expert on this, but here's what I think would be necessary components:

  1. Gumption. Spunk. The ability to be knocked down on your knees and get up and brush off the dust and get going all over again.
  2. Optimism. Not blind faith. The hope that things will get better. But not blind faith that they'll get better by themselves. No sir, you'll have to do a lot to help things get better. But they surely will. This also involves faith in yourself.
  3. Integrity. Lots of entrepreneurs think its all about the money. It really isn't. It's really about who you are as a person, and how much conviction you have in yourself, not to take those shortcuts, not to pay those bribes, not to shortchange your customers and your people.
  4. Ideation. Innovation. Ingenuity. Your venture is not just about that one big idea. Heck, I've never had one big idea. It's always about a whole host of ideas. You keep trying as many of them as you can, pursue those that work, and discard those that don't. This also entails the willingness to be a lifelong student. To continuously learn and adapt as you go along.
  5. Mentors. I have been lucky in this regard. But then I've also learnt that finding good mentors is really difficult, and you also don't need someone handholding you for every little problem.
  6. The dream. When the chips are down, sometimes what keeps you going is the dream you behold in your mind's eye. What kind of an office will your people work out of one day? What kind of deals will you be closing some day? Maybe it's childish, but that's the kind of dream that has always kept me going.
  7. Ability to move on. Every time you notch up a success, you need to have the ability to celebrate it, but then move on. Don't rest on those laurels. They no longer count, and you got to set your sights higher now. And every time you fail, learn the lesson and then move on as well.
  8. Consideration. Gratefulness. Humility. You're never going to get ahead without being humble enough about how much you've contributed, and how much others have contributed to your success. So acknowledge that and give people their due. Also, if you only listen, your people will come up with some of the greatest ideas. So give that equal consideration, if not more.
  9. Good communication skills. Both verbal and written. If you can't get your point across in a direct, convincing, non-confrontational manner, then it's going to be an uphill climb. So work on those communication skills. With practice and effort you can get really good at them.