Sunday, May 06, 2018

10 Years 10 Minutes - Lessons from Each Year as an Entrepreneur

Was faced with a challenge earlier this weekend. Had to collect my thoughts for a 10 minute speaking slot at a startup series. (eChai, Jatin and Nikhil, you folks are doing some amazing work!)

What would be the best way to compile these thoughts? There's always so much to talk about! So, Saturday afternoon, went thinking over, what would be the top 10 lessons I learnt (read - mistakes I made 😉) over the last 10 years as an entrepreneur.

So, here goes the list -
Lesson 1 - No job is too small! Really, Mahatma Gandhi spoke about cleaning our own toilets. Apply the metaphor to work! Are you ready as an entrepreneur to do the heavy lifting? Are you ready to be involved in the smallest job (caveat: you might not be the most skilled) and yet, give it your best!?

Lesson 2 - Margins are important! It's not just the top line that matters. How controlled your costs are is a great indicator of the longevity of your business - new or old. Corollary: If you sell on cost, someone will always beat you. If you sell on product and services, you will invariably beat the biggest.

Lesson 3 - Focus on Key Product! We all work on filling a need in the market! The market has many needs! And filling each need is tempting for an entrepreneur. But then wouldn't you need 10 arms and 10 heads for that? So focus on your key product!

Lesson 4 - Innovate and Protect your IP! Intellectual Property Rights is something many entrepreneurs (atleast in South Asia tech) tend to give a low priority too. Well, if you have developed something, go for protecting that idea to implementation story.

Lesson 5 - There is no such thing as Bad Publicity! is an old adage. Often marketing and publicity take a back seat. As a salesman, you've got to literally be in the hair of your customer (because if you aren't, probably someone else is :-)). Make the right noises and ensure you are available and well positioned and unabashed.

Lesson 6 - Cash is King! A business is measured on the basis of it's turnover (invoice). A successful business is measured on the basis of it's invoice to collection cycle. How well you collect is how well you run your business!

Lesson 7 - Work is Life; Life is Work! (Don't get me wrong; and wait till Lesson 10) but till then, you've got to eat, breath and sleep your business. Remember the Alchemist. If not read it, there's a very interesting thought there!

Lesson 8 - Never Compromise! God is in the Detail! Detail it out, give it your best and expect the best from others. You might fail while doing that. But you will also come out with, no regrets!

Lesson 9 - People! People, delegation & motivation. These are important. You've go to have things done through the right people. There will always be a temptation of let me do this, but you've got to be able to manage and get things done, because there is a right person for each skill.

Lesson 10 - Get a Life! Not contrary to Lesson 7. Don't forget yourself and your family in the process. Take time out for your own self (that's very often when clairvoyance in thoughts is achieved)  and your family & friends (man is a social animal, said Aristotle).

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Is Capping of School Fees Killing Our Future?

Guajrat Government ruled to cap school fees through the Gujarat Self Financed Schools (Regulation of Fees) Act, 2017.

Here's what I read of the Act,
  1. School Fees is capped at Rs. 15,000 for pre/primary schools, Rs. 25,000 for secondary schools and Rs. 27,000 for higher secondary schools for Academic Yr 17/18. No announcement yet on 18/19.
  2. Any deviations need to be approved by a committee where in a break-up and justification needs to be provided by the schools.
Here's what I hear as justification about the law:
  • Schools are supposed to be non-profit making, yet they charge high fees (more on this later) and are being run as companies rather than schools.
  • There is an uncontrolled increase in school fees every year.
Yes, in the short run, all of this makes good sense. But here are some thoughts that are making me sit back and think:
  1. Schools may not make profits, but schools are institutions and institutions needs Capital and Labour to survive. What is the function that defines the fees to quality of teachers and administrators, infrastructure, pedagogy, recognition, affiliations, quality of output? We had great teachers in our time at Bhavans, Vadodara and what a biology lab of specimen of all sorts we had! I wonder if the same teachers and infrastructure would be manageable at schools that have to work under strict budgets? 
  2. The lack of a methodology to define the school fees and leaving that to committee to decide (and with all due respect to the committee) without guidelines or a formula is lack of transparency. That's not the most ideal way!
  3. Finally, can we compare this with the per capita cost of education that the Government spends in the state of pre-primary, primary and secondary education. I have no idea, but some people I spoke to said that this is much north of the cap set by the Government under the Act. I wonder if that is true. 
My two cents on the above:
  1. Schools charging what they wish to is probably free market economy. Government intervention in free market is like saying that the government should cap air fare? Fun fact: on certain days of the year, a one-way single airfare between cities a couple of hours apart in India is comparable to a years school fees per the Act! 
  2. In security, we talk of the weakest link. For every control, there is a loop hole. Schools will probably find a roundabout way and that's not good for straightforwardness. (Which, I believe, is one of the traits that we want our kids to imbibe!)
  3. A more positive way of handling this would be, that the government focuses on getting government schools to a world class level; such that parents want to send their schools to government schools than private schools. If this happens, that surely is a win and will be great and exemplary governance! 
But till then I am skeptical that this Act might be like a soothing balm in the short run, but in the long run can destroy quality of education and remove transparency in education.
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit...
....
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!

Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Balance Sheet of Ability!

One of the kids got up with a pain in her ear  this morning. So, Papa dear rushed with her to the ENT. Well, the darling kid had a talk with Papa and composed and carried herself with absolute co-operation with the doctor. Papa was surprised. Kid talk with Mumma on "Mumma - <<KidName> did not cry at the doctor". That's a proud moment!

But that's not what I am writing about. While waiting our turn with the doctor, I saw a very interesting quote framed in the doctor's waiting room:

ABILITY

without

DEPENDABILITY, FLEXIBILITY and RESPONSIBILITY

is a

LIABILITY

:-) That was a Eureka moment! Wow! So, aptly put. (While writing this, I found that this is quoted in Shiv Khera's You Can Win. Kudos). That's what so many of us miss out on. Each of us has great skill-set. But no one could have put it better. 

In fact, if I coud add to it, Dependability, Flexibility and Responsibility, even with lesser Ability is still an Asset. In the many years that I have worked, I know of some gem of people who might not have the best of Ability, but their Dependability, Flexibility and sense of Responsibility has been exemplary, and they have been Assets wherever they have been! 

Well done to them! If there's something that I would like to inherit as my strengths and leave behind as a legacy, then those are definitely the above three traits that make an asset! 

DEPENDABILITY, FLEXIBILITY & RESPONSIBILITY even with less ABILITY is still an  ASSET
Theorem & Corollary

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Practicality of Implementing #ChatBots

It's been three weeks since my last post about #ReadyFor2020 and how bots are there to change the future. It's also been close to three weeks since the launch of Phonon's Chatbot Trixie!

Have been asked many questions through my sales process. I thought it best to jot down some of my thoughts. 

Response Time: We've had a close to 90% positive response rate (usually within seconds) to tweets for flight status received on those #hashtags. Usually quicker than a 20 minute average response time and approximately 50% response time from manual #hashtag tracking. (Reminder to self: get a quantitative analysis done). And that's great. We've had some excellent likes and appreciations too.

Predictive Responses: While our information is sourced from public sources, our Bot tweeted the updates about Delhi airport delays in the last two weeks accurately. Here's a tweet from the drone incidence delays.  
Tweeting About Delays at Delhi Airport
The Bot is Supposed to Transact and Not Converse: This is a death of many technology implementations. We go for the overkill. How often does a customer make general conversation with a call center employee? But why do line managers often want Bots to be super-humans.Many discussions I have had have had the product owners ask the bot the toughest, most convoluted question they can. Nope, that's not how it works! That's probably something your top performers do. Your bot is supposed to reduce the work of bottom-performers so that you can afford better top-performers.

The best implementation strategy in bots is to focus on transactions and compromise on some more false negatives to have zero false positives. So, if in doubt, ask the bot to STFU and get a human to intervene. :-) 

Here's an example of how our bot STFU when it was asked a question beyond it's capability. We tracked #jetInstant and there was a counter question to which our bot kept quiet.
Keep quiet when you don't understand it
Bots reduce human errors and ambiguity. Here's an example of how our bot made a reply unambiguous and more importantly accurate. A flight 9W-856, was LKO/DEL/PNQ. The manual reply made a wee bit of a mess! It gave the departure time of the flight at LKO as the status at DEL. Luckily DEL departure was after the LKO departure. And compare that with the response of the bot!
Accuracy is Paramount
 In a nutshell - #ChatBots are the future. But be clever. Don't use them for #Chatting. Use them for #Transacting.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

#ReadyFor2020 - Automation Will Be the Next Big Thing! Decrypting Artificial Intelligence

For all the debate around it, we all remember the infamous (sic) statement attributed in the 1940s to Thomas J Watson Jr., the then head of affairs at IBM. It is said that he said, "there world market for computers is five". Maybe it was related to just a particular type of machines or whatever it may be. In the early years of the Internet, Newsweek carried an article suggesting, Internet being, wait a moment, Baloney! 

Todays, there is a very interesting debate between Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerburg about the threat of Artificial Intelligence or AI. These are people who have been key contributors to the growth of the Millenial Development. And there's no way I can take away an iota of credit away from this discussion. It's very engaging! And I am keenly following this.

Having said that, threat of Artificial Intelligence or not, the reality is written on the wall. Artificial Intelligence is the future. Automation will be the next big thing. And let's not be scared, typists went out of jobs when the personal computer came. But what about the new opportunities that computing and the connected internet created for our economy and humanity in general. 

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning or Automation, whatever we may call these, are probably the next big inflection in our world. And let's warm up to it. I again feel that many industry pundits or analysts are talking about chat-bots being a $1B market in the next 3-4 years are probably being way too (I would add many more Os to the too) conservative. 

Let's just think, even if AI automated 30% (grossly conservative by my estimates) of calls or emails being received by call centers. We are talking of 30% of a $400B or $120B global market by 2022. That's a huge chunk. So let's be prepared for it. 

On a personal fron, Phonon developed Click-to-Call™ in the period 2008-2010. Click-to-Call as a services is a defacto standard in the customer service industry today. Lifecycle for technology is short and getting ever compressed. We've got to be #ReadyFor2020! And Phonon's working towards Phonon 2.0 at a feverish pace. 

We've got some interesting products lined up and watch-out for some announcements later this week! In the meantime, here's a video with a sneak preview for what's in store.