The Gray Hair Speaketh

Advice that is largely Unsolicited..

Year 2035: a viewer call on a live program on CNBC-TV18

*This post is in lighter vein*

Let’s visualise a call coming in on a live market analysis program on CNBC TV18, in the year 2035.

Okay, I hear some of you go, “will traditional TV even be around in 2035??”

So, let’s not get into that detail. The doubts about traditional TV’s survival do remain. But for now, indulge me. Let’s assume live TV is still around, let’s assume that TV18 is still around, and in case these are not, then visualise this happening on some equivalent program on some popular web platform, of 2035.

Again, before we jump there, let me give a historical reference:

This video is from Sept 2017, and since it is in Hindi, I will give you a small summary of it. Here on a live business program, a viewer calls in to say that he has some shares that were left behind by his late grandfather, that they are in physical form, and that he wants to sell them. While the experts explain the process to him, only as a matter of fact, the journalist mentions to the viewer that the shares that he has accidentally discovered now, are 20,000 shares of MRF, and which are worth a princely sum of INR 130 crores!!

With this historical background, we now switch to the year 2035, and where there is a similar business program going on, on your favourite business channel.

Year 2035

We have the host, Balaji, and the experts Mr. Kuber and Mr. Cryptic, engaging on the program. Clearly, the program is all about crypto currencies now, as normal stocks and mutual funds have been reduced to a tiny fraction of the investment pie and are traded on small niche exchanges, and there is no discussion program for those, as the interested segment is a very tiny audience. There are a few amongst those who have been holding ITC Ltd shares and have been waiting for the “imminent” rise in its share price, for almost 30 years.

On the program now, Mr. Kuber is commenting how the crypto markets have remained stable last few days, and have seen only a swing of 30% up and down, over the whole of the previous week. As he says, “I guess investors are happy with the current valuation numbers and seeing the currencies settled in the 30% swing range, which should give a lot of comfort to everyone holding these. Compare that to last month, when we were seeing an 80-90% up and down in the prices.”

Just at that moment, the host Balaji interrupts him saying, “we have a live caller, let’s hear from him”

The live caller is Ravi and he says, “Hello, Sirs, I have a question for the experts here. My grandfather had passed away in the 2021 pandemic and left behind a lot of things. We have been busy surviving and slowly figuring out his various assets. Few months back, we had found his iphone and wanted to see if there was anything on it that might be of value.

As it turns out, it was an iphone 11 and since we are now in the iphone 24 era, there is hardly anyone who can open up anything earlier than the iphone 19. So, it took us a long time to find someone who could open and read through the contents of the iphone11.

Finally, as we managed to do this, we saw some reference to some Dogecoins on his phone. We don’t know how to validate them. And whether they are worth anything. “

Mr. Cryptic responds “Ravi, this is a good question. Dogecoins are definitely around, and yours should also be valid. You can just go to the mycrypto app, put in your details, and it will give you a confirmation of their validity as well as their value, if you’d like to know.”

Ravi says, “Okay, give me 1 second to download the app (*my note: at those speeds, app downloads would literally take 1 second only!) and then let me put the details and see.”

Saying so, Ravi quickly downloads the app, while still being on the live call. After doing that, he puts the reference information from his grandfather’s iphone and finds a match. User experience designs have gone up (finally) by 2035, so that the app is intuitive enough to fetch the data quickly and not wait for the user to make 10-15 attempts with different combinations etc.

And Ravi responds back on the program, “Thank you, Sirs. Indeed, the Dogecoin shows that it is very much valid. Thank you for leading me to this app.”

And he adds, “But I think the app is misbehaving? The value that is is showing has far too many zeros. I don’t think this may be correct.”

Mr. Kuber was intrigued. He asks Ravi to share his screenshot, so the experts can understand what is happening. And Ravi finds a way to share his screen.

At which point, Mr. Kuber, Mr. Cryptic and Balaji, all of them, after reading the screen once, after re-reading it to confirm that they were reading it right, screamed wildly and jumped off their respective seats!

Ravi was startled, almost scared. He was not sure what had hit these guys. Was there some virus or something that he had shared via the screenshot that he had shared.

After they regained composure, they screamed back to Ravi, “Ravi, you are one lucky person! You know how much you are worth, thanks to this stray discovery of your grandfather’s iphone??


You have become India’s richest person! OH MY GOD.. !!”


May 9, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why I cannot comprehend some types of valuations?

If you are thinking that this must be about some astronomical valuations that unicorns are getting, well, this piece is NOT about those valuations.

(I cannot fathom many of those valuations also, but that is a subject for another post, someday!)

As I have been reading about the hot new topic of NFTs (“non-fungible tokens), while I appreciate the tech behind it, and the concept of NFTs per se, one of the consequential story around suddenly finding a lot of value in say, a sports card, or some other random memorabilia, got me thinking about a peeve that I have had, around some kinds of investment areas.

Say, gold, for example.

Why And How To Invest In Gold?

Gold or sports cards or a T-shirt autographed by someone, while of some value to you for sentimental reasons, can continue to command a rise in valuation, only provided the demand for these, continues to be higher than it’s supply.

Let me elaborate the idea.

Yes, almost everything is valued fundamentally, on a demand vs supply scale. If there were ample diamond stones available and being sold to you by street vendors, they would have cost a few cents and not the thousands of dollars of price that these command. Everything else about the product remaining the same.

It is only the limited supply and a larger demand, that continues to give the diamonds a higher price.

And then came factory manufactured diamonds, with qualities that were so close to the mined stones, that it made it hard to decipher the difference between the two. Factory manufactured diamonds, not being constrained for volume productions, suddenly skews the demand-supply gap, potentially leading to a drop in prices. While this phenomenon is a work-in-progress, the idea just explains how something valued only on basis of a demand-supply gap, can have challenges.

Let’s consider gold.

At a fundamental level, it’s a shiny yellow metal, with certain qualities, and used for jewellery making, and maybe some small industrial uses also. But often held in. raw form, as blocks of the metal, in vaults (folks who would have seen the popular series, Money Heist, might remember the vivid details!). So, just sitting idle in that vault, doing nothing “productive”, how does the value just appreciate? Since that has been the basis of gold being viewed as a part of your asset mix, in your investment portfolio?

Think about sports cards or some limited edition Barbie dolls or Marvel comics, etc., and other such “assets”! They are not even a shiny metal that can convert into a necklace. The value of these is only and only based on the assumption that there will be a continuing demand for these, from people, and being limited edition, therefore, the price will keep going up.

Is there a risk that the appetite for some sports cards or an old Barbie doll goes down? Or that people are not that fascinated by gold anymore? Since, as a hedge to currency risks (for which also gold is used), there are now other options like Bitcoins, say?

Considering the fact that these items are almost worthless, except for the inherent demand to hold them, anything that goes out of favour, stands a big risk of a sudden devaluation!

So, the question can then be that, this aspect of demand-supply drives valuation of everything, and not just the kind of examples that I listed above. You may say that an equity share is also valued thus, because of the limited number in the market, or that silver and copper or foodgrains or a piece of real estate, etc. are also valued on the same basis of demand-supply gaps.

Right, that is a fact. However, as long as these items have a functional role to play, besides the demand-supply gap, that potentially drives their value, then there remains a difference in the way you perceive them.

Say, when you invest in equity. While the price may have been dictated by the demand for the stock, once you invest, your money is part of that pool, which is being used by the company to create value, and which translated to an appreciation of the value of the stock.

The value of silver or copper is also connected to their respective utilisation in industry. And if the prospects of the produce of those industries are good, the demand for the products, and hence the supply chain in terms of silver or copper, go up. Leading to the value appreciation.

A piece of real estate may be valued on it’s demand, but it serves a purpose of housing an office block or a factory or providing residence to people, and creating inherent value in doing so. And as long as that core functionality keeps growing, the demand and hence, the value of the real estate asset also grows.

What you see in these examples is that while, value is decided by the demand, the demand itself is not based on people’s fascination and interest to hold that asset, but rather, on basis of a core value that the product is enabling to create.

Which is why, I am unable to reconcile putting much of my money in gold (irrespective of the history of price and demand growth, whether it will continue to do so, in a changing scenario of bitcoins, NFTs etc. remains a question mark) or in sports cards or similar limited edition items (irrespective of NFTs!).

I feel more comfortable putting money in equity knowing that my money is contributing say, to more medicines being manufactured to serve the sick of the world, or to producing food stuff to feed our millions, or to entertain people with their sports or video games etc.

I know that my financial advisor is not very happy, as she shares her conventional wisdom of distributing my assets into different classes, including gold. But as you can see, somehow, I am not fully convinced.

March 31, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Why is Ola getting into 2-wheeler EVs manufacturing??

Few days back, I caught the news about Ola’s plans to get into EV manufacturing at a very large scale.

While the idea is undoubtedly impressive and it is clearly a project at scale, I was wondering about why Ola would get into something like this.

As I understand their core business, it is an Uber look-alike. A cab-on-call, a business that connects freelance cabbies to passengers who need a cab, wherever, whenever. To scale that business itself across the country has been an amazing achievement. To add nuances like tying up with regular yellow-black taxis and getting these traditional taxis into the Ola system, or introducing auto-rickshaws also into Ola, or even enhancing the service to include 2-wheeler pillion seat hops, is all a great thing to do. And all of these make for the most natural enhancement of the services.

So, what are the essential elements of business that Ola has mastered in doing this?

  • A very good consumer app, with the right UX / UI,
  • A great back-end software that keeps the complex operations going, connecting drivers, passengers, ratings, payments, refunds, etc.
  • An ability to connect across large groups of potential drivers and motivate them with the right policies and incentives, to join the Ola movement,
  • Continuing engagement with government bodies, municipalities, trade unions etc. to manage the permissions and policy matters, around their services,
  • Investors and investment management, since a business of this kind, with the scale they are driving at, and while keeping consumer rates to a reasonable level, would keep demanding investments and cash burn for a long time.

At a different level, one can say that the business is about efficient consumer mobility management, and doing all that it takes, to manage this operation.

This being the core, and being the skill strength that the business would have built over time, ideally, an expansion of their services, which plays to these same strengths, and continues to provide them scale growth opportunities, would be ideal to pursue.

What kind of such expansion opportunities, then, come to mind?

  • Getting to other modes of transport – say, small aircraft, helicopters, yachts, luxury vehicles like limousines, etc., maybe. With the same fundamental intent of consumer mobility management
  • Getting to other geographies, maybe, beyond India
  • Perhaps investing into driverless cars as their business dependence on drivers is huge; some day, even in India, driverless cars can be a thing (hard as it may be to visualise that today!)

There is significant ground that Ola needs to cover in its current business and then there are these other ones that make for more natural extensions, that Ola could get into.

What then, makes them get into 2-wheeler EV manufacturing, and that too at a scale that is way bigger than their own needs, as a mobility service provider?? As far as I can see, this is a completely independent, new project, and has almost nothing in common to whatever businesses they are currently in.

Let’s consider other companies who make such moves. Put in large investments and get into business areas, that appear to be vastly away from anything that they are into, at that point.

Companies like Reliance, or the Tatas come to mind in India.

The thing with these industrial groups though, is that they are otherwise into traditional, organic growth kind of businesses, which are currently driving nominal single or low double digit growth rates. And yet, due to their business size, and earlier reserves in their balance sheet, they are sitting on large pools of cash, that need to be deployed.

In such cases, the concerned industrial groups do consider and invest into completely new areas of business, as a means to diversify and perhaps looking for higher growth rates in such businesses, compared to their current areas of business.

Any company with significantly large base of reserves, earned out of profits over the years, can potentially contemplate such completely new and diversified areas of investment. Names like Microsoft and Apple come to mind, as companies who may have the luxury to get into new areas of business, on account of the large pools of cash they are sitting on. But in reality, even they choose their battles with care, and are generally seen to go into areas of relevant interest and extension.

A company sitting on a large pool of cash that it has got in the form of investment capital (and not accrued out of its profits) does not sound like a perfect candidate for someone who should be putting that cash into completely new areas of expansion! Ordinarily, the investors who have put in their moneys, would find this to be a problem. They would have put the money with the idea that the company is going to thrive in their identified area of focus and leadership, and not into something totally new!

Which is where this move of Ola seems to be a surprise, to say the least.

Why would the investors agree to let a mobility business to get into hardcore manufacturing in this manner??

Maybe the major investors, including Softbank, want to make 2-wheeler EVs in India, and use this as a hub, to supply these to other geographies? And think of using Ola as a vehicle (pun unintended!) to be that manufacturing hub? While I am trying to digest this possibility, I still find it questionable since the investors would typically prefer China as a manufacturing hub, rather than India?!

If that is not the case, WHY should Ola be getting into this??

2-wheeler EVs may be thought as a very exciting business to get into. But why should a company specialised in a consumer business like Ola, with software skills, skills of managing drivers and trade unions, and managing payment gateways, etc., be thought of as the perfect business / management, to handle a large scale manufacturing facility, with assembly lines, robots, supply chains, battery tech, sales distribution logistics, etc. etc.??

Yeah, everyone’s response to such questions is that if Elon Musk can straddle an EV company, a space vehicle business, a batteries business and what not, all of which are at high growth, why can’t Ola do so too? Fair question. But it’s like the typical question we marketers get asked that if Apple can manage such fandom and get traction for their brand and business, from its consumers, why can’t their business do so too? Just like Apple is exceptional, so is Elon Musk. One cannot make that as a reference, and reckon that “we too can do it”. And at least not until the point that your own core business provides enough growth opportunities that you have not fully exploited and until you have not given a profitable return to your existing investors!

So, clearly the move by Ola to get into hardcore 2-wheeler EVs manufacturing surprises me, and I would be happy to hear logical perspectives to some of the points raised by me, here, to challenge my thoughts on the subject.

March 9, 2021 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A counter viewpoint to Vaithee’s piece, “the dark side of starting up”

It was nice to see my friend and old e-commerce industry compatriot, K. Vaitheeswaran (fondly referred to as Vaithee), in the Times of India today, with this piece around the dark side of starting up, in the e-commerce space.

For those who don’t want to follow the link and read the piece, here’s a snapshot of the article:


It is an interesting conversation here. But I have a viewpoint slightly different from Vaithee’s on some of the questions, and I thought this will be a good time to give my perspective as well.

During these times of social media activism, I need to put this disclaimer! The purpose of my counter viewpoint is absolutely not to create any controversy, nor to discredit Vaithee, for a moment. I have a lot of respect for him, and we have been contemporaries for long, in the early stage of the e-commerce industry in India. I respect him for his persistence in the space, and the tremendous learnings he would have picked up being there for so long.

So the point of this piece is just to share a different viewpoint on some of these questions, from yours truly who had also been in the space for about as long and who has since moved into other facets of the digital space and seen some more of startup world and investments and M&A and the like. Yeah, that’s me.

For those who may not be aware, I co-founded, one of India’s earliest Internet businesses, and e-commerce companies (to slightly correct the editors of Times of India who mention in the above piece, Fabmart as being India’s first e-com venture, in fact, was founded in 1997 and was doing B2C e-commerce on the site, since 1998!), and ran it for 9 years, before divesting our stake in 2007, and then moving on to start a digital media agency in 2009, which has since been acquired by WPP group, and now runs as a full-services digital agency called Mirum, and where I am the Joince CEO. So hopefully, the perspectives I bring will be appreciated to be coming equally from hands-on experience, and not armchair commentary 🙂

So on to the questions posed to Vaithee in this piece, and my perspective on those.

  1. The first question posed was “Were you caught on the wrong foot by trying to build a profitable company at a time when big bucks were coming in?” 

Vaithee speaks about profitability vs GMV (gross merchandise value) and contends that GMV won out.

The way I see this is that in retail, you can opt to be a successful local store / kirana or have a vision to be a pan-India organized retail player. The business models are very different. The kirana can and will easily be profitable. In spite of there being organized retail around, he will spell out his value to his local customers and keep his margins. But he runs that as a boutique business. As soon as a retail player aims to go national, become a brand, there are other factors that come in, and which include a variety of costs. And for which money needs to be pumped in. For supporting infrastructure and for getting marketshare.

The profitability vs GMV debate is somewhat of that nature. Through very focused, differential value creation for your customers, even an e-retailer could remain profitable. But it will be a niche business, and would not compete with the larger players on size. On the other hand, if one wants to play the scale game, there is no choice but to fight for your share of that large and fiercely growing market. And the game is also not just about discounts, but also about bringing in sharp operational efficiencies. But as the market is growing rapidly, and you want to maintain or grow your share of it, and for which there is no choice but to pump in more and more cash.


2. Another question posed to Vaithee was “Do you think the current Indian e-commerce companies will ever be profitable?”

Vaithee’s opinion was that he didn’t think so. Because someone will always pump in more money and then businesses will keep throwing more discounts etc.

That is a fair visualization of where this could go. However, I believe that with Amazon going so aggressive and strong, it is a matter of time before a lot of the viable competition folds down. What will be left is Amazon and some niche players. Whether it happens in 2 years or 5 years, I cannot say. But once the growth of new users to acquire starts slowing down, and the need to desperately acquire customers at any cost reduces, gradually the survivors will find a way to make money. Also e-commerce differs from physical retail, in that it is not just about selling physical goods that you carry inventory of. What a successful e-commerce player is doing is attracting large number of users to its destination with a promise of good service and value. That can translate beyond selling physical products, to conveniently sell insurance or loans or advertising banners or subscriptions etc. And thus, the ARPU can substantially go up, enabling a quicker passage to profitability, at that point.

3. A further question posed was “How would you take on a company like Amazon?”

I am not sure if too many people on the planet know this answer, so I am not going to hazard one! However, I want to comment on a sentence Vaithee uses in response to this question, where he says that “you have to be clear that you are a retail company, not a technology company”.

I wonder about this! Technology is so integral to retail today, even in the physical stores, and most certainly in the online stores, that it is hard to say that you’re only a retail company. Can a e-commerce company for example, outsource it’s technology? I would emphatically say, ‘no’! Technology and core retail are working together to make success happen. And this is true whether you are taking on Amazon, or not.

4. Another question: “Isn’t Flipkart doing that with its focus on smartphones and electronics?”

And I absolutely agree with Vaithee’s response here. That Flipkart plays in the low margin categories, there is little hope of overcoming the large overheads to ever become profitable.

Most retail businesses, especially multi-category types have some low-margin commodities to draw the consumers in. Even kiranas would have those – the grains and the cooking oils, and such. However, the game is to get the consumer to enhance his cart with a mix of few higher margin items too. Like apparels in case of e-commerce, or imported chocolates and cheeses in case of the neighborhood kirana, because that is the ONLY way you come out on top, in terms of profits.

The lament of the online travel portals has also been that their biggest volumes are from domestic air tickets which are wafer thin margin products, and they have just not managed to sell hotels or tour packages at scale, where larger margins are available!

5. Felt sad for the system and for Vaithee in context of this question: “How did you deal with the aftermath?”

All I can react to in this case, is to feel fortunate to have had an amazing set of investors. We too, were clearly ahead of our times with the e-commerce startup that we built from way back in 1998 to 2007 (before divesting out). Thankfully, it was the investors who prodded us to take a few big bets, and then if they didn’t work out, then get out and do something else with our lives. And that we managed to exit with very clean books, taking care of all liabilities of our team as well as vendors.

But it could so easily have been different. Quite like what Vaithee seems to have gone through. Yes, we were fortunate comparatively.

6. This was an interesting question posed to Vaithee: “You compare the startup ecosystem to the caste system”

And I agree with him, that the Indian VC system is a cosy comfort zone of staying with what are perceived to be “safe bets”. Like they say, no one’s going to fire you for buying IBM, likewise, perhaps no investor in a VC fund is going to fire the VC management for backing an IIT / IIM team, or someone from an HBS network or a Goldman Sachs name!

But if they back a smart young team that does not have these badges on them, they may be questioned. Which is where good startups may starve for funds sometime.

However, I don’t believe that is the case with the global investor space. I have heard more than 100 startup stories via podcasts and I can recall several who were completely unlikely entrepreneurs, with none of those so-called badge values. And yet today these are super successful brands and stories, and these happened only because, at some stage, someone took a bet on their ideas and backed them.

7. This was an interesting question: “You say ‘Don’t pivot, don’t fail fast.’ It goes against the current popular narrative of failing fast.”

Well, Vaithee mentions, as an example, a period like 6 weeks. So yes, most certainly, one cannot be knee-jerk to keep pivoting every quarter or something like that.

However, if there is one big learning I retain from our experience, it is simply that we should have attempted to scale much faster, and if that did not happen, we should have exited quicker. While the nine-year stint was great experience, the one wish that I have in hindsight is that it would have been great if I had managed to shrink that entire experience in 5 years, instead of 9. Do almost all that we did, but took lesser time on it. So yes, I believe in “Fail Fast” in that sense!

Overall, it was really good to see that exchange with Vaithee as it took me back to the days of our previous venture. Almost nostalgic in many ways!

And like Vaithee, we have a book on its way too, based on the learnings from those days. So watch this space for news about it!


July 9, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A core consumer fundamental driving the success of Uber and Airbnb


Over the last couple of decades, where the world has seen many unicorns emerge, these have pursued different fundamental business models, as a path to their success.

There have been many that created new paradigms that did not exist, and got people to behave differently, and yet had them hooked to this different behavior. A Facebook that connected all of your known contacts at one place, and enabling you to literally bring together various aspects of your life (childhood, work, student days, family, etc.) and interact with them, all at one place, was unheard of. Although the desire to stay in touch with your various contacts, was probably more intuitive to human behavior and which is why, the model worked.

Or perhaps how a Twitter goaded us to communicate in short form or an Instagram proposed that we talk through pictures, etc. These are all examples of a ‘new way’ that didn’t quite exist before, and which people embraced and stuck on to (beyond the fad value), due to some inherent connect with what humans like to do, anyway.

Then there are business models that enabled us to do things we were already doing offline, but brought immense efficiencies and scale, thanks to being on the Internet.

A jobs site than enabled job seekers and recruiters find each other, or a matrimonial site that connected prospective brides and grooms, are examples of these.

In fact, these sites are also examples of what are called as ‘exchanges’, which at the most fundamental level, play the role of matchmaker, while taking a small sliver of a fee, in return.

So coming to Uber and Airbnb, at one level, these are also matchmakers or exchanges, connecting vehicle owners / drivers to those seeking a ride, or home / room owners to those seeking an overnight stay.

So what is it that Uber and Airbnb are doing, BEYOND being matchmakers, and what in particular, has led to their amazing success?

Yes, sure they have great software behind them, and the mobile phone has been instrumental in driving rapid adoption, especially in the case of Uber.

But here’s something that is even more fundamental, and which has contributed to their big successes, as per my reckoning.

Both of these services are using assets that people own, and which are grossly underutilized (and hence, there is spare capacity) and putting these to use!

Take Uber first.

Many, many people in this world own cars. To go from one place to another.

And yet, for most people, the actual “use time” of the car, is no more than 10% of their waking hours. For the rest of the time, that asset is sitting idle in a garage, or a parking spot (maybe, even COSTING money, to be parked there!).

Uber finds a way to put that to use.

Likewise, take Airbnb.

Here again, a very large number of people around the world own homes which are somewhat bigger than their immediate needs. Now there’s nothing that one can do about the extra room or two in your own home, except continue to maintain it, pay taxes on it, or pay rent on it, if it’s a rented property.

Airbnb put that to use.

What you can see as a pattern here is as follows:

There are assets that you own (car / home), that you need to use partially (the car for limited time, the limited number of rooms in the home), and whose excess “capacity” could seemingly not be sliced out and offered to anyone.

Until Uber and Airbnb found a way to do so!

There have been other manifestations of this same core consumer insight.

For example, shared vacation ownership businesses. Where you “own” a week of a vacation home, but the rest are “given out” to others. As against you investing into your own vacation home, using it just for a week or two, and the asset being wasted for the rest of the year.

While vacation ownership businesses of this kind have been successful, the secret of Uber’s and Airbnb’s success is because of its usage of a far more prevalent asset around the world, a far more day-to-day usage of the same (and one ‘one week in a year’) and the flexibility of offering the slices of the asset for others to use, and for you to generate some value from the same.

The one more use of an “asset” that people have space capacity of, especially in the case of Uber, is “TIME”.

So you’re a student or work part time or even work full time, but still have a few hours of waking hours on hand. And these are a different number of hours, perhaps a different time each day, which you have free.

It was not the easiest thing to find a productive use of such excess hours.

Till Uber gave you the option of using them (along with the available unused time of your car) productively, while driving around passengers from one place to another, and make some money out of it too!

In some sense, the original model of Ebay, when it started out as a pure P2P service, was also around a similar insight.

People had excess of stuff at home. Clothes they had grown out of. Toys that the kids had gone beyond. Gfits received that were not likely to be used. Or simply the excess that one sometimes piles up, due to impulsive shopping binges.

Over time, when the basements start swelling up, or when you get fed up seeing stuff all around, you want to get rid of those things.

Before Ebay days, one used to do garage sales, and such, to get rid of such excess at home. And sure enough, one would find a buyer, most of the times, but also because you were selling at next-to-nothing.

Then came Ebay, and it enabled you to sell off such stuff more easily, and almost always at better value. This was also accomplished by the auction model then, as it allowed “water to find its own level”, in terms of getting the right ‘market price’ for any product that you put up for sale there.

So again, while the simplistic Ebay model was one of person-to-person buy-and-sell via the auction model, more specifically, it thrived on the fact that people always had excess of assets (see the connect to earlier explained Uber and Airbnb models), which they wanted to sell off.

And in all these cases, there was a connected demand, for sure.

Ample number of people looking for rides (Uber), ample number of people travelling to different places and needing overnight stays (Airbnb) and ample number of people wanting to get into that size of T-shirt that you have outgrown, or having younger kids who can use the toys that your child has grown beyond etc. (Ebay).

Are there other “unused or underutilized assets” that you can identify, that people have, and which you can find a way to monetize?

Hey, you could be on your way to creating the next unicorn!!

Think about it!


February 27, 2016 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Can India have it’s own Instagram? A Perspective on the Numbers game..

Like everyone else on social media, I was fascinated and stunned by the story of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram.  The fact that Instagram had recently launched it’s Android app and which was doing well, and that only about a week ago, Instagram had raised a good $50 mn of funding, made this acquisition look very surprising and sudden!

Be that as it may be, it is an amazing story.

One of the side stories that went around last night was whether India can at all have it’s own Instagram. And this post that I read suggested an emphatic “no”.

I also see the challenge of building an Instagram like idea in India. For various reasons. And I will come to those in a bit.

But one of the most important, relevant and significant reasons is the number story. We need a perspective and a strong drive towards numbers.

Let me share with you three very independent stories, all about “numbers in 24 hours”.

1. The Android app of Instagram clocked 1 million downloads in 24 hours of it’s launch.

2. I met this person whose company sets up Internet kiosks in villages of West Bengal, on a franchising model, and hence, has to create income opportunities for the franchisees, on these kiosks. They have put many paid services on offer. He mentioned that he clocks 20 air tickets in a day – yes, 20 air ticket bookings in 24 hours – via those village kiosks!

3. A personal experience. I spoke at the India Social Summit on April 3. I put up my presentation on slideshare on April 4, and put out exactly one tweet and one Facebook update about this, and in a matter of 24 hours, the presentation got close to 450 views.

Yes, three disparate facts. And a matter of numbers!

I was impressed by all three of these. What it showed me clearly was that:

– we live in a small and connected world

– and hence, we can reach a large, far flung consumer base, for products and services that we can offer

You’d say that these facts are true from the time that the Internet came into being.

True. And I should know. Having been in the space since the time Internet came into India! Since 1997-98.

What impresses me today is the natural, organic viral growth opportunity. And the possibility then, of clocking significant numbers rapidly!

What made the three cases mentioned above, to happen?

1. Instagram was already a hugely popular app, on the iPhone platform. Widely talked about. The Android app was way overdue. It was announced and people had to sign up in advance. With all that pre-release build up, it was not surprising that when they actually released it, Android users were rushing to go and grab it. Quite like the queue you see at an Apple store when they release a new iPhone or an iPad. Yes, it is going to be available the next day too, but one wants to be amongst the earliest ones to get it!

2. The case of the air ticket bookings in the village kiosks is akin to the success of IRCTC for rail bookings. Irrespective of the quality of the website, since it met a dire need, and the alternate way to get that service had a lot more pain, this one was lapped up. What was true of IRCTC for many years was now true for the air ticket purchases in villages!

3. As for my deck on slideshare, I guess it was a series of factors. On April 4 when I uploaded the deck, the event was still on, and many were following it on Twitter. The hashtag #IndiaSocial12 was popular that day. And I tagged my post with the same hashtag. Where other speaker presentations of the event would go up later, post-event, mine was up that day, even as people were following the live proceedings. And it generated interest for people to click and view. And hopefully the content gave it a little organic push, and it hit those 400-odd views that it did.

So in all three cases, there was a reason – be it content or a needed service – which got across to the target audience, and a viral push happened. And numbers followed.

That is the beauty of our times! You could be sitting in any corner of the country, but if you can get this content or service mix right, hit the specific target audience pockets, it CAN fly!

So with that scenario, can India have it’s own Instagram? And if not, what are the challenges?

Note the facts first:

Instagram has run for about two years now. Has almost no serious revenues. Has had a small team of a dozen or so now (for a long time they were even smaller), but they probably work with some outsourced partners too, I reckon. That said, the costs to support are the small team and large servers and bandwidth capacities, mainly.

So first of all, if you have a product of this kind, with a potential upside of this nature, will an Indian VC buy?

I don’t think so. The Indian VC will put his money on the 27th daily deal site and the 45th e-commerce site, because it is the flavor of the day, but rarely if at all, will he bet on a new concept, unproven, something that could potentially be a global winner. So you are stuck if you are dependent on VC financing.

But say, you had inherited wealth or you begged, borrowed or even stole money to support your venture. Where is the next pitfall?

From my experience with startups in India – and I have met several over various interactions at various fora – the one trait that I often see, is that they get excited about the initial numbers and get somewhat complacent.

How often have I heard stories like “we just started few months back, and I have already got 40 orders” or “we get 3-4 email enquiries daily” or things like that. There are ventures that clock up a few thousand subscribers / users and get pumped up. Most of the time, these are free registrations, and so people have not really spent money on the platform. But there is excitement and a feeling of achievement.

While I have nothing against this excitement, the reality is that a few hundred or a few thousands are NOT GETTING YOU ANYWHERE. If you are looking to do a big one, the world is your market potentially, and you need to think in millions of users.

So the two biggest reasons holding us back, from creating our own Instagrams or what have you, are potentially a lack of funding for such business models, and secondly, a tendency to not see the very large picture. For the latter part, obviously there have been the exceptions and which have succeeded big time, like Naukri, Shaadi, BharatMatrimony, Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip, Carwale, Games2Win, IndiaGames and a handful others.

But the typical startup that I encounter at TiE or at some Startup event, is somehow not seeing the big, big picture. And which is where we don’t have our potential Instagrams!

But I hope to see change. As I am the eternal optimist.. next one, hopefully from India. Happening in some lab somewhere in Mumbai or Gurgaon or Bangalore, even as I am posting this.. 🙂

April 10, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

GroupOn, Living Social, Snap Deal etc. – Is Deep Discounting the last resort of the failed salesman?!

For those who follow this blog, it is no secret that Group Buying, especially in the shape that it has taken in recent months, is my favorite whipping boy!!

I attended a talk by Prof. Nirmalya Kumar a couple of weeks back, and he was talking about how CMOs and CEOs need to worry not just about the short term, but also about the long term. He gave an example about how Coke could get away with absolutely no marketing spend for a year, and it may not impact its sales for the year. And yet, what does it do for Coke, in the longer term?

So a CEO / CMO has to take into account not just the next quarter’s results, but also the long legacy of the brand!

So what happens when such brands get lured by the GroupOns and the SnapDeals of the world? When a brand starts selling for 10% of its price, or even 50% of its price, no matter what justification marketers give internally to justify these moves, there are two consequences in the eyes of the consumer:

– that if they can sell for 10% of the price, they have been taking 90% too much from us, all these years!

– that I will wait for these discounts, and not buy at the full price at all!

Is this doing good for a brand?

Yes, the justification is that, instead of putting expensive advertising, I divert those marketing dollars into deep discounts, and get people to buy. To experience my product. And get a better and immediately measurable ROI on my “marketing” money! Sounds like a perfect plan, something that the CFO may like for the short term.

But who carries the responsibility for the brand, in the long term??

The moves would have been fine, during recessionary times. When you have capacity and the consumer offtake has reduced drastically. And you still want to keep your factories busy. At that time, a deep discount strategy is good.

But in India, at this time, it is a booming economy. Brands who are getting their act half right have cash registering ringing away to glory, and those who are doing better, are putting up new factories to cope with the demands!

In such times, who wants to sell cheap? Who wants to give those deep, deep discounts?

Only those who have no means to sell it right. Yes, I think that Deep Discounts are the last resort for the failed salesmen! When they can do no better, they discount. Well, if you give it away for free, you are sure to “sell” well (I heard an interesting rejoinder to this also, in fact, in reference to a specific community in India, and it said “if you give it free to them, they will ask for money to take it”!). And the reason for the inability to sell well, is their lack of understanding of how a consumer’s buying process has changed. If all that a marketer can do, is to blast advertising into the face of the customer, and the customer refuses to acknowledge these and purchase his brand, it is the marketer’s fault that he has not changed his ways. To the tunes of the new consumer buying decision journey (I cover some of that in this presentation).

If you do not get your marketing and sales right, you go and sell off cheap. Even in boom times! Report good numbers, get your bonuses, and walk away. And leave the brand bleeding in the long term.

No can do. If I hold shares in companies that are doing this, I would sell those shares, and get out. As I’m sure the future isn’t bright!!

January 26, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment – Best Deals for Group Purchases!

I was pleasantly surprised when @sampad shared the link of one day, and I went and checked it out. The concept was so close to my heart that I loved it at first sight. The concept. The site, I still had to go over and see! So this concept that I have loved for long, and which finally sees the day in the form of, made me come out of Gray Hair Wisdom Hibernation, and restart my startup reviews.

Category: B2C -> E-commerce -> Group Buying / Reverse Auction

What is it? is an online business that offers great deals, provided large number of people are willing to pick up the deal. In short, it is a group buying concept, and in some ways, a reverse auction also, since more the buyers, the better the deal that can potentially get generated!

What more?

The site does not expect to deliver any products to you. In that sense, there is a “local” factor to it. At this time, has deals to offer, for major Indian cities.  The concept is that many individuals who do not know each other, may be considering making the same purchase around the same time. If they could somehow be got together, and they position themselves as a “group” to the seller, this group now has a buying power to negotiate best deals from the seller. Likewise, if this disparate group of buyers, individually, could have walked into different outlets to make their independent purchases. Now if some dealer offers the best prices, and all those footfalls are diverted to that one dealer, he in turn, is grabbing the market from the other dealers, who did not offer that great deal.

This in a gist, is what enables.

My Quick Two Cents:

I am totally prejudiced to this business idea. In favor of the business concept, per se. So some of that will show in my thoughts here 🙂

Wanamo works for many reasons:

  1. It brings together people who want to buy the same thing, but did not know each other. And the group translates to discounts!
  2. The supplier of the product is transparent. The buyer knows what he is buying, from whom (traditional supplier) is he getting.  Buyers get the vouchers directly of the brand / supplier.
  3. Products do not need to be shipped. Takes away the issues of shipping, handling, octroi etc. The costs and the pain! Once deal happens, the buyer prints the voucher, and goes and picks up the product / service from the supplier directly.
  4. Everyone loves a deal. And deal is what everyone gets. For a simple reason that it’s a quantity purchase each time, and which assures a deal!

All of these reasons are from the point of view of the business model. Then coming to the actual implementation and execution, it looks good, mostly. The concept is not easy to explain. This is the clear make-or-break. I think Wanamo does a reasonably good job of getting the message across. Also the implementation has been kept quite simple and straightforward, and that can play a huge role in the ultimate success.

And now for some Wisdom Nuggets:

There are things that can hasten the path to success.

  1. The screen, as you can see from the home page snapshot above, is crowded. If the aim is to reach a highly mature Internet user, who can understand the various links and blocks all over the screen, then its fine. However, I suspect, to drive numbers, Wanamo will need to reach a slightly lower common multiple of the user base, and that user may just find the screen too busy.
  2. Speaking of screen design, it is a fine balance between temptation (to put everything there) and restraint (to put nothing but the very necessary items there). In the day and age of Facebook, Twitter, etc., there are the Facebook Fan boxes, Twitter widgets, besides the feedback link, the subscribe to newsletter link, etc. that seem like good things to have on the screen. Ultimately these will impact transactions. If its your blog, Sampad, you can get away with it. It is not a transaction engine. Where you want people to transact, to remove their wallet and put in the advance payments, there, you want nothing to distract and turn them away. Least of all, a crowded screen. So think about it.
  3. The one-deal on the home page may be a good way to start, and may also be what is logistically possible to be achieved. But with one deal a day, it will be very very tough to scale. Users have very low attention spans, and very low patience. And very little time. If I get a link of, and I reach the site. I see a deal. And that is all I see. And I am not interested in that one. Then, thats it. To get me to visit again, out of curiosity, is difficult. Unless there is a lot of money spent, and I keep seeing and reading Wanamo everywhere, there is a tough chance that I will go back on my own. Since I just have too many other things to do in life! Offering many deals across multiple products and categories is a way to interest more number of people.
  4. Finally, this is a great B2C e-commerce model. But the only way it will succeed, and succeed really really well, is if it gets scale. If there is even the slightest of satisfaction or relaxation perceived, with a few hundred participants or transactions, that is doomsday. One only needs to look at Ebay or Amazon, and see what kind of engines have been set up. In fact, Ebay should be the model to ape. And what is it about Ebay that should be aped? That you put up a great engine, keep investing in software and features, but then let vendors and customers go out there and help themselves. And you count the pennies that they keep leaving behind. And since these will be pennies that are left behind, you need a lot of transactions for these to count up to a lot of dollars. THAT is the only serious way to make this a business of massive proportion. If there is a large manual component in the transactions, or in pushing each vendor or customer, then I am afraid, it will grossly under-deliver to its potential. I mean, the founders will move from a small to a mid-size car or even a big car, but if they can set up their own VC fund in a few years or not, depends on whether Wanamo can look to be the Ebay of group buying-reverse auction, and churn out millions of transactions, or not!

All in all, a great business model. One of the best e-commerce plays that I have seen in recent days, and if all goes well, this is the one that we will hear a LOT about. Knowing what I do about at least one of the founders, Sampad, I know that he has huge determination and an excellent sense of the medium, and he  and his team just need to stay on track, and deliver this well. Wishing them the very best!!

GRAY SCALE RATING: 4.0 / 5.0 (only because its early days and it can go up, as we see good execution too!)

ADDENDUM: By coincidence, noticed this Tech Crunch article just the same day that I wrote this review of And it is quite disturbing. I await the founders’ clarification, since Abhishek had already commented here. Where lies the mystery? If Wanamo is a copy-paste copy of Groupon, then its bad. If there is a legitimate tie up, same needs to be mentioned clearly!!

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April 4, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 12 Comments – collaborative SaaS project tracking tool

Priyanka Dalal asked me to review their business at


Category: B2B -> SaaS -> Collaborative Poject Tracking

What is it? is an online, collaboration software to track a project between team members, potentially located anywere globally.

What more?

DeskAway is a very easy to get interface with simple, step by step instructions on what all it offers, and how it can be used. The features packed application can be  delight for any colloborative activity, which can be defined as a “project” form. Offered in a SaaS structure, the use of the application is easy on the pocket for users, and yet, it should earn DeskAway good money, for large scale adaption.

My Quick Two Cents:

My quick two cents are all positive! The site is done very well, with a lot of thought, and addresses a large scale requirement in terms of collaborative project work. I would believe that DeskAway wil get excellent response and is poised to be a winner.

More Wisdom Nuggets:

1. Like I have mentioned in 1 or 2 reviews earlier, my first nugget would simply be to keep up the good stuff. I think DeskAway has been built very well, and also positioned very well, so I would recommend strongly that it is kept that way, and the rewards will come.

2. I am not familiar with the competitive landscape for the business. So of course, from a feature comparison point of view, or pricing point of view, if there are any reasons for customers to consider other options, those need to be addressed by DeskAway.

3. My nuggets this time around, rather than for DeskAway, may be for other entrepreneurs, who could look at various specific elements of DeskAway and learn from the same:

a. The home page: is very focused. Drives home the key communication at the outset. In few quick bullets – not long, drawn paragraphs. As you scroll down, there are specific horizontal sections (although not separated by any kind of separators) each of which drive home one key point, that could be critical for customers to move ahead. The identification of the key points and then, the presentation in this manner, is very impressive.

b. The overall colors and fonts used on the site are very refreshing. Easy on the eye, soothing colors, yet eye catching, enough white space there, absolutely no problem in reading the content!

c. The individual links on the home page are again, simple, straightforward and exactly what prospects may look for. A tour of the product, FAQs, comparison with other options, pricing details… nothing left to the imagination. Quick and simple links to get you the information.

All in all, I have been very impressed with the website. I have not tried the product, but assuming the same diligent effort in the product as well (and do note this reaction – looking at a good clean site, I am giving them the benefit of doubt, without knowing, that the product will also be good; likewise if you have a great product, but the site is poorly done, a prospect may have already formed an opinion about the company, before he moves into the product area!), I have all the reasons to believe that DeskAway is going to be a brilliant success! I urge other entrepreneurs to make DeskAway a model to learn from!


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April 17, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , | 10 Comments – to manage your career

Val Cummins asked me to take a look at his site,

Category: B2C -> Recruitment

What does it do? intends to be a one-stop destination for job seekers, or for anyone who desires to manage his career.

What more?

The site offers several direct resources for job seekers like interview tips, job fair information, job searches, resume guidelines, etc. Additionally there are also a host of other support services covering topics like Emotional Intelligence, Work / Life Balance, Overcoming Obstacles, etc.

In other words, the site is indeed an extensive resource for job seekers, as a one stop source.

My Quick Two Cents:

While the site does appear to be an exhaustive resource for job seekers, there is much to be desired in the design and layout, to make it more compelling and attractive to users. Also like I have asked many others on this blog, “where is the money”??

Wisdom Nuggets in more detail:

1. The first thing that hit me when I opened the site was, “where am I?” There was a lot of content all over the place, and I did not know where to begin. And yet, there was no one place where I could find a quick note about what this site was about, and where all do I go from here. There is a definite need to cut the content by a whole lot on the home page.

2. There is temptation for any site owner to put a lot of information out there on the home page. After all, one never knows what specific item a particular visitor would need?! You know what, you can carry this thought to an extreme.. what if you put your entire site on the home page?? You can’t do that, can you? Likewise, you can’t put so many links on the home page.

3. What you need to do is to figure out your best bets. For the rest, perhaps just put titles. And of course, there is Ajax to the rescue. An interested reader could mouseover or click the particular link of interest and see the details right there and then. That is highly recommended here.

4. Also the color combination needs to be rethought. A dark blue background and a lighter blue text on top of it, is not the most easy on the eyes. While there is merit in trying to be “different” so that people will remember your site, it cannot be done at the cost of making it harder to read content on your site. There is indeed a lot of merit in using a lighter background and a darker color text. Just stay safe on some of these basics of website design!

5. “Where is the money??”! Really.. where IS the money? If there are chargeable services, they are hidden away deep inside. Most everything seems to be free. Yes, we all know Google did it that way. But really they had invested heavily into a technology that would be so compelling that people will throng there in the millions, and ulimately, there will be ways to monetize those. If there is a recruitment site, with a good compilation, but with otherwise, not a whole lot of differentiation, and at least not something which is a serious entry barrier for others to replicate.. now, that is not a fomula to invest a lot of money in giving a free service. You are clearly incurring cost in making and managing this site. How long will you do it free of cost? How are you expecting to make money, even later? Don’t lose the focus on that critical piece of the puzzle. If there IS a strategy, well and good. If you hope that things will figure themselves out, well, they don’t. You figure them out!!

In summary, I can say that has a good effort in compiling a large number of resources and creating community, and also offering new and fresh news and information, for job seekers. So its a great service. They do need to figure out a way to serve their own selves. Like make some money out of it. Good luck!


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April 12, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment