Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 4)

The Year To Come

Tomorrow heralds a new year. We have been trained to think in collections of 365 days. 2020 is over, 2021 is here. And we start each new year with hope, optimism and even some resolutions. The fear of the virus is still ever-present for some – we don’t know if we have the antibodies, we don’t know what will happen if we are infected by Covid-19, we don’t know when we will get the vaccine, we don’t know what other long-term effects may be there.

But life has always been about unknowns. Whether in business or in life, the future is yet to happen and therefore unknowable. We can speak of broad trends but we cannot say for certain what will happen. The best we can do is to make the most of the time that we are alive and in good health.

For me, 2021 is about increasing the odds of success for many of the ideas that I have started on. There are many different tracks that I am working on and I hope I can make at least some of them work. My life has been about many experiments and ideas with a lot of failures. But that is what I like – new ideas which can hopefully bring about some change for the better. The entrepreneur in me keeps thinking and trying.

The post-Covid world will be different – 2020 will be seen as a defining year. Even as many trends accelerated (especially those around digital and tech), there will be a lasting impact on each of us on the way we work and socialise. Will I travel less since everyone I need to meet is but a Zoom call away? Do I really need to make a full-day visit just for that one meeting? Even when I could go to the office, will I prefer to spend some days just working from the comfort of home? Will I want to attend conferences in person when everything is just a click away? Which habits will persist and which will need to get altered? What does “return to normal” even mean?

Even as I look at our fortunate selves, there are hundreds of millions whose lives were torn asunder not as much by the virus but by the harshest of lockdowns imposed by the Indian political leaders. It will take a long time for any normalcy to return – for the kid whose school is not online, for the family who migrated back, for the professional who lost a job because the fat was cut, for small businesses who could not go online. But the human spirit has been and will be resilient. We have to each make our way across the obstacles. It is the hero’s journey for each of us.

Wish you all a very Happy New Year.

Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 3)

What I Miss

There are many things I miss. Top of the list is international travel. For the past two-and-a-half decades, the long flights have been my source of new ideas, deep reflections and big decisions. Being up in the air, without any of the earthly distractions makes one meditative and contemplative – hours can be spent on pushing the mind to probe deeper on a theme which is so hard to do with a live screen and interrupting people. Ever since I discovered business class travel for the long-haul flights in 1999 (thanks to the cheap round-the-world airfares that were common then), travel became something I started looking forward to. It will probably still be a year before the romance of the 15-hour non-stop comes back in my life.

One reason I used to travel a lot was to attend conferences – and I miss that a lot. While online has replaced the offline, for me it was about the setting. Being physically present and mentally undistracted, my complete focus was on the knowledge being imparted. In those moments, the speaker’s words melded with my own thinking to create new ideas for the future. Even though one can attend and listen to many more people now from the comforts of home, it is just not the same.

The other thing I miss is meeting friends in person. As we grow older, we develop our own small circle. The monthly lunch, the fortnightly group gathering, the periodic late night chat – all have been curtailed. The occasional phone call or a Zoom session does not make up for the proximity that sharing the same space brings. In that sense, while I have spoken to many more people than I otherwise would have met, these conversations do not lead to the same connection that a face-to-face meeting does. I hope this will resume soon.

We had a monthly review for Netcore recently. 16 of us discuss the past, present and future. We had all met last as a group at an offsite in late February. A week ago, some of us came together in our office conference room and a few others joined via Zoom. Over the past few months, I had become a much more silent participant – reduced to a small window on a large screen. Just being in the room with everyone made me so much more active and alive – I was less hesitant in making interventions or even interrupting. I was not distracted or bored as I sat through the four hours of discussion. This is what needs to come back – the jiu-jitsu of ideas flowing from people across the table.

Choosing to become a prisoner in one’s own home limits our experiences. We learn when we put ourselves in different situations. The drive to and from work, unexpected encounter with a long lost friend at an airport, the short weekend visit to meet relatives in Pune or Surat, the customer visits – all will probably have to wait for some more time. This is what the pandemic has taken away from us – and hopefully, we will cherish these moments much more when we get them back.

So, as I look ahead to 2021, it is with the optimism that we will treasure our relationships with people even more – in our personal lives and at work. Each of us has gone through difficult times in the past year. Some have even lost a loved one. What I hope we remember are what changed us for the better, the things we learnt, the new bonds we forged. Our experiences and past shape us – what we have to take away from 2020 are the happier moments even as we have had to live through some sad ones.

Tomorrow: Part 4

Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 2)

Father and Son

As I look back, perhaps the biggest change in the past year has been the change in the relationship with my son, Abhishek. He is 15 and in the tenth grade. Through the years, the maximum time we got together was typically on the summer vacations. Now, thrown together for hours on end, we bonded in a very different way. It started with our daily walks in April and May. We both needed to get some exercise, so we charted a path around the neighbourhood each evening. (Now, we just walk around in our compound.)

Abhishek and I started talking much more even during the day. He got to know my world of business much more. His ever-present curiosity led to question after question, which I patiently answered – something that has remained unchanged since he was a kid. And as he understood more, the conversations become richer – he would provide a different perspective and interesting inputs on what I was doing. Somewhere, the father-son relationship evolved to a more equal and balanced one.

For me, I found someone I could talk a lot to – in person. Zoom creates a bit of distance in conversations. However well one knows the other person, the lack of presence increases the distance even as the screen brings the other closer. Along with Bhavana and my parents, Abhishek was the only other person whose physical presence was a constant. In a way, he was new – we knew each other as father and son. But he knew very little of my world. That is what we started sharing as the months started going by.

Abhishek was born to Bhavana and me after 12 years of marriage. I was 38 years then. (See: The Making of Abhishek.) The IndiaWorld days, the early Netcore years, my political work with Niti Digital, Free A Billion and Nayi Disha – all were fiction for him. And in our conversations through the past months, I brought some of them alive for him – the ups and downs, the stories, the many failures, the few successes. I also spoke about my dreams for the future. He listens, questions, separates for me the possible and the wishful. He has become my biggest critic – and sounding board.

Relationships evolve a day at a time – and then suddenly, something beautiful emerges. Almost like the world of nature around us. One keeps watering and then a plant or tree is there for us to behold. With children, it is something like that. Many times, we fail to recognise the person within them and see them just as kids or mini-clones of our imagined selves. When I look back, the transformation in the relationship with my own son has perhaps been the greatest gift of the time home in 2020. He has made me better. And I hope I too have done the same for him.

Tomorrow: Part 3

Looking Back, Looking Forward (Part 1)

The Year That Was

2020 has changed us and the world around in many different ways. Few could have imagined the impact of the pandemic on how we live, work, shop and entertain. It is a year that will always be a defining chapter in our lives. Whether we have got Covid-19 or not, the coronavirus has left its mark deep within all of us. Each of us will take away very different memories and learnings from 2020. Even though the transition from December 31 to January is just a day, the change of year tends to bring hope – and in this case the promise of both herd immunity and vaccines.

I spent much of January 2020 travelling. A visit to the US with a side-trip to Guatemala for the Antigua Forum. I love travelling. Little did I know then that it would be my last international trip for a very long time. I woke up to the possible impact of the virus in late February when a friend sent an email about the possible death and destruction that was likely to come because of the coming spread of the coronavirus. In March, I started tracking the virus closely. By mid-March, I had realised that some harsh measures were likely in India also – though I had underestimated the severity of the lockdown that the government finally imposed.

I was not fully prepared for working from home. My office desk and cabin full of books was where I felt most comfortable. And suddenly, that was all taken away. I did not even get time to bring my office desktop home, and so was stuck using my laptop for work for the next few weeks. We had not set up WiFi to cover the entire house, so the hotspot was how I connected to the Internet. I was quite unprepared for work from home.

Things improved once the lockdown was eased – I got my office desktop and chair home, bought a better table from Ikea, improved WiFi coverage at home. And by late June, I had also got back many books from the office.  The distant months of April and May are just specks in my memory now. I have to strain hard to recollect how those days went by.

The past pandemic months have been quite productive in terms of new ideas. I wrote about the April-September period recently. With each day identical to the previous one – wake up, get to desk, work, back to sleep – and no variation in terms of going out or meeting people in person, it has been actually possible to perhaps get more done than I could have imagined at the start of the year. Then, I had an idea called Velvet Rope Marketing that I was exploring. Over the rest of the year, many different tracks have started – how to rethink marketing and customer loyalty, what we need to do fast-track Netcore’s growth for the future, a new short-form email idea in the form of MyToday, imagining what an Indian Revolution that creates political and economic transformation could look like, starting Prashnam, doing two weekly web shows in hippoBrain and MartechBrain. Amidst all that the best thing has been that I have rediscovered writing. The old habit of posting something new on my blog each morning has made me much more mentally active than I otherwise would have been.

Tomorrow: Part 2

New on hippoBrain, MartechBrain and Prashnam

hippoBrain

  • E24: Anup Kumar, ex-captain, Indian Kabaddi Team and coach, Puneri Paltan
  • E25: Samir Patil, Founder and CEO, ScrollStack
  • E26: Nehal Shah, Chief Customer Officer, Hestia Appliances
  • E27: Pawan Gadia, CEO, Ferns N Petals
  • E28: Sudhir Gupta, Founder and CEO, TLC

MartechBrain

  • E17: Lito Villaneuva on “Trends in Fintech”
  • E18: Tapan Barman on “Conversational AI”
  • E19: Sanket Zaware on “Digitisation in Co-operative Banks”
  • E20: Chaitanya Chinta on “Email Marketing Trends 2021”
  • E21: Varun Ramamurthy on “Behavioural Science in Product Management”

Prashnam

  • Insight #12: Water at home
  • Insight #13: Household Income survey
  • Insight #14: Farmers view of the Farm Bill
  • Insight #15: Urban jobs
  • Insight #16: West Bengal voting intent and Vaccine perceptions

New on hippoBrain, MartechBrain and Prashnam

hippoBrain

  • E17: Rachmat Kaimuddin, CEO of Bukalapak (Indonesia)
  • E18: Redickaa Subrammanian, CEO of Resulticks
  • E19: Ajay Shah, Economist and Author
  • E20: Gautam Surath, Senior VP, Starcom
  • E21: Rehan Poncha, Olympian Swimmer
  • E22: Anant Goenka, Indian Express
  • E23: Shruti Rajagopalan, Economist

MartechBrain

  • E10: Vishakha Singh on Thinking Skills
  • E11: Deepali Naair on Marketing: Past, Present and Future
  • E12: Bibaswan Banerjee on New Ideas in Personalisation
  • E13: Rahoul Anders on Market Intelligence
  • E14: Rohit Raghav on Product Management Canvas
  • E15 and E16: My conversation with Ajay Row on Entrepreneurial Learnings

Prashnam

  • Insight #5: Most watched channels in Hindi states
  • Insight #6: Youth and the Tiktok Ban
  • Insight #7: BJP’s Free Covid Vaccine promise in Bihar
  • Insight #8: Salaried jobs and Diwali spending
  • Insight #9: When did Bihar’s voters decide who to vote for?
  • Insight #10: On people’s expectations from the Covid vaccine
  • Insight #11: Perception about Nitish Kumar on CM after the Bihar elections

Six Months of Blogging and Lockdown (Part 5)

Why I Write Daily

Before I end this series, I thought I should address a question I get asked often is – why do you write daily? There are two parts to the question – why do I write, and why I write daily.

I write because it helps me think better. I have been writing for as long as I can remember. I had a daily diary in my teens. At the end of each day, I would write about the highlights or lowlights of the day. I continued this habit in IIT. In the US, I wrote occasionally. When I was feeling happy or sad, writing was like sharing with a friend. Especially when I was feeling low. The writing would get it out from my system, free the lonely mind from negative thoughts and let me look ahead. I don’t have too many memories of writings during my early days of entrepreneurship after I returned to India. From around 1999, I started writing on my blog at emergic.org.

I had started then with what I called “Tech Talk” – I would take a topic and cover it in short posts over a week or two. I would also post links to what I had read. Many years later, it come down to just my own post daily. And then, I stopped writing on the blog in 2012. I had started work on the Modi campaign, and decided that I did not want to become a target for something I wrote which could distract from the objective at hand – of ensuring a Lok Sabha majority for the BJP in 2014. I still wrote privately.

As I look back, it was a mistake for me to stop writing publicly for as long as I did – until April 2020. I should have started writing again much earlier. But I did not. I was learning new things so perhaps felt that I did not have fully formed ideas and was wary of writing half-baked thoughts. And so a break of a few months became a hiatus of many years. I did do the series of political and economic writings and videos in 2018. But it wasn’t the discipline of daily writing on my blog.

It took the botched lockdown announced in late March 2020 to get me to re-start. I was angry, and I needed to tell someone! So, just like that, I started writing again. And that discipline of writing daily has continued.

Writing is a way for me to organise my thinking. I have never bothered about who is reading. I write for myself. But I write publicly – as a sort of record of what I am thinking. I have never deleted or retracted any post that I have written. I have changed my views over time on many topics, but I have let the writings stay. Each post has a context – it is at a date and time. I try and be as candid in my writings as is possible. Because if I cannot be honest, then there is no point in blogging.

I write daily because it inculcates a discipline. I like the idea of short posts daily rather a long essay periodically. There is something new to look forward from me each day! And just maybe, this blog can become a utility in the lives of others – a daily habit. That is what it had become for many in the first decade of my writing.

Writing daily is a process of self-discovery. It makes me think how I should express myself. It makes me clarify my own thought process. It makes me little better each day. And I hope that process continues!

Six Months of Blogging and Lockdown (Part 4)

What Next

As I look ahead, for me there are three primary motivations that are central to all that I do (and these have become clearer in the past months):

  • Grow Netcore into a global martech company. We have a very good foundation of products and profits. We have done well in India and many of the emerging markets (especially, South-East Asia.) We now need to expand into the developed markets of US and Europe. For this, we will need to build teams and look at acquisitions. We will also need to ensure our products are world-class to compete with the best. It will not be an easy path, but the mountain is there to be climbed.
  • Bring a Nayi Disha to India. For long, India’s rulers have tormented the people by denying them economic freedom. This is what I want to change. I failed in 2018 because I made many mistakes. Indians deserve better than the governments we have been voting for. For this, there is a need to change minds and channel votes to create a people’s movement – a revolution that can bring political change as a precursor to the economic transformation that can put Indians on an irreversible path to freedom and prosperity.
  • Build Institutions for Freedom and Prosperity. India needs many new institutions that can outlive individuals and change futures. From think tanks to public libraries, from Schools of AI to Economics, from funding moonshot prizes to cutting edge research, from new media platforms to new political platforms, from rethinking education to social infrastructure. The central objective uniting all these institutional ideas is that of changing minds, lives, votes and futures.

In my life so far, I have had 3 successes (IndiaWorld, Niti Digital and Netcore) with dozens of failures across my 28 years as an entrepreneur. The failures have never stopped me from trying new ideas. I am an optimist at heart. If there is one credo that I live by, it is this from Daniel Burnham: “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood…Make big plans; aim high in hope and work.” And my daily life has this feel, as said so beautifully by Dan Bricklin:

Being a successful entrepreneur is tricky. You have to live with having control and not having control at the same time. It’s like this: In big business, when you need to cross a river, you simply design a bridge, build it, and march right across.

But in a small venture, you must climb the rocks. You don’t know where each step will take you, but you do know the general direction you are moving in. If you make a mistake, you get wet. If your calculations are wrong, you have to inch your way back to safety and find a different route.

And, as you jump from rock to slippery rock, you have to like the feeling.

The past six months have made me rediscover the joy of thinking big and entrepreneurship. And as I jump from rock to slippery rock, I do indeed like the feeling.

Tomorrow: Part 5

Six Months of Blogging and Lockdown (Part 3)

Activity List

It took me some time to get accustomed to working from home. In April, I got my office desktop home to replace my 4-year-old laptop. In May, I switched to a different room and a better WiFi setup. In June, I got myself a better table (delivered from Ikea). While this workspace was not as comfortable as my office, it came close. And step by step, productivity increased.

I have opened up many different tracks in my life – and I am busier than I have been for probably two decades. During the IndiaWorld days of 1995-2000, I was constantly doing new things. The lockdown and time at home has helped me get back into a zone of trying out many new ideas. Here is a list.

Netcore

  • Velvet Rope Marketing – presenting to marketers, and also thinking how to apply it
  • Customer Loyalty and Referral Marketing – exploring new adjacent areas for expansion
  • Netcore 2025 – thinking how we want to grow the company along many different directions
  • MyToday – reviving an old microcontent service from 2007

Entrepreneurship

  • Have been building on the Proficorn idea through a series of stories from my past and present which I have been writing about on the blog

Nayi Disha 2.0

  • Prashnam – a new startup, building an opinions engine
  • Digital tools – thinking about what kind of utilities would be needed for digital platform
  • Media platforms – thinking on how to create new media properties for mass reach
  • The Indian Revolution – thinking about how to make Indians free and prosperous

Moreover

  • hippoBrain and MartechBrain – 2 new conversations web series with new weekly episodes
  • Books – I have never written books, so I decided to take some active steps towards doing it! There are 3 books lurking within me – on entrepreneurship, the transformation that India needs and marketing.
  • Friends – have frequent conversations with two groups of friends
  • Reading – mix of some fiction thrillers and non-fiction
  • Cryptic Crosswords – decided to get my son interested in what I once loved, and so now we attempt one crossword daily

All in all, it is a full life. I miss travelling and meeting people in person. Hopefully, we can get back to that in 2021.

Tomorrow: Part 4

Six Months of Blogging and Lockdown (Part 2)

Three Themes

The past six months of lockdown have brought the best out of me on many different fronts. I started my blogging just when the lockdown began in April with short posts on my three interest areas of marketing, entrepreneurship and India.

Marketing: Customer retention and development needs a very different approach – while the temptation is to focus on all customers, brands must differentiate between them. The “best” customers provide disproportionate revenue and profits. Identifying who these best customers are must become a priority. This has become easier with the data trails that customers leave. Analysing transaction data to compute customer lifetime value (CLV) and thus identify the top 20% customers has to be the core of the martech strategy. The next question is: what to do with the best customers? This is where I brought in the idea of “Velvet Rope Marketing” (VRM). One could also term it as red carpet treatment or white glove handling. In all cases, the theme is the same: how to create a differentiated experience for the best customers? VRM combined with omni-channel personalisation is the future of marketing.

Entrepreneurship (Proficorn): There are two ways for companies to fund growth: they can raise external capital in the form of equity or debt, or they can generate cashflows and re-invest those in the business. I have focused on the second approach in both my ventures. One needs some initial capital – which comes from the founders (promoters). The aim is then to create a business model predicated on getting to profitability quickly and then continuously re-investing for growth. Without external investors, decision-making is faster and much more long-term. That’s where I coined the word – “Profi-corn”. It describes a company that is profitable, privately held, promoter-funded and also has a reasonable valuation (say, $100 million or more). Given that many founders have 10-20% left in billion dollar unicorns, the wealth creation can almost be equivalent for the founders. How does one go about ensuring profitability? Does being profitable mean sacrificing growth? What about gains for employees? What about the value addition that investors bring in along with the capital? What’s the right choice for founders?

India (Nayi Disha and Dhan Vapasi): While I failed [in 2018] to even make a dent, I think the ideas are even more important now. The temptation for India’s leaders will be to print a lot of money, give it to people and run huge deficits to try and save the economy. This will take us in the opposite direction to both freedom and prosperity. Instead, there is an alternate path – one which can truly transform our future. This involves combining public asset monetisation with returning the wealth generated to the people. This is perhaps the only approach that will create lasting prosperity in the shortest possible period for the maximum number of Indians.

These are the themes I have built upon in my writings over the past six months. Each of the ideas has become richer and deeper with the cycle of reading, thinking, discussing, learning and writing.

Tomorrow: Part 3