Monday, July 30, 2007

Young Entrepreneur Series - II

Here's the next instalment, as promised.

I interviewed three young entrepreneurs making a difference to the food business. The kind that you and me want to have on an everyday basis coz we can't (or don't want to) cook ourselves.

Of course dabbas and dabbawalahs have been around for a long time. What started as a Bombay phenomenon has now become a nationwide cottage industry. The difference with these ventures is that they are building brands and have bigtime scale up plans.

Vinamra Pandiya and Ashwini Rathod run Mom's Kitchen in Pune which provides simple, homely food to the young working professional. On the other hand, Cyrus Driver's Calorie Care caters calorie counted meals for the health conscious at the upper end of the market.

The full story 'New Age Dabbawalahs' is published in this week's Businessworld and can be read here. A more detailed interview is featured below.

Interview with Vinamra Pandiya and Ashwini Rathod
Company: Mom's Kitchen
Founded: September 1 2006
Age: 26
Educational background: Vinamra (IT BHU 2005 batch, Infosys from campus placement); Aswini Rathod (NIT Allahabad 2005 batch, Cognizant from campus placement).

Vinamra and I are childhood friends. He graduated from IT BHU in 2005 and I passed out of NIT Allahabad the same year. I joined Cognizant while he was in Infosys. Initially we were in Bangalore, then we moved to Pune.

We had big dreams in our college days. Ki kuch karna hai. That coupled with the frustration of working in a big company ("at the end of the day you know, you do nothing!) led to the idea of starting a business.

Being bachelors living alone we sensed that there was a big gap in food. It is a very fragmented industry. And from the beginning we knew ki hamein khana ghar ghar pahunchana hai. We ourselves used to order a local dabba. But we felt there in no 'brand name' in this business.

Vinamra left his job while I continued to work for a while, to provide some support. We both put in Rs 1 lakh each to start it off.

Neither of us had experience in the food business, or any business for that matter. We took 1-2 months figuring out how to do and what to do.

The name, we felt was most important. The name 'Mom's Kitchen' came to Vinamra at 3 in the morning. The nect thing we did was design a logo and then a website.

Next came the cooking part. We decided to bring a couple of workers from my college mess. We didn't anyone too experienced, but someone who would learn quickly our style of doing things. The food we wanted was very simple, the way moms cook at home, with minimum of tel and masala.

They were in a government job, we convinced them to move from Allahabad to Pune and work with us.

We took a flat at Pashan Road on rent to set up the kitchen. Although the rental should have been around Rs 4000 we had to shell out Rs 7000 because we were using it for Mom's kitchen. The workers were provided accomodation in the same flat.

We started with 11 orders, 1 cook and 1 helper. The first 3 days Vinamra and I personally went to deliver the dabbas. "Badi sharm aa rahi thi ki company mein koi hamein pehchaan na le".

Then we kept one more person but of course he too was not native to Pune so we had to explain the route and rasta personally, actually go along for the deliveries. But by now we were no longer feeling ashamed. So what if we are educated, 'IT types' etc the important thing is to lead by example.

Actually with our cooks and helpers from the beginning we established a very close relationship. We felt ki yeh log hamare ssath hain. Unke saath baith kar khana chahiye. That's been the philosophy of Mom's Kitchen ever since.

Why it clicked
Now Mom's Kitchen does business differently from other dabbawalas. For example, normally you take 1 month tiffin but with us you can cancel by calling up or logging on to our website before 5.30 pm. We have made a program which makes such a customisation possible.

There is also no delivery charge. Meal costs Rs 30 each. 3 schemes - 6 day trial, 15 days (get 1 day free) or 30 days (pay for 27). The scheme works on prepaid basis and the online database tracks how many meals you have availed of.

Our promotion was mainly thru pamphlets and sticking up posters at bus stops where IT people gather. We would go at 7 am and stick up the posters. We also used online discussion forums of companies, orkut scrapping and emailing to promote MK. We handled calls personally - we offered 1 week trials to hook people. And it worked.

In the second month we had 30-35 dabbas and it steadily grew from there. Yet in January we were absolutely broke. We would skip breakfast to save money for petrol which we needed for our delivery bikes.

February was the turning point. We hit 200 dabbas and from then on there was no looking back. Word of mouth had spread, we set up a second centre in Karve nagar. 10 months after starting we have 550 customers. There are IT workers, students, senior citizens and even couples.

Actually there are about 3000 people in 'queue' (we got many enquiries after an article in the local TOI). But we are doing a controlled expansion. Our delivery and cooking systems must be able to cope. We want the processes to be scientific so we are going for ISO 9001 and six sigma also.

Each centre can cook for a maximum 250 people. So we will set up new centres - one in Vimaan nagar soon. The scalability will come with in house training of cooks and documentation of the cooking method (ie for 100 people'sal we need so much dal, so much water, this kind of pan etc). We did it when setting up the second centre.

We have 25 cooks/ helpers and 5 people in office to handle calls. Calls come in for 14-15 reasons - we have taught them how to handle them. So far we have had no complaints re: food except a very small number who find it too simple/ non spicy.

The future
Now we have investors willing to put Rs 25-50 lakhs into the business. We plan to expand to 10,000 in Pune by next year. Already we have a waiting list so it's more a question of having the cooking and delivery ability than generating demand.

We may also start a thali place which is going to be different - it will be exactly like home. Very simple food, ghar jaise curtains, newspaper - a total non restaurant feel. Max Rs 40 per thali. Whatever we do must be 'different'.

Our entire business is built on trust and personal relations. We hire only non Puneites as they are more dedicated, don't ask for too many holidays etc.

They say there is a 50% profit margin in the food industry. But given the amount of customer service and processes you have to put in we make 25-30%. The break even point is 150 meals per centre. Now we earn more than we did when we quit and down the line prjections of course make us feel v happy. Earlier our families said 'tum drunken pagal ho' for quitting secure IT jobs. NOw they also are happy.

There has been a lot of trial and error. As well as experimentation. We customised our bikes to be able to carry 36 tiffins for delivery. We were outsiders to Pune, so when MK started doing well we even got threats from locals whose business was affected. But we did not back down.

In future we will enlist housewives also to provide for 'special requests' like Andhra food etc. We will provide raw materials and pay them a fee for cooking.

We are both 26 years old. The dream is professionalise meal services in the whole of India. Companies today have fancy canteens but their khana is pathetic. First 3 days you are excited with the glass and fabcy varieties but it all tastes the same.

We design our menus along with the cooks and promise 'no repeat' for 30 days. or money back. We take weekly customer feedbcak. Like many people said khana garam hona chahiye so we started packing food while it was still on the gas. We got demand for regional dishes like dal baati and also parathas, chhole bhature etc which we provide once a week.

The most amazing thing is the support the people working with us have given. "Inhi ki duaon se ham aagey bade hain".

Initially we promised them Rs 1800 and that too we did not pay for 4 months. And they never complained. They would get up in the morning at 7 am, then make two times ka khana, undertake delivery etc. So much hard work and no complaints.

Today we pay our cooks Rs 6000 and of course provide food, acco and mattresses etc. We feel proud that Mom's Kitchen is supporting 25 families. "Koi 5th std pass hai, koi 4 th std pass hai." They may be uneducated but they are not dumb. We constantly ask for suggestions and feedback thru a letterbox at each centre.

Also Sunday sessions where we feast together and even encourage them to discuss their personal/ inter personal problems. There is no 'sir' here, no maalik everyone is a bhaiyya. IN return we address them with izzat also eg Dubeji. We show them motivational movies like Boxer, Guru.

Woh customers se pyaar se baat karte hain, even if they are occassionally blasted by someone.

Extras we do for our customers: If someone makes a special request like 2 rotis extra we give it to them. We pack rotis in alumnium foil and some things in disposables. We're trying to build an assembly line for packing.

We are trying to check which process causes delay, how to speed it up etc. We are very quality conscious. Once the bhaturas cracked and we phoned up all customers and informed them we could not deliver the food that day. Was it necessary? We feel with food you have to be very careful. Poor word of mouth can destroy your brand name.

Right now abt 60-70- people order both times,mainly senior citizens. IT guys mainly order dinners. We may do company catering later but perhaps under a different brand name.

We tell our cooks: Subah naha ke pooja karke khana banaiye. We're planning to introduce them to yoga also. A person in a nsaty mood can't cook well can he? Remember how your mom cooked after fighting with dad?

We also had a peculiar situation where one kid preferred Mom's Kitchen food to his own mom's food because we had variety. We had to go and convince him, "Beta ma ke haath ka khana hi best hai."

My observations
The idea is simple and the case for such a service strong. But to make a success of it operationally the big challenge. And that has been cracked by Mom's Kitchen.

It's a tough business: daily production, finicky customers, tricky delivery logistics but through a mix of inventiveness and doggedness Ashwini and Vinamra have fashioned a workable system. And replicated it at a seocnd location.

Key to their success has been the bonding they've created with the workers. Something they instinctively embraced because it was the right thing and the smart thing to do. A lesson in that for many would be entrepreneurs!

Also good to see techies involved in such a hands-on business.

Mom's Kitchen got a canny feel for the market as well. A budget version of the dabba was introduced esp. for students @ Rs 25. It has everything except foil packaging and raita!

At current order levels Mom's Kitchen will do Rs 65 lakhs worth of business in the coming year. Probably more, with expansion in Pune as well as Chennai on the cards.
Here's wishing them all the very best!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

IIM Bangalore and the Order of Admissions

A top secret, highly classified document has just been released. Not by the CIA, but IIM Bangalore.

The cloaked in mystery, shrouded in enigma, super secret selection procedure to one of the most elite management institutes in the country is now a matter of public record. A 5 page document outlining exactly how IIM B admits candidates into its flagship 2 year PGP program is now available on the institute website.

All those of you giving CAT this year will no doubt be excited by the contents of the release. Like the CAT RC section, it's a bit of a daze to read so let me sum up what it says:

a) Stage 1 shortlist: This is prepared solely on the basis of performance in CAT. You need to achieve certain minimum cut offs in each section. Of course these cut offs vary from year to year, depending on how test takers have performed as a whole.

No big surprise here, we've kind of known this.

b) Stage 2 shortlist: Here is the real bombshell.

For all candidates in the first shortlist as stated in Table 1, the weighted total of the five components namely (a) work experience or professional course, (b) CAT, (c) 10th board, (d) 12th board, (e) bachelor’s as stated above was used to prepare a pre-GDPI rank list for calling candidates for the GDPI.

This means having a high CAT score is not enough to get an interview call to IIM B. Your past academic performance matters a hell of a lot.

How much? Well, the weightage is as follows:
CAT = 20
10th board=15
12th board=10
Bachelors= 15.
(If you have not completed Bachelor's your marks in undergrad years will be considered instead).

Weightage for work experience and/ or professional course was assigned as 10. Interestingly, CA is the ONLY professional course eligible for weight under the criteria 'professional course'. And the formula for work ex gives the highest score to candidates with an experience of 36 months duration.

Thus the profile of the candidate most likely to get a call from IIM B is as follows:
* High CAT score, cleared all sectional cut offs
* Consistent academic performance across 10th, 12th and graduation.
* 1-3 years work experience.
* A CA with good CAT scores and impressive academic record could have a small advantage.

However there are always exceptions to the rule and IIM B ackowledges that.

For all candidates in the first shortlist as stated in (1), the top 10 candidates in each sectional and total score in CAT, adjusted SSC, HSC, Bachelors and professional (CA) (from the first shortlist, as created in Table 1) automatically qualified for GDPI.

IIM B explains: These candidates were given a chance to appear for GDPI due to their exceptional performance on one parameter.

At the end of the process, however, they were treated like any other candidate and had to qualify on the basis of 'composite aggregate score'.

For each of the three elements of evaluation during the GDPI process – Group Discussion, Group Discussion Summary, Personal Interview - the average of the scores given by the two interviewing faculty was considered.

Weights as follows:
GD score - 7.5
G D summary - 7.5
Personal Interview - 20

Frankly, I never knew 'G D Summary' was important!

During the interview 'work experience quality' is evaluated on a 5 point scale (0 – 0.5 – 1 – 1.5 – 2) by each member of the panel. The average quality of work experience score was multiplied by the pre-GDPI work experience score and accordingly revised in Phase 2.

The Group Discussion score, Group Discussion Summary score, Personal Interview score, after standardization within interview panels, were added to the pre-GDPI total (with revisions in Work Ex Score, if any) to arrive at the final aggregate score.

And that is the basis of the final ranks. The 'total' scores were out of 105.

There is a separate note on candidates admitted through GMAT which is around 3-4 students a year.

My observations:
# When the IIMs started revealing percentile scores, one layer of secrecy was peeled away. Now, IIM B has gone fully public.

The revelations come following an RTI application filed by a disabled candidate who was not called for interview. However IIM B says it will reveal the 'formula' for this year's selections (which is tweaked from year to year) before CAT 2007. Wonder if other IIMs will decide to go 'transparent' as well!

# The subject of deepest debate re: the IIM B admit procedure is the amount of importance it gives to 'consistent and high performance in past academics'. This makes your class 10 boards one of the most crucial milestones in life!

The coaching class guys will have a lot of explaining to do. No matter how well you do in the present ie in clearing CAT, your past can and will will drag you down!

# Of course once you are shortlisted for an interview your communication skills in the GD and the impression you make in the interview do play an important role. The vague explanation given about what the panel looks for in the PI clearly indicates there is a level of subjectivity.

Each faculty used the Personal Interview to comprehensively evaluate the candidate’s motivation and ability to fit in and benefit from the PGP program.

Sounds like the 'X factor' rating to me. A bit of extra currics,confidence minus cockiness and wide eyed earnestness should see you through. Clarity of fundas on your undergrad subject also matters. Also...

All candidates were required to provide three confidential reference letters from their employers or faculty and this was also used in the personal interview evaluation.

Never knew about that one! But a positive step, in building a more 'complete picture'. Overall the subjective part of the admisson process - GD & PI - make up 33% of the aggregate score. That means there is a chance to play catch up relative to the ubergeeks who've made it with you so far!

# The other interesting thing is the amount of detailing involved at each stage. For example:

For all candidates in the first shortlist as stated in Table 1, the candidates’ percentage scores in the 10th and 12th board exams are standardized by dividing each score by the 90th percentile score obtained in that board. The database of 10th and 12th scores of all CAT applicants of the past two years was used for identifying the 90th percentile score for each 10th and 12th board for this purpose.

Ah. That's a lot of number work!

# Another point to note: OBC qualifying cut offs were specified although following the SC judgement OBC candidates were not actually called for interviews separately It's heartening to know the OBC cut offs were pegged very close to General cut offs.

eg In Data & Logic section General candidates needed to score 85% while OBCs neededt 75%. The qualifying score for SCs, STs and disabled was 50%.

# There is no mention of any 'quota' for people of different academic streams, or gender. Those from elite institutions don't get preference except that they are more likely to have been toppers in class 10 and 12 to begin with.

There is some debate on this subject going on here.

# Lastly, the mathematicalness of it all is astounding. This 'multi variate analysis' or whatchamacallit is very impressive and very Greek to the general public. Transparency cloaked in invisibility - Shri Harry Potter would have been pleased!

A current PGP at IIMB remarks: It can’t be proved that it’s the best way to process admissions, but it sure is the only way that is objective and looks successful, from the outside, at least.

In the final analysis I would say IIMs are designed to attract well rounded geeks. But emphasis on the geek aspect is higher, the well rounded bit a happy coincidence.

There are a lot of 'been a topper throughout my life' on these campuses. The exam and subsequent process is designed to admit this profile.

Someone should now study the co relation between ranks at the time of admission and ranks while on campus. And ten years later, co relate the same two ranks with the individual's performance in the corporate world.

I am sure some formula taking into account size of company, designation, pay packet, role, reporting relationships and so on could be figured out as a metric of 'success'.

The analysis should include a 33% weightage to an interview where personal satisfaction and that elusive thing called 'quality of life' is factored in.

And on a more philosophical note, I wonder when we will be freed of past patterns of thinking. Yes, the past can predict the future but it can also constrain it. The 'yesterday predicts tomorrow' line of thinking discounts the power of the human spirit to achieve and overcome. To rise to new challenges.

Regardless of what IIM B might say, you gotta shed the baggage of the past, live in the present and dream for the future!

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Creative Conundrum

So many of us dream of a windfall gain. Winning a lottery, or a game show. Or suddenly finding 1000 shares of ACC bought by a grandfather but forgotten in some cupboard.

Never do we think our employer will call us in and hand over a Rs 15 lakh cheque. But that's exactly what happened at Lintas late last week.

Lintas India employees were pleasantly surprised on July 21, when all of them who had been associated with the agency for more than six months received a payout. Some cheques were reportedly in the range of Rs 1 crore.

Now being touted as one of the biggest disbursements ever by an advertising agency in India, this development came soon after the Interpublic Group acquired Lintas.

The windfall accrued from the fact that 51% stake in the company was held by the 'Employee Welfare Trust'. Of course no one actually expected such a bonanza. There are many such 'technical' arrangements in the world of business but cheques with several zeros are rarely handed out by the management.

And just 2 months ago Prem Mehta had clarified to ET that 'not a single employee or trustee owns a single share'. He added: “I hope people who are just waiting to collect the money don’t wait.”

Well those who did are sure glad! Cheques were distributed as per a formula which is apparently along these lines: number of years in service X current salary X 0.4. Beneficiaries included all categories of employees - from secretaries to MD.

So far so good. But there is a catch. Most of the creative department has received zilch. Nada. Nothing.

ET reports: The reason? Quite simply the fact that while their counterparts in other functions have made a pretty packet, most creatives, including national creative director Balki, have been left out in the cold. This has happened because most people working in the creative department of the agency prefer to work as consultants rather than be on the employee rolls.

....An angry creative who did not want to be named spoke on behalf of the group: “We have contributed as much or more to the success and growth of Lintas, and this differential treatment has appalled us.

Prem Mehta clarified in an interview with ET this morning: There is a legal charter of the trust that was created 20 years ago. The charter of the trust defines who will be the beneficiary and hence the benefits can only go to the beneficiaries of the trust and no one else.

Well, sure but it seems to be more of a lucky break for those who are permanent employees - they didn't make this choice because they knew there would be any particular benefits. In fact most of the recent employees had no clue about the Welfare Trust's existence.

Mr Mehta further elaborated: "No permanent employee is allowed to have activity outside the company, and consultants can and they do. They make films and so a lot of other stuff."

Uh huh. Obviously there are egos involved but let's go beyond the specifics here.

The creative mindset
I think Mr Mehta well knows that whether employed as consultants or employees, creative people work on a freelance basis outside. That's something which runs in their blood and can't ever be completely stopped. Every management just wisely looks the other way.

Even if one is employed as a 'consultant' it does not mean you don't turn up in office and work, just like the regular employees. You just get extra tax benefits (by offsetting all expenses against the consulting income).

Companies are quite happy with this arrangement because otherwise they would have to cough up higher tax burdened salaries to keep employees happy.

When everyone is clear that consultants are employees in spirit, if not in letter, leaving them out of the bonanza makes no sense. Technically, the trust may be correct. But will logic work at this juncture? "Sorry your appointment letter only says... " The affected will quit in disgust and if that includes a lot of creative people, what's left of the agency?

In which case, what has Lowe bought after all? There is no plant, machinery or other fixed assets. Even a brand name means little as an agency is only as good as its last few ad campaigns. And the core of an agency is the creative.

Maybe they get new creative people but where goes the whole idea of rewarding 'those who have made the agency what it is today'?

I suspect a compromise will be hammered out at Lintas in due course. But at the heart of it all lies the eternal 'who's the more important department' question. Creative and management are often on collision course. Although they need to work together, to bring out the best an agency can deliver.

Increasingly Creative Directors are being elevated to MD/ Chairman position - Piyush Pandey, Prasoon Joshi and now Sonal Dabral (he takes over from another creative-turned-MD Mohammed Khan).

The point is that creative is a very important resource but it is difficult to 'control' creative people. And to motivate them and keep them happy. Which is why the 'creatives as MD' formula makes sense. If the guys with the anti establishment feeling become the establishment... they won't be tempted to set the house on fire, just for kicks.

The other point to ponder is the lack of defined pathways for a career in advertising, on the creative side. There are schools like MICA and even Northpoint by Lintas. But they focus on the management or media side of the business.

Even in creative, On the art direction side, qualifications exist. But if you want to join as a copywriter it's the same old route. Give sundry copy tests, eke out a living at low wages, hope you get noticed or hop agencies till you do.

That's the way it's always been you might say, and it's worked. But times have changed. It makes sense to build a talent pool the same way as other industries are doing. Identify potential through a Centralised Copy Test, train them for a fee, place them (if they make the grade). Then put them through the agency grindstone.

I agree creativity can't be 'taught'. But there are a lot of people who have the raw talent who can be polished into diamonds. People who never make it to agency doorsteps. They opt for a life of misery in the better defined career paths. And remain mere lumps of coal.

Who loses out? The agency, the individual and we the audience - subjected to 'yet another campaign from my stale idea hat' brand of advertising.

May creative live long and prosper. Because advertising will have to work harder in years to come. As consumers get more cynical, more immune to its charms. Like Urvashis and Menakas seeking the attention of an oblivious Vishwamitra!

Update: Stephen Gatfield, worldwide CEO of Lowe has stepped in and made a statement to ET:"It is clear that Prem (Mehta) has been the biggest beneficiary of the trust; and the trust, whose chairman is Prem, has used a very narrow definition to distribute the money from the sale proceeds."

Lower says it will incentivise talent that has 'not been given its due'. Mr Gatfield added,"We find ourselves in a very unusual position... as the people from whom the company is acquired are not essentially the most important people in the company and in this case are close to retirement."

Read Creative Crisis: Lowe-Lintas-Prem-Balki Fight gets ugly here... if you can find the blessed link!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

JAM Laptop Survey

You are invited to take the latest survey on JAM. Also to contribute a couple of hundred words on any/ all of the following:

Adventures with wifi: best and worst experiences of using wi fi networks at airports, coffee shops, hotels etc. Also best wi fi 'steal spots' in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Pune etc. Esp. corporate networks.

Addicted to my laptop (if u're the kind who carries it everywhere).

Best 'college' laptop deals obtained by bschools buying in bulk etc(prices, config, brand etc).

As always email rashmi_b at

Those of you who have filled out earlier JAM surveys I've linked to can check out results here:

Download survey results (April 2007)
Hair & Beauty Survey (May 2007)
Homosexuality Survey (June 2007)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Electronics get sexy

Move over Vijay Sales, Croma is here. The new electronics megastore from the Tata group is doing to electronics what hypermarts did to vegetables. Taking the buying experience several notches higher.

How? Well,to begin with the showroom is huge. And thank God, because on a Sunday evening at an obscure location like Sector 15, Palm Beach Road, Belapur (a km or so down from Seawood estate), the place was packed.

Mostly gawkers (like myself), but a fair number of shoppers as well. And yet, you did not feel claustrophobic.

The store is really well planned, well lit and well labelled. And the single most important difference: all that cool stuff is not locked away inside a glass case. With a stern / disinterested/ harried salesmen holding the key.

At Croma, it's what you might call 'auto display'. The gadgets are mounted on a stand of sorts. They can't be yanked off but you can touch and feel them, even operate the piece (except for the low end mobile phonee, which are dummies).

But digital cameras, mp3 players, PDAs - all have batteries. Can be switched on and 'experienced'.

There is, of course, a Croma guy standing there, if you need help. And the amazing thing is the store actually lives up to its slogan: "We don't sell, we help you buy". The staff is friendly and knowledgable but not pushy. Which is a difficult mix to achieve!

We took a full download of the Dopod PR 818 and walked away saying 'sochenge.' No dirty looks or sighs from the sales guy. The 'khareedna nahin tha to itna inquiry kyun kiya' scowl you'll encounter at Vijay Sales.

Of course I don't know for sure how good the deals are. Certainly the extreme value conscious types will only browse at Croma and then go buy their stuff at say, an Alfa. The Sony Ericsson P990i was retailing at Rs 19800 at Croma - you can get it for Rs 14000 odd at Alfa. But for many products like LCD TVs I am sure Croma prices are very competitive.

The other thing is they don't have a 'full range' in products like digital cameras or laptops. But they have adequate choice.

Lastly, here some cool accessories on sale. Again, some may be cheaper in the grey market but if you're buying a digital camera which does not come with a case you may as well pick one up from here. Cause by the time you get to doing that from elsewhere your LCD screen would already be scratched.

Croma is definitely international in look, feel and its approach towards selling. The store treats the Indian customer like a responsible adult, not a kid in a candy store who needs to be supervised and eyed suspiciously all the time.

At the end of the day, when the Tatas enter any new business, they do it with class. Where they sometimes lack is speed of expansion. If they take care of that - it's a winning proposition.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Electric shock

There's a bomb in the mail: Your electricity bill.

Now there have been rumblings in Mumbai for some time. With Maharashtra facing acute power shortage the government has come up with an ingenious solution: charge users more.

In fact the idea is to 'penalise' those who use more. And especially business owners.

In April HT reported: All heavy power consumers of the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport undertaking (BEST) will have to shell out more per unit. While households will have to pay 15 to 28 per cent more, commercial establishments like shopping malls will pay 84 per cent more.

'Heavy' use is defined as more than 500 units a month. Which in the context of a modern office is... laughable.

Well, so far all this was just the subject of academic debate. Then came our latest bill. The charges levied for May-June 2007 are exactly ... double. From a bi monthly bill of Rs 30,000-35,000, we're now saddled with a liability of Rs 68,000.

The first thing you do, of course, is check the meter. Well, that seems to be working fine. There is some increase in consumption (possibly due to summer).
So help us God. The BEST certainly isn't taking it kindly.

We are officially entering a new 'Dark Age'. "A/Cs will be put on between 11 and 11.25am every morning." Well, not that bad yet but we'll all have to be extra careful. And use fans more often.

While I wholly support electricity conservation, efficient use of resources etc the problem is there is only that much you can do in the short term. The industrial estate where my office is housed was built in the 70s. It has no clue what 'eco friendly' is about.

There are no windows offering natural light and/or ventilation. It's mobile-signal-blocking concrete all the way. Most of the new offices coming up in Mumbai are no better. They are in restructured mill compounds where you have to keep lights and a/cs on at all times.

Even if one could use natural light it would be impossible to work in the tropical climes of Mumbai without air conditioning... In fact windows have to be shut to keep out ambient noise and air pollution.

I am sure even a doubled electricity bill won't matter to very large companies whose stock price is doubling every six months. But for smaller outfits like JAM, it
could be a huge setback.

The blatant discrimination between the rate hike for households and businesses reflects the continuing socialist mindset of India. Businessmen are profit mongering capitalists who won't 'feel the pinch'.

Incidentally we in Mumbai are now paying the highest rates for electricity ... in the world.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Logan ki lag gayi

I saw a Mahindra Logan on the road for the first time today. My instant reaction: "What an ugly car."

It looks like it was designed in a hurry. Something left incomplete. And it did not look any 'wider' than any of the existing cars. Shayad andar se ho but you know what they say about 'inner beauty'. It's not enough.

Just goes to show that anything can be made to look good in a commercial. Gaadi ho ya kudi ho. Photoshop zindabad!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Young Entrepreneur Series - 1

By accident and design, I keep bumping into young entrepreneurs. And I often write about the subject.

'Agents of Change' is a piece I wrote for the latest Businessworld. It tracks under 30s, all MBAs who dropped out of campus placement to pursue an entrepreneurial dream. Something we're seeing more of at elite bschools.

The three companies I covered are:
Sacred Moments - a company selling 'puja kits'
Prakash Mundhra (SCMHRD 2006 batch)

Indigo Edge - Medical tourism and consulting
Sandeep Ramesh, Radhakrishnan, Zerin Rahiman, Shivakumar R, Abhisar Gupta (all IIM L 2006 batch)

Brewhaha - a cafe which combines great food with the fun of gaming
Mansur Nazimuddin (IIM A 2006), Sreeram Vaidyanathan (IIM A 2005)

All these guys shared the trials and tribulations of being a start up with me in great detail. Details I could not use in the article, writing under limitation of words.

I have therefore decided to publish the full interviews in this space. Because hearing these stories may inspire/ motivate some of you out there considering entrepreneurship. And give you an idea of the hard work that lies ahead!

To lijiye entrepreneurs ki kahaani... unhi ki zabaani

Interview with Prakash Mundhra
Sacred Moments
Founded: May 2006
Age: 27
Educational background: BMS (Sydenham college), 1 year work ex with family business, MBA from SCMHRD

I joined the MBA with an open mind - to do either business or service. I have a family business background (textiles).

How it all began
I entered several b plan contests while at SCMHRD and this boosted my confidence. It started with the ITC Mera Gaon Mera Desh contest. We had to develop strategies for ITC products. I chose Mangaldeep agarbattis and prepared a business plan where the company could expand into branded puja items like branded roli, branded haldi etc.

That's how I got into this area of religious products. I was in my first year at SCMHRD at the time.

The plan did not click with ITC. But I went ahead and participated in Zee TV's Business Baazigar. I won the 'mini Baazigar title, incidentally.

In my 2nd year I entered many business plan contests and won several - notable among them IIM Lucknow, TAPMI, IIT KGP, IIM Calcutta. I refined my idea - from branded puja items to puja item outlets (like Archies) but in my heart I knew neither concept would work.

Finally, in the last 8 months I arrived at the idea of 'puja kits'. With the Rs 50,000 Zee TV gave me I researched the idea and created a designer puja kit. The idea was a puja kit as 'gifting' item - for corporates and export market. For bulk orders I decided to offer customised logo printing as well.

However I did take my placement also. I got into 2 companies - ICIC Prudential and Essar. After the placement I took part in 6 b plan contests and won 5 of them. That boosted my confidence but gave me a dilemma. Was it to be the job or my business? I was to join ICICI Pru on 11th May 2006. On 7th I sent them an email declining the offer.

Thus 'Sacred Moments' was born.

Nuts and bolts
I calculated that I needed Rs 3-4 lakhs to start Of that I had 2 lakhs with me, from all the b plan contests I had won. The rest I borrowed from family/ friends.

I consulted 3-4 pandits before finalising the product. Each kit has 32 items used in the Diwali puja, including murti, haldi, roli, honey and even gangajal. There is a vidhi booklet also, which tells you how to go about the puja.

I made samples which I displayed at the Giftex exhibition in Mumbai between August 3rd and 7th 2006.

I got a really good response. In fact the puja kit received the 'best new product' award. I was sure that I was onto something big. However, I got mainly enquiries and not actual bookings. But I made the bold decision of manufacturing 12,000 kits. The kits were prepared on a job work basis, the assembly of items was also outsourced. I used my dad's old office in Masjid Bunder as a base which was very close to all my suppliers.

Of course the orders got confirmed slowly. I secured clients like TOI, AV Birla group, Link pens etc. People bought the kits for both personal gifting and corporate gifting. In the run up to Diwali the kit (which sold under the brand name 'Blessingz') was stocked at Asiatic and Akbarallys. Contacts also helped. My alma mater - the Symbiosis society - itself took some kits.

I sold 10,000 kits by Diwali. Strangely enough I got around 500 orders even after Diwali. A Punjabi family, for example, gave it to all their baraatis as a gift! Others bought the kit to present after 'Bhaagwat katha'. IMT Nagpur gave it to delegates at a conference on their campus.

The gross revenues were Rs 35 lakhs (Rs 350 per kit). After Diwali I ended up taking a 3 month break because first my sister got married and then I got married. In the new year I went back and started fulfilling demand in the export market.

In the coming year I have expanded production and shifted it to Ahmedabad which is cheaper as a manufacturing base. Yes this means I constantly make trips up and down but one good thing is the items I am packing are not very high value ,so I don't have to worry about pilferage. I also have a godown now in Mumbai.

In the following year I have plans to launch a 'grih pravesh puja kit' and a 'vehicle puja kit' also.

Lessons and Learnings
How did I manage the cash flows? Well export orders were booked on cash basis. Luckily my suppliers gave me credit. I also worked against advances from corporate orders.

I did borrow Rs 25,000 from 5-6 friends just before Diwali to tide over the cash crisis. I repaid them soon after.

How did my MBA help in the project? Well I was condident of overcoming hurdles. A small example: I needed a 20 gm sachet of ghee. Everyone told me it's not available in Mumbai. They said forget about providing ghee but that did not seem right. So I searched on the net and finally found someone in Tirupur who is packing 20 gm ghee sachets, although for hotel parcel service.

The MBA gave me optimism as well as techniques to work around problems.

Then there are small details. Like knowing people face certain problems during puja. How do you keep the photo of the God upright? We provided a small photo stand.

Then, I wanted to give a silver coin but that was uneconomical so we gave a silver 'durva'.

I think the most crucial decision was to go ahead and manufacture 12,000 kits without having a single firm order. I sold 4000 kits in the last one week before Diwali. If I did not have the kits ready I would have missed that business.

In future I also plan to launch a range of lower priced kits (Rs 200) for the retail mass market under a different brand name (Bhakti). It will have a different design and also less items. I plan to sell 50,000 kits in all this year (2007).

There has been demand to expand to 'other religions' as well. There are many many options (Baisakhi, Holi, think of all the other Indian festivals!). Basically it's a very fragmented and unorganised market.

Currently I am handling the business with 2 staff members. When I started I had asked two of my friends if they wanted to join but they didn't. Now I have a sleeping partner who basically invests but does not participate in the management of the business.

Was it worth it?
Yes there is a lot of internal job satisfaction and I made money equal to what I would have earned in a job. I made about Rs 5 lakhs for myself in the first year. Year 1 was a learning experience, my production was not so efficient so I had higher overheads.

I did take small risks all along. Like when one my exams at SCMHRD was clashing with a business plan contest I ditched the exam :)

My marketing professor Shivram Apte had rejected the business idea totally. We had a lot of argument over it back then. Today, of course, he says he's very glad he was wrong!

Yes there are 3-4 competitors I am aware of but the market is very large. There is also an entry barrier. The kirana shop types can't build a brand and scale it while the MBA types find the product too boring.

I'm 27 and recently I was invited to give a 'guest lecturer on entrepreneurship'. It felt really good!.

What struck me about Prakash:It appears that Prakash achieved 'instant success'. After all a turnover of Rs 35 lakhs in your first 6 months of business is not a joke!

The point to note is that Prakash actually spent 2 years refining his initial product idea using the business plan contest platform (both Business Baazigar and the bschool circuit)

That's a route other budding bschool entrepreneurs should consider.

I also think the way Prakash managed his cashflows is worth looking at. You don't need an angel to come finance you. Think out of the box.

Lastly, I like his 'no compromise with the product' philosophy. He went the extra mile to produce a puja kit which married utility with beauty. And did not cut corners.

It will be interesting to see how Sacred Moments scales up further. But I certainly think it can and will go places.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Yeh kitaab kyun likhi gayee...

Is what I had to ask after I somehow finished reading it. The review explains why you shouldn't!

Once upon a Timezone
- Neelesh Misra (Harper Collins - Rs 195)

One page 1 the author proclaims: I am just a storyteller and a storyteller is an imperfect god. So don't blame me if things go wrong.

Well excuse me, then who should I blame? Because this book is all wrong. It has no story to tell in the first place!

If you thought 'One Night at the Call Centre' was a new low in 'People Like You and Me' fiction, here's a piece of news: Once Upon a Timezone is the Marianas Trench of bad writing. I have no idea how it's received a clutch of pretty favourable reviews.

First of all, the characters are completely uni-dimensional.

There is Neel Pandey, desperate to go to the US but thwarted by Yamaraj - the God of Visa Interviews.

Father Ravi Pandey is a clerk in the Prime Minister's Office. And oh, he is Prime Minister at home as well.

Narmada is the long suffering wife, mother, wannabe beautician. 'Living her unfulfilled dreams through her only son' type.

OK, so such characters do exist but the writing is so uninspired, so stilted. In polite terms, it's 'textbookiya' English. Sample this:

Neel was also a deep admirer of American values. Every little thing he sa, and every little thing he read about America made him compare it to his bustling country of a billion. It made him wonder why his nation, that had given the world a sixth of its people, was able to produce only a tiny fraction of its wealth; why the nation that had some of the world's best software professionals or doctors or engineers was competing for development indices with tiny faraway blobs on the map run by tin-pot armies and crackpot despots.

Phew! That's Neelesh Misra, the journalist speaking - not his fictional character. I mean Neel "I'm the man" Pandey would hardly be bothered about 'development indices'...

The other weird thing is the author using shuddh English for all the conversation between Neel and his very desi parents. Especially the mother. Again, it does not ring true.

I suspect Neeleshji thought he was writing for an 'international' audience. Call centre theme and all that.

Which brings me to the ludicrous plot of the book. Neel, after being rejected for a US visa, joins a call centre because it's the 'next best thing'. One fine day he assists a dumb chick in New York who's having trouble opening 'MS Word' and thunder! lightning!! ek nayee love story ki shuruaat.

Ms Angela Cruz is a college graduate who says, "What's an icon? The only icon I know is Abraham Lincoln. Can you please talk in non-geek?"

Yeah right. And she gives Mr Neil Patterson her name, age and email id because you know, those American chicks - the young and beautiful kind - are generally lonely loser types anyways.

The next chapter is titled 'Love Virtually'. And well.. you get the drift. When the premise is so convoluted you can imagine how it contorts itself into a climax. But I don't know how many readers will get that far.

Other characters in the circus include an Indian chick called Meenal whose parents think Neel is a great catch. Even when he's sitting at home jobless. The complication is that Meenal is a lesbian. As they say - when in doubt about where to take your plot - include a gay angle.

Then there's Mr Rocky Randhawa, 'Chief Liaison Officer, Money's Worth Immigration Services'. A visa fixer who fools innocent abroad jaanewaale with Photoshop pics of himself posing with the US Ambassador in his seedy office.

And so on and so forth, ho hum, ta dumb.

My most charitable observation is, this book is 5 years too late. In the first flush of the call centre craze, it might have found a few takers. Today, it's just completely out of sync. Even a loser like Neel would know what a call centre is. Par nahin, he actually calls a friend to ask!

Like I said at the very beginning, reading this book will make you appreciate 'One Night'. Its last few chapters were corny but at least Chetan Bhagat got the atmospherics right.

'Once upon a timezone' will, I hope, bring down the curtains on call centre inspired books. Books written only to cash in on a current 'hot trend'.

Writers, please look for ideas elsewhere. More importantly, concentrate on your characters and quality of writing. The rest will then fall in place!

This is the last in series on 'books which remind you of other books'. Previous installments:
Earning the Laundry Stripes
Above Average

Thursday, July 12, 2007

'Above Average': book review

My long promised review...

It is unfair to review a book by constantly comparing it to another one. But it simply can't be helped. Chetan Bhagat's 'Five Point Someone' (FPS) was such a definitive moment in Indian 'youth lit' that any book which is also about 'coming of age' and set on an IIT campus will only be referred to as 'Is it better than FPS?'

The answer is yes, and no. Amitabh Bagchi's 'Above Average' is a 'better book' but it is less readable. Bagchi is a superior writer, but Chetan is a great storyteller.

FPS is written like a screenplay, with the plot revolving around a few prominent characters. Above Average is more like life. Where you have 'building' friends, 'college' friends, 'wing' friends, 'department' friends. But in a book, that can get rather confusing.

The other key difference is that Five Point Someone was a book which focussed on the underdog whereas Above Average, as the title suggests, is about a guy who is superior to the aam junta. The underdog invariably captures the popular imagination - perhaps because there are so many who identify with that state of being.

Whereas 'above average' is almost like saying 'genius' but with a pinch of modesty.

Having said all this I would add: I liked the book. Or at least many portions of it. From the very first page, the words pitter patter, thoughts flow and dialogue is easy and natural. The first chapter captures the tension that the average IIT aspirant goes through. Right from the fact that few even know why they're taking the exam.

"I must have decided at some point in my time at school that I should try to get into one of the IITs. But when I made that decision, if I ever made it consciously, I could never remember."

Then there is the description of the fellow JEE toppers invited by Agrawal classes for an all expenses trip cum felicitation to Bombay (the book is set in the 'pre-Bansal classes' era). "Such shadys," is the verdict of our protagonist.

"We would measure ourselves against each other for years after we graduated, just like we would measure our grades against each others' in the four years we spent together. (how true!) But at that time I had no inkling that this bunch of shadys were my future."

The cover picture - a wide eyed, innocent looking boy with a measured indifference is very apt. Because this, is the underlying tone of the book.

"The battle for grades and academic achievement was just one small part of the larger war, the others being the battles to appear unconcerned, in control, well rounded, self confident. Accustomed all our lives to being lauded as exceptional, we were all scared that the true measure of ourselves, our unremarkable selves, would emerge one day."

Yup, IITians are as 'normal' as anyone else - but given the halo around their heads it would take another 20 books and movies for that idea to sink into the public consciousness.

But back to the book. Sadly, from page 25 the story slips timezones into the Mayur Vihar colony where the Chief Character grew up. As someone who's also grown up in a colony I'd say Bagchi describes the claustrophobia of that kind of life perfectly. But, perhaps that could have been the subject of a different book.

The rest of the book is devoted to Arindam (aka Rindu's) stay in IIT - and a little of what happens beyond. Forming a rock band is one of the high points. The fact that being a rocker is not just about love of music is captured beautifully by Bagchi:

From that first roll to the end of the song was the one time in my life when anything seemed possible, when everything I did seemed exactly right, totally in sync; the one time when I was not a bespectacled Bengali computer scientist sitting in a small room in Mayur Vihar, but Mitch Mitchell himself, the master of the drumset,the king of percussion..."

Then there are the small joys of IIT life like 'shagging contests'. The coolness of Hindi as lingua 'IIT' franca. And even a stab of regret at not being part of DU ('where your friends are growing their hair long and acquiring girlfriends').

The most interesting, sub plot revolves around a professor called Kanitkar. Every college has a professor who is revered and looked upto. Kanitkar was one such God. A prof who thunders: "You miserable dolts... you don't deserve to be in IIT.. you should all have gone to Roorkee. No, no.. you should get your computer science from NIIT!"

You see, Kanitkar's classes dealt not in ratta but funda. Which is what separates the men from the boys at an IIT.

"... Ideas mattered more than knowledge, of this we were fairly certain. There were classes in which learning by rote was the only challenge. Doing well in such a class was not a major achievement. In fact, there were people like Neeraj who made it a point to do badly in such classes.

But to do well in classes that required conceptual clarity, a funda class, was what marked you as smart and led people to say that you had clear fundas. And if you could do well in a funda class without having studied much, then you were in a league of your own. And no class was as much of a funda class as Algorithms taught by Kanitkar."

The friendship/ rivalry between Rindu (the 'above average') and Neeraj the 'genius') is the final moving force of the book. Neeraj, the guy from a government school who dreams are bigger than his Bata chappals... "There's no point in doing research incremental research. You can't get the Turing award by making small improvements to existing results."

But at the end of the day, Bagchi makes the point that 'success in life' is as much about talent as desire.

"We aren't what we do or what we achieve or what we acquire or about what we become, we are and we always will be what we want."

Amitabh Bagchi, a boy who grew up in Delhi, studied at IIT, did his Computer Science PhD and came back to teach at IIT D wanted to write a semi-autobiographical book. And he did.

It could have been more impactful, more memorable, if he hadn't meandered around so much.

In the final analysis, FPS, is junk food for the mind. Tasty at the time but quickly gulped down and forgotten. Above Average is a lovingly cooked meal, although some portions are too bland/ undercooked. Yet, provides some food for thought while chewing on it.

Above average but not outta-this-world

More opinions and reviews here.

Jobokplease Blog

If you haven't checked it out recently, here are some recent postings which may be of interest:

'IT pays, but not that much'

Are women more loyal to their companies?

If you're an employer please do share your fundas/ experiences with recruiting freshers. Here's a topic you might have some thoughts/ anecdotes on: "Amazing CV gaffes."

Email rashmi_b at

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Strange bedfellows

'Is Deccan's DNA under threat'? asks Mint.

Well, I certainly hope so!

The Air Deccan-Kingfisher alliance is something like the pauper and the prince coming together. The airline poorest at keeping its customers satisfied and the airline whose cup of goodwill runneth over...

Having travelled Air Deccan last month I would say there is definitely a 'Kingfisher effect'. There are improvements in a few areas, although in many others problems continue.

The main problem with Deccan is not on board the plane (the aircrafts are actually quite new and shiny!) but the process of getting there.

The first thing you notice is the looooong queue to get your check in baggage screened. Why, pray, is there only one machine if Deccan has more passengers?

But getting your boarding card is much worse. At both ends of the flight - Bombay and Bangalore - there was a passenger with excess baggage. Not 2-3 kgs mind you, 15, 17, 20 kgs excess baggage. And, they were refusing to pay.

Now you can't blame the airline for these adiyal passengers but surely a supervisor needs to step in and sort out the mess instead of holding up the rest of the line for half an hour. Without apology or explanation.

Some might say, "These are railway mindset passengers.. what can you do?" The point is Deccan is not the only budget airline. But somehow, there is always an altercation going on at the Deccan counter. People have a very belligerent attitude towards the airline.

The callous behaviour of staff over a period of time is the stuff of story swapping legend. "You are on a budget airline, be grateful we sell cheap tickets to you... don't expect anything more" has been the attitude all along.

With such a 'DNA', Air Deccan is in urgent need of genetic engineering!

Current improvements include sharing of infrastructure (Deccan using the aerobridge enabled parking bay of Kingfisher). And a little more common courtesy. But tons of scope for improvement remains.

Something as simple as seat numbers. Didn't the DGCA insist Deccan had to issue them? Well see the fun. Your ticket has a seat number but when you get into the plane they tell you "Never mind, you can sit anywhere."

Vijay Mallya hopes to hike prices - in fact the airline already has done so already, by 8-10%. But apparently flights are increasingly flying empty.

I think it' not just price sensitivity but the fact that people don't see enough value in the product. The overall experience on Deccan is so poor that as a brand it attracts little or no loyalty. Its only USP was price.

In fact many travellers prefer to pay 10-20% more and fly 'any other airline'. Until one fine day you find the Deccan flight is most convenient or the only one available or the only one flying a particular sector... and you sigh, "let's try it one last time".

Only to add to your 'Air Deccan horror story" collection.

The bottomline is a 'budget' product need not make people feel cheap. If Kingfisher makes people feel like kings, at the least Air Deccan should make us want to be its loyal subjects!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Comfort, commerce, cut-offs

There is a mad rush for seats. Not in local trains, but at colleges.

Actually, it's not 'seats' which are scarce but seats in certain institutes are more in demand. Others, students don't wish to attend at all.

Over 56,000 seats in Mumbai lay vacant after the first round of FYJC (class 11) admissions. As the TOI put it: "There are enough seats for everyone in all streams, say principals, but even average students want to get into reputed colleges" .

And there just isn't enough reputation to go around. This is the 'hearsay' education economy where people believe there are only a few stairways to professional paradise. They're only partly right. The mad rush for commerce seats is a case in point.

The state education department found that on the 4th of July - the day on which the first round of admissions closed – only 4706 students confirmed admission in the arts stream. 22,692 joined the science stream while 53,188 confirmed admission in commerce colleges.

Most students sat on the fence, waiting for second and third lists to come out. But cut-offs dipped only marginally, leaving thousands dejected.

The desire to join a 'reputed' college one can understand. It's a different thing that most of the repute is paint-deep. But lack of inspired faculty or overcrowded classrooms is hardly an issue. Who's planning to attend lectures anyways?

The number one concern for the 10th class student entering college is:"Is there any attendance ka jhanjhat?" The idea is to enrol onself in college but spend all your time in coaching classes for engineering/ medicine.

But fashions change - and not just in clothing. Like white becoming the new 'black', commerce is the new, cool alernative to science. There are still a lot of takers for the engineering-medicine slogathon. And another bunch plod through science in order to 'retain all options'.

But a growing number of students believe commerce 'has it all'.

Prestige bhi hai (cut-offs for commerce rose by 4-5% in Mumbai colleges like HR and Podar this year).

Padhaai bhi kam hai ("One week study before the exams is good enough!" BCom students gloat).

And most important of all: Attendance ka koi locha nahin hai.

HR college - one of the 'most wanted' commerce colleges in Mumbai - claims to have compulsory attendance. The reality is quite different. "The reason most students take up BCom is so they can do something else side by side," explains a second year student. She has just completed an event management course.

College timings are just 7 to 10 am. And attendance isn't actually enforced.

It's the same at Podar, where admissions closed at 87.08% this year, up from 84% in 2006. "I attended 15 classes in 3 years," says a recent Podar graduate. The majority of the junta is busy preparing for CA or CFA alongside. An enthusiastic few focus their energies on extra curriculars. The rest are busy working . College is for recreation - ek tarah ka mental 'recharge'.

That leaves us with Arts. It's the 'dumb blonde' option as far as the average 16 year old is concerned. Why? Because. That's the way it's been for a long, long time.

Argument 1: Arts does not teach you anything 'useful'
Well, neither does commerce, unless you want a job as a book keeper.

Argument 2: You have to attend classes... even study!
Believe it or not, Arts may actually require more attendance, more extra reading, and a lot more writing in exams.

Who wants that?!!

Degree college is something like an airport waiting area. As far as students are concerned, Arts is the general plastic seats - plebian and uncomfortable. While Commerce is executive lounge. You're both stuck in the same twilight zone before your career actually takes off. It's just that the latter is so much more comfortable.

And if more and more ‘bright’ students are opting for comfort as their primary motivator – surely that is cause for concern! And it's not just a 'commerce' mindset.

The 'bright' and the bored
A recent audit at IIT Delhi found that at least half the students skip 25% of the classes and around 10% fail to meet the 75% minimum attendance criteria.

Faculty say this trend has become more pronounced in the last 3-4 years. "Most students are extremely career-oriented and so much pre-occupied with preparations for tests for higher studies abroad and CAT that they neglect their engineering studies," said IIT D’s R R Gaur to the TOI.

The irony of it! First you spend 2-6 years of your life preparing to get into IIT. Once you get there, there’s no desire to excel anymore. Maybe there’s no bheja left after years of entrance exam bheja fry. But at a more fundamental level it’s knowing you’re not there to gain knowledge or skills.

IIT is a ‘superbrand’ - it prepares you for anything.

Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck disagrees. "Labels, even though positive, can be harmful", she says. "They may instill a fixed mind-set and all the baggage that goes with it."

People with a fixed mindset view themselves as fundamentally good, or fundamentally bad. The good ones believe they don’t have to work hard, and the bad ones believe that working hard won’t change anything.

On the other hand, there are people with a ‘growth mindset’. They view life as a series of challenges and opportunities for improving.

Essentially it's a performance mindset vs s learning one.

India is a performance oriented country. Reach X or Y institute and ‘your life is made’, is what we’re told. Until we reach the ‘destination’ we learn and grow. Once we get that label fixed on our foreheads, we too become fixed. “Hum to smart hain hi. See the proof!”

The lucky thing is, so far it’s worked. Because many employers also have a fixed mindset. They minimise their risks by putting their golden eggs in a few, known baskets.

But the other, more potent reason is this: the guys who fail to get into a cool college or a happening stream also develop a fixed mindset. "We’re no good… hamara kuch nahin ho sakta." Naturally, they remain stuck where they are.

We are not born to stagnate. We are born to seek and explore. To discover our potential, to give wing to dreams.

Let our dreams not be small and restricted. College admissions, choice of streams - these are only small victories, or minor setbacks.

As a nation, we've managed to get out of the ‘fixed’ mindset – grown far beyond the ‘elephant and snakecharmer’ labels. It’s time we grew as individuals as well!

JAM Homosexuality survey

The next issue of JAM looks at Homosexuality and the Youth. If you'd like to fill out our anonymous survey you can do so here.

Anyone who'd like to share their thoughts/ experiences in greater detail may email me at rashmi_b at Your identity can be kept confidential, if you so wish.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Unilver's new logo - so?

Dunno if you've noticed but Hindustan Lever (HLL) is now Hindustan Unilever (HUL). And the familiar green logo is now a blue 'U' made of little bits floating in the air.

And each of those bits apparently represents the company's new mission: adding vitality to life. 25 different icons which stand for - 'our brands, our people, our values'.

Not that I would have known, really. Until, as an HUL shareholder, I received this enlightening piece of communication (please click on pics to see enlarged image).

On the one hand, you have general symbols like:
Sun: All life begins with the sun - our primary source of vitality

And specific ones like:
Palm Tree: It produces palm oil as well as many fruits - coconuts and dates - and also symbolises paradise. There are icons for 'Sauces or spreads', 'Lips', 'Ice cream', 'Tea', 'Fish' and even 'Container'...!

Now I am no design expert but my first thought was - should a logo require a two page note to be understood? An ad agency whiz I showed it to remarked,"This looks like a logo designed by a committee... Sab ko khush rakhne ke liye ek ek icon daal diya."

Of course there are some who feel the new identity communicates a 'fresh energy and wonderful texture'. For the ordinary customer, who identifies more with 'Lux' or 'Surf' than the parent brand 'Unilever' I suppose it hardly matters anyways.

Incidentally, the makeover has taken 3 years and over 7 million pounds.

While I do appreciate the need for a behemoth like Unilever to be seen as more 'open and 'friendly' I also think some of the dilemmas facing the company are due to the product categories it operates in.

Soap, detergent, sauce and tea are an important part of our lives. But these aren't categories people are passionate about any more.

Simply put, there is a divide between companies in the digital and non-digital space. “We are used to the idea of a world where change happens in long cycles,” Santosh Desai said to me when I interviewed him for this piece on the role mobile phones play in the lives of young people. “The Internet, and more so, the mobile, give us a sense that the world needs to update itself constantly.”

Companies rooted in real world products can't keep up with that pace. But they will need to. How? Through constant reinvention - even redefinition - of product and purpose.

The logo, I hope, is just a start.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Ginger - budget, but not 'cheap'

There are two kinds of hotels in India - 5 star and 'others'.

Five star ensures a certain level of service and quality, plus refinement and class. The sky rocketing rates of 5 stars are a favourite topic of cocktail party conversation. Your familiarity with the subject implies you are a regular on the 5 star circuit. The beauty of it, of course, is that you... are not actually paying for it. Your company is.

Scenario 2 is you work for yourself - or a relatively small company which 'does not believe in 5 star'. Alternatively, you are on a social visit, pilgrimage or holiday and just want a good, clean, functional hotel. Then you are in need of the 'others' category and hey, it all depends.

There are hotels and there are hotels but you can't ever be sure. A friend of mine lugs around her own bedsheets in times of we'll-find-a-hotel-somewhere travel. I thought that was a bit crazy until we spent a night in a MTDC property in Matheran and gratefully spread out our ghar ka chaddars.

The point is, the market for a 'motel' style hotel was wide open and the Taj group has stepped into that space in style. I spent a night at 'Ginger' in Mysore earlier this week and am extremely impressed!

Ginger is a budget hotel but unlike certain budget airlines, it does not make you feel cheap. You get exactly what you pay for - and then some.

What you get:
Crisp white sheets, towels
Running hot water
Tea and coffee maker, sachets provided
2 mineral water bottles
Air con
Study table
An LG LCD TV affixed to the wall

What's missing (but who cares...)
No room service
No one to take your luggage up (but they have airport style trolleys)
No bouncy bed with layers and layers of quilts, pillows and comforters.
No bathrobe, toothbrush, moisturiser, powder etc to slip into your bag on the way home (liquid soap is provided)
No chips or drinks in the mini fridge.

A vending machine is provided in the lobby of the hotel instead. It sells chips, chocolates and even talcum powder at MRP. The impressive thing about this machine is that it works on 5 and 10 rupee notes - the way such machines are meant to. Unlike the machines we see at stations and airports where you hand over money to an attendant :)

And yeah, no fancy world-cuisine restaurants. There is a single eatery called the 'Square Meal' which serves buffet for all 3 meals. The breakfast for 80 bucks had a decent spread. It's not what you can call a '24 hour coffee shop' but if you need a snack after midnight you can order a sandwich.

There is also net access and a basic gym for use by guests. What really blew me away was the idea of a 'pantry' on every floor. It's equipped with an Aquaguard in case you run out of water and need a refill. And there's an ironing board and Philips iron in case you are struck by 'crushed clothes syndrome'. Ain't that really cool?

There is also a same day laundry service at reasonable rates.

It's small things like this which make Ginger a really satisfying experience. I think the Taj group has done a fantastic job of delivering 'smart basics'. And they're scaling up faster than other 'budget hotel chains' like Lemon tree. Which is great.

But Ginger needs to start expanding into major metros as well. (Given real estate prices though, I wonder if the same pricing model would work...)

Also I suspect it would be boring to stay in 'Ginger' in say, Goa. I for one like staying in different hotels - just for the experience. But for any overnight kind of stay - and especially when on work - I would definitely go for reliability and value pricing over risk and romance.

A couple of suggestions to the Ginger management:
1) Make wi fi access cheaper. Current charges of Rs 125 an hour or Rs 300 a day are not too friendly.

2) The predominantly orange colour scheme gives a bright and friendly feel to the hotel. But the cream portion of my room already had some ugly stains. One of the fancier paints/ emulsions might help in tackling the problem.

I do hope Ginger is a smashing success. And that patrons don't give budget travel a bad name by behaving like cheapos and walking off with the electric kettle!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Amity update

In September 2005 AICTE had withdrawn its accreditation to Amity Business School. Amity subsequently filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court contesting the AICTE order.

On June 1 2007, the High Court passed the following judgement:

"We are, therefore, of the considered opinion that the two orders passed by AICTE, namely, dated 17.9.2005 and 28.7.2006 should be set aside and AICTE be directed to decide the matter afresh in accordance with the law."

In plain English, the court has asked AICTE to relook at the matter of accreditation. However, as of today, accreditation has not been restored. There is no mention of AICTE's stand on the issue on their website, and neither has AICTE responded to our queries.

What does this mean for students? Well, it seems likely that Amity Business School would get accredited once again, if it meets the parameters set by AICTE.

Whether or not deemed universities need an AICTE approval is also being hotly debated. Several conflicting court orders have been issued in the recent past on this subject.

If you are wondering whether to join Amity Business School, I would advise you visit the campus, speak to students about the facilities and placements and decide for yourself.

We certainly hope as much money is being poured into making this an institute of excellence, as is being pumped into advertising.

Note: This information re: the High Court judgement was provided by Mr Atul Chauhan, CEO AKC group of companies which runs Amity educational institutes.

The case filed by 6 former students against Amity remains sub judice.

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