Saturday, November 26, 2011

Friday market - shukkar bazaar

No. of such stalls: ~100
Avg TPS: ~0.1
Tx Value Min: Rs. 5
Tx Value Max: Rs. 200
Tx Value Median: Rs. 30
USP: Fresh veggies, fruits once-a-week, best price - group buying discounts that work for real, in real-time
Tip: The stalls are set up by around 6 PM. Prices are the least after 10:30 PM (usually stocks last that long) :)

Very prevalent across north India. Usually some road converts to a market for a day/ night. The market gets the name it operates on, eg: shukkar bazaar on shukrawar 'friday'. Most used to run on kerosene lamps earlier on. Nowadays, all work on rechargeable emergency lamp batteries + CFL tubes. Some places have a leased diesel generator from where the genset provider provides a twisted pair cable with a bulb + CFL tube that the stall owner dangles on some support. A pure opex model.

Interestingly, none of them write/ display their prices :). People ask and they tell- a ritual that repeats a thousand times! The prices are reactive and can literally change every minute (based on the stall next to it, the customer's profile, time of the night, stock left- there seems to be no fixed mathematical formula- all in their mind!).

Most of the bigger format stores close by (Reliance Fresh etc..), for some reason, are not able to compete with the quality+price offers here. The produce in those stores are either of very bad quality or very highly priced! Wonder if the new Retail FDI thingy is going to make any difference.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I know despair is a part of life,
I know its a valley with a cliff beyond,
But when I sink down into its depths,
I just forget that its just a dive!

PS: These are the only 4 lines I remember of something I had penned a long time ago :(

Saturday, November 19, 2011

On mediated usage

The developing world, as the term seems to suggest; is at a stage that the developed world had crossed (or in some cases, even entirely skipped) being in at some point in time. I believe, mediated usage is a stage that most human interactions pass through initially.

Lets start from a simple but overkill-ish example. Ever heard of Bill Gates? The influential figure whose contributions range from the technology world to global policy world. Once upon a time, even he was a little baby in a diaper who could barely say 'ga-ga' and had to be fed, cleaned, clothed and taught by someone. The point I am trying to make is that doing things on our own, is not as natural or as normal as it seems. Self-transaction (of any kind) is a stage of evolution that is built upon multiple previous and related instances of mediated transactions. While mediated usage is like experiencing things using basic arithmetic, self-usage is more like calculus. In ones arrogance of context and experience, solving a differential equation might seem 'obvious' and 'simple'; try imagining what you'd have made of it as a fourth grader (if you were a calculus prodigy, sorry, this example does not apply to you). There is a certain threshold that one needs to cross before being able to be autonomous.

Let me now move to another example. Vending machines. Modern vending machines have apparently been around since the 1880s in the west! The first time I saw a vending machine was a Chocolate/ Magazines (Cadbury's?/ Malayala Manorama - don't remember which one) vending machine at an Indian railway station in the 1990s. Interestingly, there was a chair (with a person sitting) right next to it! To get a Dairy Milk bar, one had to give this person the money, he'd hand back the change from his cash-till and he would put in some kind of a special token into the machine, punch some buttons and hand over the goods that the machine spit. More often than not, he had to put in his key, open the beast up and manually retrieve what he had to from its innards. Something drove the company to invest in a layer of mediation while transplanting something that seemed to simply work by itself in the west. You'd note that the vending machine was actually made redundant by this layer of mediation. The company might as well have put a dumb shopping-shelf instead! Well, I think there is a reason to it- a longer term purpose- we'll come to that.

My most recent sighting of vending machines in India was in the new International Terminal of the New Delhi Airport. I guess these were from Pepsi co. Just for the heck of it, I tried following the instructions for a fruit-drink pack. Try as I might, the thing wouldn't take my ten rupee note! Finally, a guy came around with a bunch of keys, opened the machine up and gave me what I wanted :). Note the guy wearing a cap with a bunch of notes? He's the 'vending machine mediator'.

ATMs in India are a great example of how mediated usage has over time, evolved into self-transactions. Quite a few ATMs in India had and continue to have security guards posted outside them. Many a times, when first time users get stuck, they actively seek the help of these guards. It is interesting to note how an immediate need (for cash) or the aspirational need for becoming an ATM user drives people to trust near-strangers. We human beings are inherently 'social' and at times take decisions based on emotional reasons and relative perceptions of risk vs. reward rather than rational algorithmic ones.
(Dude: "Siri- should I ask the security dude outside this ATM to help me with my withdrawal?"
Siri: "Of course not! Your mom says, don't talk to strangers!")

PCO or the Public Call Office phenomenon is another uniquely Indian one. Long before mobile phones got in vogue and when there used to be year-long waiting lists for getting dumb rotary dial land-line phones, the then visionaries had a brainwave: That of entrusting atleast one phone line in every village with a local entrepreneur and enabling him to meter and charge for the call. Not very long ago (when mobile phones were a super luxury), when I was an engineering student at NIT J, we used to go to the village right next to our college ('Bidipur') and queue up outside the STD PCO booth there once every week (late night- they had discounted tariffs then ;))  to make a long distance phone call to our parents. Thankfully, we are in a different era/ planet now! PCOs still exist and still continue to be relevant in some parts of the country. What was interesting about the PCO was the way many of the villagers used it. They carried a paper chit with the destination number scribbled on it. They would dutifully hand it over to the booth operator who would dial the number on their behalf and once the call was connected; make an introductory announcement and hand over the mouthpiece to the caller to proceed with whatever publicly private conversation he/ she had to make.

The point is; that the option of having that mediated transaction enabled the poor villager to access a service he/ she needed which the person otherwise would not have. Over a period of time, (as is evident with the mobile telephony boom we are witnessing now), people do get over their barriers and learn whatever minimum viable product/ service that they need to use. But having an external spark, sure helps start the fire.

The last example I'd like to give shows cultural inclinations for mediated usage. India has millions of small mom-n-pop shops (grocers, chemists, textile vendors, 'paan' shops et al). Unlike the west, where people drive down to the closest mall once a month and stuff their cars with all the super-sized things they think they might need; in India, a mother would send her son/ daughter with a small list and the list could be as small as a single item ("Son, please go and get 200g sugar- hurry, I have already put the porridge on the pan!") The son would then run (or cycle) to the friendly next-door grocer (usually, no fake smiles or smile-badges here, strictly and simply business-friendly), buy the stuff wrapped in an old newspaper (+ two candies bought slyly with the spare change) and run back home- just in time for the mother to add it to the heating brew.

Self-service larger format stores are a very recent addition to the Indian retail landscape. But despite their discount offers and the promise of getting everything under a single roof, its been difficult for them to threaten the well-entrenched next-door shop's mediated shopping model. This is because culturally, we have been used to this kind of shopping (with the bargaining sessions, touch and feel instances, recite-the-shopping-list and someone hands you the goods in a jiffy shopping, mental arithmetic/ scribbled bills, moles and warts and everything that comes with it). Simply because it seems more human to us. Perhaps the next generation in the urban context may not share this perception.

Eko also leverages mediated usage to the hilt. Its promise of simplified banking and financial transactions presents a HUGE trust barrier that potential customers need to cross. While we believe that self-transactions are but a natural extension to enabling such an access, mediation of transactions through these trusted shops (where people have been buying their groceries/ medicines for years) is a great base to build on.

An important principle we've always believed in is that customers are not stupid. While this might sound like a strong statement to make, it is relevant in the context that many people still design services and solutions for the less-privileged as if they were lesser people! They might not be very educated and may not tote an iPhone but they are smart and nothing implies that they are stupid. The fact that they use mediation is not a measure of the weakness of the customer, but rather a measure of the strength of the mediator. The act of mediation represents a basic human-bond of symbiotic needs; customers' trust in the shopkeeper and the shopkeeper's need to have customers. There would of course be bad apples, people who could misuse their position of trust. The antidote is in having efficient selection and monitoring systems to weed them out.

Mediation is natural and human.
Mediated usage helps in facilitating customer adoption of new services.
Mediated usage is a good stepping stone towards self-reliance.
Mediated usage has a social, cultural and economic context.

Further reading:
Jan Chipchase,
  CGAP Blog on mobile banking mediated use
  Shared Phone use
  Designing Mobile Money use
Microsoft research, on inter-mediated usage

Sunday, November 06, 2011

To The Tech-Mecca and Back

The Silicon Valley is undoubtedly the most important place as far as high technology is concerned. It has all the major technology companies that power the internet age - Apple, Google, Cisco, Intel et al. ALL of these concentrated within a relatively small geographical area south of San Francisco.

View Larger Map
Eko was named as a laureate for this year's The Tech Awards - a prestigious event and a great great honor. I thus got a chance to tag along Abhishek and Abhinav and spend a good week in the silicon valley - The Tech Mecca, (and then back to reality :). 

It all started with an 18 hour Emirates flight from Delhi, via Dubai and over the North Pole to San Francisco International. On an airport shuttle, we traveled to San Jose, the uncrowned capital of the Silicon Valley.

The Tech Awards is a signature program held by The Tech Museum, San Jose, in association with the Santa Clara University. What stuck me was the grand global vision that the relatively small museum had (for a start, it calls itself 'THE' Tech Museum)! For the last 11 years, it has been seeking out, encouraging and supporting enterprises around the world that were trying to play meaningful and transformative roles in Environment, Economic Development, Equality, Education and Health. The program is sponsored by technology majors like Applied Materials, Intel, Flextronics (the sponsor for our award), Microsoft, Nokia and the Swanson Foundation. 

There is another great signature program for the Tech Museum - its called the Grand Challenge. I hope someday soon, we will be able to have something similar for students in India!

Stanford University
We also got a chance to visit and Abhishek got a chance to speak to a class at the Stanford University. The campus itself is so picturesque and grand; with such a great legacy that just being on that campus inspires you to think big. Imagine what would happen if you're tutored there ;)? Ans: You get to be Larry Page, Sargey Brin, Peter Thiel, Jerry Yang, Azim Premji, Ray Dolby or Vinton Cerf :)

Close to Stanford University is the Sand Hill Road - one street lined with all the major VCs. Guess why they have parked themselves right outside the university gates :) ?

From what I could observe, the valley is what it is because of three main reasons:
1. Climate. Seems to be just right! I'd call it nice cold and nice sunny. No sweat.
2. All migrants. I think I read somewhere that it was a place which did not have incumbents. Its 'history' hardly stretches back a few centuries. It perhaps represents a very open and forward looking culture.
3. Infrastructure. Things were just in place. To someone coming from India, even simple things like the highway networks, buildings, traffic lights that work, reliable electricity and water seemed awesome. While it is true that the sheer volume of the needs in India are daunting, we seem to have stretched this excuse way too far.
Consider the presence of just the Stanford University and its contribution! Even access to capital could be considered an essential infrastructure and silicon valley seems to have a surfeit of it!

At the Golden Gate Bridge
We couldn't get time to travel much, but we did travel to the Golden Gate bridge and gazed at Alcatraz from our vantage point. I also got to meet my college batch-mate Tapish and my brother Arun..

Jetlag (this thing is for real!) prevented any further ambitions of venturing out - something hit us so hard by the time the sun went down that we could hardly force an eye open.

Thursday, 20th October was the gala. That was a really grand gathering marked by meticulous planning and impeccable execution. It was encouraging to have Patrick from Creation Investments (the folks who have invested in us) with us at the gala. Silicon valley was well represented by top executives, VCs and well-wishers. It took some time for the realization to sink in that the net worth of that hall, that evening, should have been a pretty impressive $billions figure :)!

Also, each year, an individual is honored through the Global Humanitarian Award- this year's recipient was Jeff Skoll (An active philanthropist and a maverick movie producer- An Inconvenient Truth, American Gun, The Kite Runner and the erstwhile employee number one for eBay). Previous recipients include Bill Gates, Gordon Moore, Dr. Mohammad Yunus and Al Gore.

There were over 600 nominees, 15 laureates (5 in each category) and 5 grand prize winners. The names of the grand prize winners of $50K were revealed only during the gala, when Abhishek and Abhinav were on-stage. The sense of joy and exhilaration when Eko was named as a winner was amazing. Equally awesome were all the other laureates and winners. My personal favorite was WeCareSolar represented by its founders Dr. Laura and her engineer husband Hal. Their innovation was a solar power unit that fits in a suitcase and provides the necessary power and lighting required for medical procedures, especially related to child-birth; in developing countries. There is nothing technologically earth-shattering about most of these innovations, its their simplicity and appropriate use in solving real world problems efficiently that makes them noteworthy. Their solar suitcases for instance have already saved a lot of lives!

Check out Abhishek's acceptance speech video:

That was an amazing week! One last thing...
The Trophy

The trophy that we received aptly summarized the spirit of the silicon valley. On the bottom is a solid ingot of silicon (The same thing that is sliced into neat wafers and each slice could give birth to a set of microchips). On top of it rests a crystalline globe. The modern world literally runs on silicon. The Silicon Valley therefore is closely intertwined with all of our lives.

Here's a technologists salute to all the people who make the valley what it is.

To The Tech Museum, CSTS Santa Clara University, Leslie, Andy, Lee, Mike - and all the others who led us through the entire process- thank you!

[It took me quite a few sessions to finish this blog post- its been almost a fortnight now!]

That weekend, we returned home -recharged. 
To newer heights!

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Entrepreneur's Song

Are you looking at the same cloud that I am?
Can't you feel the sun beyond?
Do you see that faint silver-lining?
Though the dull pall abounds?
Are you looking at the same stars that I am?
Can you see the moon full-round?
Don't you love the life you’re living?
Though the sure grave's just yond?

A walk in the park, a dance in the rain,
The smile of a child, the touch of a friend,
A call from within, a battle cry raised,
The road less traveled, mountains untread,
A cry unmasked, a pain that's felt,
The promise unspoken, that unwoven thread,
Little things that just might spark a grand trend,
Or, just lift when you’re fallen to fly again.