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Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Five Percent

Over the past few months, I have been attending a wedding or an engagement every other week as hordes of my friends have suddenly decided to get married. I have also been witnessing a lot of hiring happening at Practo (you can contact me if you're interested in joining us in taking healthcare to the next level). And of course, as part of what I do, I'm constantly looking at the various products on offer and how consumers end up making their choices on which ones to buy/use.

There is something common to all three of these things as they all primarily begin with making a choice. A choice to pick the right partner or the right employee or the right product. The rest of the experience either lives up to, exceeds or fails to meet the expectations set at the time of making this choice.

In order to make this choice, the data available in all three cases is about what constitutes the 95% of the post-purchase experience. 95% of the post-purchase experience revolves around predictables - does this candidate have the right degrees and experience? Does this product meet all the specifications that can be compared with other products? Does the person share similar interests and background?

The 95% is all about hygiene. Either its true or its not. Just because it is easy to measure and compare, this forms the basis of most decisions. But in many cases, the other 5% is very critical - in fact, so much so that it can trump the decision even if many check-boxes in the 95% are not ticked.

The five percent is about handling ambiguity, taking decisions and doing the right thing for you. This is the behaviour in unpredictable circumstances, behaviour when there is no rule book to follow. An employee who fails to act until an order is given when faced with a new hurdle, a product that doesn't provide support when you most need it (because you are the only one facing that issue), a partner who fails to evolve with you is quite useless even if they tick all the boxes in the comparison of the 95%.

The five percent is what sets you apart. 95% of the things you do (or your product does), at work, at home, can be done by pretty much anyone else with comparable effectiveness. But it is the five percent that increases your value and makes you indispensable.

Precisely because of the nature of the tasks that constitute the five percent, they cannot be put on a resume or a spec sheet for easy comparison. Instead, these tasks, when done, get recognised. And that is how word spreads and reputation is built.

When was the last time you (or your product) did a task falling in the five percent bucket?

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The changing landscape of Bangalore

I moved back to my home town of Bangalore just over six months ago now, and I see a marked difference in many aspects of the city. The most notable being in the number of people flocking to good movies, good plays, good restaurants, good pubs (on weekends and other days).

While this is definitely a consequence of the thousands of people in their twenties and early thirties migrating to the city from the rest of the country, it is also the consequence of another - the rise of one-click services. You can now buy groceries, pay your bills, recharge your phones, order a cab (or an auto), book a doctor's appointment, book a movie ticket, make a dinner reservation (or order-in), buy clothes, electronic goods, books or anything else you might like, all at the click of a button on your phone.

While this is creating immense value to customers of these products in saving time and hassle of getting basic things done, it is also creating a large number of Uber-driver-like jobs (as I like to call them) that revolves around delivery of goods, driving cars, picking up parcels, etc. While the potential effect of this is up for debate, today I want to focus on the other side. On the handful of people (the 1%?) in the technology industry who are at the heart of conceiving and building these services and making them available to the rest of the population.

With all chores and time-consuming tasks out of the way and more disposable income in hand for making those chores and time-consuming costs go away, these people are looking for varied avenues for entertainment. While a lot of startup focus today is on solving problems of this nature in a scalable manner, there isn't enough focus on disrupting the entertainment avenues, despite the opportunity.

While everyone is in the 'land-grab' mode and looking to expand aggressively by streamlining their processes (much like the rise of factory work), many are missing out on providing the human touch.

I started thinking how similar a situation we are in when I was reading about the rise of the luxury goods industry in Seth Godin's Linchpin:
"Why do so many hand-made luxury goods come from France?
It's not an accident. It's the work of one man, Jean Baptiste Colbert. He served under Louis XIV of France in the 1600s and devised a plan to counter the imperialist success of the countries surrounding France. England, Portugal, Spain and other countries were colonizing the world, and France was being left behind.
So Colbert organized, regulated and promoted the luxury goods industry. He understood what wealthy customers around the world wanted, and he helped French companies deliver it. Let other countries find the raw materials; the French would fashion it, brand it and sell it back to them as high-priced goods.
A critical element of this approach was the work of indispensable artisans. Louis Vuitton made his trunks by hand in a small workshop behind his house outside of Paris. Hermes would assign a craftsperson to work on a saddle for as long as it might take. The famous vintners of Champagne relied on trained professionals - men who had worked their whole lives with wine - to create a beverage that could travel around the world.
At the same time that France was embracing handmade luxury, Great Britain was embracing the anonymous factory. Looms that could turn out cotton cloth with minimal human labour, or pottery factories that could make cheap plates.
"Made in France" came to mean something (and still does, more than three hundred years later), because of the "made" part. Mechanizing and cheapening the process would have made it easy for others to copy. Relying on humanity made it difficult - it made the work done in France scarce, and scarcity creates value."

If you think you can do to Bangalore what Jean Baptiste Colbert did to France all those years ago, reach out to me in the comments or on LinkedIn.

Dreams result in mediocrity

The thing about dreams is that they always seem so big, so extreme that it would seem ludicrous to go after and sacrifice whatever it takes to get there.

We all dream, but we decide to inch towards our dreams while not moving too far away from our cushy lives to ensure we are within range to have a soft landing if there is a hurdle in the way of realising our dream. We end up spending a lot more time building these soft-landings than chasing after things we truly desire.

The result is mediocrity.

When you're trying to balance two opposite ends of the spectrum, you end up averaging out and not really excelling in either. This is the reason successful startups are the ones that start by shipping something to a very specific set of customers who are invariably small in number. They don't average out in the experience they offer their customers.

This is also the reason thousands of startups fall flat and die even though they seem very promising at the beginning. When you try to please a larger set of people early on, you average out the experience you offer to your customers and you fail to offer them a chance to find you remarkable.

If your dreams are at the other end of the spectrum when compared to your regular routine, you are doomed to a life of mediocrity. But if your regular routine is aligned with your dream, then you're in business.

The two schools of thought you read about quite often - 'follow your passion' and 'grit your teeth and work hard' - are both saying the same thing in the end. They are calling an alignment of how you live your life and your dreams. One asks you to throw everything and chase your dreams while the other asks you to focus on what you have until you eventually love it.

You can choose either, but don't make the mistake of trying to balance both. Unless you want to dive head first into mediocrity.

Here's Nilofer Merchant on dreams:
"So there's a saying, if someone really told you how hard it was to have a child, no one would ever do it. Every year or two, some article will say how expensive it is to have children. On the face of it, the number seems insurmountable. But I always think no one should ever look at things like that in aggregate. The same is true for a book, or any creative project. If you look at a blank page and think of the 85,000 words you have to write, you'd get overwhelmed. You can't look at it that way. The way you make your dreams come true? By making them come true."

Sunday, March 29, 2015

My time to rhyme #1 - She makes my head swirl

My time to rhyme is a deviation from the regular focus of this blog, because, sticklers though Product Managers are to constantly ship art, taking time out for unrelated creative pursuits will freshen the mind for brighter ideas back in their home territory.

When I was a little kid gazing up at the stars
I never realised the changes my life would parse
In taking me from that kid to a hopeless romantic.
I’ve fallen for a pretty girl that makes me frantic
With just a few words and her sweet, silent gaze
That makes my head swirl and leaves me in a daze.

While she likes war movies, I like my chick-flicks,
Which have more kisses than swords, guns or sticks.
While she doesn’t read fiction, I quite often pick one
That takes long to read but is nevertheless good fun.
But she gets what I say and smiles with such grace
That it makes my head swirl and leaves me in a daze.

No book is ever written, nor a movie ever made,
About two people whose compatibility doesn’t fade,
‘Cause it’s worthy and special only when it takes
More than just shared interests to seal two lovers’ fates.
I know we’re there when she causes my heart to race
And makes my head swirl and leaves me in a daze.

I feel like talking to her even when I’ve nothing to say,
‘Cause just knowing she’s there really makes my day.
I end up picturing her when I hear a song on the radio,
And we’re looking up at the stars, lying out on the patio,
Probably drinking French wine and munching on Lays,
That makes my head swirl and leaves me in a daze.

Its cute the way she ticks off all the alphabets,
While solving my anagrams, piling up reward debts.
That makes me think I might like her every antic,
She’s the pretty girl I’ve fallen for that makes me frantic
With just a few words and her sweet, silent gaze
That makes my head swirl and leaves me in a daze.

Assisted decision making

Scott Adams (the man behind the Dilbert comics) has a blog where he posts some wacky ideas, some of which are about the future of technology and humans. Today, I read this one titled 'The Era of Humans - Ending Soon'.

He goes on to argue how decisions are made by weighing imagined pay-offs for different decisions and the one with the highest imagined pay-off is the decision made. Many gadgets and apps (fitness trackers, for example) are already helping us with these decisions by helping compute imagined pay-offs in a better way.

My biggest gripe with all these gadgets and apps in providing assistance to my decision-making is that the algorithms are centrally applied and are based on my (and those like me) previous behaviour. In most things (books, movies, music, sports, friends, dates, clothes, etc, etc), I don't think monitoring previous behaviour (of me and others like me) is enough to introduce me to new things I might appreciate.

For every set of users, there are leaders (early adopters) who like to actively try on new things and followers (laggards) who rely on trends and the 'in-things' to decide what they use and buy. All the technology is focused on the followers and there is nobody offering anything to the leaders.

Since the assisted decision making happens based on algorithms taking in several parameters, I would love to have a place where I can define these algorithms with parameters coming in from various apps that I use. A lot of apps allow this today, but only within their own ecosystem (like Facebook allowing to customise your newsfeed), but nobody provides a cross-platform solution.

If I'm still sounding vague, let me give you an example. Instead of relying on 8tracks or Spotify or Youtube for discovering new music, I should be able to get a list of 10 songs computed in the following manner every Sunday. 40% weightage if the song is in Billboard top 20, 30% weightage if any of the twenty friends I have selected have shared/liked it on any of their social networks, 30% weightage if it was released in the last one month.

I should be allowed any number of parameters measured by any of the existing apps and use the social graph of any of my connections across the app/web ecosystem.

The audience for such a tool might be low (likely only the early adopters) as most people won't want to define this (because that would then move them from laggards to early adopters). But I think it's worth the effort to prevent everyone from being a follower.