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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Knocking down little barriers

It is that time of the year when we start thinking about making resolutions for the new year. But, a large majority of the people that do, do not end up seeing it through.

I live on the fourth floor of my apartment building. My bicycle is downstairs in the basement garage. Not only that, but it's tucked behind my girlfriend's car. Not only that, but it's hanging from a rack on the wall. Not only that, but it's locked to the rack with two locks. In order to ride my bike, I have to hurdle several barriers. They're small barriers, to be sure, but they're enough. I don't ride nearly as often as I did five years ago when I could step out the front door, grab my bike, and pedal away into the sunset.
- JD Roth

Just like it is not enough to solve a reasonably painful problem to have a successful product, it is not enough to have good resolutions to see them through. 

Building a product that solves a problem for the users is only half the work. A lot of people can and do do it. But the reason only a couple of them become really successful is because they have the least number of these little barriers. 

Every little barrier knocked down, is guaranteed to increase adoption of your product.

So this new year, don't just make resolutions. Plan your routine, the layout of your house, the route you take to work, and other such things in such a way that you knock down the little barriers that can stop you from seeing your resolutions through. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Does Uber deserve this backlash? It does.

After the recent Uber incident, where a female passenger was allegedly raped by an Uber taxi driver, services offered by Uber have been banned in Delhi and Hyderabad and is likely to be banned in the 9 other cities in India that it currently operates.

Even though Uber promptly responded by providing all the information about the accused driver, including his photo, address, bank account details, etc, to the police, they have been at the wrong end of the stick ever since the incident.

A lot of us understand that there is really not much else Uber could have done while recruiting drivers and training them. The remarks floating around the media accusing Uber of failing to perform a thorough background check on the driver is laughable, as what they have done is all within the ambit of Indian law, rules and regulations.

But therein lies the problem.

If you're a nonentity for the mass media, if you are not a brand that is recognised world over (or by a sizable population), you can get away with just doing everything within the law. Because nobody cares about you, nobody looks up to you, nobody (at least no stranger) trusts you (more than she trusts any stranger).

But the moment you surpass the nonentity stage and are a recognized brand, it is no longer enough to just stay within the ambit of law. That might prevent you from legal liability when your actions lead to unexpected consequences, but it will definitely not protect you against bad press. And bad press can be a killer, driving away both investors and customers. And the bigger you are as a brand, the more intense the bad press in such a scenario. And this is exactly where Uber finds itself today.

This is not just in the case of companies. It is the reason why a politician's career might crumble when his extra-marital affairs are made public or a prominent footballer is found coming out of a strip club. Being a brand that a lot of people recognise and aspire to emulate comes with its set of responsibilities.

This serves as a lesson to everyone trying to build a company that as you grow bigger, you ought to start doing things better than those around you, as the standards grow higher for you.

Uber deserves this backlash and it is probably right to treat this case as special and not just another driver-passenger incident (of which there have been many) simply because of its $40 billion valuation and the global recognition it has.

Then again, I don't expect the ban to last long as the world needs more such brands to look up to and emulate and learn from.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Best Customer Service Experience

Over the years, I've interacted with many customer service executives, online, over phone, in-person, across sales counters, handling customer complaints, retrieving data requested, and other situations.

Recently, I had a chance to interact with Google's Customer Support. In an otherwise fantastic experience which had everything from near-zero wait-time, clear understanding of my problem, instant resolution, and follow-up to see that everything is still working as expected, the only point where I felt let down was when a human being came online at the other end of the call to resolve my problem.

I felt let down not because of the experience, but because Google is yet to completely automate this process and remove any dependency on humans.

Nevertheless, it was easily my best customer service experience which stands out in comparison to other poor experiences I have had with other companies in the past couple of weeks, where I have had to follow-up multiple times to reach a resolution, and in one particular case, haven't yet reached a resolution after repeated escalations.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Floor Function for shipping product features

The Floor function is very simple. It takes any real number (x) as input and provides the highest integer less than that real number as the output. For example, floor (0.85) is 0.

The beauty of the floor function is that it always gives you a discrete integer and never a fraction as its output. It can be very rewarding if your decision making for introducing new product features was comparable to the floor function where the input is restricted to the range [0,1], i.e. all real numbers from 0 through 1 including 0 and 1.

Thinking this way will force you to clearly define the impact the new feature will have on the users, and only when that impact is 1 will you actually go ahead and ship the feature, because anything less than 1 would mean that it has zero impact on the users.

Monday, December 1, 2014


I'm reading Walter Isaacson's latest book, The Innovators. In the second chapter, he introduces Entscheidungsproblem, which translates to 'decision problem'.

David Hilbert, who posed the problem, asks whether there is an algorithm that can be used to tell if a given problem statement can be solved keeping in mind a set of axioms and logical rules.

Later, Alan Turing proved that some problems exist that cannot be solved with an algorithm. These are called undecidable problems as you will only know for sure that you can solve it once you have actually solved it. Those problems that can be solved using an algorithm are called decidable problems. For example, finding the average speed of an airplane flying from Bangalore to Mumbai is decidable while finding a new business idea that will earn profits is undecidable.

While you can spend hours and hours getting better at decidable tasks, you must know that it is all in vain because the moment it gets cheaper to get a machine to run an algorithm to do that task, you are replaced. Why, you are replaced even if another person who can do it just as fast and reliably for lesser money comes around.

Getting better at decidable tasks is like competing on price. The profit margins constantly drop and unlike the Flipkarts of the world, you can't scale out your work beyond 16 hours a day.

So, with this background, I must assume it would be a decidable problem if I asked you whether you want to get better at doing decidable tasks or undecidable tasks.