August 28, 2015 - Leave a Response


Leaving home has never been easy. So imagine the plight that takes people from the arid climes to homeless living on frosty Scandinavian streets.

This week in Stockholm was a peek into the brewing migrant crisis. There were conversations around growing local consternation and floating empathy for illegal immigrants from the fragile worlds of Middle East and the Balkans.

A middle aged man, possibly a father, sitting on the pavement with a wry defeated smile. An elderly headscrafed women seeking alms with defiant hope.  These vignettes brought poignancy to fashionable streets where people walk briskly into their languid lives.

Then came soul crushing front page images in today’s International New York Times of a little boy seperated from his migrant parents amidst police action on Macedonia border. The Wall Street Journal captured pictures of Syrian refugees breaching fenced borders in Hungary as police waited on them.


Prosperous European nations like Germany, Sweden and UK, also with some of the best social welfare schemes, is grappling waves of refugees fleeing economic distress and crusading fundamentalists. Europe has witnessed surging right wing nationalism, possibly the most threatening since WWII, as a backlash to these pouring immigrants.

German chancellor Angela Merkel was booed by ultra nationalists as she visited refugee centres earlier this week. “There is no tolerance toward those who question the dignity of other people. The more people make it clear… the stronger we will be,” she was quoted in WSJ. Some grace it was.

People leaving homes in search of elusive hope is a cruel predicament. A reminder of the volatile living. As Murakami said, “be kind, life is more fragile than we think”.


Three Friends

August 18, 2015 - Leave a Response

August 16, Sunday. A night out at Karnataka State Cricket Association Club in Bangalore:

Three colleagemates, in their early 40s now, order brandy on a wet weekend. We have been friends for nearly 25 years. Our conversations are mostly nostalgic  — great films of yesteryears, college revelry in balmy Chennai and girlfriends we lost or never had.

But we are on unchartered waters this night. We spoke about rising communal feelings, about religiosity becoming the counterculture. All three, originally from Kerala, a state with remarkable social cohesion, couldn’t believe it’s falling apart there too.

Cold night reveals vulnerabilities. One of us said, “why would our kids stay in this country?” A few generations would drift with the social polarization, I said, influenced by Turkey and Orhan Pamuk. The idea of majoritarianism (of any kind) left ordinary men and women helpless.

A career business journalist, I have been swamped by talk of development imperatives in a country held back only by its timidity. The irony of emerging markets economic euphoria at the cost of basic freedoms (or choices) never had my vote.

A Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian have been friends for long. We, three imperfect men, never romanticized our togetherness. We were free. Tonight we’re brooding in a buzzing club.

Good morning

August 11, 2015 - Leave a Response

Unwinding to sleep well past midnight, I am bedding my thoughts on print media’s growing irrelevance in global news breaks.

My colleagues would have just wrapped a special coverage on Sundar Pichai, the India born, new CEO of Google, which was subsumed by a new parent in a surprising corporate rejig almost 24 hours ago.

I have already read the best news analysis and listicles some 12 hours ago. The special coverage across Indian print media, reaching your doorstep possibly in another 6 hours, is trailing the event by nearly 30 hours. A news consumer interested in Pichai is awaiting you eagerly, is it?

Unlikely. We’re dealing with fast moving news consumers in a young, mobile first country. We know but we don’t get it.

Imagine. Some of the best human productivity in the field wasted in showing up with dated content. That too mostly inspired by masterly work originating from the epicentre. The disappointment is bigger than the frustrating ‘developing world outlook’ of taking credit for every diaspora success.

I feel good for Pichai. But can I put my time lines to better use, especially when most of the world has moved on?

I am still hoping for that one uplifting story, one fresh perspective that I have missed one full day and night. Bring it on.

Good morning!

NYTimes: No Time to Be Nice at Work

June 20, 2015 - Leave a Response

No Time to Be Nice at Work

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast Isn’t Just a Saying

March 20, 2015 - Leave a Response

How does one define startup culture? Is it value systems of the founder? Is it a vision founders set out to achieve?

These questions need vigorous probing as Indian startup gold rush has crossed a threshold. Billions of risk capital and a big enough job market.

The startup failures, and they are due, will come from a certain lack of culture. Smart founders caught up with themselves. Egos flared up by the lush of money. Remember, we’re a country where the larger collective good is a virtue practised rarely.

People stories in startup ecosystem — exuberances and failings — will come thick and fast.

Best Engaging Communities

Often when I meet wannabe entrepreneurs at events, I ask the question, why they are willing to give up their relatively easy job, with good pay to take up the roller coaster world of starting their own company. About 20% or so of the folks I meet at these events work at another startup (typically < 3 years old, about 20-50 people). I think of most of these companies as startups as well, so I am curious as to why, after seeing all that happens in an early stage startup, they want to start their own company.

Sometimes it is because they want to be their own boss, or they see the success of the founders, who they claim have little intelligence, but still managed to start their own company and be moderately successful. At other times, I hear the burning itch to start and solve a problem or other…

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Internet’s Bottom of the Pyramid

October 8, 2014 - Leave a Response

“The next hundred million possible users of the internet in India today work as shop assistants, or as hawkers, or as street vendors, and earn less than Rs 9,000 a month, according to the report, How India Earns Spends and Saves, from the National Council of Applied Economic Research. An affordable internet connection for them means one priced at less than Rs 100 a month, always-on and unlimited usage.”

It distracts you from the hype. CEO Ajit Balakrishnan’s column in Business Standard on Oct 7 is a narrative that takes Digital India beyond online shopping. A worrying side story is how the country’s largest e-commerce engines would struggle to get the next 100 or 200 million internet users spend online. And how tenacious are some of those chest thumping valuations built on parallels drawn with China.

That’s another argument.

The exciting thought is a whole new way to chase the Bottom of the Pyramid story. A new potential to unearth fortune at the bottom. Affordable internet access can propel big entrepreneurial journeys in India’s healthcare, education and agriculture. This is internet’s worthwhile promise, Balakrishnan notes.

Successful internet entrepreneurs have solved “pain points” in “must have” services and products. Imagine this in vast swathes of urbanizing population in one of the fastest growing markets. India’s digital economy, if powered by cheaper internet, will be mining the next 200 million, or possibly, the next 400 million people, for many billion-dollar enterprises.

As Balakrishnan argues, it’s time for peering digital and political economies to make internet cheaper.

Indian e-commerce figures need fact check

October 7, 2014 - 2 Responses

E-commerce is the biggest Indian media obsession after Prime Minister Narendra Modi now. Both for celebratory reasons among the world’s largest urbanizing population.

Yesterday, the local e-commerce leader Flipkart’s #BigBillionDay sale kicked up an unlikely storm on social media. The 30-something co-founders of Flipkart, Sachin and Binny Bansal, saw their brand being ruthlessly trolled. What started on Twitter and Facebook soon became an avalanche of jokes on Whatsapp and text messages.

Stock outs, server crashes and order cancellations infuriated several consumers who warmed up to online retailing mostly due to the ‘Flipkart experience’. It appeared that the company had over pitched the #BigBillionDay story. The consumer backlash was troubling for a sector still in the pre-teens.

A day later, the mainstream media reaction was largely disconnected from the social media fury. It lapped up numbers published by Flipkart — 1 billion hits, $100M sales in 10 hours — without questioning.  About 20 lakh transactions mopped up Rs 600 crore, at an average Rs 3000 per purchase.

Rivals Snapdeal and Amazon showed up with equally incredible claims. Snapdeal co-founder Kunal Bahl was quoted as saying the e-tailer sold merchandise worth Rs 1 crore per minute.

How are these figures stacking up? Consider this: India has about 250 million internet users with about 10% of them being transacting customers. It must have been a mind-blowing frenzy on the #BigBillionDay. Still, these numbers need better scrutiny, or a better perspective at least.

Try juxtaposing 1 billion hits on Flipkart website with the size of white-collar work force in India, or start asking how many SKUs in electronics (so called high-value items) were sold.

Media needs to ask questions even in its worst moments of trance. It’s time to get real about the e-commerce industry. What’s the average purchase value? How does it tally with the Chinese consumers buying online?

There could be some redeeming answers here. Last November, Alibaba’s #Single’sDay sale in China raked in $6 billion one day. China has around 650 million internet users spending more than 10,000 yuan to shop online annually. A strong consensus suggests that China has a significantly higher ratio of transacting internet users, notorious for online shopping addiction.

It’s time that business media sought better data, and not opaque numbers — even if it meant snapping its honeymoon reporting. An obsession can become a nightmare — in business and in politics.


Siva’s bankruptcy

September 1, 2014 - Leave a Response

Chinnakannan Sivasankaran didn’t make it to the front pages of India’s financial newspapers after a top court in Seychelles declared him bankrupt. Maybe five years or so mark a generational shift in news media.

Siva, as they called him, dazzled business journalists with his unorthodox bets and outsized plans for nearly two decades. He was politely called an enigma — colorful, daring  and low-profile. He punted on stocks, built stakes in several companies which worried the promoters. Some called him a hustler with uncanny streak of winning all the bets.

He was at the forefront of personal computer and later mobile telephony revolutions. Siva’s stature steadily grew and market pundits looked at him to catch the next wave.

He soared as a power broker, with a fleet of personal jets and yachts, jetting in and out with loans and advice for many troubled industrialists and business families. He bailed out the now jailed Sahara boss Subrata Roy and had access to Bombay House which welcomed not many outsiders. But India isn’t kind to rich mavericks.

A telecom scam brewed. Wind power and commodities snapped his winning habit. Then he had a partner, Batelco, who didn’t let him off easily. The Bahrain telco with which he partnered to redial telecom lost money and assets in the 2G controversy. Batelco refused to write off and chased Siva to pay up for the guarantees he had executed. Bankruptcy, as some argued, is a ploy to stave off erstwhile partner.

As they say, businesses go bankrupt but rarely tycoons. Wiki shows he is still worth $3 billion.

A banker told me that Siva gave the impression that he was enormously wealthy. “Yeah, maybe US$200 million. That isn’t lot of money,” he said. Siva rolled his bets well and lived a life. Until luck frowned at him. It’s risky to count him out, this son of a fabrication contractor with the best sea facing residence in Seychelles.




Why Bansals of Flipkart Need Personality Cult

August 26, 2014 - Leave a Response

Chinese Internet giant Alibaba’s hugely anticipated public listing in the US has generated a steady stream of stories. About its storied chairman and co-founder Jack Ma, known for his classy quotes. It has also thrown up narratives on  Joseph Tsai who is hell-bent on realising Ma’s copious ideas. Consumer internet businesses,  especially those with voracious burn rates, have been built around cult personalities. Rockstar founders who weaved stories around their vision. Those which outclassed the sophistry of Valley investors and enamoured a raucous Wall Street. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos executed this skill so well that  investors are apologetic in asking for profits even after 15 years. Flipkart, the overfunded Indian e-commerce engine, should soon learn valuable lessons here. Its founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal would do well with stronger gravitas to stay on top of the valuation game. Nobody is grudging Flipkart’s $7 billion valuation, for they have executed the story well for now (multiples are fairly modest compared to Amazon’s early years). But it has just begun. How do you convince the world that Flipkart is an innovator, or at least an improvisor? How do you stay ahead of the impatient markets and edgy investors? Can you make the believers stay the course? That’s where tags like ‘charismatic’ or  ‘inspirational’ work for Bezos and Ma.

Cricket chief Srinivasan makes a good story

August 25, 2014 - Leave a Response

It’s lengthy but worth a read. The legend making of N Srinivasan received a big fillip in the latest issue of The Caravan Magazine. The cover story titled ‘Beyond  the Boundary’ offers some interesting vignettes of Srinivasan’s embattled life. Did you know India Cements was founded by  Shankaralinga Iyer and not Srinivasan’s father TS Narayanaswami?  And how he ousted the former family with the backing of political benefactors? But the gem clearly is Nimbus chief Harish Thawani’s view of Srinivasan. Thawani, himself a dangerous combination of a Sindhi with guts, tells Sharad Pawar in 2005: “You are making the biggest mistake of your life. This snake needs to be finished now.” Read on

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