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… and they say writers are creative

It’s a true story that defies the convoluted plots fiction writers dream up. Girl meets Boy. Girl Likes Boy. They start living together. Girl discovers Boy is a pathological liar. Girl asks Boy to move out. Boy refuses. Boy rapes Girl. Girl lodges police complaint. Boy is arrested and released on bail. A few months later, Girl is arrested on armed robbery charges. Girl goes to jail. Twist in the tale? Boy concocted every one of the charges against the girl when she refused to withdraw the rape allegations. The story continues and in a bizarre twist, the Boy now claims that the Girl is the one who framed the charges against him.

If this wasn’t real life, it would probably make for great cinema. But to the person at the centre of the storm, it is an experience that shatters everything she has held dear. That innocence is sacrosanct until guilt is proven. That a nonexistent trail can be created to lead to an unsuspecting victim. That the police can act on evidence even when the facts don’t check out. When the Girl in this case – Ms. Sumasar, a former Morgan Stanley analyst running a restaurant was arrested for armed robbery, she had no idea of what was happening to her. This extract from the New York Times aptly describes her predicament – And so even as Mr. Ramrattan ( the accused rapist) remained free on bail in the rape case, Ms. Sumasar, who had no prior criminal record, was facing up to 25 years in prison. Despondent, Ms. Sumasar passed her days behind bars scouring the indictments against her for clues that could help prove her innocence, even as news of lurid crimes that she had not committed were splashed in newspapers.

“From the beginning, I said he made it up,” Ms. Sumasar said. “I never thought my life would become a cop film.”

One of the lessons that Ms. Sumasar has learned is to make credit card purchases and never use cash since credit cards provide evidence of being in a certain place at a certain time. It indicates how hard it is for an innocent person to deny what the police are accusing them of when there isn’t an alibi. Even though her phone records showed that she was in a different place when the robberies were committed, it was sidelined. The break came only when an informer called the accused rapist’s bluff and told the police that he had staged the plot. The case that was due to go to trial in just a few weeks collapsed and Ms. Sumasar was set free in December of 2010. She has lost her business and her house. It probably is the rarest of rare cases where revenge is by subterfuge. But it shows that real life can easily go where no movie has ever gone before.

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Who owns your idea?

Who owns an idea? The one who thought of it or the one who executes it first? In the famous Facebook case, the Winklevoss twins were awarded a settlement of $65 million – a fair price, one would think for simply having an idea and having done very little to bring it to life. In this case, they needed the considerable programming skills of Mark Zuckerberg to build what became the most successful social platform on earth. While Zuckerberg did play dirty, the twins have attained more fame for their whining rather than winning – competing in the Beijing Olympics. They were so aggrieved about the loss of their ‘golden egg’ it continues to haunt them 8 years later and define their actions. One would think the payout from the Facebook case would be enough to let them sit on a desert island or row away and come up with the next big thing. But they continue to try and extract as much as they can from the single big idea they had. It’s almost as if they believe they cannot come up with another one.

Examples abound in every field about stolen ideas. When John Lasseter of Pixar came up with a script idea for ‘A Bug’s Life’, he bounced it off his former colleague turned competitor – Jeffrey Katzenberg who left Pixar after a spat with Steve Jobs to start up Dreamworkz. Katzenberg, to spite Jobs, launched Antz on exactly the same premise and released it a month before the Pixar film. It completely broke the trust that Lasseter had for his former colleague and friend even though ‘A Bugs Life’ went on to become the bigger hit grossing millions more than Antz . Now, script ideas from Pixar are zealously locked down and no one gets to hear about them till Pixar chooses to open the box and give audiences a peek.

One of the reasons ideas are so precious is because they originate in our heads and then we presume ownership over them. We can’t bear the thought of someone else executing or profiting from what should rightfully have been ours. But the simple fact is that an idea, unless researched, executed, carried through to fruition, marketed and built over several years gets to be just that. A simple thought that holds potential. The fact is that several ideas are available for free on sites like this one. There is no dearth of markets or customers to reach. But once you begin the actual work on the idea, the obstacles begin to present themselves. They could be related to execution, finance, or market acceptance. You never know what could succeed or fail unless you try. So simply having an idea is like having the ingredients to cook a unique dish and expecting that it will cook itself. It just doesn’t happen

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The ‘Disconnected’ generation

By the looks of it, this generation, connected like never before, has everything going for it. They can keep in touch with their friends right from school, get to know what each one is doing without having to make the effort of individually contacting them. All they have to do is follow the status updates Facebook or their professional progress on Linked-in. There’s no effort required to maintain relationships. Not even to pick up a phone and make conversation every once in a while. From the PC screen to the mobile screen, they are always ‘in touch’. So, does it lead to closer friendships and more sharing? It’s just the opposite. Distant acquaintances now have the status of friends. There’s very little time for meaningful interactions if at all. The more ‘friends’ we have, the less connected we are.

It’s in our genes. From the time we were hunter-gatherers, we did not have societies aggregating more than 150 people, on an average. We needed to stay together to cooperate and hunt for survival, but human memory maxed out at 150. Beyond that, we simply don’t have the faculty to stay focused on relationships. A pride of lions ranges anywhere from 6-15, and the maximum observed has been 25. This depends primarily on the availability of prey. Now take this into the human context. We no longer have to depend on a set of friends for survival. Our relationships may be scattered across the world when the friends we grew up with pursuing careers in a distant country. With the communication methods available at our fingertips, we can technically be in touch in an instant. But there is a tremendous resistance to nurturing those relationships because they are shorn of ‘face time’. All said and done, we still prefer human company to ‘Hangouts’ on Google. There was a time when families made friends on long train journeys across India. For as long as 72 hours, they were thrown into close proximity with each other. They shared food, anecdotes, banter and by the end of the journey knew more about each other than they would about other relations. There’s nothing like the confines of a train to test the limits of tolerance and acceptance. Today, train journeys have become shorter and flights longer. We fly across the world in silence, watching the interplay of human emotions on film screens in front of us. We don’t know or care who our fellow travelers are. The seating is such that you can only see the people by your side and not those in front of you.

There’s the paradox. We have conquered distance in the real world but in our minds, we’ve grown more distant that any other generation before us. And that isn’t something to be proud about.

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Do scare tactics work in selling?

If you looked at any anti-virus company communication, it’s always about scaring customers into submission. The monster in the closet. The virus that sneaks upon you unawares and makes away with  your data, your peace of mind or your bank balance. The threat levels are defined in scary red and protection is provided, either by a smart android with gleaming metal armour or a futuristic shield with spikes or even the bank vault analogy where viruses from the wild are captured and contained. The imagery is meant to intimidate as if the poor user is powerless unless he buys protection for life. A lot of anti-virus programs are resource hogs, running scans in the background and slowing down normal operations. Every time you open a file, it is ‘inspected’ before being allowed to run. Your email attachments are scanned and stamped virtually so that a trojan horse is not installed by stealth. Users can be first class chumps, clicking on emails from unknown addresses promising everything from a Google Plus invite to a link delivering a steamy video.

An anti virus company in the mobile space, Lookout Security is taking a different approach. Selling with reassurance. They went all the way down to the user interface to design the product. So you won’t see any of the typical bewildering questions that plague the user when a virus threat is discovered on the PC. Should it be repaired, quarantined, ignored or deleted? How would you know? The program decides what needs to be done and flashes an ‘everything is ok’ message when the threat as been contained. Which is a lot more comforting than being asked to deal with a confusing list of options. The company uses the same approach to selling the software. No highlighted threat levels, dire warnings or an atmosphere of dread. It’s soft, pleasant and easy on the eye. It’s not just different, its effective. The company claims it has an installed base of over 10 million users and they currently run 500 million scans a day. And growth is adding a million users a month.

So anti-virus programs can be sold the way insurance is. With a soft image, a promise of protecting your most valuable data and photographs and other digital treasures from being hacked. To defy category norms in advertising is not just difficult, its next to impossible. Car advertising is always about long drives and happy families and great mileage. But Hyundai got a lot of attention during the recession of 2008 when they ran an assurance program where you could return your car if you lost your job. Or Tom’s shoes. Where for every pair you buy, a pair is given to a needy child in an underdeveloped country. In terms of advertising, all other shoe companies worship at the altar of Nike. And Tom’s just goes in a completely different direction. So you may want to decide whether to say ‘Boo’ or ‘Hi’ when you advertise.

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The $26,000 Kramer Knife

Who on earth would pay $26,000 for a kitchen knife? A lot of people would – if it was a hand made Kramer. You can’t pick it up in any shop. And you have to win a lottery to own one. That’s right. The company has such a backlog of orders that it picks five people at random every year out of a list of submitted prospects. There is no guarantee that your name will ever come up. All you can do is enter your email address and hope for the best. Which means you may never own one in this lifetime. But what’s so special about a Kramer? It’s a kitchen knife, after all. How was it elevated into something that the best chefs across the world lust for?

Bob Kramer realised after 10 years of working in a kitchen that he could never hope to reach the top as a chef. He quit and traveled across the country, asking chefs to give him their most damaged knives to breath fresh life into them. In the process, he found his true calling. He joined the school of Bladesmithing and is now one of the 120 Master Bladesmiths in the US. From the New Yorker article – Kramer underwent five years of study, culminating in the manufacture, through hand-forging, of six knives. One of those was a roughly finished, fifteen-inch bowie knife, which Kramer had to use to accomplish four tasks, in this order: cut through an inch-thick piece of Manila rope in a single swipe; chop through a two-by-four, twice; place the blade on his forearm and, with the belly of the blade that had done all the chopping, shave a swath of arm hair; and, finally, lock the knife in a vise and permanently bend it ninety degrees. The combination of these challenges tests steel’s two chief but conflicting capabilities: its flexibility and its hardness.

The Kramer can cut cleanly through a folded magazine, or grab the skin of a tomato. It can even slice through a soft drink can, in a single arc. Made from a carbon steel alloy that can be sharpened for years, unlike regular stainless steel knives that grow dull with use and never regain the edge. The high-end knives called Damascus blades are made from a technique originally used for making swords. The steel is folded and forged upon itself until it acquires a unique wood grain texture with layers. With usage, the grains develop a pattern like a fingerprint and a patina that grows richer with time. All of this coming from a single minded desire, as Kramer puts it – “I decided I wanted to make something that lasted longer than a meal” And the world is a richer place because he devoted himself to the passion

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The Other Salman Khan

If you were to ask anyone in India, there would only be one Salman Khan. Superstar, breaker of bones and hearts in equal measure on the big screen. He has had a chequered career, careening from lover boy to desperate romantic, his name linked to some of the most beautiful actresses he co-starred with. His movies are box office manna and slurped with unswerving devotion by his huge tribe of fans. For a short time, his reign was eclipsed by a series of flops before he came charging back with a movie called ‘Wanted‘. It had a punchline that played out on all the channels – Ek baar jo maine commitment kardi, uskay baad toh mein apni bhi nahi sunta … Loosely translated it means – ‘Once I make a commitment to anyone, I don’t even listen to myself until it’s done!’

In Silicon Valley, however, it’s not the Salman Khan brawn that’s making waves, it’s another Salman Khan’s commitment. Breaking out during his TED talk, the other Salman Khan strode the stage having captured the imagination of no less a celebrity than Bill Gates – who announced that he had seen the future of education. A former hedge fund analyst, Salman Khan started Khan Academy almost by accident, by putting up tutorials on YouTube for his cousins who were living in another city to learn the basics of mathematics and science concepts. The videos are simple screen cams created on Microsoft Paint with his voice over, much like the scrawls on the blackboard by thousands of teachers in real classrooms. The difference was that these videos helped kids from several countries tune in and learn. Khan had discovered the benefit of letting children set at their own pace, unimpeded by peer pressure. If they did not understand, they could rewind and view the same lessons again and again.Sure, a whole lot of e-learning material is supposed to do all this with sophisticated animation and graphics but Khan gets into their heads much better. He’s in his ‘Element’, the zone where none can touch him.

From there, the Khan Academy launched a school project for the Los Altos school board. Children tune into the videos in class and learn at their pace. Teachers navigate a dashboard to monitor how students are doing. It isn’t one size fits all. The ones who learn slowly are helped by their classmates. The teachers concentrate on being moderators, not in dumbing down the lessons to the whole class and frustrating the quick learners. It could become the way schools work in future rather than concentrate on rote learning. Two Salman Khans. The right brain celebrity and the left brain one. One delivers facts and the other delivers fun. Quite a coincidence!

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The Invisible people in your life

They are small bit players in your life, doing their bit and vanishing into the wings. You see them and yet, you don’t. Let’s start from the home and see how many people flit across unnoticed. The newspaper man. The milkman. The security guard. The liftman. The postman. The scavenger. The cab driver. The shop assistant. The guy who irons your clothes. The deliveryman. The traffic cop. The parking attendant. The theater usher. The booking office clerk. The flower seller. The bus conductor. The petrol bunk attendant. The pizza delivery guy. The vegetable vendor. The repairman.The copy machine girl. The hospital nurse.

Everyman and woman. We know so little about what goes on in their lives. What motivates and drives them. At a focus group session trying to understand the impulses of children buying cycles, there was a revealing pattern. The children were grouped according to their parents’ earning capacity. The first group of children where the parents were security guards and day workers were asked what they wanted for their birthday. They wanted pencils and erasers. The next group, where the parents were in the middle-income group asked for things like bags and books. Only among the children who came from relatively comfortable backgrounds did children ask for bicycles. It was almost as if the children were adjusting their dreams to what their parents could afford. They did not ask for something their parents would find hard to buy.

The bottom of the pyramid that CK Prahlad eloquently named, is where the untapped market is. The differences are in terms of 50 paise and 1 rupee. There are now snacks priced at 2 rupees for sachets. The pickle manufacturers have little packets at 50 paise that caters to just one segment – that of the heavy duty drinkers who want something tangy and hot to drown their searing shots of alcohol. It’s life lived day to day. Not even week to week or month to month. It’s hard to imagine that in a world of insurance that assesses mortality and risk over a 20 and 30-year span. Or home loan EMIs that stretch for the same number of years. The relatively well-off paying a part of a loan in a month that most of the invisible people earn in a year. Like the children in the focus group, do the invisible ones just keep a tight lid on their dreams and simply hope for the best all through their lives?

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Has Facebook found its Adwords model?

Google began its billion dollar journey when it converted the dictionary and searches into a stock exchange with real-time bids. The Adwords model has proved to be a money-spinner that is the envy of every other media organisation on earth. The mantra in the dot-com mania was eyeballs till Google stumbled upon the way to change those search terms into real money. The question really was, what would the Facebook’s model be? The tried and trusted display advertising alongside the status updates, or was there a more social alternative? To answer that question, we will need to take a small detour into the origins of endorsements as the most believable form of advertising.

Endorsements are the boring but reliable weapon in the marketing manager’s arsenal – where satisfied customers waxed eloquent about a product or service. When John Caples, one of the earliest copywriting gurus used an endorsement to sell piano lessons with the headline “They laughed when I sat down to play the piano. But when I started to play…”, he started a trend that continues to this day. In the early years, it was fine to use unknown customers. But as the field got crowded, celebrities emerged as potent attention grabbers. Leading to a whole industry of creating and licensing celebrities that grew into a multi-billion dollar business. In an era of media fragmentation, the celebrity with mass appeal across geographies, cultures and market segments is proving elusive. And the few who have that appeal have converted it into their personal mint.

So what does this have to do with the new money model for Facebook? It evolved, like most of these models do, by accident and had two components. Initially, Facebook gave brands the freedom to start their own page where they could interact with fans and build their base. Then they created the ‘Like’ button that faithfully records all the events where people ‘like’ everything from status updates to posts and yes, brands. No money here so far. The cash register starts ringing when Facebook connected the two and converted them into ‘Sponsored Stories’. It captures actions performed by Facebook users and turns that into an ad seen only by the user’s friends – amplifying word of mouth. The genius here is that it sends me endorsements by my friends – not the universe – making it far more likely to build much higher credibility for the brand – as opposed to normal advertising. Expand this to an audience base of 750 million people that Facebook just clocked and getting to those huge billion dollar numbers seem within easy reach. The social money spinner juggernaut just started rolling.

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Bad Spelling Equals Poor Sales

Does poor spelling turn you off? Apparently, it sends a considerable number of shoppers away. Especially those who are all set to buy from you online. Charles Duncombe, who runs travel, mobile phone, and clothing websites from the UK has come up with a surprising statistic. Even a single spelling mistake can cut sales by half. That’s right – if you let little typos slip through in the content on your online store, you let a lot of money get away as well. Now, who would have imagined that the spelling classes you slept through in school would make such a difference? That was meant for nerds who wanted to show off at Spelling Bees. Not for the business guys with the smarts. And the struggle to recruit people who have these basic skills is mounting. Used to sending short form texts and having spell checks correct the written stuff, young people have become unbelievably sloppy about spelling and grammar. They don’t know the difference between a ‘u’ and a ‘you’, for instance. Or ‘r’ and ‘are’. Put them all together and you have a website that looks as if it was written by kindergarten kids. On a bad day.

This was not determined by an educated guess. On the control website, sales before and after a single misspelled word were changed was checked and compared. And that’s when the enormity of the problem was evident. That’s why people are told to check their resumes for spelling errors. A single error can be a spoiler, even if the qualifications and the track record is impressive. It’s like having a terrific speaker make a mistake on the presentation slide. For those listening, the focus skips a beat. That’s exactly what must be happening online. If the website has not checked the error, are they likely to send the wrong stuff across? Those are the questions that run through the mind of the prospect.

The intriguing thing is – if so many people are bad at spelling, does it matter? Will they recognise bad spelling? The answer seems to be yes. We know something is wrong even if we don’t know what exactly is right. There is another factor at play. For me, the amateurish design is a major turn off. I have never understood how such a badly designed site – Poster, has survived all these years. It has hideous fonts, garish colour combinations and examples of such amateur work, it boggles the mind. And yet, they sell over a million licenses a year. That’s a cool $18 million per year. But here’s the thing. There are no obvious spelling mistakes. So the moral of the story may be – even if your design stinks, you better get your words right!

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The Harry Potter Brand

First the books, then the movies. The Harry Potter series has ended on a stratospheric note, giving JK Rowling and Warner Brothers the kind of record that will be hard to beat in the years ahead. Now that the last book, milked into 2 movies has finally run its course, there is sadness that the wizard will no longer cast a spell. Potter defined the ultimate escape. The wonder of Potter is not that there was a School of Magic that all ‘Muggles‘ yearned to belong to. It’s that one solitary Muggle – Rowling, held the whole world in her tight-fisted grasp and took them along on a journey that lasted 14 long years. Once they entered her world, they never left. It was like mass hypnosis on a scale never before experienced. When the last of the series was published, the security and the logistics were akin to transporting bars of gold – and they were for the publishing world that had never seen anything like it before. This is the global Harry Potter generation. This is the defining image, much like ‘Woodstock‘ was of music and rebellion was in the 60s.

I am a Muggle and will always remain one. I read the first of the books with interest, but I wasn’t a convert. The fantasy of the Potter world was never the window I wanted to look through for long. I was eternally grateful to Rowling that my kids who were addicted to TV devoured every one of the titles and the movies with avid interest – though it did not result in sampling any other authors. It’s as if they wanted to attend the Potter party and nothing else. Rowling knew her world – and her web was woven with finesse and exquisite charm. There aren’t too many authors who define the world their characters inhabit with such depth and intimacy. Or who grow to be superstars having fan sites devoted entirely to them

Rowling retained tight control over the films from her books and all the merchandise that went with it. She has proved to be an extremely shrewd negotiator, getting a slice out of every bit of merchandise and extension of the Harry Potter brand. Along with becoming the highest-paid author in the world, she also has ensured that every brand extension is at her bidding and her supervision. With the launch of Pottermore, timed perfectly to keep the franchise going for much longer is an interactive environment where her e-books will be sold – without going through Amazon or any of the other ebook stores. The truth is that the real brand is Rowling – but she’s put a global mask on it in the form of Harry Potter. And when she waves her wand, the whole world stays magically smitten.