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Midnight CEOs

What did you think of when you first read the title? Possibly a heartless slave driver who keeps people late into the night and demands reviews at unearthly hours? Or the one who hates going home because the best ideas don’t keep regular hours?

Actually, it’s a phrase used by the Editor in Chief of Entrepreneur magazine to describe a new trend – the rise of the small entrepreneur in difficult times. The conventional wisdom is that people try to hold on to their existing jobs in a time of recession since finding another one is so hard. And yet, they are preparing to jump ship and start off their own enterprises, since they believe that entrepreneurship offers the best safety net – seems crazy but they think it beats the comfort of being in an organisation ‘too large to fail’ and worrying about when they will be downsized.

Instead, they are building their own little nest egg on the side while they work in the large company – outside of office hours. Hence the term ‘Midnight CEO’s’ – where they work to sail their small little ships in the night. Most of these enterprises are tiny – less than ten people. They don’t necessarily do different things. They just provide the same services on a smaller scale. And the reason they leave their ‘big’ organisations is that they view the world differently. They don’t want double digit growth year on year. They don’t want to open offices in Shanghai and Rio next year. They don’t want to discover the next big thing. They just want to keep doing what they do with a set of people who value the relationships just as much as the contractual obligations and the professionalism.

What’s worrying the economists is that they aren’t interested in expanding their organization or creating more employment. But growth as an indicator of the health of the economy is vastly overrated. In India, there is an entire generation that has grown up working unbelievable hours in the information technology industry and the only goal is to meet the projections of the next quarter. That’s a mug’s game. It’s like saying your only dream as a child is to grow to be seven or ten feet tall. Unless you aim to make the basketball team, that growth serves no purpose at all

The Midnight CEOs can be accused of keeping their horizons small. But that’s who we are, isn’t it? Most of us like being around our friends and families and watching our children grow. What resumes of high achievement do not record are the compromises made to achieve that goal. So, there is a small but growing group that says they want to get off the treadmill and take a walk around the park. They don’t want to be fodder for the statistics of a balance sheet that relentlessly dictates the pace of growth and does so little for the soul. It may not be a welcome trend but I believe that the fast-trackers who zipped around the world and ran the job marathon are tiring because the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is actually at home – not out there

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How would you market this?

Five years ago, a desperately needed product was launched in Chennai – a water generator called Humidous. It works on the principle of absorbing the condensation from the atmosphere and delivers up to 26 litres of pristine water every day. Enough to meet all drinking and cooking needs of a small family. Chennai is a hot, humid city right round the year – with the ground water exploitation at over 85%. The water that flows in taps is brackish, salty and it leaves a fine white sediment on cooking vessels. Logically Humidous should be selling out as soon as they make the machines. Now comes the completely unbelievable part.

All those who can afford it buy drinking water cans. Bottled at some indeterminate location, under questionable hygiene and manufacturing standards, ‘mineral water’ is the product of choice. When the product was exhibited at the launch, the first reaction was disbelief. How could a product plugged into an electrical socket, with no water connection produce water? The first thing people looked for was a water pipe leading into the machine. Filtration is understood as a technology. Get muddy or salty water, run it through a membrane or a filtration system and you could get clean water. But if the source was the atmosphere, how could it work? Isn’t the atmosphere polluted? How can water extracted from it be clean, even if there was a four stage filtration process? The fact that drinking water now comes from far more polluted ground sources does not even register.

Even a product that addresses a clear defined need takes time to build a legion of believers. People who buy cans are quite happy to continue, since the monthly expense is small as opposed to a single investment upfront. In terms of benefits, having a machine that satisfies just one need – drinking water is not enough to overcome the inertia. Only if the can supplies dried up or became extremely expensive would people look for alternatives.

There was another problem. Since the manufacturer was taking a risk, he used existing moulds and adapted the design to suit what was readily available to keep the prices down. In spite of that, it costs as much as a refrigerator does and looks exactly like the water filters in the market – and that may have played a big role in its failure. Revolutionary technology needs to look revolutionary. And here the Humidous fails. No one would give it a second glance. Unless guests are told about the fact that it isn’t plugged into a water source, it never becomes a topic of conversation. Once they are told, they go from disinterest to awe. But the transition to a sale is another long story. The company has experimented with leaving the machine for a month at prospects’ homes but customers still don’t bite. The only place where the product is doing well is in the Andaman Islands, where fresh water is apparently a huge problem.

Simple equations in math are complex equations in human desires. The transition from need to want is a layered, start-stop process. Like Dyson, there are no fairy tales in marketing.

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Golden Needles in Content Haystacks

In the 70s and 80s, if you missed a good film at the movie theatre, you practically had no chance to see it again. Television was restricted to a few hours every day in the evening. The government radio station, All India Radio was full of presenters who liked to slow life down to a trickle and film songs were only played with reluctance during a tiny sliver of time every week. So, you had two and a half stations to tune into or search for the slightly more peppy Radio Ceylon that people speak of with such nostalgia, you would think they were the biggest entertainers on earth. Neighbourhood lending libraries were full of sappy Mills&Boon romances and if you wanted thrillers, you had to choose from the rows of James Hadley Chase and Earl Stanley Gardner or Agatha Christie. Refined tastes were about access to PG Wodehouse and A J Cronin, unless you were into high brow classical literature. In which case, the government libraries or the British Council were more than happy to oblige.

Strike that now. You don’t have to watch a single bad series on TV, listen to a lousy song on the radio or sit through a single bad movie – if you so choose. You can take your pick of the Criterion Collection if you want some of the world’s best films that have won most conceivable awards. If you missed a film at the theatre, it’s no big deal. It will be there time and again on your TV channels, available for download on a torrent, or if you’re old fashioned, a DVD at the local store. Your music player now holds more music than studios used to have on their dusty shelves. Your ebook reader can download more books than the collection that people built over a lifetime. If you live in a metropolis, you probably can sample a new restaurant every weekend for the rest of your life. And if you like to travel, you can find a thousand new places to visit before you walk off into the sunset.

35 hours of video is uploaded every minute to YouTube. That’s 2,100 hours uploaded every 60 minutes, or 50,400 hours every day. Another way to break it down is if three of the major US networks were broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year for the last 60 years, they still wouldn’t have broadcast as much content as is uploaded to YouTube every 30 days. Last year, the Apple store sold its 10 billionth song. There are over 90 billion photos on Facebook, with 200 million more being added every day. The virtual world has outgrown the physical one in more ways than we can imagine.

With all this content being generated much faster than we can hope to consume, even in our lifetime, we will get to be more discerning. The systems that will define the future are the ones that will pick out the precious needles from the data haystacks. Faced with oceans of choice, we will learn to value the ones that let us limit our decisions, not expand them

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Kickstart your Dream

It would be great if someone paid for a creative project inspired by you, right? No matter how crazy, outlandish or trivial it seemed. Bullet casing cuff links and earrings, anyone? Or transform the iPod Nano into a multi-touch wristwatch. Or handmade bikinis. From music bands to photographers, people ask for support on their favourite projects and are getting it from a wide range of ‘backers’ – on Kickstarter, a website that allows investors to pledge anything from $25 to $100 for projects that catch their eye.

Kickstarter recently crossed the magic number of 1 million backers from around the world. They don’t disclose what percentage are from the US, but it is definitely the largest slice. It took them 16 months to get the first 200,000 backers. And only 3 months to cross the last 200,000. Having raised a total of over $100 million, more than13000 projects have now come to life. In the old model, only a fraction of these would have seen the light of day.

While there have been individual success stories like the guy who set up a million dollar page to pay his way through medical school, raising money for creative stuff intended for micro markets has always been iffy. In a city like Chennai getting financing for theatre is tremendously difficult. No rock band, except for Parikrama and the Indian Ocean have emerged in all these decades. They have always been underground acts, known to a tight, small band of admirers who could not have afforded more than the ticket money they spent. What Kickstarter does is to provide a platform where creative people can imagine to their heart’s content and have some hope of making it happen.

This is one area where crowdsourcing is helping define a new financing model. And it allows for participation on a mass scale in the development of a concept – something that was simply not possible before.

But long before the internet made fond dreams a reality, there is an Indian story that is just as heartwarming. In a small hamlet called Kaira, the milk revolution was sweeping India. The cooperative movement masterminded by Dr. V Kurien was the setting of India’s self-reliance in the production of milk. These days, very few people understand the scale he had to think and execute to build the Amul brand – back in the 1940s, especially with the multinational brands putting obstacles at every step of the way. Dr. Kurien’s book – ‘I Too Had a Dream’ is a must-read. But back to the story. To capture the progress of the movement, the 1-minute commercial was not enough. So, Shyam Benegal, the acclaimed filmmaker who was then with the advertising agency, suggested a feature film that captured the twists and turns in the struggle. The co-operative could not have paid the million rupees that were the budget required in the 70s. So Dr. Kurien asked every farmer to pay a rupee – and every one of the 1 million did. That was how the film ‘Manthan’ was made. It starred some of the finest actors of the time – Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah and it marked a significant step in India’s art film movement as well.

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The Snowballing Story

Occupy Wall Street is gaining momentum. What started as a group of small disaffected people gathering to protest the bailout to the big banks and broking firms is slowly attracting attention. The phrase already gets over 20 million results on Google. It’s interesting how news evolves. From Sept 17th, there were a few stragglers holding up placards and demonstrating. Then, it snowballed. The TV cameras rolled in to record reactions. Editors of different political persuasions wrote from their point of view – damning it or praising it, depending on their affiliation

On the website, this is the explanation – Occupy Wall Street is a horizontally organized resistance movement employing the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to restore democracy in America. We use a tool known as a “people’s assembly” to facilitate collective decision making in an open, participatory and non-binding manner. We call ours the NYC General Assembly and we welcome people from all colors, genders and beliefs to attend our daily assemblies.

‘Horizontally Organised’ is the new system of promoting revolutions and aggregating people power. There is a daily agenda on the site to ratchet up the pressure on the government and the policy makers. On Facebook,, there are nearly 200,000 ‘Likes’ and over 125,000 people are talking about it. The Facebook page image is that of a ballerina dancing atop a bull. I’m surprised that the image has not been more widely publicised. The comments on the posts generate heat, support and plain nastiness.

From the Veteran’s side, this is one view: Major Wall Street banks occupy and control Washington. They recycle their officials in and out, make policy, and enforce it with money power supremacy for virtually everything they want. Political Washington salutes and obeys. Money power in private hands and democracy can’t co-exist. It buys what it wants at the expense of government of, by and for the people. It never was and isn’t now.

From Glenn Beck, a top radio show host the establishment view – Capitalists, if you think that you can play footsies with these people, you’re wrong. They will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you…they’re Marxist radicals…these guys are worse than Robespierre from the French Revolution…they’ll kill everybody.

But from a Paul Farell column comes this summation – “Imagine … the dawn of the 13th day of the occupation … you’re tired, not sleeping or eating too great … you’ve been harassed, maybe tear gassed and beaten. Bloomberg is threatening to call in the National Guard. … But you are sitting tight because much of the nation is cheering you on … Al Jazeera and the BBC are beaming your struggle to a captivated world and the tension is building for Obama … It feels much like it did in Tahrir Square moments before Mubarak caved. You’ve never felt so alive!”

And on the ground: Various people in the park perform chores — cooking, cleaning, and ensuring that disputes are peacefully resolved — that we ordinarily associate with a municipality or a home. Because of this, the park is surprisingly clean and life there is surprisingly orderly, even after being occupied by protesters for four weeks.

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The 100 Percentile

In June this year, the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi set 100% (for Science students who wanted to enter the Commerce stream) as the cut off marks for admission. It sparked a huge uproar with parents and ministers chiming in on how a good education was now beyond the pale of even the highest scoring students. From an article in India Today, here are the statistics – The category of students scoring above 95% across the country in the CBSE exam witnessed an unprecedented spike as its number jumped from 1,202 in 2010 to 2,097 this year. In the Delhi region alone, this number trebled from 288 last year to 818 students this time.

In just one year, the ability of students to score marks has doubled or trebled, but seats in the colleges have not grown by the same amount. Let’s not kid ourselves that students have grown smarter overnight. Or that the education system has found a way to stoke their brilliance. It’s simply that the examination method has been mastered and breached – leading to problems at the next level of education. Quite like a traffic problem where the jam has shifted to the next mass intersection.

Now take this other story that hit the headlines a few days ago – Narayana Murthy, Chairman Emeritus of Infosys saying that the quality of students entering the IIT was declining. And he laid the blame squarely at the door of coaching classes that have mushroomed over the past decade – getting students to ace the format of the test rather than master the concepts. The game is always defined by the objective. Make comprehension the objective and it will be achieved. But we are all in a race to score the highest marks – knowing the subject be damned.

In a sense, it was an admission that the system was broken. But to say that the quality of students has declined is to decry the poor guys who worked very hard and got through – no fault of theirs at all or a testimony to their brain power. They were just getting better each year at beating an exam that has kept the bar steady for quite some time. He’s also admitting that it is getting harder to find the people they want. IT Companies do not want more brilliant people. They need armies of software coders to do the grunt work of large American corporations. And they are hiring armies and training them in droves. Information Technology companies are draining the pool of graduating engineers across India in just about every discipline. Manufacturing and services are finding it harder to hire freshers every year. It is as if colleges are expected to churn out fodder for IT companies to continuously process and profit from.

So we have this crazy situation where students are scoring higher marks every year but finding it difficult to get into colleges and study what they want. On the other side, you have companies moaning the lack of employable students who graduate. Once you’ve breached the 100 percentile, you have no option but to start over. Differently.

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The Comfort of Crowds

Why is it so easy for us to be a part of something rather than start out on our own? Why are we so comfortable with people who echo our opinions rather than those who refute them? Why do we seek out the easiest way around problems – whether they are in relationships, at the workplace or out in the street?

Our instinct for self-preservation is much stronger than the urge to innovate. Blending in allows for obscurity, not probing. It’s the same fear that terrorises us when we have to go up on stage in front of an audience. Whether it is ten people or a thousand, being the focal point of attention makes us queasy. The pulse races, conflicting emotions jostle with one another and we hyperventilate when the audience is made up of peers. We are dismayed and elated at the same time. We are never as self-aware as when we are out there, especially when the stakes are high. And if we aren’t able to sustain audience interest, panic sets in. Even though we detest it, we can’t stand to be ignored.

Popular actors never get over the distasteful feeling of being followed or stalked. They hate it when they are the target of paparazzi, the photographers who make a buck by catching celebrities in more ‘normal’ situations like shopping and picking up children from school. But its equally terrifying when the hangers-on, the crowds and the adulation disappears. Damned, if you do and if you don’t.

It’s hard to embrace loneliness and believe in one’s own ideas unless they are echoed or encouraged by our close circle. Which is why the world has enough average people and only the occasional brilliant one. Too much at stake. And while we all dream of coming up with the next billion-dollar idea and company, we’re too chicken to act on it. The best part of an idea is the thinking bit. The doing is a whole lot of work that may or may not yield results. Too much uncertainty there to provide comfort. We want our salaries on the first of every month so that we can dream of what it feels like to own a big business. We don’t make the effort, we make excuses. The fact is, we are comfortable where we are. There’s too much heartache, heartburn, and failure in being a maverick. Mediocrity is comforting. We’ll take what we get easily.

So crowds will always add up to an average. And the average need not be right, it’s only an average. Come to think of it, we may have moved a few millenia ahead in terms of technology and our living standards but it’s still easy to offend. We still like to be with those who speak our language and have the same skin colour. We make fancy statements like we are living in a global village and the world has become smaller. Yes, it has, but we still cling to the vestiges of our tribal, Neanderthal origin. The more uniform the crowd, the more comfortable we feel being a part of it

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The Measure of Attention

Seth Godin perceived that we had transited from the manufacturing and services economy to what he defined as the ‘Attention Economy’. He correctly deduced that the interest in a brand is driven by the attention it commanded. And while Apple is held aloft as the beacon of the concept, few others are able to emulate its success. Now that the Pied Piper of Apple has departed, a follow up with the same intensity is next to impossible. Steve Jobs was the sum total of the experience he garnered throughout his life. In some primal way, he was able to tap into our collective psyche and define exactly what we crave and lust for. The brand alone is not the focal point of attention. It’s what the brand stands for and the meaning it imparts that make the difference.

So what exactly is the attention economy? Our lives revolve around our interests and aspirations. The products and services that fulfil certain aspects get admitted. The others have to be content to be on the periphery, no matter how attractive the price point. Yes, we will need soap and detergent and toothpaste, but they are not things we will ever pay a great deal of attention to. No matter how many television commercials are made about how they improve our social and community prospects, we won’t live and die by it. Or accord it more than a passing thought in the minutiae of our daily lives.

The internet may have millions of channels but the ones that have a passionate following have widely dispersed audiences. Ravelry is a social network for the knitting community. That’s right. It offers the best platform for knitters and crocheters to get together. For the companies making products that cater to these interests, it offers the most cost-effective channel. They don’t need to clamour for attention with all the other brands out there. They can address their base with the best possible results. And since it is a close-knit community (no puns intended) manufacturers and service providers get instant feedback on what their community wants.

Ning is a successful platform for building social media networks – from getting people together who are interested in the same music band or macro photography or vintage cars or welfare causes. You may not have friends in the same city interested in what you are passionate about. But you now have the opportunity to pursue that interest far beyond your country. If you are interested in professional cycling in India, for instance, you may not have too many people who share your enthusiasm. But join Veloist and you have worldwide access to a community of cycling enthusiasts and you can expand and grow that interest commercially in India.

The great thing about the attention economy is that it is now about us – not just about what can be manufactured and marketed to us on a global scale. As markets splinter into focused interests, it allows us to explore and expand facets that may never have made sense in a less-connected world.

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Beautiful Excuses

Honesty is the best policy. Except when a girl asks you if she’s put on weight. Or the boss asks for the report that was due three weeks ago. Or when your kid reminds you of the promise you made about playing cricket with him in the afternoon. Or when the cop asks if you overlooked the signal turning red just as you were shooting across. Or when your wife asks if you have been smoking again. Or having a few large ones for that matter. Or when the teacher asks if you have done your homework. Or when the friend who’s worried about her looks asks if you noticed a pimple that’s staring at you.Or when the doctor asks you to recall every symptom and be completely frank. Or when you are asked if the neighbours’ children are cute.

So, we don’t tell lies, we make Beautiful Excuses. They help us and others save face. They make us feel good about our lives and our friends. Just look at the comments on Facebook where people tell each other what a whale of a time they are having. Or about the trip where they seem to be holed up in some nondescript hotel and are really trying to live it up. Or posing for the camera to show how they are ‘bonding’ (how I hate that word) – as if we are strands of glue that need to be stuck to one another. It’s fine to use the word in some abstract academic concept of human relationships but people saying these things in real life is icky.

The other night at a restaurant, there was a group of six young people and they spent all the time taking photographs of themselves to get over the fact they weren’t comfortable with each other. The strange part was that conversation moved in fits and starts. There was no camaraderie, no easy repartee, no resonant silences. There were huge awkward pauses, then somebody would make a random comment, there would be a few seconds of hysterical laughter before a lapse back into complete awkwardness. But the poses looked as if they were ‘bonding’ till kingdom come. Cheek to cheek, funny faces, hats being passed around. Like husbands and wives on the brink of a divorce making a show of being very intimate in public.

We can’t handle the truth if it’s in our face every day. Not in its brutal, unforgiving light. We need the refuge of beautiful excuses. Because we all can’t be beautiful people. The good looking girl in class has lots of admirers. But even she’s insecure the moment someone she likes ignores her. The plain one has to struggle to be noticed. But can she be honest about it? No, she has to make excuses. These guys are losers. They don’t understand the value of inner beauty. And so on. Pretense and maintaining appearances is a part of daily living. The truth won’t set us free. Not with all our imperfections and insecurities.