Digitizing the Long Tail of Ecommerce and Local Services

We’re going through a significant degree of change here in my home country. As far as historical trends go, this is the fastest pace for any change and we squarely blame technology for what’s happening. Oddly, one might live through an entire decade and yet not notice this change.

In a conversation last night with a friend, I learned a great deal through his outlook on how things are shaping up. His family is talented and have many gifts to share with the world. His Mother’s written several cookbooks and has deep insight into to food and lifestyle choices we make. He himself intends to create a niche portal to service pets.

Another friend of mine who has been tracking the growth of e-commerce in the United States from inside the industry alerted me to what’s actually happening here. While today, valuations are driven by captive e-commerce infrastructure, the more reliable metric is still lifetime value of the customer. Flipkart, Amazon and the other incumbents are essentially responsible for developing the long tail of e-commerce here in India*. To help understand the scale of change that’s needed, the contrast you need to grasp is that for every one e-retailer in India, there’s essentially a 1,000 and more in the US.

Another segment that’s changing rapidly are B2C services in India. They directly stand to benefit from the digitization of the last mile between the business and its customer thanks to mobile internet.

On my way to work, my auto driver started up a casual conversation with me. In the midst of the conversation, he asked me if I knew that Ola cabs had enabled auto drivers on their digital service. I had indeed. He then politely asked me if he could have my number to refer back to Ola and claim a reward of a hundred rupees. I said I’d gladly share and sign up.

Those drivers who go out and get themselves a tourist cab might opt-in to Uber and a myriad of other services. I can now hail a cab or an auto within 15mins no matter where I am in Pune. This is especially helpful late nights and in the outskirts of the city.

One place I can see where this’ll help is at our local airport. If you talk to the prepaid autos at the airport, they’ll often charge 1.5x to 2x the fare back to the city. The cops there don’t want to do anything about this as they’re looped in on the take as well. The justification for the premium is that all auto drivers need to pay a fee to enter the airport (to whom?). The next time I’m there I’m going to try hail an auto for myself using the App from outside the airport. I hope that’ll work.

The question “What’s the next $Bn startup out of India?” just got a whole lot more interesting!

* I am what one might call a skeptic, but its hard to argue against overwhelming evidence and specifically Amazon’s decision to permanently set up shop here having patiently waited since the mid-2000’s.


7AM

7AM

 

7AM (2)


The Transformational Gear

There’s some thing strange about waking up at 5am every day. It’s an hour where you’re truly alone. A daily opportunity to not speak and allow the routine turbulence of thoughts to clear out.

A long time ago, I started waking up at 5am out of necessity. I was in the Pacific timezone and I’d recently signed up on a project that required interaction with a team back in New Delhi, India. Due to time zone differences, I’d wake up early work on the project and then go on to my day job at 9am. I did this for about three months. The morning project would go on to become bookeazy.com, a venture that changed my life forever.

Back then, it was easy getting up early. I was single and was absolutely electrified by the idea of creating a service that would go on to change how movie-goers would buy movie tickets.

Now I get up early in the morning because I believe it’s a great way to work on things that have the promise to be transformational. If you don’t have a side project, you get to choose if you want to work on your health, wealth or anything else that you have in mind. I like to think of this as the ‘abnormal gear’, a mode that you can rely on to break out of routine quickly.

It’s also an opportunity to plan and prepare. I find my world to have many activities that beg for time with the promise of no return. Spotting them isn’t easy if you don’t plan. It’s easier to decide what you want from your day and then spotting distractions and side-stepping them is easy.

It’s difficult, but trust me on this one – 5am is where you have a say in what change begins and sticks.

 


Why Decision Making is Still Hard

The good news is the world’s just gotten smaller thanks to the information age. The bad news is that we’re still using second-best crutches to make decisions.

As an entrepreneur, I’m faced opportunities to make a terrible decision if I simply go with the fact that they’re available to me now. This applies to fundraising, who to partner with, who to hire, what technology to go with and more.

The underlying phenomena is easily explained when you look at how timing can sabotage the best laid processes. Let’s say you’ve just started putting together your business plan and haven’t yet gotten around to hiring just yet. Someone writes to you on having visited your website. Her credentials are definitely above average. Do you decide to hire her or not?

If not, you’re losing out on someone with intent to join you. If yes, you’re losing out on the other several hundred better potential hires.

What will you do?

The disciplined approach to avoid this bias is to be decisive about your position. For instance, ycombinator advises founders to think as follows “Either you’re fundraising, or you’re not”, “Either you’re hiring or you’re not.” and more. Most entrepreneurs won’t make this error if each step they take is thought out in terms of definitely timelines allowing them to reiterate if the previous round was inefficient.

Wish you dear reader a brilliant new year 2015!


The Teleporter

Thought experiments rely on the idea of immersion to allow you to explore conceptual frontiers. I’ve stumbled upon one such experiment in Sam Harris’ book Waking Up that helps to ascertain important ideas around our notion of the past self. While the experiment is useful to review the impermanence of that notion, its also incredibly valuable to ask associated questions around why we choose who we are.

Philosopher Derek Prafit in his book, Reasons and Persons relates the idea of a teleportation machine. When our subject steps into the machine he is ‘teleported’ across to Mars as follows. First, a replica is built that’s identical atom by atom at the destination machine on Mars. Second, on confirming the success of the replica, the original is destroyed. If this machine exists and you’re friends urge you to try the machine, what thoughts go through your mind then?

This isn’t a new idea. You’ll recognize this experiment to be the same as the question behind the Ship of Theseus. Philosopher-film maker Nolan’s explored the same idea in his movie ‘The Prestige’. In the book I’m reading, the experiment is used to illustrate how our perception of daily life (ordinary survival) can get outdated a lot quicker than anticipated.

We sleep, we wake up. We make assumptions about who we are. If you re-read this blog post a few months later, our idea that we’re really the same reader is no longer the same. That’s undeniable. So why this idea of a permanent self? Why continuity? Why would you hold on to an idea on Mars which is nothing like Earth?

Perhaps continuity is indeed important for us to function. I imagine that it’d be crazy to rebuild every assumption from the very beginning. I’d be forgiven for thinking that this burden is only a privilege for the innovator*.

And yet, this process of allowing context-altering teleportation is necessary. Even in an average world, this is still true when we face life-altering situations such as the loss of a job, or any crisis that demands teleportation. We call for presence of mind so that we can begin to search for a solution. Its simply perception of the exceptional nature of crisis that attempts to separate continuity from the mindset at that time.

Its precisely that same shift that drives excellence.


Immersion

A lot has been written and said about why Brain Games, or Brain Training works [1] and doesn’t work. If you listen to what Jane McGonigal [2] has to say, she says that games are a panacea for many of our ills, including productivity [3]. Where does the truth lie? I would think claiming to be a panacea is a skeptical one at best. I would really like to investigate more before I make up my mind.

Anyone would be forgiven for thinking that by performing a set of actions repeatedly with a game on a device, you have a close to random chance of enhancing your mental abilities.

Immersion is an intriguing quality of the mind. It is the capability of every mind to make a scenario realistic by filling in the blanks, to allow itself to wholeheartedly engage with a scenario that isn’t real.

We’ve been playing fun games with our three-year old boy. One of these games involves running a pizzeria where my son is a pizzeria owner and he’s responsible for everything from taking orders, baking the pizza to specifications and finally delivering it to observe the delight on the customer’s face. It gives my son the opportunity to practice recalling the toppings we chose and who ordered what. The game is greatly inspired by Papa’s Pizzeria [4] and the only change we’ve made is to play it in real life using building blocks for toppings and hardboard books for pizzas. Moreover, we’ve been playing it together with him; my wife, his nanny, grandparents and me. It gives us all an opportunity to interact with each other and him.

Through immersion we get an opportunity to directly engage processes that govern our response to specific scenarios. It seems reasonable to think of it in this way. Then games are simply an inert medium or a psychological mirror. Similar to games, is the framework for the pizzeria.

Immersion is pretty valuable, it encourages visualization of a future that doesn’t necessarily exist just yet; it’s the reason why Mathematicians can claim that Math is the closest we can come to the language of the Gods; it allows the writer to communicate scenarios to his readers in words; it’s the key to a meditation session; it allows this blogger to think someone will read what he has to write :-).

Immersion also allows for some strange things to happen.

Using VR, experiments have shown that pain can be communicated without directly hurting the observer [5]. The opposite is also possible, phantom limb pain in amputees can be reduced and altogether eliminated through the use of a simple mirror [6]. This shifts the very idea of what we’re intending to treat.

What else can immersion solve?

Care to hazard claim as audacious as everything? I wouldn’t do so simply on the back of the idea that we don’t understand immersion completely. But it is certainly applicable to every problem, and valuable to try where there isn’t any other effective medicine.

“The Mind Makes it Real”

Neo, Morpheus Training

[1] Brain Training 101, readwrite.com.
[2] Jane McGonigal, author “Reality is Broken”.
[3] Jane McGonigal on Productivity, School of Life.
[4] Papa’s Pizzeria To Go! Itunes.
[5] The Magic of the Unconscious Mind.
[6] VS. Ramachandran’s Mirror Box.


Innovation’s Grand Illusion

This weekend brought with it an opportunity to background-think over the contents of design thinker Manoj Kothari’s talk to my SLP class.

We understand and appreciate innovation thanks to its promise of improbable outcomes. Occasionally, an entrepreneur’s first attempt hits the mark as a wild success. The norm is that entrepreneurs wish to learn to repeat the innovation process through practice.

No one’s done more work to dispel the hero myth than Richard Bach. As I mulled over what I’d learned, I made an odd connection back to a parable* written by him. It is a parable I’ve enjoyed telling myself over and over again which adequately explains how innovation suspends existing beliefs, allowing the re-imagination of the old as new.

The story is a short story of a creature that lives in a colony at the bottom of the river bed. Through the story, I believe the author wishes the reader to observe directly the nature of change; pay as little attention to the emphasis on the apparent heroism and other words that bring with them the unknown, or mystery.

Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. The current of the river swept silently over them all — young and old, rich and poor, good and evil — the current going its own way, knowing only its own crystal self.

Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth.

But one creature said at last, “I am tired of clinging. Though I cannot see it with my eyes, I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”

The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed against the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”

But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks.

Yet in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.

And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “See a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the messiah, come to save us all!”

And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”

But they cried the more, “Savior!” all the while clinging to the rocks, and when they looked again he was gone, and they were left alone making legends of a savior.

– From Illusions, Richard Bach.

When explaining a concept, a teacher’s intent is to share a complete understanding of the idea with the student. They often risk over simplifying it, or over exaggerating it and putting it out of reach of the student. I’d love to know how you felt about any insight that you receive through the parable.

* Parable’s are simple stories that I’ve found extremely useful in capturing wisdom and its context.


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