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Friday, July 13

तो?

जब इस बार मिलें हम तुम, कुछ अलग सा मुझको पाओ तो,
हाथ पकड़ लूं मैं बढ कर, तुम मुझसे शर्मा जाओ तो?

नींद नही आये पर सपनो से बोझिल होकर पलकें,
मुंद जाएँ और तुम काँधे पर सर रख कर सो जाओ तो?

गर साथ हो बस दो पल का और फिर जीवन भर का इंतज़ार,
दो पल न बीतें कभी, समय बस वहीं कहीं रुक जाए तो?

जो कहना चाहें दोनो कुछ पर बात जुबां पर ना आये,
और देख हमारी दुविधा चन्दा बादल में छुप जाए तो?

कभी आँख तेरी गर भर आये और मेघदूत बन कर बादल,
तेरी आँखों के मोती मेरे आँगन बिखरा जाए तो?

Friday, July 6

Trademark Skill Set

Over at HSI, Vijay Anand of Startup Centre and Proto.in fame, posted some excellent thoughts about the wannabe entrepreneurs who are looking for technical co-founders:
A Trademark Skillset (and I am reiterating) is that one thing you are absolutely known for - it might be people skills; to be able to bring people together around a problem, form a solution and build an enterprise around it, it might be more specific around technology, or design, or fundraising (sic), or sales / business development - but it has to be one quality that you have, that the entire organization (sic) can bet on. 

You should read the full post on HSI.

Saturday, June 30

The Discounted Insanity

There has been a lot of talk in the Indian media recently about the lack of profitability of major Indian e-commerce players. Many of them are also trying out different strategies to manage finances while maintaining growth. While Flipkart has been tweaking discounts and raising limits for free shipping (a move that was quickly followed by almost everyone), IndiaPlaza has excused itself out of the discount race by saying that they want to be the "only money making e-commerce company" out of the top 3-4 players and not the biggest.

However HomeShop18 seems have sensed an opportunity here and has put almost the entire books category on unprecedented discounts! I was hard pressed to find any title that has less then 29-30% discount. Most of the titles are as highly discounted as 35-40%. This includes even the titles which they might be importing from outside. In all my searching, I came across one title which was at 10%. This is insane! And if this was not enough, they have free shipping on any order value, even below Rs.100! Consider that the cost-to-company for such a transaction would be discount + CoD/gateway charges + logistics which can easily get to 45-60% of MRP. That kind of discounts (from suppliers to retailers) are only available for best selling trade books or for old inventory clearing. What this means is that HS18 makes no money on most books even at a per transaction level. This is a true loss leader strategy. It doesn't matter if they capture the 100% market share, they will never make any money. So the only hope is that this rubs off on other, more profitable, categories on the site.

Being a reader, I am scrambling to see which books I can buy under this VC/Corporate subsidy program. I am not a reliance shareholder but if they are willing to pass me some dividend in form of book subsidy, I will happily take it. (Reliance made a major investment in Network18, the parent company of HomeShop18 in Jan, 2012).

As a book publisher, I am not very happy seeing my entire category being used as a loss leader. It is only a matter of time before they turn around and demand higher discounts from their suppliers.

Will HS18 be able to capture a larger market share with this strategy ( not only in books but in other categories as well)? I can't comment on that since being so near to these companies (have friends working there or have business relationships with them), I have pretty low loyalty to anyone of them. They all seem safe enough. I do not know how does it look from the perspective of an average customer who discovers them through online search or TV ads. I hope people in charge of e-commerce companies have a better guess. :-)

Wednesday, January 18

Great customer service is about consistency

Couple of years ago at Pothi.com, we were working on a Hindi poetry book. It was a collection of poetry of the father that the son was publishing.  It was a very big deal for the son. He had organized a family gathering and book launch in his home town. We were working on a tight schedule but the books were shipped with time remaining on the clock. The book launch was on Tuesday and the consignment reached the client on Saturday afternoon. Shortly afterwards, I received a call from them.

Getting a call or an email from the clients after they have received the books is not uncommon. There is something about holding your own printed book in your hands that moves people. It is usually a time to celebrate after the long time spent working on the book. However sometimes, things go wrong.

When our clients opened the consignment, shiny new books came out. However on leafing through the pages, they realized that while the cover was of their book, the interior was something entirely different! At 16:00 PM on Saturday, I came to know of this. Family members were coming from all over India for the launch. Our client was to catch his flight in 2 hours. Something needed to be done quickly if we wanted to avoid the disaster.

The courier services usually pick up their last consignment at 21:00 PM. This left us with 5 hours to reprint the books, bind them, trim them and handover to the courier. With some exceptional work from our production people, we somehow managed to put the consignment in before courier cutoff time. To put it in perspective, it usually takes 3-5 days to produce and ship the same order under normal conditions.

However, due to time crunch, we were not able to laminate the covers on this set. Also we were not sure if the direct shipment to the small city would reach in time. So we printed another set of 100 books next day with proper lamination and shipped them to Delhi on Monday to one of the relatives who was driving down to the home town on Tuesday for the book launch. By God's grace, all the copies reached the client in time and they had a memorable book launch.

I sometimes relate this story to friends and they all look reasonably impressed with how we dealt with the situation. Someone suggested that this is an example of great customer service and we should mention it more prominently. However I do not agree.

As humans when we are faced with a crisis situation, we are often able to pull off things that we wouldn't be able to do normally. This is true for both physical as well as mental abilities. Given that we, as entrepreneurs, keep hearing that having a satisfied customer is very important, we often go out of our way to achieve that in a crisis situation. A well known startup in Bangalore offered a client an air ticket in lieu of a bus ticket when the bus didn't show up!

But this has nothing to do with customer service. This is crisis management. The customer service is the part that makes sure that such crisis do not happen in the first place. It means that as a company, you are consistent (hopefully consistently good) in your service delivery and in your communication with customers. The best example of Pothi.com's customer service would be the author who never had to call me up to resolve any issues. Good customer service is a boring story that is repeated with every customer every day with no drama thrown in.

Why is it important to keep this distinction in mind? Because it is easy to confuse your crisis management with your customer service. Let us say you have a standing offer of a full refund in case a defective product is delivered to your client and you actively fulfill it whenever the need arises. Given the situation of most companies in India, you will be doing something quite rare and your customers will be happy. The more the need arises, the more chances you get to make a customer happy and you feel good. Unfortunately, more such cases mean that your primary service delivery is not working up to the mark. While as a customer, I would be happy that you made up to me in a crisis situation, I will quickly move to someone else if they are more consistent in their service delivery.

The other difference is that the promised delivery levels should be set keeping in mind the sustainability. What you can deliver is a crisis situation may not be sustainable on an ongoing basis. If you require maximum 3 days for delivering something, promise 3 days even if you can deliver in 2 80% of the time.

So in summary, while the grand stories of crisis management make for interesting story telling, a good customer service needs to be exactly the opposite - predictable, consistent and sustainable. In other words, a boring story.

Saturday, January 7

For every risk, there exists some reward! Not!

Some people seem to misunderstand the "high risk, high gain" maxim. They argue that if I am taking some risk, I should get the reward. I recently heard a candidate expecting 100% raise when considering an opening at a startup.

When you hear "high risk, high gain", pay attention to the order. Risk comes before gain. Often much before. And the fact that the (monetary) gain is not guaranteed is part of the risk (in the startup environment).

While you are at it, find out about the concept of expected value. Your aim should be to maximize the expected value of your reward over next N years of your career. Now depending on your definition of reward, that might mean that you are better off in a job with a bigger company which is perfectly rad. But at least, you won't have ridiculous expectations!

PS: Just as I was posting the article, the right idiom occurred to me: You cannot have your cake and eat it too. So there.