Gucci’s Packaging – Not so Gucci

Gucci’s Packaging – Not so Gucci

I recently conducted an interactive session on Design Thinking at a leading investment bank. It might be easy to assume that applications of design thinking at an investment bank are limited. It is quite the opposite though. And the applicable scope of design thinking just seems to grow bigger with each passing day. The team was also kind enough to present me with a thoughtful gift at the end of the session. A Gucci tie.

Now, once you’re in the design thinking fold, you are always processing and assessing products and services. As you might have noticed, the tip of the tie is a little crumpled. If I was the manufacturer of ties that retailed at anything between $60-240 or more, I would have been concerned about the experience a customer goes through of opening the packaging and seeing the product as well.

The tie came in a tall box which was in a slightly taller paper bag, fastened with an embossed ribbon. When you hold the bag upright however, the tie drops inside thanks to that often-neglected phenomena called gravity. This causes creases at the tip of the tie. Now while many might tell you it is ok to iron a tie, it is not something I’d recommended you did often. And certainly not something you would want to do with a brand new tie.

While there might be several ways to package it in a way that leaves an impression with the customer, it isn’t something I’ll spend time thinking of right now. The easy way for Gucci to solve this problem, would be by merely placing a card paper insert which is fixed to the sides of the box. It would hold the tie in place at the top, like a clothes hanger. That way, the tip of the tie would never touch the bottom of the box when held upright.

Little things go a long way in improving how customers interact with your product. And how they remember it.

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Don’t be Kupamanduka

Don’t be Kupamanduka

When someone just joins your organisation, get their first impression of their experience within a few days of joining. Then, after you run them through the standard tour and the paces, and get another view within a month or two. See if there is a significant drop in the ‘illusion’. And if so, why. Learn the difference between what an outsider sees, and what the outsider sees, when he or she gets inside.

It’s one thing to think your company is great. Quite another thing to ask someone who has left one to join your company. Great learning in the newcomer’s view of your company.

‘Kupamanduka’ is Sanskrit for ‘frog in the well’.

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Are You Certain? Or do You Think?

Are you certain? Or do you think?

We live in times that are almost entirely about confidence. The underlying stuff is often of little importance. A bold claim has great impact. The ability to pause to consider two equally strong but opposing possibilities, not as much.

Maybe that is also why many of our management schools are ok with accepting students with little or no work experience. And then, they even invest in image consultants and sessions on how to speak at interviews. Their greater goal of course, is a close to 100% placement rate.

How else could they justify the fees they charge? Not like they are conducting any path-breaking research. Or boast of a substantial corpus with which they encourage homegrown startups. And yet, products of these institutions are just overflowing with confidence. Even when they are very wrong, or filled with weak assumptions. Nothing wrong with being wrong. A lot is wrong with having a shut mind.

And these are just students. Our industries are filled with individuals who consider themselves virtually infallible. The venture capital sector for instance, has an almost fixed success metric. 30-40% of investments usually fail. Another 30-40% of them only return the original investment or small profits. And only about 10-20% of them do exceptionally well. So, despite such high failure rates, it is uncommon to hear a venture capitalist ever speak of their failures. Even with the objective of educating the masses or aspiring entrepreneurs. Which is why, when an Alok Mittal speaks of a failed investment, it is almost an exception to the norm.

A tweet by Kunal Shah seemed to capture the trend of the times we live in. He said, ‘People don’t follow those who seem to be right or wrong. People follow those who seem to be sure what they are talking about.’

Amusingly, another tweet on the Nobel Prize account about Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, geologist and biologist, gave some hope. Darwin is renowned for his untiring work on evolution and natural selection.

When Darwin started taking notes in his “B” notebook, above his first evolutionary tree he wrote, “I think”. In an age where doubt, deliberation or questioning one’s own views are considered to be weaknesses, it was refreshing to see this. It serves as a reminder of what British philosopher and Nobel Laureate Bertrand Russell said. That ‘the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.’

Darwin’s notes …. image source: link

Somebody once said, ‘arrogance and ignorance are a deadly combination.’ When caught between confidence filled with doubt, and just doubt, err on the side of doubt. It’ll prove beneficial in the long term.

So, are you always certain? Or do you often think?

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The Non-Financial Side of Business

The Non-Financial Side of Business
A call with an industry colleague last week set in motion, thoughts on how we measure individual or business success.
As a kid growing up in India in the 80’s, studies used to be quite a tricky part of life. Studying history, for instance. We had a ton of dates to remember, and it somehow never made sense. The pointlessness of remembering precise dates of events ranging from a few decades to a few centuries gone by. Instead of, perhaps evaluating people gone by, on the basis of their actions, or the sum of their actions. Perhaps we would have learnt more about values. About actions and consequences. But they would not have it any other way. Events and dates of their occurrence was clearly more important to them.
Then came interesting subjects like physics, and a few deeper questions around it. [Link]
Subsequently, there was the ’Must. Read. Newspapers’ phase. Not just that, I guess people also expected you to remember current events. For someone who is not a keen quiz player, I felt it was pointless beyond just having a fair sense of what was happening. Somewhere I believed storing irrelevant information wouldn’t really matter someday.
Then, thankfully, the internet came to our rescue.
In my adult life, all around, businesses seem obsessed with numbers. Financials. Be it sales and profitability, or costs, or more complicated ones. Cost of acquiring a customer. Shopping cart abandonment. Customer churn rate. Average profit per visitor or Product conversion rate. Among others.
The world became, and continues to be increasingly obsessed with numbers and ratios. And that’s all most businesses focus on. The employee or customer can be at the receiving end of the bare minimum that a tight-margin allowance to appease a ratio will allow. But not more.
The day machines take over a business function, efficiency will jump up dramatically, as will profitability.
But where would that leave us? Put differently, have we always been missing a bigger point?
What will matter when machines take over (finally!), is what customers really want. Because then we won’t be obsessing over the numbers. Hopefully not at least.
And hopefully then, we’ll start to see that it is not a numbers game. That business is about relevance. If it’s useful or good, they will buy. If a process is well designed as per them, they will use it.
Numbers, as I’ve always held, are an incidental, intermittent aftereffect of a non-numerical, ongoing end-user pleasing process.
I’m not saying that top and bottom lines and all those in-between are irrelevant. Sure they help as indicators. But they perhaps help more when we are doing the more important job. Of ensuring the main objective of our business is met. Once you focus on the non-financial aspects that really run your business, you’ll see how the financials catch up. Automatically!

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Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

Venture Capital Elevator Pitches

I left my job at a venture capital (VC) firm in 2010. After freelancing for a bit I then worked with a high-technology company in the robotics space. I then started my own strategy consulting practice, which over the years has matured into an interesting blend of design thinking, management strategy and human behaviour. Three fields I am keenly interested in, and which I use to help companies. I help them understand their customers and customer needs better. I also help companies tackle complex problems or pursue opportunities and grow.

VC funding, business plans and elevator pitches however, are areas a lot of clients associate me with. My initial list of consulting services didn’t even factor business plans or elevator pitches. However, along the way, by heavy demand, it became a prominent service. I continue to get a lot of inquiries for elevator pitches. There probably will never be a shortage of companies aspiring to get their entrepreneurial dreams equity funded.

However, I have observed one common aspect across a lot of clients and prospective clients. It is in their view of what an elevator pitch is. Or should be. Given the overly enthusiastic, almost orgasmic effect that venture capitalists have on a lot of business folk and new entrepreneurs, they tend to assume that that’s what an elevator pitch is about too. That the brief time the pitch gets in front of the investor, with or without the entrepreneur actually being present, should blow their mind. And to achieve this, they start thinking like advertisers. They think loud. Or blingy. Or just outright abstract.

They assume the pitch needs to be all glitsy and filled with high quality images, video, and graphs! That’s it! And on occasion, it has been tough convincing them otherwise. Reasoning with them that having been an investor, I might probably have a better sense of what might bring out the core essence of a venture. And what might be outright distracting, or worse, confusing. But it doesn’t work often. They are so enamoured by a faceless and nameless investor who probably frequents their dreams, to reason.

Sometime last year, someone made Uber’s first elevator pitch public. For those working on their elevator pitches to seek investment, and if you haven’t seen this already, UberCab – Dec 2008. How many captivating images do you see? They seem to me like just random pictures pulled off a Google search. A few phones, a few cars. No plot, no sub-plot, no theme, nothing. Just a vision and a compelling business proposition and a plan on how to make it happen! Nothing else matters.

I have been quite blunt with clients when it comes to delivering a no-nonsense pitch. However, I have had my pitches go to design folk, artists, and even sent to experts in digital and web design to give them a ‘makeover’. And I’ve had others turn my pitches upside down to present what they believe is a better way to ‘pitch’. Only to then come back and use one previously made by me.

The reason being, at the end of the day, even if some people don’t agree, venture capitalists are humans too. They have similar attention spans. They aren’t fools not to spot a great opportunity, even if it is scribbled clearly on a restaurant napkin. And they certainly aren’t fools to accept a mediocre vision or action plan just because it was in a ‘beautified pitch’.

This is the third of a series I’ve written regarding entrepreneurs and VCs. In case you missed the first two, they’re here: 1. What’s Your Profession and 2. The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

Hope you found these useful.

My attempt at sketching a puzzled investor.

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The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

 

The Entrepreneur in a Venture Capital World

Imagine a food connoisseur has a vision of opening a restaurant. Selling a carefully crafted list of delicacies, whose preparation has taken years to refine. This aficionado has thought of everything. The cutlery that would highlight the preparations, what the entrance to the restaurant would be like, the kind of chefs he or should would need. Everything.

Now imagine, you, as a customer, visit that restaurant. No guarantees you’ll like the food there. Or you might have preferred a better selection on the food menu. Now let’s say you, and your friends or family who have accompanied you, get to have a say in what the menu should be. Just because you’ll be paying the bill. Or simply because a local bank or relative bankrolled the entrepreneur’s dreams, they want to have a say in what food should be served.

Isn’t this the case with the venture capital investment ecosystem? They take a seemingly great idea, imagined by a dreamer. And after some funding, in an urge to “scale” it, they put it on steroids. Often at the cost of the original dream and vision. And with the VC community, their return timelines are shrinking, so their portfolio mutation is growing rapidly. They don’t care about profits. As long as there is sufficient sales and buzz, they’re on track. As opposed to keeping fund and investment choices a little more practical. So as to build a more, bottom-heavy business. On a steady foundation.

In a way, it would compare with a risk in the investment ecosystem called Maturity Mismatch Risk. This is a capital management situation that can disrupt business cash flows. It’s seen when assets held to meet future liabilities are not well aligned from a maturity time point of view. Short term assets should deployed for projects with quick returns. Otherwise, they could cause a financial crunch in the short term. ‘Entrepreneur-Investor’ relationship could be looked at in a similar way. Where an investor who is only there for a few years, sometimes changes the entrepreneurs long term strategy to suit their investment goals.

Now this might seem to contradict my VC related post from earlier this week. One where I said that the VC space seems to have more left-brained, finance, cold-numbers people, and less right-brained, creative ones who would appreciate a good, world-changing vision and back it up in a way that it really changes the world permanently. However, they are two sides of the same coin. Business models do take the world forward. But that doesn’t mean every other potential idea must first blow up with over-funding and investor control, and then explode! And all the while, the disinterested, minority stake-holding promoter is busy with other startups he or she has invested in.

Imagine a great idea and promoter being backed by an investor who actually sees the impact of the idea from the promoter’s perspective. That means, not just scaling an idea, but rather, letting it grow to have the impact it was intended to. Then maybe some of the great entrepreneurs wouldn’t actively shun investors and patiently bootstrap their way to world-change.

It isn’t just about the idea. The entrepreneur’s vision of how the idea pans out matters just as much.

I happened to see this post on LinkedIn when I was writing this post. While decisions like come on one end of the world-change spectrum, a lot of venture funded companies aspire to be on the other. In that they would like to achieve a strong global presence with the least marketing spend. And most importantly, make astronomical stakeholder returns. For the VC community, the ideal place lies somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum. Because in many cases, the entrepreneur sets out on a well-intentioned mission to fix a huge problem for a customer base.

Image source: link

Again, it isn’t just about the idea. The entrepreneur’s vision of how the idea pans out matters just as much.

The title image is that of a vulture. When I worked in the venture capital space, people sometimes referred to the community as ‘vulture capital’. Nowadays, looking at some investment decisions and entrepreneurs who focus more on personal investments rather than their own ventures, looks like vulture capital is contagious.

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What’s Your Profession? Did You Bring More Soldiers?

What’s Your Profession? Did You Bring More Soldiers?

In 1970s, according to the TV series Mindhunter at least, the FBI was filled with accountants & lawyers instead of more relevant experts in areas that mattered. That is, in place of behavioral analysts.

That seems to have been the case with the Indian Venture Capital industry too for some time now. They’ve strangely been recruiting a concerningly high number of Finance and CA folk. Instead of hiring more right-brained folk who can understand customer needs, likes, dislikes, and the customer experience. Those who can appreciate an entrepreneur’s vision and passion, and perhaps the grueling journey she or he has been through to get there.

Numbers don’t build businesses. They’re the result of it.

If the venture capital sector doesn’t have enough people who can understand a customer’s journey, an entrepreneur drive and vision, among other non-numerical things, just processing numbers will only make so much of a superficial impact. And bring so much of a multiple-x return on investment.

Look at the Indian funded startup space for instance. It even makes one wonder if many of our entrepreneurs possess the vision and passion. Perhaps how Flipkart is try to go after numbers, while Amazon is increasingly trying to improve the customer experience. Or how and why Uber might have logically entered the food delivery space? And more importantly, why did Ola (I hope I’m wrong!) seem to acquire Foodpanda in a knee-jerk reaction to Uber? Or how, while in India we still get mobile phones and media content literally on the same day as any developed country. When it comes to business inclination to improve the customer experience though, we get by with the bare minimum. Why?

Why can’t investors identify truly driven entrepreneurs and be able to align with the entrepreneur’s vision to create an impact? Does pushing an entrepreneur into super minority stake keep them sufficiently invested in the big plan? And is it possible for the overpaid founder of a funded startup with multiple investments of his or her own in other startups, early in his or her own startup journey, to create what people call a unicorn?

Focus! Focus! You need the right people, adequately motivated, to do one job! And to do it right!

Reminds me of a scene from the movie 300. When Daxos and his army meets Leonidas and his brave 300. Have a look!

Maybe there’s a difference between saying ‘customer service’ and doing what is necessary to delight?

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Sunset Marmalade

Sunset Marmalade

Why are some brands killing the obvious in packaging design?

If anything is better than the taste of orange marmalade in the morning, it is the sight of it in the jar. Like a beautiful sunset. With strands of peel as if in suspended animation.

However, some leading Indian brands, and probably many others too in India and abroad, tend to put an ugly plastic label all around the jar, with the pictures of oranges and probably some marmalade too on it. Why not just let the product you’ve created, speak for itself?

A beautiful looking product like that, in a transparent jar, would sell itself. So why take the trouble to cover it up completely? Not like it is an excuse for the design, marketing and packaging folk to justify their jobs and salaries. It’s like those people who order an exceptionally tasty dish at a restaurant, and instead of diving right in, spend the next few minutes getting a perfect snap of the food. And then eat the food while distracted by the editing of the picture for social media.

Look at the bottom of the bottle, at the marmalade below the label. That’s what I’m talking about.

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Rate Wisely

Rate Wisely

Imagine the simple process of rating a book you’ve just read.

Let’s say it is a non-fiction. Perhaps a business or even a self-help kind of book.

The normal tendency would be that if it has even an average amount of useful stuff, you’d give it a good rating. Especially if it contained one or more things you weren’t previously aware of. Let’s say you give it a 4 or a 5 out of 5.

Now let’s say not only did it not add any value, it was illogical or nonsensical. Or, to add to that, it wasn’t spellchecked or formatted well. You’d probably give it a 1.

Now for it to be a 2 or 3, it might have been stating the obvious.

Now, as you learn more and more about something, your knowledge about the topic increases dramatically. Which means, when you pick up a book on the topic, there’s a good chance you already know what’s in it. Which means you would either drop the book, or continue reading in the hope there’s something new to learn. Put differently, it would take real veterans to perhaps write about a topic so as to receive a 4 or 5 from you.

So if you do read the book, and you are the critical kind, you might be inclined to rate it average or poorly. And as you might read more books in that field, your general ratings might trend from 5 towards 1.

However, that would be the wrong way to assess a book. Especially if is factual or logical. And has been spellchecked and formatted reasonably well. It might actually be of great help, especially to amateurs in the field.

But imagine if the first few readers are highly intellectual people like yourself. You would all give the book a poor rating. And those amateurs who might have originally benefited from the book, might avoid it thinking. Almost as if assuming it would be a waste of their time.

So, rate wisely.

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The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback

The Illusion of Ratings and Feedback
Life in present times has become an increasingly rapid process of experiences and feedback. Businesses are always asking us to rate the services or experiences they offer. And often, they feel inclined to “reward” us for it. While no one’s complaining about the free stuff or great discounts, are we losing perspective of what’s genuinely good? Because, while the feedback is certainly far more in quantity, it can’t be as clean in quality.
Why, you ask?
For starters, the moment you bribe (yes, a strong but apt word) someone for a feedback or to leave a rating or review, you’re automatically influencing the purity of the feedback, rating or review. Same goes for a 10% discount for simply “checking into” a restaurant.
Everything from a review to get the free ‘dry fruit pickle’ or a discount on the food bill, establishments are literally paying to distort their own reality of their business.
A few years ago, a friend of mine started a business, and reached out to friends on Facebook to like their business page. I was well past the years when I’d actually ask people to convince me (or at the least, fill the ‘About’ section on the page), before asking people to simply like the page. So, while I liked the page and got on with my work, some months later, seeing the 800+ likes, I asked how business was. There was none. Even though am quite sure a lot of common friends might have had a need for the products being offered. What happened, was that the Facebook page (in herd mentality), gave them a level of instant gratification, while distracting them from the core. Is, or how can I make my offerings increasingly relevant?
Recently, an entrepreneur found me online and requested a meeting to help their business turn profitable and grow faster. They had exceptional social media following and activity, which of course I didn’t take at face value. But what came next from the entrepreneur was even more disappointing. That while a lot of the followers were fake, when visiting any business page, seeing a good following gives him a sense of trust and confidence too. That justified it.
Let’s forget fake following and likes for a moment. Besides, I’ve already written a fair bit about them years ago. But consider just the fact of a business incentivizing a feedback or review that should ideally be happening without influence. Each time we do that, we willingly distort our sense of the pulse of our business.
Last month, I had dinner at one of the Taj restaurants with relatives. While the starters and main course were exceptional, the service was aloof, and one dessert was a disaster. On another occasion, when at a relatives place, I ordered butter chicken from the Butter Chicken Factory, a nearby joint. The butter chicken was terrible! I wrote reviews about the Taj dinner and the butter chicken place on Zomato (neither ratings were too terrible). Both establishments responded. The Taj staff thanked me, saying they would incorporate the inputs. And that they looked forward to having me there again soon. The city head of the Butter Chicken Factory called to understand what in my opinion, they had gotten wrong about the taste. As I was busy, he called at a time I said I’d be free, and tried to understand. He had inputs of his own to reason out, like the very different taste of the dish in northern India and other places, and how theirs  was influenced more by a certain part of the country. It was a good dialogue, with me recommending they try out the dish at another old joint which I knew, was good. This felt like a far, far more human and involved business, as opposed to a template perhaps pasted by the Taj folk.
Now imagine, if the Taj people had offered me a 10% discount on my next visit. But the service remained unchanged and the same dessert was still on the menu, and still a dess-aster! Perhaps my reaction would have been milder, as I would have been indebted to the 10% discount. And the restaurant wouldn’t have learnt anything from the feedback.
And these are instances that are still the more evident, at least to most of us. There are so many where one aspect of the business could cause us to completely write off another aspect of it. Or an offer could skew our perception of what we’ve just experienced, be it food, an experience, an electronic product, anything.
A startup might justify the need to influence reviews to obtain a minimum critical mass to even survive. But in doing so, do businesses ignore real feedback and let performance slack? Thanks to early illusionary success, do they risk missing the growth bus?

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