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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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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Pigs Rule

Pigs Rule

I recently found myself around a humorous discussion around politics at a relatives’ home.
A grand aunt asked another relative if they planned on getting into politics. The relative laughingly retorted that for one to be in politics, they must be prepared to hit and to be hit. As an example, he cited a recent incident involving some politician.

My grand aunt, matter-of-factly replied that those are some of the things one needs to be prepared for, if one is convinced and focused on an important goal. She added something about the need to keep a certain type of people close. They were those who would attack, protect and defend. She quoted what sounded like ancient but obvious wisdom in my mother tongue. It translated to something like, ‘that is why one needs to rear stray dogs.’

I recently read the classic ‘Animal Farm’, written by India-born English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic, Eric Arthur Blair, a.k.a. George Orwell.

Rear dogs. Interestingly in the book, that’s exactly what the pigs did to achieve and stay in power. To muscle their way to the top. To eliminate any competition. And to enforce their way on the people.

The philosophy of the ruling pigs in ‘Animal Farm’. Image source: link

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A Pad Idea!

A Pad Idea!
Once upon a time, there was is a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham from Coimbatore in India, who could not bear to see the discomfort and embarrassment that his wife had to go through, just to buy/ wear a sanitary pad / napkin. Risking even his very marriage, Arunachalam’s empathy and resolve lead him to research everything from material to pricing of sanitary pads. And after a long, unrelenting journey, he makes sanitary napkins that become the preferred and highly affordable alternative to what many rural and even urban women were used to for the longest time; cloth. This inspiring story of an Indian hero was recently depicted by way of a Bollywood movie, Padman.
Now consider some Hollywood movies inspired by real-life heroes. Erin Brockovich (played by Julia Roberts), Joy (Jennifer Lawrence starrer), Sully (featuring Tom Hanks), Argo (Ben Affleck playing the cool, brave Antonio J. Mendez of the CIA), etc., etc. Noticed anything in common?
The protagonist always bears the real name of the character it was inspired by. The way I see it, that helps real heroes get the recognition they deserve in their home countries, if not the world. And it helps the masses connect better with the name and great actions of that hero or changemaker. Of course, there are other movies loosely based on some real-world people. In which case, I agree that moviemakers would be wary of incurring the wrath of linked families. And therefore use fictional names. But why the same even with movies completely inspired by one, known person.
Bollywood has been notorious for decades, for being “inspired” by original content from the world over, and repackaging it for our audiences. To add to the plagiarism, is the unimaginative rehashed Bollywood classic songs that regularly make their way back to newer Bollywood movies. The least this multi-billion dollar industry that avoids imagination and innovation like the plague could do, is let real heroes have a share in the limelight. By using the person’s real name in the movie it is inspired by.
They did with Padman. And with Airlift. With Guru, among other movies.

Why do they do it? Are box office proceeds all they care about? Or is it some lawsuit they’re trying to avoid? Or do they want credit for the empathy, innovation and perseverance of another?

‘Arunachalam Muruganantham’ is a tough enough name even for Indians to remember, without it being portrayed by Akshay Kumar but bearing a completely different name. Giving a fictional name takes away the powerful connect it could create among the masses. And this movie could have been the perfect effort to make the real man a household name. To inspire many more such changemakers because of the direct connect to the real person it creates.

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Actions With and Without a Face

Actions With and Without a Face

Even today, you can see people of some races cringe or gasp at the sight of the swastika, the symbol of Hitler’s party. Even though the swastika has much older roots. And Hitler himself, continues to be collectively and strongly hated today, over 72 years after his death. And rightly so. He and his people were the cause of unspeakable oppression and death. Collectively, around 42 million deaths (soldiers and civilians), and even more as per some historical estimates. What probably makes it most glaring, is the short span of 12 years across which this happened. And as the leader of the Nazis, Hitler remains the face of all the death and destruction by his people.

Going back again in time, the British atrocities in their colonies is another story altogether. In India alone, their rule lasted around 184 years. And this time too, was witness to unspeakable oppression and the death. Approximately 40-54 million Indians. Dead! Due to starvation. Due to manual labour; and worse, through artificially created famines. When we compare the British kill report card with that of Hitler’s, it happened over a comparatively much longer 184 years. But there is no single face of the oppression. Which is also perhaps why it lasted so long. And was so much more deep-rooted.

In present times, the world citizens should always be on the look out for the second kind of mass-murderers. Eaters of countries. Because the world is a dynamic flow of information, even if a lot of it is manipulated by whorish media, the world citizen is still aware, and will not tolerate a single face of oppression for too long.

However, the second kind of oppression won’t have a single face, or perhaps have one that appeases a section of the masses, speaks directly to their concerns and hopes; while the arms of the organization carry out deep-rooted decay.

Many of us have heard of the myth around the frog and hot water experiments. While frogs aren’t so tolerant to heat, history bears testimony of human ignorance to oppression without a face.

British colonies were a live example of it. Albeit not the most subtle example, given the difference in race/ colour, etc. But imagine the harm a domestic movement with ulterior motives can do. Let’s ensure we guard against history repeating itself in other forms, but using similar tactics.

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Do Some of the Pillars of Democracy need a Shake-Up?

Democracy has rested on four pillars. The legislature, executive, the judiciary, and arguably the most important, the press. All the pillars need improvement, some far more than others. The world press, for instance, has really become dirty. When in reality, it should be a transparent communication channel between the citizen, the country, and the world.

In an increasingly connected globe, traditional media surprisingly continues to wield disproportionately high power. And it has been responsible for numerous crimes, the world over. From keeping entire populations in the dark, to convincing them about who the good guys and bad guys are. By encouraging unsolicited violence on other countries. Press has made large sections of otherwise peace-loving populations completely convinced of the need for war. Not always because any country was under attack. But because politicians and industry stood to benefit from tricking citizens and getting them onboard. And with business people and politicians ever interested in wielding influence over large media houses, it makes one wonder how we are allowing ourselves to be subjected to lies.

The Indian press too, continues to scale new depths by doctoring news or hiding it altogether, to favor various political parties.

Anyway, interestingly, the Congress, among the bigger corrupt parties, recently figured a simple way to fix the distorted media problem. After taking a lot of bashing by two leading TV news channels for some time, the party recently banned the channels from their press conferences. How much is a TV news channel worth if it doesn’t have access to a certain section of national news? Not as much as it had before, right?

Mahendra Palsule highlighted in a good post, about the fifth pillar in a democracy, the (silent) citizen.

Think about it. Let’s assume these two channels got a reality-check after this banning. Imagine then what we the people can, and must do, to get the press functioning the way it is meant to, not the underhand way it is paid to. The day the masses stop consuming lies served to us by these media, we will have withdrawn the right we gave them, and which they continue to abuse.

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Choose Your Mistakes

Choose your mistakes.

Life has made a lot of things extremely easy to start. Even the seemingly most impossible of tasks. The knowledge and resources available to us increase our confidence multi-fold, and daunting initiatives don’t look so big anymore. So yes, starting anything is damn easy. What’s the tough part? The toughest bit of it all, is to continue. But sure you already knew that, right?

There will come many an instance in your life, where a group of suddenly charged and enthusiastic people including you, will come together and set upon a journey, a bold initiative to do something life-changing, to create something unique and far-reaching. And shortly after starting, you will realize the uphill climb seems inversely proportional to the enthusiasm you all started out with.

Whenever such an idea or plan is in the offing, before you start, sit back, and make sure to factor in the decrease in enthusiasm going forth, and the increase in the slope; then build that into your plan. If things still look doable, jump right in. Else, shelving it right then will save you a ton of time, effort and money too.

Of course, this isn’t to discourage any budding initiatives before they have begun. Sure learning from others mistakes comes highly recommended by the oldies. And nothing like forgetting all warnings and making a bunch of them yourself. After all, the best of things around us, initially started out with completely different ideas, intentions and purposes in mind. And there is a lot of learning that also comes from starting, even if they end in failure. But given the limited time we are all given, while failing often and fast is recommended, it is also never too foolish to choose possible future mistakes wisely, and well before you’ve made them.

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Form or Function?

Form or Function? How about Form and Function?

The eternal fight between form and function. Between show and effectiveness. Between being followed by a herd with questionable loyalty, and walking with a small group with unwavering conviction in your vision.

Here’s a fancy looking video by HBX, Harvard‘s online programs platform. Professor Christensen undoubtedly sounds like someone I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to interact with and learn from. But the fact that even the likes of Harvard need movie-like videos to showcase the capabilities of a brilliant mind in order to sell a course, is a reflection of the superficial and attention-deficit times we live in.

Another rather painful habit is the one followed by the likes of Business Insider quite often. Apart from some very interesting articles, they also tend to hype the hell out of some random topic, using a catchy title and snippet. You’re tempted to click on it, only to find some absolutely boring or obvious view or reason about the story behind the title.

I for one, now actively avoid any such catchy but vague sounding snippet or title.

And then there are posts like Seth Godin‘s. No images, which, as per recent social media strategy “gurus”, would be nothing short of criminal. Experts will tell you how a picture is worth a thousand words. How a video would be so much more impactful. And some might even ask you to throw in a quote or two. And not just any quotes, but quotes quoted by..You! (what works better than bragging anyway, right?)

And while it is nothing short of an honour, when someone quotes you; there are few things as ridiculous as quoting yourself. Or asking your friends and industry colleagues to quote you. But that still goes on. So even if some of you can’t stop asking people to quote you, at least refrain from quoting yourself. That’s like walking up to your polling booth during election time, and asking for an option to vote yourself Prime Minister or President.

Coming back to Seth’s posts. They don’t have any images, and at barely 2-4 paragraphs, are far crisper and always impactful. Compare that with some standard blog analytics tools that give a red alert when you haven’t typed in a “minimum 300 words”. His posts are pure gold. They don’t need the crutches of pictures, videos, fancy or titillating titles or quotes or anything else to support them. They simply urge you to reflect, to question, and to improve.

And that’s what is lacking in the world today. We are becoming increasingly about cheaper, attention-grabbing tactics; and lesser about quality, long-term effectiveness.

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Phone of Reference

Phone of Reference

Last year, Mumbai’s traffic police enforced a ban on cellphone use while driving. It was backed by a fairly high fine. They even went a step further and banned the use of hands-free devices while driving too.

The extent of enforcing however, remains limited. The main reason for this is overworked traffic cops. And the fact that cops are often diverted to less important tasks including ensuring smooth flow of politician motorcade, etc. Then there is the blatant violation of this ban by literate and illiterate drivers alike.

Other countries have similar or slightly lax laws. Singapore and the US, for instance, allow the use of hands-free devices to make calls while driving.

Sometime last year I read an article that explained why it is a bad idea to speak on the phone while driving. Don’t remember the exact principles that governed it. But it stated that a driver speaking to co-passengers was completely different from speaking on the phone while driving. The latter being extremely risky.

Apparently, when you are driving and also speaking to someone aboard, you both are in the same relative plane of motion. Your mind is relatively present and aware. As are your reflexes.

However, when driving and speaking to someone on the phone, your mind gets into their frame of speed and reference. This means it takes you much longer to anticipate (if at all), and react to danger on the road.

Some of you might huff this off in disbelief. But here’s a seemingly comparable example I thought of. Yes, its yet to be tested or proven, but consider this. Compare two situations: one, where you’re singing a song while listening to it on the radio. The other, you singing while listening to the song using earphones.

Now let’s exclude any lack of talent or a ear for music and singing. You know you’d manage alright when listening to music on the radio, or for that matter, to someone singing around us. It might not sound great, but it is usually tolerable.

However, the moment you plug earphones in, we disconnect from our real frame of reference. Which could be why, that despite assuming we’re singing on Indian or American idol, that illusion gets shattered with someone pulling out a earplug and pleading with us to stop singing.

Commit to the habit of not answering or making phone calls or texting while driving. It really isn’t worth the danger.

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