Rise of the App Economy

As a technical architect and a start-up enthusiast, part of my work is consulting organizations on how to go about implementing and monetizing their ideas. The past decade’s experience of working in this field, as well as having successfully built the product and development teams of two start-ups (which secured VC fundings) ensures that a lot of people are willing to share their ideas so that I can advise them on the implementation.

Each year has its set of trends. These trends become apparent when people read about them in TechCrunch / Mashable and then integrate them somehow in their plans. In 2014, Kleiner Perkins’ analyst, Mary Meeker announced that the Education and Healthcare industries are the ones to watch out for. A lot of individuals started thinking and re-shaping their ideas along those lines. Similarly, since 2013, the famous analyst has been saying that mobile Apps are going to dominate the way consumers are going to engage with the brand.

I am seeing more start-ups gravitate towards this concept every year. Everybody who has a product, wants to also have their apps in the app stores (both Apple’s and Google’s). Back in 2000, when the DotCom Boom was apparent, everybody wanted to have their own site. Currently, we are definitely seeing the App Boom, where not only do entrepreneurs want to have their apps, but also individual celebrities are launching their own apps.

App Development can be a costly affair, with native apps costing as high as 2000 to 3000 USD to develop for the most basic apps. Add multiple platforms (iOS, Android, Win8) to the mix and the development costs surge.

This is where app template marketplaces like this website help tremendously. The core functionality is already in place, what has to be created is the creatives and voila, a custom app is read! Not only is this approach a faster method, but also it is extremely profitable. With the app economy maturing, we are seeing retail consumers using their handheld devices more than television sets!

This means that the media consumption is changing, thus an app is slowly eating away at TV’s timeshare. With tablets growing at 80% Year on Year, I’d say that both mobiles and tablets are here to stay, and with them a horde of enterpreneurs, developers and investors who would be happily launching multiple apps!

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Rackspace: The Case of Core Values

In the last days of September 2014, Rackspace customers were faced with multiple issues regarding service uptime, security concerns and network outages. The worst hit were the ones who were using Rackspace’s Chicago datacenter.

I happened to be one of those customers. This is my story.

Rackspace: A beacon of hope for all things hosting

Let me begin by saying that I love Rackspace. I salute the kind of service they provide, I appreciate the pricing that they charge. I even admire some of their key people.

I always hold Rackspace above the other mortal hosting firms … why .. well because they are fanatical about their support. So much so that it’s part of the core values at Rackspace.

This singular point is why I hold them above the others.

In India, where anyone with a global ip decides to have their own hosting and start providing this as a service, the quality of hosting is a major issue. A lot of the times, as a techie I have found to my own chagrin that the inhouse team of the hosting provider is completely clueless about hosting, networking and security.  Add to it the prohibitive costs that these providers charge … that puts them not only at par with Amazon or Rackspace, but also at times much higher than them.

The outage

As a result, I almost always promote Rackspace as the go to hosting provider for all of the people I work with. What this means is that I am referring their services not because I am an affiliate (no I am not), but because I truly believe in them and their ability to deliver great uptimes. However, this belief stands shattered.

In the last days of September, there was a massive outage (almost lasting 2 days) with all Rackspace servers. Whereas, 13 Llama’s server did not face major issues and it was up and running most of the times, some of our main clients did!

My first reaction was that there might be an issue with the webserver settings. So I promptly logged into the server and lo, I could not even reach the server much less tweak apache settings. Clearly, this was a network issue due to some problem. I tried catching the chat executive on Rackspace’s site. The chappie tried his best, however after 20 minutes it was clear that he had absolutely no idea what the problem was … or that he was not willing to acknowledge that there was a problem with the datacenter’s network.

I raised a ticket, after a couple of hours of waiting, there was an update and the support team acknowledged the network issue. They also suggested a fix, however that fix was not working.

Things get ugly

After trying different approaches, the support executive say that I will have to upgrade my membership and purchase a managed services slab so that the person can take a look at my server. I would have done this had there been any issue with the server. However, I had not made any changes to the server due to which this outage would have been caused.

This is where I start losing patience.

  1. I am being kept in the dark of the actual problem at hand
  2. The server changes / outage was due to some security upgrade that they are doing, and due to this I have to pay them more to solve a problem that they have created
  3. My client’s website is still down

I give up on Rackspace support and try solving this on my own.

Simple Solution

In the end, what came to my rescue is the cloud!

I made a back-up image of the server in question and spun a new server with the same configuration and that image. Within 10 minutes, a new server was up and running. I updated the nameserver records and that’s that.

The problem was solved for me. Rackspace, however had major problems.

The Apology

I was angry at Rackspace’s support. However, this heartfelt apology from Taylor Rhodes drove me to reply to his email … inspite of knowing that most likely this email was sent as a mass email (an excerpt is below).

Those of you who are longtime Rackspace customers know that we have a strong record of open, timely communication with you. We reach out to you whenever there’s an issue.  We answer the phone whenever you call. We do everything we can to find a solution.  This past weekend, our engineers worked tirelessly with customers and partners to remediate the Xen vulnerability.

Such an email warrants a reply!

The catharsis

When an organization of the caliber of Rackspace (there is no denying their ability and scale) mucks-up, that is when I question things. Here’s an excerpt of the email that I replied to the mass email (I was not expecting a reply).

I don’t want to complain about my individual problems. I am sure your team has had thousands of those. I just want to point out to you that one of the core values with which I look up towards Rackspace was “Fanatical Support”. I believe that you have failed at maintaining this core value.

Within a week, I received a personal reply from Taylor Rhodes and it was addressed by one of the management members in his APAC team. This is great response.

What is broken may not be fixed

However …

What I wanted addressed was not my server issue. I sorted that out myself, thank you.

What I wanted addressed is how does a large organization manage to adhere to its core values? In India, I see a lot of large firms (even the Fortune 500 ones) who tout high values, however, how many of them manage to uphold them when engaging with their customers?

With regards to this, I was looking at Rackspace in high esteem … they had (until now) managed to be awesome in support. What changed then … yes, the crisis they were facing was a lot, and their support team would have been facing several angry customers. I grant them that. There is no elegant solution to this.

However, how do you intrinsify a core value? At what point in time do you do a reality check and say …

Hey, are our core values being upheld?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Personally, if you ask me, I have yet to brainstorm the core values of my even own organization!! However, the real question that I would ask myself or anyone who has put out their core values is … to what extent are you going to go to uphold those?

Would 1 customer complaining out of 200,000 be neglected (as it’s an extremely negligible sample size)? Or would the 200,000 complaining customers be a big enough number to take necessary action.

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A month without Ad Block

As a person who literally lives off the internet, one of the first things I do when I get a new machine is install Chromium or Chrome and then go and install the Ad Block Plus plug-in. Fortunately, I am well past Windows, so I do not have to go to the trouble of removing IE!

Having said that, I thought, it would be interesting to see the world from the eyes of a non-power user and see the internet with it’s full glory … yes without an Ad Blocker!

How to Get Ad Blockers

For those of you who are new to this term – Ad Blockers, these are small plug-ins within your browser that stop Ads from displaying on any of the sites you visit. Those elements are not rendered at all! I strongly recommend Ad Block for this purpose.

Just follow the simple instructions on the link provided, and voila! No Ads … you can thank me later .. the web will be a different place for you. But enough of that, this is about seeing those Ads.

A World with Ads

As someone who runs Ads on his blog, I still do not bother to see Ads .. why? Because a lot of these Ads are poorly made … very few Ads these days are awesome enough to catch your eye or even better make you click! Why do we require Ads? Well to pay for all this cost of content creation of course!

Mainstream Media does it all the time! Why cannot the Internet follow suit? Put up Ads, write content, generate traffic … the simplest formula in the series of crazy get rich schemes :-)

What Prompted me to do this?

Sheer curiosity of checking how the Media agencies of the world are creating Ads was one. Some of the clients I was working with wanted to run Ads and I wanted to see how the Ads are going with the design of the site was another.

The third reason was the most important. I believe that users (yes, that’s you and me!) develop a certain immunity towards unpleasant experiences over time. Ads are generally ignored .. users learn to ignore them as time goes by, click through rates (CTRs) drop … that’s why it’s so important to keep changing your creatives!

The month starts!

I did this experiment in the month of February and ran it through till the middle of March. A little over 40 days. What did I observe? Well there are beautiful ads (naah, not Cilory ;-)), and the blockers are removing a bit more of the mark-up. Quite a lot of times an otherwise empty page suddenly looks fuller due to these display ads.

For e.g the Facebook layout looks marginally better with Ads. However, with Ads such as these, I’d still start running the blocker.

Ads on Facebook
I do not see how this creative is adding to building a list of leads!

Social Media networks were fine, the worst places I experienced without an Ad Blocker were surprisingly not Pr0n sites, but gaming sites! The sheer amount of wtf-ery in Ads that I saw on gaming sites was outstanding.

What took the cake was an Ad by Gurudas Kamat on my own blog asking for support in elections. Ughhh … one quick shift to Adsense and I blocked the entire category out. That Ad shook me :-) … I prompty turned out the Ad Blocker.


Before I experienced the internet without an Ad Blocker, I was happily running multiple Ads on my own site. After those 40 days, I trimmed down the number of Ads (I believe there are two simple Ads in the sidebar and thats that).

Setting up advertising to bear the cost of content creation is good, but if it is destroying the user experience (HBR are you listening?), is a no-no.

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With Foodpanda Good Food is a click away!

I have always believed that a person can live off the internet. With virtual offices and office-less organizations being a reality now, one can operate perfectly without leaving their house. Having said that, ordering food online was not being done so well in India … yes there are many people who are trying to do this for quite some time now, however I believed no one had nailed the experience.

Until today!

FoodpandaI decided to give Foodpanda a try. The site features many restaurants in India with their menus. I went to find the nearby restaurants in Mumbai. You can choose to directly go to your favourite restaurant and start ordering, or you can provide your locality and area and find interesting joints from where you could order. All online.

I decided to discover places and found a place called Rocket Sandwiches … the prices were affordable and the menu looked great. After 10 minutes, I was done ordering and the order was confirmed!

Foodpanda Order
The order which I placed on Foodpanda

The good part about the site is that the expectations and the wait time were given on the site for each of these restaurants. These wait times are fairly accurate and I was pleasantly surprised that the order arrived at my doorstep in the same amount of time.

The Pros

  • Simple site and to the point
  • The ordering process works and does not require you to be a rocket scientist
  • All the information you would want while ordering food is provided
  • Entire process is automated, I did not have to talk to a single person throughout the process
  • Good way to explore your neighbourhood joints or order food if you are in a new locality
  • The site keeps track of all my orders and allows me to quickly re-order the same items (I’ll just have my regular!!)

The Cons

Yes, there are a few of those!

  • There are quite a few modal pop-ups (which open-up as a separate layer of the page) in the site. Thankfully, you can close those pop-ups.
  • Ditto for the site-chat. If I do not wish to chat, then why is the functionality asking me to chat.

All in all, I am going to keep using this site!

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Why hitcounters are a waste of script?

A simple search on Google about hitcounters would lead you to literally hundreds of different sites which offer pretty looking widgets which display a counter in your site. The question is do you think that the number really means anything to you?

What are hitcounters?

hitcounterHitcounters are simple scripts solely created for measuring one thing only. The number of hits you are getting on the site. They are included in the HTML script so that when your site loads, the hitcounter records this as an increment to the total hits on your website. Yes, if you are interested in web analytics, hitcounters are a cumulative measure of pageviews. Thats it.

There used to be a time when web analytics was based purely on parsing server log files and crunching them into numbers. During this time having a hitcounter had a great value (since you would not be required to do the heavy lifting of understanding which page had which files and then parsing the server log). This is the era when these hitcounters really flourished … in fact in the pre Google Analytics days even I had tried a couple of these hitcounters. That’s around a decade back and things have changed.

So what has changed about hitcounters?

With the onset of free web analytics programs such as Google Analytics, Clicky, Mixpanel, you can measure far many things than a simple pageviews metric. In fact the pageviews metric these days is almost meaningless. Hitcounters these days serve only as a source of eye candy on the site … an eye candy which is a sidebar/footer widget at the best or an eyesore at the worst.

There is yet a diminishing population of website owners who still brag about this metric and hence go ahead to put this script on their HTML.

Why do I have against hitcounters?

I do not have any personal vendetta against any hitcounter script. However, think about it … you are adding a script to your page … this impacts your page loading speed. If this is scripted correctly, then hopefully it will not add to your web page loading speeds … if this some random script you have found on the internet, then it might as well be a backdoor for a malware.

A cumulative number is just one data point, instead if you tracked how this is growing, then you could eek out some insights from this number. What about tracking how a user is visiting your site across multiple visits? Naah … this functionality is simply not there in hitcounters! What about e-commerce tracking? Well … not there either. As I said before, it only counts pageviews and shows it in a styled manner. That’s it.

In short, at best it increases your web page loading times. Is that silly looking counter then really worth the cost you are incurring?

My answer is a resounding NO.

I have a hitcounter on my site!

Well there are two approaches you can take. The first is to discount what I have said in my post and go ahead on that dark road.

The Dark Road - Matrix

If you go down that road, forget you ever read this post and live happily in the land where everyone counts the hits on their websites.

The best part about a cumulative metric is that it will never dip!

The other road from here is the road towards enlightenment, towards data and correct measurements. Towards Google Analytics and other tools which will help you measure each and every aspect of your site’s visitors. Here’s what you need to do to take this path –

  1. Remove that hitcounter widget from your site
  2. Register for a Google Account and go to the Google Analytics site
  3. Register your site on GA
  4. Include this code in your site’s template
  5. Start measuring!

In this journey you will come across many hurdles and questions, however on this road you will find other travellers who will have mastered those hurdles and they will be more than happy to help. Have fun and enjoy developing a richer understanding of web analytics!

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Conversion Rate Optimization in the Longer Run

Today a comment by Analytics guru – Avinash Kaushik made me to pause and take a re-look at my perspective on Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO).

What is Conversion Rate Optimization?

Conversion Rate Optimization is the science behind increasing the conversion rate of the pages of a website.

Let’s say that you are running an Adwords campaign for your website, then most likely you would use a specific landing page built purely for conversions (be it purchases or be it lead generation). With the interaction that I have had with the different Search Engine Marketing agencies in India, the default target conversion rate that is considered acceptable is a measly 5%. At EduPristine, we try for 30% and on an average generate a healthy 25% lead generation conversion rate.

However, the tactics that we ended up using were pretty much what Avinash has mentioned to avoid … most of the time when we conduct CRO experiments, it is with a short term focus of getting an incremental raise in the conversion rates. Here is an excerpt from the comment –

Then I realize that I’m sure someone tested this. I’m sure some “conversion rate optimization guru” was brought in to do this. I’m sure they got 10% more leads. I’m sure their lead conversion rate went from 1.67% to 1.84%. I’m sure to them this looks awesome.
But what about the other 98.16%? People who did not convert, many of whom, like me, might have thought this was distasteful? Some of the 98.16% surely thought “This is not the type of company I want to do business with?”

So where does this put us?

I used to think that 25% conversion rate is awesome (and believe me, it is! :-) ). However, what is happening to the user experience on the site … a modal pop-up here, a lead generation form there … do the visitors on my site really want to see that?

The pragmatist within me says that the purpose of the site is lead generation, and that it is doing brilliantly.

However, the idealist says that in the long run the site needs to welcome the user … it needs to provide that the same user keeps returning again and again for clear value that he gets from visiting the site. The %age of repeat visitors needs to increase … and that metric is something that a CRO specialist hardly looks at.

How about a metric which measures the number of unique visitors who visits your site more than x times? That could be a measure of customer retention.

So what needs to be done?

Instead of focusing on incremental changes on the page to get a temporary raise in conversions, focus on user experience and ask yourself this question … would you visit your own site again?

What are your thoughts on this?

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Discount Sites driving Business

I am a big fan of e-commerce and Indian e-commerce especially. Having worked in the web development field for more than a decade, and having seen multiple start-ups in the e-commerce and e-learning domains, I love the fact that this industry is still booming. What drives this is simple retail sales.

The sheer number of sites who have set up shop within the past two years is mind boggling. With large foreign multi-nationals also entering this market, the influx of money to the country has also strengthened the economy. Obviously with a limited number of consumers (although this is a significant number), and growing number of providers, the competition had to go up.

To battle competition, services and sites started providing deep discounts. Consumers started using these deep discounts to make spot purchases, which drew sales for different service providers.

So much was the power of these spot sales that multiple sites started aggregating these discount coupons and discount sites were born. Sites such as have spawned and boosted the e-commerce market in the country.

Now why should a consumer like you and me visit a discount site like Cuponation?

The answer is simple, getting a sweet deal on a product which you otherwise would have bought at a full price!

This is like the NET50 coupon of Dominos which you keep handy whenever you want to buy a pizza … have your cake and eat it too!

So why should a service provider look at registering on such sites … hmmm … to be honest, at a business level, you have to start thinking about the cost of sales of an individual customer versus the cost of a discount. If for a 1000 INR product, my cost of sales is INR 160, then I am more than happy to provide a 10% discount on that product since that would drive up my sales.

Another way of looking at this matter is if the contribution (revenues – costs) is positive and I am looking only at the revenues (in which case most likely I am VC funded ;-) ), then I would want a sales promotion like this to drive up my sales.

So it’s a win-win deal. The end customer is getting a good deal on a product he wants to buy, the seller is getting higher sales, and the intermediary (Cuponation in our case) is getting the commissions.

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