6 months of lockdown

As I write this after nearing the 6 months mark of lockdown, I cannot help but think at looking back at how things have changed in the last 6 months or so.

  • Work from home is an accepted norm with remote working at an all time rise. The organizations that could slide into this mode of working have also started realizing the benefits of allowing teams to operate from home. Any teething troubles that were there have been ironed out and I am see teams of all functions coming together on Zoom/Hangouts and making it work.
  • Reverse migration has started. A lot of this working class who can work remotely has opted to move back to their native places. Just to give an example, out of my team of 8 – only one has chosen to stay in the city … the rest are safely back at their native places across the country.
  • Internet penetration and mobile services are at an all time high. The demand for Jio has never been higher with this working class scrabbling to ensure that they have steady connections at home. I see this audience’s demand in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities ensure that brands and the government focus on building out the infrastructure in remote cities.
  • This would lead to some normalization between demand and supply of all goods across higher and lower tier cities. Take Mumbai for example … in the suburbs or in Mumbai proper, it is hardly a case when you see an electricity outage. As you go outwards, you will start seeing specific load shedding hours and schedules. In the Raigad district, there is atleast one day a week when there is no electricity. As the working class goes back to these cities, either the demand for inverters will go up or the respective local governments would be petitioned to increase the quality of lifestyle.
  • Environment conditions across all cities have drastically improved, the Mumbai air feels cleaner, cooler and taking a walk doesn’t seem oppressive.
  • Organizations whose engagement models involved a lot of physical interaction have started discovering alternative methods and workarounds. Dentists have started using full-body kits, delivery boys have established clear package hand-off protocols, restaurants have started opening up with lower floor space utilization.
  • Cost of basic services and commodities have slowly increased. An annualized inflation of 15-16% looks to be on the cards and the common man is going to bear the brunt of this. Any initiative the government is going to take is only further going to exacerbate this.
  • Industries that have been doing well since lockdown –
    • Food Deliveries
    • E-commerce
    • Agri-tech
    • App enabled services
    • Edtech
    • Fintech
  • Communication apps are at an all time high. Zoom has made it to the top 10 websites in India according to Alexa.com
  • OTT platforms are raking it in with a lot of the younger audiences looking at their smartphones for entertainment. Since there haven’t been any theatre releases, all the movies that were scheduled to be released have started being covered on the OTT platforms. A quick glance at the above list by Alexa informed me that Netflix, PrimeVideo and HotStar were all in the top 20.
  • Big tech firms are going all out to change the way things are. Google pretty much gave all schools free access to Google Classroom. Both my children are using this for their new term this year.

As things start settling down from this massive change in life, I see a resilience being shown by businesses as they start figuring out a way to live and thrive in this economically challenging environment. As a technologist, I see a large need to automate a lot of business processes to keep the wheels of the industry turning.

This is what will keep the world going round.

Data the new Oil

Any analysis team would work day and night to justify the reason for their being. There are enough articles being shared on the internet on arriving at a Return on Investment for Analytics (RoIA). However, the main service that any of these teams did was to crunch business data into A-has. This hasn’t changed over the years, and a lot of analysts derive job satisfaction through this very hunt for the A-ha! from their audiences.

The switch to being a core business

Data and business analysis was until now a support function, which needed business data in order to thrive and be effective. Aside from very few models (those that sold business critical data such as ratings, organizational data, etc), the data was never used as the primary product.

There was always a pre-activity and an analysis activity for that data to be useful. However, over the years I am seeing that has changed. Data is now being presented and sold as the main product.

Data as the product

Those of you who know Bloomberg, Hoovers, S&P or CRISIL, would know that data as a product business model works. Now that you know the pattern, let’s take a look at how this business model works.

Data collection as a ancilliary service

There is one function of the business which works with the entire industry it is catering to, to collect data. This more often than not is made available as a freemium or free service.

Some examples of this would be – Alexa Certified metrics, Google Analytics, Walnut app, Swaggerhub, etc.

You get the general idea here. If a good product or service is offering you a free plan, more often than not the data you are entering on that platform would be mused for multiple usecases. Not just for your primary use case.

Data aggregation and visualization

This is akin to the marketing function, and most probably gets a lot of early adopters talking good things about the product.

E.g a blogger singing paeans about Google Analytics, an industry benchmark visualization being shared, data report about a competitor, etc.

This way, the inherent value in the data is presented.

Data access and pricing plans

This is how the business is monetizing the data. By selling access to it. Often on a pay per use basis, or a per data point basis. Note, there might be multiple reports given to the user, however the user has to do the analysis on their own.

E.g SEMRush, SimilarWeb, Alexa, etc.

Wait, these are all old products

Yes. They have been around for quite some time. However, I am seeing that other industry are also copying this model. I recently spoke to someone in the pharma industry who was selling aggregated prescription data to pharma companies.

The credit industry has already been doing this for so many years. TransUnion is a perfect example. In India, most working professionals are familiary with their CIBIL scores. What few people realize that CIBIL is a TransUnion company. Similarily, CRIF score (which is an alternative bureau) belongs to Experian.

What gets my goat in this scenario, is that the firm which is collecting data is based out of another country! This firm now claims to own and know the data of citizens belonging to another country.

Shut up and take my data

Let’s go back 300 years or so. The British killed the Indian textile industry by mutilating the weavers who used to make cloth. Then they bought the cotton and other crops at throwaway prices, that cotton is similar to the data that is being collected. The industry grade cotton which was then imported back in India is similar to the data aggregation and reports that are being sold.

The only difference is that 300 years back, we were scared of the East India Company. This time around, we are welcoming the data traders with open arms. Should we not be a bit more aware of who and how our data is being used?

The reason why EU is taking such a harsh stance with GDPR is a bit more clear. Where is the call for privacy and better data sharing protocols?

Solving the problem of Discovery

The real problem that Google solves, is the problem of availability. When you have a problem and are searching for the solution, Google provides you with a list of most likely content that can address the problem. The problem is created by information asymmetry. You just don’t know and are willing to try out or read about the different solutions.

However, over a period of time this has turned into a problem of plenty. So many content providers are creating content for the average internet user, that the options tend to give all the creators a sliver of traffic. This has led to a bulk of copy-cats and me-too content providers eyeing for their search visibility. So much so that one of the default rules of inbound marketing is to start a content creation cycle and hope that you keep attracting traffic via Search.

What can new brands do?

Stay away from the whole attack of the clones! All marketers would swear on grabbing the attention of the customer as many times as possible in order to drive a higher brand share. However, at the cost of what?

Instead of creating very similar content? How about solving things that matter instead?

How about identifying a niche area where there is a genuine need and people are struggling to find answers?

This might seem contradictory to what I was saying, but once a brand (or a team) starts engaging with the customers, then you start seeing a slew of issues that no content provider is addressing. Talking about these issues and solving them via your product or service is a far better way to get discovered, rather than to keep talking about how your me-too offering is different from the competitor’s me-too offering!

tl-dr;

Engage with customers to discover what message and positioning you need to take when it comes to working in a crowded market.

Marketing for India2

As someone who has been in the area of Digital marketing for the past few years (close to a decade now), it’s interesting to note and see how it has evolved. Right from the open market economics that AdWords grew upon to the game theory dynamics of Search Engine Optimisation, the way the entire industry has been changing is fascinating.

This article on English Tax and building for the next billion Indian users by Sajith Pai makes you stop and think. At this point, all the marketers and brands are busy selling to that sliver of audience who are online and are english speaking, affluent, willing to whip out their credit cards and make a purchase.

The next Billion

However, there is a larger audience out here, 10 times as much. A billion people, who may not be comfortable with English, who may not have approved credit cards and credit lines … but who are online.

Thanks to the launch of Jio, you now have an audience who may not be affluent, but who are there online. The same audience is being targeted by brands in a language that is not native to them.

English Tax

What is the English Tax? It’s the overhead that a user has to go over to understand what is being said. English is not my mother tongue, however after just under 4 decades of being subjected to both formal and informal education, I have started to think of English as my primary language.

However, that may not be the case of the next Billion. They may not even understand English, and thanks to Google or Apple, they would still be able to browse the web online without even typing a single English letter!

To top it all off, this audience is not being targeted online, not because they do not have a foot print, but because they do not understand the language in which they are being targeted.

This is bad.

Not only would they need re-phrasing of communications, but also a lot of mis-selling and mis-communications would be currently done to them.

Responsibility in Media

Yeah, this section is a joke! However, as digital platforms evolve, can the major players like GAFA take a much more responsible stand on exposing the India2 to the internet?

It’s not as if something is wrong with them. Please note, I am not saying that. However the internet which is most relevant for India2 is in the making and a lot of players are just ignoring this huge blue ocean that needs to be made.

There are content oriented players like BhaDiPa (Bharatiya Digital Party) and  TVF (The Viral Fever) who are making content in regional languages, pretty sure there are many more as well. However, one look at the keyword search volumes in Hindi and Marathi, and I know that we have still miles to go.

This audience for instance may not be doing a lot of searches, however, they definitely are there on Facebook, on WhatsApp, etc.

What can we do to engage as brands and marketers with this audience?

Going Regional

One step is always to speak the same language. I always loved the devnagri script, it just looks graceful when in comparison to the English script. Call me biased. However, as a marketer I would love to see some really good creatives, copy and content being pushed out there in regional formats.

I have seen this being done by some organisations, and just going by their data consumption numbers makes one re-think the language in which they are publishing! Similarly, the concepts of marketing wont change, but since the language is changing, so would therefore the format and forms. Just taking a Facebook update and translating it to Marathi won’t do. It has to be not just re-phrased but even re-thought … some of the memes and mental models that one language/culture has may pretty much ensure that the whole line of messaging be irrelevant.

I think as an industry based in a country that’s slowly emerging online, we are barely scratching the surface on these things.

What’s the real price for free?

I loved this quote by Tristan Harris in the New York Magazine article The Internet Apologizes … “We cannot afford the advertising business model. The price of free is actually too high. It is literally destroying our society, because it incentivizes automated systems that have these inherent flaws. Cambridge Analytica is the easiest way of explaining…

via The Price of Free is Actually Too High — Feld Thoughts

Brad Feld, the author of the above piece is a VC at the Foundry Group. He is also a regular blogger, and when you do find the time, do read through his thoughts on entrepreneurship and start-ups.

One of the discussions that I keep having with founders of different start-ups is how the free now, pay later model is slowly making users devalue the product.

The price of free

So what is the price of free?

Think about the product which is being offered for free. If you are using the product, and you have paid a cent, then, there is a good chance that the product might be using you!

Hence the reference to Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in the article. We use this social media platform so routinely, similar to Google … it has permeated into our very lives itself.

The amount of data that the free product therefore has to gather goes up. The data is then churned, and out of that valuable insights are generated.

Or else, they could simply sell the data!!

Really? Isn’t this illegal? Who does that?

Take places in this world where privacy laws are so draconian, or take countries where the common man is discovering the beauty of the internet (and its dark sides as well), or take areas where the sheer size and volume of the nation makes it difficult to really control … well anything and everything!

Does that ring a bell?

In India, the IT Act of 2000 has been reigning supreme for the past 18 years. Even then, the average joe out here barely even knows what kind of activity makes him liable for a case under the IT Act. Where the laws are not understood, how do you think the population is going to work react?

They are going to react as per their own personal code of ethics and morality. For some, it would be inline with the IT Act, for some it would be a far cry. Sending corporate data over email to a friend … sure! Email spamming a bunch of email-ids … why not!

A lot of times, since the target (or to use a nobler word – purpose) is known to people, the code of ethics is often kept aside. Let the purpose be achieved, no matter what.

In such a “purpose” driven environment, do you think that cyber crimes and leakage of data is going to be noticed?

Think about the product’s purpose

Now, think about the product.

and it’s purpose.

The initial purpose was to solve a problem. However, now we are giving it for free. The purpose shifts to getting these free users to convert. The problem changes. So does the product.

Remarketing campaigns are launched, I already spoke about this. Conversion Rate optimization is taken up … not to solve the users problem, but to get the user to pay.

I am not saying this should not be done. However, if that’s what’s kept at the center of the product, then the product’s very nature changes. That’s the real price of free.

LinkedIn starts Career Advice and Mentorship services

As far as visiting Social Media sites is concerned, I have slowly veered off Facebook and Twitter and gravitated towards LinkedIn and Medium. One of the interesting features that I noticed LinkedIn launch, is its Career Advice services. I am attaching a screenshot of what I saw, this was a promoted post that I saw in my feed.

Curious to see where this rabbit hole leads to, I signed up for the service. Interestingly enough, the link led me to a place where I had to sign up as a mentor and choose the areas on which I could help others out.

This seems like a me-too of Clarity.fm and similar other services. What LinkedIn definitely has is the wide professional network (and thus the social credibility of the influencers). It’d be interesting to see how Microsoft and the LinkedIn team build this further.

One of the major problems in corporate India is the lack of coaches available in the middle management tiers. Perhaps, if played properly, LinkedIn can address this huge coaching and leadership gap.

Stuttering Start-ups

Stayzilla, an Airbnb for homestays in India, is closing down its service. The company was founded six years ago and had raised $34 million from investors, including a $20 million Series B in 2015. Now is the time to pause and “reboot” however, CEO and co-founder Yogendra Vasupal explained in a blog post. The company reached a…

via Stayzilla, India’s Airbnb for homestays, closes its service — TechCrunch

Another one bites the dust, as start-ups and investors start rethinking their approach to creating unicorns. One of the largest ones being discussed (and also a poster child for Indian e-commerce) is Snapdeal, who in a recent email announced a lay-off of more than 1000 employees.

So why do it in the first place?

Well, it was good while it lasted, and at least the team that started it knows that they gave it their best and things did not work out – due to whichever reasons … be it a bad business model or unbalanced promotions, or whatever.

Over the years, investors have also become much more skeptical on which businesses would they put their money in.

Invest smart!

One of the things that peeves me off is that the investor success stories which have 1000% gains and great exits had the investors not just invest money, but also time and efforts in different capacities.

As someone who works with multiple ideas, one of the key components that I myself do not have much is time. Money is a transient thing, sometimes you are floating in it, sometimes you do not have much to spare. However, as time goes by … one of the key assets that people should look at is the time required to nurture that unicorn.

If that time is not there, then its best that you don’t put in the money – thinking that some smart people will grow that money and give you handsome returns. Somewhere in that dynamic, people are forgetting to create sustainable value.

What is Sustainable Value?

Any transaction happens because of both the parties seeing a certain economic value in that transaction. A buyer gets a good or a service for a price that he can afford. A seller gets a reasonable price for goods/services that he/she are providing.

For a time being, the buyer or seller can extract more value from the market. This could work due to information asymmetry (or third degree arbitrage). However, as information is made available to every user and as customer discovery becomes faster and smoother, this arbitrage is being worn down.

So, how does sustainable value come from … simple, it comes from fair play, it comes from co-operation and knowing that co-operation is the winning strategy when it comes to game theory.

How many start-ups get the sustainable value creation point is something that I am most interested in.