Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Internet and global contests & polls

In an increasingly global world,the Internet is turning into a great medium to drive participation from the world over in polls, contests and the like. Over the last 72 hours,here is what three marquee names have announced :   

1. The Economist is running an unique online poll. People the world over - including from the U.S. - can "vote" online for Barack Obama or John McCain. Each of the 195 countries in the World has - in a system inspired by the U.S. presidential system - been set electoral votes in a global electoral college.

Of the total 9875 global electoral votes, India alone has 1588. As of the time of writing this post, the world vote is overwhelmingly pro-Obama, with him registering 12,956 votes as against 2,970 of McCain. In terms of electoral votes, it's a one-sided race, with Obama having 8,012 votes as against just 12 of McCain.

2. Google is, on it's 10th anniversary,running a global contest online called Project 10 to the 100th.Ideas are invited on how the world could be made a better place. The best ideas will be funded and championed by Google.

3. NASA is sending a satellite Glory into space in June 2009 which will also carry names of ordinary people. Anyone can enter their names on NASA's "Send Your Name Into Space " website and derive the thrill of having one's name circle in space for very many years.

I would imagine that other brands will also one day launch other such online polls / contests / fun things to do. These activities are, at the very minimum, really effective ways for the respective brands to build /acquire goodwill.  


Friday, September 26, 2008

The Internet juggernaut rolls on - IV

1. The power of the Internet, good or evil, never ceases to amaze. Some news from the previous fortnight - and earlier :
  • The Taliban is using Skype to dodge the British intelligence service MI6 in Afghanistan
  • Tigers are being sold illegally over the web, said a news report. Very surprisingly, the site still seems up and running, despite activists having lodged complaints with the authorities.
  • And then there was news of HRH Queen Elizabeth II’s scheduled visit to Google’s London office on October 16th.  This follows the successful debut of the official Royal Channel on You Tube (currently with 22,000 visitors and 1.5 million+ page views). Reportedly, Her Majesty also uses email to be in touch with her grandchildren Princes William & Harry.
2. India’s Parliamentary standing committee on Personnel is considering sweeping changes in the UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) exams for entering the civil service. Among other things, they are considering that the phase I or preliminary exams be held online, followed by the immediate release (online) of the candidate’s results (as is the case with the GRE & GMAT), thus saving time in the overall selection process. Civil service is one of the country’s three or four largest entrance exams (the others being engineering, MBA and medicine) with approximately 200,000 aspirants appearing each year. The MBA Common Admission Test (CAT) exams, with an anticipated 400,000 aspirants in 2008, are to also go online, though only next year i.e. in 2009. 

3. The Times of India, Mumbai reported on July 8th, '08 that an online mutual fund platform has been launched by Tech Process Solutions (the people best known for running the bill payment site that enables mutual funds to be traded online. Tech Process said it had so far brought together six mutual fund houses (including Reliance & ICICI Prudential), four large MF distributors and 9 banks. Currently, investors can use the platform only via the above distributors, who have to give them a login.

This is an important initiative. Unlike stocks,which today are traded online by individual investors, mutual funds in India can at best be bought and sold at the fund house's website itself. Tech Process seems to be setting up an exchange for trading mutual funds, which should help Plans include allowing adding more players to the platform and enabling investors login directly.However, one was unable locate any site in use.

Meanwhile, industry association
AMFI is itself exploring setting up of such an electronic platform for which it has invited and received 15 Expressions of Interest from potential vendors. It is believed such an exchange will take two years to implement. Several countries viz. Canada, the U.S. and Australia alredy have such a platform. And there are other moves in place to standardize - acros fund houses - the mutual fund application forms and offer documents. All this would benefit existing 46 million mutual fund owners as well as help grow the market.  

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Internet juggernaut rolls on - II

Here are some more Internet websites/ applications - that I have experienced or that have been reported in the media :

1. Medical diagnostics (path reports) online : Was at a diagnostic lab in Mumbai today morning for some routine tests. Was pleasantly surpised when I received an invoice listing the lab's website, along with a unique user name and password and a time at which I could login and access the report. This will certainly save me a return trip to the lab. 

Come to think of it, a path lab report doesn't warrant any face-to-face discussion at the lab itself, so it's a good candidate for going online. One can think of several value-adds here :
- creation of a My Account for each patient, where the patient logs in and can see his/ her medical history
- loyalty scheme for patients where they can see accumulated points and discounts (useful in a commodity service like diagnostics)
- user ID & passwords for all the doctors in the neighbourhood, along with an email & / or SMS alert to the doctor informing that the test report is now online
- an application whereby doctor can upload his/her comments vis-a-vis the path lab report

Daresay some labs / sites worldwide have already moved forward on these ideas, would be interesting to get names.

2. Indian website on pancreatic cancer : Continuing with sites on medicine, leading cancer hospital Tata Memorial Hospital of Mumbai has launched the first Indian website on this cancertype. Pancreatic cancer is as yet less common in India but - with ubanization - it's incidence is rising. This site, run by the cancer specialists themselves, gives information and resources for patients as per the Indian context and will help create better understanding here of this little known disease.

3. Site for dental specialists : Smileworld is a site created by two Mumbai-based dentists which seeks to serve as an educational platform for dental students and newbie dentists.

4. Jama Masjid redevelopment plan : The Jama Masjid mosque, built by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1656 A.D., is Delhi's premier mosque. The Delhi city muncipal authorities have posted their plans to redevelop the mosque area online. Governments are increasingly turning to the web to interface with their constituents and this is just one example.

5. Political party BJP's website attempts to be Web 2.0, with forums, YouTube videos, active blogs and a (currently) non-functioning Wiki. The Congress party's website is most drab though. In a country that's the world's largest democracy and that has one of the youngest  voter populations, one only hopes that going forward political websites will evolve to better connect with the populace cf. Barack Obama

Nothing particularly exciting about the above sites, if anything their execution leaves much to be desired, what's interesting is that there are a lot more novel online applications by the day.. the Internet juggernaut rolls on.  

The Internet juggernaut rolls on - III

After a 75 day (or so) hiatus, am back again (no blogger likes to be off-blog for so long, and I have the same standard excuse for being away : "Was busy").

Here are two interesting Net applications recently reported in the press:

1. BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Council), the municipal council of Mumbai, the world's second most populated city, is testing a website which will have on it the approved plans of all buildings in the city - as well as permissions given by the civic authorities to the builders for these constructions. Currently, citizens have to go from pillar to post to get hold of these plans & information.

Thus, hapless apartment buyers today after moving into their homes often discover that several floors in their building are unauthorized. Or, they discover that the building does not have an "Occupation Certificate" and thus pay the penal rate (double) for electricity and water charges. My building in Lokhandwala area in Mumbai too hasn't got a copy of the approved plans, for example, though the building was built nearly seven years ago.

No details available yet about the site or the url.

2. Patients in the U.S. are seeking a second opinion online through sites such as the Cleveland Clinic, John Hopkins Remote Medical Second Opinion service and Partners Online Specialty Consultations (POSC). Each of these three report getting a thousand patients a year, with POSC saying they have had a cumulative 10,000 patients since starting out in 2006. These services offer consultations from specialists based on the medical records that they fax, mail or post via the Net. The cost of the service payable upfront through credit card is $500 to $1500, depending on the radiology or pathology interpretations required. So far these services were not covered by insurance but on April 24, Cigna announced it's intention to cover this service.

Thus for example if a patient has a tumour and finds travel to a distant specialty hospital for a second opinion tiring or cost-prohibitive, the online second opinion service comes in very useful.

Such a service should do well in India, considering that we have one of the lowest doctor to patient ratio (a reported 6 doctors for every 100,000 population) in the world. There should also be scope in doing outsourcing services of this type for overseas patients.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Internet & (ahem) "escort" services

A month ago, the not so honourable Elliot Spitzer resigned as Governor of New York State. A high profile politician, he had in an earlier stint as the State's Attorney General, adopted a crusading, morally upright stance (against Wall Street and other adversaries) that had earned him the title of "Mr. Clean". He resigned as he was found out to have on several occasions used the Emperors Club, an international call girl ring.

The Emperors Club (website now shut down, see screenshots and reports here , here and here) was essentially an online prostitution ring that had interests in America, England and France. The women were graded with between one and seven diamonds on the website, which determined their fee.The most valued clients were offered "membership" of the "Icon Club" where fees started at $5,500 (£2,750) an hour. The company boasted that it targeted "those accustomed to excellence". This club was subsequently shut by the FBI.

That's not quite our story here, though.

As we shall see below, it would have been quite difficult to run this business as profitably if it were not online. The Web is reportedly a key channel for high class prostitution. For an Internet lover (no pun intended) like me, it is instructive to learn why. Here then are two alternate approaches to identifying why the Net is a great fit for this business.

Perspective A

In the first approach, we identify the "customer value" the Internet provides in this business :

1. The Internet provides anonymity, a key requirement for all those involved in this business. This is somewhat similar to the requirement of those doing music and movies file sharing.

2.Websites allow sex workers to avoid the high risk, police-attracting behaviour of walking the streets.

3.Websites allow the girls to attract (reach) a large number of clients all at the same time. They can even enlist themselves on multiple sites.

4. Data-rich profiles i.e. profiles with photos, videos and the like of above workers - are possible online. A website is also an easy way to list the wide "variety of services" available in this business.

5. The sites have themselves evolved - with Web 2.0 like features - wherein customers rate and review the girls. These features include discussion boards, online chats,etc. Apparently, customers often base their decision of which escort to choose, on these reviews. You can search by name, URL, phone number, etc.

6. The most successful sites actually have an aggregation model, which is to say they are a directory of other ISPs (Internet Sex Providers for the uninitiated). The Erotic Review's site traffic is up to 357,000 unique visitors for Mar '08, up 49.6% from the same period a year ago.

6. A study has shown that the mean billing rate of escort services on the Net is $250-300 per hour, much higher than the rate commanded by girls who work the streets. The higher-priced girls found online are likely to constitute less of a hygiene risk. In effect, the Net is lowering the average HIV and STD infection risk-rate.

Perspective B

Here's another perspective on why the Internet is a great channel for services of the matchmaking kind, whether these be jobs, dating, matrimony, real estate, auto or the service under question viz. escort services :

I'm going to draw from the following article that appeared in HBR in Sep - Oct 1997. Philip B. Evans & Thomas Wurster wrote a paper for the Harvard Business Review titled Strategy and the New Economics of Information. The paper also features in the HBR book Creating Value in the Network Economy edited by Dan Tapscott. Some pertinent extracts :

  • Every business is an information business, said the authors (something which most managers would consider a truism today). Further, the electronic carrying (as opposed to the physical carrying) of information, enables it to be unbundled from the product.
  • What's revolutionary about this is that electronic information simultaneously allows high reach and high richness. Reach means the number of people exchanging the information. Richness of information is a composite of three factors viz. bandwidth, customization and interactivity.

In the case of physically carried information,this is not possible. Thus, in the physical world, it is possible to easily deliver stock quotes (which are narrow bandwidth) to a large number of people but it's not possible to deliver movies (high bandwidth) equally easily. Likewise, TV ads can be easily delivered to a large number of people but it was far more difficult to deliver customized sales pitch for individuals (direct mail). And dialogue was easy between a few individuals but not among a large number, for which all communication had to be monologue (low interactivity).

Electronic information, most importantly the Internet, has changed the above. It is today possible to simultaneously have (i) high reach (ii) bandwidth, (iii) customization and (iv) interactivity.

And matchmaking services - such as escort services - have these following attributes :

  • These are consumed by a large consumer market, in fact have universal application, so require a good reach.
  • Product offerings are very individual (no two options exactly alike) in nature, so a rich description is useful. Video, photo and other descriptive (text) profiles as well as ratings,review & dicsussion boards enable such a rich description (hence the need for high bandwidth).
  • Product preferences vary widely, so multiple service offerings are useful (high customization).
  • Happen - whether it be love, home, a car or a job - to be usually about "high stake" decisions (so multiple interactions are required before trust can ensue and a deal be reached).

This is what a good matchmaking service requires and this is what the Internet delivers well. This is why such services - jobs, dating, matrimony (in India) and yes, the Internet Sex Providers - have to a great degree migrated online.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Internet, diamonds & the "fine things in life"

It's almost been a month since my last post. However, I went to Mumbai's Bar Camp 3 yesterday and am charged up sufficiently to add this one post today. In the next couple of posts, I'm going to be writing about how the Internet is making more easy some of the "finer" things in life, and I begin with diamonds. Hopefully, this should interest most of us, so here goes :

It is traditionlly believed that the Internet is not for transactions of high value, touch-and-feel items like,say, jewellery.

Blue Nile
However, Blue Nile (NASD : NILE), a Seattle-based online retailer has helped challenge this belief. Last year,it beat marquee name Tiffany's to become the largest retailer in the U.S. by revenue of diamond rings and wedding bands - across online and offline jewellery stores taken together. It's revenues were $319 million. Over 70% of this was from diamond rings and about 20% was from diamond earrings.

In an industry comprising many players, the company has a market share of 4% in the engagement ring market. It's begun shipping to 25 overseas markets as well.

How they started
It's been a somewhat unusual success story. Co-founder (& former-CEO) Mark Vadon was a 28 year-old consultant with Bain when, in 1998, he dropped by at Tiffany's in New York City to shop for his engagement ring. Here,however,he got disenchanted by the less-than-friendly attitude of the staff , even though he was willing to spend over $12,000. He then went online looking for a Consumer Reports-type site i.e. a site where they would teach a prospective buyer on how to buy. He stumbled upon a site called Internet Diamonds which - though basic - had the tutorial he was looking for. On this site he also found and bought a ring which he believed was nearly identical to the one he had spotted earlier at Tiffany's but, at $5800, was less than half as expensive.

A few weeks later Mark happened to be in Seattle on business and here he dropped by at the Internet Diamonds retail store. The site owner informed him that the store sold a diamond or two every other day , at the same (average) price of $6000. Mark did a quick calculation, found that here was a business doing $250,000 in revenue , despite it's vanilla website and zero marketing. It was thus probably worth much more. That evening, he made an offer of $5 million for the online store, an offer that was accepted by the then owner.

Mark didn't actually have the money to buy. Since it was at the peak of the dotcom boom, however, Mark was able to quickly raise the money. In fact, over the next 12 months, a total of $50 million was raised, apparently without much difficulty.

The site was renamed Blue Nile. In 2000 itself, the first full year under Mark's management, revenues grew to $44 million. However, as was true of many other online businesses during the period, Blue Nile too spent heavily on advertising ($40 million on TV) and lost big money ($30 million that year). Next year, however, the company cut advertising spend to zero,decided to build the brand through word of mouth alone, and survived.

Success factors
Blue Nile believes that what has really worked for it is customer focus i.e. obsessive listening to customers , looking at customer data and getting very many details right. Of course, educating it's website visitors on "how to choose the right engagement ring" is core to this. The site tells you how much to spend (two month's salary) and shows the ten typical diamond cuts, from "round" to "cushion".The size of the diamonds, usually quoted by the industry in carats, are converted into milllimetres, so that all customers understand.There is a slider scale that enables customers choose trade-offs for a given budget e.g. get an ideal cut and a brighter stone, but at a lower carat size.

And Blue Nile's site looks good, period.

Majority of the visitors to the site are believed to be women who then email their men their preferences. The men are the ones who make most - 85% - of all the purchases (rather an unusual gender split for a jewellery purchase). Going to a retail store and being hustled by salespeople about a product they don't know much about can be intimidating for men, so the anonymity of an online retailer turns out to be a blessing.

(It's a guy thing, trust me, I've been planning buy a diamond for the better half from a neighbouring store in Mumbai, but keep postponing a visit :-)

On Blue Nile an average a customer takes 3 weeks to make up his mind and spends $6,200.High value diamonds are couriered under special security (armed guard & vans) to customers.

Blue Nile displays items it does not own. It sources these from diamond wholesalers only when an order has been placed on it, in effect carrying negative inventory. Further, overhead costs account for just 13% of it's total cost as compared to 30 to 40% for the (offline) jewellery stores. It is also now the largest retailer overall so enjoys economies of purchase.

Thus, today the company can sell at 20% above purchase cost as opposed to 49% above cost for the jewellery stores.

Orders are fulfilled in three days, faster than at most retail stores. And customers are offered a 30-day return policy.

Lessons from the Blue Nile story :
1. There is a value in the information and the convenience of buying online, no matter what the item. Just that it's upto the online company to tweak the customer value proposition and the site tools to make the site succeed.
2. Trust has always been an important component of online transactions. However, in this cateory viz. jewellery it's an overrated concept. Because it can be built over time. Each transaction, if well-fulfilled and honoured as per customer expectations, is an opportunity to build word of mouth. And word of mouth is the most important type of marketing here.
3. This is not a category where the auctions sites (read EBay) can be very successful. It's difficult to have a reputation management system in a category as sensitive as this.
4. On the Internet, it pays to be on the side of the customer.
5. Blue Nile seems to have chosen to sell premium range stones, since the the modal price in brick-and-mortar stores is just $3200. Even at Amazon, the modal price seems below $1000.

There is always money to be made in any category at the premium end, I believe. And a good U.I. (user interface), site looks & value-added site features are critical to the success of premium online products.

An Indian online jeweller, any one ?
It's instructive to know that there are virtully no established online jewellery retailers in India. Brands with established names e.g. Tribhuvandas Bhimji Zhaveri either have a vanilla website or none at all.

And there is sufficient detail to be attended to should one want to go the Blue Nile way. Which makes it unlikely that existing ecommerce sites or portals can do justice to the jewellery category. A quick glance at these sites confirms that their jewellery sections have enough lose ends to result in a low conversion of site visitors to their jewellery sections.

So the opportunity exists for someone who has contacts with the Indian jewellery industry, is willing to educate prospective customer online and is, of course, "innatively honest" (customers will always research similar stones and prices at the brick and mortar stores, so be honest with what product information you give online).

The market is very large. The costs of running a site are,well, affordable. And tools like Ajax, Flash & video which are now entering mainstream, if used wisely, can create a compelling online experience for the prospective customer.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Internet's positive impact

Here are five more ways the Internet is going to positively impact our lifestyles.

1. A Website for senior citizens is planned by insurance regulator IRDA for senior citizens that will enable them to easily lodge their grievances with their health insurance providers. The background to this development : health insurance companies seem to be taking the short way out when it comes to meeting seniors' insurance needs.

Not only have they of late doubled the insurance premia but - reportedly - often do not accept new proposals or accept proposals for a low sum insured. Over and above, these insurance providers pussyfoot when it comes to clearing insurance claims.On the ground that many claims are for diseases with a "pre-existing" condition.

I should know. My late dad didn't get his claim passed on the ground that the claim he lodged was for a "pre-existing" heart condition : hence not admisible. So he put some of his hard-earned, public sector career savings to engage a lawyer. And fought - against a very Big Insurance company - for over 10 long years. And their attitude all along was : fight us if you can.

2. Domain names in Devanagari (the Hindi language script) will be available by year end. Currently, even Hindi domain names like Nai Duniya are spelt in English. An important psychological move forward in taking the Internet into local languages, I would say.

So far we have had language fonts for the HTML content, language keyboards as also limited availability of OS in local languages. The slow availability of Indian language OS is a mystery. Especially since it is local language OS that helped IT & Internet penetration grow in China, Korea and Japan.

3. The government proposes to set up a National Knowledge Network costing Rs. 1oo crore (Rs. 1 billion) that will connect major education & research institutes at 100 Mbps to enable them to share knowledge. This will also include portals on education, health, water, natural resources as well as online lectures on various issues. Public sector telecom behemoth BSNL is being roped in to set this up.

Expect an announcement in tommorrow's Union Budget.

4. Mumbai city has been looking at various upgrades to it's infrastructure, notably its transport system. The city is currently examining Seoul's Bus Rapid Transit System (BRIS).

Seoul has 10 million population vis-a-vis 14 million of Mumbai. It has 627 area while Mumbai has 468 sq. km. And it has 2.8 million vehicles as against 0.7 million of Mumbai.

In the late 90s, when Seoul had about 2.3 million vehicles it was able to decongest the city by, among other things, introducing dedicated bus lanes with buses leaving every 2 minutes. Currently, Seoul has 10,000 buses (Mumbai currently has 3,400) operated by 170 private bus operators.

5 million of its 10 million population use this bus network.And only 25% of the population take cars to work, down from 40% who used cars in the late 90s.

The important thing for a Neophile (that's my own term, by the way) like me is that the bus schedules for these 10,000 are available on the Net.

That's something that should be done here in Mumbai as well - leaving aside the bigger need for a dedicated bus corridor et al.

5. While on urban transport woes, the local car pooling site has been getting some positive press. There are other sites too.

One issue preventing popularity of these sites is safety i.e. security concerns in travelling with strangers. For which one answer is the creation a social networking car pool site. This can work either standalone or be a widget that works with existing social networking sites.

For more on this idea, see my previous post on "Social Networking : Learnings & Opportunities".

Wishing all readers of Marketers Kaleidoscope a Happy Leap Year Day and a favourable Union Budget !

Monday, February 18, 2008

Teachers’ shortage & Internet's magic wand - III

The break in writing at Marketer's Kaleidoscope has been longer than intended, one only hopes such long breaks will not be repeated. To wit :

Here is a online initiative in higher education that looks like it's going to be larger than any other initiative to date in India and, I would argue, in the world.

6. The NPTEL project

The IIT’s last month put online on You Tube (i.e. for free in video format) ,13 engineering courses. Each course was a complete 40 lectures affair of 1 hour duration each.

This is part of the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) initiative that was started a few years ago as a joint project of 7 IITs, the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and the Union HRD Ministry. NPTEL’s objective is to make available for free or at a minimal charge the knowledge and learning of the IITs to the other 1500 plus engineering colleges of the country, thereby raising the overall standard of tech education in the country.

The plan is to have - by March 2008, in Phase I of the project, a total of 110 courses in video (4500 video hours in all in Phase I). The number will go up to 400 video courses and 16000 video hours in Phase II. When created, NPTEL believes this will probably be the largest single repository of technical courses in streaming video format on any single website in the world.

In addition, in Phase I, 129 courses are to be put online - in web (text / html) format.Which means that about 110 courses will be in both html & video format and an additional 19 courses will be in html only.

The courses span 5 branches of engineering viz. civil, computer science & engineering, electrical, electronics & mechanical as well as the core courses in science that all engineers must know.

This project has been a massive, long-term team effort. Each of the 8 Institutes has a NPTEL cell and has developed expertise in creating such multimedia content. The content generation is very nearly, evenly spread across all eight institutions. IIT Roorkee and IIT Guwahati have in Phase I of this project taken a lighter load than others as they both are nascent IITs and have considerably less number of faculties than other IITs.
A large number of the courses have been completed, also reviewed by two or three faculty from colleges and their suggestions have been incorporated. The access is free and open, subject to copyrights. A move is being made towards implementing Creative Commons license in this programme. Several mirror sites are also being added for improving access to course contents.

Here are some value-adds that NPTEL is providing:
• In the course content, emphasis has been laid on “core concepts” so that the courses will hopefully have longevity i.e. remain relevant for an extended period of time.
• The course curricula have been “localized” i.e. as per the engineering syllabi of the AICTE and some large universities. Local case studies have been used. Currently, engineering colleges use international textbooks - which are difficult or costly to obtain - and which do not match well with the college syllabi.
• Simple English has been used.
• Various teaching tools have been used within the videos so as to create or sustain interest.
• Workshops are envisaged for interaction between faculty of these engineering colleges and IIT faculty.
• Online interaction tools e.g. bulletin board too are foreseen.Some other value-adds planned are: question banks, supplementary reading material for overachievers as well as anecdotes and historical information.
• There is a mechanism for assurance of quality and certification of courseware.
• The course content will be made into CDs, DVDs or printed too if need be.

Some or all of the above features can make this a runaway success in other countries, too.

Video courses have also been broadcast over DD’s Eklavya Channel. Further, colleges are to also stream content over local servers / Intranet by payment of a moderate amount, reportedly Rs. 1 lakh payment.

7. Why the NPTEL project is a "big deal"

1. Top quality content (selected faculty from IITs and quality process of content creation).
2. Localized content and in simple English.
3. Will be the largest video streaming site for engineering or higher education in the world.
4. Possibly the largest or second largest web content too for engineering (400 courses as opposed to 1800 courses in MIT) .
5. Leverages social media: Posting video content - for 13 courses to date - on You Tube has enabled viewers (students) to post ratings and comments on each course. This will serve as a self-evaluation tool for the faculty/ NPTEL and give directions for further improvement.
6. Interaction with teachers planned through Open Workshops.
7. NPTEL appears to be a selfless, sincere attempt on part of the players (IITs and Indian Institute of Science) to share knowledge.

In contrast, the other comparable-in-size effort viz. MIT’s OCW does not have any interactivity with the students. In many cases it’s course content is incomplete, with just outline material et al. And a very-well endowed institution MIT has a posting on the OCW website asking for corporate sponsorship (no idea why). One would have expected some munificence from them, instead.

In other words, NPTEL is a magic wand which will help improve the quality of engineering education - across over 300, 000 students and faculty in over 1500 engineering colleges each year in India alone - as well as many more from the world over.

As I write this post, there comes the news that a 24 x 7 education channel called Topper - that focuses primarily on CBSE curriculum for Classes 9 to 12 – has been launched yesterday. This will initially be available on DTH platforms like Tata Sky and Dish TV. The company promoting this channel Greycells 18 Media Pvt. Ltd. is a joint venture of TV company Network 18, education company Educomp and two senior executives from the TV industry. Allied to it is a website where the students can take tests and interact with expert faculty on lessons that they have received on TV. Doordarshan’s Gyan Darshan & Vyas are two other educational channels currently available in the country, though both have low viewership.

Disclaimer: I currently work at education company Aptech.This may have - inadvertently - influenced my views in these last three posts on teachers & the Internet somewhat; of course, the views herein are mine alone.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Teachers’ shortage & Internet's magic wand - II

In post I, we covered teachers’ shortage and technology solutions in use to date.

In this post (II of 3 parts), there are a couple of reflections on how technology can transform learning (higher education) ,over and above it's use in combating the teachers shortage.

4. The Gary Hamel solution

Gary Hamel, (probably still best known as co-author – with C.K. Prahalad - of Competing for the Future) and one of the more radical management gurus of our time, had, in his 2000 book Leading a Revolution, presented a disruptive business model for a B-school. Technology of web and video (satellite TV) was to be used to make this disruption possible.

This is Hamel’s model: create a world-class B-school, as follows.

Take top 2-3 star professors from each of 10 MBA schools in the U.S. Give them a $1 million salary and equity in the B-school.

Aim to reach 100,000 students through live satellite broadcasts and Webcasts.

Have a network of second level tutors to engage with students locally. Do not have an entrance exam but have a demanding exit exam. The entrance should be based on 3 letters of recommendation viz. (1) “against the odds” type of accomplishment, (2) applicant in leadership role (even if humble) and (3) contribution the applicant has made to community.

Courses should be based on issues e.g. globalization & it's impact, not traditional disciplines e.g. international trade.

Unlike faculty of regular universities, these star faculty will not need to do research themselves but can instead hire research staff whom they will supervise. (In the U.S., research is a key requirement of faculty). They will thus have free time to devote to create quality videos and online course material.

Course fees will be kept lower than at the top MBA schools. The GLA can afford high salaries as well as keep course fees lower, since it will have high margins.

Importantly, as opposed to about 6000 students in the 10 MBA schools who receive quality education, a 100,000 plus will now be covered.

Business education will then begin to resemble investment banking or basketball (or cricket, if I may add my own two bit) where the best get paid star salaries (In cricket, the salaries are not outstanding, but the endorsements are. Thus, Sachin Tendulkar current wealth is ~ Rs. 400 crores or $100 million, by one report).

So that was Hamel's global virtual B-school.

I believe :
  • The above B-school model can be applied to courses other than business management.
  • There is value in having a few global "star" teachers, any which way. In today's globalizing world, such teachers will help provide an unparalleled perspective for practicing professionals.
  • The creation of some "star" faculty will raise the stature of teaching as a profession and make aspirational teaching as a career.
  • Creation of "star faculty" will also hopefully give rise to a second rung league of many more top-notch professors who too will be paid very well.

    Not unlike the increase in match fees for players who play in Ranji Trophy, India's domestic cricket circuit. This increase came consequent to an increase in emolument of the Indian national cricket team.

    Incidentally much of Gary Hamel's model has been tried already. The current online universities viz. University of Phoenix and Universitas Global practice some of these ideas. But, they don’t dream big enough. They don’t have star faculty AND top notch quality,relevant content AND affordable fees.

    MIT’s OCW is one model that has made rapid strides. But for reasons, I can't put my fingers exactly on, it leaves me dissatisfied.

    It's typically got lecture presentations in pdf or word format put online. But these presentations have not been edited to cater to a non-MIT audience. Some lecture notes are often only in an outline form. Video or even audio content is available only for a minority of the 1800 odd courses. There are no tools available for interactivity with M.I.T. or among the learners. Just static, vanilla content. Did M.I.T. really want to encourage open education or did they just want to put content online ? Am going to take another look (it's vast content ,cutting across 1800 courses) but..I was expecting more.

    And the content is of course not suitable as is to local e.g. Indian market needs or Indian university curricula. The textbooks and journals from which readings are prescribed may not be available in India / outside the U.S.

    6.1% of the visitors to the OCW site, as per the latest report available were from South Asia (no data on India). This seems low. None of the top 100 educational domains or 100 non-educational (corporate) domains from which visitors land on the OCW site are from India.

    Coming up in part III of this blog post, a model for education which promises to do it all :-)
5. Advantages of an online education:

A couple of comments here :

5.1 Here are some excerpts from a piece Peter Drucker wrote on online education in a May 15, 2000 issue of Forbes magazine. A synopsis of that article :

"Today demand for lifetime education is high, especially from people who are already educated. These people sense they are not keeping up with what they need to know on the job. Greater speed of change in the world means more demand for learning:

Firstly, professionals can barely keep up with the rapid progress in their fields. Secondly, earlier, one could expect lifetime employment with organizations, not so today. Organizations themselves do well only for short periods of time. People have no chance of working for their company even a decade later. So from a job mobility point of view, it’s important that people keep themselves up-to-date.

Continuing education could already be another 6% of U.S. GNP and growing. 40% of total US work force are knowledge workers.

These working people however are busy & cannot commute. They need flexible and accessible ways of learning.In addition to it’s convenience, the interactivity of online education with its facility for blending graphics and pictures with the spoken word, gives it an advantage over the typical classroom. It is like a 1-1 student – teacher ratio. Online Chat rooms are also useful.

This new online education channel would be complementary and additional to existing channels".

5.2 Some advantages of online learning, from a working professional’s point of view :

  • Doesn’t uproot your family
  • Doesn’t put your career on hold
  • Doesn’t require you to pay exhorbitant fees
  • You can live far away from the faculty
  • Not so tough to get in, there is no limit to the number of students
  • Flexible timings and number of classes per week

    More in post III.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Teachers’ shortage & Internet's magic wand - I

This is the first of 3 posts on the above. The issues covered , with special reference to higher education, in these posts are :

  1. The teachers' crunch

  2. How to run a successful education business

  3. The technology solution

  4. The Gary Hamel solution

  5. Benefits of an online (distance) education

  6. IITs' NPTEL project

  7. Why the NPTEL project is really a “big deal”

This first post covers 1,2 & 3

1. The teachers’ crunch

The demand for education is on the rise. Knowledge is,in today’s world, king. There are very many knowledge-based vocations, and in each of these the accumulated pool of knowledge is growing rapidly. This creates a need for continuing education.

In contrast, the majority of our forefathers were in manual occupations (e.g. plumbing or farming), where one's learning was essentially once and for all complete by the time one reached adulthood. And this learning was essentially passed on from one’s parents - because the techniques in use had not changed for centuries.

Continuing, knowledge-intensive education, however, needs qualified and motivated teachers. And these are not to be had.

My guess is that the teaching profession probably never ever attracted very many talented people. However, societies earlier could "get away with it" since not every one was educated or even supposed to be educated. A few Dronacharyas (Drona was Guru to the Pandavas’, as was Aristotle to Alexander) were enough to take care of the education of the elite.

In today’s democratic world, though, a (quality) education is one’s birthright. There is no reason, for example, why every aspiring executive should not get high quality management education. At the risk of stating the obvious, MBA or engineering or medicine curricula are themselves not so demanding as the respective entrance exams. So availability of higher education is actually constrained by supply issues (teachers, infrastructure), not by the number of quality applicants.

In India, as per the recently released India Development Report, 2008, just 9 out of 1000 Indians are currently enrolled in higher education, a number lower than most other countries. So the teachers’ crunch can only increase.

2. How to run a successful education business

Good education requires quality in many areas – an updated curriculum, an effective pedagogy, good content, well-designed and conducted examinations, a recognized i.e. brand name certificate or degree and qualified,motivated teachers. And education businesses try to provide these on an "what we can afford" basis.

Among these, good content is no. 1; one must have quality, credible content in order to succeed in the education business.

The above aspects including content can however usually be attended to. The chief issue is ability to invest a minimum amount in infrastructure and content. With teachers, however, one encounters what in business is called a scalability issue. There simply aren’t enough of them around.

3. The technology solution

Technology for education has been in use for a long time. There have been radio, satellite TV and online chat services for education and now there are 3D animations, Rich Internet Applications (Flash) , VOIP and webconferencing. These have been put to use for different applications. For instance, conducting exams online. Or, practice question papers. Training teachers.

In India we have had several such services. We have had egurukool, Zee Interactive, onlinevarsity and netvarsity at the height of the dotcom boom.

There is Tutorvista which leads in the online tutoring business. This is a $150 million outsourcing-led market: the students reside in U.S. or elsewhere overseas and the tutors are in India. And Elluminate is a "synchronous collaboration" software that forms the core of online tutoring services like Tutorvista, creating a virtual classroom online.

Then, there is Smartclass from Educomp. This is 3D animated content for schools that is delivered from a central server in the school to a whiteboard-type display inside each classroom and which acts as a aid to the teacher. 500 schools of the estimated private 50,000 pvt. schools in the country are currently covered. Analysts believe that the addressable number is 12,500. They just launched an ad campaign in Mumbai to extend their reach beyond the dozen odd schools they have signed up in Maharashtra.The company’s prospects are much fancied by investors.

There is HughesNet, the satellite (VSAT) -based management education service targeting working professionals. However, these guys have not been able to scale. They say they have reached (just) 4750 students across 34 cities in two years.

Earlier,radio and later,satellites were used. "The potential of space technology for mass education, especially in terms of immediacy, omnipotence, visual power and outreach was recognized in the early 70's. Keeping in view the larger aspects of education, especially rural education, India undertook in 1975-76, the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment (SITE) to telecast a series of educational TV programmes on health, family planning, agriculture, adult education etc., to cover 2,500 Indian villages via the US satellite, ATS-6. It was the largest sociological experiment ever carried out in the world".

There is Blackboard LMS which has been deployed at thousands of universities. There is MIT’s OCW (Open courseware) project that boasts nearly the entire MIT courseware (1800 courses) and has been around for seven years now. They claim 1.5 million visitors a month to their website. Here is a report. Then there is the Open Course Ware Consortium that is based on the MIT model and has over 100 participating institutions from the world over.

And the University of Phoenix is a pioneer in and one of the largest online universities.

So, use of technology to supplement or even substitute for teachers has been around for long. Some of these like MIT's OCW and Educomp in India have been quite successful too.

So what's new ??

I believe that none of the above initiatives have been or will be carried through to their logical conclusion i.e. potential. On the ground, the number of students benefitting from each of the above services is far lower than should been the case,considering the demand that exists.

But now here in India there's been launched a service that looks like it's going to be very large in terms of it's impact - both in quality delivered and in the number of students taught.

More on this in my two subsequent posts on "Teachers' shortage and Internet's magic wand".

Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Internet juggernaut rolls on

Here is a selection of a half dozen "Internet news" items over the last three days, each of which is about the increasing usage and adoption of the Net. It's "happening" ( both in India and elsewhere) :

In India :

1. IPOs to go "online only"

SEBI (the Securities & Exchange Board of India) is considering a move to make applications for IPOs exclusively online. This seems prompted by the recent deluge in applications to IPOs like Reliance Energy, with many more such IPOs to follow.

This is now feasible since demat accounts are online and all major banks also have a provision for online banking. An online IPO application will cut the allotment period to 5 days from the current 21 days,says SEBI.

This will result in savings in funds tied up for those extra days. Importantly, it will also save applicants the bother of cumbersome paperwork. The move is likely to benefit banks too since many people now will open online banking accounts. This will save costs for banks. A win win situation for all.

And this will certainly give a fillip to Internet growth in India. So far only secondary stock trading is posssible online - and that too is optional. In contrast, IPOs applications will be online only.

2. Lawyers to go online

The Hindustan Times reports (couldn't locate the online version) that the Bar Council of India has managed to successfully persuade the Supreme Court that lawyers should have their own website. So far, as part of their professional ethics code, lawyers were barred from all sorts of advertising & soliciting. However, lawyers pressed hard for this and the Supreme Court seems inclined to let this go through.

Should be interesting - I've had trouble getting to find a lawyer when I needed one - for my odd personal matters.

Also, with an estimated 1 million lawyers in India, this spells big, big business for domain name & website hosting companies around the corner. Also, there's a good possibility to create Web 2.0 type of sites for lawyers, read my other posts or contact me if you want to know more :-)

3. CRY (Child Rights & You), possibly India's best known NGO, has opened an "office" on Second Life (under the Bollywood section I'm told, not sure why Bollywood though :-)

4. Online job hunting is #1

Kelly Services, the manpower company, has published the results of a survey among 3000 Indians which shows that online job hunting accounts for 40% of all jobs placed, ahead of other methods. The survey has other interesting nuggets for would-be job hunters and recruiters.

And, worldwide :

5. Ecommerce on a roll

Nielsen Online has come out with a survey which shows that as many as 875 million people around the world have ever shopped online. In Korea, 99% of all online users have ever shopped online.

6. Online music going the legit , ad-supported way ?

Ad-funded legit P2P music services are in. The latest one to launch is QTRAX, New York. They will have 25 million music titles available, a number 5 times as large as the iTunes store. Being legit, the company claims, they will be avoid viruses (unlike semi-legit sites like Limewire). And listening to all these 25 million titles will be free ! The company spent three years doing deals with the music labels.

So, if you are an online buff, happy stock hunting, lawyer selecting, giving to charity, shopping, job hunting and music listening.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A fuel-cell / battery-powered Tata Nano

In my long post on the Tata Nano of Jan 14, I had said there are three things required to be done before we all "bless" the otherwise well-intentioned Nano . Here is the "framework" I proposed :

(1) Introduction of incentives and disincentives to confine the sales of the Nano and other cars to rural and semi-urban areas, rather than to the severely congested urban areas of India
(2) Introduction by the Tatas of an electric powered Nano, even if this be at a significant added cost, as an imperative owing to the climate change problem
(3) JVs between Tatas and world auto makers to co-produce electric Nanos for the global market so as to replace the 600 million cars already in existence (and which contribute to over half the world's global warming today, if I remember my numbers right )

It looks like the Tatas have already been at work for some time now on (2) and (3) above. I didn't quite know that. My soothsaying in my above post of Jan 14th seems to be in the right direction :-)

Thus, on (2) viz. electric vehicles :

Fuel cells (liquid hydrogen powered), electric vehicles, hybrid (petrol + electric) engines and also biofuels have been under consideration or development by the Tatas for some time now.

Much of the work has been for the Tata Motors buses and some on their mini-trucks and the Indica car.

In Nov 2007, it was announced (here is one report and here is another) that in 2008 we can expect to get fuel-cell powered Tata buses.The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is partnering with Tatas in developing the capability to handle the liquid hydrogen (they know how to handle liquid oxygen already, for their rockets). Liquid hydrogen and air are put through a fuel cell installed the vehicle, resulting in electric energy and water vapour.

If this launch goes through as scheduled, it will be nicely timed (from the business sentiment point of view) for the Tatas indeed, what with the Nano's commercial introduction scheduled for October 2008.

Of course, there will obviously be a lot of things (stations to handle the liquid hydrogen, for one) required to make this initiative succeed commercially.

On (3) above :
Yesterday came the announcement that the Tatas have signed an agreement with Chrysler to produce for them up to 50,000 Ace mini-trucks for the U.S. market, that will be (electric) battery operated.

What we now also need are appropriate signals or measures by the regulatory authorities to make the Nano and other cars more of a semi-urban and rural transport - see (1) above and my post of Jan 14th below.

Now let's see when the Nano goes electric...

These are all-long haul measures, btw. But it's important to have a framework like the above measures (1), (2) & (3) in place that takes us all in the right direction.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Na, No to the Nano ?

Everything that could have been written about the $2500 Tata Nano has, within days, nay hours of the launch, probably already been written. Juicy nuggets on how the Tatas did it, what the common man and what Detroit think, what this means for all concerned et al are all out. A lot of the discussion is around : overall, is it a good thing or bad ?

NY Times says it looks like a mango while the Wired says "It's almost smiling".Someone called it the ultimate reverse status symbol. A record 130,000 people (200,000 by another report) visited the Auto Fair in Delhi on Sunday, 12th January, drawn primarily by the Nano.

Everyone agrees however that the Nano is an innovation of consequence, not unlike the Model T of 1908 which led to mass penetration of automobiles in the U.S. and the Volkswagen in Germany's 1930s which led to the autobahns.Increased auto sales will result.

It's time therefore to do a sum up and, as a true blooded marketer, give one's own take. Are the benefits to consumers and society greater than the negative consequences ? Here is a six part answer to this question.

1. What are the facts regarding the Nano's entry ?
2. What are the positives ?

3. What are other, indirect benefits of the Nano's entry?
4. What are the negatives ?
5. What can be done to overcome the negatives?

6. To sum up, under what circumstances can one say the Tata Nano's introduction is a good thing ?

1. First, the facts :

  • The Nano was conceived 10 years ago by Ratan Tata and been 5 years or so in design / production.

  • A team of 500 Tata engineers worked on this.

  • The production will commence in October 2008 in Singur in West Bengal and the cost thereof will be Rs. 17 billion (1700 crores). Over a 100 plus vendors will be used to manufacture components needed.

  • The capacity of the plant will be 250,000-300,000 cars p.a. going up in 3 years to 1 million cars p.a.

  • The engine is a 2 cylinder 624 cc as against 796 cc of the Maruti. It is rear mounted with the boot in front. Unconventional design is seen elsewhere too e.g. the battery is placed under the driver's seat.Among other things this design helps reduce the car's dimensions, thereby cuts material consumption and costs.

  • The body is all steel, rather than alloy or high tensile steel like all other cars. (No doubt owning Corus & Tata Steel will be of help here).

  • Lest anyone copy the design, there are 34 patents already filed for the car itself, as well as 200 patents on related items.

  • The basic or standard version comes at Rs. 100,000 + VAT tax + transportation without an A.C. ,radio or automatic windows. There will be two deluxe versions. As against this, most American cars cost above $10K.The Maruti costs over Rs. 200,000 and the next cheapest car in the world, the Chinese QQ by Cherry Motors that costs $3000.

  • No one has yet sat in it and the company has yet to provide details.

2. Here are the direct positive benefits of the Nano :

  • In India, entire families travel on 2-wheelers. This is very unsafe. This in fact was the primary motivation in creating the Nano. (Ratan Tata)

  • It has 20% more inside space than the Maruti 800 despite being smaller than it. It is 10 feet 2 inches long which is 9 inches smaller than the Maruti and 4 feet and 11 inches wide which is 3 inches wider than the Maruti.

  • It will give 20 km / litre as against 16-18 km/litre got in city traffic for Maruti. Other existing cars give less than the Maruti. In contrast,small mobikes give 50-75 km/litre.

  • All steel monovolume body will keep out wind & rain too. (Not clear what this is, seems to be that the shape of the Nano keeps the inclement elements out).

  • The Nano is safe, it has passed all the crash tests required in India. These happen to be the full front crash tests. As and when it is launched abroad, it will be ready to meet the offset and side crash test required there.

  • On emission norms, it is Bharat III & Euro IV compliant, with CO2 levels levels lower than even current 2-wheelers.

3. The indirect benefits accruing from the Nano's introduction:

  • Big benefit in semi-urban and rural areas. (This also seems to be Ratan Tata's chosen target market).
    In India,the average distance between a district court, nursing home, child welfare centre, adult literacy centre, college, railway station etc. from a village is 15 km. And the average distance of a bus stop from a village is 4 km. This is where the Nano will add real value.

  • Our avg. road density is 3.5 4-wheelers per km of roads, which is lower than in countries such as Brazil, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand and Indonesia. What this means is that congestion will be restricted to the urban cities.

  • 8 million in the number of 2-wheelers sold annually; these owners can potentially upgrade to a 4-wheeler now.

  • Big boost to the automobile industry, the world's biggest industry, a leading contributor to GDP and an employment multiplier. (This and some of the stats above by Dilip Cherian, Director General, Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers).

  • Big boost for brand India. Evidence that Indians have design and manufacturing capabilities, are innovative.

  • Emerging consumer base worldwide will be a major engine of growth. Will lead to debate on many things viz. manufacturing methods, materials, energy efficiency and transportation. Will lead to innovation in other things. The Nano's innovation is itself within the "Sandbox" of affordable price, scalability in volumes, high aspirations & efficient utilization of resources. (This gyaan by management guru C.K. Prahalad, for whom it is a Nano leap into the future. Vijay Govindarajan, the strategy guy too thinks it is a great example of innovation).

  • Thus, while many argue (see below) that the Nano will choke infrastructure, other like the professors above believe that citizens and interest groups now have a reason to lobby the government to increase infrastructure dramatically.

  • This launch shows that in India, contrary to any contrary perceptions, one can be both successful and honest. (Vir Sanghavi - writing in The Hindustan Times - on the Tatas).

4. The negative implications of the Nano launch :

  • Some are skeptical of the Tatas being able to deliver a quality car. They quote the Indica. These critics say that Tatas cars have initial quality problems and "drive like a truck".

  • Increased congestion is social problem no. 1. Mumbai for example has 700,000 vehicles and 500 are added daily. This growth rate could easily double or more with the introduction of Nano and other, competing low cost cars. Road network is not growing to meet this expansion nor is parking. South Mumbai has been said to have just 9000 parking spaces across 89 parking lots. My building has absolutely no more parking space.

  • Higher pollution. Inspite of a reduced fuel consumption (20 km/litre) and low CO2 emission (Euro IV norms) per car, the higher volume of sales of low-priced Nanos will increase overall air pollution. 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers are today any case the #1 contributors to air pollution. Our public policies have not allowed for enough public transport so cheap automobiles will lead to high congestion.
    Apparently, disposal of used engine oil & tyres is a problem too.

  • To pollution, add high fuel consumption and increased import bills / dependencies thereof for the Indian economy. See this news item.

  • Global warming. Note that currently 57% of CO2 emissions in India are due to the transport sector.

  • Increased propensity for road accidents. In the developed world, road accidents are the leading cause of death among below 30 year olds.

5. What can be done to overcome the negatives like congestion & pollution, especially in the urban areas ? The following have worked well in cities like Singapore & London:

  • Increase the onetime tax on vehicles from current 7% of purchase price to 15% (Singapore is 150%, Shanghai 50%)

  • Congestion tax for vehicles entering city

  • Insist on 3 person occupancy on high density routes

  • Dedicated bus lanes

  • Compulsorily scrap old car when you buy new one

  • Increased parking charges

  • Car-free days in month

  • Even and odd car days

  • Walk-only zones for pedestrians

  • Vastly improved public transport

  • Greater public acceptance of car pooling

  • Improved social consciousness leading to reduced propensity to purchase cars

6. Under what circumstances is the Nano socially justified ?

Social costs like congestion, pollution and CO2 emission are overwhelming for vehicles. The Nano's entry can be justified if :

  1. It's entry is restricted to rural and semi-urban areas through various incentives and disincentives of the type mentioned in section 4 above.
  2. The Nano is converted to an electric vehicle. Even if it costs $5000 extra to enable this, the total cost of a Nano EV would still be lower than most cars sold in the developed world today.
  3. The Tatas enter into JVs with automakers the world over to manufacture Nano EVs.And public opinion and public policy in these markets ensures replacement of the hundreds of millions of automobiles currently on the roads with these non-polluting vehicles.

    Else, the Nano's entry sets a bad precedent : the ensuing flood of low priced cars in the world will lead to grave social costs.

    Note what an Indian auto industry offficial (quoted by Shyamal Menon in The Hindustan Times) said on congestion:

    “You cannot appeal to people’s consciences or, when they are stuck in traffic, point out that they themselves are part of the problem. People want others off the road, not themselves. All you can do is price the problem out of existence through taxation or government intervention. Market forces will not work – just look at how long people are willing to sit in their cars in Mexico City or Bangkok - for the independence a car brings.”

    On CO2 emissions, climate change is accelerating, with just a few (~7-8 years according to one estimate) left to reverse the problem.

    Unless Tatas,the auto industry,policymakers and consumers alike take a broad-based view of the consequences of the Nano, one could be in for some hard times.

    Thus the "poem" by one Ravneeesh Mehra in his posting on a message board in :

    NANO MEANS: New Anti Nature Organisation and as below

    1) Nano space on roads
    2) Nano clean air 2 breathe
    3) Nano space 2 park
    4) Nano space 4 pedestrians
    5) Nano margins 4 dealers
    6) Nano steps 2 combat global warming
    7) Nano tolerance among old drivers with all the new/ unprofessional drivers coming on the roads
    8) Nano enjoymment in driving in future

    In other words, unless the Tatas, the global auto industry and policymakers i.e. governments the world over take the long-term,pragmatic three-point view given above under section 6, we need to say Na (Hindi for No :-)) or No to the NaNo.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Growing India's financial services market

The great thing about being a marketer in India is that there are many half-filled glasses (that need filling), many bare feet (which need shoes). Market penetration rates are typically single digits for most emerging categories (telecom at 25% penetration and growing at nearly 1% a month is an honourable exception).

The marketer's story - being recanted in this blog - is essentially about tracking this market penetration rates story and about the lessons / actions marketers need to draw/employ to move the needle faster.

The panel discussion

Thus, there was this interesting panel discussion by The Ad Club, Mumbai at the Taj Lands End Hotel on Fri, Jan 4th that I attended. The theme was the "latest trends in global consumer banking" though it was all in context of India's financial services market.The speakers were Sanjeeb Chaudhuri of Citibank and Ajay Kakar of Reliance Capital with Anuradha Sengupta, Features Editor of CNBC serving as moderator. The audience was small (~50) but keen. The Club & the hotel did themselves proud with great refreshments prior to the show. Well-known ad honchos from the Mumbai scene viz. Pranesh Misra of Lintas & Palekar of Eureka Forbes played host.

Sanjeeb Chaudhari of Citibank EMEA (Europe, Mid East & Africa) and ex-RHL, Unilever & Colgate, who began his Citibank career with Diners cards in India in 1989, spoke about the retail banking consumer in Europe. His main themes :

1. Consumers are today overwhelmed with an overpumping up of advertising volume. Citibank U.K. itself sends out 100 million pieces of direct mail - in a country of about 30 million people.Do Not Call lists, spam blocker for mail, ad blockers and fast forwarding of TV commercials (TiVo)are all symptoms of an overwhelmed consumer.

2. Meeting the needs of this overwhelmed consumer are key. Sanjeeb predicted that there is going to be a regulatory push on protecting consumer interests i.e. privacy.

3. In this environment, brand building has to be more bottom-up and P2P.Brands need to find a way to be invited to the conversation. "Tribes" and blogging are in.

4. Be obsessed with the consumer. In banking, one tries to build the brand around life events e.g. marriage, birth, anniversary. Reinforce the brand with every interaction. And for this, use technology. Also,develop a topdown competence within the organization. For example : Contact optimization. Citi Europe can today create an unstructured product for a single customer (customer of 1) in 24 hours.

5. Another example of using technology for becoming customer-centric is "Lights out automation" or, automation that minimizes human interaction. Scotia Bank used a mix of simple and complex triggers to achieve this. A third technology : interaction marketing, which is what supports inbound marketing. A fourth requirement : site optimization. Lloyds TSB has optimized their site for visitors.

6. At each touchpoint, we have : Touchpoint <=> Decision engine <=> Database

Ajay Kakar of Reliance Capital (and ex-O & M) presented the story of the Indian financial services industry from a marketer's perspective.

1. Over 40 plus years after the industry started out with UTI's ULIP (in 1964),there are today 32+ mutual funds with assets totalling Rs. 550, 000 crore.But,this translates to a mere 4% market penetration after all these years. And there is a similar low penetration in other financial services : 2% for general insurance (despite 14 players here) and 17% for life insurance.The key issues impacting this penetration rate are as under.

2. While - overall across product categories - the Indian consumer is getting sophisticated per se, aspiring to be a global citizen et al, when it comes to personal finance he remains a simpleton. He is confused between financial categories, cannot distinguish one from the other. He also sees many similar products with similar claims.He does not and cannot evaluate between all these.

3. People delay their decision to invest. In addition to finding it confusing to decide, they don't seem to find it exciting to do so.

4. The financial services companies/banks have brought this upon themselves.These players tend to have identical products, offers and marketing.It is difficult to differentiate between products within a brand or across the value propositions of different brands.

5. Separately, all that Indian companies seem to be doing is customer acquisition.Companies are not looking to create value.Listening to customers is not happening.

6. The solution for such early stage markets is education i.e. educating cosnumers and would-be consumers. That is what Prudential did in the U.K. (Sanjeeb). Unfortunately, the cost of such education is too high to be borne by a single player alone. Thus,it's necessary for the indutry to get together and talk,abandon their individual positions and look at a mutuality scenario.The sentiment of the panel and the audience though was that this today looks like a distant proposition.

7. We need training academies for our people who sell financial services.

8. Direct Selling Agents (DSAs)wield a disproportionate influence today on the business ("have led the financial companies to a near abdication of control over the business").

9. In this business, trust is paramount. The customer is more interested in whom is he buying from rather than what he is buying. Who is saying that the product is "safe" to buy,is what the consumer seems to be asking. Is this product being referred by a known person ?

In fact,said Sanjeeb,trust is so important that a trusted non-financial services company can well enter the field and "disintermediate" financial servies companies.

Lessons from the panel discussion for marketers & Internet folk

  • Ajay's observations are good food for thought, nay a brief, for marketers and advertisers looking to create a mass financial services brand
  • Since upmarket & early adopter users in India would behave similar to consumers in evolved markets like Europe, Sanjeeb's thoughts are pointers to what needs to be done for these important segments.
  • Since lack of trust is the # 1 issue preventing mass growth of investing, online social networks - where non-investors are in online contact with friends & acquaintances who invest - will help. See also here my presentation on Social Networking : Learnings & Opportunities.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Calling Product Managers

Product Managers are the lifeblood of the Internet industry. But here in India they are in short supply. Yahoo India , AOL India, Indiatimes, you name it, are all looking for some.

There are almost no schools (companies) where one gets trained in product management. There is no real big consumer technology industry (local manufacturing by the likes of Apple or Sony) either.

In contrast, "out there", they have outfits like these. This organization ought to be good, their white papers are a resource recommended by Vinod Khosla, no less.

Here's a great, great JD for a consumer Internet product manager. This one is by Ibibo, the South African/Gurgaon/"Chinese QQ" company.

Well, prize bulls per this one JD simply don't exist. But :

  • If you are indeed considering a career in the Internet industry or if you are an HR guy or recruiter here, the above JD is one which can give you a good idea of the product manager's role and what it takes.
  • If you already are a PM in the industry, these are the sort of skills you want to have.

Likewise, here are some good job descriptions for two other key positions in a consumer Internet company, the CTO & the HR Head.