Sunday, April 08, 2012

What does Tinariwen, a Rock Band from Deserts of Sahara teach Entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs in India have so many excuses for not being able to do things, for not being able to come up with a world class product/service, for not being able to get the best of the resources. This is the most common point of discussion on the start-up circuit. People meet, exchange the progress and go on to worry about the state of affairs in Indian scene from the lack of VCs to lack of dedicated professionals to lack of infrastructure to lack of everything.

 I agree that the problems discussed are true and it does affect the business/dhanda. In my understanding the best technologies, products, designs, ideas and research should come out from places like South East Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe as they need them more and solutions to our problems should be solved by us. But why is it not happening? I would blame it to lack of self belief and the scapegoat called lack of things. 

Winner of Grammy's 2012, Tinariwen, a rock band from Africa  teaches us how we can defeat the circumstances and come out as winners. They are from Sahara ,deserts of Northern Mali, which has been plagued with violent resistance movement for more than fifty years. It was here that the founder Ibrahim formed the band in 1979 and their journey began ( You can read about them here and here  ) from the struggles of the life in deserts to the band which is being touted as the best guitar based rock band  of the 21st century.

Tinariwen did not fret about not having the best guitars and amps. In fact at first they only played acoustics as it was easy to carry it around the camps. Also they did not look at the west and copied them in every sense. They simply used the instruments and expressed themselves through their language, melodies ( A lesson for Parikramas, Orangestreets and Bhayanak Mauts). Tinariwen is also called rebel guitar poets as they sing about Tuareg culture and the various problems it is facing due to modernization. In the process their guitar rifts are out of this world, forcing the most acclaimed western musicians like Robert Plant, Santana, RHCP, Nels Cline(Wilco) to hail them as the real blues player and precursor to Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and  B B King; and rocking the rock world with the best live acts.

We in India also have to look at the similar approach. Traditionally we have done more with the less. We are not the land of abundance as the west has now become. Even there the best of the start-ups ,who go on to become formidable forces have the same approach, which is to solve their problem as efficiently as possible. It seems it has become the norm to copy a successful western model like E Commerce or IT Services or Digital Media or Automobile and scale it here. I do not need to take names as one can see around and find out. It's like we are buying tools which are bigger and better only to realize that we did not need them in the first place. On the top of it we complain about not being able to get the best of the tools. A band like Tinariwen teaches us that a real world class product or services can be produced in India with our very own resources. Our cars have synthetic fabrics, our houses are replicas of European houses, our website designs have western faces, our phones lack any design and so on. 

With slight change in our attitude and lots of hard work I am sure we will be able to solve our problems and in the process make this place a lot better than what it is now. I am leaving you with  links of Tinariwen's live performance in Womad where they rocked the crowd. Just listen to their guitar rifts, call and response singing and the rhythm patterns of djembe and tinde. 

Womad Performance

NPR Performance

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Friday, March 16, 2012

See it through.

*You may fail, but fall still fighting;
Don't give up, whate'er you do;
Eyes front, head high to the finish.
See it through!
Edgar Albert Guest*


Those are the words from the poet Edgar Albert Guest. There are times when one feels like quitting and trying against the odds seems invain. There are times when failure stares into the eyes, mocking fun at all the efforts one has made, because one could have genuinely done better and differently. There are times when the world around you seems a neverending grind and toil till the end. And if one can listen to what many have called the inner self or heart, there comes a  voice asking to give it a one more try. It says to get on your feet, shirk away the dust, hold the troubles by its horn and confront it.

All of us face situations like these and more so people who have listened to their heart and did things on their own. And every one has a way to see it through. Entrepreneurs like me look upto people like Gary Erickson ( founder of Clif Bar), Steve Jobs (The period in which he was not a rockstar, between 85 to 98), Jason Frieds of 37 Signals and Narayan Murthy ( Founder of Infosys). Organizations look upto other organizations who have made great comebacks like Apple, Campbell Soups, Chrysler, Ford and our very own Mindtree Consulting ( Based out of Bangalore).

I draw a lot of inspiration from the work of Wieden & Kennedy. They are a group of people who have taken advertising to the next level, or with my understanding I would like to call it an artform. It is known to everyone how they had establieshed Nike with 'Just Do It' campaign. Recently they have been doing amazing work for Chrysler Corporation, which owns iconic brands like Dodge and Jeep. I am studying how does W+K take a brand and distill the messaging for the world. It's  craftsmanship off the highest order. I am sharing one TVC for Chrysler 300 in which the theme is to confront the failure. They have also used the peome by Edgar Albert Guest. See the video, read the poem and get inspired.




Poem by Edgar:

See it Through

When you're up against a trouble,
Meet it squarely, face to face;
Lift your chin and set your shoulders,
Plant your feet and take a brace.
When it's vain to try to dodge it,
Do the best that you can do;
You may fail, but you may conquer,
See it through!
Black may be the clouds about you
And your future may seem grim,
But don't let your nerve desert you;
Keep yourself in fighting trim.
If the worst is bound to happen,
Spite of all that you can do,
Running from it will not save you,
See it through!

Even hope may seem but futile,
When with troubles you're beset,
But remember you are facing
Just what other men have met.
You may fail, but fall still fighting;
Don't give up, whate'er you do;
Eyes front, head high to the finish.
See it through!
Edgar Albert Guest


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Monday, March 12, 2012

Indian Gold Rush and Digital Media?

Ten years ago when the digital thing happened in India, everyone who could not make big in the traditional media scene lunged towards the digital media. Firstly anyone could get job there and secondly anyone could be fooled by the rocket science aura around the digital. This eventually helped the hopeless wannabes creative souls to call themselves as ms paint warriors and pass outs from the one room MBA colleges started calling themselves with the fancy names such as group head, new media maven, national head heading team of four people. These mavens would walk upto brands , armed with 100 slide presentations, stating the state of Indian Internet and how easy it is for the brands to reach out to them, provided they cough up some random money and a commission for this scientific wizardry. Brands got excited and started budgeting for digital spending ( see how car cos earmark a percentage of ad spend for the same) . Media agencies tasted blood and started recruiting sales agent called group heads, digital mavens, national directors, director intervention, tada tada tada... Now tell me, does it not feel good to be approached by a multinational , represented by some fancy sounding designation? And the Indian digital revolution happened. Post liberalisation fortune 500 were setting their bases in India and came with a war chest to get a foothold in the Indian market.

So as you can say that Indian gold rush was largely fuelled by multinational media agencies, near college dropouts ( sales agents) and few digital shops ( mind it not agencies as they put some brain behind developing things) . And the gold was a combination of display ads and text ads for search engines. Campaigns were concocted and presented to the clients, misleading them into believing that they were reaching their customers. During and after the campaigns the clients were presented with complex excel sheets with the terms called CPC, CTR, BR, CTC and the list goes on. These Big Daddy Agencies made their clients realise that spending money in traditional media is sheer wastage and a dumb thing to do. Brands do not realise that these agencies also hold the ad agencies and one way or another money will flow to the agencies.

So dumbs made others feel dumb and fuelled more growth for the nascent industry in India, full of incompetent, unprofessional, unethical and nincompoops. Rave party went till the recession hit the big spenders or you may call the fortune 500. It was now that these brands started asking the questions such as return on investment, alignment with the brand messaging, marketing objectives and the communication strategies. Behold! there is no such thing as asking questions in digital media. It is the coolest thing to do and it is sacrosanct. Digital sales agents still tried to convince the brands by slashing their rates, asking them to reduce the budgets ( even now brands usually do not spend more than 3 to 4 percent of their entire budget on digital) and offering them free or at cost creative development such as kitschy flash websites and endless photo upload applications. Party got extended and things went fine for couple of years till the social revolution hit the indian industry in 2010. In their stupor of selling banner and text ads ,these sales agents never tried to upgrade and were found lacking in every possible way. They did not offer any research on their own ( though one would find the mailboxes of sales maven full of third party researches from agencies from Poland and Tajakistan), no real insights about the industries or the domains and no new innovations except the deep pockets to buy out of box solutions from the western counterparts for the western audience and not Indian for sure. Once a party animal always a party animal. Things got sorted when equivalents of sales agent started sprouting all over , also known as social media experts. Now sales agent outsourced work to these experts and convinced their clients that they are in full control of the situation . Another minor gold mine was discovered in the form of social media ads, largely for Facebook. Fans, enthusiasts or supporters who are considered the bull work of any brand became a tradable commodity which were sold by ad networks for four rupees per fan to fifteen rupees per fan and bought by agencies for the brands. This after-party party is still on and brands are buying fans in droves while social media experts are posting updates such as funny quotes copied from Quote Garden and fill in the blank questions. As I see things today this party is going to get over and the media trading agencies and their slide trotting professionals will have to find out another river, another place for mining gold, for now brands are going to ask tough questions and actionable logical insights. Those agencies who have invested resources in researcing the medium and trying to innovate will go on to become a force to reckon with. I at Shack! have been privy and part of the gold rush. I did try to mine gold for a while. In the nick of time I chanced upon a disbeliever of the industry and saw quite early ( three years ago) how things might fold up. My stint at Managment Colleges and my stint as independent researcher for clients helped me think in terms of takeaway for the brands and the users and incorporate the same in our offerings to the client. Now is the time to replace chance with enterprise. GOLD RUSH IS OVER!

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Tuesday, March 06, 2012


I am a fan of Hugh McLeod.I subscribe to his newsletters. They are like life which is at times it is a simple observation, at times it is a nugget of wisdom, at times it is a wisecrack and so on. He is a cartoonist , a business strategist, a writer and a great blogger. You can visit his website here .

Today I received this emailer ( ) from him, which Perfectly describes my state of mind these days. It talks about obsessiveness.


I've always had an obsessive quality, especially about my work.
I guess you need that, if you're going to draw as many drawings as I have.
Or if you're going to build a great business or long-term project or whatever.
I like the idea of this print, hanging up in someone's office, reminding him or her about why they work differently than everybody else.
Why they get to see and do the stuff everybody else does not.
And why, deep down inside, it'll pay off one day.
Hell, yeah...

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Saturday, March 03, 2012


It's a great feat to do something on your own. Athletes, artists, musicians, academicians, programmers, sportsmen and other inconsequential people such as farmers, cobblers, fruit vendors, paan vendors, rickshaw pullers, snack vendors do things on their own and are fairly successful in their pursuits. With due respect to the individual achievers I believe that to do something together as a team is one of the toughest things to do in this world. It could be the sweets and snacks corner run by a family as a team or it could be a small design firm like Sparklin ( ) or it could be an experimental startup like Dial-a-Book ( ) or a big firm like Flipkart. They are all doing great work because of the team which believes in a vision and work hard towards that ever distant goal of sustainability and eventual profitability.

When I founded Shack with my partner in 2007 and he could not contribute I would at times congratulate myself that I could do everything on my own from getting work to conceptualising it to executing it to servicing the client to running around for the payments ( another illusionary object in this world, which you see but never get ). I was so wrong. As times passed by I realised the importance of team. I am not writing good, better or great, as a team is big enough a concept and word. I had wanted to prove people that I could build a company big in size earning good money and some fame off course. Therefore, the focus shifted from doing great work to having more people on board, having offices in multiple locations ( we managed to rent one in Bombay) and more income. We became a fifteen member company, acquired respectable accounts, two offices and some mentions here and then.

There came a time when we had to scale up again. I took some time off and realised that this will never end and asked myself what matters most? The answer was a great team and great work. From the very beginning a book by Bo Burlingham named Small Giants has been my inspiration. The book is about fourteen companies which chose to be great instead of giants. One thing common in all the companies was presence of passionate teams, believing in one vision and working hard to achieve the same. Similarly 37 Signals has been an inspiration. They propound smallness and greatness ( Jason Frieds, their founder has written a great post about thinking and not reacting ) and have made great products like Basecamp, Backpack, Highrise and Campfire ( Shack uses 37 Signals Suite). I told myself that I would be doing what matters most.

I shared my vision with team-members at Shack. I apprised them of the situation which will eventual lead to a probable bigger organisation with loads of mediocre work and people. I informed the team that we will have to face some tough times ahead, but that is the only way ahead. We decided that we will take the path of greatness and do something great. In the past three months we have taken tough decisions and have stood our ground and plan to do the same in future as well. We are rebuilding our team. We will be a group of people who are passionate and driven towards our goal. We will ensure the wellbeing of a smaller team with more facilities and resources. Team , team , team is the focus.

I have never felt so strong and clear in my head and I am excited to see how the courage of conviction turns out to be, if I will be able to do something as great as people whom I have been inspired. It's a steep climb but I am ready for it.

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Friday, March 02, 2012

Value vs ...

When it comes to Indian Digital Landscape, the thing which is valued most is the size of the operation of a firm or a company. Therefore, most of the work is divided between the big media houses who own advertising agencies, media buying agencies, public relation agencies and in some cases digital agencies. It becomes easy for the brands and the companies to hand over the digital work to these Big Daddy Agencies as they have the size and office addresses across the world. However, the important question is are these Big Daddy Agencies adding any value to the brands at all? Well, agencies think that by doing a Flash Website, Contests and running Ad Campaigns they add value. In that case the question can be narrowed down to what is the value? Now if you ask the representatives of these Big Daddy Agencies, the answers will be the number of impressions , number of visits/impressions, cost per click, click through rates, number of fans on social media sites and the sentiment of the brand. Interestingly all the above information is presented in not less then hundred slides presentations to the client, subjecting them to torture till they agree to hand over work to them.

What exactly is value? In simple language whatever solves a problem is of some value. Value is when you pay a baker for baking the bread, which otherwise you are not willing to do. Value is when you pay the dry cleaner to removed the stain without the wash. Value is when you pay clothing brands for the image which it brings to you. As it is evident that value is compensation for something which provides more than the functional utility. For example people bargain for auto-rickshaw rides as they only see it as a mode to take them from one point to another. However people using radio taxis like Meru Cabs do not bargain, in fact at times people give tips to the chauffeur as they see the value in using the service. Based one the above premise if one is to ask what value do agencies add to the brand's , all one gets to hear are the functional things like running ad campaigns, building websites and conducting silly contests. But are they really able to solve any problem for the brands? Are they able to add something more than the functional offerings? Can they help us understand what are the take aways for the brands and take aways for the users or the TG, which they keep in mind while planning grand campaigns which gets them awards at annual award ceremonies organised by them , for them and from them. As companies start spending more on the digital medium from the current 3 to 7percent to higher percentage, it will become important to answer the above questions. In the next blog post I will explore if at all going digital helps a brand or a company? Stay tuned.

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

Fear! Confront it, face it, fight it.

Such is the nature of a business that the founder or the caretaker always lives in the shadow of fear. There is constant fear of not being able to survive. Then one fears about not getting the right employees. Then one fears if employees are working hard enough to give results. One fears of not being able to pay enough which might make them leave for Greene pastures. Fear of upsetting the client. The list goes on, making the life of the guy running the business more and more difficult.

In response to the fear people pick up work or develop products which they think might provide them with the finances to maintain the infrastructure comprising of office, chairs, few computers. Services are offered as per the client's whims and fancies because it will get salaries for the team. One tries to make office better so that employees do not feel as if they are deprived. One is more open to discussion and feedback so that the lack of it might not help employees to perform. Founders and especially those who bootstrap also go a step ahead and spend money on food and outings to keep the flock happy.

The above response only muddles up things. Firstly the work coming to the organisation comes with its riders like endless nitpicking ( speaking for services), delay in payment and shameful attitude of the clients. Then internally one sees that the team starts slacking such as missing the deadlines and starts coming up with the excuses of lack of resources. The freedom is misused as one will find employees not wanting to upgrade themselves but indulging in never ending gossips and silly pursuits. One ignores in good faith that the freedom will make employees appreciate and perform. Important instructions are ignored, arguments become commonplace and focus starts to wear away. And then comes the time to get salaries when each of the employees feel they have performed better and need to be paid for the same.

It's never too late to realise the rot which is setting in and act upon it. The lessons learnt from the experience are very very valuable ones and only help in the long run. Therefore first things first the leader needs to choose the right businesses and the right clients. Secondly choose the right employees and tell them very clearly that in a small company there is no place for slacking, excuses and bickering. One can relax in the cool climes of the bigger companies. And yes lastly one needs to confront the fear, face it , not run away from it and from that comes an understanding which is to prioritise and look for the right reasons to run the business. From such fearlessness will come the strength to take right decisions and journey on the right path will begin. It might sound easy, but it is not.

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