Archive for August, 2007

The celebrity CEO

August 31, 2007

Blame it on scoop scarcity or dumb journalists. Business channels have a lot of weekend programs featuring many a mediocre CEO making “announcements” (and none claiming “execution”).  I’ve often racked my brains trying to figure out what makes this guy (for what he “will” do) newsworthy.  Some well wired spin doctor has clearly been at work. Watch it at your own risk.

I dug out this old article from Slate.com.  Excerpts –

The idea of the businessman as an outsized, even heroic, figure seemed like the legacy of a long-forgotten past when men like J.P. Morgan and William Randolph Hearst were still around. In fact, in 1982, Forbes magazine wrote, “Tycoons are fairly rare birds in today’s business world. We seldom hear of moguls.” Within just a few years, that had all changed, with business journalists turning every clever executive with a good idea into the next Henry Ford, and with the Rupert Murdochs, Sumner Redstones, and Donald Trumps of the world actively cultivating the “mogul” label.

Blackout the screens till we get our moguls…..

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Schmooze your way in

August 27, 2007

I liked the opener in this K@W article on “Two minute schmooze” – coined by the COO of Lee Hecht Harrison, a globar career management firm – that stresses the importance of greeting the receptionist. It goes on to enquire whether ethical behavior can be legislated as opposed to compliance that could be mandated. Though long, it has some good anecdotes. I suggest you read it.

“A receptionist is a corporate concierge.  She talks to more customers, suppliers and even CEOs in a day than you will in a year” according to “Ray”, the COO.

My work involves calling on a lot of offices and schmoozing the receptionist comes naturally to me now.  For good reason ; (a) I get treated well and I am a priority next time (b) I get a headstart about the firm, its business and as my visits add up, I even get tipped when a competitor tries to break in  (c) My messages do get in and I do get called back as soon as people resume at their workstations. Cut the frills, isn’t it the natural reaction to the first face that smiles at you ? ….As simple as that ! 

What sort of people could loath it ?  What would you call the creep that fails to schmooze a smile ?  I get quite a few New Year greetings from companies where I couldn’t close deals or haven’t visited lately – but the bounce in their voices is unmistakable even as my memory fails to catch up with all of those I may have schmoozed.

It’s nice to know people do care. Perhaps it’s a fantastic way to start a year and believe me, I haven’t had a bad year because of that.

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Lessons from life

August 23, 2007

To improve is to change. To be perfect is to change often’ – Winston Churchill 

How true. It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. 

Coming to think of it, I’ve had a checkered life throughout. I grew up a small town boy, all of 19 when I lost my dad. The hard toil and struggle that followed taught me skills of endurance while working my way up in the big cities. My mentor was life itself. All my life theories have spun out of that experience.  

My favorite expression is “working-the-system”.  I mean, you never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete. Life has this habit of not standing hitched. You got to ride it like you find it. You got to change with it. If a day goes by that don’t change some of your old notions for new ones, it’s like trying to milk a dead cow. 

All good and bad things do pass. Everything flows and nothing abides; everything gives way and nothing stays fixed. Cool things become warm, the warm grows cool; the moist dries, the parched becomes moist. Life is more like a rhapsody – irregular in form, emotional in effect and improvisational in nature; but lively music all the same. 

Safety is just an illusion like ships in a harbor where they are safest.  But is that where they are meant to be?  So don’t waste a lifetime trying to be safe. You’ll lead a boring life. My advise – Live it up. Take risks by making intelligent bets. It’s worth it. 

No templates please

August 22, 2007

As a freelance deal sourcer, I’ve encountered many species.  In some of the boutique investment banks to which I take my researched ideas, I often get a lukewarm, if not a cold response. On occasions I get facetime with the primary owner / investor, I get a more productive response that is often followed by instructions to the owner’s associates to probe it further and see if the deal is do-able.   

The associates clearly don’t like it.  I call these guys “stuffed shirts”.  They want the client to pin point an acquisition target, bring along a funding idea or even the choice of instrument so that these shirts can just fill in the template and engage a lawyer for due diligence and documentation.  Anything that calls for a little bit of proprietary research upfront – that gives a client an opportunity or even a dream that he has never had himself – is out of bounds for them. Did you say customer delight?  You must be mad. Why would they? They get paid by the end of the month anyway. 

That’s clearly not my style.  I left the job scene purely because of my zero tolerance to this habit of many a colleague.  When I tried to right a few wrongs, they scorned me for being pushy and ambitious.  Ambitious I am and always will be.  I was born with it.  Where it comes to exercising my choice between stuffed shirtism and street smartness, I cling to the latter.  I know it’s all about making early calls, doing thankless un-sponsored research, bare knuckles, debates and if you luck out, negotiations for the deals to get done.  

Life’s of course tough and revenue streams have significantly dried up compared to my day job life earlier.  But this is what I enjoy doing, my state of bliss.  Period….!

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Reality perspective

August 15, 2007

Namaste. Today is August 15 – India’s independence day.  Iconic images of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel flash across.  I salute those leaders for what they have achieved 60 years back.  Vande Mataram.

We have come a long way since then on the economic front, thanks to the path of reforms espoused by successive governments since 1991.  I wouldn’t blame Nehru’s mixed economic policies and principles of non-alignment that we followed earlier since it suited us well during the times of cold war.  Education, poverty and healthcare are areas where there’s still a lot of work to be done. But transformation of a nation with 1.1b people, 270m below poverty line, ain’t easy.  With a sixth of humanity living within its borders, the nation is more linguistically diverse than Europe, a continent. But, apart from a few hiccups along the way, it remains one of the most stable and unified societies in all of Asia. I shall raise a toast to that, any day. 

Western tourists and Non Resident Indians complain about the poor infrastructure that India has and grumble at the relentless hype that goes on about India and China.  You can’t blame them because the image they carry is of a land on the threshold of change, presenting a model of a resurgent future, entirely self-built after years of colonial repression and that’s got to look like something incredible. Yet when they land in Delhi or Mumbai, the first things that hit them are the clumsy and unhygienic airports, unhelpful staff, primeval cabs and a few scheming cabbies. Is this the changed nation – that was once known for its lot of snake charmers, naked saints and rickshaw pullers – they wonder. At that moment, the bill boards of leading private airlines, Kingfisher and Jet Airways – between them having ordered more than 150 airplanes from Boeing and Airbus – that rise above the clutter of shanties below remind them something – “don’t be fooled, here everything co-exists”.

That sums it up. No city in India is ever going to look like a London or New York.  It’ll just be a prosperous Indian city, with a lot more confident people living in luxurious apartment blocks that exist side by side with the shanties of its poor millions struggling to make ends meet. 

May be a decade later, if this blog post survives the frost of time, let’s do a reality check. I’d love to stand corrected.  Jai Hind !

Age and entrepreneurship

August 13, 2007

A very intense probe my Marc Andreesen on the relationship between age and entrepreneurship and a very insightful response by Naval Ravikant.

Both posts are long. I felt tired in the end.  I’ll distil it for you.

Marc’s findings –

·         Generally, productivity — output — rises rapidly from the start of a career to a peak and then declines gradually until retirement.

·         This peak in productivity varies by field, from the late 20s to the early 50s, for reasons that are field-specific.

·         Precocity, longevity, and output rate are linked. “Those who are precocious also tend to display longevity, and both precocity and longevity are positively associated with high output rates per age unit.” High producers produce highly, systematically, over time.

·         The odds of a hit versus a miss do not increase over time. The periods of one’s career with the most hits will also have the most misses. So maximizing quantity — taking more swings at the bat — is much higher payoff than trying to improve one’s batting average.

·         Intelligence, at least as measured by metrics such as IQ, is largely irrelevant.

Naval’s response –

“I started with a variation of the Beard Hypothesis (enthusiasm decreases with age but experience increases, and there’s an optimum cross-over point). This is the easiest viewpoint as you get older and look back at some of your earlier crazier ideas, but notice that that older crowd is very risk-averse. Douglas Adams had a great take on it:

  1. “everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
  2. anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
  3. anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
  4. Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.”

Marc threw a couple of challenges to the readers to see if they can fit into the model and to see if entrepreneurship peaks while you are young or does it when you hover past 30’s well into the evening of your lives. (Hat tip: Ben Casnocha)

I go that entrepreneurship is not something to be straitjacketed or romanticized.  It happens at the confluence of an early sighting of an opportunity by a motivated, competent founder that has the appetite for risk; a resultant drive that stops at nothing until it’s tried, tested and executed.  Not just hard work, it’s filled with despair, frustration, sacrifice (of salary, family life, entertainment) besides passion.  It recognizes neither age nor eminence; first-hand experience and wisdom are its bye-products and is romantic, if at all, only in hindsight…

How well do you evolve ?

August 10, 2007

The secret to long term CEO success is conceiving of her tenure as a series of distinct acts”– suggests David Nadler, strategic consultant.  Each act requires the CEO to lead, think and behave in different ways.  The successful ones make as many smooth transitions as are called for.

Nadler brings up a lot of good insights.  I particularly liked the one that attributes the stage at which a CEO is being hired.  A CEO may be hired precisely because (s)he is perceived to be strong in an area where the company most needs help, whether that be changing the culture or bring innovation. Nadler also stresses the need for the CEO to constantly evolve. Many CEOs fail because of “success syndrome” – the style of leadership that had worked in an earlier situation may not suit another, if the context has changed and that calls for quick transition.  Interesting reference to Carly Fiorina’s tenure at HP and her eventual exit – can’t be more apt…!

Even CEOs who navigate change easily do worry about the stage to exit, says Nadler.  They begin by asking “Did I leave the business with effective leadership?”.  He quotes the recent decision of Ken Freeman, CEO of Quest Diagnostics to retire at age 52 – after overseeing its successful spin-off from Corning – as an example of good self assessment.

With interesting concepts like “one-act CEO”, this K@W post is a highly stimulating read.  I’d loved it.  Did you too…?

The cover’s blown

August 7, 2007

It’s not uncommon to hear about fake orgasm or even iPhone, but Fake Steve Jobs…?  Bit far fetched. I thought it was about some laser technology that attempted a 3D animation of the founder and CEO of Apple Inc. 

At long last, someone has cracked one of the technology world’s biggest mysteries — the identity of Fake Steve, a sharp-tongued blogger who had tech aficionados in stitches with a satiric diary purporting to be from Apple CEO Steve Jobs.  In a story published on Monday, Brad Stone of the Times outed Dan Lyons, a technology editor at Forbes, as the author of ”The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs,” a daily account of events in the tech industry as seen through a caricature of Jobs.

I liked the way he (“FSJ” -as Lyons calls himself) rips into all new media tech sleuths as he says – “One bright side is that at least I was busted by the Times and not Valleywag. I really, really enjoyed seeing those guys keep guessing wrong. For six months Dr. Evil and Mr. Bigglesworth put their big brains together and couldn’t come up with the answer. Guy from the Times did it in a week. So much for the trope about smarty-pants bloggers disrupting old media. Brilliant. My only regret is that we didn’t get a chance to see Bigglesworth take a few more swings and misses.” Both FSJ and Brad Stone are from staunch bastions of Old Media, Forbes magazine and The New York Times.

I’d never visited this blog before FSJ’s cover was blown.  Just read a few posts and found it hilarious. Thank you, Brad Stone for having led me to it.  

The best part is where FSJ coins the symbolism “Brad” – for what he did to him –  brad, v.i.:

1. To bust a fellow filthy hack without mercy and spoil the fun for everyone, in a quest for personal aggrandizement.

2. To urinate in a pool. 

Let’s ask OSJ (Original) himself  “When was the last time you’d bradded, Steve ?”… 

The Peter Rip-up

August 6, 2007

Here’s a post from my favorite VC Peter Rip for many a VC / founder to take heart from.  Look at the way he gallantly admits mistakes made by the Teqlo team and how they’ve chosen to rewire it all over again.  He has masked the specifics Teqlo is working on for good reason, but the narrative is all candor.  Excerpts – 

“I figure the only authentic thing to do is to talk about this again, even when it is in an ambiguous period of re-birth.  This ugly period is a re-tooling of the premise of the business to give it more clarity of purpose.  It’s not fun being in the sausage phase.

First, let me admit we went down a mashup rat hole. We have a general technology for snapping together web services.  “Because they can” is an insufficient answer to “why do people want to create mashups?”  We failed to commit to solve a specific problem for a specific market, preferring instead the broad appeal of generality.  This has changed.”

Scroll down Peter’s blog and you’ll find a few gems more – Love at first sight and Flattery gets you nowhere.  Keep it coming, Peter.  We love you for that. 

Go read Dalrymple

August 5, 2007

William Dalrymple, the much acclaimed writer has this fine piece in TIME magazine – “why India’s rise is business as usual”.

Dalrymple has extensively lived and traveled in India and shares his time equally between London and India. I find his observations authentic, unbiased and brutally original.  Some excerpts –

“At their heights during the 17th century, the subcontinent’s fabled Mughal emperors were rivaled only by their Ming counterparts in China. For their contemporaries in distant Europe, they were potent symbols of power and wealth. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, for example, the great Mughal cities of Agra and Lahore are revealed to Adam after the Fall as future wonders of God’s creation. This was hardly an overstatement. By the 17th century, Lahore had grown even larger and richer than Constantinople and, with its two million inhabitants, dwarfed both London and Paris.  

What changed was the advent of European colonialism. Following Vasco da Gama’s discovery of the sea route to the East in 1498, European colonial traders — first the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British — slowly wrecked the old trading network and imposed with their cannons and caravels a Western imperial system of command economics. It was only at the very end of the 18th century, after the East India Company began to cash in on the Mughal Empire’s riches that Europe had for the first time in history a favorable balance of trade with Asia. The era of Indian economic decline had begun, and it was precipitous. In 1600, when the East India Company was founded, Britain was generating 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was producing 22.5%. By 1870, at the peak of the Raj, Britain was generating 9.1%, while India had been reduced for the first time to the epitome of a Third World nation, a symbol across the globe of famine, poverty and deprivation.  

In hindsight, what is happening today with the rise of India and China is not some miraculous novelty — as it is usually depicted in the Western press… 

Looking back at the role Europeans have played in South Asia until their departure in August 1947, there is certainly much that the West can be said to have contributed to Indian life: the Portuguese brought the chili pepper, while the British brought that other essential staple, tea — as well as the arguably more important innovations including democracy and the rule of law, railways, cricket and the English language. All contributed to India’s economic resurrection. But the British should keep their nostalgia and self-satisfaction surrounding the colonial period within strict limits. For all the irrigation projects, the great engineering achievements and the famous imperviousness to bribes of the officers of the Indian Civil Service, the Raj nevertheless presided over the destruction of India’s political, cultural and artistic self-confidence as well as the impoverishment of the Indian economy.”

Wow, that’s straight from the gut.  Something refreshingly different from the usual banter about cattle on the roads.  Thank you Dalrymple, for digging up history.