12 March, 2018

Is there that really much "black" money in India?

I understand the difference between black money and the black economy, and while it is true that the "black" part is the ACTIVITY and not the actual MONEY, there must be an amount of real money in circulation at any given point in the "black" economy. This money must be making it into the "white" system just as frequently as it is being replaced by more flow from "white" to "black". That means that there is indeed actual wealth in terms of currency in bank accounts abroad, in mattresses, in gold and land bought from "black" activities (which, of course, still leaves the question of where the money paid for these went, even if in the hands of the seller of such property), and illegal businesses such as extortion, bootlegging, smuggling, bribery, and plain old stealing.

My question now is thus: Is there any real, confirmed, expert, and authentic calculation/account of what the quantum of this might be and where it might be squirrelled away?

I ask because I have come to start believing that the whole "trillions of dollars worth of black money stolen from the government by the fat rich" narrative was fed to me from childhood (and to those who fed it to me, it was fed to them in their impressionable years, and so on) and I have just swallowed the entire story without any scepticism. I believe so has every Indian, including the honourable PM, and this could be one of those rare occasions when he wasn't lying or promising impossible things when he claimed that he'd bring this money back. I think he even tried (quite clumsily, as is now evident), but he was tilting at windmills. And, like the "God works in mysterious ways" explanation to the non-efficacy of prayer, we Indians have not abandoned our faith in black money's existence. Isn't it time to take a relook at it without resorting to pointing fingers or politicising the issue?

Here is my own explanation: A friend of mine, Amit da, recently read a 2012 book called Why Nations Fail (recommended by none other than Mark Zuckerberg, Mohan Guruswamy, and I think Bill Gates too, if I remember correctly) by the noted economists, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. In it, the authors put forward an interesting (and to me, quite convincing) theory, that colonising nations like the UK, France, Belgium, and Germany put in place an extractive framework of social structuring (which included taxes, laws, currency, trade, education, the works) in the colonised nations, which are inherited by these nations post-freedom. The interesting part is that while most founding fathers' intentions are honourable when they take over from the colonisers, the discovery that the extractive system benefits them (now that they are in power) is too tempting to ignore and continue on the path of change. Those that (even through this) continue to attempt to change (themselves and the system) are met with a wall of resistance from the previous occupiers of posts that were carried forward (the administrative services, industrialists, uniformed services, judiciary, media etc) who do not wish to change to their loss. This perpetuates the extractive system first put together for the coloniser's benefit and any changes are only incremental and small, thereby causing no great change or revolution in the lives of the ordinary citizen. Even when these citizens rise through the ranks to occupy posts of power, they are simply assimilated by the system and become part of it rather than the harbingers of change.

I think Jared Diamond too follows on such lines in his excellent (though completely discounting India) book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

The point I am trying to make is that perhaps the extractive systems put in place by the British have been (and continue to be) the cause of suffering for the common citizen, and the only explanation they can find is that somewhere, somehow, there must be a really large, really vast cache of wealth stashed away by the rich and powerful, that if only they could get their hands on, everything would be all right, but perhaps there isn't any such stash (of the values that people believe it to be) and whatever small amounts are hidden are not as substantial as to change the destiny of the nation. Maybe the quantum of this wealth is so small as to make no significant dent in our growth or prosperity as a society, and is also perhaps an "acceptable leakage" in any economy of this scale and size.

Maybe we should stop worrying about it and focus on the bigger issues of better data, leading to better decisions on tax, leading to better collections, leading to a better chance of utilisation of such tax collected for the betterment of the nation from here onwards rather than look back when we should be peering forward.

But then, the same can be said of every part of the "New Indian" society. Let's look forward, plan forward, and walk forward. It does not mean we forget, ignore, or disregard the past, but it does mean more focus and concentration on where we want to go rather than where we were so many years ago. Can we have a balance about this? Is it even possible for a civilisation as old as ours?

The Best RoI For ₹104

#InvestmentAdvice #Under500Bucks

What is the best return on investment you've had for less than ₹500 lately?

Tell me your story. This is mine.

As an entrepreneur for the past 28 years, I have no fixed timings. I have no permanent office. I have no regular schedules. Everything changes every day, based on meetings, travel, and workload.

Since the past year, my wife Natasha and I have started a spiced fresh-fruit spread brand called Tasha & Girl (with the "Girl" being our 3yo Kymaia). That means even more irregular hours. I leave and arrive home at odd hours. Little Kym is used to this.

However, since she's started school, she's learnt that other parents bring stuff for their children whenever they travel...a toy, a sweet treat, something...the child always asks, "What did you get for me?" the first thing when the door opens. Kym, on the other hand, never did, and we always assumed she never expected any such treats.

The other day, I was (in one of the rare cases) neither working nor snoozing in the car on my way back home, when a little kid, no older than Kym herself, came to the door at a signal and tried selling me one solitary balloon...for ₹20. I don't know what came over me, but I handed out a pack of Parle-G I keep in the car (sometimes I get cravings) and fished in my pockets for some change, finding only a ₹100 note. So, I became the owner of a white balloon with pink polka dots. I carried it home, and since it was almost midnight by the time I reached (Mumbai to Pune), I let myself in to find my wife and daughter sleeping peacefully. I changed, had a drink, and just before turning in, for no specific reason, tied the balloon to Kym's bedpost.

The next morning, when she woke up and found the balloon, she came up to me as I slept (I like to wake up early, work, and then catch up on my sleep once everyone else is up) and told me, "My Baba is the best Baba." before kissing me and going around the house showing the balloon to everyone ("Look, what my Baba brought me."), insisting on taking it to school (not allowed) and then wanting to play with it as soon as she returned.

Of course, by night, she'd forgotten about it, as she snuggled with me in bed, sleeping the sound sleep of the innocent that only children can.

But it struck me that for a pack of biscuits (₹4) and ₹100, I bought so much love and happiness to (and from) TWO 3-year-olds, which reflected back on me to make me happy and peaceful. Best investment I made.

24 February, 2018

Of Moats, Battering Rams, And Audacity.

Being in constant startup mode for almost 3 decades now, I think I can safely say that while it is anyone's guess how much I have learnt of other (far more important) areas, I think I can claim to have heard almost all jargon, associated with this space, that has been in vogue at various times since 1990.

Recently, in a new startup, Tasha & Girl, which makes and sells fresh-fruit, spiced, low-sugar, zero-additives preserves, while speaking to various potential investors for funding possibilities, I have heard the word "moat" very often (mainly from potential investors who ask whether we have one), and I thought I'd write something that reflects my learnings over the last 28 years.

Wikipedia defines it as, "...a deep, broad ditch, either dry or filled with water, that is dug and surrounds a castle, fortification, building, or town, historically to provide it with a preliminary line of defence."

By definition, it is defensive in nature. That means it presupposes invaders trying to get at what you have built and/or possess.

This approach makes imminent sense to established businesses with entrenched business models in stabilised markets and expensively (whether by money or sweat) acquired customer base over an extended period of time, especially if they are in an environment where their edge is largely high-value, high-cost Intellectual Property that can easily be replicated by a couple of kids working out of a garage.

But most businesses aren't like that. This world may have tech-driven companies as crowding the top 10 or 20 in market capitalisation, but if you were to see the top 1,000, you will see that there is a sizeable presence of people who make physical goods and provide non-tech-centred services (and I don't mean they don't use tech. Just that it isn't their core product. It isn't where they are innovating). For startups in such spaces, it isn't easy to build an alternative without having access to huge initial capital and resources. A couple of young students working at nights from their hostel rooms aren't going to create a disruption in the real sense to unseat leaders in industries such as steel or automobiles or infrastructure or agriculture or real estate or health or energy or logistics. Smart people working in small groups may spark a revolution in a particular space (and for sure, technology will create huge opportunities and challenges too), but this is unlikely to change the order at the top, or to use our analogy, topple any castles in the short-to-medium term.

What I mean is that while a Facebook needs to build moats against the next WhatsApp and Instagram (Facebook tried, and we know how that worked out for them!), a Tata Steel has no cause to worry about a garage startup with 2 students as co-founders taking away its business within 5 years of launch, as much as it must worry about an ArcelorMittal. Also, from the point of view of the potential investors who keep asking for "moats" from startups, such an unlikely garage startup finding ways to make better and cheaper steel than Tata Steel too should not need to worry about moats. That isn't where their greatest challenges are going to come from. Moats aren't all they are made out to be.

A battering ram, on the other hand, makes far more sense to startups trying to break into the markets with entrenched older players (who are most likely to have elaborate castles with thick walls and sturdy gates, standing armies, and moats), and while this certainly does not apply only to the tech-light, low-IP businesses, it is there that a ram makes most sense.

My contention, therefore, is that new businesses should (and can) worry less about the moat and focus on the battering ram while building their products, services, and models. Moats are impressive but are expensive to build, maintain, and expand. They are inflexible pieces of your defence network. They are passive, rigid, and most importantly, limiting in the options they provide the force inside the castle, except buying time. In short, they are a horrible bang-per-buck investment.

Rams are, on the contrary, easy and cheap to make, flexible in usage, quickly discarded and redesigned if necessary, and provide very effective aggressive force-multipliers at a fraction of the cost. Being mobile, they can also be used as decoys and feints to tie down the enemy and suppress an attack from another angle, from under the ground (through a tunnel) or from a side gate left open by mistake.

Of course, this is not a universal rule, and one must remember that one of the greatest advantages a ram can offer is flexibility. So, staying rigidly focussed on rams while being blind to everything else would actually be like having a moat in the shape of a ram!

Georges Danton famously implored the citizen's forces in the battle of Valmy (?) against the Duke of Brunswick, "Il nous faut de l'audace, encore de l'audace, toujours de l'audace!" to great effect. Of course, at times, it didn't work out well, but in most cases, audacity has historically had disproportionately large rewards, especially when faced with overwhelming odds, as most startups are in the initial years as compared to the larger businesses that they go up against.

It was in this spirit that, during the First Battle of Marne in 1914, the great French soldier, Marshal Foch declared, "My centre is yielding. My right is retreating. Situation excellent. I am attacking."
(On a side note: He is also known to have said, "Aeroplanes are interesting scientific toys, but they are of no military value," proving thereby that no one is infallible and being old and established means one focuses on moats and ignores the battering rams, at one's own peril.)

Even in WWII, with the advent of the armoured vehicle which served as an excellent mobile gun platform while providing unbelievable speeds of advance against an entrenched foe, the battering ram took centre-stage, with Heinz Guderian's Panzers proving once again that a moat is no match for a well-tuned battering ram. Ditto in the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh where the Indian forces were at Dhaka in less than a fortnight of the declaration of war. In effect: A moat can only delay defeat, and that too by smaller and smaller times as society and technology advances.

A moat is useless if one wants to win, whether in war, sports, politics, or business. It is playing for a draw. If you are building a moat, you are halfway to losing already.
Let me now return to the brand I spoke of earlier: Tasha & Girl.

We make preserves from 100-year-old recipes. We use pure fruit. We use no additives or preservatives, stabilisers or pectin powders, or even artificial colours or flavours. We make them with a lot of love, but equally importantly, we do not worry disproportionately about our actual recipes or of someone stealing them.

We focus on finding the best sources for our product. We brainstorm day and night on our communication with our customers and users. We spend hours speaking to people who have eaten our product. We meet dozens of people in a week to forge alliances and build relationships. We study our competition in great depth to find ways we can beat them by changing the rules of the game. We create eye-wateringly detailed simulations and play around to find the most optimum processes and costs, prices and sales strategies, and vendors and distribution channels. Then, we try them out. We construct future scenarios to play-act how we would respond, and then find ways to stay one step ahead and make the competition react rather than catch us off-guard.

And we eat our product...all the time. We experiment. We make mistakes. We learn. We change.

The secret, I must confess, is not in the recipes. It is in our innovative thinking. If you steal our recipes, we'll just create more exciting new ones. If you copy our brand, we'll just find better ways to communicate. If you sell cheaper than us, we'll find more economical vendors or invent processes to make it even cheaper. If you throttle our supplies, we'll find new ways to get there. If you pinch our distribution networks, we'll work around them.

The thing is, we have no moat. As big, established players, our competitors have built one, and have had it for so long that they are confident of it just working by itself to keep upstarts like us out. But a moat is the embodiment of hubris. As a young, agile, flexible, and innovative business, we have nothing to lose. In fact, we don't even have a castle!

I am sure that your startup too thinks like this. I am sure you are building the mother of all battering rams instead of wasting your time digging moats. I am sure you are as inspired (and straining at your leash) as I am, looking at the competition's flags flying on their castle, to storm the gates and bring them down. Write to me. Tell me your story. Let's have a beer sometime if we are in each others' towns. It's always exciting to meet people with a vision...and a plan. Maybe we'll make it, maybe we won't. But it won't be for the lack of trying.

And, to all you established giants sitting pretty, feeling confident that you have a huge, expensive, deep moat to protect your huge, expensive, pretty castle, be prepared: The barbarians are at the gate. And they have a battering ram!

24 September, 2017

Identity Politics, A Tautology

I keep hearing people accusing other people of playing "identity politics."

Let's get one thing straight: All politics is about identity.

If you go far enough ahead, each individual is a political unit of one.

If you go far enough back, we are all one-celled organisms.

Where you stand in terms of your identity, and hence your politics, is just a matter of where you stop in the future or past. All else is "mithya" and hypocrisy, especially when you accuse the other party of playing "identity politics" because this phrase is truly tautological.

There is no politics without identity. In fact, there is no civilisation without identity for consciousness is intractably intertwined with the idea of self and that inevitably leads to a sense of identity which, the moment more than one conscious being is in the room, manifests itself into politics.

Be careful what you accuse "the other" of, for it exposes your own identity and the underlying politics as much as of the person you are accusing.

15 August, 2017

To Kymaia: The Indian Prayer

Dear Kymaia,

You would notice that your birthday falls within a fortnight of the Indian Independence Day, 15 August. I am sure you'd have read some of my other blog posts about what it means to be free, how the idea of India is far more powerful than the physical existence of India, and how the idea of India is actually far more defensible and worth dying for than for the physical (and imaginary) boundaries by which we are constrained to think of as this country. So, I shall not dwell much on that topic here.

Recently, there has been much talk of our national song, "Vande Mataram." (Hopefully, this won't be an issue by the time you can read this...or perhaps I am hoping for too much. Time will tell). As you grow, you would also hear and learn to sing our National Anthem, "Jana Gana Mana" and coming from a family that has served the nation in uniform (your Ajoba and Abhi-chacha), you would become familiar with another patriotic song, "Sare Jahaan Se Achha," played by the various military bands on parades that you would attend with your grandparents.

I would not want to go into the detail and depth of each of these songs, since these would be available to you online anyway, and most of them are simple enough to understand just by reading or singing them (perhaps you would need to look up a few words, or extrapolate meaning from the original Sanskrit or Urdu or Bengali, because quite a few words are similar) and putting reference to context.

However, there IS a fundamental common thread running through these songs, which you will also find in the various stotrams & aarties in Hinduism, the salaat in Islam, hymns in Christianity, and so on.

That is: All of them are praising a power higher than the singer/reciter. All of them talk of the singer/reciter's insignificance and impotence and how the object of their prayer is larger-than-life, has control over their destinies, and/or is their Master/Mistress/Guru/Parent. All of them seem to be about faith, about unquestioned belief, about somehow something being the best, the most benevolent, most beautiful, most bounteous, and so on. All of them, at some level to me as a rational person (and hopefully, as you grow, to you too) have a slight cringe-worthiness to them. None of them calls for any action, enthuses any passion (other than empty pride), or gives any hope for the future to a collection of people we call a nation. Like religious prayers, all of them only invoke the name of a higher power (Destiny, Mother, etc.) and praise it...with no other, more profound, more meaningful significance to the entire exercise.

(As a side note, when you hear these religious chants and stotrams & aarties and salaats, you will realise that besides telling "God" how great He is, there is no meaningful content in them at all. And you'll think all those around you who sing these to be quite silly, and maybe a bit stupid too. If you are smart, you'll learn to suppress your laughter, and your incredulity, at least for some time, so as not to offend people you otherwise like and love. By the way, the whole concept of nationalism is pretty similar to religion, as I have explained in this post of mine. But that is not the subject of this post.)

That I stand and lustily sing them (the anthems and songs and military marches) with pride(?) and have goosebumps when I do has more to do with my social conditioning, my childhood upbringing, and the circumstances in which I grew up than the actual content of their poetry, melody, or rhythm. That is because I have been taught consciously and sub-consciously (and in today's world, have even been mandated by law) to respect them, take pride in them, and to take their meaning, whatever that is, as a given, without asking any questions.

But you don't have to be. I was born in 1972. You were born in 2014: a fresh, young, clean, unconditioned, curious, and open mind. You have the power in you to question, and then accept or reject anything your intellect desires. You may sing these songs in your school because it is compulsory. You may even stand up, give proper "respect" and so on as is required by law (and by your school's, and later, your society's regulations). But inside your mind, in your heart and head, you need to know that these songs have nothing in them intrinsically to be something you want to live, die, or even kill for.

Talking of living, dying, and killing for ideals, we discussed the "Idea of India" some time ago. What I want you to understand is that this is not an ancient or a very old phenomenon. The concept itself may be about a few hundred years old (if even that), but the codification (in the Indian context) is not more than 70-odd years old as of today. What the preamble to our Constitution says was written in 1948-49, and even given that it was thought up, say a few years (or even a few decades) before that, it does not qualify for antiquity. In fact, the idea that all people be equal, that they all must have justice, and peace, and freedom to think and to do as they choose, was not really a popular concept before the French Revolution in the late 18th century, and even then, it wasn't really the kind of equality or freedom or justice that you imagine in the 21st. This concept has evolved slowly, and the point I am making is that the Idea of India, like your own life, is young and (in many ways) fragile, and deserves to be nurtured, protected, and given time & space to grow if we are to have any India left at all very soon.

However, what I want to speak to you about today is another idea of India that came into being much before the preamble to our Constitution was written by the wise men who did (that, by the way, is a mystery as to who actually penned that masterpiece). This (earlier) idea of India was put forth in 1910 by a sensitive, wise, and (in hindsight) an amazingly far-sighted poet: Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore (or "Thakur" as it is originally pronounced), who, we Indians are lucky, lived in times when this nation and this society needed someone just like him to guide it towards a more civilised, more aware, more conscious, and a more evolved path. In fact, as you would have read earlier in my other blog posts, our society has been inordinately (look this word up: inordinate) lucky to have had such amazingly wise and foresighted people being born and connected with it just when it was needed. Indeed, serendipity has been kind and benevolent to India.

Enough digression though. Let us look at what he hoped for his nation, for his society, and for his people. Here is what he wrote (I offer an English translation by the poet himself, who read this at the Indian National Congress' Calcutta session in 1917):

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action;
Into that heaven of freedom, My Father, let my country awake.

Look at how beautifully and how concisely Gurudev expresses his desire for the kind of India he wants for us all. Look at the issues he concerns himself with: Lack of fear, freedom of knowledge, openness of minds, clarity of thought & action, search for truth & perfection, reason & freedom.

Look at the word, "awake." How beautiful does that sound! He is not talking about a dream that he wants India and his people to enter. It is a reality he wishes that they AWAKEN to!

It is THIS that gives me the real goosebumps.

It is THIS that trumps the anthems and the songs, the chants and the slogans, the cheers and the shouts, for this poem praises no one, prays to no supernatural power or entity (though the Thakur actually called it "Prarthona" or "Prayer") for deliverance, boasts about no superlatives, expects no faith, makes no promises other than a wish for the future, offers hope, and allows a clear path of action to the reader.

(Small side note, once again: I only wish he had not used "My Father" in the last line, but I am told that in the original Bengali, "Pitah" could mean "Spirit." So, I shall let it pass!)

It is THIS that I would like you to understand, and to memorise, and to recite if the time ever comes for you to talk about India, the country of your birth and of your parents and forefathers (and mothers).

It is THIS that I want you to consider (if it appeals to your intellect) to deliver if you are ever asked to say a prayer for your country or nation or community or society.

Think about it. You don't even have to be an Indian to recite it, believe in it from your heart, and work towards it. THAT, my little one, is the mark of a truly great (and more importantly, effective) prayer, if such a thing ever existed.

Happy Independence Day, my beautiful child.

Yours most lovingly,

P.S: Interestingly, despite its message of hope, the power of the ideals it holds up, and the popularity of the poet, very very few have managed to set this to music, or even recite it in a beautiful enough way for me to find some video online to share with you. I hope some musician (or even a celebrity) can find it in themselves to do this soon.

P.P.S: By the way, the word for "Mind" that Gurudev used in the original Bengali, "Chitto" is so much more meaningful. I do hope you learn that language from your mother, who speaks it so beautifully.

13 August, 2017

Menu: A Philosophy

Almost any group of words can be turned into a philosophy. Those that talk of their holy books as some kind of philosophy for life ought to understand that it is simply a matter of interpretation, given the claim that almost everything is either literal or allegorical depending on the person interpreting it.

I was challenged, some months ago, to create a pop philosophy with a random collection of words, to prove my point. I chose the leaflet lying closest to me, a menu card, since we were sitting at a restaurant.

This is how people like Deepak Chopra, Sadguru, and Sri Sri create crap philosophies and sound mystical, knowledgeable, and wise. My intent was to show how simple it is, given the intent and intelligence, to create vapourware that impresses lesser minds. The tools are present all around us. So are fools. It only requires a willingness to employ those tools to extract first attention, then respect, then reverence, then money, and eventually power & control, from these fools. In effect, it is only our morals that prevent us from exploiting this weakness...which says something about those who actually do exploit it.

On with the exercise then:

A Philosophy of The Menu

A random menu card

The Mystical Name

This is called The "Menu". If you see carefully, it consists of "Me 'n U", which means this is about "Us". I am part of you, and you are part of me.

The Metaphysical Metaphor

It also seemingly speaks of food, an essential ingredient in our survival. It is apparent that without food, there is no life. Food is essentially the fuel our body requires to sustain and survive. But the "food" is allegorical. In this is a hidden dimension we miss. The menu is in two pages. "Food" for the body isn't sufficient, for man doesn't live on bread alone. Food is required for the mind too. And, the two-page format shows that the "food" it talks of is for both: One that holds together the body, and other that nourishes the soul.

The Colours Speaketh The Language of Life

Look carefully again. It has 4 colours: Orange, White, Black, and Green. 4 Colours, 4 Parts, 48 items. In the "W Philosophy" (Author's Note: This menu is from the Wadeshwar restaurant in Pune, hence the "W"), 4 is a magic number. Humans pass through 4 "dashas", with each characterised by the heading of The Menu items.

The "Wada-Idli"

When the human is born, s/he is fresh and virgin like a fluffy idli, untouched by the sambhar or chutney of life. This is the stage where the human is the most malleable, soft, and pure white. If you look carefully, this stage has two sub-stages, with the "Wada" stage coming before the "Idli" metamorphosis. This shows us in our mother's womb, which is like a cauldron of hot oil, creating us, toughening us from the outside, while protecting our softest parts. Once we are out in the real world, we arrive pristine pure.

The "Snacks"

When the human comes of "Ardh" ("Half" or "Unfinished" in Sanskrit) age (which is between full adulthood and infancy), s/he is a mix of various elements. S/he has no character of their own, like a snack has no fixed time of consumption, and is made of bits and pieces of other food items. In this stage, humans must strive to build an identity, while remaining open to being slotted in every pigeonhole. Like the tomato omelette that has very few tomatoes and isn't even an omelette, the human finds him/herself in a position of ridicule. This, s/he must endure, for the next stage, and an escape from this "dasha" is around the corner.

The "Dosa"

At this stage, the human begins to become formed into an adult. A flat, regular-shaped, crispy at the edges, soft in the centre, sometimes with a stuffed middle, sometimes not, having made peace with the sambhar and chutney, the human now has personality, though many-a-times, like a badly made dosa lacks shape, taste, or crispiness, a badly formed human may be short on character, opportunity, or be oddly and unevenly burnt by life's experiences.

The "Uttappa"

Experts vary on whether this stage comes before, after, or concurrently to the "Dosa" stage, but this writer firmly believes that it comes in the last part of our lives. Just like the batter and the toppings used in an uttappa are left over from the idli, wada, snacks, and dosa, and the human reaches this only after having passed through all the previous ones. To the lay observer, the uttappa is a confusing dish, part pizza, part dosa, part meal, part snack, and a bit of everything. But here's how it resembles a human in the last stage of his/her life: The uttappa doesn't care, and continues to be. In short, it has arrived! Humans reach this stage with much behind them, and though to the outside viewer, they may seem a mish-mash of everything and anything, the bottomline is that they are comfortable in their skin to just be.

The Menu characterises our life, and teaches us lessons beyond the reach of most other religious holy books. But it goes further. It also teaches us other profound truths, which some "W Philosophy" (which is less a philosophy and more a "way of life") scholars codify as commandments:
1. Know your options and study them carefully.
2. Know what you can and cannot have and be at peace with this.
3. Order only when you are sure, for once placed, it cannot be cancelled.
4. Thou shalt only receive what thou hast ordered:
   4.1 You cannot order an idli and receive a dosa. Such is the rule of nature.
   4.2. Thou shalt not receive what your neighbours have ordered. If thou doest, that is a mistake and must be corrected.
5. Certain items are only available on certain times and days. Thou must be careful what thou desires. Remember that everything has its own time and place.
6. Extras cost.
7. Thou must pay for what thou consumest.
8. The actual payment differs from what you may be led to believe. You can call it the "Taxes" of life.
9. Thou needeth others. This life isn't possible without the help of those like the chef, waiter, cashier, and above all, The Owner.
10. Thou need not share what thou receiveth with any of the above, for their payment is in a different coin.

At this point, I was tired. As you can see, it is easy to go on. There’s a lot to be done with the colours, the various numbers and costs, the font used, the rectangle shape, and so on. But honestly, i think the above should suffice to prove a point: Given enough time and enough words, one can have a philosophy with anything and make it mean anything.

The menu card also provides very little text. Given a larger body (say, an Arthur C Clark’s book) it would be too easy. The more the text, the older the text, the more profound and meaningless the philosophy. Why meaningless? Because by cherry-picking, one can prove almost anything in a long enough text.

Stop believing these false gurus, the holy books, the "profound" philosophies from mystical text. There is enough and more real, beautiful, insightful, and intellectually stimulating philosophy to be had in books and thoughts or real philosophers like Plato and Nietzsche, Kant and Marx, Hume and Russel, Camus and Descartes, Avicenna and Aquinas (yes, there's a lot of religious and spiritual claptrap in there too, but ignore that part), even Krishnamurthy and Kabir, Tagore and Gandhi, even Savarkar and Rand. 

Reading these philosophers won't mean you agree with them or are compelled to live your life as per their thoughts, nor do I claim all or any of them to be either 100% right, moral, or complete in any respect. But at least these real philosophers would get you thinking about life, about morals, about actions, about other people, and about your own self. That is so much more fulfilling than the alternative: Being hypnotised by shrewd word-magicians and being impressed by word-play.

02 October, 2016

the more things change...

so, the other day, i was reading "Ascent of Money" and came across the word "peculation" in reference to how the management of empires changed when professional bureaucracy took over, and were expected to make a living through regular and fixed salaries instead of peculation.

interested, i looked it up, and here's how it went:

The wrongful appropriation or embezzlement of shared or public property, usually by a person entrusted with the guardianship of that property.
Etymology: From Latin peculatus ‎(“embezzlement”), from past participle stem of peculor ‎(“to defraud the public”), related to peculium ‎(“property in cattle", "private property”), from pecu ‎(“cattle", "money”).

One's own; belonging solely or especially to an individual; not shared or possessed by others.
Etymology: From Latin peculiaris ‎(“one's own”), from Latin peculium ‎(“private property”), from Latin pecus ‎(“cattle”).

The act or practice of buying land, goods, shares, etc., in expectation of selling at a higher price, or of selling with the expectation of repurchasing at a lower price; a trading on anticipated fluctuations in price, as distinguished from trading in which the profit expected is the difference between the retail and wholesale prices, or the difference of price in different markets.
Etymology: From Old French speculation (French: spéculation), from Late Latin speculātiōnem, from Latin speculātiō.

1. The savings of a son or a slave, with the father's or master's consent; a little property or stock of one's own.
2. A special fund for private and personal uses.
Etymology: From a Proto-Indo-European root peḱu- ‎(“livestock, domestic animals”), whence also pecus ‎(“sheep, cattle”).

1. Sheep
2. Cattle
3. Livestock
Etymology: Derived from pecū, from Proto-Indo-European peḱu- ‎(“livestock, domestic animals”). Cognates include Sanskrit पशु ‎(páśu, “cattle”), Old Armenian ասր ‎(asr, “fleece”), Old Saxon fehu, Old English feoh, Gothic 𐍆𐌰𐌹𐌷𐌿 ‎(faihu), Old Norse fé, Swedish fä and Lithuanian pēkus ‎(“cattle”).

Embezzlement of public money or property.

so, this seems to have happened:
peḱu (पशु) >> savings/wealth >> property >> gambling >> embezzlement >> theft

"property is theft" seems to have roots older than karl marx, it would turn out...and public servants have been at it since time immemorial!

ah, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose :-)

28 August, 2016

to kymaia: be unreasonable


you stood on the chair in our balcony and shouted to me, "look baba, no hands", and it suddenly dawned on me that one day, you are going to grow up and leave...suddenly, you felt a lot more grown up than your 23 months

that was a month ago

today, on 28 august 2016, you turn 2. the multiplication table for children popularly goes like this: whimsical ones, terrible twos, terrifying threes, fearsome fours, fierce fives...you get the idea. i am told it gets even worse during the teenage years, when you rebel, make mistakes, take unnecessary risks with your mind and body, trust the wrong people, and antagonise those who love you. this is all supposed to end by the time you are out of your teenage years, which is quite some time away for you, though knowing how quickly time passes when you are having fun, it is quite possible that before we know it, you'd be an adult and i'd be left wondering where all those years went!

the funny part is, most successful people (and i am talking about really successful ones, not just the more popular financially or professionally successful bunch) never really grow out of this: they rebel, make mistakes, trust the wrong people, take (what seem like) unnecessary risks, antagonise and frustrate people who love them, and more or less look as if they have a death-wish. and as may be expected, many do not make it and fail to leave a mark. but the ones who do, change the world, and it is their lives that we must hold up as worthy of emulation

if this is the terrible 2s, i never want you to grow up
talking of which, you are probably the first generation of humans who may live forever. so, don't put too much into age-based labels. you may study till you are 40, start your first career and end it by 60, study again till 70, then start a new career, and then go back to pursuing some other passion, and so on forever. it is awe-inspiring where medical, nutritional, and genetic science could take us as it is being married to computing, networking, and communications technologies. you may even be able to choose your body or any body part and have it made bespoke! this isn't some far away future i speak of, but possible in your lifetime, making your life much much longer than any human till date

when i was born, in 1972, diseases like polio (eradicated in 2011), and smallpox (eradicated in 1980) were still a reality, vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella were just being tried out, cancer was thought to be a death sentence, HIV AIDS was virtually unknown, and hepatitis vaccines were at least decade away.

an englishman, he wasn't given to hyperbole normally
you are born in a different world. that you will live longer is undisputed. but this post isn't about that. this is about how you choose to live that long life

a longer life can have several advantages. it would allow you to make even more mistakes and recover from them, learn, and try even riskier endeavours that make you even happier and the world even better, in one long virtuous cycle of life

to do so, though, you need to remember some basic lessons i intend to teach you, the first of which i shall impart today. so, here goes:

13 August, 2016

selling a luxury realty product? read these

a post on +LinkedIn from sangeeta debnath about "What could be the ”Marketing Strategy” for luxury residential projects?" prompted this answer from me (this is a bit more elaborate than the exact comment i put up, due to the nature of the medium):

i would say that the way to sell luxury of any kind, and specifically of the real estate variety, one needs to create it first. very rarely can you create a hype around a luxury real estate product that does not justify it. as i say below, the super-rich didn't become super-rich without being smart. add to this above average intelligence, their wide-ranging travels and exposure to luxury globally, and you have a unique customer that cannot really be fooled in the real sense. so, unless you are indeed offering real luxury realty to the super-rich, they will not buy. i feel the following aspects are important when it comes to selling such a product/service:

the british real estate tycoon lord harold samuel is credited with this quote, but it probably predates his utterance
lord harold samuel is credited with this quote, but it probably predates him
1. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: if you are not located in the most premium of the areas, you have lost the battle before the first shot is fired. the difficulty in selling to this specific end-user (you would rarely find a super-luxury apartment complex being gobbled up by "investors" since the value they seek is in quick appreciation and on-demand liquidity, both of which are absent in such projects) increases disproportionately with distance from the most premium of locations. remember that the quote, "the three most important factors in buying real estate are: location, location, and location" isn't just pithy and witty, it is also true. get the location right, and you are halfway there

what's with luxury and brand names?

2. BRAND NAME: this is a bit difficult to generate without already having a brand associated with luxury. but there are hacks if you aren't already a well-known brand. you could rent one through collaboration, co-branding, creation-from-scratch, or straight up lying (though i wouldn't suggest the last one, especially when it comes to selling to the super-rich, as i explained right at the beginning). in india or the arabian peninsula (even in japan, to a degree), for example, a european brand name (even if a completely made-up one...but be careful there. as i said, lying will be caught, every time) will score over an indian one. you may add a collaboration with a foreign company (german, french, english are best, though american or australian add a bit of value too). one could also co-brand with someone (say, a renowned designer or an actor or sportsperson or even a flamboyant business celebrity), or some other luxury brand (like a swiss watch or an italian car for example), or even with a foreign realty development company. or you could create your own by something that is very personal in nature...like each house having a single artist bricklayer who comes from a long line of bricklayers and who signs his work (this is maybe stretching it too far, but it should convey the meaning of what i mean by "personal"). each of these has its pros and cons, and it depends on what target segment you are aiming for. what is important is to create a mythology (a larger-than-life story) around your brand and what it is offering

this is literally the first quote that pops up on google. not very innovative of me!
3. INNOVATION: are you really offering something unique? something creative? something no one else is or very few are offering? it could be as basic (in marketing terms) as a golf course, international spa, award-winning foreign architect, exclusive elevators, one house per floor, etc) or as niche as a technology that only (say) NASA uses or that which apple has not yet released or something similar. if not, it makes your task as a marketer that much more difficult, mostly because your targets are the super-rich, and these people didn't become rich without being pretty smart with money. they are mostly very well-travelled, and well-connected, and hence have seen quite a few things in the world. if you are either offering the same old ideas that others do too, or are offering something they have seen as too common, or too "below their station" somewhere else in the world, chances are they are not only going to reject your offering, but actually call you out for it. so, don't try and make up stuff (like coining new names for common features or locations) and don't try to pass off an old idea for a new one. it won't work...and in fact, it will work against you since super-rich people are also super-connected to each other (simply because there are so few of them)

globally certified as "well-travelled"

4. GLOBAL STANDARDS: whether it is your construction techniques, or your marketing strategy, whether it is the raw material you use in the actual building or the accessories fitted inside, whether it is your sales office or the venue for the event you decide to throw at launch, it must be top of the line. the super-rich, to repeat, have seen it all...and if you aren't doing something seriously innovative every time (which itself is virtually impossible to do all of the time), you better make sure that the least you do is adhere to the international standards in your offering. they are comfortable with these standards. here's the thing: if you actually do everything by international standards, there is quite some chance they won't notice it...but if you don't, they'll notice it. 100%. every.single.time

it's a tightrope walk, and there are no second chances

5. ENTICE, PAMPER, BUT DO NOT CHASE: you need to find the golden mean between the extremes of attracting your target segment to your product and not seem needy to sell the same product to them! yes, it is a razor-thin line to ensure that your target market is attracted to your shop/site/product (and feels pampered and important) while not becoming so aggressive as to become an irritant to their normal lives (how do you know you have crossed that line? they'll stop taking your calls or simply ask you to not call them..."we'll call you if we are interested" means "we are not interested and you just crossed the line, buster"). send them gifts, call them on their important dates, invite them to events, but there is no objective way of telling when you are being extra nice and when you are interfering and irritating. you just need to play it by the ear. ideally, the thumb rule should be that for every two calls/texts/mails/communications, you should receive one from them. for this, you need to design your communication to elicit response as a call for action rather than just be seen as a passive reach-out. the way to do this is to imagine if you were forwarding your communication to the concerned person and answer this question: would you say "FYI" or "FYI&A". if it is just "FYI", you aren't doing it right

inner peace....innnnnnnner peaaaaaaaace!

6. BE PATIENT: this applies not just to the closure of sales, but also to the building of your relationship with the target segment. whether it is the price point you intend to charge, or the volume of traffic of inquiries you envisage, or the time between the first and second visits, or absolutely anything in the sales cycle. if you have the depth of pockets to be patient, you must. the market needs to understand what you are making and what you are selling, and why you are selling at the rate you are selling it at. give it time to catch up. don't rush, don't panic, don't be desperate, and don't stop work (either your marketing work or the actual construction work). i know that means one has to have pretty deep pockets, but then making and selling luxury real estate is not a game for poor people. the market needs time to catch up with the product in that location with that price point with that quality with those features and so on...give it time to run towards you. by running backwards to catch up with where you think the market is standing, you will be undercutting your own price, value, and interests. also, really rich (and in all probability, successful) people can smell fear, and (to repeat) they move in very small social circles. one whiff of desperation or panic, and you can kiss your investment good-bye. stay strong. be patient 

"ek goli, ek dushman"

7. BE A SNIPER, NOT A MACHINE-GUNNER: needless to say, mass marketing using television, hoardings, newspaper front pages etc are wasted on the super-rich. in fact, if you give them any indication that such a product/service is accessible to all and sundry, you'll probably make your own task that much more difficult. use targeted advertising...my own opinion is use none. high-end luxury is difficult to sell using traditional ATL advertising. you will need BTL activities like events (a costume party in collaboration with some liquor brand, a golf tournament with a luxury car maker, a comedy night co-branded with a high-end credit card etc.), previews, invitation only meetings, and even specifically targeted experiences (ballooning, paragliding, etc.) to open up the relationship with your targets. in this, other brands catering to the same market are your allies, be them car makers, jewellery or watch sellers, chartered jet companies, high-end travel firms, or even big 5 consultancies and wealth management companies. as long as your marketing plan is clear on what you want and what you are willing to give your partner, it shouldn't be very difficult finding these allies. it is worth the effort

you wanna sell something to uncle scrooge? think like him

8. THINK LIKE THE SUPER-RICH: steve jobs was neither a great designer nor a great programmer. he was not even a great engineer. his superpower was that he was the greatest power user of his own products. he looked at an apple product and thought the way a customer/user would. he used it just like them...and invariably, he found faults, drawbacks, problems, bugs, and so on...which, combined with his brilliantly creative intellect, allowed him to say such simple things to the designers and engineers that seemed like amazing insights to them, but came as completely obvious and natural to steve, the product user. the first and foremost item on your to-do list is to put yourself in their place...how do they think? what would they buy? why would they buy? at what prices would they buy? and so on...this isn't anything new. any marketing activity must begin from the target customer and their thinking process. however, in mass marketing, due to limitations of budget and time, one does not have the luxury of spending too much of either on this exercise...in the luxury market, with a small inventory, focussed target segment, and clear definition of customer requirements and price points, one can actually spend a lot of time and money on this...and one should. it will be well worth it

well then, what are you waiting for?
there are other rules too...but as in any marketing, none that are golden, not even the ones i have set above...they are all meant to be broken, given the right idea, the right team, the right product, and the right circumstance...i just thought i'd put down the ones i could think of...at the end of the day, the test (taste?) of the pudding is in the eating, right? so, go right ahead and use your instinct, your flair, your style, and your personalised approach...and go get 'em, tiger!