Incredibly Inept India

Last month I had the chance to visit the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh (MP) for a tiger safari and it was quite amazing. Bandhavgarh is a 1,500+ square kilometer park known for its large population of royal Bengal tigers and other animals like monkeys, leopards and deer. Some of the pictures taken were stunning:

I could go on and tell you how fantastic the safari was but this is not a travel blog post.

My wife and I went to Bandhavgarh with several friends and we all came back with the same conclusion that the state could do much more to generate additional tourism revenue. Tourism is a big part of the revenue for the state of MP but like so many other things in India, they get to 80% of something and feel that’s good enough.

A very simple example involves the check-in process for every safari drive. You have to go to the safari park office to get a tour guide and show your ID. This facility as you can imagine is run down and a typical Indian government office which means its crap. While our driver entered the office we sat in the the open air Maruti Gypsy (think Jeep) and on average waited 10-15 minutes. This Park office was usually 20 minutes away from the safari park gates.

Why not turn this safari park office into an amazing tourist visitor center with a coffee shop. Sell trinkets like books, t-shirts and stuffed animals for the kids. The people waiting are a captive audience who have nothing else to-do and will most likely spend money since they are excited to begin their safari journey.

Another similar opportunity to monetize is at the actual safari park gates. Many of the vehicles would line-up 30 minutes before the gates open so they can be one of the first vehicles to enter the national park. Of course, we just sat in the vehicle but again they could have built a tourist center here and bring in more revenue.

Spell check anyone? Check out the spelling for Madhya Pradesh on the back of the bus.

When I saw the above vehicle in the park with the misspelling of the state, I just chalked it up to the mantra of “hey, at least we got 80% right.” Actually, they got 12 out of the 13 letters right, which is 92% but sometimes that’s just not good enough.

In another attempt at getting 80% right. The sign says “Zero Compromise Towards Safety” and the ceiling above the sign is literally a clusterfuck waiting to happen. This was at the Jabalpur Airport, JLR is the airport code. And yes, another missed opportunity for monetization…JLR…as in Jaguar Land Rover (JLR). JLR is an Indian-owned company and their Land Rovers are known for their amazing off-roading capabilities and ruggedness. Yet, over the 5 days I was in Bandhavgarh I saw only one Land Rover Discovery…I mean, how is that possible???

I get it, governments move slowly but when it comes to creating more jobs and adding additional revenue to the state coffers they should move quicker to capitalize on the opportunity.

The WhatsApp Ecosystem

Earlier this month Facebook held it’s annual developers conference and announced a couple of interesting developments for WhatsApp. Wait, what? What does Facebook and WhatsApp have to do with each other?

First let’s clear the air, Facebook has been getting raked over the coals this past year for a wide variety of issues. Then a couple of weeks ago, one of Facebooks co-founders, Chris Hughes, had an op-ed piece in the NY Times about breaking up Facebook. How many internet properties does Facebook actually have?

Surprisingly many people don’t realize that Instagram and WhatsApp are both owned by Facebook and the 3 properties together: Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are a social media 800 pound gorilla.

Back to WhatsApp and those interesting features they mentioned at the Facebook Developers conference. One of the biggest features is WhatsApp Product Catalogs, where users can see what products are available from a brand. This has an immense impact on SMEs that want to sell directly without going through an e-commerce platform like Amazon or Flipkart.

When I first heard about the upcoming feature I didn’t think much of it till a week ago when my wife purchased some products on Amazon.in from a brand she discovered called Pure Elements. Pure Elements is based in Mahabaleshwar, Maharashtra and uses Amazon’s Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) service. Which means Pure Elements sends their products to Amazon’s warehouse and Amazon takes care of the warehousing, picking, packing and shipping of the product.

We received the order from Amazon and immediately realized there was an error in the shipment. Surprisingly, there was no easy way to tell Amazon that the wrong size of the product was sent. So instead, I sent an email directly to Pure Elements and they promptly fixed the issue and said that next time I should order directly. In the future with WhatsApp Product Catalogs and in-app payments via WhatsApp Payment, I could see myself contacting them directly and getting the products. And if there are any issues I can chat with them directly on the WhatsApp platform.

Currently, the alternative is that an SME needs their own company website with some dodgy payment gateway which invariably is a pain for an SME. Which is the reason why many SMEs in India prefer to use WhatsApp today for commerce even though it’s not as streamlined as it can be. These new WhatsApp features would work well for an SME such as a home baker who sells cookies and cakes.

This brings me to the ecosystem part, imagine if that SME is only going to sell via WhatsApp, then they would only need a CRM (customer relationship management) and a shipping partner. If they made it simple enough for an SME to connect to these external providers it could change the landscape. Yes, WhatsApp does have something called Business API but that’s for larger companies that have a tech team in-house.

I’m thinking something along the lines of WordPress and their entire plug-in community where users can add features to their WordPress website very fast and more importantly without any deep technical skills. A WhatsApp Plugin ecosystem could grow WhatsApp commerce transactions exponentially and spawn many new startups helping SMEs sell more through the WhatsApp platform.

Index Funds Finally Get Some Love in India

I must say, I was pleased to see the headline in the Economic Times talking about investing in index funds (article link). And really shocked they mentioned an allocation of 25% to passive index funds. When people ask me for investment advice, I usually roll out the passive index fund speech and literally with 14 seconds people just tune out. Why? Because passive index funds (or ETFs) are boring to talk about.

It’s more exciting to talk about some hot-shot fund manager that someone has found that can outperform the markets. Remember Prashant Jain of HDFC who had the HDFC Top 200? Years ago, he WAS the talk of the town and basically was the hot shot who ran one of the best performing mutual funds. But, it was renamed Top 100 and the fund is still struggling with performance. The reason is because as a fund gets bigger and bigger they need to deploy that money and finding opportunities that outperform the general market are tougher to find.

I remember an investment professional once told me that index funds don’t work in emerging markets like India. That is absolutely garage. Most financial advisors and anyone on CNBC-TV18 will never talk about index funds or ETFs because the commissions are so low. Did you know the largest mutual fund in India is the SBI – ETF Nifty 50 at over Rs. 51,800 Cr. and the expense ratio is only 7 bps that is friggin’ crazy talk.

The tide is turning and more people are looking at these passive index funds because if you are not actively tracking the market then these instruments are great. Investing in a passive index fund is a general bet that the market/economy will do well and that’s pretty much the future of India.

Making it For India

A couple of months ago the streaming music service Spotify was launched in India with great fanfare. I had tried Spotify about 7 or 8 years back but then they started to block IP addresses from India so I quit using the app. At first I wasn’t planning to try it again but I did and I’m so glad I did, their recommendations are spot on…no pun intended.

What really caught my attention during the launch was their pricing matrix. Yes, the monthly price is cheaper in India Rs. 119 (USD$1.70) vs the US at Rs. 693 (USD$9.99). But they also offered daily packs at Rs. 13 (USD$0.18) and weekly packs at Rs. 39 (USD$0.56) as well, almost like the FMCGs offer sachet packs of their products. Sachets – a single-use, a simple flat pouch or stick pack for powders and other runny liquids and gels.

Spotify took that concept and turned it into a digital sachet. It’s a great way to get people to try the product. This is a great example of localization of a product.

When building an app or platform and going to other markets, there is always talk about internationalization (i18n) and localization (l10n) within the technology team. 7 or 8 years ago foreign companies would sell their products in India and only focus on internationalization. For example, if an app requires a login via a phone number then they enable +91 for Indian mobile numbers.

But the trend is to go one step further and localize the app or platform for the Indian market. And that is where Spotify just nailed it with it’s very Indian pricing matrix. I’m seeing more and more companies localize for the Indian markets because that’s where the growth is as other markets are mature and growth has slowed or stalled.

UPDATE: I’ve received many emails about the confusion about internationalization and localization. For me and the teams I work with, I break it down as:

internationalization – the backend technology to enable the use of the app or platform in another country. For example: language, phone numbers, etc…

localization – the frontend that the consumer will see and you. For example: pricing, localized content, specific features for a country, etc…

The Consumer Rating Conundrum

Remember the first time you were able to rate your Uber driver, you felt empowered. It was the coolest damn thing and for the first 30 or so trips, I would sit there and spend a couple of minutes debating what rating I should give the driver as if I was handing out a fucking Academy Award. Did the driver deserve a 5? No not really, he was speeding like Lewis Hamilton in Monaco but than his braking skills were on point. Okay, so I’ll give him a 4 star rating. Good luck next time buddy!

Now, I have a simple rule. If I get to my destination in one piece, the driver gets a 5 star rating. However, if I feel they didn’t do a good job they get a 1 start rating. I don’t have the time to split hairs between a 2, 3 or 4 star rating. In fact, it got me thinking that Uber needs to ditch the 5 star rating and just have a thumbs up or thumbs down. If you see an Uber driver with a 3.8 or 4.5 rating, do you really give a damn? I can’t really tell the difference nor do I want to spend that time analyzing his driving habits. I took an Uber so I can get some work done or take a nap before I get to my next destination. Thank you Uber, for making it my job to improve your platform!

I started to think about this entire consumer ratings system when I recently ordered a single cafe latte from Swiggy. Half the latte split and I went on Twitter to complain. After the incident, I was presented with 2 ratings, 1 for the Swiggy service and 1 for the restaurant. Again, for the delivery either you are happy or your are not. Why make the consumer rate that on a 5 star scale.

There are a host of rating systems but the grand daddy of them all is the Net Promotor Score (NPS) which is based on a scale of 0 to 10. Leave it to a consulting company like Bain & Company to come up with this beast of a system. About a year ago I got a call from a car manufacture to rate their service experience on a 10 point scale, that experience was so painful I would have rather gotten a root canal then listen to the person explain the difference between a 5 or 6 rating. I hear people always talking about their NPS score when in reality a simple thumbs up or thumbs down would be sufficient.

The 5 star rating is pretty standard across most apps, but again what really differentiates between a 3 and 4.

I recently went to a restaurant and they had a 3 star rating, which was better but then imagine getting a 2. What does that mean as a restaurant owner…people would rather eat newspapers then come to your restaurant?

In this age of liking things and attention deficit disorder (ADD), I personally think the thumbs up or thumbs down is the best system. It’s quick and easy. If you are a business owner, you can tout the number of thumbs up (or likes) you get and if you get a thumbs down you can put a process flow in place to investigate what went wrong – easy peasy.

Getting a score of 1 or 2 is just meaningless on a scale of 1 to 10, clearly the customer is not happy. Why ask them, to rate you on a scale of 1 to 10 for services:
1 = I’m so angry I want to kill you and everyone
or
2 = I’m so angry I want to kill you only

Seems illogical to me. I wish more and more companies would simplify their ratings process and make the consumers life that much easier.

Kids, I’m Back on Twitter

In early 2018 I switched from an iPhone to Android and in the process decided not to install some of the apps on my new phone. One of those apps was Twitter.

I felt it was too distracting and it wasn’t really adding any value. However, I would still use Twitter from the desktop but I wasn’t very active in conversations and just shared a bunch of articles I found interesting. One of the things I truly missed about being on Twitter was the vibrancy of technology talk and hearing about new technologies or use cases.

I decided it was time to revisit Twitter on the phone and make some changes to the way I would use it. First thing I did was unfollow EVERYONE and get to zero. Then I added people back that were from the technology field, all the way from deep technology people to product managers.

I made a conscious effort not to follow any news organizations or breaking news accounts. I can’t be bothered by the latest crap from Trump or what Modi is up to. This time around with Twitter, I want to learn from it and hopefully interact with people on the technology front in a constructive way.

Okay, I did cheat a little bit and added a couple of automotive related accounts. So far it’s been a couple of weeks and I’m pretty happy with how things are progressing with using Twitter on the mobile phone. Let’s hope it continues to be useful and doesn’t turn into a cesspool of useless crap.

Is Cable TV Dead?

In a nutshell, yes. The reason is plain and simple – Jio and our addiction to video content. Over the past 6 months when friends get together and discuss what shows to watch, I hardly hear anyone mention the shows that appear on cable TV. Instead, it’s about the latest series on Netflix, Amazon Prime, ALT Balaji, Hotstar or other streaming providers which are collectively known as over-the-top (OTT) providers. The name stems from the fact you can bypass your local cable TV provider and stream the content directly from the internet.

And don’t even get me started on YouTube. This past week there was an article in the Wall Street Journal which talked about the rise of YouTube in India as a search engine. Want to learn how to make a cake? YouTube it. Want to learn the best way to sleep? YouTube it. YouTube voice search is perfect for India where illiteracy is high. Users can speak what information they want and then the search results are videos, where they can see and hear the content.

In fact, I’m finding the quality and content getting better and better even with more and more content creators on the YouTube platform. Just like a Google search you need to know the right keywords for YouTube. But, where YouTube really shines and keeps you on their platform are their algorithms to show you more content that you will like.

A recent example was when I was searching on YouTube for a good vlogging camera. Yes, there were hundreds of thousands of videos but after watching 4 or 5 I was able to decide what camera I needed. And in the process, I came across the YouTube channel called Camera Conspiracies. The guy is a mix of camera reviews and comedy. I’m no longer looking for a camera but I still watch his YouTube channel because the content is addictive.

So where does that leave the existing players? It will be very tough for the direct to home (DTH) providers like DishTV, TataSky and Airtel DTH because they have no real strategy to add more customers. Most of the people I know don’t even turn on their DTH box and are planning to cancel the service when their subscription comes up for renewal.

The cable operators like Hathway are also in a similiar situation but since they own the physical connection to the consumer they have the ability to implement newer technologies such as gigabit fiber to the home. In fact, Reliance backed Jio recently completed the acquisition of Hathway not because of all the users of its cable TV platform but because of the physical access they have to the consumers home. I live in a building which has both Hathway and Jio GigaFiber and I can tell you first hand, we have not even turned on the set-top box (STB) for Hathway in 2-3 months. And all that viewing time has switched to the OTT providers and YouTube.