Book review : The elephant catchers

the_elephant_catchersLet us talk about scale!

These days wherever I go, the topic of scale becomes inevitable topic of discussion among entrepreneurs. What was considered important during bootstrapping phase – having a great idea, creating value proposition, getting initial set of customers, building a great team to deliver, generating cash flow / revenue somehow not sounds exciting any more. There are multiple questions emerge (including our venture) as follows:

  • Do we need to come out of gorilla mode of execution and get into structured model?
  • Is sales is more about ‘gardening’ existing customer by cross-selling and up-selling adjacent diversification?
  • Do we need to create processes in the organization?
  • In case we are introducing processes won’t it kill the spirit of start-up?
  • Is process against the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation?

These questions seems are expected given the phase of the organization where, having a ‘profitable-growth’ takes the first priority in everybody’s mind. In order to scale the organization it requires a different set of thinking which is exactly called out by Bagchi in his recent book ‘The Elephant Catchers’.

As goes with other books, he takes a simple analogy (from his childhood experiences in tribal areas of Odisha) of catching rabbits and elephants. When tribes get together and go for catching rabbits there is more of noise and excitement which ensures they really end up catching a bunch of rabbits at the end of the hunt. However the same technique cannot be applied for catching an elephant, which requires specific set of expertise consisting of multi-phased process involving activities like digging a pit, identifying the path that elephant traverses, trapping the animal, pulling it out of the pit, bringing it back to the civilian locality, taming it to become sober etc. At an outset both instances (of catching rabbits and elephants) might look like ‘hunting’ but when it comes to execution they are radically different.

In similar lines, entrepreneurial ventures go through different phases at different point of time. Even though founding team might have a grand vision, it takes a lot to build specific expertise (similar to the case of elephant catching) in order to take the organization into a scalable and self-sustaining entity. Bagchi divides scaling into four parts:

  • Scaling your intellect – How far and how deep you can think?
  • Scaling your reputation – How to build a sustaining brand and re-invent on a regular basis?
  • Scaling your people – How to build an organization by scaling people?
  • Scaling against adversity – How to face un-expected issues and coming out stronger?

After introducing elements of scale, author gets into deeper aspect of every topic by sharing personal experiences and anecdotes from all possible organizations across the world. For example he quotes examples from how various religious organizations (ex: Nuns from say red-cross) are able to build scale in an area where technology and communications were totally unheard of. He covers importance of having right set of independent board of directors, ensuring organization does the right thing to build right set of reputation among customers, employees to really build on scale.

The most interesting and fascinating tales were about scaling people, where he talks about having right set of people for the right role. During my professional experience and currently as an entrepreneur I think this is the most critical and important aspect of scaling, which is the hardest thing to achieve. The main reason is because as an entrepreneur it is quite natural to get into the mindset of thinking ‘I can do everything’ as doing multiple roles in a given time is an inevitable thing to do. However when the organization requires scaling it simply boils down to scaling people handling right set of responsibilities. For example, a guy with innovative mindset cannot be in a routine-process driven role and vice-versa. It is super critical for the core team to identify this and ensure right set of people are hired for the right roles. This applies to all the cross functional roles like sales, marketing, engineering, operation, people function, strategy and finance of the organization. In my opinion chapter of ‘scaling your people’ is the most critical one from where I have drawn lot of insights about building a scalable organization.

Also scale is not for everybody. There are certain things that will be small and beautiful which can remain the same for years. All of us might have come across some of the other businesses (ex: A small fast food joint in Bangalore) which will remain the same for almost three decades no matter what is the opportunity that might exist in the market for the type of food that they are offering. The founding team of such organization might have opted not to go for scale and happy the way that they are running the business.

In summary scale is a choice, as it with any choices it comes with lot of challenges and compromises. It requires a different paradigm of thinking (remember rabbit v/s elephant catching) and a strong team to achieve the same, provided you have decided to go for it. I have been a regular reader of all of Bagchi’s books this one is very special because I have read it in right time of my entrepreneurial journey. Still there are many unknowns that needs to be conquered, but it has given me right set of mindset and framework to scale our organization.

Book review – The speed of trust

Speed of trust
Speed of trust

Price: 500 INR

Author: Stephen MR Covey

This book was suggested to me quite some time back (by one of my mentors) got a chance to complete it recently. Written by Stephen MR Covey, son of Stephen Covey (senior), Speed of trust is a wonderful account of trust building in human relations. Personally, my experience with trust building is been a roller-coaster ride for me. I enjoyed tremendous amount of benefits in cases where I enjoyed higher level of trust, on the other hand struggled a lot when trust levels are low with the other person. Its hard to explain trust, mainly because “things happen” when it is there and “you feel it when you have it”. I was looking for some framework to work on getting better with trust building, where this book perfectly fit into. To start with Stephen establishes a business case for trust by connecting trust, speed and cost. In case of high trust environment, more things happen in real than talking or following-up. Hence speed goes up and cost comes down. On the other hand when trust levels are low, both individuals and organizations end up paying “trust tax” which slows down the progress of the overall progress. So level of trust has direct impact on organization’s  top line and bottom line in terms of financial implications. In case of no tax, top line and bottom line both goes up creating a ‘win-win’ proposition.

After establishing business case for trust, Stephen delves into multiple layers of trust and what are the key behaviors that will enhance the level of trust in any given situation. He starts with individual trust and further followed by relationship trust, organizational trust, market trust and societal trust. He goes on explaining key elements of building trust at various levels starting with individuals. Because if as an individual we don’t trust ourselves with highest level of authenticity, it becomes naturally reflected in other activities we handle and it gets passed on to others as a lower trust message.

As a part of trust framework, Stephen mentions how credibility is fundamental in establishing trust. In order to establish credibility four cores namely intent, integrity, capability and results play a vital role by laying down strong foundation. If these four codes are having issues with an individual, no amount of behavioral tactics will help in building trust. Once these cores are established strongly (thereby having higher credibility), individuals need to demonstrate certain key behaviors to establish higher trust environment. He talks about 13 behaviors (Talk straight, Demonstrate respect, Create transparency, Right wrongs, Slow loyalty, Deliver results, Get better, Confront reality, Clarify expectations, Practice accountability, Listen first, Keep commitments, Extend trust) as key behavioral elements.

With lucid examples and case studies Stephen takes though the framework of trust building. Stephen also talks about “Smart trust” where balancing right level of trust by tuning these parameters. Extending too much of trust sometimes might backfire (and I have personal experience in doing that) whereas extending less might create lesser trusty environment. So assessing the situation and extending right level of trust is key to have desired results. From outside trust might look like a intangible item, but its implications are very deep. It was a very hard and enriching learning to go through the framework and understand various elements of building trust.

Favorite books list

Recently I was talking with my colleague about book reading habit, he was asking me to get a list of my favorite books. Few years back I created a list consisting of my favorite books using Google drive (it was called Google docs then). This list grew over the years when my friends started adding additional items into it. Recently I have updated the list; latest version can be downloaded from the link below:

Favorite books – Link to PDF document

Hope you find it useful.

BOOK REVIEW: My journey – Transforming dreams into action

Abdul Kalam
Transforming dreams into actions

Author: APJ Abdul Kalam

Price: 195 INR

For most Indians, reading about Abdul Kalam and his work is always an inspiring item. Post retirement, he started off his journey into writing by scripting his auto-biography titled ‘The wings of fire’, followed by some popular books like Ignited Minds, Envisioning an empowered nation, Turning points etc. Most of them talk about his early life in Rameshwaram followed by his experience with various defense and space research organizations. Another popular theme in these book is about “Vision 2020”, where Kalam is been articulating India becoming super power by 2012 by achieving excellence in technology, rural transformation, self reliance and self sustainability.

In this latest book ‘My journey – Transforming dreams into Action’, Kalam has followed pretty much the same canvas but gone into very small and specific stories. Unlike his previous books, he has chosen real life anecdotes and shared deeper learning from them. Growing up in town like Rameshwaram with very high aspirations and dreams is not very easy situation to handle. With lesser resources and exposure, Kalam need to go thru lot of struggle and build his career brick-by-brick. The most inspiring part is about him overcoming umpteen numbers of challenges and overcoming them with very strong vision and value.

For example, he explains how he became a working person at the age of 8 by supplying newspapers in Rameshwaram and struggle associated with it. Every day he would to get up at 4 AM followed by his morning tuition and prayers. In order to support his family Kalam takes a part time job of distributing newspapers to Rameshwaram household. Thanks to some policy change, Chennai-Dhanushkodi passenger train which carried daily newspaper bundle from Chennai removed Rameshwaram station from the list. This resulted in Kalam doing every day stunt by catching paper bundle thrown from a moving train at Rameshwaram station. Kalam will then go on distributing them after which his school day would start. In the evening he would finish his homework and complete settlement of newspaper daily account with his cousin who gave him this opportunity. It was quite obvious to see the amount of stress and pressure he might have gone thru as a 8 year old boy, but the way he put it across along with key learnings is simply amazing.

There are multiple similar stories related to his profession filled with struggle and failures.  Inspired by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Kalam and his team went on building Indian space story from the scratch.  He recalls how his professional career is similar to his early life in Rameshwaram – Lesser resources, Limited knowledge, larger challenges and a passion to win. Taking references from Bhagavat Gita to Thirukkural, Kalam mentions how he taken inspiration from these great ancient text to lift him up when things went wrong due to mistakes.  There were some repeated stories (ex: Church in Thumba becoming ISRO office, thanks to the local people), however they are always inspiring ones to hear again and again.

Unlike his previous books, Kalam kept this one very simple which can even read and understood by a high school kid. Definitely worth reading!

Useful Tamil websites

I have been an avid follower of Tamil Internet, which has grown into leaps and bounds over years. All dimensions content, technology and choice of contents is getting enriched day-by-day. Following are some of the useful sites which I follow:

Blogs:

Writers:

Web sites:

For buying Tamil books online:

Audiobooks – New mode of learning

I have been a regular reader of books over years now. Every year I used to read 12 books (one book a month) until 2012. Last year it was very challenging to keep up with work expectations, family priorities, travel and fitness related activities. Definitely I was missing books not sure where and how I will make time for it.

I stumbled upon audio-books in a book-store, thought of giving it a shot. Thanks to Bangalore traffic I at-least end up spending anywhere between 1 to 1.5 hours in traffic, where listening to FM radio or audio CD becomes boring after some time. I have interleaved it with Audiobooks, which has opened up new mode of learning. Following are the pros and cons of Audio-books.

Pros:

  • Excellent way to catch-up with book reading in a busy schedule added with traffic jams. After getting into the habit of listening, longer traffic jams have become an opportunity for me to listen to few chapters from audio-book.
  • Compared to physical book reading, audio books are faster. Based on my experience, I was able to complete one book in a week (with 7-8 hours of drive time). This definitely provides a ‘feel-good’ factor!
  • Easy to carry, share and store. Obviously they occupy less space inside and outside house, I am able to create a small sharing circle in office where we keep exchanging audio-books.

Cons:

  • Audio book listening experience cannot equate book reading experience. Especially during driving, I was not able to give 100% concentration on what is being told from the audio system. This also sometimes gives a ‘incomplete’ feeling
  • Relatively I found good audio books are costly than printed edition. At least in India, average book audio costs about 500 INR, which is quite high, compared to print edition. Of course it varies from book to book
  • Continuously listening to audio books creates a ‘boring’ feeling especially during long drives. It is good to interleave audio books with good music and radio. I found a decent combination of these three worked well for me.

Resources:

Piracy zindabad

Its hardly few weeks since Aravind Adiga’s novel ‘The white tiger’ won the man booker price. Starting this week I am getting emails from vendors like indiaplaza.in, Crossword etc. about the deals/discounts they are offering for the book. While I was pondering which deal to go with, got a huge shock when I went out for lunch today. The pirated version of the book is already available on roadside shops for 145 rupees (check photo below).

In countries like India, piracy spreads faster than the original version. When are we going to realize the importance buying original copies or start innovating around piracy?

Related article: Piracy = Opportunity