Idea or Execution?

After taking up Entrepreneurial path, I have come across many interesting experiences on a daily basis. Every day is filled with unknown or unclear activities with more effort is put to make it more and more clear. In due course of time I also got an opportunity to meet a bunch of entrepreneurs, consultants, mentors and ecosystems partners in Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem. Also I also got opportunity to work more closely with a smaller entrepreneurial teams and execute things at ‘ground zero’.

It is a very popular (or hyped) belief that everything starts with Idea. If an individual has a breathtaking idea he can make it happen. Thanks to some of the recent bigger acquisitions, millions and billions are looking smaller and smaller. However when I work more closely with my organizations or meet people who are ‘really’ successful entrepreneurs it gives me totally a contrarian perspective. No matter how good an idea an individual or a team has, it’s all about execution.

The reason is very simple. Strong execution is what helps organization create customer value and business results. Let me take example of our education segment itself. It is very easy for anybody with decent technical knowledge to come up with a training program in a relatively niche area like Linux. Thanks to lower entry barrier it is easy for an individual to come up with learning materials, doing market research and coming up with value proposition of a particular training program. However following are the key questions are not hyped enough but very critical when it comes to business.

  • How quickly can I find a paying customer, who is in real need of my service?
  • How can I ensure that the customer signs a cheque?
  • How do I gauge current skill level of target audience and figure out what exactly they expect?
  • In case I already know I can’t exceed their expectations in the training program how do I manage it at least by meeting their expectations?
  • How do I tune my way of delivery so that audience have maximum take away?
  • How to I collect feedback from them, in case of negative feedback how can I address them?
  • In case of getting positive feedback how can I convert into a repeatable business?

The whole crux of all above mentioned questions directly relates with the way of a particular training program is executed. Apart from above mentioned questions there might be another bunch of questions, issues, challenges we face every day at ground zero level when we actually deliver something to our customers. When we go through this grind every day it has become quite obvious that execution is super important than idea. With technology advancements, mentor ecosystem and internet it is very easy for anybody to come up with relatively new idea. However ensuring that a particular product or service is really accepted from the customer end and generates value requires a strong execution backed up by the idea. I am not under estimating or downplaying the importance of having an important idea, building a strategy or having marketing/GTM activity, eventually execution is what makes all the difference.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Aapkapainter – Home painting at ease

Aapkapainter.com
Aapkapainter.com

It’s been quite some time since I got my house painted. As our little one was growing up, she ensured home walls were her initial canvas using pencil and wax crayons! During vendor short-listing, I came across Aapkapainter (incidentally it is a start-up done by some of my RECW/NITW juniors), eventually signed up with them to get my house painting done. It’s been an awesome experience working with them, right from shortlisting to painting work completion. Wanted to write few details about the work done by them.

Competitive pricing

Initially I had no idea about how to get the painting done. Upon some search, I came to know popular brands (Asian Paints, Nerolac etc…) are offering home painting service on a contract basis and took initial quote from them along with Aapkapainter. To my surprise prices quoted by Aapkapainter was very competitive compared to popular brands, even though they assured me that they will use standard paints for the work. Please also note the fact that standard brands redirect their work to local contractors/vendors, we are also not sure how well they do the job. Finding competitive pricing and placing initial trust (as you know they are my college juniors) I signed up with them for my house painting work.

Professional approach

Right from initial phase, Aapkapainter folks have been very professional in their approach. Understanding painting requirements in detail, providing quotes, suggesting which paint to use for what type of wall, recommending some cost optimization approaches etc, were something I didn’t expect from them. It was a very professional approach in area like home painting, I could clearly differentiate this approach from other vendors with whom I had some initial observations.

Quality in execution

After starting the work, painters showed up properly every day on time, without any major hassles or follow-up. Since we are also living in the same place, they ensured a step-by-step approach by starting the work from one room. Before starting the work they ensured house hold valuables (TV, sofa, fan, wooden/glass cupboards etc…) are well cove

Texture wall
Texture wall

red. None of my family members need to put any effort to move any single item as the painters themselves taken care of it completely. Every day before winding up the day’s work painters ensured cleaning is done in order to ensure living conditions are maintained. The same thing they demonstrated after completing painting work at a particular room by moving back things and setting up in the way they have taken the work before. During the painting they ensured work surface preparation, main-painting and minor corrections were done to the minutest level possible. Check out some main texture work done at my home wall to have a look at their quality of work.

Concerns on safety

As I spend most of the day time at workplace, I was having some initial concerns on my family safety as painters would be working throughout the day in my absence. Aapkapainter folks ensured they sent qualified and proper painters with regular supervision. This ensured here is no safety concern.

What they can do better

This article would remain incomplete if I fail to mention on areas that they can do better. Primarily Aapkapainter has taken an approach to connect consumers to paint services in a vendor independent manner, where their website plays a major role. In that context, their website user-experience can improve. I understand they started off recently, can think of making it much more interactive (ex: Some links are broken in the website). Also some interesting tools (ex: Color comparison, Paint calculator) can be introduced using which users can get a better online experience.

Definitely an area like Home-painting is an unorganized segment. Even though big brands are trying to get it organized, eventually it is up to the local vendor to execute it, where there are definite challenges that need to be met. This also presents a huge opening, which Aapkapainter is trying to address.In summary I got my house re-painting work done in a cost-effective manner with very high quality with zero hassles. I would highly recommend Aapkapainter folks for people who want to get their house-painting work done.

Fallout of Airtel and its customer service

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. This seems to be truer in case of Airtel.

I have been Airtel’s loyal customer more than a decade now, ever since I took my mobile phone connection. Few years later I have taken broadband + telephone connection as well. In both cases their customer service was really good, always used to have great experience in every other interaction of support. For example they have surprised me even during a normal phone call, which I wrote in post titled ‘A great customer experience’. However over the years their service quality is consistently taking toll. During 2011, I again wrote a post titled  Irate customer – A lost opportunity, where I called out painful experience I had with Airtel, while resolving some issues related to Jwritings domain.  Over the past two years their service level even gone down, which I heard from many of my friends who have Airtel connections.

My recent experience was awful when I visited them to get my mobile rate plan changed. Even after spending 30 face-to-face minutes with customer service representative he couldn’t even locate which rate plan I am currently using. My objective was to convert my plan into a corporate plan, so that I can bring down my monthly rental as the corporate plan seem to offer more benefits in terms of free minutes. The issue hit the roof when I asked him about my current data plan, when the customer service representative enlightened saying “Sir, till 2 GB data limit, you can download anything from the Internet. However after that limit you can only browse the Internet”. This guy doesn’t know the difference between browsing and downloading from the Internet. I thought I will forget my computer science fundamentals if I continue to stay in their showroom.

Definitely Indian service providers are under tremendous cost pressure due to various issues (Regulatory issues, scandals, ARPU challenges and maintaining healthy top- line etc.) in telecommunication sector. In order to meet these challenges, Airtel looks like subcontracting customer facing services to third party providers who are ruining customer relationships.

Ten types of Innovation – Concluding notes

With article on Bigbasket, the ten part innovation series comes to an end. When I understood the innovation types (created by Doblin) way back in 2011, my idea was to apply it from Indian context and make case studies fitting various types. It took two long years for me to complete this series with decent satisfaction.

Innovation has gone beyond building a particular product or service. By building something different doesn’t guarantee a business success, whereas ensuring customer derives value will. India, unlike some of the developed countries, is in the cusp of transformation where we have both traditional old school thinking and new school of thinking co-existing with each other. This made my inquiry to innovation all the more interesting. As and when I observed some innovative way to serve customers, I started mapping them back to Doblin’s model and came up with this whole series spanning across industries.

Please find URLs to individual posts as follows:

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!

Innovation – Type 10 – Customer experience innovation [Case: Bigbasket]

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

The tenth and final type of innovation is around customer experience, which is all about creating a superior experience to customer’s entry to exit. In India many players attempted to do online grocery store for quite some-time now. It is extremely challenging business in Indian context (logistics, poor roads, unpredictable traffic, varying climate conditions etc…), which Bigbasket is able break by creating very good customer experience around it. I have personally tried and tested this many times, it works all the time with great experience.

Simple and effective User interface

The first thing that impressed me about Bigbasket is their simple and effective user interface. It was very easy to search/navigate for individual grocery items and create an order in a hassle free manner. Every item contains optimal information (neither too less nor too much) with put me into ease. Also when individuals go back for re-ordering, it keeps previous list handy for modification, which saves time for second time. This works very well for monthly grocery ordering.

Prompt alerts

While building an easy to use user interface might look relatively easy, integrating with backend supply chain to meet the promise is super critical. Especially in India, where the probability of providing prompt service is less (due to inherent challenges like infrastructure) providing prompt alerts to customers about the order status creates a lot of trust. In case of Bigbasket I get regular alerts (both in form of email and SMS) about my order status. Just before the final delivery of goods, authentication PIN is provided via SMS, so that both delivery person and customer can be assured about delivery.

Service delivery guarantee

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

After placing order, customers get to choose the time-slot in which they wanted the goods to be delivered. This super critical item (similar to Flipkart’s cash on delivery service) which helps office goers to get goods delivered at a convenient time. Their interface also shows the current booking status and slot availability in order to help customers choose the proper delivery time. From execution point of view, I have always seen they deliver goods on the time promised.

Return policy and wallet

During delivery, in case of item mismatch (ex: quantity) or damage (ex: broken seal), Bigbasket delivery folks take it back without any questions. Upon entering these items in backend (using Mobile application) customers again get immediate notification about when the updated item will be delivered. In case of item return, the money is kept back in a digital wallet which can be adjusted for next purchase.

In summary right from order placing to goods return, Bigbasket has done massive integration and prompt execution of their service. This gives a great end-to-end experience for customers in terms of quality, on-time delivery and reliability.

Innovation – Type 9 – Brand [Case: Decathlon India]

Decathlon
Decathlon

It’s time to catch-up with ten part innovation series. The Ninth type of innovation on Brand is about how offerings are expressed to customer to their benefit. It’s been quite a bit of challenge to identify a right case for this innovation, finally nailed it with Decathlon sports India. Decathlon entered India as a sports goods retailer, primarily catering to high end customers by having closed membership association. This was partly due to their positioning and partly due to retail industry regulations in India. Over a period of time they changed the way their brand is expressed to customers, which has made Decathlon as a popular brand today.

To start with, Decathlon instrumented making their employees as brand ambassadors by hiring sports enthusiasts for specific departments. Say if you are passionate cyclist, then you will be hired and made as cycle department sales person or supervisor. Naturally this makes a huge difference to a customer who walks into the shop to buy a bicycle. Given the pre-existing expertise and passion, naturally the sales person will understand customer needs better and ensure they are suggested with proper options in comparison with the person who don’t know anything about cycles. Added to that these employees are positioned well in their marketing communications, hoardings and future job hire needs.

The store and employee appearance also establishes a unique brand image among customers. Unlike other stores, Decathlon’s real estate size is relatively large in order for customers to try out various sports goods (ex: cycles). However they ensured their internal store arrangement (ex: racks) is very simple with lesser investments in order to optimize cost. One gets ‘no-nonsense-I-get-what-I-want’ feeling by entering any of their stores. Their employee appearance (ex: French beard with trendy hair-style) is also something different that I have observed in comparison with other places.

When Decathlon entered India, it was not open to all retail customers. One needs to get membership in order to shop from them, which got repositioned now. It is not open for all retail customers. By targeting upper-middle customer segment, they are able to establish Decathlon as a synonym for quality with decent pricing. This repositioning and communicating right message also changed the way Decathlon is perceived among common people.

In summary Decathlon changed the sports expression by innovating around their brand – in terms of store design, employee appearance, profile of employees and positioning. Globally they have been existing for more than three decades, but by adapting to some of the local challenges, they are well positioned their brand in sports goods retailing.

On Kaizen (Continuous Improvement)

Kaizen – Japanese meaning (“Good change”)

For a while now I have been associated with various continuous improvement activities both at office and home, which has been a humbling experience. When we know things are not going as expected or there is a shortcoming in the way it is executed, there are two ways to look at it. First approach is to blame/penalize/criticize some or all the people associated with it, including self. This results in accumulation of negative energy eventually leads nowhere other than cribbing and complaining. Second option is to seek ways to improve the situation by having continuous improvement mindset. When I was referring back to some standard philosophy, I came across Kaizen introduced by Japanese post world war as a waste reduction in a system and aiming towards continuous improvement, which is both philosophy and practice.

Let us consider the following situations:

  • Given the nature of a project or work, existing standard project management execution frameworks (ex: Sprint) doesn’t work due to some internal issues
  • Given time-frame of the project, process/life-cycle compliance goes out of window, resulting in lesser process compliance
  • At home, we often have situation where we end up running/searching for photocopies of necessary documents (ex: passport) which is not available when required

As mentioned above, it is very easy to complain and pass on the buck (saying person X, who is responsible for this has not done his/her job). On the other hand, if we take small but steady steps towards improvement, with bigger inspiration in mind then thing start turning into a different situation. Personally it results in the following:

  • By accepting the fact that something is not correct, brings down ego of individuals by making us humble
  • Ensures individuals take up inspirational mindset, thereby approaching things from solution point of view rather than problem alone
  • True test of persistence, as the journey of continuous improvement never ends
  • Over a period time creates a systematic and practical approach to innovation which makes huge difference to individual and business

Japanese started off with automotive industry with no background, when their country was in debacle. In my opinion being humble and taking up mindset to improve things over a period of time has paid them tremendously by creating Toyotas and Sony’s of the world. By adopting some of these practices by understanding the philosophy definitely make a difference for us and people around us both in workplace and in family.

Are you ready to take up this journey?

Book retailing: Traditional v/s online

Recently I had a casual conversation with owner of a large scale book store. His is a family owned business, been in book retailing for decades with great passion for reading. Upon further discussions he mentioned about his book retailing business heading south (for months together) due to the emergence of e-commerce portals like Flipkart. It is quite obvious that e-commerce portals enjoy benefits of on-demand inventory, lesser operational costs (ex: rental) and direct supplier relationships helps to offer a better price. Added to that, most of Indian e-commerce portals are backed by heavy funds from venture capitalists, which help them to provide un-realistic discounts on books with additional benefits like free shipping, cash-on-delivery etc. Over a period of time, these e-commerce portals build valuation for the company based on number of transactions and incrementally grow by bringing more products (apparels, electronics, toys etc…) thereby becoming online mega store. On the other hand, traditional book retailers are struggling to keep up their operations with increasing rental/labor costs, overhead of inventory and limitation of not able to offer higher discount as it will affect their bottom line.

As a matter of fact this problem is not new. In countries like US e-commerce portals (likes of Amazon) took away significant market share from traditional book stores but some of them re-invented themselves and survived this challenge. I was wondering what Indian book stores (considering Indian context) can do to compete fiercely online bookstores. Here are some of my ideas which can be considered:

  • Similar to book stores of the west (ex: Barns and Noble) traditional book stores should re-shape themselves as modern libraries by creating a compelling reading experience around it. Readers should be compelled to walk in, take a look of their choice and spend hours in the shop by going thru their favorites. By adding additional factors (like coffee shop, comfortable table & chairs for reading, offering sample chapters for free etc…) these book shops can attract regular visitors who will potentially end up buying these books
  • There are some specific types of books (ex: Children books) come in various shape, size and weight, which is still not comfortable to buy online. As a parent I spent lot of time considering these aspects before buying book for my daughter by physically visiting the shop. Such type of books still has a lot of ‘touch-and-feel’ factor associated with it. Traditional retailers should think of some special promotions and tie-ups to push these books thru young parents and readers
  • Among adult readers (both fiction and non-fiction) there is a strong possibility to build a community based on common interest. Such communities combined with social media can be made as early adapters of new releases and share their viewpoints in terms of face-to-face get together, sharing book reviews, meeting authors directly and exchanging book related practical experiences. Such community should be provided with special discounts and covered under loyalty programs, thereby attacking clusters
  • Even now many of the traditional shop owners are expecting customers to physically walk into the shop and order for books. This should be changed by adapting home delivery based on phone order, building a micro-site for the bookstore where alternative channels of reaching out to the customer. Such new channels should be backed with excellent customer service in terms of delivery time and quality to re-invent the whole business.

I am not sure if any of the traditional book store owners got necessary mindset to re-invent their business by adopting new ways to sell books in this digital era. Unless they adapt to this change and re-invent the way they do business, it is going to be extremely difficult to survive.

Book review: Employees First, Customer second

Jwritings - Employee first, Customer second
EFCS - Vineet Nayar

Author: Vineet Nayar

Price: 499 INR (Audio version of the book)

Employees First, Customer Second (EFCS) is creating buzz for a while now! Coined by HCL vetranVineet Nayar, this term has created a bunch of different interpretations, perspectives and discussions. I picked up audio version of this book from Reado, mainly to bring pace  to my reading habit. Listening to audio book, especially in busy city traffic conditions, makes it a enriching experience by putting better use of time. Also audio book helps to read book faster than the traditional printed books. I used to be an advocate of buying books in printed form and have them as my priceless possessions. Thanks to the busy schedule at work and home kindled me to explore innovative ways to keep my reading habit alive. EFCS is the first audio book I have heard (long time back I did similar stuff with one of the Tamil books, by having them listen during travel), so listening to an English audio book is also equally interesting experience.

Coming to EFCS book, author Vineet Nayar shares his transformational journey in HCL using EFCS framework. HCL, one of the top notch software services companies in India, steadily lost its stream both in business and people elements.  HCL was not considered as a preferred employer by many of people due to not so favorable work environment. Based on his experience by meeting HCL employees Vineet felt many key issues, which pushed him to make transformation in HCL by implementing EFCS. Fundamentally Vineet believed what he describes as ‘value zone’, which is nothing but an employee linkage with its customer. This critical zone where  customer interacts with software service organization like HCL to get the necessary assignment done. For customers, they see the software company and its value generation thru its employees who are interfacing with him/her. So from the organization perspective, if employees in the value zone, who can be enabled and empowered, would result in more value for customers. In order to take care of its customers better organizations need to work with their own people, to put them first before customers. Because every action they do eventually gets converted into value for customers thereby maximizing many things which include employee satisfaction, customer value, revenue, profitability etc. This doesn’t mean providing a second-class treatment to customer, but in order to give them first-class treatment, employees of the organization needs to be taken care.

With this basic principle, Vineet goes on executing EFCS by taking few important but bold changes in the organization. To start with, he gets his top 100 leadership team to buy in this concept of EFCS by creating what he describes  as ‘blueprint’ meetings.  Initially most of the senior leader were not able to buy in this idea with ‘yes, but….’ Thinking, but over a period of time, they start seeing the value of doing such things customers. Second, Nayar believes in order to implement EFCS successfullym, he need to build trust in the organization at all levels. In order to open up conversation with employees, he creates an internal two-way transparent web based system called ‘U and Me’ by openly making conversation with employees. Employees at any level can open conversation with the CEO (Nayar himself) or any of the senior leadership team. In case of specific questions, pertaining to a business line, the corresponding leader would provide the response. When this started off, initial days were more of making it as a compliant box, but over a period of time it turned out to be a platform to build two-way transparent conversation for building trust in the leadership. After attaining certain level of maturity, Vineet opened up this platform with a new item titled ‘My problems’ where he started seeing suggestions/inputs from employees for the issues faced by him with respect to competitors, business changes/challenges, media etc. He started getting very creative and workable suggestions from employees from all the level, which in turn created more belief in the leadership among employees.

Third, internal systems were tuned to support/empower and aid people in the ‘value zone’. For example business support functions like HR, finance, operations etc, need to be tuned for getting support to the business needs by creating a ticketing system with automatic upward escalation. This also broke the traditional power center concept by truly tuning the organization to be people centric, thereby eventually passing on the value to customers. In the same lines, Vineet opened up business results (revenue, profit, current status etc..) data of individual businesses as a transparent information across the organization. Every individual group/team were able to clearly see where their team/business stood with respect to other organizations. While this created some initial issues (ex: information leaking to the press, as HCL is a public listed company) but this created a sense of urgency and bias to take action for improving the situation. It took about four years time for Vineet to implement EFCS in multiple phases and he also explains the benefit/results of this framework in terms of revenues/profits/employee satisfaction. By taking certain big bold steps like EFCS, HCL is transformed into a multi billion dollar organization with capability to handle larget client base with higher criticality.

When such large scale tranformational changes are implemented, any organization will have its mixed response from people side. When I talked with some of my HCL friends about EFCS they were not so excited but admitted that it did had impact in the way HCL has done business. It required lot of courage backed with common-sense to float something like EFCS, but Nayar’s no non-sense common sense approach was really interesting to challenge stereotype management thinking.