Technology – with meaning

A lot of people decide to get an MBA because they want to switch careers. I’m not one of them.

When I graduated from college in 2013, I didn’t even know about the existence of product management. It was only after I started working at ZeMoSo (a product development startup) that I realized what it was all about. The intersection of business, technology and user experience – my version of the holy grail. Making the switch from being a software engineer to a product manager wasn’t easy; but it was definitely worth it.

I believe that an MBA is going to help me become a better product manager. I know this is a hotly debated topic, but it’s a decision I didn’t make lightly. I’m using this time I have before the program starts to think about what I want to do post MBA. I haven’t gotten down to thinking about this at a granular, company level. Instead I’m approaching this much like I approached my New Year’s resolutions—themes.

The themes continue to evolve, but broadly they look something like this:

  1. Companies that are bridging gaps – between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, developing and developed, skilled and unskilled. Basically, companies that are creating equal access to opportunities and knowledge regardless of gender, race, geography or any other disparity.
  2. Companies that are saving precious resources – this to me includes time, health, and the environment. I guess the overarching category of “productivity tools” would belong here.
  3. Companies that are creating something original – unless there is a really unique value proposition, I don’t want to be a part of a company that wants to create another Facebook, WhatsApp, Tinder, Instagram or Snapchat. There are so many other areas that can still be disrupted—I don’t want to limit myself to something that has already been done (and done well).

I don’t think I’m being particularly altruistic, however this is something I consciously want to do in an effort to contribute towards creating sustainable technology of real value.

Image credit: http://www.mindtheproduct.com/

Texts from the News

Instead of making New Year’s resolutions this year (which I inevitably fail at keeping), I decided to go with themes for the year instead. One of the themes is learning more about the world around me. With that in mind, I subscribed to and downloaded Espresso (from The Economist) and WSJ (from The Wall Street Journal). I like them both, but this post is about the news app from Quartz that came in a bit later. I absolutely love it. It’s only available on iOS for now, so everyone else is out of luck.

There are multiple reasons why I’m a big fan. To narrow it down: it’s fun, quick, and free.

To expand on that: It’s the news in a format that is very conversational. Imagine if you asked a friend to tell you about the top news items of the day. That’s what Quartz does, in a very entertaining way to boot. Complex issues are whittled down to bite-sized texts. From a product perspective, the UI looks exactly like the Messages app on my iPhone. You even see the “…” before the next text shows up, so they’ve really recreated the messaging experience.

I’m a reader so I’m not particularly averse to long articles, but most of my friends have never read a newspaper from end-to-end. Even for the younger Snapchat-loving, Emoji-abusing millennials, this app is comforting in its familiarity. It’s a far cry from news in its ugly, boring format. I liken it to Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s not a literary masterpiece, but I’m okay with its existence since at the end of the day, the book is getting more people to read.

Quartz app screenshot
Unicorn killer.

I also don’t have to pick the type of news I read, because that decision is made for me (otherwise I end up totally skipping the politics and sports sections). The news items I see are the ones that Quartz has already curated, which is good enough for me. There is an element of control though, so you can choose whether you want to see more information about a specific news event. You decide where and how far the story goes.

I’m also glad they didn’t over-engineer it. You can’t actually type a response since you can only choose from preset options like “Cool” or “Not interested”. No artificial intelligence type sorcery here. Added bonus, they have nifty little quizzes for when you’re all caught up with the news and market haikus like this one that are hilarious (to be fair, they send this in their email newsletter too).

Pity the bankers
Low rates. New rules. Now, oil bust!
Still—the hair looks great

Image credit: http://fusion.net/

Parallels – Neopets, Xanga and Twitter?

My journey on the interwebz began with Neopets when I was eleven. For the uninitiated, it’s a virtual pet community with “free games, shops, auctions, chat and more!” Personally, I couldn’t care less about feeding my pets or clothing them. I knew they weren’t really hungry or dying as they liked to remind me (Neopets are immortal), so that part of the game never held my attention. I was hooked however, to the social aspects of the site – the forums and the guilds. Essentially it was a popularity contest. How many people replied to my thread? Did my post on the forum hit the reply limit of 200 messages? Did my guild have the coolest members? It was pre-pubescent elitism at its best and the rules of cool were completely different from the real world, which served me well at the time.

In around 2006, I grew out of Neopets and switched to a different kind of community—Xanga. It was really an extension of Neopets for me, except for the fact that the conversation here was centered around a blog instead of a forum. I blogged on Xanga for about 5 years and I was featured on the home page on 20 different occasions. I wasn’t an extraordinary writer (I’m still not) but I had somehow managed to build an actual following. A lot of content on Xanga was very meta, in that only power users could really understand the lingo and references and who was cool and who wasn’t. The players were different, but the game was the same.

Xanga is a real puzzle: rarely talked about, but seemingly a massive force in social networking. And yet, there are only a handful of Mashable readers we know of who are dedicated Xangans, and we rarely receive emails about it. Almost certainly, this is something to do with the Xanga culture: it just seems impenetrable to outsiders.

– Pete Cashmere on Mashable in 2007

Xanga died a slow, painful death for reasons I find startlingly similar to problems that Twitter is facing today. A lot of Twitter’s features aren’t obvious to anyone who isn’t a power user. I got on Twitter years ago and I abandoned it soon after because I didn’t find enough value in it at the time. I was mostly just following friends, who rarely tweeted and I didn’t know who else to follow. They have fixed some of these issues over time, as I recently discovered when I started using Twitter actively again. But I soon realized that even now, Twitter has a rather steep learning curve.

I found it impossible to wade through the sheer amount of content on my feed, so I had to prune the list of people I follow, which is definitely sub-optimal. It’s hard to find people that are into the same stuff you’re into. For instance, I had to Google “people to follow on Twitter in tech/startups” to actually find people that I should follow. I know Twitter is already working on a lot of these problems especially after its dismal numbers in the fourth-quarter, but I’m afraid it might be too little, too late. There is also a deeply rooted sub-culture inhabited by early adopters and tech enthusiasts that makes it difficult for an average user to get involved in the discussion. Unless you have significant clout, your tweets disappear into a black hole. There really isn’t much incentive to keep tweeting and producing original content when it’s nearly impossible to be heard. It’s the same problem yet again.

The cool kids have taken over, making the barrier for entry that much stronger. It’s a problem endemic to blogging/micro-blogging/content platforms, but I think the way that this is handled (algorithmically or otherwise) makes a world of a difference. Case in point: Reddit and to a smaller extent, Quora (full disclosure, I’m a redditor). I’m still finding my way around Twitter and I think it is such a brilliant product with huge potential. I hope it is given the time, space and resources to live up to that.

Side note: While writing this post, I discovered that Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter was actually the Creative Director at Xanga. Mind = Blown.

Image credit: http://beviacom.se/

The trials and tribulations of the online travel industry –  Part 1

After nearly 7 months working for a travel startup, I have concluded that this industry is a notoriously tricky one. While the concept of travel itself is glamorous, creating a successful travel-centric product is more difficult than it seems. Here are a few reasons why:

Monopoly:

The most common revenue model for online travel companies (also called OTAs or online travel agents) is to earn commission from properties on every booking that happens on the site. The properties could range from hotels to flights, and in some cases even car and bus rentals. The formula here is quite simple — more bookings equals more money. For larger companies with deep pockets, this simply means acquiring targets that are eating into their share of booking revenues.

Therefore, most websites that we use to make online travel bookings are actually owned by the same parent company. To illustrate that point, let’s say you’re trying to book a hotel room. You would probably check Expedia or Hotels.com and then you might even go a step further and check Orbitz. You compare prices across all three websites and you notice that they’re the same. Convinced that you’re making a good decision, you use one of them to make a booking. But here’s the kicker: they are all owned by the same parent company.

Expedia, Inc. is an American-based parent company to

  1. Expedia.com
  2. Hotels.com
  3. Hotwire.com
  4. trivago
  5. Travelocity
  6. Orbitz

The Priceline Group is a provider of online travel & related services through six primary brands:

  1. Booking.com
  2. priceline.com
  3. agoda.com
  4. KAYAK
  5. rentalcars.com
  6. OpenTable

Of the top 25 travel sites as ranked by Alexa, 5 are owned by Expedia (3 within the top 10) and 3 are owned by The Priceline Group. And the best part is that most people don’t know! While this certainly makes things difficult for consumers, it makes it harder for smaller competitors in this space to break through this intensely competitive, monopolistic market. With TripAdvisor also entering the booking game, the competition has only become stiffer. You either find yourself facing an early demise, or you get a relatively small but significant share of the market and then get swallowed by one of the giants. It’s a dog eat dog world.

Google:

Most travel planning starts with Google. You look for terms like “best hotels in Paris” or “cheap flights from London to New York” and take your pick from the results that show up. In the early days, Google was the gift that kept on giving. If your website showed up somewhere on the top, then the heavy lifting was already done. But Google being Google decided to take advantage of this huge opportunity. The search engine is slowly moving towards becoming a booking agent. As Google’s Head of Travel, Oliver Heckmann said in an interview with Skift:

Our philosophy is really: We’re in the travel space, we’re a search engine, we have users who are interested in travel. We want to be a really good in assisting the user, we want to partner with the industry for that. We have no ambition, no plans to become an online travel agency or an airline or a hotel or any of that. So we want good partnerships with the industry; it has worked very well for us.

Google entering the fray with its “Book on Google” option is a severe blow to the other players in this industry — even more so because of the kind of power Google has over search results. The CEO of TripAdvisor took to Twitter to accuse Google of pushing TripAdvisor search results down to the bottom of the page while trying to leverage their own products.

Nevertheless, Google’s entry into the travel space is proving to be a serious roadblock for most competitors, and rightfully so. With the sheer amount of information and clout that Google has, I can see it demolishing all the incumbents in a few short years. The less said about new players in the field, the better.

– Part 2 of this post coming soon

Image credit: http://www.sparksheet.com/

Finally giving in to the Fitbit

I’m not usually a huge believer of tracking devices because I think if you do what you’re supposed to be doing, you should be fine.

Want to lose weight? Run around the block a few times.

Trying to slim down? Eat less.

I’ve never meticulously documented the calories I’ve consumed or the number of steps I’ve taken since I can usually stick to a plan once I’ve summoned the willpower to do something. But I did want to try it, so I gave in and bought it on sale from Amazon. I’ve been using it for a grand total of two days now, although it feels like longer because I’m not used to having something on my wrist constantly (I’m not much of a watch person).

Setting the Fitbit up was a bit of a pain, I hadn’t seen anyone do it before, so I pretty much had to read through the manual (it wasn’t particularly intuitive). I’m sure my parents or anyone not-so technologically inclined would have a tough time getting this to work. The Fitbit app for iOS itself is beautifully designed, but since there are so many configurable options, finding where to do what has been a little difficult. I always end up doing a lot of back and forth. Maybe an in-app search bar would make life easier? Or perhaps hiding some of the less essentials tabs and making the real features/settings more prominent? I really don’t care about the Challenges nor do I like to broadcast my physical activity to my social network (I clearly missed the memo to all millenials).

Although the water and food log features are snazzy, Fitbit can be synced with MyFitnessPal, so this to me seemed a bit unnecessary. I also found that moving my hand around caused the number of steps to go up, which was slightly disappointing since I do move my hands around a lot even while I’m sitting down. A lot of reviews I’ve read seem to indicate that it counts steps even when you’re driving. Clearly, the technology isn’t perfect and there’s a long way to go until they become completely accurate.

My favourite feature by far is the silent alarm which gently nudges me to wake up instead of scaring me to death like most alarms do. My colleague actually straps the Fitbit onto his toddler’s ankle and sets up an alarm for her in the morning. She wakes up cheerfully, without the screaming that is usually a part of his family’s daily ablutions. Despite how much I like the silent alarm, I hate wearing it to sleep, but I don’t know where else to put it.

All in all, I think the Fitbit Flex is cool because of its initial novelty but I’m not sure how long that will last. Nearly everyone I know wore it religiously for about two weeks before it faded from existence. There are three things that I think would make this piece of technology invaluable:

  1. A non-invasive way to stick the tracker on or into the body
  2. Never having to charge it
  3. The capability of measuring food and water intake (somehow)

Now I’d buy that in a tick.

Disruption by Innovation – Fireside chat with Vinod Khosla

First posted on my personal blog Quixotic Semiotic

Let me just start by saying how grateful I am to be located in a place like Bangalore where there is absolutely no dearth of opportunities to pick the brains of the best and brightest individuals in the world. The ex-CTO of my company mentioned to me in passing that he had an invite to a fireside chat being hosted by Vinod Khosla, and I squealed in excitement. This man is an absolute legend, but I was still a little wary considering what a huge disappointment the GMIC was. I just returned from the event, and I’m happy to say, it was worth it.

My first impression of Mr. Khosla was that he was older than his pictures seemed to suggest! I was under the impression that he was in his late 40’s, but he turned 60 this year. Who knew?! But I think with age and experience comes wisdom and this man has it in bucketloads. He spoke for about an hour and a half, and although most of what he said wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, it was so deeply insightful that I was immediately enraptured. I’d be ready to take his words as gospel, as unwise as that might be, simply because of how strong his convictions seemed. When asked about what entrepreneurs like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg, Elon Musk and Larry Page all had in common, Mr. Khosla said it was their internal belief system. Believing in an idea that goes against all societally accepted norms, and more importantly sticking to that idea despite the possibility of imminent failure – that made all the difference. There were two specific quotes that he shared that I am going to write down here for posterity.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the conditions that surround him… The unreasonable man adapts surrounding conditions to himself… All progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw

Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

Martin Luther King

The gist of is that to conform is to fail as an entrepreneur. If you’re happy with conformity and you’re happy climbing the ladder at a giant multinational, then more power to you. But if you’re looking to innovate, then that need of living up to the expectations of the people around you can be a killer. It’s something that scares me personally because I’ve always had this notion of being an entrepreneur, but I’ve also noticed that the truly bright people I’ve met always have something off about them. Either they’re eccentric or just flat out weird. I am a little bit of a weirdo, but for the most part, I’m a well-adjusted part of society. Have I done anything that’s nonconformal? I’m not sure to be honest. There have been times when I have wanted to make radical career decisions because I was unhappy, but I chose to wait because it was the “safe” thing to do. But if there’s anything I’ve learnt over the past year, and Mr. Khosla’s talk just reminded of it, it’s this: if you have faith in your abilities and a quiet confidence (or even arrogance as he called it), then no matter what happens, you’re going to be able to bounce back from whatever situation you find yourself in. You’ve gotta take risks.

Another question that I’ve always had and that Mr. Khosla answered today was “Are we really in this tech bubble that’s bound to burst?” It might also be worth noting that this question was asked in an Indian context. His answer or at least my interpretation of it was yes and no. Investors have become so afraid of missing the “next big thing” that they’re throwing money in every direction, hoping that something, somewhere sticks. The result of this is of course, many companies that don’t even have a viable business model get funded and in most cases overvalued. To put it bluntly though, as an entrepreneur, if an investor is throwing money at you, why the hell wouldn’t you take it? If you’re smart about it, you will identify the flaws in your own value proposition, and you will plug in all the holes in your product before you sink in the market. But if you don’t, then really, whose fault is it? In the form of numbers, Mr. Khosla said about 85% of the companies that exist today (in India) may not exist in the next decade. When or how the bubble bursts, well I guess only time will tell.

As far as his thoughts about where the future of technology is headed, to put it briefly: innovation in sectors outside of traditional internet, SaaS and e-commerce companies. These include banking and financial services, food and education. Also, note to self: machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to take over the world. The implications of this are going to be massive in the next 15-20 years, which I guess is a known fact, but seeing how much progress is already being made in these areas makes me incredibly optimistic about the world we’re going to be living in.

And finally, Mr. Khosla said that one of the things that worry him the most about India is the fact that certain segments of society are being left behind during this rapid growth. While he specifically mentioned Muslims, I think it also applies to people belonging to low-income families and backward castes. I think this is such a significant, valid point that we need to come to terms with. Having a role model to look up to can have a tremendous impact on inspiring millions of others. When you think about it, how many Muslim CEOs or founders can you name off the top of your head? It’s almost a kind of circle jerk. There are no successful Muslim entrepreneurs, hence no one from the community is even going to try. I don’t profess to know too much about this, but I do know that if we are to grow as a country, innovation can’t be driven by and limited to a certain section of the population. It has to be inclusive for growth of any kind to be sustainable.

This man has given me so much to think (and write) about and for that, I am truly grateful. If you have any thoughts about any of this or innovation in India in general, do share! Many interesting conversations were my motivation for writing this and really, a conversation is the first step to creating change.

The Global Mobile Internet Conference, Bangalore

First posted on my personal blog Quixotic Semiotic

When I first heard about the GMIC, let’s just say I got pretty damn excited because after years of sitting in front a desk coding, I actually had an opportunity to go and listen to the bee’s knees of startups in the country. Mom, dad, look at me now: I’m the fancy mover and shaker who attends conferences and hands out business cards. The line-up of speakers was impressive at first glance – all the bigwigs with a few firangs thrown in for good measure. The price tag was impressive as well, $100 for a silver pass, but I guess even the organizers knew they’d be staring down a sea of empty seats with that kind of pricing. Basically, everyone and their mother got a free pass or an 80% discount (like I did) or a kind upgrade to gold (which I also got).

On the actual day of the event, I got in pretty late, so I missed the first panel with arguably the biggest names of the conference (Sachin Bansal, Naveen Tewari, Vikram Chandra). By the time I did get into the conference hall though, there was a live band playing “Tonight I’m Lovin’ you” (I kept hearing the dirty version in my head) and this was accompanied by weird disco lights. Hello, nightclub or conference? Are these things usually like this?

All the keynote speakers who were supposed to talk about seemingly interesting topics like “Big Opportunities in Emerging Markets” and “Wearables 2.0: The Next Wave” used the poor captive audience to evangelize their own companies and products instead. If I really wanted to hear about their annual revenues and growth rates, I would have googled that shit. Stick to the brief people. As a product manager, how does it help me to know about your entire suite of products? I came here to learn about industry trends and to learn from the unique experiences of these hugely successful companies. Instead, I came back wishing I hadn’t just blown a million litres of petrol going 20 kilometres each way. The CEO of the APUS Group (who?) jabbered away in rapid Mandarin and all I heard at the end of a long, mostly boring monologue was “investing blah million blah in India”. Cue claps.

The Indians were slightly better but not by much. Rohit Bansal and Kunal Shah were on the panel talking about “Revolutionizing Mobile Services” but really, it kind of reminded me of my mom complaining about kids and technology (Rohit Bansal, I’m looking at you). “Arre, children nowadays know how to use an iPhone before they even start talking. Itne fast hai ye bacche aaj kal”. Like dude. You guys are CEOs of huge-ass companies. Throw us a bone and give us something of value, would you? Or at least something other than generic platitudes we’re all aware of? At least Kunal Shah was funny, I’ll give him that. But I didn’t hear a single thing that I hadn’t already heard before. “Mobile is growing”. Yes, we knew that. Where’s the revolution we’re talking about? What is the next big thing? Crickets.

The panel about “Monetizing on Mobile” was marginally better. Dude called Alex Qian went on about dogs, cats, pigs and donkeys (something about advertisers and publishers), weirdest analogy I’ve heard in a while. Then they went off on a tangent about how the Chinese are gamblers and Indians are saints with tightly zipped pockets. But I’m not complaining too much since they were at least mildly entertaining. A special mention also to the very out of place lady emceeing the entire event. Did she get lost on her way to hosting a Bollywood dance show? The exhibitors hanging around outside seemed to think they were at a music concert, the freaking music was so loud, I couldn’t hear a thing the people on stage were saying. But hey, it woke me up from time to time, and they seemed to be having more fun than I was so power to them.

If I had to describe the day in one word: FAFF. Yes, this is my new favourite word buddies in Bangalore have taught me. This word actually exists in the dictionary it seems (surprise, surprise). It means “a great deal of ineffectual activity”. Spot on.