Saturday, December 24, 2011

Antha naal gnabakam ....

Memories of those days, goes the title of this post in Tamil. Alumni reunions are an American tradition. It was not very common in India, until recent years. You passed out of school and college - and that was that. You went your own way , kept in touch with a  few, lost touch with most and lived your own life.  Rarely did you return. But that trend is changing.

A week ago, the 1961 batch from Madras Medical College held their 50th year reunion. Everybody was 70 plus in age, obviously. Some 60 odd batchmates attended, it is reported. They came from far and wide. They went back to their old classrooms . They went back to their labs. They sang the songs of their days. Including this one (sorry its in Tamil) which was actually released in their year in college.  They ribbed their mates as they used to do so long ago. In short, they had a whale of a time.

What is it that attracts people to reunions. After all they have gone so far a distance that they may not even be able to relate to their school or college anymore. Even the closest buddy, who was a life mate in those days has changed so much that you can barely recognise him. So why the pull ??

The pull is because as you grow older, nostalgia becomes a more and more powerful emotion. Sure everything has changed beyond recognition, including you. But so what ? There is the magical pull of past memories that whitewashes the dirty and puts a golden hue on the ordinary. Yes, the school looks a bit shabby now. Yes the town looks a bit lost in the ages. But there is a special joy in revelling in the past. Talk about the carefree days of school (never mind that they hardly seemed carefree then). Talk longingly of the teachers (even though they caned you to fury). Talk to the girls, now women (you wouldn't be caught dead talking to a girl then). Wander about in your memories. Grasp a fleeting remembrance that was buried deep in the mind. Smile at the playground where you whiled away the years. Walk around with a silly smile on your face. And heave a deep sigh before returning back to the real world.

That's what awaits me for the next 2 days. I go to the 35th year reunion of my school batch. OMG ; how did the years fly by ?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The beginning of the end ?

It was a long time coming. In retrospect its actually surprising that the backlash is starting only now. The backlash against email, I mean. A few days ago Atos Origin, a French IT company, started the ball rolling by announcing that it would ban email in the company by 2014. Now Volkswagen unions have struck a deal with the company that emails to their unionised employees would be switched off after office hours.

This had to happen. E Mail addiction is an extremely serious epidemic as this blogger observed here. It is a global pandemic of epic proportions. Walk into any office or meeting - you would see rows and rows of people peering into their screens or thumbing away at their Blackberries. Eerie scenes more suited for George Orwell's 1984.

Its well known that more than half the emails you get are completely useless. And you get a LOT of emails. For some reason your genes are so programmed that you have to see each and every one of them 15 nanoseconds after they arrive. The greatest attraction to mankind, even more than a gorgeous topless woman, is a blinking light on the Blackberry. Social norms still hold you back from pawing at the aforesaid lady. Nothing in the world - not even an earthquake - can keep you from grabbing the Blackberry.

This is what most of us do in offices. Either tap out or read useless stuff 50% of the time. And for years now, it has extended out of the office into our homes. We do the same inane stuff in bed, in the car, even in the loo. Absolutely waste of our lives.

Email, when it arrived, dramatically increased office productivity. Now I am willing to bet (and some distinguished academic has no doubt done research on this) that it has actually lowered productivity back to pre email days.

Consider this. Would you think it appropriate to talk all the time in the office and at home ? Why then is it OK to be emailing all the time ?? Shut the $%#@ thing off and do some real work.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

A classy speech

Rahul Dravid, India's elder statesman of cricket, delivered the Bradman Oration at Canberra last week. If you want to hear a classy, graceful, charming, stylish speech, look no further. Class, grace, charm and style define the man and perhaps it is but natural, that his speech was all of that.  It is about cricket, of course, but even if you are not a cricket fan, listen to it if you have the time - this is how a speech should be made. Its 40 mts long, but I really wished it wouldn't end.


Rahul's speech follows in the lines of another classic speech - from Kumar Sangakkara of Sri Lanka, when  he delivered the Cowdrey lecture in July. Another gem, you can listen to here .

English oration is alive and well in the colonies, atleast in the sporting world !

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Business December 14th 2011, "Nato Green and Friends" Edition



This Wednesday, we welcome back one of our most beloved and most frequent visitors, Nato Green, along with two brand-new guests! Nato Green is the creator of Iron Comic, the co-founder of Laughter Against the Machine, a prolific HuffPo blogger, and a Jew who cures his own bacon. He's such a regular friend to the show that he's earned the coveted moniker of "The Fifth Businessman," a title previously shared by Stu Sutcliffe and Brian Epstein.

We also welcome Sammy Obeid, a UC Berkeley graduate and nationally-touring comedian who was the first comedian to ever appear on the Food Network telling jokes. He placed third in the SF International Comedy Competition and won Best of the Fest at both the Arab-American Comedy Festival and the Out Of Bounds Festival in Austin. Though Sammy does five sets a night, every night, this is somehow his first visit to The Business. It's long overdue, but we are glad to have him.

 

Finally, all the way from the City of Angels, we have Josh Androsky. He used to write for awful TV shows, then quit or got fired from enough to start doing standup. He runs the acclaimed monthly show "Hamclown" the last Thursday of every month in Downtown LA, and he has lost four pairs of glasses in three different oceans.

All that, and Alex, Bucky, Chris, and Sean, too! Seven comics! Five bucks! What a country!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Most People Don't Know Their Business (so asking them is useless)

I’ll admit it; I am rapidly becoming a skeptic when it comes to interview-based data. And the reason is that people (interviewees) just don’t know their business – although, of course, they think they do.

For example, in an intriguing research project with my (rather exceptional) PhD student Amandine Ody, we asked lots of people in the Champagne industry whether different Champagne houses paid different prices for a kilogram of their raw material: grapes. The answer was unanimously and unambiguously “no”; everybody pays more or less the same price. But when we looked at the actual data (which are opaque at first sight and pretty hard to get), the price differences appeared huge: some paid 6 euros for a kilogram, others 8, and yet other 10 or even 12. Thinking it might be the (poor) quality of the data, we obtained a large sample of similar data from a different source: supplier contracts. Which showed exactly the same thing. But the people within the business really did not know; they thought everybody was paying about the same price. They were wrong.

Then Amandine asked them which houses supplied Champagne for supermarket brands (a practice many in the industry thoroughly detest, but it is very difficult to observe who is hiding behind those supermarket labels). They mentioned a bunch of houses, both in terms of the type of houses and specific named ones, who they “were sure were behind it”. And they quite invariably were completely wrong. Using a clever but painstaking method, Amandine deduced who was really supplying the Champagne to the supermarkets, and she found out it was not the usual suspects. In fact, the houses that did it were exactly the ones no-one suspected, and the houses everyone thought were doing it were as innocent as a newborn baby. They were – again – dead wrong.

And this is not the only context and project where I have had such experiences, i.e. it is not just a French thing. With a colleague at University College London – Mihaela Stan – we analyzed the British IVF industry. One prominent practice in this industry is the role of a so-called integrator; one medical professional who is always “the face” towards the patient, i.e. a patient is always dealing with one and the same doctor or nurse, and not a different one very time the treatment is in a different stage. All interviewees told us that this really had no substance; it was just a way of comforting the patient. However, when we analyzed the practice’s actual influence – together with my good friend and colleague Phanish Puranam – we quickly discovered that the use of such an integrator had a very real impact on the efficacy of the IVF process; women simply had a substantially higher probability of getting pregnant when such an integrator, who coordinates across the various stages of the IVF cycle, was used. But the interviewees had no clue about the actual effects of the practice.*

My examples are just conjectures, but there is also some serious research on the topic. Olav Sorenson and David Waguespack published a study on film distributors in which they showed that these distributors’ beliefs about what would make a film a success were plain wrong (they just made them come true by assigning them more resources based on this belief). John Mezias and Bill Starbuck published several articles in which they showed how people do not even know basic facts about their own companies, such as the sales of their own business unit, error rates, or quality indicators. People more often than not were several hundreds of percentages of the mark, when asked to report a number.

Of course interviews can sometimes be interesting; you can ask people about their perceptions, why they think they are doing something, and how they think things work. Just don’t make the mistake of believing them.

Much the same is true for the use of questionnaires. They are often used to ask for basic facts and assessments: e.g. “how big is your company”, “how good are you at practice X”, and so on. Sheer nonsense is the most likely result. People do not know their business, both in terms of the simple facts and in terms of the complex processes that lead to success or failure. Therefore, do yourself (and us) a favor: don’t ask; get the facts.


* Although this was not necessarily a “direct effect”; the impact of the practice is more subtle than that.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

One small step for Huawei, one giant leap for China

As is often the case, the seemingly trivial turns out to be a giant event. I suspect this is the case with Huawei's announcement, buried in the back pages of financial newspapers that it would no longer pursue new business in Iran. So what , you might ask.  Read on.

One of the fundamental principles in China is the total separation of politics  & economics. It has one of the freest of capitalist systems (at least for Chinese) and one of the most controlled of political systems. In foreign affairs, China has diligently pursued a policy of complete non interference in political matters. Its policy in Africa is unique in history. It is rapidly colonising economically, but scrupulously keeping away from interference in local politics. It will do business with anybody - God, Archangel Gabriel, Satan, Devil whoever, as long as there is business to be done. Before you denounce it, consider that there is some merit in this approach - the Chinese say political matters are for the citizens of that country to decide and it is not their place to make value judgements on them. In this, they are completely different from the European colonisers of the past.

The first chink I have come across in this policy is this announcement from Huawei. Huawei is a large supplier of telecoms equipment to Iran. These are undoubtedly used for espionage and suppression. Iran is a pariah for many nations - no American company can deal there. There has been constant criticism in the West of Chinese companies who do business there, but that's not unusual  - they are often criticised for doing business with the likes of Mugabe. So why has Huawei taken this clearly political step. Before you think that this is one company deciding and not China - perish the thought. No company in China decides on any sensitive matter without the go ahead from the government. For the first time, atleast as far as I know, China is saying politics might dictate economics in foreign affairs.

Is it finally true that economic clout cannot be divorced completely from politics.  As China's economic power grows bigger and bigger in the countries it is doing business with, it becomes harder and harder to stand aside and say it is not involved with local politics. This is exactly what happened to the East India Company, which started in exactly the same way. Maybe China is reaching the inflexion point. One breach like the Huawei action and the dam has to burst. Can the Chinese now deal with blood diamonds in the Congo, or keep away from selling arms to Mugabe, for very long ? As it gets drawn more and more into global politics, it will have profound implications for the world and China. The world because, it will alter the balance of political power inexorably. And for China because it is not good at doing this - diplomacy is not its strong point and it will have to learn.

That's why I think, its one small step for Huawei ..........

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Lying Dutchman: Fraud in the Ivory Tower

The fraud of Diederik Stapel – professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands – was enormous. His list of publications was truly impressive, both in terms of the content of the articles as well as its sheer number and the prestige of the journals in which it was published: dozens of articles in all the top psychology journals in academia with a number of them in famous general science outlets such as Science. His seemingly careful research was very thorough in terms of its research design, and was thought to reveal many intriguing insights about fundamental human nature. The problem was, he had made it all up…

For years – so we know now – Diederik Stapel made up all his data. He would carefully review the literature, design all the studies (with his various co-authors), set up the experiments, print out all the questionnaires, and then, instead of actually doing the experiments and distributing the questionnaires, made it all up. Just like that.

He finally got caught because, eventually, he did not even bother anymore to really make up newly faked data. He used the same (fake) numbers for different experiments, gave those to his various PhD students to analyze, who then in disbelief slaving away in their adjacent cubicles discovered that their very different experiments led to exactly the same statistical values (a near impossibility). When they compared their databases, there was substantial overlap. There was no denying it any longer; Diederik Stapel, was making it up; he was immediately fired by the university, admitted to his lengthy fraud, and handed back his PhD degree.

In an open letter, sent to Dutch newspapers to try to explain his actions, he cited the huge pressures to come up with interesting findings that he had been under, in the publish or perish culture that exist in the academic world, which he had been unable to resist, and which led him to his extreme actions.

There are various things I find truly remarkable and puzzling about the case of Diederik Stapel.
• The first one is the sheer scale and (eventually) outright clumsiness of his fraud. It also makes me realize that there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of others just like him. They just do it a little bit less, less extreme, and are probably a bit more sophisticated about it, but they’re subject to the exact same pressures and temptations as Diederik Stapel. Surely others give in to them as well. He got caught because he was flying so high, he did it so much, and so clumsily. But I am guessing that for every fraud that gets caught, due to hubris, there are at least ten other ones that don’t.
• The second one is that he did it at all. Of course because it is fraud, unethical, and unacceptable, but also because it sort of seems he did not really need it. You have to realize that “getting the data” is just a very small proportion of all the skills and capabilities one needs to get published. You have to really know and understand the literature; you have to be able to carefully design an experiment, ruling out any potential statistical biases, alternative explanations, and other pitfalls; you have to be able to write it up so that it catches people’s interest and imagination; and you have to be able to see the article through the various reviewers and steps in the publication process that every prestigious academic journal operates. Those are substantial and difficult skills; all of which Diederik Stapel possessed. All he did is make up the data; something which is just a small proportion of the total set of skills required, and something that he could have easily outsourced to one of his many PhD students. Sure, you then would not have had the guarantee that the experiment would come out the way you wanted them, but who knows, they could.
• That’s what I find puzzling as well; that at no point he seems to have become curious whether his experiments might actually work without him making it all up. They were interesting experiments; wouldn’t you at some point be tempted to see whether they might work…?
• Truly amazing I also find the fact that he never stopped. It seems he has much in common with Bernard Madoff and his Ponzi Scheme, or the notorious traders in investments banks such as 827 million Nick Leeson, who brought down Barings Bank with his massive fraudulent trades, Societe Generale’s 4.9 billion Jerome Kerviel, and UBS’s 2.3 billion Kweku Adoboli. The difference: Stapel could have stopped. For people like Madoff or the rogue traders, there was no way back; once they had started the fraud there was no stopping it. But Stapel could have stopped at any point. Surely at some point he must have at least considered this? I guess he was addicted; addicted to the status and aura of continued success.
• Finally, what I find truly amazing is that he was teaching the Ethics course at Tilburg University. You just don’t make that one up; that’s Dutch irony at its best.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Business December 7th 2011, "Miles QUE?!?" Edition

Who's gonna be at the Dark Room Wednesday?
Miles K!
Miles QUE?!?

Who's a witty comic comin' up in the Bay?
Miles K!
Miles QUE?!?

Who's website is http://cleverthingstosay.com/
Miles K!
Miles QUE?!?

Miles K. Stenehjem, that's que!

To quote East Bay artist Kaitlin McSweeny:

"Miles K. Stenehjem is an elegant satirist with a wit born of sensitive desperation and fearless experience, in my opinion a sort of Oscar Wilde of this time, if Oscar Wilde could lay down some pretty sweet freestyle rhymes and deliver stand-up performances that make even today's recession-depressed audiences gasp and guffaw."

Miles has also recently opened for Andy Kindler, has a show of his own called "Everything Jamboree" and now joins us on our humble show.

Sean is taking a well deserved victory lap around Los Angeles this week, but Chris, Bucky and the newly returned Alex will be on hand to stoke your hot comedy giggly-fire.

As always we ask but only a simple $5 cover charge, begin but only at a simple 8pm, and offer but only a simple proximity to good food and cheep drinks.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Convoluted Views about Media Ownership Inhibit Effective Policy

I was recently reviewing the effectiveness of media ownership policies and regulations and was struck by the limited success they have achieved during the past 50 years in Western nations.

There seem to be two central problems with ownership regulation efforts: ownership really is not the issue that we are trying to address through policy and we have convoluted views of ownership.
Media ownership is not really what concerns us, but is a proxy of other concerns. What we are really worried about is interference with democratic processes, manipulation of the flow of news and information, powerful interests controlling public conversation, exclusion of voices from public debate, and the use of market power to mistreat consumers. It is thus the behavior of some of those who own media rather than the ownership form or extent of ownership that really concerns us.

This is compounded because media practitioners, scholars, and social critics have highly convoluted views about ownership and most have complaints about all forms of ownership. It is thus nearly impossible to identify a preferential a form or extent of ownership.
We don’t like private ownership of media because proprietors can use them pursue their private interests; we don’t like corporate ownership because companies can put profit goals ahead of social goals; and we don’t like having just public service media because they doesn’t provide enough choice and are often limited in their ability to pursue political agendas--a function important in democracy.

We don’t like big companies because they can be arrogant and unapproachable and because they can control content as well as markets; we don’t like small companies because they can’t provide the range and quality of content we desire and because they sometimes can’t withstand pressures from powerful interests.
We don’t like foreign owners because they don’t share our identity, don’t represent who we are very well, and can bring foreign influences that affect national sovereignty; we don’t like domestic owners because they can be too close to those with domestic social and political power.

The list of ownership we do not like—and the fact that most regulation is promoted because of particular proprietors we disliked—makes it difficult to fashion effective policies. We are stymied because no ownership form itself is good or bad and they all have advantages and disadvantages. And there are examples of good and bad owners under all the forms of ownership.
Using ownership regulation to control the behavior of bad owners can only somewhat limit the scope and scale of their activities, not address their poor behavior. It is like permitting higher levels of crime in one area of town as long as it does expand into other areas.

If we are to effectively address our real concerns, we need to develop better mechanisms for influencing behaviour and we need to stop ineffectively regulating ownership just because it makes us feel like we are doing something.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Of adjectives that don't apply

What's common to beautiful, popular, controversial, helpful, successful, deserving and proud ? Besides being adjectives ? What's common is that they don't apply to this blog. Nothing here is beautiful, popular ......; you get the drift.

When you are tagged to apply those adjectives to your blog, you have to really scratch your head. Tagging used to be a rage three years ago when blogging itself was a rage. Blogging is now in a steep and precipitous decline. The ladies who started deeply intellectual tags that asked "What are you wearing" have all disappeared. Tags have naturally vanished. But Reflections, a star blogger started this tag and Preeti, a master blogger has tagged me with extremely affectionate words that have gone straight into my head. I was also tagged by a blogger I deeply respect and admire, and since she did me the honour of not linking my blog but simply saying incredibly kind words, I am doing so likewise. So I have force fitted the adjectives to my blog and in a fit of vanity, picked up the tag.

This is the tag

Rules:
1) Blogger is nominated to take part

2) Blogger publishes his/her 7 links on his/her blog – 1 link for each category.
The links are:
- Your most beautiful post
– Your most popular post
– Your most controversial post
– Your most helpful post
– A post whose success surprised you
– A post you feel didn’t get the attention it deserved
– The post that you are most proud of

3) Blogger nominates up to 5 more bloggers to take part.

4) These bloggers publish their 7 links and nominate another 5 more bloggers
5) And so it goes on! 


Unlike Preeti, who has taken posts from this year, I thought I would go back to 3 years ago when I started blogging and choose posts from the early days. From my first two months of blogging.

Beautiful post - A moving video . Not a real post, but simply a link. Nothing in a business blog can remotely be termed beautiful.
Popular Post - E Mail addiction. It got THIRTEEN comments (ha ha). Never mind that half of those were my own replies. But in the good old days when even one comment was a joy to behold, that seemed like out of the world.
Controversial Post - Leave the wives at home . You are forbidden from asking if I know the meaning of the word controversial.
Helpful - A (Power) Pointless world . If only many will "take my help".
Success surprised you - Subprime crisis in plain English - My first double digit comment post. You are again forbidden from asking if I know the meaning of the word "success"
Didn't get the attention it deserved - Its just not cricket . Got zero comments. Boo Hoo !
Post most proud of - Women in Indian business .  I truly believe this.

For once I will break my habit of not tagging others and actually tag 5 bloggers who have stopped blogging. They are lovely bloggers and we must respect their decision not to continue, but I can't resist harassing them - so to you The Thoughtful Train, Le Embrouille Blogeuer, Half Indian, Sri and the non sarkari Sardar - (he's even deleted his blog) - come back you lot. We really miss you.
By the way, in case you are wondering why all my linked posts have a rude exclamation mark instead of a photo, its probably Blogger telling me what it thought of them !!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Toothbrushes and mobile phones

There are more people in the world today who own a mobile phone than a toothbrush. This may startle you, but its true, at least according to 60secondmarketer.com. There are 4 bn mobile phone users in the world. The annual sales of toothbrushes is 3.5 bn.

This won't surprise you if you read the excellent book, Poor Economics, by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo. My good friend Ravi, who often comments on this blog, very kindly gifted it to me and it makes fascinating reading.  It was named as the Financial Times Business book of the year. As the byline says, its a book about rethinking poverty and the ways to end it. The book destroys many myths about poverty and provides fascinating insights into the behaviour of the poor. Its no surprise then that they would rather own a mobile phone than a toothbrush.

One of the big insights is that things that make life less boring are a priority for the poor. The  quote from Oucha Mbarbk, a poor Moroccan villager sums it all up "Oh, but television is more important than food !" In country after country, the researchers have tried to analyse why the poor eat so little, and sometimes bad food, even when they have the money. Food spending is actually declining in a poor country like India. Its because food is not a priority !

Another fascinating area of research is health. The largest killer of children in world is actually diarrhea. Two cheap and easily available miracle drugs can save the 2 million children who die of diarrhea before their 5th birthday - chlorine bleach and a rehydration solution of salt and sugar. And yet many do not use it even when given free. They want an antibiotic or an intravenous drip. Prevention is frowned upon. An expensive cure, often in the hands of a quack is preferred. 

Another deep insight - poor are like hedge fund managers; they live with huge amounts of risk. They manage this by a typical hedging strategy - diversifying activities. A striking fact quoted from one survey - the median family had three working members and seven different occupations. And you would expect that in a high risk enviroment, insurance in some form or the other would be popular. Wrong. Nobody seems to want insurance.

The book is full of amazing tidbits of research. For example , in Kenya, one of the largest levers for ensuring prosperity for your child was actually giving her deworming tablets. Children who were given deworming tablets for 2 years instead of only 1 year earned 20% more every year for their entire lifetime !!

There is , of course, no silver bullet for eradicating poverty. You mustn't expect one from this book. But it offers many fascinating insights that would make anybody think again about poverty. I heartily recommend anybody with an interest in this subject to read this book.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Business November 30th 2011, "Sylvan Spectacular!" Edition



Tuesday night, Sylvan Productions has their final open improv show at the Dark Room. Wednesday, they're the guest of honor at The Business, as we say goodbye to our Dark Roommates, and say hello to a new era of SF comedy. If that weren't enough, we've also got comedians Matt Gubser and O.J. Patterson - plus regular Businessmen Sean and Bucky.

Sylvan Productions has done a wildly popular Open Improv show at the Dark Room every Tuesday, which moves to the SUB/Mission starting in December. They also produce a five-hour comedy show every Wednesday at the Dirty Trix Saloon, and this Friday, their Producers Show comes to Dirty Trix as well. Their shows may be heavily improv'ed, but they could hardly be improved.

Matt Gubser is an SF comedian with the hair of a handsomer Jesus Christ and the wit of a sassier Judas Iscariot. He performs at all the finest clubs and showcases in the Bay Area, and he's also a potter, as if that's fair at all. O.J. Patterson is a rising star who recently opened for Hannibal Buress. His blog, Courting Comedy (http://courtingcomedy.tumblr.com/) is a living document of the local scene and your best source for Holy City Zoo photos.

The show gets started at 8, and admission is still just five bucks. Are you going to be there? The answer is, "Yes, and..."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Ramamritham rules

Alas, Ramamritham is alive , well and strong and he rules upon all that he surveys (pun intended).  The Indian Government will announce today in parliament that it would open up the retail sector to foreign investment. No doubt the Left will organise some bandhs, yell at 10,000 decibels in the Lok Sabha, and then this law will be passed while the opposition will walk out en masse.

Ostensibly, this is economic reform. Its a pathetic, 15cms of reform after a decade of nothing happening, but we'll reserve that criticism for another day. What has got my goat is Ramamritham's dirty footprint all across this move.

Firstly foreign investment of 100% will be allowed in Single Brand Retail, but only 51% in multi brand retail. Therefore a Marks & Spencer store can be 100% foreign owned, but Carrefour can't. Even though they may both sell precisely the same things (M&S does sell a lot of food). Pray why ??

Secondly Ramamritham has excelled himself in drafting a series of conditions for allowing  even this. Look at some of them

  • The minimum investment is $100 m. Where he got this figure is unclear. Why not $82.5 m? But at least we can live with this
  • 50% of this $100 m has to be invested in "back end". Then our venerable hero has gone on to clarify that land, rentals and front end stores will not count as back end. No doubt detailed rules on what is back and what is front will be framed. (here is conclusive proof at last that Ramamritham doesn't know his front side from his back side) Lobbyists will work very hard to get IT systems included in back end. But R will qualify that Microsoft Office will not count as back end. Many months of fruitful work and litigation awaits.
  • 30% has to be sourced by these companies from small scale (completely irrelevant if the product is rubbish and the consumer does not want it) No doubt a front small scale company will be set up who will buy the stuff from a big company and then sell it to the retailer to fulfill this quota. R being very smart will then draft rules to stop this. The retailer being equally smart will get a small scale company to buy from a small scale company to buy from a big company ....... and so on.
  • Stores can be set up only in cities with 1 million population. Lobbyists will work to reduce this number to half a million. They will then lobby that last year Gummidipoondi crossed 1 million population and that R should not wait for another 10 years for the next census but instead pass an interim order allowing the store to be opened there.
How can we get this into Ramamritham's thick skull that we don't want him deciding what is good or bad for us as consumers.  Or for the small Indian retailer who he is trying to protect with such quixotic rules. The Indian retailer needs no protection. He is quite a formidable force. Its by no means certain that small retailers will vanish just because Walmart came in - in India the economics of the retail industry, especially the relative high cost of real estate,  is such that this is very unlikely.

In any case, how about letting the consumer choose. Rajalakshmi will vote with her feet and purse. She will buy where something is cheaper, better and where she likes to go. She deserves that freedom. Ramamritham should be booted from blocking the way.

PS : For those new to this space, Ramaritham is the mythical, fictional bureaucrat who takes orgasmic pleasure in framing complex, unnecessary and useless rules in order to make lives miserable for ordinary members of the homo sapiens species.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why this kolaveri di

The title of the post is simply to substantiate to Gils , Zeno and other  experts that I am "tuned in" ! In case you are still flummoxed, then that is clear proof that you simply aren't up to date with the "in thing" !! Why this kolaveri di is a completely nonsensical song that for reasons totally baffling has become a massive rage and has gone viral in the last four days. Since world success these days is measured in terms of number of views in YouTube (1.8 million in 4 days and rising by the minute) and insane numbers of Tweets,  Facebook mentions and likes ; it can be conclusively established as a massive hit. I am reliably told that it is competing with another equally baffling entity called Lady Gaga for global leadership.

The song is in "Tanglish" - the curious mixture of Tamil and English which is widely spoken in Madras. It is from a forthcoming movie called 3 (zero marks for creativity in naming a movie). The lyrics are complete nonsense and there is virtually no reason why it should appeal to anybody. And yet it is a hit in four days. WHY ????

This is the mystery of success in consumer marketing. No amount of consumer insight or market research will tell you why something will succeed while a similar thing bombs. The consumer continues to be an indescribable mystery. Many pundits will write treatises on why it succeeded, but after the event. Only a rare genius such as Steve Jobs, could confidently predict success, and get it right. That's why he is so highly feted.

Can anybody tell me why Justin Bieber's Baby should have more than half a billion views on YouTube (the kid can't sing for Gods sake).  And why Charlie Bit my Finger was long reining as the top watched video of all time and even now is a respectable 6th with some 400 million views. Or for that matter, why a yucky tasting syrup, developed as a patented quack medicine for  morphine addiction, dyspepsia and impotence should become the largest consumed drink in the world for 100 years.

Who can fathom the mind of Rajalakshmi, Wang Xiao or Jane Doe ?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Business November 23rd 2011, "Thanksgiving Plymouth Rockin' Eve!" Edition



Twas the night before Thanksgiving
And all through the Mission
Everyone came to the Dark Room
Because our show was so bitchin'


It is an All Thanksgivinged Eve to remember at the Dark Room this week, as we welcome a cornucopia of guests to the Business. From Los Angeles, we have Aparna Nancherla and SF native Emily Maya Mills, and from New York City, we have Alameda's own Emily Heller! Holy shit, if the Wampanoag had brought this kind of lineup to the Pilgrims back in 1621, they all would have died of laughter! And probably scurvy or rickets, because medicine was very primitive back then.

Aparna Nancherla is a Washington D.C. native who now entertains Los Angeles with her absurdist wit. She's performed all over the place. including Last Comic Standing, the Bentzen Ball, the Bridgetown Festival, WTF with Marc Maron, and, most importantly, The Business LA. I yam excited to hear her stuff!

Emily Maya Mills - "the Edward James Olmos of comedy" - is an actor, writer and stand-up comic based in Los Angeles, and is regarded by many as "the hottest 65-year-old in the business." She's been seen on Parks and Recreation, Ellen, Conan, Childrens’ Hospital, Key and Peele, Downers Grove and many of television’s weirder commercials. She's one of our favorite comics and favorite people, and we're thankful to have her back.

Emily Heller recently performed as one of Comedy Central's Comics To Watch in New York City, but she's still humble enough to return to her Dark Room roots. She's performed at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, SF Sketchfest... look, you know who Emily Heller is already. In 1621, she would have been known as a "sassy pilgrim," refused to eat turkey, and then probably burned at the stake. But instead, she'll be lighting it up on the stage!

We've also got regular Businessman Sean and Bucky, the gravy to this holiday smorgasbord. Also expect surprise guests, cardboard hand turkeys, pumpkin-based snacks, and one thousand six hundred and twenty-one laughs. $5, no wampum.














The Business November 16th 2011, "Occupy Swan Street" Edition


Whose Dark Room? Our Dark Room! No Alex this week, but The Business has two exciting guest stars this week. We welcome two of our favorite journalists, Rachel Swan and Hiya Swanhuyser, to discuss the Occupy movement, journalism, the Black Bloc, and whether Occupy Oakland is hipper and less gentrified than Occupy SF. 

Rachel Swan is the music editor of the East Bay Express, who made her standup comedy debut at The Business last year. Hiya Swanhuyser is a former culture writer and blogger for the SF Weekly who recently produced the Occupy SF Art & Performance series. They're both in the top 1% of journalists in our book.

Our corporate overlords still demand a capitalist admission fee, but it's only five dollars, dollars that sadly still bear the mark of the Federal Reserve bank. We still offer a bring-your-own-burrito program, in defiance of the authorities, but you might need a gas mask afterward.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The awfulness of Benetton

Benetton, the clothing company, has been struggling of late. So they've gone back to  their horrible old formula to promote their brand - make shocking advertisements.

Their campaign is called "UNhate" - whatever that means. These are some of their abominations.





The last one elicited an irritated objection from the Vatican for the depiction of the Holy Father in this manner and that too for a commercial purpose. Benetton has reportedly withdrawn this ad.

Benetton is known for outrageous advertising in the past. I won't dignify their earlier indecencies with  reproducing those photographs. They have included a man dying of AIDS, a new born with its umbilical cord still connected to the mother, a soldier holding a human bone, and the like.

Sure, there is clutter in advertising and you need to break through it. But there must be a sense of decency in business, just as the same as in all walks of life.  Anything that is legally OK, is not OK. Making money by shocking people seems to be an awful way to earn a living.

But in a capitalist system, the consumer has the final say. If enough people are offended by such tactics, they simply will not buy the product. Benetton's sales are some € 2 bn, not too far from where they were a decade ago. Zara, a competitor, which does not advertise, sells € 12 bn. But alas, Benetton routinely wins advertising awards for "innovative" advertising.

Being a committed capitalist, I never thought I would utter the following words, but now I do - I heartily wish that Benetton would go bust. Moral bankruptcy is a prelude to financial bankruptcy.

What's wrong with senior executive pay – lots in my view

There are three things I do not like about top management pay: 1) they usually get paid too much, 2) way too large a part is flexible, performance-related pay, 3) often, a very sizeable chunk of it is paid through stock options.

I used to think - naively - that high top management pay was high simply due to supply and demand: these smart people with lots of business acumen and experience are hard to come by; therefore you have to pay them lots. These grumpy anti-corporates claiming their pay is too high are just envious and naive. Turns out I was (maybe not envious, but certainly naive).

Pay level

Because digging into the rigorous research on the topic - and there is quite a bit of it - I learned that there is really not much of a relationship between firm performance and top management pay. These guys (mostly guys) get paid a lot whether or not their company's performance is any good. Moreover, I learned what sort of factors push up top managers' remuneration - and it ain't supply and demand. It has much more to do with selecting the right company directors (to serve on your remumeration committee) and making sure you are well networked and socialized into the business elite.* Now I have to conclude: top management pay is generally too high, and quite a bit too high.

Flexible pay

Secondly: where does this absurd idea come from that 80+ percent of these guys' remuneration has to be performance related?! "To reward them for good performance and stimulate them to act in the best interest of the company and its shareholders" you might say? To which I would reply "oh, come on!?" If your CEO is the type of guy who needs 90 percent performance-related pay or otherwise he won't act in the best interest of the company, I would say the perfect time to get rid of him is yesterday. You and I do not need 90 percent performance related pay to do our best, do we? So why would it be allowed to hold for top managers? As Henry Mintzberg put it: "Real leaders don't take bonuses".

Moreover, one should only pay performance-related remuneration if you can actually measure the person's performance. And that is - especially for top managers - actually pretty darn hard to do. The strategic decisions one takes this year will often only be felt 5 or 10 years from now, if not longer. Moreover, the performance of the company - which we always take to proxy the CEO's performance - is influenced by a whole bunch of other things; many not under a CEO's control. Hence, short term financial performance figures are a terrible indicator of a top manager's performance in the job and long-term performance contracts all but impossible to specify. If you can't reliably measure performance, don't have performance-related pay, and certainly not 80+ percent of it. We know from ample research that humans start manipulating their performance when you tie their remuneration to some strange metric and, guess what, CEOs are pretty human (at least in that respect); they do too.

Options

Finally: stock options... Once again, I have to say "oh, come on...". We pretty much take for granted that we pay top managers by awarding them options, but don't quite realize any more why. When I ask this question to my students or the executives in my lecture room ("why do we actually pay them in options...?") usually a stunned silence follows after which someone mumbles "because they are cheap to hand out...?". I usually try to remain polite after such an answer but why would they be cheap; cheaper than cash, or shares for that matter? True, it does not cost you anything out of pocket if you give them an option to buy shares for say 100 one year from now, while your present share price is 90, but if the share price by that time is 150 it does cost you 50. Moreover, you could have sold that stock option to someone who would have happily paid you good money for it, so in terms of opportunity costs it is realy money too. No, stock options are not cheaper than cash, shares, or whatever.

We give them options to stimulate them to take more risk. "Risk?! We want them to take more risk?!" thou might think. Yes, that's what you are doing if you give them options. If the share price is 150 at the time the option expires, the CEO can buy the shares at 100 and thus make 50. However, if the share price is 90 the option is worthless, and the CEO does not make anything. However, the trick is that the CEO then does not care whether the share price is 90 or, say, 50 - in either case he does not make any money; worthless is worthless. As a consequence, when his options (i.e. the right to buy shares at 100) are about to expire and the company's share price is still 90, he has a great incentive to quickly take a massive amount of risk. Going to a roulette table would already be a rational to do.

Because if you placed the company's capital on red, and the ball hits red, share price may jump from 90 to 130, and suddenly your options are worth a lot of money (130-100 to be precise). However, if your bet fails, the ball hits black and you lose a ton of money, who cares; the share price may fall from 90 to 50, but your options were worthless anyway. Hence, options give a top manager the upside risk, as we say, but do not give them the downside risk. Therefore, we incentivize them to take risk. You might think "I seldom see herds of CEOs in a casino by the time options expire, so this grumpy Vermeulen guy must be exaggerating" but I'd reply we have seen quite a lot of casino-type strategy in various businesses lately (e.g. banks). More importantly, we know from research that CEOs do take excessive risk due to stock options (see for instance Sanders and Hambrick, 2007; Zhang e.a. 2008). I think it would be naive to think that we give CEOs 90 percent performance related pay and most of it in stock options, and then think that they will not start acting in the way the remuneration system stimulates them to do. Of course it influences their decisions, and if it didn't, there would be no reason left to make their pay flexible and based on options, now would there?

Therefore, I would say, out with the performance-related pay for top managers (a good bottle of wine at Christmas and, if you insist, a small cheque like the rest of us would do). And while we're at it, let's try to reduce the level as well.


* e.g. O’Reilly, Main, and Crystal, 1988; Porac, Wade, and Pollock, 1999; Westphal and Zajac, 1995.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Three cheers for Shiv

Running a marathon is usually a huge superhuman effort; Right ? Well, lots of people run marathons every year, but for the non professionals, it is usually a major milestone. They train very hard for it, suffer through the race, but ultimately make it.  It's an achievement to be very proud of.

What then do you say of the ultra marathoners ?? The marathon, as you may know is 42 kms and a bit. Anything more than this is an ultra marathon. What can you say about the guys and gals who run 50km, 75km and , yes, 100 km ?? They are not professionals. They are ordinary guys and gals like you and me. They hold a day job and run only for pleasure. Men, women of all ages.  This isn't for money - there is no money. This isn't for fame - did any of you hear about the Bangalore Ultra before this post ? This is simply for achievement.

This post is a tribute to my good friend, and long ago classmate, Shiv, who ran the 75km race in the Bangalore Ultra Marathon yesterday. Yes; seventy five kilometres. And finished in 11hrs plus.  He won the Seniors category in the 75km race. The Bangalore Ultra is run on a cross country trail - not on flat roads. The trail is full of stones, moon craters and the like. Even walking on it seemed a challenging task to me. These guys run an ultra marathon on it. I was there all day to cheer him and the other runners on and treated to an incredibly rewarding experience.

Shiv and the others set off at 5 AM in the morning, when it was still dark and he finished after 4 PM. He is 50+. He's always been a great sportsman, but this is something altogether on a different plane. To run 75 kms , a distance he has never done before.  Wow ! For sheer guts , courage and achievement, this must rank at the very top. Shiv - you are an absolute hero. Just the thought of 75kms is scary to me ! You run it as if it was just another day at the office. Super Wow !

Watching him and the others is a peep inside a fascinating world. Each runner is completely dedicated to running. They train like crazy. They bear much pain. They run for a sense of personal accomplishment. Its all about setting a personal goal - maybe distance, maybe timing - and achieving it.Winning is secondary. They cheer everybody. There is an enormous sense of comradeship. The guy who finishes 3 hours behind the winner is cheered as  lustily, with the winner usually taking the lead in cheering the loudest. Everybody helps everybody else. Everybody is a winner. They represent some of the best qualities of amateur sport.

Isn't this how life itself should be ?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Business November 9th 2011, "Double Stuff" Edition



This week The Business welcomes not one, not two, not three, but FOUR special guests, effectively doubling the base number of comics guaranteed by our standard Wednesday fare. Along with our factory installed four Businessmen, you will also receive Ivan Hernandez, Colleen Watson, Mike Recine and Erin Lennox. It's like when Oreo took the work out of assembling two cookies and smartly debuted the now legendary Double Stuff cookie. What kind of laughs will you find in our creamy center this week? Let me pull this sweet baby apart for you...





Ivan Hernandez is self described as "nerd gent comic jerk" That's right, no need for punctuation. When not forcing individual panels of comic books on the internet's population for proper acknowledgment of their radness, Ivan tells jokes all over San Francisco. I think it's his birthday this Wednesday too, so buy him a burrito and wrap it in a page from a Hellboy novella.

Colleen Watson is an idiot, according to her Twitter bio. But we know better. She is also a regular at Rooster T. Feathers, Colleen the SJ Improv, Punchline, Tacoma Comedy Underground and Utah’s Wiseguys. She’s opened for Arj Barker, has been molested by Norm MacDonald, and continues to take the Bay Area by storm with her biting and bitter comedy.
 
Mike Recine was nominated for Time Out New York’s ‘~Joke of the Year’in 2010 and an ECNY award for ‘~Best Emerging Comic’ . Most recently, he was selected to perform in the ‘~New Faces Showcase’ at the 2011 Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. Mike works really hard on his jokes and on being likeable. He owns 5 pellet guns and is happy to give you one.

Erin Lennox is a nice girl and a writer / comedian based in Brooklyn, NY. She is originally from Chapel Hill, NC and has been in exactly 3 bar fights. She hosts a weekly show at the People’s Improv Theater called FRESH, which isn’t always. And a monthly variety show called I LIKE YOU TOO with her best friends the Bandana Splits. 


As indicated before, your regular Businessmen Bucky, Chris, Alex and Sean will also be on hand to make sure that all the cookie crumbles correctly. And as always we are burrito and liquid fun adjacent, only five dollars and hecka funny dude forever.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can entrepreneurship be taught?

“Entrepreneurship can only be self-taught. There are many ways to do it right and even more wrong, but it cannot be processed, bottled, packaged, and delivered from a lectern”, one of my readers – Michael Marotta – commented on an earlier post.

I am not sure I agree with the suggestion of that statement, namely that "entrepreneurship can only be self-taught". Of course we hear it more often - "you cannot teach entrepreneurship" - but I have yet to see any evidence of it. Granted, this is a weak statement, since the evidence that business education helps with anything is rather scarce (although there is some)!

However, the fact that the majority of entrepreneurs did not have formal business education does not tell me anything. Suppose out of 1000 attempted entrepreneurs indeed only 100 had formal business education. It might still be very possible that out of the 100, 50 of them became successful, where out of the 900 others only 300 became successful. This means that out of the 350 successful entrepreneurs, a mere 50 had formal business education. However, 50% of business educated entrepreneurs became successful, while only 1/3 of entrepreneurs without business education did.

My feeling about the potentially influence of business education on the odds of becoming a successful entrepreneur are quite the opposite of Marotta’s. I see quite a few attempted entrepreneurs with good business ideas and energy, however, they make some basic mistakes when attempting to build it into a business. The sheer logic of how to set up a viable business - once you have had a good idea - is something that is open to being "processed, bottled, packaged, and delivered from a lectern" (although that is hardly what we do in B-school).

Having a great idea and ample vision and energy perhaps is a necessary condition for becoming a successful entrepreneur, but it is not sufficient; this requires many other skills, and for some of them, education helps. Out of the 10 different skills needed to become a successful entrepreneur, perhaps only 5 can be taught or enhanced through business education, but those 5 will clearly improve your odds of making it.

Perhaps the majority of successful entrepreneurs do not have formal business education, but I have yet to meet a successful enterpreneur who did go to business school who proclaims his/her education was not a great help in becoming a success. Invariably, those people claim their education helped them a lot. In fact, many of such business school alumni donate generously to their alma mater. For example, one of London Business School's successful alumni entrepreneurs, Tony Wheeler (founder of Lonely Planet travel guides) regularly donates very substantial amounts of money to the School, because he believes his education there helped him greatly in making his business a success, and he wants others to have the same experience and opportunity.

In the absence of any formal evidence on whether business school education helps or hinders becoming a successful entrepreneur, I am inclined to rely on their judgement: business school education helps, if you want to become a successful entrepreneur.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

A letter to a certain Chief Minister in India

Dear Madam,

We are concerned about the state of your vocal chords, after your recent exertions of that organ protesting against the nth rise in the price of petrol that the Indian government announced a few days ago. While we are well aware of your superhuman powers in that sphere of activity, I am nevertheless concerned enough to give you some advice on the amelioration of  stress on your voice box. I am not one of your subjects, not living in your state at the moment, but have lived there in the past and therefore have a certain affinity.

What has aroused your ire is the increase in price of petrol by Rs 1.80 per litre a few days ago. You have accused the Central government of total insensitivity to the plight of the common man and have threatened to withdraw your support to the government. With inflation running so high in India, you are justly concerned with adding fuel to the fire, if you'll pardon the pun.I totally agree with your sentiments, but my ire is not necessarily directed only against the Central government.

I understand if I have to fill up my tank in your state, I have to pay Rs 73.15 per litre. That being a fairly substantial price, I decided to do some calculation on who gets what I am paying. Here's my amateur attempt.

I pay Rs 32.00 per litre to His Excellency King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia to keep him and his descendants  in cosseted luxury for the next 7000 years (otherwise called price of crude oil)

I pay Rs 7.00 to Mr R. S Butola , Chairman of Indian Oil Corporation, for him to stay solvent , pun intended,  (otherwise called refining charges)

I pay Rs 5.00 to Santa Singh , lorry driver  (otherwise called transport charges). I don't begrudge paying him this in return for all the Sardarji jokes that he has, very kindly, contributed.

I pay Rs 14.35 to the Hon'ble Pranab Mukherjee, Finance Minister of India (otherwise called Excise duty). To be fair to Pranabda, he has been trying to reduce this, having abolished customs duty that he used to levy before.

I then pay some Rs 15 to you ( under the name of sales tax).

You want to charge me some 26%+ rate of state sales tax. Don't you find it usurious ? Pranabda has been crying to states to remove the ad valorem rate of duty on petrol and make it a specific rate, as he has done on the Central VAT. You refuse to do this. Therefore when the central government increased the price of petrol by Rs 1.80, you gleefully contributed another 50 paise of increase. And with a straight face, you are giving significant exercise to your vocal chords.

You may now see the general direction of how you can prevent the onset of acute laryngitis.

I have only one argument in your defence. Your counterpart in the state I live in, is  worse than you (30%). But then, he has wisely chosen to give his vocal chords a rest !

Yours sincerely

Romesh (spelling in deference to your tastes)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Without Comment

Brilliant article in the Financial Times today. Dripping with sarcasm and wit. Alas its a bit technical and you'll enjoy it immensely if you have a bit of background in finance, but even otherwise its a good read. 

For those not in touch with American politics or high finance -

John Corzine is a former head of Goldman Sachs. He was deposed by Henk Paulson.  Corzine then became a Senator from New Jersey and then Governor. He got defeated in the election in 2010, by Chris Christie who is the current Governor of New Jersey. After his defeat in the election, Corzine became Chairman of MF Global which has just declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Business November 2nd 2011, "Featuring Anna Seregina and Saurabh Kikani" Edition



We've got a full lineup of regular Businessmen this week, plus two exciting guests - Anna Seregina and Saurabh Kikani!

Ms. Seregina is a talented actress and improviser who recently turned her focus to the world of stand-up comedy. She was born in Moscow, which she credits for her sharp, cynical wit, but also means that if all goes well, she should have very her own theater in Branson, Missouri in twenty years. Also, she works just down the street from at the Beauty Bar, where she tends bar beautifully.

Mr. Kikani visits us from Los Angeles, where he is a regular at the Comedy Store and the world-famous Improv. Also, he has a law degree, so if you don't laugh your ass off, he'll sue your pants off! Just kidding. Please put your pants back on.

All this plus Alex, Bucky, Chris, and Sean, a one-eyed dog, unlimited in-and-out privileges, and Six Hours In A Car, and it's just five bucks! Though for an extra dollar, you can also feel Bucky's biceps. Just kidding. Please do not grope Bucky.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A dog saves the day

A dog might prove to be the unlikeliest saviour of Formula 1, a sport that is direly in need of saving . Bravo India, for unwittingly pointing the way ahead for the sport.

Today is the first ever Indian Grand Prix - held at Noida, at the Buddh circuit, just off Delhi. Why it has come up in Delhi is a mystery - the racing capital (of whatever racing there is) of India is Chennai or Coimbatore. But Delhi it is. This is the fag end of the Formula 1 season; the championship is already decided and there is very little to drive for. But then Bernie Eccleston, the boss of F1, has grasped that the future of the sport  depends on the growing audience in Asia - that's why in the last three or four years, new Grand Prixs have come up in Beijing, Singapore, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Istanbul (almost Asia !), Yeongam (Korea) ; to add to the more traditional Asian venues Suzuka (Japan) and Sepang (Malaysia). Now India.

Formula 1 has become a bore. The results are completely predictable; superb safety measures have ensured that there are far fewer crashes and  rules are changed every 15 days until nobody knows what they are.  There are no more flamboyant personalities of the likes of Ayrton Senna - today's drivers are more technical automatons. Even the pretty girls hanging around in skimpy clothes seem to be rather muted. I haven't watched a Formula 1 race for the last two seasons - its become that boring. When a sports nut like me does that, there is something seriously wrong with the sport.

India might offer the redemption. On the first practice session on Friday, a dog ran on to the track and the session had to be stopped for some 20 minutes. This was the most happening thing that day - the rest of it was predictably boring. Now, any Indian knows that a car tyre is irresistible to a dog.  In some cases, it is even irresistible to humans, but we shall let that pass.

So here are some very Indian ideas to make the sport hugely more exciting and get the fans back

  • Introduce the Indian cow (preferably with a calf) to roam the circuit at random
  • Two wheelers featuring two types of Indian drivers must be in the circuit - the rambo who thinks he's Rajnikanth (or whoever) and revs up his pitiful 85cc mobike and tries to do a wheelie or the uncle and aunty (100 kgs each) with three kids on a wobbly moped.
  • The tractor who comes in the opposite direction to the racing  with headlights on 
  • The overladen truck who is parked right in the middle of the fastest section of the track, camouflaged to be invisible. For good effect a small branch with four leaves can be placed 10 metres behind as a warning.
  • One giant crater right in the middle of the first corner (measurements - 1 ft by 4 ft and at least 2ft deep)
  • Four completely invisible speed breakers that will hit the underside of the chassis, placed strategically where the driver will least expect it.
If Sebastian Vettel (the current world champion) can navigate that and win the race, then the crowds will come back for the thrill. Formula 1 will become the most thrilling spectator sport in the world.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Steve Jobs’ deification serves a very basic and fundamental human need

“I am not that surprised that an academic of entrepreneurship (are you kidding me?) would lead a story about one of the world's best innovators and CEO's about that he actually and in fact ! OMG had body odour as a teenager because of his diet, not to mention the rest of your embarrassing piece. Forbes would be best sticking with writers that are inspired by such great entrepreneurs as Steve Jobs, and not with writers such as this, who are unhappy they have not had the courage to 'live the life they love and not settle' and so sit in front of their computer with not much else to do but trying to bring others down. Shame on you Mr Vermeulen”.

This is just one of the comments I received on my earlier piece “Steve Jobs – the man was fallible” (also published on my Forbes blog). Of course, this was not unanticipated; having the audacity to suggest that, in fact, the great man did not possess the ability to walk on water was the closest thing to business blasphemy. And indeed a written stoning duly followed.

But why is suggesting that a human being like Steve Jobs was in fact fallible – who, in the same piece, I also called “a management phenomenon”, “fantastically able”, “a legend”, and “a great leader” – by some considered to be such an act of blasphemy? All I did was claim that he was “fallible”, “not omnipotent”, and “not always right”, which as far as I can see comes with the definition of being human?

And I guess that’s exactly it; in life and certainly in death Steve Jobs transcended the status of being human and reached the status of deity. A journalist of the Guardian compared the reaction (especially in the US) to the death of Steve Jobs with the reaction in England to the death of Princess Diana; a collective outpour of almost aggressive emotion by people who only ever saw the person they are grieving about briefly on television or at best in a distance. Suggesting Princess Diana was fallible was not a healthy idea immediately following her death (and still isn’t); nor was suggesting Steve Jobs was human.

We are inclined to deify successful people in the public eye, and in our time that certainly includes CEOs. In the past, in various cultures, it may have been ancient warriors, Olympians, or saints. They became mythical and transcended humanity, quite literally reaching God-like status.

Historians and geneticists argue that this inclination for deification is actually deeply embedded in the human psyche, and we have evolved to be prone to worship. There is increasing consensus that man came to dominate the earth – and for instance drive out Neanderthalers, who were in fact stronger, likely more intelligent, and had more sophisticated tools – because of our superior ability to organize into larger social systems. And a crucial role in this, fostering social cohesion, was religion, which centers on myths and deities. This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need.

But that of course does not mean that they were infallible and could in fact walk on water. We just don’t want to hear it. Great CEOs realize that their near deification is a gross exaggeration, and sometimes even get annoyed by its suggestion – Amex’s Ken Chenault told me that he did not like it at all, and I have seen that same reaction in Southwest’s Herb Kelleher. Slightly less-great CEOs do start to believe their own status, and people like Enron’s Jeff Skilling or Ahold’s Cees van der Hoeven come to mind; not coincidentally they are often associated with spectacular business downfalls. I have never spoken to Steve Jobs, but I am guessing he might not have disagreed with the qualifications “not omnipotent”, “not always right” and, most of all, “human”.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Steve Jobs – the man was fallible

As a student, at Reed College, Steve Jobs came to believe that if he ate only fruits he would eliminate all mucus and not need to shower anymore. It didn’t work. He didn’t smell good. When he got a job at Atari, given his odor, he was swiftly moved into the night shift, where he would be less disruptive to the nostrils of his fellow colleagues.

The job at Atari exposed him to the earliest generation of video games. It also exposed him to the world business and what it meant build up and run a company. Some years later, with Steve Wozniak, he founded Apple in Silicon Valley (of course in a garage) and quite quickly, although just in his late twenties, grew to be a management phenomenon, featuring in the legendary business book by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman “In Search of Excellence”.

But, in fact, shortly after the book became a bestseller, by the mid 1980s, Apple was in trouble. Although their computers were far ahead of their time in terms of usability – mostly thanks to the Graphical User Interface (based on an idea he had cunningly copied from Xerox) – they were just bloody expensive. Too expensive for most people. For example, the so-called Lisa retailed for no less than $10,000 (and that is 1982 dollars!). John Sculley – CEO – recalled “We were so insular, that we could not manufacture a product to sell for under $3,000.” Steve Jobs was fantastically able to assemble and motivate a team op people that managed to invent a truly revolutionary product, but he also was unable to turn it into profit.

When Jobs was fired from Apple – in 1985 – CEO John Sculley took control. Sculley is often described as a bit of a failure, because “nothing revolutionary came out of Apple under his watch”, “he could have done so much more with the company” and especially for “being stupid enough to boot out a genius like Steve Jobs”. However, the years after Sculley took over were some of Apple’s most profitable. The man did something right, and that was focus on exploiting the competitive advantage that Apple had built up.

In management research, following terminology cornered by the legendary Stanford professor Jim March, we often say that firms have to balance exploration with exploitation. Exploration refers to developing new sources of competitive advantage and growth. Exploitation refers to making money out of them. Steve Jobs was “insanely great” at exploration, but not – at the time – at exploitation. Sculley was.

Now Steve Jobs is a legend. And rightly so; our world literally would have looked different without him. However, what Steve Jobs’ legendary status also tells me is that we – mere mortals – are inclined to overestimate the omnipotence of CEOs. We overdo it when we ascribe the failure of an entire company to just one man or woman (e.g. Enron’s Jeff Skilling) but also when we ascribe the entire success of a company to one individual.

Steve Jobs wasn’t omnipotent (John Sculley had qualities Jobs didn’t) and he wasn’t always right (eating only fruits does not eliminate the need for an occasional shower). His day-to-day influence on Apple over the last years must have been limited, given his rapidly and severely deteriorating health. If anything, he simply would not have been able to be around enough to control and take care of everything. Nevertheless, the company did well in spite of his absence. And of course that is his laudable achievement too; he managed to build a company that could do well without him. And perhaps that may prove to be his best business lesson after all: how a great leader eventually makes himself superfluous.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Business October 26th 2011, "Maximum Fun" Edition



















The Business returns triumphantly from Los Angeles this week, and welcomes a special guest - comedian and broadcaster Jordan Morris! Jordan is the co-host of MaximumFun.org's "Jordan, Jesse, Go!" and was an original co-host of "The Sound of Young America." You can also see him on Fuel TV's "The Daily Habit" and at the UCB Theatre in Los Angeles. See the face attached to the voice you love!

We've also got all of your favorite regular Businessmen, making this a veritable "Jordan, Alex, Bucky, Chris, Sean, Go!" event. Tickets are still just five dollars, and we enable, nay, encourage the bringing of one's own burrito.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

China searches for its soul

If you are a Sinophile, this is old news and you don't want to read about this anymore; if you are not, this may be new to you. Little Wang Yue, affectionately called Yueyue is dead. She was only 2.

Yueyue, a toddler, wandered on to a road in Foshan, a southern Chinese city and was hit by a vehicle. A security camera filmed the whole scene. 18 passerbys saw her lying in a pool of blood, but walked on and did nothing to help her. The driver who hit her, drove on. Yet another vehicle hit her as she was lying injured. Finally a noble lady, a rag picker, Chen Xianmei, came to help her. Yueyue was taken to hospital. But she slipped into a coma and died.

China is going through a bout of soul searching. The security video that filmed the whole grisly thing has gone on the Net. Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter (Twitter is still banned in China), has millions of messages bemoaning what happened. China is asking itself the question - has materialism and money become so domineering that human values have taken a backseat ?

The driver of the first vehicle who hit her, has allegedly said (not entirely corroborated) that if the victim dies, he would only have to pay 20,000 yuan, whereas if she had survived, he would have to pay her medical costs for life.What about the 18 passerbys who looked and walked on and did nothing to help a 2 year old lying critically injured. What makes a human being do that ?

Part of it is the so called Peng Yu effect. In a famous case in Nanjing, a good samaritan called Peng Yu helped an old woman who had been injured in a bus stop. He even took her to hospital. For his labours, he was sued by the woman and a stupid judge ordered that Peng Yu must pay 40% of her medical bills (the learned idiot ruled that Peng Yu would not have stopped to help unless he caused her to be injured). Similar cases have happened. People have faked injuries in order to be able to sue the person who came to help. 

Money is God and undoubtedly the dominant religion in China. But that does not mean that the society has lost its human values. Far from it. Chinese can be the most affectionate and friendly of people. I know it from personal experience. One case does not typify Chinese society. But it certainly must trigger, as it has, a bout of soul searching.

Not just in China, but everywhere else in the world. Alas what happened to Yueyue would happen in many countries in the world. Including my own. People will turn their faces and keep going and do nothing to help.  But there will also be a Chen Xianmei, who will stop and assist. Usually it is the poorer sections of the society who will be more ready to help. If somebody is lying injured on the road, the BMW will slow down to look, but is more than likely to drive off. It is the pavement dweller or the homeless, happening to be around, who will rush to help.

Sorry Yueyue. The world did not care for you. Your family  may not believe in religion, but I do hope there is a God somewhere who has taken you in His arms.