How to Get Disrupted

Just as the financial year drew to a close, The Investment Consultant sent me a few forms that I had to sign and send back for investing in some mutual funds. I added digital signatures to the PDFs and emailed them right back. A week later, an associate at the firm called me up on a Saturday afternoon and asked very haughtily “Isn’t it obvious to you that you need to print the forms and courier them?”

A week ago I walked into InMark to see for myself the low-cost clothing store that everyone’s talking about. The salespeople were standing around, uninterested in helping me find the sizes/colors I wanted. The cashier wanted to collect customer data before even beginning the billing. “Name, Mobile number, Address, Age?” she rattled off. All this at the cost of delaying the entire transaction. A queue was forming behind me and no one had the patience. 

Yesterday, Mom and I walked into Big Bazaar after casting our vote. We were looking for basil seeds. We asked yet another uninterested salesperson if she knew where we could find them. She mumbled something we couldn’t hear. Could you repeat what you just said, we requested. “Near the cash counter” she yelled back. 

-

Amazon put the bookstores and the Best Buys out of business, Netflix  displaced the Blockbusters of the world. There is always going to be space for yet another Flipkart, Big Basket and My Universe to disrupt any of these businesses that choose to ignore the growing (and gnawing) presence of the internet, its things and the potential of it all. How costly will this ignorance and reluctance to embrace disruptive technology prove?

These are businesses so caught up in their worlds (of arrogance or ignorance, I don’t know) that they can’t see disruption waiting to happen at their doorstep.

The InMarks, Big Bazaars and small business Investment Consultants of the world think the inconvenience and unfamiliarity of the “online world” is their competitive advantage, forget that their self-inflated idea of not wanting to alienate customers is at odds with a shrinking userbase that wants to focus more on efficiency, and sometimes bet their core businesses on ambitious taglines like “everything under one roof.’

Why Disruption?

1. People don’t want to pay for things that don’t matter

The location of a store, the size of a physical store, the placement of items in the aisle, the couldn’t-care-less salespeople, the endless queues for checking out. Most consumer behaviour experts would say all of these drive sales in an offline store. In a flat disruptive technology-driven world where items are searchable by keywords and checkouts can be timed in seconds, these are needless hurdles that come at a cost and don’t matter.

Remove whatever doesn’t matter to a user and what’s left is an opportunity to improve the core product or service.

2. Users and Producers want efficiency and convenience. Cost-effectiveness is the cherry on the cake.

Flipkart, Uber, Etsy or ClearTrip are innovative in that, that their focus is the efficiency and convenience they deliver on both the supply and demand side. 

For the end consumer, it’s two clicks or taps of a button to buy a dress, hail a cab, book a flight, or even order custom-made cakes and quiches. That the entire process is cost-effective is just one of the cherries on the cake. It comes with the bells and whistles of ratings, reviews, offers and discounts that further sweeten the deal.

At the same time, the producers/service providers are finding technology enables them to provide their services and products to customers at a scale they haven’t seen before, whilst maintaining high levels of efficiency. This means greater productivity and generally it comes tied-in with growth. 

While competition might drive down prices (think cost of books on Amazon vs Flipkart), the possibilities for consumption increase and this impacts consumption and production patterns itself. Fashion based e-commerce ventures in India increased in the last couple of years but so did the number of people shopping online and the frequency of their shopping. [1]

As it is often said, If something is good, people want more of it. 

3. The something good that is usually a good experience. 

People will pay for what matters and usually it’s a combination of convenience, efficiency and ease coming together so elegantly that it all seems so effortless. Also known as The Experience. 

Experience isn’t about a single process (one-step checkout) or a shiny big green button (Remember Myntra’s A/B testing of the Add to Cart button, now with a shopping bag icon and now with a plus-symbol?) or moving cars on a map or a 40% off discount coupon - it’s about simplifying everything to help the user achieve her end objective. So much so that it becomes a product hook in itself. (How to Create Habits 101!)

When talking about building products that customers will pay for, Kapil always refers to the initial days of Zivame. Customers from far-flung corners of India paid both for shipping (Rs 50) and for credit card transactions (Rs 50), in addition to the costs of the items they were ordering. This was unheard of in early 2011, the early days of the eComm boom in India.

Figure out what matters, make it better and it could very well be the magic pixie dust the product or service needs to make it to the A-league.

-

Then when the product’s made it to the A-league, rinse - repeat. Sometimes there’s no telling what disruption looks like. 

[1] Mobile Users, Women Shoppers Fuel India’s E-Commerce Boom
The fashion e-commerce sector in India nearly doubled in value from $278 million in 2012 to $559 million in 2013.

Communal (adj.): Of or relating to a community

There is a sentence in Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows where she talks about a residential neighbourhood: 

…a more communal area than the parts of Karachi Harry knew- no dividing boundary walls, no gardens and driveways buffering the space between one house and another…

When I read the word communal followed by the description of what seems to be just another neighborhood that could easily be Karachi or Bangalore, my first instinct was to anticipate violence in the sentences that followed. As I reached the end of that paragraph, I was taken aback by the rather flowery description of a normal household in a very normal neighbourhood. I then looked it up in the dictionary. 

Where I come from anything communal is synonymous with violence  That’s when it dawned on me what communal really means and what it has come to mean. I did chastise myself for the word association and weighing down an ordinary work with something far more sinister but what does one do with conditioning?

Slow Life

"Slow" marine animals show their secret life under high magnification. Corals and sponges are very mobile creatures, but their motion is only detectable at different time scales compared to ours and requires time lapses to be seen. These animals build coral reefs and play crucial roles in the biosphere, yet we know almost nothing about their daily lives.

Throbbing, pulsating life. Slowly coming alive. Here are the accompanying notes, highly recommended as a read: 

By day most hard corals are cute and colorful (more about coral colors). Their polyps coexist with their symbiotic algae and depend on light for nutrients produced by their photosynthetic symbionts. By night these polyps open up like flowers, but unlike flowers they turn into fierce predators, extend their tentacles, and sometimes invert their guts to digest the crap out of everything that they can reach. Coral colonies have to compete for substrate with other species, sometimes in violent battles. The winner is usually the species who digests faster or can resist digestive enzymes of the attackers better.

A major part of their daily lives is getting rid of any stuff that falls on them. All sorts of sediments such as sand, silt, and fish poop block sunlight and constantly burry them. Motion of individual polyps or whole colonies moves sediments away. Certain corals such as members of Fungia can deal with something more extreme than fish poop. They can excavate themselves even if they are buried deep in sand. Such ability is quite handy for a coral that does not normally bother to attach itself to a substrate and can be carried away with currents and swells.

How the Rich and Poor Americans Spend money

Some very interesting bits of info over at The Atlantic Cities.

The biggest difference between the lowest- and highest-earning Americans is what they spend on housing. Less than 40 percent of the bottom quintile owns a home, compared with 90 percent of Americans at the top.

But after houses and transportation, what are the biggest spending gaps between the top and bottom quintiles today?

The poor spend nearly twice as much (as a share of their budget) on food at home and utilities; the rich spend more on entertainment and education.

No matter which end of the scale you fall on, spending on apparel is similar in both brackets. Ah, our collective obsession with clothes! :)

KitKat Tales | A Cat-shaped Disruption

Kitkat’s a tiny child-of-the-wild kitten who’s adopted us a little over a month ago. This evening she’s running from the living room to the kitchen and back, she can smell the chicken boiling but it’s not in her yellow bowl. When the chicken and some warm water (or what K calls ‘soup’) makes it to her bowl, she will only eat if the bowl is placed close enough to the sliding door that faces the garden. 

We’re still figuring things out, Kitkat, K and me. I’m awkward and clumsy, K is infinitely patient and ginger-colored Kitkat is a scared kitten always on the edge, jumping at the slightest sound. This scrawny kitten has wounds from fights with other neighbourhood cats and is constantly watching out for intruders. She adopts us till she disowns us -  she disappears for days and weeks together and then suddenly turns up at dinner time.

KitKat reminds me of what it must be to be a new mom but surely it takes more effort, caution and less clumsiness. There are no routines to teach - Kitkat doesn’t have the patience for humans and their antics. She sleeps on chairs and couches, and K’s lap and in the box. She mews when she wants the doors opened, or if she’s hungry and scratches the couch if she has to pee. She rubs herself against us after her meal - that must be a thank you gesture for the meal, right? She turns over and starts rolling - does that mean she’s happy and want a belly rub? Do cats like belly rubs? 

I’m new to the idea of cats in the house. When cats are mentioned, I’m the one who pipes up “I’m not a cat person. Eesh.” The one-time she cuddled on my lap, I had to turn skyward and breathe in gulps of air - her tummy vibrated against my legs, her tail curled inwards and out, when I tried to pick her up her claws caught on to my trousers and scratched my legs. What do I do? The other day, I fed her minced chicken whilst wearing shorts. She then rubbed herself against me, I squealed and jumped. She bolted in the direction of the mint garden and didn’t come back for 3 days.

This is all really new and challenging to me - there’s someone who’s now a part of our life, whose needs are different than ours but have to be considered on par with our own. Though all of this wasn’t of our choosing, we did choose to go with it.  But she can’t be domesticated, this wild kitten. Someone for whom we pick up minced chicken every week doesn’t stay long enough to call her, our pet. Someone who doesn’t have to scrounge for food and doesn’t have to fight for survival comes back bruised and wounded every other night. 

We have to make soup for her on days when she’s in, let her out at her convenience and make space for her on the couch when she’s in a cuddly mood. Oh, yes…We also have to clean up after her. A week ago, she ran to the bedroom upstairs, found a few Fabindia paperbags and peed into them! Never having dealt with cat pee, I scrunched my nose and hid myself in the other bedroom and K cleaned up after her. (“No, Kitkat. No!”)

She’s learned that a loud No actually means No, and a hand pointed down accompanied by an instruction to sit means she should stop at the kitchen door and roll on the mat outside. Our Sunday evening has been interrupted by KitKat threatening to come underfoot as she and we scamper from kitchen to living room and back with her bowl. She’s frightened of a toy we picked up for her. She poops in our garden and then eats in the living room. None of that ‘don’t shit where you eat’ stuff for her.

The clothes and couch are covered in cat fur, there’s no room for my revulsion. The only lesson I have learned over the last month is that no good is going to come out of me over-reacting to anything that happens in my life. The constant stream of OMGs and the WTFs that made up my days?

No, KitKat, no.

Turn black tables

Alfred is the dreadlocked Barista who mans the counter in the evening at  Starbucks on Robertson Blvd and Beverly Blvd. There is usually another person who handles the cash register but it’s Alfred who prepares the coffee. Every morning I pick up my coffee and Bagel from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, which is across the street. The strong seductive flavour of Bali Blue Moon or even Butterscotch Toffee at Coffee Bean is far more alluring than the sedate Houseblend and the old school Pike Place Roast at Starbucks. Every evening, however, I pick up the Java Chip Frappucino from Starbucks. I like biting into the chocolatey crumbs and chips.

Starbucks has a tie-up with iTunes. Every Tuesday there is a new song you can download from iTunes using this code which is at the back of a card, similar to those baseball and WWF and Pokemon Trading Cards. A week ago on Friday they had Dido’s Quiet Times and the week before that some song by Neko Case. That day when I peer into the little box it’s still carrying Dido’s Quiet Times. I step back and wait for Alfred to hand me my Java Chip-Venti.

'Hey! Hang on, I got something for you!’

Alfred and I only exchange the customary pleasantries and the big grins. It is an iTunes card for Other Lives’ Black Tables

The song Black Tables turned up automagically on my iTunes playlist. I went back in time to remember when I’d heard it first. Sometime in the summer of 2008 when I lived in Los Angeles.

seaweedsoup:

"Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I’m given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one’s own vision." — Kiki Smith

Do your work anyway. High-res

seaweedsoup:

"Just do your work. And if the world needs your work it will come and get you. And if it doesn’t, do your work anyway. You can have fantasies about having control over the world, but I know I can barely control my kitchen sink. That is the grace I’m given. Because when one can control things, one is limited to one’s own vision." — Kiki Smith

Do your work anyway.

Chickpet Chic

Was reading Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe this morning and at one point writing about Rome he says, they used to build civilisations and they now build shopping malls. Before there were shopping malls, there were Fancy Stores. 

Do read Amulya Shruthi’s beautiful piece on the Bangalore of old in today’s Mint Lounge.

The Oath of the Burrnesha | The Mountains Where Women Live as Men

Burrnesha

It began hundreds of years ago, deep in the Albanian Alps—an unusual tradition where women, with limited options in life, took the oath of the burrnesha. A pledge to live as a man. To dress like a man, to work like a man, to assume the burdens and the liberties of a man. But these freedoms came with a price: The burrneshasalso made a pledge of lifelong celibacy. Today these sworn virgins live on, but their numbers have dwindled. Many Albanians don’t even know they exist. What happens when the society that created you no longer needs you? And how do you live in the meantime?

Reading that para alone gave me the goosebumps.

The great faith a democracy has in itself: its ability to transform devils, to change opinions, to mould its leaders as much as it is moulded by them. Democracy takes risks not because it condones authority, but because it believes in its own power to tame authority. Sometimes this belief works, sometimes it comes to grief.

From Iron in the Soul

Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s brilliant piece on the constancy of change, a leader’s appetite for change and the capacity to tolerate dissent which is more crucial than his/her beliefs.

Why I love Uber - Bangalore

image

I take an Uber cab almost every other day. Most times like a spoilt brat I take a cab ride for a mere 2 km drive from home to work or vice versa (which sets me back by Rs 200, 5x the rickshaw fare).

All along I couldn’t explain this addiction to ease and convenience to myself. So when I read this I felt a little less guilty:

Uber capitalizes on what economists refer to as “slack resources” or “underutilized capacity.” Translation: Why let your car sit idle in the driveway when you can turn it into a cash machine? The future is all about monetizing downtime. “The thing that’s really striking to me is that a lot of people who use Uber—it’s not like they used to take taxis,” says Arun Sundararajan, a professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business who specializes in the digital economy. “It’s almost like you’re inventing a new way of organizing your day because you can get a car in three minutes. You can define a new lifestyle for yourself.”

- GQ’s Mickey Rapkin who drove around as an UberX driver for Uber Confessions

Here’s how I justify the ubering whenever i open the Uber app, especially if it’s that indulgent 2 km ride:

  • I don’t have to deal with the traffic myself: The time-effort-peace of mind cost of taking the car, torturing myself with errant drivers, parking woes for a ten minute ride is high.

  • I know exactly when the cab will arrive: I have to hail 300 Mary’s, 40 rickshaws before I can find 1 rickshaw to go the short distance of 2 km. Once I do come upon that 1 auto guy, I almost always have to plead with the guy to charge by the meter or swallow my activist pride and add in a ten rupees tip. Time - Peace of Mind cost again is high. I also have to account for violence-prone drivers who might want to hit me for not carrying change, traffic policemen who will ask me to “get lost” if I ask them to intervene.

  • I perceive it as a safer alternative: I’d walk the 2 kilometre distance between home and work if there were footpaths, streetlights and if I wasn’t afraid of being plucked off the streets. 

With Uber, a cab is one button tap away. The drivers are pleasant and polite. None of them bicker that they have to travel only 2 kms. Nobody threatens to hit me if I don’t have change. The stray driver who does ask me about my destination over the phone before he gets even to my location? I tell him not to pull that Ola Cab style garbage on me. There’s also the threat of the driver’s contract being discontinued if he/she is consistently ranked poorly (below 4.3, I think).

My brain on FUD overdrive when riding Uber

What happens if a driver’s iPhone switches off and he/she drives off the grid? Their FAQ section doesn’t answer this. Ola Cabs’ drivers have been known to lie about the health of their phone’s batteries to make a quick buck on the side. 

Uber doesn’t have a support number I can call from within the app - I have to submit a request. Yes, in writing. No, not in triplicate.

The process is quite cumbersome too - it would be easier to tweet for help. To submit a request, I’m taken out of the app and onto a “Submit Request” page in the browser where I have to fill up these MANDATORY fields:

City
What my question is about
Subject
Description
Email Address

If this was built into the app, I’d have to only fill in 3 out of the 5 fields. I’d also drop the subject and just make it 2 fields. Just saying.

There are way too many Toyota Innovas and I have never ridden the Jaguar or Mercs they have in their fleet. The surge pricing can be a wee bit annoying because it creates a sense of pseudo-urgency. Some of the drivers are a little too afraid to speak up - they think the camera on the phone is constantly recording and monitoring them.

But hey, I love the service. They make my life simpler by reducing the stress around routine travel and add a dash of luxury while at it. As Stewart Butterfield put it in his post over at Medium, they don’t sell saddles here - they’re selling an experience.