Subba’s Serendipitous moments

July 15, 2010

We are a product of our choices!

Filed under: Business,Inspiration,Learning,Perspective,Winning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:13 pm
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Jeff Bezos of Amazon (someone whom I have admired deeply) puts this simple truth amazingly well in his 2010 Baccalaureate remarks at Princeton University. The complete address can be read here.

Jeff brings out the distinction between gifts and choices. He says: “Cleverness is a gift, kindness is a choice. Gifts are easy — they’re given after all. Choices can be hard. You can seduce yourself with your gifts if you’re not careful, and if you do, it’ll probably be to the detriment of your choices.” How true!

The tragedy for most people in the world is that they are blissfully unaware of the choices that they have! It becomes far more tragic when they ignore or dismiss the choices presented to them. Clearly the choose to wallow in their misery. The defining argument they give is what if the choice was wrong! Jeff handles this possible question again very well.

To me, maturity is not a function of age or even intelligence. It is the element when they become aware of their choices and making the right choice.

September 30, 2009

Vodafone takes the battle to the mobile phone vendors

A few months back one of analyst friends asked me whether it is possible for the mobile service provider to create their own App Stores and be successful. My opinion to him was they can do it or rather they should do it, else they have not even joined the battle for customer loyalty. The talk turned to Singtel which is one of the largest operator based out of Singapore and it has a global presence due to its joint ventures and acquisitions in many countries. I remember telling him that it should be one of the large operators who will have the reason to do it.

Now Vodafone has done it. Vodafone 360 is a mobile web service that provides music downloads, integration with Facebook and Twitter, and supports several handsets. In a way it is competing with Apple’s App Store, Nokia’s Ovi and other App Stores created by the mobile phone vendors.

Now Vodafone’s Telco 2.0 model (called efficient pipes) is nothing new. A lot of mobile service providers thought about that but shied away from taking the plunge. Now Vodaphone which has over 300 million consumers in over 30 countries has taken the challenge.

As Apple and Nokia increase their emphasis on the App Store and have made a success of it (Apple’s App Store’s success is chronicled here), the mobile service providers can’t afford to be silent spectators.

But whether the service providers with their current competencies would have the ability to build an App store and an application eco-system is a big question.

September 23, 2009

Netflix’s “crowdsourcing” approach is a success

I have been following Netflix unique experiment to improve its Web site’s movie recommendation system. This week Netflix announced the winner of a three year contest with the winner BellKore comprising of statisticians, computer scientists, data mining experts netting a cool million dollars.

The rules of the competition was fairly straightforward. The qualification for the prize was that the winning team has to improve by at least 10% the prediction of what movies customers would like as measured against the actual ratings. The teams were grappling with a huge data set of more than 100 million movie ratings.

Over the past three years there have been 44,014 entries from 5,169 teams in 186 countries vying for the top prize

I think with this experiment and with Google’s experiment with crowdsourcing described here, there will be a significant shift towards innovation management. The fact that there exists more intelligence and wisdom and the collective effort outside the company’s eco-system has gained credibility. I expect many such organizations embarking on the contest mode to solve intractable problems.

There are a number of lessons that this contest brings about.

First, it indicates that there can be a marketplace for innovation where companies could post their product development challenges and for an interesting contest, the best brains are willing to compete. It sharpens their own abilities.

Second as the BellKore team and other teams demonstrated there is a willingness for disparate people to actively collaborate. While cooperation and collaboration within many organizations has been challenging, I wonder how such disparate people could come together and collaborate easily for a bigger goal.

Third, for people who believed in having an inhouse R&D and saw that as a competitive advantage, this experiment seeks to blow that myth away.

Note: Netflix Prize 2 would challenge competitors to recommend movies based on demographic and behavioral data.

September 1, 2009

Wikipedia wrestles with a growth and direction dilemma

Wikipedia has been an unqualified success of this decade. It is just not the product but the way they have created it. They spawned a new ideology, a new culture. In fact several enterprises have started to develop their content management and even the knowledge management practices around a wiki model.

However Wikipedia itself faces a deep dilemma about its growth and direction.

It started off as an encyclopedia from voluntary contributors and complete freedom to improve the content. Now, in its latest announcement it will impose an editorial review on articles. So, now the notion that everyone can change the entries is no longer true. In my view this is inevitable. A great ability to influence has to be accompanied by an equal amount of responsibility.

Currently they are doing a review about their culture and growth direction. I am particularly pleased that they are doing that because one of their commitments was to give a free encyclopedia to the world in possibly every language. They clearly seem to have lost sight of that.

The interesting thing is that Jimmy Wales — the man who created this movement and now an iconic figure is most critical about the direction itself.

Unlike corporations, Wikipedia is run by a Foundation which means that they have followers wedded to a particular cause. Changing the growth trajectory is not simply a matter of a CEO or the Board making a decision, but they would need to carry the thousands of volunteers with them — no easy task.

This would be an interesting organizational change to watch and learn from.

August 3, 2009

Be yourself

“Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” — Chinese proverb.

I can’t think of a more simple, yet a deep truth. I was discussing my earlier blog post with 2 of my friends. Both believed that to be successful one should adapt, which means constantly changing oneself to circumstances. And if one has to change, one has to let go one’s true self. I will write my response to their observations in a separate post, but for now, I just want to do a follow up post which hopefully should clarify my stance.

I think most of us have a tendency to sell ourselves in situations even when we faintly perceive that we are being evaluated or judged. We worry too much about who we think we should be, instead of just being who we are. We over-value what we aren’t and undervalue what we are.

Regardless of where, when, or why of any situation, we should always be ourselves. I am specifically referring to a staying true to one’s principles and faith. The challenging part of this that there will be times when we need to challenge ourselves from a personality standpoint. We cannot just say, “Well, that’s the way, I am”. We all have such opportunities to challenge ourselves in matters of ability, growth, mental models and even beliefs. I say this with a smirk because I can tell from experience that it isn’t easy, though it may sound so.

People miss the amazing leverage that can come into play when they do buy into their vision for their own life and determining what’s preventing themselves from achieving it.

Death isn’t the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside of us while we live.

August 2, 2009

Underdogs can win

Underdogs win more times than we think, but is there a set approach that characterizes their win? I have always been intrigued by their winning approaches and the tipping points that gives them the decisive competitive advantage.

Having delved into business strategy research and practice for a while, I still couldn’t come across any clear framework that advises underdogs of how to take the battle against the more powerful opponent.

Malcom Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point, Blink and the more recent Outliers) writes a brilliant piece on how David can beat Goliath. The article is a bit long, but it makes compelling and instructive reading. It has several brilliant anecdotes written in the typical Malcolm style. What is amazing is how Vivek Ranadive uses the principles of real time information processing and the way he built TIBCO — a hugely successful software company, to coach his daughter’s school basketball team for the National Junior Basketball championship. Vivek never played basketball, nor was he a coach, yet his astute assessment of the game’s dynamics and mapping out to the real time information processing and how TIBCO became successful shows what a smart mind can do given a challenge. Vivek is also the author of the bestseller: “The Power of Now: How winning companies sense and respond to change using real-time technology”

Malcolm also draws from various other examples in sports, conventional wars to illustrate the following principles:

  1. First acknowledge your weakness and then choose an unconventional strategy.
  2. Choose not to play by Goliath’s rules.
  3. Be bold and do what could be even termed as “socially horrifying”— challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought.
  4. Do not be scared of being disapproved by the insider.
  5. Believe in the fact that a defender’s dilemma is very often the attacker’s advantage.

June 13, 2009

Government 2.0 — Empowering the people at the Malaysia NICT

I was an invited speaker at the Malaysia National ICT conference at Putrajaya, organized by MDEC between 9-11 June 2009. I was pretty impressed with the scale, size and involvement of everyone concerned.

My presentation slides can be viewed/downloaded here. My special thanks to Zern Liew, who really helped me with some of the visuals. He is a fantastic visual thinker and we tuned in well with each other.

I was also on the panel discussion moderated by Roslan Bakri Zarkaria of MDEC. He was energetic and mingled with the audience and thus kept the tempo high. I was equally impressed with the fellow panelists James Smith of futuregov who talked about teh research project on the perceptions, initiaties of Gov 2.0 in different parts of Asia. The other speaker Ashran spoke about Open Innovation which is increasingly gaining currency and it was wrapped up by Ashraf of Consoci talking about specific Malaysian initiatives.

I was equally impressed by Devan’s attempt of explaining the mash-ups where he talked about possible applications integrating the data on parks and incidence of dengue fever. He brought about the possibility so well that I hope the Government CIOs were listening. Just reinforced my point about which I mentioned in my talk. I was equally impressed with Joel Neoh of Youth Asia where he shared research data about the Malaysian youth expectations from the Government. Clearly it seems to me that the Malaysian youth is not apathetic to the workings of the Government. I wonder what would be the results if the survey was done in Singapore.

I got the impression that the MDEC is doing its best to seed initiatives and support efforts to usher in Web 2.0 models into the government. It is tough ushering in change; more so in a government set up. Malaysia has always taken a cautious approach towards deploying new technology or even making social interventions due to the nature of businesses there and the kind of social structure. It would be interesting to see how they are able to bring in openness, a culture of sharing and a more transparent pubic-private partnership.

One thing about Malaysians that has always impressed me is the quality of talent amongst the entrepreneurs and their strong commitment to Malaysia. Surprisingly most of them do not have a global vision and are content to stay within Malaysia. Given the opportunities that Malaysia itself provides, it is easy to understand.

But in this hyper-competitive and inter-connected world, is it a smart thing to be a walled garden?

While I was at the airport I bumped into a friend and he asked me a profound question: His question was: Isn’t an empowered people a threat to the government itself in Asia ? The perfect answer still eludes me.

May 25, 2009

Managing change

Peter Drucker in a conversation with Peter Senge said, ‘Every organization will have to become a change leader. You can’t manage change. You can only be ahead of it. You can only make it.’

How true it is. Let us be ahead of ‘change.’

April 13, 2009

Goal setting

Saw this snippet from a news magazine that I chanced to browse yesterday.

Ted Turner (founder of CNN) had just joined his father’s billboard advertising business when he was in his early 20s They lived during the depression and this strengthened Ted’s determination to work hard and be a millionaire and a own a plantation.

By the time Ted had joined the company, his father had all those things and and Ted remembers clearly his father taking him aside and saying, “Son, you be sure to set your goals so high that you can’t accomplish them in one lifetime. That way you’ll always have something ahead of you. I made the mistake of setting my goals too low and now I’m having a hard time coming up with new ones.”

I then remembered one of my school headmaster who once told me: “Not failure, but low aim is crime”. It has remained with me since then, and continues to inspire me.

March 31, 2009

Facebook’s positive and unique problem


Most sectors globally are seeing a reduction in demand. Businesses are cutting down on expansion plans. Yet Facebook the poster child for social networking, continues to soar.

It signed its 200 millionth user this month, doubling its size in just 8 months. It has now established itself as the world’s most extensively used avenue for personal networking and has surpassed competitors like MySpace, hi5, Orkut etc.

Each day they are signing 500,000 users bringing in traffic, photos, data etc.

More users are getting addicted to Facebook. More than half the users use the site everyday and spend an average of 20 minutes on the site.

It is the 5th most trafficked site in the U.S. and is the largest photo sharing site on the planet.

Microsoft invested $240 million for a 1.6% equity stake in 2005 when Facebook was just making revenues of $50 million, effectively valuing them at $15 billion.

Who would not envy Facebook’s growth?

Yet paradoxically, growth seems to be the real problem.

Even with such a large subscriber base, it is not profitable. Its 2009 revenues are projected to be $350 million (based on very optimistic estimates) and its costs are spiraling upwards since it just needs to put in more infrastructure to cater to the bludgeoning subscribers. Experts reckon that the costs to run the infrastructure would be $600 million. Currently, it is still struggling to find a profitability model.

Based on Businessweek’s recent article, it is hunting for more money. It would be difficult to raise equity at the earlier valuation of $15 billion in current business environments. Hence it is looking for debt financing to lease the computers to run its sites.

The revenue projections are primarily based on advertising and is primarily for the U.S. audience which is estimates to be around 60 million. it looks like the growth in the U.S. has flattened and all the international users are not necessarily factored as prospective users for the revenue model.

Its revenue models– primarily advertising (self serve ad system) and their talks with various advertisers have been ‘soft” given the current business environment. A new kind of engagement advertising is being tested out, and is unproven.

More fundamentally, the company has been having an unprecedented challenge: It created a community and now the community has become so powerful that it is challenging the company and forcing the company to retract from several key business initiatives. It had to withdraw the Beacon advertising system in 2007 and also withdraw its earlier move to take commercial control over the user content.It also had to deal with a huge user protest over some design changes.

So, where is Facebook headed with all these positive challenges?

Will it reinvent the social networking space with some new killer applications.or just go the way other social networking platforms like Friendster and MySpace?

Will it be a candidate for acquisition either for Google or Microsoft or AOL?

What is needed to be done to monetize their user base, given that users have become dominant and aggressive in the way they would like to be treated?

And finally, is social networking as a business model viable?