Family enterprise startups

Recently, Ambiga Dhiraj, co-founder of MuSigma, was appointed CEO of the company, replacing her other co-founder (and husband) Dhiraj Rajaram. There was a lot of chatter about the “first woman CEO of Indian unicorn”.

I didn’t see it that way. The way, I saw it, MuSigma was like a family enterprise, and so it was no big deal that one of the woman founders had become CEO. A couple of tweets went out:

People didn’t take my tweets too kindly. One guy quickly pointed out that she had had a pivotal role in building the company, and so she was more like Hillary Clinton than like Rabri Devi.

Another guy (a MuSigma employee) said that she’s gotten there on merit and not on account of her relationship.

While it might be the case that she got there on her own merit (I don’t know her at all, so can’t comment), the fact that she’s become CEO of a company she founded with her husband means that people will judge her on her relationships rather than purely on merit.

I wonder if this is a good reason to not start a company with a close relative.

On another note, I’d think twice (or maybe three times) before working for a company whose top management is closely related to each other – it will create a kind of glass ceiling and also a highly correlated top management meaning others will find it that much harder to create impact.

Counter staffing and service levels

I’m writing this from the international section of the Bangalore International Airport, as I wait to board my flight to Barcelona. It was a plan I’d made in October 2014 to “hibernate” for a few months in Barcelona during my wife’s last term of classes there, and this is the execution of the same plan.

There was a fairly long line at the passport control counters this morning, and it took me perhaps twenty minutes to cross it. When I joined the line, there were about 10 passport officers to say goodbye to Indian passport, so the line moved fairly quickly.

Presently, officers started getting up one by one, and going to one side to drink tea. I initially thought it was a tea break, but the officers drinking tea soon disappeared, leaving just four counters in operation, implying that the line moved much slowly thereafter. Some people were pissed off, but I soon got out.

It is not an uncommon occurrence to suddenly see a section of “servers” being closed. For example, you might go to the supermarket on a weekday afternoon to expect quick checkouts, but you might notice that only a fraction of the checkout counters are operational, leading to lines as long as on a weekend evening.

From the system of servers’ point of view, this is quite rational. While some customers might expect some kind of a moral obligation from the system of servers to keep all servers operational, the system of servers has no obligation to do so. All they have an obligation towards is in maintaining a certain service level.

So coming back to passport control at the Bangalore airport, maybe they have a service level of “an average of 30 minutes of waiting time for passengers”, and knowing that the number of international flights in late morning is lower than early morning, they know that the new demand can be met with a smaller number of servers.

The problem here is with the way that this gets implemented, which might piss off people – when half the servers summarily disappear, and waiting period suddenly goes up, people are bound to get pissed off. A superior strategy would be to do it in phases – giving a reasonable gap between each server going off. That smoothens the supply and waiting time, and people are far less likely to notice.

As the old Mirinda Lime advertisement went (#youremember), zor ka jhatka dheere se lage.


I was playing table tennis in my hostel at IIT with a friend who came from North India. At some point during a rally, the ball hit the edge of the table on his side, and moved far away, giving me the point. I apologised (when you normally do when you win a point by fluke), and said “Gandhi”. He didn’t understand what that meant.

It was then that I realised that using the word “Gandhi” as a euphemism for “fluke” is mostly a Bangalore thing. Back when I played table tennis during my school days, a let was called “Gandhi”, as was a ball hitting the edge of the table. It was the same case with comparable sports such as badminton or tennis or even volleyball. A basket that went in by fluke in basketball was also “Gandhi”.

Now, it might be hard for people to reconcile flukes with MK Gandhi, who was assassinated sixty eight years ago. Some people might also find it repugnant – that the great Mahatma’s name might be used to describe flukes. Looking at it as a fluke, however, is a shallow interpretation.

While it is hard to compare Gandhi (the person) with flukes, it is not hard at all to look at him as a figure of benevolence. He was known for his non-violent methods, and for turning the proverbial “other cheek”. He pioneered the use of non-cooperation as a method of protest (which has unfortunately far outlived its utility) and showed that you could win by being extremely nice. This was channelled in a movie a decade ago which spoke about “Gandhigiri” as a strategy for world domination.

So when the table tennis ball hits the edge of the table and flies off, invoking Gandhi’s name is a sign of benevolence by the person who has lost the point, who implicitly says “you, bugger, didn’t deserve to win this point. But I’ll be benevolent like Gandhi and allow you to take it”. It is similar in other sporting contexts, such as a let or a freak basket.

The invocation of Gandhi’s name as a sign of benevolence is common in other fields as well. In 1991, my cousin had to miss her second standard annual exams as she had to fly to Bangalore on account of the death of the grandfather we shared. Her school, in an act of benevolence, promoted her anyway, an act that was described by other relatives in Bangalore as “Gandhi pass”.

If there is a Gandhi pass, there is a Gandhi class also (again I was surprised to know it’s not a thing in North India). Another of Gandhi’s defining characteristics was the simplicity of his life. Though he could afford to travel better, he would always travel third class, which had the cheapest ticket. As a consequence, the cheapest ticket came to be known as the “Gandhi class”.

The term (Gandhi class) is now most commonly used in the context of cinemas, referring to the front few rows for which tickets are the cheapest. Even though multiplexes have larger blocks nowadays, which means front row tickets are no cheaper than those a few rows behind, the nomenclature sticks. If you are unlucky enough to only get a seat in the first couple of rows, you proudly say you are in “Gandhi class”.

That his name has come to be associated with so many everyday occurrences, mostly in irreverence, illustrates the impact Gandhi has had. Some people might outrage (as the fashion is nowadays) about the irreverence, and “reduction” of Gandhi to these concepts.

I’m still surprised, though, that things like “Gandhi class”, “Gandhi pass” and “Gandhi” as a euphemism for fluke weren’t that prevalent in North India fifteen years ago.

Censor Board as a preserver of the Bollywood cartel

The Indian Censor Board (Central board for film certification or something, to take its full name) has come under flak for the last year or so, for imposing excess cuts on movies, and more recently for some hilarious videos that its chairperson has made and uploaded (in the interest of taste I’ll not link to the video here).

The latest instalment is its decision to make over 45 edits to Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “The Hateful Eight”. The common reaction on Twitter has been that it’s useless to watch a Tarantino movie with so many cuts in the theatre, and it’s better to illegally download and watch the movie. Here is the document listing the cuts:

While the popular narrative remains that the Censor Board has been acting the way it has been because we have a “right wing conservative” Union Government, it doesn’t stand that test that the Censor Board has become especially kooky after the current government came to power (barring the hilarious videos and comments that is). The fact of the matter is that the Censor Board has been kooky with its edits much before the current government came to power.

There is a simpler explanation to why the Censor Board censors as much as it does – it seeks to protect the interests of the “Bollywood cartel”. By Bollywood, I refer to the mainstream Hindi cinema industry based in Mumbai which churns out “family movies” which don’t contain too much sex or violence, all of which seek a “U” (universal) certificate from the board.

The idea is this – Bollywood mostly makes “mainstream” movies, without much scope for the censor board to cut anything, so they’re largely insulated. Foreign language (including English) and offbeat movies, however, are more experimental, and are likely to have much more sex and violence.

Cutting parts of a movie and muting further portions (refer to above document) drastically diminishes the experience of watching the movie. Scenes cut in a non-intuitive fashion, and you are forever guessing what word was muted out.

Given such an inferior experience of watching, the value you gain from watching drops, and you might decide it is not worth watching at all. Those that have the means might instead choose to download the movie via illegal torrents, or watch it online using VPNs (effectively watching another country’s “edition”).

To summarise, competitors of mainstream Bollywood movies suffer due to censorship, by declining viewership, and viewership that moves to illegal media. Bollywood, on the other hand, by not having much that can be censored, is not similarly affected, and is thus relatively better off!

The union government has instituted a panel to review the activities of the Censor Board. The panel is headed by Shyam Benegal, who is an “alternative filmmaker” who doesn’t belong to the Bollywood clique. Hopefully some good will come out of that!

Get togethers and going Dutch

So the wife has written a fairly insightful blog post about why South Indians from the previous generation don’t meet often “without an occasion”. The basic idea is that that generation never learnt how to split bills, or go Dutch. I had a few anecdotes that would add data points to this, hence this blog post.

I had mentioned in an earlier blogpost that my parents used to work at KEB. I remember going to their offices occasionally (I’d visit my mother more often than my father), and though I was rather young then, I remember that my mother and her colleagues had a policy that they would pay for their afternoon tea by rotation.

It was a rather informal practice (don’t think they kept formal track of who paid when), but I don’t remember a single occasion (ok my age was in single digits, and I don’t have too many data points, but I trust my long-term memory) when more than one person paid for the same round of tea.

During a conversation about splitting bills (this was when I was older, and had started going out with friends), I remember my parents having bitched about two of their colleagues, who used to unfailingly split their tea bills. Back in those days, tea in the subsidised KEB canteen cost 35 paise (one paisa is one-hundredth of a rupee), which made it hard to split (since there were no half-paisa coins). So it seems these two worthies had an arrangement where they would alternately contribute seventeen and eighteen paise respectively (story from the early 80s, so one, two and three paisa coins were quite common back then). And my parents looked down upon them, that they couldn’t be so trusting to not “lend” a full half-cup of tea to the other person!

The other data point is the choice of words – my parents referred to the practice of going Dutch as “military style” and that phrase was uttered with a sneer. So when I would tell them that my friends and I had split the bill when we went out, my mother would say “oh military style-aa?”. It was as if civil people (pun intended) never split the bills and were willing to spend for each other occasionally.

This is one of those classic counterproductive things – while it might be noble to pay for each other once in a while, going out only when someone is willing to pay for you (or vice versa) puts a cap on the number of times when you can meet. Of course you need to adjust for the fact that this generation grew up in relative poverty compared to us, and that old frugal habits (of not going out too often) are hard to shake off!

Senior Assistants

A year or two before I was born, my parents both took and passed this exam called “SAS” (no clue what it stands for), following which they were both promoted to officer grade (they used to work for the erstwhile Karnataka Electricity Board (KEB) back then).

Many of their colleagues elected to not take up this exam (or perhaps took and flunked it) and didn’t get promoted for the rest of their careers, remaining “senior assistants”. While they didn’t “progress” in their careers, they didn’t do all that badly financially, with their pay scale growing more or less at the same rate as it would have had they become officers.

This examination-based division into officers and “staff” was not limited to KEB, of course. It was (and is) prevalent across all public sector units. If you passed the exam, you had a chance at career progression, though that also typically meant harder work and longer hours. It wasn’t necessary for everyone to be ambitious, though, since they could choose to remain at a non-officer grade where things were chiller.

While there might have been noble intentions for this bifurcation (making the pyramid thin at a low enough level, for example, and also addressing lumpy/bursty recruitment), the problem with the practice was that it created a rather large cadre of rather unambitious workers.

Given that it is not easy to sack someone from a PSU job (unless there has been gross misbehaviour), the only way to incentivise PSU employees to work is by showing them carrots. While tenure or seniority based promotions have put paid to such incentives, it is still reason enough to keep a section of the officers motivated. For Senior Assistants who have hit a wall on that front, it is simply not available.

Given the shape of the pyramid and the lack of carrots for Senior Assistants (and equivalent) what this policy has created is a large army of government/PSU officials who lack any motivation or incentive to do their job effectively.

With most government departments being monopolies, this is a problem only for the taxpayers and public (and not so much for the departments themselves). Where this hits PSUs hardest is where they compete with the private sectors, in banks, for example.

I’ve maintained that one of the advantages of PSU banks is that the staff there are much more experienced, so if you have a non-standard thing to do, you would rather go there than to a private bank that might throw the rule book at you.

The problem, though, is that while some staff might be motivated enough to use their experience and help you out, not all of them might be that way, for most of the clerical staff belong to the aforementioned “Senior Assistant” category, with no explicit incentive to keep them going. The same is the case with non-customer facing staff as well.

I understand that various other careers can also have “career-limiting moves” (after which you don’t get promoted) but the problem with the Indian PSU system is that such moves happen pretty early on in the career, which creates a lot of deadweight for the system to carry.

I delivered an NED Talk

When we finally implemented the NED Talks a year back, we took a policy decision that we wouldn’t be speaking ourselves, and instead remain content with organising, producing and anchoring the event.

With a year of NED talks (where we collected over fifty NED fellows over six episodes) done, there were the interesting situation today where the Takshashila Institution, which I’m associated with an many of whose fellows have delivered NED Talks, organised an NED Talks-like event (they acknowledged it as such) as part of their year-ending bash.

So they requested me to speak at the event and I agreed to talk about the Ramayana and its connection with the current civil war in Syria. I essentially paraphrased what I’d written in this post on this blog, and argued that Europe and the US should back Russia in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

The event was streamed live on Youtube, and you can find my talk here:

See and enjoy (my talk starts around the 15 minute mark).

PS: I had consumed two glasses of wine before this talk which “lubricated” things and enabled me to talk without feeling self-conscious. I must say this method works fairly well for short talks.