Category Archives: business

Looking for a voicemail product

I’ll be traveling abroad for 2-3 weeks next month, during which I will not have access to my phone (don’t plan to take international roaming). In this context, what I need is some kind of a voicemail product – where any call made to my airtel number (which will be “switched off”) will get redirected to voicemail, which informs the caller that I’m traveling and they should leave a message. And I should be able to log on periodically to some website where I can listen to my collected voicemail, and possibly call back some of them.

Does such a product exist? If not, does there exist a market for this, or does everyone who wants to use a product like this can afford international roaming?

And while we are at it, are there any good voicemail apps that I can use on my Android phone (when my phone is in the sim and connected to the network)?

Thanks much!

A culture of thinking and differentiated services

In a very interesting Op-Ed in Mint this morning, Anurag Behar argues against vocational training at the school level, arguing that the purpose of school education is to enable children to think, and that the ability to think is paramount in offering superior services.

He gives the example of a welder who understands basic geometry and the mechanics of metals, saying such a welder can offer superior services to one who has just been trained in welding. Thus, a welder who had been through school and thus understands the basics of geometry and mechanics can do a much better job as a welder than one that has just learnt how to weld.

Now, while this culture of thinking is important, another important pre-requisite is the culture of differentiated services. The question we need to ask is if the market here is mature enough to pay a premium for the welder who knows geometry and mechanics compared to an illiterate welder.

Intuitively it makes sense – an educated welder is likely to be more careful in his work and is likely to offer much superior quality. However, what I’m not so sure of is that the market in India is currently mature enough to recognize this increase in quality and thus pay a premium for such services. And unless the market matures to pay a premium for an educated welder, an educated person will choose a career other than being a welder and we will be only left with uneducated welders offering poor quality.

Chatting and messengers

So the wife has just moved abroad and I haven’t even bothered getting international calling enabled on my mobile phone. It’s not that I’m not concerned about keeping in touch with her – it’s more to do with the plethora of options to keep in touch with her than a normal phone call.

Firstly there’s whatsapp, which I’ve used for the last two years (the trigger to join whatsapp was the limit in the number of text messages one could send per day which was introduced in 2012 as a “rumour prevention mechanism”). A large number of people on my contacts list use WhatsApp, which means that it is extremely rare that i use normal text messaging to connect to them.

And earlier today, while she was waiting for a connection at Frankfurt airport, the wife asked me to install Viber, saying it allows us to talk without any international dialing cost. I just had a brief conversation with her and the quality was extraordinary (especially given i’m on a weak BSNL broadband here and she was in a car there). Then I looked at my contacts who are on viber, and the number of my contacts who are using Viber is insanely high! Almost makes me seem foolish for not joining in so far.

And then earlier today I spoke to someone in Singapore using Skype. Call quality wasn’t that great – we dropped a couple of times – but it was still pretty good. And then there is google hangouts. And then there is apple’s facetime (perhaps the main reason the iPad fell my side when we were dividing our assets prior to the wife’s move is that I could have an Apple device with me so that we can FaceTime!).

The number of options for messaging is so large that I wonder how long the whole calling and messaging model will continue. I had shown in a recent blog post (on my public policy blog) that the number of SMSs sent per user in India peaked three years ago and has then been on a secular decline. And now there is news that the telecoms regulator in India is thinking of instituting a fee on providers such as WhatsApp and Viber because of the revenue losses they are causing to the mobile phone service providers in India (like Airtel, Vodafone, etc.).

The question therefore is what the future of telecom will look like given the large number of internet based reliable communication providers who are springing up. My prediction is that the phone call is not going to die – what sets apart a phone call from a Voice over IP connection (such as Skype or Viber) is that it is “online” (i forget the technical term for it – ok got it it’s “network switching” as opposed to “packet switching” which is how the internet works).

To explain that in English, when I talk to you over the phone (normal phone call) there is a dedicated line that goes out from me to you. Basically your telecom provider and mine and the network interchange come together so that a virtual line is drawn from me to you, and this is exclusive for us as we talk (call dropping on mobile phones happens when we try to move from one “cell” to another and get lost in between).

The internet doesn’t work that way. When I send you a “voice message” over the internet, it goes one hop at a time. There is no dedicated line from me to you. The reason we are now able to voice chat online reliably is that the bandwidth available is so much that packets usually get connected quickly enough (think of a bus network so dense that you can change buses instantly to get to your destination – it virtually simulates a “direct bus”). When the network is busy or the bandwidth clogged, however, there might be some delays (while a phone call once connected remains connected).

Given this distinction the phone call offers a level of reliability that packet switching based voice messengers can never reach. And there will always be a market for extremely high reliability. Hence the phone call is not going anywhere.

The SMS, on the other hand, is again packet switched, and a mechanism in which carriers could extract large amounts of money. The SMS will soon die a natural death – kept alive only by means of government mandated services such as two factor authentication of credit card transactions.

While the fees on carriers such as Viber might become a reality in a place like India they are unlikely to sustain as international norms become uniform. What we are likely to see instead is mobile carriers coming to terms with existence of such providers, and some interesting internet pricing plans.

Currently, to use Viber for a fair bit you need a fairly high FUP (fair usage policy) limit on your phone (carrying voice digitally takes a lot of bandwidth). Carriers might introduce some kind of a graded payment structure such that they can partly recover (through higher internet charges) the lost revenues thanks to lost call charges.

If any mobile phone operator is reading this and needs help on devising such pricing mechanisms, feel free to use my consulting services. Among other things in the past I’ve done revenue management for airline ticketing and cargo (the holy grail of revenue management) while working for Sabre – the pioneer in revenue management.

Impact of online retail on offline retail

The other day we had to buy a couple of electronics items, and we went to this long line of electronic stores close to home. Since what we were looking for was closer to the long tail, we eschewed the small “standalone” stores and went to the chain stores. And the service at each store was simply underwhelming.

Sales staff seemed extremely demotivated, and seemed to have no incentive to make a sale. There seemed to be no senior sales staff around who would guide these staff to serve us well. They just stood by standing around, and the only thing they did was to pull out the item that we requested, and then look at the price tag and tell us the price.

With the coming of online retail, one reason for people to shop offline is service. When we had to buy a refrigerator recently, we wanted some human help in determining the pros and cons of various brands, and which are the faster selling ones. And off we went to the nearby (standalone, non-chain) “white goods store”. And we had booked a refrigerator on our way out!

What online sales is doing is to set a higher bar for salesmanship in offline stores, and stores need to recognize this. Just standing around when a customer shops and showing him price tags will not cut it any more – what offline stores need to figure out is what service they can offer that online stores don’t. And provide that aggressively, in order to not lose business to the e-retailers.

Another advantage for offline stores is in terms of letting the customer touch and feel the goods – a refrigerator or a washing machine or a television, for example. The downside is that inventory costs can be prohibitive and there are only so many models that the retailer can put on display – but then based on sales patterns they can choose which models to actually put on display (the top selling ones).

One reason mobile phone sales have so easily moved online (Moto and Xiaomi, for example) is that even at an offline retailer you don’t have much opportunity to touch and feel a mobile phone – in a large number of cases it’s dummy models that are stuck there rather than working ones, and that doesn’t particularly add value to the customer in terms of purchase decision.

Finally, based on my limited sampling of “white goods” stores on 10th Main, Jayanagar 1st Block, Bangalore, I think the coming of online retail is not going to affect the standalone family businesses (that the BJP seeks to protect) as much as it is going to affect the chain stores. The former are agile and able to adapt to customer needs. It is the latter that are sluggish and seek protection.

Damodaran on Uber’s Valuation

It is fascinating to watch this back-and-forth between NYU Prof Aswath Damodaran and Uber board member Bill Gurley on the taxi company’s valuation.

To set the context, when the latest funding round for Uber was announced, valuing it at USD 17 billion, Damodaran – a guru in valuation – wrote his own analysis which valued the company at about a third of that value. While it was a typical Damodaran post – long, detailed and making and stating lots of assumptions – it was probably intended as an academic exercise (the way I see it).

Instead it seems to have really caught the fancy of the silicon valley investment community, and led to a response by Gurley (I admit I haven’t read his full response – it seemed to attack straw men in places). And Damodaran has responded to the response. Now that the Three Way Handshake is complete I don’t expect any more backs and forths, but I won’t rule it out either (it’s possible but not plausible, to use Damodaran’s terminology).

What fascinates me is why an academic’s academic post on valuation of a company has created so much of a flutter – so much to merit a long-winded response from the board member. I’m reminded of two things that my valuation professor had told me some 10 years back when I was in business school.

1. Valuation is always wrong
2. Value of a company is what the market thinks it’s valued at

The first of these is a bit of a motherhood statement and adds no value to this particular discussion so let’s not take that into account. It’s the second reason that has got the investors’ knickers in a twist.

In the past, I’ve seen Damodaran publish valuations of companies that are about to go public, or are already public – Tesla and Twitter for example. It is usually an academic exercise, and Damodaran’s valuations value these companies at lower than what the market values. However, given that these posts have appeared after there has been a broad consensus of a company’s valuation, it has not really impacted a company’s valuation, and thus have been treated as an academic exercise.

The problem with Uber is that it is a private company, and unlikely to go public for a very long time. The problem with a private company is that it is difficult for investors to agree on its valuation – there are very few trades and the stock is illiquid (by definition). And illiquidity means extremely high bid-ask spreads (to put a technical spin on it) and widely varying valuations.

Sometimes, when nobody knows what something is valued at (like Uber – which is creating a new category which no one has any experience in valuing), what people look for is some kind of a peg, or an “anchor”. When they see what they think is a reasonable and broadly reliable valuation, they tend to use that valuation as an “anchor” and if a large number of investors agree on one such anchor, the anchor ends up being the company’s valuation itself.

To reiterate, value of a company is what the market thinks it’s valued at. Nobody knows what Uber is valued at. Investors and existing shareholders agreed at a particular valuation, and did a deal at that valuation. However, this valuation is not “deep” – not too many people agree to this valuation.

It is in this context that an (very well renowned) academic’s valuation, which values the company at far less than the last transacted price, can act as an anchor. Damodaran is extremely widely respected in investing circles, and hence his valuation is likely to have received much attention. It might even be possible that his valuation becomes an “anchor” in investors’ minds of Uber’s valuation. And this is where the problem lies.

Even if you were to account for the consistent downward bias in Damodaran’s valuations and adjust Uber’s valuation accordingly, it is likely to lead  to a much lower anchor compared to the last transacted price. And this is not likely to be good for existing investors. Hence, they need to take steps to quickly debunk Damodaran’s valuation, to make sure it doesn’t end up as an anchor! And hence the long response by Gurley, and the silicon valley investor community in general!

To summarize, all that this entire brouhaha on Uber’s valuation shows is that its price discovery so far has been rather shallow.

Available only on flipkart

This mornings mint has a full page advertisement on the front page announcing the launch of the moto x phone in India. The ad mentions that the phone is available in India exclusively on flipkart the online retailer. The question is if this is a good idea.

While it is true that online retail offers the best costs and prices – thanks largely in part to the massive savings on real estate and inventory costs, I’m not sure if we are still thee at a stage where retail can be online only. In fact people like to touch and feel the stuff that they’re buying. Especially when it comes to big ticket purchases such as a phone. Without giving people the opportunity to do so – shops won’t carry the dummy model unless they’re also selling it, at a good margin – I’m not sure how many will want to make the jump and buy.

On a related note I saw a report last week, again in mint, talking about pushback from offline retailers and malls to the online retail phenomenon. This brings into focus how retail will evolve going forward since people now have a low cost (low inventory, zero real estate) option for making their purchases. We’re already seeing some “progress” in that direction where people go to malls and high streets to browse and get a touch and feel and then buy online where the prices are lower.

This points to one direction in which retail might evolve – soon stores in malls and high streets might be set up with the primary purpose of building the brand and letting customers get a touch and feel. Any sales from these stores for the brands will only be a bonus – the primary purpose being to let people know what is out there and to let them touch and feel and experience it.

If this were tO happen we can expect malls and high streets to move to more brand stores and less multi brand stores – unless the latter can somehow either match the cost and price structure of online or get paid for purely providing the experience to the customers.

Either ways we can expect the overall demand for retail real estate space to come down in the next few years. If there are any malls or retail real estate firms which are listed its time to short them. Or by hedging against them by going long on online retail.

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Countercyclical business

I realize being a freelance management consultant is countercyclical business. For two years in succession, I’ve had a light March – both years I’ve ended up finishing projects in Jan/Feb. With March being the end of the Indian financial year, most companies are loathe to commit additional spending in March, and it is a bad time to start new projects!

This is counter-cyclical because most other businesses end up having a bumper March, since they have end-of-year targets, and with a short sales cycle, they push their salespersons hard to achieve this target in March!

Differential levels of service

On Wednesday I had to send a package to Mumbai by courier. I walked over to the nearby DTDC office and was told that I had two options – i could pay Rs. 85 for “standard courier” or Rs. 180 for “next day guaranteed delivery”.  I asked the guy at the counter when the courier would be “cleared” (i.e. leave the booking office) and he said “this evening”. Assuming that courier gets sent by flight, it would reach Mumbai the next day, so it made me wonder what would take a courier longer to  reach.

I’m reminded of this famous story of HP (or was it Xerox? Or Epson?) adding an additional component to their printer to slow it down so that they could sell it as an “economy model”. The problem with offering differential levels of service in what is essentially the same product is that you know that the service provider has an incentive to willfully offer mediocre service when you go for the cheaper option.

Let us get back to courier, and assume that it is theoretically possible for DTDC to deliver my courier to Mumbai in a day. Suppose they start delivering most “standard” (Rs. 85) packages the following day, then people will have no incentive to go for the “premium” (Rs. 180) service! Because a “premium” service exists, they actually have an incentive to provide poor service for the “standard” package.

It is a similar case with Indigo’s “fast check in” counter at airports. For Rs. 200 you can skip the lines in the airport and go to a special “fast check in” counter. There is the same conflict of interest there – if the regular check in counters were efficient and there were no long lines, there would be no incentive for anyone to go to the “fast check in” counter. So if Indigo has revenue targets for the fast check in counter, it makes sense for them to make the regular check in more inefficient and create longer lines.

Coming back to DTDC, how is the market likely to react to their premium service? Let’s say that I’m someone who regularly sends couriers (but not regularly enough for me to have a deal with DTDC). I’ve been using the “standard” package so far. Most of my letters arrive in Mumbai the next day but a small number (let’s say 10%) take two days to arrive. Now, DTDC introduces the premium package, but I continue using the standard package. What do I see now? Rather than 90% of the letters arriving the next day, only 10% do, and 90% take longer (in line with DTDC’s revised incentives). It is likely that I’ll either start using the premium service or I’ll move to another operator.

The ostensible reason for DTDC introducing an “overnight guaranteed” courier service is easy to see – earlier, 90% of the packages were arriving in a day, and now they guarantee that it is 100%. The problem, however, is that the company will soon want to target increased sales of this “premium” service, and so will start taking steps to prevent the “standard” service from “cannibalizing” the premium sales.

Cartels, good and bad

This post is about two professional cartels in India, and why one is better than the other. The “better” cartel is the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI). The “worse” is the Medical Council of India (MCI). As the names suggest, they regulate the profession of chartered accountants and doctors respectively. And the way the former works is better than the latter.

First of all, let me convince you that these two are cartels. The basic concept is that in order to practice as a Chartered Accountant in India, you need certification from the ICAI. And who does the ICAI consist of? Other CAs. So it is nothing but a trade guild, which tries to control who gets to join the guild. It is a similar case with the MCI and doctors. Doctors trying to control who else can be doctors. As the more perceptive of you might have figured out, it is in the interest of both these guilds to not admit too many new members, since that would lead to supply of their profession to a level that significantly affects profit margins for the incumbents.

Now that we have established why these two are cartels, and that they both have an interest in restricting membership, let us see how they go about the process.

The ICAI follows what can be described as “exit level testing”. There are no restrictions on anyone wanting to be a CA – all you need is a high school (12th standard) degree with mathematics as one of your subjects. They have three levels of examination – “basic”, “intermediate” and “final”, and one needs to clear all of these in order to become a member of the guild. And how does the guild control membership? By making these examinations super-tough, so that only a select few pass these exams every year. There are several “CA institutes” who train students for these examinations. And there is no restriction (AFAIK) on anyone opening one such institute.

The MCI does it differently. Anyone with a recognized degree in medicine is automatically a member of the MCI. They regulate the numbers instead by controlling the number of medical colleges, so that only a select few can even aspire to get into the MCI. More importantly, the entry to medical colleges is not strictly on “merit” – colleges are free to allocate a certain portion of the seats on discretion, and they do so based on recommendations, donations, etc. I’m not really saying any of this is wrong. Just describing the situation as it is. However, when you combine this with the fact that an entry into a medical college guarantees membership of the MCI (provided you pass your college exams, which shouldn’t be too hard), it effectively means that you can buy your way into the MCI.

Actually, thinking about it, this option of creating additional membership of the MCI “upon payment” is a masterstroke by that guild. The concept is that when people pay large sums of money to gain entry, they are not going to be in a hurry to look to slash profit margins (key here is the fact that the amount of work a doctor can do is constrained by his/her time, so doctors cannot play  the “volume game”). So the pricing of these seats ensure additional revenue for the MCI and their constituent colleges, while not compromising on the members’ margins.

Note, however, that it is not possible to buy your way into the ICAI. Yes, aspiring members who seeks to buy their way in might buy “training” and “apprenticeship” under the best CAs who are members of the cartel, but still, to get a membership they need to pass the examination, which is not easy at all. Contrast this with the MCI where either money or the right connections get you straight in.

I’m not saying that the ICAI is a wonderful guild. Cases such as the Price Waterhouse – Satyam case or the Deloitte-FTIL case have shown that the profession is deeply flawed, and doesn’t regulate itself adequately. All I’m saying that the entry criteria it uses, as opposed to the one used by the MCI, ensures a higher quality in terms of the ability of its members.

As for me, I’m happy that I’m involved in a profession (or professions) that don’t need any certification or guild membership.

Coase

In the wake of the passing of Ronald Coase, two incidents, both professional. The first was with an established company to whom I suggested a partnership – they are in a space where I don’t have much skill, but have access to companies who I would love to sell to, and they don’t have my skill and our skills are complementary. So I reached out to them (through common contacts) suggesting that we could work together. They came back to me saying they would love to work with me, but would want me to join them as an employee.

The second was an incoming lead. This was a rather small company doing something similar to what I’m doing but with bigger ideas. They want me to join this “innovation hub” they are trying to create. This is a loose federation they are creating including professionals from various fields. Nobody is obliged to work full time for the hub, but this gives people an opportunity to get together and work together on projects where their respective expertise can combine well.

As the more perceptive of you who would have read every Coase obituary in the last two weeks would have figured out, the piece of work that Coase is most well known for is about the theory of the firm. The question is rather simple – why should you and I get together and form a firm if we have to work together, if we can remain independent and just come together for projects. The answer lies in transaction costs.

The advantage of coming together as a firm is that you negotiate only once. Let us suppose you are a graphic designer and I’m a data scientist. If we decide to work together on a visualization project, how do we decide how much you get and how much I get? We will need to negotiate. Let’s say we negotiate and agree on a price. And complete a project and split the spoils. What would happen the next time we were to bid for a project? We will need to negotiate again on how we will share the spoils.

If on the other hand we were to form a partnership firm, then for every project that we do, our respective share is fixed! Thus we don’t have to negotiate before every single projects. Thus, firms exist so that you don’t have to repeatedly negotiate.

However, there is a downside to this. What if I form a firm with a graphic designer, and then we see a significant opportunity in projects that involve a lot of analysis but little visualization? In that case, I have no use of my partner, and would loathe to pay him his share of the profits. Or consider if I were to somehow become much better at my job, while my partner stagnates. There is little I can do, for we’ve been locked in into the financial arrangement.

These are only some of the complications that arise when you need to decide whether you want to become a firm. I just thought it is pertinent that I’m having some of these dilemmas (employee versus consultant versus partner versus member of federation) in the few weeks after Coase’s passing.