Monday, June 04, 2018

Battle in India for e-commerce market leadership is no longer between just Amazon and Flipkart

Amazon Launches Prime Music in India. What It Means for the Indian e-commerce Market



O
n a day when it was reported that the online streaming music app Gaana was raising $115 million (about ₹750 crores) from Chinese Internet investment company Tencent Holdings Ltd and Times Internet Ltd (Gaana to raise $115 million from Tencent, Times Internet – Livemint), came the news that online retailer Amazon had launched its PrimeMusic streaming music service in India.

According to Amazon, “Prime Music provides unlimited, ad-free access to on-demand streaming of curated playlists and stations, plus millions of songs and albums at no additional cost for eligible Amazon Prime members.”

The Amazon Prime service in India costs ₹999 annually and provides “free One-Day, Two-Day and Standard Delivery on eligible items”, PrimeVideo – Amazon’s video streaming service, and now PrimeMusic. According to Midis Research, Amazon had become the third-largest music subscription service globally, behind Spotify (40%) and Apple Music (19%).

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Fortune 500 and the Art of Execution

The Fortune 500 Companies 2018 rankings came out last week, and browsing the list, the following random thoughts struck me about the list and the technology industry:

  • Walmart - you can be in a very, very traditional brick-and-mortar business (yes, they have been making inroads into e-commerce, but for the most part, Walmart is a traditional retailer), but as long as you keep doing things well, you can be in the top 10. Not only that, you can be the top-ranked company by revenues for a sixth year in a row. In this case, you can be numero uno, with annual revenues that top five-hundred billion dollars - $500 billion, be more than twice the size of the second-ranked company (Exxon-Mobile is ranked second, with annual revenues of $244B), and also employ the most employees (2.3 million).
  • Apple - you can be a mass-market luxury brand (yes, that is a contradiction in terms), sell only a handful of products (its Mac, iPhone, and iPad product lines bring in 79% of its revenues) and be in the top 10 - ranked fourth. You will also get to make the profits of any company - $48 billion. You also get to be the most highly valued company - at $922 billion.
  • Amazon - you can sell almost everything under the sun, sell it almost all online (its foray into physical stores and its acquisition of Whole Foods notwithstanding), employ the second-most employers of any company in America, be a $100 billion plus company, yet grow revenues by more than thirty per-cent (to $177 billion), and crack the top 10 - ranked eighth. You also get to be the second-most highly valued company on earth, at $765 billion.
  • Netflix: you do only one thing: in this case, streaming video content on-demand and producing your own content, almost triple your profits (199% jump year-on-year), not be in the top 200, and yet deliver the best 10-year returns to shareholders (48%, annualized!
  • The top five most valuable companies on the list are all technology companies - Apple, Amazon, Alphabet (the parent company of Google), Microsoft, and Facebook.
Bottom line? What is common across all these companies is a relentless focus on execution. Execution - a simple lesson to learn, yet incredibly difficult to practice. Flipkart, the Indian e-commerce giant in which Walmart (press release) bought a 77% stake for $16 billion, valuing the company at $22 billion, learned that the hard way, when it lost focus in its fight against Amazon.

Further suggested reading:

This is an expanded version of my LinkedIn post.

© 2018, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Big Data Introduction - Workshop

Our focus was clear - this was a level 101 class, for IT professionals in Bangalore who had heard of Big Data, were interested in Big Data, but were unsure how and where to dig their toe in the world of analytics and Big Data. A one-day workshop - with a mix of slides, white-boarding, case-study, a small game, and a mini-project - we felt, was the ideal vehicle for getting people to wrap their minds around the fundamental concepts of Big Data.






On a pleasant Saturday morning in January, Prakash Kadham and I conducted a one-day workshop, "Introduction to Big Data & Analytics". As the name suggests, it was a breadth-oriented introduction to the world of Big Data and the landscape of technologies, tools, platforms, distributions, and business use-cases in the brave new world of big data.

We started out by talking about the need for analytics in general, the kinds of questions analytics - also known as business intelligence sometimes - is supposed answer, and how most analytics platforms used to look like at the beginning of the decade. We then moved to what changed this decade, and the growth of data volumes, the velocity of data generation, and the increasing variety of data that rendered traditional means of data ingestion and analysis inadequate.

A fun game with cards turned out to be an ideal way to introduce the participants to the concepts behind MapReduce, the fundamental paradigm behind the processing and ingestion of massive amounts of data. After all the slides and illustrations of MapReduce, we threw in a curve-ball to the participants by telling them that some companies, like Google, had started to move away from MapReduce since it was deemed unsuitable for data volumes greater than petabyte!

The proliferation of Apache projects in almost every sphere of the Hadoop ecosystem meant that there are many, many choices for the big data engineer to choose from. Just on the subject of data ingestion, there is Apache Flume, Apache Sqoop, Apache Kafka, Apache Samza, Apache NiFi, and many others. Or take databases, where you have columnar, noSQL, document-oriented, graph databases to choose from, each optimized for slightly different use-cases - Hbase (the granddaddy of of noSQL databases), Cassandra (that took birth at Facebook), MongoDB (most suited for documents), Neo4j (a graph database), and so on.

Working through a case-study helps bring theory closer to practice, and the participants got to work on just that - two case-studies, one in the retail segment and the other in healthcare. Coming off the slides and lectures, the participants dove into the case-studies with enthusiasm and high-decibel interactions among all the participants.

The day passed off fast enough and we ended the day with a small visualization exercise, using the popular tool, Tableau. At the end of the long but productive day, the participants had one last task to complete - fill out a feedback form, which contained six objective questions and three free-form ones. It was hugely gratifying that all but one filled out the questionnaire. After the group photo and the workshop was formally over, Prakash and I took a look at the survey questionnaire that the participants had filled out, and did a quick, back-of-the-envelope NPS (Net Promoter Score) calculation. We rechecked our calculations and found we had managed an NPS of 100!

The suggestions we received have been most useful, and we are now working to incorporate the suggestions in the workshop. Among the suggestions was for us to hold a more advanced, Level 200, workshop. That remains our second goal!

Thank you to all the participants who took time out to spend an entire Saturday with us, for their active and enthusiastic participation, and to the valuable feedback they shared with us! A most encouraging start to 2018!

This post was first published on LinkedIn on Feb 5, 2018.
© 2018, Abhinav Agarwal.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Infosys, NRN Murthy, and Vishal Sikka - No One's Smelling of Roses


C

orporate sagas seem to come in twos. The mega-fracas that erupted in 2016 between Cyrus Mistry, then Chairman of Tata Sons, and the iconic Ratan Tata, Chairman Emeritus at Tata Sons,  was starting to come to a close by the second half of 2017 (though I fear the last words have yet to be written). Ratan Tata had annointed N Chandrasekaran, CEO of TCS, as thew Chairman of Tata Sons, and re-asserted his complete control over the sprawling Tata empire. Now comes the rather unexpected news that Vishal Sikka (@vsikka), CEO and MD of Indian IT behemoth Infosys, had tendered in his resignation, apparently unable to tolerate any longer the constant "drumbeat of distractions" from co-founder Mr. NRN Murthy, and, some speculated, a lack of support from some members of the Infosys Board itself.
In particular, this is what Vishal Sikka wrote in his letter to the Board:
"Over the last many months and quarters, we have all been besieged by false, baseless, malicious and increasingly personal attacks. Allegations that have been repeatedly proven false and baseless by multiple, independent investigations. But despite this, the attacks continue, and worse still, amplified by the very people from whom we all expected the most steadfast support in this great transformation." [link]
In this perhaps altogether avoidable saga, no one has come out smelling of roses - not the Infosys board, not Vishal Sikka, and not Mr Murthy.

A Retrospect for Vishal Sikka

image credit: pexels.com
Let me start off by revisiting what I had written in 2014 - "A 'Vishal' opportunity awaits Infosys" - at the time of Mr Sikka's appointment as CEO and MD of Infosys.To summarize, I had made the following points:

Was Sikka a "trophy CEO"? I had written, "There will be more than one voice heard whispering that Sikka's appointment is more of a publicity gimmick meant to save face for its iconic co-founder, Narayan Murthy, who has been unable to right the floundering ship of the software services giant." This is still a pertinent question. Once the excitement of the "trophy CEO" wore out, did Mr Murthy's interest in Vishal Sikka also wane? Conversely, once the excitement of the CEO's crown wore off for Mr Sikka, did the thorns of leading and growing a company, with close to two-hundred thousand employees, in a difficult business environment, start to prick?

Mr Murthy's return to Infosys had brought with it a controversy and questions of corporate governance as a result of his son Rohan Murthy's inclusion in the Chairman's office - "The presence of his son Rohan Murthy was seen to grate on several senior executives, and also did not go down too well with corporate governance experts." More on this later, because there is enough mud of poor corporate governance to be thrown at all parties here.

Products-vs-services. I wrote "...there is no company, with the arguable exception of IBM, that has achieved excellence in both services and products. Not Microsoft, not Oracle, not SAP." Infosys, under Vishal Sikka, had a decidedly uninspiring record in this area. Infosys, in early 2014, carved out EdgeVerve, a subsidiary, to focus on building "products and platforms." This continued with Vishal Sikka, and SAP veterans like Michael Reh, Anirban (Andy) Dey, Venkatesh Vaidyanathan, and others were brought in to. Even though EdgeVerve claimed to pay salaries on par with Google (and this link), it was however staffed at the middle-management layers mostly with veterans from the services side of its parent company, Infosys. The results were unsurprising - Michael Reh resigned in March 2016, Andy quit in July 2017, Venky in August 2017. EdgeVerve is rumoured to have cut its staff by as much as a fourth. Clearly, this was an area where Vishal Sikka was expected to make a substantial impact, but failed.

Vishal Sikka also had a tough time retaining talent. His record was decidedly mixed in this regard also. First, he hired as many as sixteen executives from SAP after joining Infosys. Several of them were hired at million-dollar salaries, prompting a similar raise for some of the senior executives at Infosys. Second, several Infosys veterans left, or were asked to leave, during Sikka's tenure. Eventually, several of Sikka's hires from SAP also quit, whether for personal, performance-related, or cultural-misfit reasons is not clearly known. Wherever Vishal Sikka lands next - and it is clear he is too talented, too bright a star to fade away into semi-retirement at some marquee VC firm in Silicon Valley - he will find it at least somewhat difficult to get the best and brightest to follow him.

The Board Games

[image credit: pexels]
The Infosys board will go, sooner or later. It has failed its shareholders - utterly and completely. It failed to retain its CEO. It failed to address the concerns of an angry co-founder. It failed to adequately address in time the cloud of corporate governance hanging over the company.

If the board believed in Sikka, if they had investigated the corporate governance issues (more on this later) and found everything to be above board, then why were they unable to predict or prevent Vishal's resignation? Clearly, the Infosys board was a house divided against itself, with some members rooting for Mr Murthy, and some for Vishal Sikka.

At the root of this corporate governance fracas is Infosys' decision to acquire Israeli startup, Panaya, in 2015, for $200 million (it paid $230 million, but Panaya had $30 million in cash; the net cost of the acquisition therefore was $200 million). Panaya is (or was) an Israeli start-up founded in 2010 as a cloud-based quality management service provider to enterprise applications. In the years leading to its acquisition, Panaya had "laid off more than 25% of the company. In 2016, Panaya shut down their Israeli-based sales development and moved them to Boston and the United Kingdom and replaced their CEO." [link] More pertinently, in 2013, Panaya's 4th funding round included an investment from HPV - Hasso Plattner Ventures. Hasso Plattner is a co-founder and currently Chairman of SAP. Hasso Plattner had been a friend and mentor to Vishal Sikka. This was most likely the reason for a whistleblower's letter in Feb 2017, which alleged that the deal was overpriced, that the then-CFO, Bansal, had walked out of the board meeting convened to vote on the acquisition, that there had been conflicts of interest since SAP owned a 7% stake in Panaya, and so on. The Infosys board got the allegations investigated by its internal Audit Committee as well as by Gibson Dunn and Control Risks and no issues were found. Yet the board did not make public this report.

Some basic questions remain unanswered. When Panaya emerged as a potential acquisition, the board should have asked Vishal Sikka to recuse himself from all further dealings on the matter. Neither the board nor Sikka did.

When Rajiv Bansal, then CFO of Infosys, allegedly walked out of the board meeting convened to vote on the Panaya acquisition, the board should immediately have convened a committee to look into the matter. It did not.

When co-founder Mr N.R.N. Murthy started to make allegations of corporate governance lapses at Infosys, the board should have engaged with him and put an end to the matter. It did not. The board allowed the matter to fester.

Even the letter the board released to the public after Vishal Sikka's resignation comes off as immature. It reads like a rant, a peevish outburst.

A substantial number of members of the Infosys board will go. They are on borrowed time. Who stays and who goes will be determined by who is the most astute politician.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mr. Murthy?

Having broken eggs, what is the omelette Mr Murthy has in mind
[image credit: Pexels.com]
Mr N.R.N. Murthy is a legend of the Indian software industry. He has been called one of India's most influentials, one of the 12-greatest entrepreneurs of our times, and a recipient of India's second-highest civilian honour, the Padma Vibhushan.

It was Mr Murthy who came out of retirement to head Infosys as its Chairman in 2013, and in an almost magical act lured Vishal Sikka to becomes Infosys' first non-founder CEO and MD, in 2014.

Mr Murthy's ire at Infosys has been directed mostly at the board, but also, indirectly, at Vishal Sikka also. It were partly his public criticisms that prompted the board to investigate the alleged lapses in the Panaya acquisition? What makes this saga curious is that, as per the Infosys board's letter, "Mr. Murthy was interviewed as part of the investigation by Gibson Dunn and Crutcher LLP in pursuance of the investigation in the Panaya acquisition, and was invited and welcomed to provide any information or evidence he believed would support the allegations being investigated. He did not provide any evidence since none exists."

Since corporate governance lapses are what have pained Mr Murthy, it would remiss to not remind people of two incidents where Mr Murthy's judgment in matters related to corporate governance seems to have erred.

First, Mr Murthy was an independent director at media house NDTV till Sep 2009. NDTV, as may be known to people, has been in the news on account of allegations of tax fraud. Most recently, in July 2017, the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal (ITAT) upheld the Income Tax department's finding that "NDTV used their own shell companies to round-trip investments of Rs 642 crore during 2009-10, making them liable for recovery of tax and penalty." [source] NDTV's founder, Prannoy Roy, and others, were charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation under the Prevention of Corruption Act as far back as 1998. It may be an inconvenient but certainly a pertinent question if Mr Murthy were to be asked what he did, or not do, as an independent director on the board of NDTV, around these allegations and issues of corporate governance.

Second, closer to home, when Mr Murthy came back to head Infosys a second time as Chairman, in June 2013, his son, Rohan Murthy joined his father in the newly-formed Chairman's office as Executive Assistant to the Chairman. At that point Mr Murthy had emphatically stated that his son would have no leadership role in the company. Less than three months later, Mr Rohan Murthy was designated Vice President, a title that few people usually earn, and that too after fifteen or more years in the industry.

Mr Murthy's concern over corporate governance seems to be somewhat newfound. It seems conveniently expedient.

A question that does need to be asked is this - has Mr Narayan Murthy become the obsessive mother-in-law that cannot bring herself to step back? After all, Mr Murthy's once described Infosys as his "middle child". Taking that analogy one step further, Vishal Sikka was like the bride he brought home for his child. Like the stereotypical "saas" (mother-in-law) in Indian movies, Mr Murthy however could not step back and allow the "child" and "bride" to find their own way.

Mr Murthy has a legion of admirers in the industry. This battle is far from over. In this battle between Mr Murthy and Infosys - its board and ex-CEO - it is only the Infosys brand that will suffer. It would be a tragedy if Mr Murthy lets his legacy end on this sour note.

This post first appeared in LinkedIn on Aug 22, 2017.


© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Six Plus One Types of Interviewers


R
emember Chuck Noland? The character in the movie Castaway, who has to use the blade of an ice-skate to extract his abscessed tooth, without anesthesia? The scene is painful to watch, yet you can't look away.

Interviews have this habit of turning up a Chuck Noland - in the interviewee or the interviewer. You willingly agree to subject yourself to the wanton abuse by random strangers who you may have to end up working for or with. Apart from the talented few whom companies are more eager to hire than they are to get hired, most are in less enviable positions.

What about interviewers? Not all are cut from the same cloth. But there are at least six types that I think we have all met in our lives, and a seventh one.

1. The Interview As an End In Itself - Hyper-excited newbie

You know this guy. You have been this person, most likely. You have a team now. You expect your team to grow. You have to build a team. You believe that you, and you alone, know what it takes to hire the absolutely best person for the opening you have.
You sit down and explain to the harried hiring HR person what the role is, what qualifications you are looking for, why the job is special, why just ordinary programming skills in ordinary programming languages will simply not cut it, why you as the hiring manager are special, and how you will, with the new hire, change the product, the company, and eventually the whole wide world. The HR executive therefore needs to spend every waking minute of her time in the pursuance of this nobler than noble objective. You badger your hiring rep incessantly, by phone, by IM, by email, in person, several times a day, asking for better resumes if you are getting many, and more if you aren't getting enough.
You read every single resume you get, several times over. You redline the points you don't like. You redline the points you like. You make notes on the resumes. You still talk to every single candidate. You continue interviewing, never selecting, till the economic climate changes and the vacancy is no longer available.
Yes, we all know this person.

2. Knows what he is looking for and knows when he finds it

This person is a somewhat rare commodity. This person does not suffer from buyer's remorse, knows that there is no such thing as a perfect candidate, and that the best he can hope to get is a person who comes off as reasonably intelligent, hard-working, ethical, and is going to be a team player.

This person will however also suffer from blind spots. Specifically, two kinds of blindspots. The first is that he will look for and evaluate a person only on those criteria that he can assess best. The second is that he is more likely to hire candidates that are similar to other successful employees in his team, and will probably become less likely to take chances on a different type of a candidate. On the other hand, this manager also knows that conceptual skills are more important to test than specific knowledge of some arcane syntax in a geeky programming language - if you are talking of the world of software for instance.
This person is a rare commodity.

3. Hire for Empire

Like our previous type of hiring manager, this hiring manager is also very clear-headed.  But, here the interviewer is hiring to add headcount to his team. Grow the empire. More people equates to more perceived power. This person understands three things, and understands them perfectly.
First, that if he is slow in hiring, then a hiring freeze may come in, and the headcount may no longer stay open.
Second, he (or she) is also unable and equally unwilling to evaluate a candidate, so just about anyone will do.
Third, and most importantly, this manager knows that every additional person reporting to him on the organization chart elevates him in importance vis-a-vis his peers, and therefore hiring is a goal noble enough to be pursued in its own right.
It's a win-win situation for everyone - except the customers, the company, and the team.

4. I have other work to do. What am I doing here? What is he doing here?

This person has little skin in the game. He has no dog in the fight. Pick your metaphor. He is there to take the interview because of someone's absence, or because in the charade of the interview "process" that exists at many companies, there exists a need to do this interview. The interviewer agrees because it is a tax that needs to be paid. You don't want to be labeled a non-team-player. Who knows when this Scarlet Letter may come to haunt you. So our interviewer sets aside half an hour or more, preferably less, of his time, and comes back wondering where thirty minutes of his life just went. That question remains unanswered.

5. Know-it-all and desperate to show it

This person perceived himself as an overachiever. This is the sort of person who will tell you with casual nonchalance that he had predicted the rise of Google in 1999  - just so you can get to know that he had heard of Google in 1999. This person knows he knows everything that there is to know, that it is his beholden duty to make you know it too, and it is your beholden duty to acknowledge this crushing sacerdotal burden he carries. This is the person who will begin the interview with a smirk, sustain a a wry smile, transform into a frown, and end with an exaggerated sense of self-importance.
Do not get fooled.
This person is as desperate, if not more, to interview you as you are to do well on the interview. He will in all likelihood end up talking more than the interviewee.
In every group in every department of every company there exists at least one such person. The successful companies have no more than one.

6. The rubber-stamp

The boss has decided the person who needs to be hired. The charade needs to be completed. The requisite number of people have to interview the candidate so that HR can dot the "I"s and cross the "T"s. Our interviewer here has to speak with this person. With an air of deference. He will ask all the right questions, but the answers do not matter. You sign off with a heartfelt, "Great talking to you. Thanks a ton for your time. Take care, and we really look forward to working with/for you." No, don't belittle this rubber-stamp. He could be you.

These are not mutually exclusive sets. There are overlaps that exist, sometimes in combinations that would warm Stephen King's heart.

Oh, what about the seventh type of interviewer? He is the Interviewer as Saboteur.  I will talk about him in a separate post.

This post appeared on LinkedIn on July 31st, 2017.
This is an edited version of a post I wrote on April 23rd, 2013.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Management Mantra for Startups - Waste Not, Vacate Not

Image credit: pexels.com

Waste Not, Vacate Not.

W
hen Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, started out Amazon, he, along with Shel Kaphan, programmer and a founding employee, used sixty-dollar doors from Home Depot as desks. It was the demand of frugality. More than a decade later, when Amazon was a multi-billion dollar behemoth, conference-room tables were still made of door-desks. It reflected its CEO's adamant belief in "frugality." A leadership principle at Amazon states that "Frugality breeds resourcefulness, self-sufficiency and invention." In case you have been living in a world without news, you would know that Amazon's market capitalization, as of July 23rd, was a shade under US$500 billion, its trailing twelve-month revenues in excess of US$140 billion, and has been growing at an annual rate of more than 20%.

All this about Amazon's culture of frugality are captured in Brad Stone's brilliant book on the company, "The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon."
"Bezos met me in an eighth-floor conference room and we sat down at a large table made of half a dozen door-desks, the same kind of blond wood that Bezos used twenty years ago when he was building Amazon from scratch in his garage. The door-desks are often held up as a symbol of the company’s enduring frugality."
...
They set up shop in the converted garage of Bezos’s house, an enclosed space without insulation and with a large, black potbellied stove at its center. Bezos built the first two desks out of sixty-dollar blond-wood doors from Home Depot, an endeavor that later carried almost biblical significance at Amazon, like Noah building the ark.
...
"Door-Desk award, given to an employee who came up with “a well-built idea that helps us to deliver lower prices to customers”—the prize was a door-desk ornament. Bezos was once again looking for ways to reinforce his values within the company."
...
"Conference-room tables are a collection of blond-wood door-desks shoved together side by side. The vending machines take credit cards, and food in the company cafeterias is not subsidized. When a new hire joins the company, he gets a backpack with a power adapter, a laptop dock, and some orientation materials. When someone resigns, he is asked to hand in all that equipment—including the backpack." [The Everything Store, by Brad Stone]

So what does this have to do with Flipkart?

Flipkart has been in business for (almost) ten years now (it was founded in October 2007). It has raised more than $4 billion dollars from investors, the most recent round of funding closing in early 2017. The Indian e-commerce pioneer however has yet to make a single new paisa in profit. In its fiscal year ending March 31st, 2016, its losses doubled to ₹2,306 crores (approximately US$350 million). Keep that in mind as you go through this post.

In October 2014, coming off the back of two funding rounds that saw it raise more than $1 billion from investors, came news that Flipkart had entered into an agreement to lease 3 million square feet of prime office space for an estimated annual rent of ₹300 crores (approximately US$48 million at the then exchange rates). This figure was cut down to 2 million sq ft by the time the deal was announced in May 2015. Even with the reduced commitment, it was, at the time, touted as the "single largest commitment of office space anywhere in the country."

In late 2015, several news sites, including the Economic Times, posted extensive photos of Flipkart's new office at the Cessna Business Park in Bengaluru. A cursory look at the office, as revealed by the photos, told a story of a no-expenses spared philosophy at work. Each floor had a "theme inspired by human greatness in various fields – science, sports, fashion, music". Hallways were designed to resemble running tracks, with the Olympic logo emblazoned prominently.





Images credit: Economic Times
By 2016, Flipkart's numerous missteps had only compounded its woes in the face of an unrelenting foe in the form of a rampaging Amazon. In November 2016, therefore, the news came as no surprise that that Flipkart had decided to forego almost half of the office space it had signed up for a year ago. Instead of the two-million square feet, the company wanted no more than 1.2 million sq-ft. In addition, it had negotiated lowered fitment costs from ₹2400 to ₹1500 per sq-ft.

Juxtapositions are meant to contrast. They can also be cruel. 
Like when it was reported in Jan 2017 that Amazon had leased more than one million sq ft of office space in India in 2016. That Amazon had leased more office space in 2015 than it had in all its previous years of presence in India. That it was reported in June 2017 that Amazon had leased 600,000 sq ft of office space in Hyderabad.

On top of this juxtaposition, let's add a dash of irony. Both of Flipkart's founders, Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, had worked at Amazon before leaving to start Flipkart. Jeff Bezos' mantra of frugality had either never been learned, or had perhaps been buried under the billions of investor money.

Since we are talking about contrasts, let me end with one more. In September 2016, it was reported that Flipkart was planning to cut its staff by 800, on top of 400 "performance-related" exits in July. In May 2016, it communicated to India's premier management institutes - Indian Institutes of Management at Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Lucknow, and the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi - that it would defer the joining dates of students it had made job offers to by six months. In response, "The authorities at IIM-A have sent a strongly worded letter to Flipkart, marking other premier B-schools such as IIM-Bangalore, IIM-Lucknow and the Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi."

 What about Amazon? The company, in a press-release in January 2017, announced that it would "Create More Than 100,000 New, Full-Time, Full-Benefit Jobs across the U.S. over the Next 18 Months."

What's the takeaway? That companies need to beware the curse of the new headquarters? Or that founders need to focus on companies that can stand on their own feet? That CEOs need to focus on execution? That boards and investors cannot function as absentee landlords?

[I have written at length on this fascinating slugfest. When I read about and witnessed its mobile-only obsession I had called it a dangerous distraction, not to mention a revenue chimera and a privacy nightmare. I warned that Flipkart was making a mistake, a big mistake, in taking its eye off the ball in competing against Amazon, using a cricket analogy that should have been familiar to the Indian founders. I wrote about how hubris-driven million-dollar hires had resulted in billion dollar erosions in valuations. I wrote about what had become an ever-revolving door of executive exits at Flipkart. I wrote about brand management snafus at Flipkart.]






Images credit: Yahoo
This post first appeared in LinkedIn Pulse on July 23rd, 2017.

"The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon" (USINKindle USKindle IN)




© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Usability, Product Management, and LinkedIn - a rant

L
inkedIn began as a professional networking site, has evolved into a social media behemoth, and has yet managed to maintain and sharpen its focus on the professional space. That may, in part, explain why, in 2016, Microsoft chose to put down more than $26 billion Washingtons to buy LinkedIn.
While both LinkedIn's web site and mobile app have undergone substantial changes over the years, and is a far cry from the spartan look both sported just a few years ago, I wanted to call out one peculiarity - call it eccentricity - that the site has. I would call it a glaring UX and product management miss, if you will.
Let me elaborate.
email from LinkedIn in June 2014, announcing the launch of the publish feature.
Sometime in April 2014, LinkedIn introduced a feature that allowed users - by invitation at first, and everyone later - to publish their articles on LinkedIn. This feature is now a great source of user-generated content for LinkedIn, helping drive more traffic to its website. I have written a few over the last couple of years, and it's a great way to my thoughts on relevant topics in front of a relevant audience.

But Where Are My Articles?

From the LinkedIn home page, try finding a way to navigate to your articles - published or in draft mode. Go ahead, I will wait while you wander on the home page.
You can't.
Let me show. See the screenshot below. That is the home page I see when I go to LinkedIn.
  1. The menu at the top contains no links to go to my articles.
  2. I can click the 'Write an article' button and it will take me to the LinkedIn Publishing page, and I can start penning pristine prose there.
  3. I can click the headline and view analytics on my articles or shares.

But I still cannot view a list of my articles. I can't.

  • If I go to the Publishing page, and if I click the 'More' dropdown, then voila, I can see that I have finally found what I was looking for. So will you too.
Why? Why make it so darn tough to find your own articles?
  • By design? Unlikely.
  • Oversight? Likely. A miss, from both product management and UX. Why is an important features such as this so difficult to find? It is not even available from the home page. Why is not anyone talking about discoverability? What about the scent of information? Nielsen, Cooper, Pirolli, anyone?
Solution? Fix it. Fast.



[this post first appeared in LinkedIn on June 29th, 2017]

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Dark Cloud of the H1-B Fallout for Indian Companies: Layoffs or Reduced Valuations

India's second-largest IT company, Infosys, put out a press release on the 2nd of May, 2017 (link), that it would be hiring "10,000 American Workers Over the Next Two Years and establish four new Technology and Innovation Hubs across the country focusing on cutting-edge technology areas, including artificial intelligence, machine learning, user experience, emerging digital technologies, cloud, and big data."
The first hub, the Infosys press release stated, was expected to open by August in Indiana, which coincidentally is also the home state of the US Vice President, and which would create 2,000 new jobs in the state.
Infosys wasted no time in advertising for jobs in the United States, prominently linking it to its announcement. Nor was there any dearth of tweets on social media site Twitter to give this news more amplification - see this, this, this, this, or this.

While this is certainly good news for the United States and for its President Donald Trump's goal of making American "Great Again", the impact on outsourcing companies like Infosys is likely to be less positive.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Oracle Looking to Buy Accenture? Stranger Things Have Happened.

Image credit: pixels.com
The Register reported that Oracle may be exploring the "feasibility of buying multi-billion dollar consultancy Accenture."

To summarize the numbers involved here, Oracle had FY16 revenues of $37 billion, net income of $8.9 billion, and a market cap of $180 billion.

On the other hand, Accenture had FY16 revenues of US$34.8 billion, net income of $4.1 billion, and a market cap of $77 billion.

Some questions that come to mind:
  1. Why? Oracle buying NetSuite in 2016 made sense. Oracle buying Salesforce would make even more sense. Oracle buying a management consulting and professional services company, and that too one with more than a quarter million employees, on the face of it, makes little sense. Would it help Oracle leapfrog Amazon's AWS cloud business? Would it help Oracle go after a new market segment? The answers are not clear, at all.
  2. Who would be in charge of this combined entity? Both have similar revenues, though Accenture has a market cap that is less than half Oracle's and a workforce that is roughly three times Oracle's. The cultural meshing itself would prove to be a challenge. Mark Hurd, one of two CEOs of Oracle (the other CEO is Safra Catz, a former investment banker), has the experience running a large, heterogeneous organization. Prior to his stint at Oracle, he was credited with making the HP and Compaq merger work. At Oracle, however, he has not run software product development, which has been run by Thomas Kurian, and who reports to Larry Ellison, and not Hurd. A merger between Oracle and Accenture would place an even greater emphasis on synergies between Oracle's software division and Accenture's consulting business.
  3. Oracle would need to spend close to $100 billion to buy Accenture, if it does. How would it finance it, even assuming it spends all its $68 billion in cash to do so? Keep in mind that its largest acquisition was in the range of $10 billion. The financial engineering would be staggering. It helps that it has a former investment banker as one of two CEOs.
  4. Will Oracle make Accenture focus on the Oracle red stack of software products and applications - both on-premise and in the cloud? If yes, it would need a much smaller-sized workforce than Accenture has. That in turn would diminish the value of Accenture to Oracle, and make the likely sticker price of $100 billion look even costlier.
  5. Is Oracle looking to become the IBM of the twenty-first century? It's certainly been a public ambition of Larry Ellison. In 2009, he said he wanted to pattern Oracle after Thomas Watson Jr's IBM, "combining both hardware and software systems." If Oracle keeps Accenture as a business unit free to pursue non-Oracle deals, does it mean Oracle is keen on morphing into a modern-day avatar of IBM and IBM Global Services, offering hardware, software, and professional services - all under one red, roof?
  6. Is Oracle serious about such a merger? An acquisition of this size seems more conjecture than in the realms of possibility, at least as of now. One is reminded of the time in 2003 when Microsoft explored the possibility of buying SAP. Those discussions went nowhere, and the idea was dropped. Combining two behemoths is no easy task, even for a company like Oracle, that has stitched together almost 50 acquisitions in just the last five years.
  7. If such an acquisition did go through, there would likely be few anti-trust concerns. That's a big "if".
  8. Stranger things have happened in the software industry, like HP buying Autonomy.
  9. I hope the Register piece was not an example of an early April Fool's joke.
(HT Sangram Aglave whose LinkedIn post alerted me to this article)

I first published this in LinkedIn Pulse on April 1, 2017.

© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal.

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Amazon Launches Prime in India. Can Flipkart Stay ‘First’?

O
n the 27th of June, 2016, Amazon launched the first of its first AWS (Amazon Web Services) data centers in India, in Mumbai.

Amazon India announcing the launch of Prime (July 26, 2016) 
Less than a month later, on the 26th of July, 2016, Amazon launched Amazon Prime in India. After a free, trial period of 60 days, customers would be able to sign up for what it calls a “special, introductory price” of ₹499 a year. Prime Video was not included in Prime at the time of launch.




Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Flipkart and the Executive Revolving Door

T
he contrast could not have been more striking, or poignant.
2017 began on a sombre note for Flipkart, when it announced on the 9th of Jan that Kalyan Krishnamurthy had been named CEO, and its current CEO Binny Bansal would become group CEO. It was the Indian e-commerce startup's third CEO in less than one year.
Three days later, on the 12th, Amazon let it be known via a press release that it intended "to grow its full-time U.S.-based workforce from 180,000 in 2016 to over 280,000 by mid-2018." To let that sink in, Amazon, already a company with a 180,000 employees in the US, would add another hundred-thousand full-time employees in eighteen months. Media was all over the news.

The battle for dominance of the Indian e-commerce market continues well into its third year. For all practical purposes this battle began in earnest only after Amazon entered India in 2013, and since then it has transformed into a brutal, no-holds barred, fifteen-round slugfest between Flipkart and Amazon. Yes, there is SnapDeal that is entering its end-game (there are talks of a merger between Paytm's marketplace and SnapDeal and of senior-level exits amidst rumours of a cash-crunch), there is ShopClues that has had to defer its IPO plans, and an e-commerce tragedy by the name of IndiaPlaza that was among the earliest e-commerce entities, which survived the dot-com bust of 2001, and yet folded up in a most ignominious manner. Ever since Amazon entered India in 2013, it notched up one success after another against the Indian behemoth, Flipkart. Flipkart went from strength to strength when it came to valuations even as it reeled from one blow to another in the market. Flipkart's party finally entered its long-expected yet still-painful endgame in 2016. For Amazon the costs have been equally staggering - billions of dollars sunk into its Indian operations, promises of billions more to be spent, break-even years and years away, and almost every last penny of profits from its parent company being shoveled into its Indian outpost.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Flipkart: Million-Dollar Hiring Mistakes

Flipkart: Million-Dollar Hiring Mistakes Translate Into Billion-Dollar Valuation Erosions

As the week drew to a close, a story that broke headlines in the world of Indian e-commerce was the departure of Flipkart’s Chief Product Officer, Punit Soni. Rumours had started swirling about Punit Soni’s impending exit since the beginning of the year (link), almost immediately after Mukesh Bansal had taken over from Binny Bansal as Flipkart’s CEO (link).

Punit Soni’s LinkedIn headline
Punit Soni was among a clutch of high-profile hires made by Flipkart in 2015, rumoured to have been paid a million dollar salary (amounting to 6.2 crores at then prevailing currency exchange rates — see this and this). This was in addition to any stock options he and other similar high-profile hires earned.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Privacy - InMobi Pays $1M In Penalties

image credit: WDnet Agency, pexels.com
In 2015 I had written a series of articles on the e-commerce battle between Flipkart and Amazon, one of which focused on why companies are so obsessed with apps Mobile Apps: There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy.
Now it turns out that InMobi has agreed to pay a US$950,000 in civil penalties to "settle charges it violated federal law." InMobi is described by the US Federal Trade Commission complaint thus: "describes itself as the “world’s largest independent mobile advertising company.” In February 2015, Defendant reported its advertising network had reached over one billion unique mobile devices, with 19% of those devices located in North America, and had served 6 billion ad requests per day."
According to the FTC complaint [bold emphasis mine], "Even if the consumer had restricted an application’s access to the location API, until December 2015, Defendant still tracked the consumer’s location and, in many instances, served geo-targeted ads, by collecting information about the WiFi networks that the consumer’s device connected to or that were in-range of the consumer’s device. "


Thursday, October 01, 2015

Rise of the Robots - Review

Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
Martin Ford

Part 1 of 3

"I'm smart; you're dumb. I'm big; you're small. I'm right; you're wrong. And there's nothing you can do about it."

Thus spake Harry Wormwood in the movie "Matilda". This well could be the message that robots will have for us in the not too distant future. The dramatic improvements in the speed, the accuracy, and the areas in which computers have begun to comprehensively outperform humans leads one to believe that while a so-called singularity may well be some ways off, the more immediate effects of this automation are already being felt in permanent job losses. In a country like India, which has used digital technologies quite effectively in the last decade and a half to grow a $150 billion IT-BPM industry, the impact could be devastating - especially where an estimated 10 million people are employed.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Flipkart, ecommerce, machine learning, and free advice

I wrote about the obsession of Flipkart (and Myntra) with "mobile-only" without even having an iPad-optimized app! I also talked about the stunning advances being made in voice-search by using machine learning, cognitive learning, natural language processing, even as voice-based search capabilities of e-commerce companies - including Amazon - remain abysmal. Finally, I also included several use-cases that these companies need to work on incorporating into their capabilities.

That piece, Flipkart, Focus and Free Advice, appeared in DNA on June 27th, 2015.


My earlier pieces on the same topic:
  1. Flipkart vs Amazon: Beware the Whispering Death - 20th April '15 (blog, dna)
  2. Mobile Apps: There’s Something (Profitable) About Your Privacy - 18th April '15  (blog, dna)
  3. Mobile advertising and how the numbers game can be misleading - 14th April '15  (blog, dna)
  4. Is Flipkart losing focus - 12th April '15  (blog, dna)

Flipkart, Focus, and Free Advice – Shipping Charges Also Waived!

What is one to make of a statement like this - “India is not mobile-first, but mobile-only country[1]”? Especially so if it is from the co-founder of the largest ecommerce company in India, and it turns out the company does not even have an app for the Apple iPad?

I have written at length on the distractions that seem to have been plaguing Flipkart and why it cannot afford to drop its guard in this fiercely contested space[2] - especially in light of all the noise surrounding its mobile ambitions. Somewhat paradoxically, this post is about offering advice to Flipkart that calls for some diversification!

As a logical next step, I wanted to take a look at Flipkart’s mobile apps – both on the iOS and Android platforms – to see how well they were executing on their very bold ambitions. As an aside, I also wanted to see if these (and competitive) mobile apps were leveraging all the computing power now available on tap inside these tiny devices. After all, apart from the recent – and amazing – advances Google has made in its voice-based search capabilities[3], there was this stunning demo from Hound[4] that gave a glimpse into the huge advances that voice-recognition, search, and machine-learning technologies have made in the last decade.