Wednesday, February 29, 2012


There was a time when information are scarce. News took forever to travel. Now with a a few clicks and keystrokes, you can know a lot.

Information is no longer scarce. Ability to apply the information and change habits is still scarce. Really 'grokking' concepts is still scarce. Initiative to act on the information is still scarce.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The rise of the subscription model

It seems like there there is a new E-Commerce website with a subscription model on Tech Crunch every week! Just one week ago, Lost Crates expanded their subscription model to includes verticals other than what they had started with first: boutique stationery goods. There is a pretty good list of subscription services here. I started wondering: what is behind this new trend?

Let's first consider what job customers hire these websites to do? In one word - curation. Consider the example of Bespoke Post, launched by my Kellogg classmates, Rishi and Steve.

Bespoke Post sends you hand-picked goods, which enable you to 'Turn into a gentleman. One box at a time.'  And they send you a new box of 'Awesome'. Their marketing message is simple and brilliant. Their persona seems to be - wait for it - 'Barney Stinson.' For people who do not watch the show 'How I met your mother,' Barney is his early thirties and almost always wears a suit. He picks up women - all the time. And always has an opinion. And uses the word Awesome and Legendary a lot! Hence Bespoke Post's marketing message reads (at least to me) if you are a classy gentleman who like the fine things in life, subscribe to our service, and we will send you products that help you maintain your classiness. And it's all curated by us, so there is no effort on your part. And by the way, their products are super awesome!

Next let's consider, what is behind the rise of so many subscription model E-Commerce businesses?

1. Subscription models have been around forever; these businesses are online versions of traditional subscription businesses.Wine of the month club comes to mind.

2. Such businesses can start producing revenue quicker than let's say a marketplace. What do you need to get started? A cool concept, a good website and some amount of inventory and a clear value proposition. Layer on the marketing on top.

3. There is a good amount of predictability. Only order a little more than you think you need for that month - since you are seeing numbers month to month, you can predict the demand for next month to a reasonable degree. If you under order - back order the goods, please the order with the supplier, and have them shipped out a little later.

4. Most of them are buying from small suppliers, so they have enough negotiating power to get good margins, and also shift some of the risk over to the suppliers

5. The cost of customer acquisition is lower in this new era of social media marketing. And then there is affiliate marketing - just offer your customers $10 off for very friend that signs up, and you have another channel going

6.  As the number of such businesses will show, there are enough number of niches to be filled

7. On the customer side, another value proposition is surprise. As an example, Birchbox sends 4-5 samples/month for $10. What the samples would be? That's a surprise that's eagerly awaited by customers

8. The perceived price from a customer's perspective is lower; Psychologically speaking, $19.95/month seems much lower than $240/year.

9. I think the biggest factor is that these businesses give the founders a chance to share something they are passionate about. For example another friend Gautam, from the same Startup Leadership Program batch as I, launched Naturebox, which sends healthy Snacks daily. He passionate about healthy food, and the startup enables him to share this with his customers.Read this excerpt from his blog:

"As a co-founder of NatureBox, I’m especially pleased to introduce you to our company and thank you for your visit. The NatureBox mission of helping you eat healthier without changing your daily routine, has great personal meaning to me. I grew up overweight – weighing more than 200 pounds at the age of 12 – and struggled with obesity for most of my life. As a child, I would come home from school and spend hours eating junk food. My weight struggles were preventable if I had healthier options and better eating habits. Through hard work and dedication, I lost weight by focusing on healthy foods. Now I am dedicating my life to helping others discover a healthier you."

But as the number of these business rise, what will enable each one to be successful?

1. Scale - is the market big enough? Probably boutique stationary goods is not!

2. A clear marketing message - as in what do you provide, and who do you provide it for? Can the customer easily recognize that the service is ideal for them?

2. Trust - do your customers trust that you will send high quality items? Startups often prove this by showcasing examples of things they have sent before

4. Additional revenue sources - even with a large number of customers, the business model might not support a large company. Additional revenue sources come in handy here. A prime example is Birchbox's marketplace - if you like the samples they send, you can purchase a full size version of the product right from their website.

So go on, find the subscription service right for you now!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012 - great concept, terrible design!

I recently came across a new e-commerce site called This is how describes itself " will be an open, online retail platform for consumer packaged goods, focused primarily on linking manufacturers of essential household stuff like tooth brushes, toilet paper, trash bags etc. to end consumers directly." - Crunchbase.

I was intrigued - why Why not - doesn't has the same variety of goods? What do you gain, rather than or Then I saw's crunchbase page.

"Consumers currently lack a convenient way to shop for household essentials on the web, while manufacturers of consumer packaged goods are in the market for a fresh alternative to the large bricks-and-mortar retailing services. The model will be unique both in terms of how goods are ordered/distributed and how consumer packaged goods companies can target, incentivize and personalize offers to consumers"

Once I explored the website I did begin to understand the merits. See for example the page for the Cat litter deodorizer. It clearly lays out how long the product typically lasts, reviews from customers etc. Some other pages also laid out the green rank of products etc. The bottom line - the site is custom designed for household products, and so gains a significant advantage over other sites like amazon.

Thinking of in a jobs to be done framework, the site is enabling users to shop for household products online rather than go to the store. Quoting from a HBS working knowledge paper, there are a few dimensions to this framework:

"With few exceptions, every job people need or want to do has a social, a functional, and an emotional dimension. If marketers understand each of these dimensions, then they can design a product that's precisely targeted to the job. In other words, the job, not the customer, is the fundamental unit of analysis for a marketer who hopes to develop products that customers will buy."

In terms of functional dimension, the site does well in terms of how it enables viewing of various aspects of household products important to the user e.g., how long they last, how green they are etc. There is also a product rank section that lets you see how other products in the same category are handled. This is something that amazon is likely going to find hard to do, given that they have a much larger variety of products, and products can be listed by merchants in the marketplace. So far, so good.

The social element is well handled - in terms of reviews appearing instantly on the tight, letting you see what the other users think of the product. Another aspect of both social and emotional element is the budget; the question is there on a lot of people's minds - am I paying more than others for the same stuff? The site shows a tab called My Budget which compares your expenses to the average household.

There are two things that the site does badly. One is design
. See the following screen shots: in the first one I hover over one of the category icons. As I go to select a subcategory, I move the mouse left - and the category to the left gets selected. I had seen such issues with websites designed in 2000 - it seems that they did hire a designer from that era!

The second thing that seems to be forced is social networking. There is a section called MyFriends - where you can share activity related to your favorite products in the neighborhood. The web is full of places where people highlight products that they love - but these products carry a lot more emotional value for them. Whether it is music, movies, books - sharing these highlights an aspect of the user's personality.  I completely understand reviews - but social sharing of toilet paper and detergent is unlikely to excite anyone. I might be proven wrong, but I doubt it.

It would be certainly interesting to see how does. I haven't made my first purchase yet, but do plan to soon, and post more thoughts on the site.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

GTD rediscovered

I have always been a pretty organized person when it comes to by Todo list is concerned; I know exactly what I need to accomplish each day, how much time I need etc. But recently I re-read the classic book 'Getting Things Done' by David Allen. I discovered some key aspects of GTD I had been neglecting:

1. The main purpose of GTD is to free you of thoughts about the small tasks that still need to be accomplished, so that you can focus on the one thing you are doing right then. That can be only done if you know that the other small things are captured, and will be reviewed and taken care of according to priority. That means - pick a task, and keep going till you get it done. Don't look at your task list to optimize every single moment of life. If you are reviewing a presentation say, and it takes a minute to save, don't open the task list to see if you can get anything done within that one minute. Breathe, chill and continue to work on the task. Actually closing the browser tab that shows my Todo list (I use toodledo) helps me take my mind off other tasks as well.

2. Another big change I have made is organizing tasks by context. So if I am at an airport waiting for my flight, I can look up my context called 'Phone Call,' and make the phone calls that I have been neglecting. This also hides all the tasks that cannot be done at that moment; so my task for 'Pick up Dry Cleaning,' which has a context of 'Tasks near Home' does not show up at work.

3. I also stopped using due dates unless absolutely necessary. Before this, I would 'guess' a due date for a task, then be disappointed if I did not completely finish the task. Now I just set start dates - dates before which I will not begin working on the task. Then I make a decision on what task to do based on what context I am in, how much energy I have etc. This has helped me get the unnecessary pressure off me, and allowed me to focus on just doing whatever I can during the day. And paradoxically, I am getting more done!

4. I also have 75 odd tasks in the 'Someday/Maybe' list. Things that I would love to do, but cannot do so at the current time. These include 'Write a Book.' Just knowing that I am capturing this information, and review it periodically to see if I can bring them into the active task list keeps them off my mind.

5. Most importantly, I have started focusing on the Next Action. Let's take an example of a task from my task list below, which said 'File taxes.' And then I will wait till close to the deadline before even getting started. Why? Well there are a substantial number of moving parts. Now File taxes is a project, which has a sequence of tasks that includes 'Find W-2s', 'Collect 1099 forms', 'Enter tax data', 'Review' etc. They key is that the Next Action in a project should be the next physical action you are going to take, and not a fuzzy goal with several tasks yet to be figured out.

So GTD is great; but I do want to mention a major pitfall. GTD has the potential of making you a task completing machine. Have a few minutes while walking from the bus stop to home? Find some task to do! But slightly changing what  William Henry Davies said, "We must make time to stand and stare."

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Do introverts dislike NYC?

I lived in NYC for one summer. And did not particularly like it! In fact, I felt tired very quickly every day. Now I have some explanation why.

Today, I was on the subway, while reading the book 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.' Ironically, the book was explaining a fundamental trait that correlates highly with introversion: high reactiveness. Essentially, everyone has a sweet spot of how much stimulus from the environment they like to take. This includes noise, light, smell etc. Now the more introverted you are, the more you react to the stimulus, and the less of it you prefer.

I have always been just ever so slightly introverted. My latest MBTI scores rank me slightly introverted, just off the middle between introverted and extroverted. (In contrast, when they compared me on planned vs. playing by ear, I am extremely planned. Knock your socks off planned - or rather, fold your socks and put them away in the correct drawer planned).

Anyhow, back to introversion - NYC is just too stimulating. There is the noise of the subway, the conductor announcing loudly, someone singling, too many people - just too much going on. I much prefer the relative calm of Boston. No, not the calm of suburbs - I hate the calm of suburbs. Just the calm of a city that is not that crazy. Even Arlington is fine. And this, coming from a guy, who grew up in Delhi. Try going to Karol Bagh; you will understand.

And that is why I love Boston and love to visit NYC occasionally. And while we have all sorts of people living in NYC, I would argue that on average, they are much more extroverted than the rest of the country. So I am going to get my NYC fix, and head back to Boston.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Niceness as a competitive advantage

I was at a startup pitch event recently. The format was typical American Idol. The judges - typically VCs or angel investors - gave frank, honest comments which would be super useful for the Entrepreneurs. Everyone was happy.

But there was one VC who was nice. And not just nice - super nice. Even when the Entrepreneur was not up to the mark, he offered words of encouragement. And gave constructive criticism in a nice way. He seemed to realize that this work means a lot for the Entrepreneur, and must be appreciated, even if it is not ready for primetime yet.

Keep in mind that the nice VC did not hold back on criticism at all - far from it. He just expressed it in a kind, sympathetic manner.

I think this niceness is a competitive advantage in today's world; people who were watching the interaction will probably go to the nice VC first. And when an invest-able deal comes around, the Entrepreneur will likely pick him (if there are multiple choices) - because the VC will be great to work with.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Quiet Bloggers - an observation

According to the book 'Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking', people who are introverts are likely to express themselves more in social media - especially blogs. This brought to mind my fellow B-School bloggers from Kellogg - Orlando (with two blogs now), Dino and Jeremy. All of which were part of the Clear Admit top 10 student bloggers. None of us seem super introverted, but I think on the balance, all 4 are just slightly introverted. I know these results probably don't count as statistically significant, but Susan Cain seems to be on to something!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Thoughts on Pinterest

Pinterest is the hot new thing. The new kid on the blog. The new story in town.

On hearing about it from multiple people, I decided to give it a shot. I actually had to wait to be let in and create an account - which made it all the more desired for me! After spending some time in it, I have started to see what makes it so special. Here are some thoughts:

1. Design - obviously, the design is super awesome! But what exactly about the design is so awesome?

As this article would tell you, it is the infinite scrolling and the masonry style layout. Infinite scrolling is a technique used by several new websites, including Facebook. There is no pagination; as you scroll down, the page just refreshes with more content. No effort required on part of the user. The masonry style layout, as the article says, " the most efficient utilization of space possible given varying image heights. It overcomes past layout hurdles and takes vertical height into account when laying out the images, thereby creating a super tight, puzzle piece flow of images on the page. "Simply put, the images are laid out in an efficient manner, and you can scroll forever till you find something that captures your attention.

I will add one more thing; it is the way images "pop." Forgive me for being non-technical, but I am no UI designer. I notice that the contrast of the images to the rest of the page, including backgrounds, comments etc. is so good, that as I scroll down, my eye can dart from one image to another without being interrupted by anything else. That is what makes the scrolling so fast and efficient. And the more I scroll, the more I am likely to discover something interesting. And spend more time on it.

2. Positioning and messaging - The positioning and messaging of the site is outstanding. Let's start with the name - Pinterest. I think of pin and interest. I am slightly confused, but interested. And what do they mean by interest? Is it the money I earn from a savings account, or things I like to do/see/experience?

But the confusion disappears the moment I enter the site. It's your virtual pinboard - ah now I get it! I can pin the things I like on the web, just like I would pin clippings from a magazine to a real-life pinboard. The messaging is simple like other great startups, especially Dropbox, which describe itself as a 'Magic pocket in the cloud.' You could drop anything (file) in it, and pick it up from anywhere. Such simple, intuitive messaging ties technology to real life objects, and turns skeptic visitors into people just waiting to try the product out.

3. Get them started - It is so easy to get started with Pinterest. And I don't mean just signup. I mean you have pins and boards to look at the moment you are on the site. The homepage takes you to the most popular pins on Pinterest. If you have friends on Facebook who are using Pinterest, you are immediately subscribed to them. You can look at what they are interested in, repin the pins, and find similar users/boards and follow them.

4. And keep them coming back - And of course, Pinterest makes it easy to share pins on Twitter, Facebook, blogs etc. Which means even if I have not visited the site, I will see the Pins in some feed and will visit again

So am I an avid user of Pinterest. Not at all actually. Why? Well the most popular pictures are women's clothes, accessories etc. I am not trying to be sexist; it is just currently dominated by items of interest to women. I am sure us tech and business geeks will catch up. Till then, I continue to visit Pinterest occasionally, and follow any news on them very closely.

Experimenting with Pinterest

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Define your reality

I continue to be more and more influenced 'Happiness at Work.' One of the concepts that the book lays out is of 'Alternative realities.' The basic premise is that there is no matter how you look at the world, it is one reality, not the reality. You can change your mental model - or how you look at the world - and change what you define as your reality.

An example; I woke up the other day worried about all the things I needed to do that day. I hurriedly got to my computer, started answering emails, doing whatever I could to get the quick tasks done soon so that I have a manageable workload. In reality, I was far behind.

But then I got a reminder email for one ritual I have established - called the morning quiet time. I spend at least 15 quiet minutes every morning, either just sitting with a notebook, reflecting and writing my thoughts down, or reading some notes from on Evernote, which contain some daily reminder. I do this with a beverage (typically chai and coffee, not a bloody mary:)). I look outside, enjoy looking at the morning sunrise, look around in the room, at the cat who is typically either begging for food or sunbathing! This routine helps me slow down, and defined my an alternative reality. Which this day was, that I had 10 urgent tasks to take care of, but only 2 important ones. And if the urgent tasks did not get done - really nothing significant would change. I might have a few responses go out later, a blog post written one day later. And there was more than enough time to do the two important tasks. Life was good!

Whether I am able to carry on this routine when I have to travel for work again - that remains to be seen. It might happen later in the day - but I am committed to this short, but precious quiet time. The time to define my reality.