Blog Holiday!

Hi Folks,

In case anyone is wondering why I am not posting/responding to comments etc – am away on a much awaited vacation

See you all post 1st week June!

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Entrepreneur WATCH:The Travel Business

This is a new feature that I hope readers will enjoy. With my interest in entrepreneurship and becoming one myself, selfishly, I thought it is a good way to feature upcoming small businesses here, and learn from them 🙂

People who’ve dared to follow through on their dreams and strike out on their own. Except for a few communities who’ve always been known for business families, the great Indian Middle Class has always prized a steady job in established professions. This generation is different though, and we are seeing a lot of first-time entrepreneurs in many fields. The Entrepreneur Watch Series will bring you some of these stories, not all well-known, some in little known fields, but all interesting and enlightening for those of us who want to walk this road.

And so, I give you Deepa Krishnan, co-founder of Filter Coffee Tours and Mumbai Magic, personalised travel offerings in India. Deepa has an unusual background for someone who has entered the travel industry, and that was one of the things which intrigued me. I’ll stop here and let you read more about Deepa in her own words, in this interview I did with her.

To start with, it would be good to know a little about yourself. What was your academic/work background? (Any specific experiences/training that moved you towards this industry?)

MBA from IIM Calcutta, marketing and finance. Consulting career in banking technology. Clients included Citibank, Standard Chartered, Morgan Stanley, Barclays Bank. Was based in Chennai for 6 years. My overseas consulting clients who visited Chennai would ask me for advice on sightseeing and shopping…and I became a de-facto local expert!

One client said to me “Deepa, you know there’s a business idea sitting in here, you should do something” And I realized there was opportunity in the market for offering professional tours to business travelers. No one really was catering to the busy executive, visiting India on work, who had an evening or weekend free and wanted to see the city. So set up Filter Coffee Tours (with a partner, Zuleika Nazneen). Its now been three years. Then when I moved to Mumbai, I set up Mumbai Magic. My partner now runs Chennai.

What is it about you as a person that led you to start this?

A love for history and culture, people skills, sales skills, network, I had them all!

You mentioned working as a consultant for the banking industry. Quite a distance from travel entrepreneur! Where do the worlds meet? (Any skills/networks from one to the other?)

I was well networked into several banks, BPOs, finance companies and software companies in Chennai. It helped me get customers really quickly, because I had already been informally doing tours for visitors.

Tell us more! What was the initial experience like? What were the hiccups?

There haven’t been any hiccups actually. The business is doing well, and I’m happy with it.

Moving along, how do you see yourself competing against the innumerable tour operators who offer guided tours in various cities? Where do you score against them?

For a country like ours, there aren’t enough tour operators doing professional, insightful researched tours! There are more touts than guides, especially in the “tourist belts”. There are rip-offs, commissions and scams. I’m hoping we’ll stand head and shoulders above this, both in terms of the quality of the tour delivered as well as the honesty and integrity of the guides

I wish I had more competition, not less!

Between 30-50% of the profits from my tours go to charity, to akanksha. I also offer free tours and discounted tours for people who are doing NGO work/research into slums.

I’m promoting “responsible tourism” by involving community people in the tours e.g. our tour of Worli fishing village uses a lady from a local fishing family as the guide. Similarly the Dharavi tour uses a local person. The idea is for money spent in the country to go into the hands of local people and benefit the local economy.

Is there a particular profile of traveler that you target?

Primary market (for personalized tours by car)
– Indian companies – these are the people in local corporate and banks and software companies who receive visitors and who are looking for someone who will provide reliable hospitality for senior visitors. It is an untapped market.
– Business travelers – people for whom time is money, and who want an intelligent, insightful look into the country.
– High-end tourists – who want a high quality tour with great service, personalized itineraries, and no mess-ups.

New target segments I have started
– Small group tours – 2-6 people. These are bazaar walks, heritage district walks, boat tours etc. No cars.
– Specialized tours – right now, I’m offering Cuisine Tours where you can visit an Indian home and take a lesson, or for larger groups, visit specialty restaurants and learn recipes.
– Travel Advisory services – I am the India representative for Your Safe Planet, a UK-based travel site that promotes responsible tourism.

How are you promoting the offering? How do your customers find you?

The Internet is amazing, isn’t it? People seem to find me. My blog helps a lot. It establishes credibility. I send out emails as well, to a mailing list.

For a five-month old venture (in Mumbai) I’ve had a lot of press coverage here. It came looking for me and not vice versa. Just finished shoot for a Travel Show for Discovery Travel Channel – will air in October in the US. Just did an interview with CNN, not sure when it will air. Current India Today issue also likely to have an interview.

How big is this venture now?

Five guides in Mumbai.
Three in Chennai.
Spanish, German and English language tours.

What next? More cities? Rural? How big do you plan to be? Tell us about your plans!

Opening a Delhi office this year. Might do more cities next year (Pune, Bangalore, Hyd). I’d like to grow to a group of 50 guides all over India in the next couple of years.

Want to do a sort of lec-dem format Bharatanatyam show for overseas audiences. And then expand this to other dance forms. More specialty tours – a cricket tour, or other theme-based tours

Good Luck to Deepa for all those plans! If you know of any other interesting stories, or would like to be featured here yourself, do mail me at aputhebirdATyahooDOTcom

Iqbal Ansari promotes Indian Culture

Dear Iqbal Ansari

Congratulations on proving to us that you have finally understood what should have been obvious to you long ago: That Indian Culture is The Mother of All Things. It prescribes what one may wear, what sort of artistic predilections one can have, and whether or not it is permissible to demonstrate affection physically, and with whom, and when. You have now taken this a step further to also include the ways in which one may earn one’s livelihood, also called as, women working post 8 p.m is not allowed as per Indian culture. Don’t let the Governor stop you!

Initially you made meek noises about safety, and it is for your own protection etc. Now you have seen the light and demolished all those flimsy excuses. Safety? Blah, not good enough a reason to ban women from working. Indian culture? Voila! Thats what it is. Indian culture prescribed that all good Indian women must stay at home except when allowed to go out on life-saving errands (hospital workers etc), or when the money they bring in is too much. (IT/BT/ ITES etc). In all other cases, they must be home post 8.

I wonder you are restricting yourself to the workplace. How about going out and having fun after 8? (Oh yes, did you know that, there are actually wicked women frequenting pubs after 8, although let me assure you, only until 11.30 when your government’s much appreciated moral laws shut all pubs down). Are you sure these women are not flouting Indian culture by having fun after 8 o clock? What about their families, who will gasp die if they are not home to serve and “nurture” them? So you see, there are still loopholes in your law.

Indian culture, as you well know, is a monolith. It never changes over time, and it is uniformly applicable to everyone, in particular, female citizens, who are the flagbearers and carriers of culture. I feel it my duty therefore to point out all the areas which you have left uncovered in your quest to promote Indian culture.

I must point therefore all the women who work in those unorganised industries which you really haven’t considered. I hear that there are many such women who work as domestic help. Some of these women even cook dinner for their employers, act as full-time home-helpers and return home only after 8 o clock! I bet you haven’t heard of that. Shouldn’t you step in to help these women too? Farmers too – I believe this is one profession where both men and women work, and depending on the season and the amount of sowing, cropping etc involved, they do step in to work at any time. When will you be looking into that, could you please tell us? I hope all farmers who involve their wives or daughters in any such work beyond 8 pm will be severely punished by you.

And politicians! I am suprised you have so little consideration for your own colleagues. We hear that many of them undertake pretty strenous journeys especially during election time. I hope we are going to hear an amendment soon, that rallies addressed by female politicians will not be allowed post 6 o clock, so that they can finish well in time. (We all know how late these things start, ofcourse…)

As a professional who sometimes travels on work, I confess I have a vested interest in how you plan to measure work during travel times. I have to say, a little ashamed though I am, when I travel on work, if I have nothing else to do post 8 p.m, I sometimes do switch on my laptop and resume working. I also sometimes need to catch flights post 8 p.m, and therefore need to be at a public place after your curfew time. I wonder if your law also counts this as work? Maybe, if I am beyond your state borders, it won’t count? Within state borders though, your law must be enforced strictly, lest Indian culture crumples up into a sad little ball and dies in depression. I propose therefore, that all buses, from Mysore to Bangalore, for example, should not allow any women on, after 8 o clock. What if these women dared to work in Mysore till 7 and return back late? The temerity! Let them finish by 6…or quit, I say!

I hope you realise how monumental a task you’ve undertaken. Safeguarding Indian culture is no easy thing, and extends into every area, once you’ve started. My letter is a humble attempt to point out the extremes to which you will need to go, if you want to truly stop women everywhere from working after 8. I know you are facing a lot of flak for this, which you say you truly don’t understand. I don’t too. What could be more childish? I mean, these people actually think women can make the decisions for themselves. C’mon on! We all know women are too important to be allowed to make such decisions themselves.

Long live Indian Culture!
Yours, Cultural Fan(atic)

Brand Owned Communities

I’ve been very intrigued by the way some Indian brands have recently started to use social networking as a tool for themselves. The Sunsilk GOG has been the most prominent of these, with its high decibel advertising on TV, print, and even outdoor.

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I am not sure if such high spends work for the brand – ofcourse getting into social networking may help the brand position itself as much younger and ‘with it’. But will it really translate into sufficient additional sales? It would be interesting to know how HLL measures the efficacy versus conventional sales methods.

My own hitch with this tool is that they are quite tightly defined by the brand’s needs rather than user’s. Users often create their own communities at places like orkut and myspace, where they define what they want to do, how they interact with others. Do brand owned spaces really offer that option? GOG for example, is clearly a girls-only space. Plus, the design, focus on beauty etc means that it is primarily meant to lean towards fashion, conventionally girlie talk. By definition, this is restricting. I mean, how much can girls get together and talk about “girl-only” topics? If we assume that there is a limited amount of time that each individual has, then he/she would rather spend it at a more open space, where one can meet all sorts of people. Sites like GOG and the recently launched spillurdil.com are probably more “lurk” sites where people stay for a bit, then the interest wanes off. Going through the message boards and the “gang blogs”, one really gets very little sense of any camaraderie or shared interests here.

If Sunsilk really wants the site to have not just “registered” but active users, maybe it makes sense to have some bloggers recruited by them, who participate on the site with a better quality of writing and thus pull more active users. Think someone like the Fugly Team! Then atleast, the site really seems like a fashion leader, rather than a dull sort of place for girls to do pretty much nothing. Lets face it, most average users are not going to contribute sufficiently for the site (and therefore the brand) to be a “hot place”. (One sees comments on the message board, about the site going cold….)

It could be a function of the execution ofcourse. Theoretically, a brand could probably create a more inclusive space, but then, would it answer the brand’s own needs? Cornetto currently is all about romance, hence spillurdil. It would be interesting to see how that develops. Will it develop into a space for all young adults? Its not clear really what advantage they offer over places like fropper, which have the advantage of being advertising free. (Well most of the brand owned sites don’t advertise directly, but the discreet presence is there nevertheless)

I still haven’t really made up my mind regarding these initiatives. It seems as though there must be some benefit to them, but its not clear really, what GOG does for Sunsilk, as opposed to say, trendy advertising for haircare products like Garnier….For a more detailed review, read this excellent piece on the WATblog on all of HLL’s online initiatives.

Feed Issues

A friend who usually reads this blog via feed, informed me that he was not getting updates, and until he visited the blog, assumed that I had not been posting regularly.

Anyone else who reads via feed, if you happen to visit directly, please drop me a note to tell me if you have been receiving these posts in feed as well, or not. In which case, I will need to check what the hell is the issue. Grrrr.

Hoarding Watch : ColorPlus

I confess – I am a big fan of outdoor advertising. I know it clutters up the landscape horribly, but I love analysing the ads and images on my way to work or anywhere else.

I confess too, that this hoarding from ColorPlus, the men’s clothing brand has me a little perplexed.

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What’s the message? That ColorPlus offers women’s clothing too now? In which case ok. But somehow, ColorPlus has this image as a western clothing brand, while the fabrics they’ve shown here don’t seem to match that. Is it supposed to be Indo-Western? Readers, please decode… its all too much, as they say! (atleast for me!)

Karnataka government sends women back where they belong

Further Update: Well, earlier I thought the minister had overstepped himself and shot off his mouth. Looks like not. This retrograde move is being followed through seriously. Fellow Blogger Abhipraya updates that the government is actually getting the law amended to allow this monstrosity to pass.

My original post

So the Karnataka government (under whose jurisdiction I live, unfortunately), has decided that women will not be allowed to work night shifts, except in sectors such as ITES and hospitals. The ban is likely to come into effect from July. Now, this is the government, which stood by helpless as the city came to a halt after actor Rajkumar’s death, and which allowed a traffic light on top of a flyover. So one should not be surprised at any level of incompetency.

Still, the assumptions behind the move made my blood boil, when I read the headlines today. The streets are unsafe for women who work late at night. Bingo, put the women back where they belong, inside the four walls of home. Talk about punishing the victim. The move proposes that employers should either provide transport for women working late shifts, or move the women to other shifts, and if neither is possible, oh, ofcourse, they have to quit. Cos they are women, you see, they cant possibly need these jobs.

If the government is so worried about the safety of women, why not place the onus on the employers and make a night drop for all workers mandatory? And this can apply to men too. There have been enough cases of men being mugged and murdered on roads. How about taking the focus away from moral policing and shutting down bars at 11.30? These policemen could be deployed to make our roads safer. How about increasing the police strength in the first place? Everyone knows our police are horribly understaffed. Given more manpower, they will probably do a much better job. How about allowing private operators to run minibuses/vans? If smart operators see a market for transporting night-time workers, they will run vehicles. Today, there is no night-time public transport to speak of, when the government has a monopoly on it.

Ofcourse, implementing any of these will take time, money and work. All of which the government is reluctant to spend. In the meanwhile, you women, just stay at home and do us all a favor, will you!

Note: For those of you who insist that it is indeed unsafe for women, yes, thank you, we know that. Let individual women decide if the benefits outweight the risks to them. Or ofcourse the government can intervene in any number of other ways, as mentioned above. There are also a number of other jobs, which are extremely hazardous to men – working in mines, ship-breaking yards. No one suggests that these dangerous jobs should be outlawed, cos, gasp there are men working in these jobs, who need them