Your very own Comic Strip

Looks like everyone is blogging these days, and using the new media (blogs, social networks) in different ways. Did you know Virgin Comics had a blog? Not just that, they’ve entered into a deal with MySpace to launch something called Coalitioncomix where MySpace users can have a say in whats being created. Basically, to the small extent of choosing from a set of given storylines and so on. I wouldn’t really call it a “user generated” exercise, since that would mean users actually getting involved in creating characters, total plot, graphics and so on. But yes, it probably will build a tremendous amount of visibility for Virgin comics through MySpace.

I wonder whats in it for the comic book creators. I somehow believe firmly that a wiki approach doesn’t work when it comes to creative work of this sort. Ofcourse this is far less ambitious than the penguin wiki novel project, but still, I doubt anything really worth reading will come out it. Comic buffs have derided it as just another stupid talent show though I really don’t think the objective is to generate fresh talent. It doesn’t offer enough room for that.

Like I said, its good publicity for Virgin and using a social networking platform, especially one as popular with young people as MySpace, will probably mean publicity to the right audience.

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Entrepreneur Watch – Language Solutions

Here comes the July installment of the Entrepreneur Watch! I hope to profile atleast one business a month from now on, so watch out for more interesting material. This month, I have on interview, Anurag Goel, Founder of Cactus Communications. Founded by Anurag and Abhishek Goel, Cactus is a company that started off providing English editing solutions for the Japanese market, and has now expanded into related areas as well. Prior to starting their own company, Anurag worked with McKinsey & Co. while Abhishek spent time in Tokyo as an in-house consultant for AIESEC, an experience that proved to have major consequences! I know Anurag briefly and was always intrigued to know more about a business that targeted a seemingly impenetrable market, Japan. So here we go…

To start with, it would be good to know a little about Cactus Communications. How old is it? How did the idea for the company originate?

Cactus started of as “Editage” in April 2002 and was officially formed in October 2002. So it has been about 5 years. The seed was laid when a friend of Abhishek’s (a researcher in Japan) asked him to edit a paper as a personal favor. The favor was done and incident promptly forgotten. Two years later when we were brainstorming on what businesses to enter, this came up as an idea again. And then we took it forward.

What would you say is the crux of the service that you offer?

We focus on providing English solutions of the highest quality. This spans English editing, writing, education and training.

Did you face any troubles starting up? How did you find your first clients?

The first 1.5 years were very difficult. We had identified a niche but we did not know how large the niche was. So there was always this nagging fear that we may be too specialized and is the market large enough.

Our first client was a friend of Abhishek’s. He introduced us to a few more clients. After this there were some very difficult business trips to Japan where we tried to convince people to give us work. All we had at that time was an office in an industrial estate, with 3 employees — we needed to create enough trust and credibility for clients to look beyond this obvious problem.

We learnt a lot from our first few clients and they have been invaluable in supporting us as we have grown.

Why was credibility an issue?

Credibility was an issue, especially in the initial stages. First, because we were a start-up and were trying to sell high value added professional services. Second, because we were based in India. The India-story in 2002-3 had not yet become an accepted one globally, especially not in Japan. And we were at a disadvantage in any new client discussion as we had to first explain why getting high quality English services from us was possible.

Tell us more about the journey – how has the company grown? The challenges that you face now – how are they different from what you faced while starting up?

Hmm… this is a big question. The first 2-3 years were very exciting and heady. It was about building and creating something from scratch. One was involved in all the action at the operational level and you could see immediate impact for your efforts. A lot of passion and self belief, some fear and a lot of perseverance.

Now the challenges are very different. We are about 140 people. The problem I find most interesting and difficult to fix is that of organizational design. How do you create something that can work as fast as a start-up and still grow sustainably?

The fact that our business model is largely retail (most of our clients are individuals) – makes it more complex to manage the growth. So, the challenges now are about managing growth so that we don’t lose the excitement from the initial days, we maintain performance levels and create a stable platform and system for the future.

Tell us a little about the market that you service. Traditionally most outsourcing firms in India look west, while you’ve gone East. How is this market different, what are its peculiarities?

Our primary market is Japan, which accounts for 80-85% of our business. In the last one year we have also made inroads into Korea and Taiwan. The market is more difficult to penetrate because of huge language barriers and cultural differences. So complete localization is very important for success – and that is difficult to execute as a foreign company. What I like about the market is that it is not as purely transaction oriented as in the U.S. — where usually the most important factor is price. The East allows one to build relationships and that makes for a more satisfying business experience.

How competitive a market is this? Whom are you up against and what is your edge to compete?

The market is quite competitive locally. There are established players, typically American or Japanese companies, servicing the education and the editing market. Our edge? I think we try to bring a higher quality to the service levels and we innovate. In editing, our more established service, we are market leaders in bringing better value to clients. Competition is usually imitating us!

What next? How do you plan to grow?

As I mention in one of the earlier questions, new markets is something we are already considering actively. Korea and Taiwan are the main focus this year. Next year will be mainland China. We are actively scouting for opportunities in medical writing which will be our first concentrated attempt to tap into the US market. We are also looking at providing written English training to select Indian clients this year. A lot of things happening – too many actually.

For yourself, moving from a consulting firm to your own business, what was the toughest challenge about making the transition?

It wasn’t really that difficult since it was a thought-out decision. I knew it was a risk and nothing might come off the decision. There were, and still are, periods of insecurity. The one thing that surprised me was how difficult it is to execute well, consistently. The reason this was a surprise was not because it was difficult — since I had already known and expected this– but because I had grossly underestimated its degree.

If you were doing it all over again, what mistakes of setting up would you avoid? What would you do differently?

Hmm… I can’t think of an appropriate answer to this question. I think we are making mistakes every day which we learn from and correct. And I don’t think we have reached that level yet where I can look back and say — we could have grown faster or would have been better if I had not done this or that. I think we need to achieve a lot more, grow to a larger, more sustainable level. I will probably then have the perspective to address this question.

Well, I hope that was an interesting read. I definitely enjoyed the whole process of writing up about it, since this is a business that has now seen a few years and is facing different challenges from what a start-up would. Interesting, therefore, in a completely different way.

For those who haven’t seen it, the first post in the Entrepreneur Watch series is here. And, if you see an interesting business that you think should be featured here, do write to me at aputhebird AT yahoo DOT com

Kiran Bedi is not amused!

There is ofcourse no link between the two events, but it is strange to note that just as we gained a female president (though controversially), the country’s top IPS officer claims gender bias in promotions at the highest level.

Traditionally, most government institutions in India, including the police, place tremendous emphasis on seniority, so it is surprising that Ms. Bedi who hails from the 1972 IPS batch has been overlooked in favor of Mr. Y.S. Dadyal, a 1974 batch officer. I am not too sure if it is gender bias though – Kiran Bedi being one of the most outspoken officers in this country, I bet that doesn’t sit too well with people in power, regardless of gender. There is also the possibility ofcourse, that such outspokenness is even less appreciated in a woman.

What is worrying ofcourse is the two other cases of two other women at senior positions who have been overlooked for the top post – Kiran Bedi brings this up in the first article above. In the case of one of these women, Reva Nayyar, it is believed that the 7 year absence she took from her career could have played a role, although she still made up for it due to having joined the IAS at a very early age, and her very high rank in the IAS exams. If, as Ms. Bedi claims, gender bias really crept up on all these cases, its horribly disheartening to see that even our elite services are not free.

Rate your Boss?

The Evil HR Lady (Isn’t she wicked?), points to this site eBoss Watch, a site where people can rate their bosses and others can view the ratings before deciding to work for a particular company/group. While I would jump at the idea of being able to spot a nogood boss before signing up, the site really has no way of checking the accuracy of the ratings. Plus, they are anonymous, so really, you could just whine and whine if you don’t like the boss for some reason.

Now, if only we had more “equal” interviews where you could interview the company and the boss in detail too, that would be great!

Indiaplaza’s Deathly Service

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Don’t worry – this is not another review with a spoiler, since I haven’t read it yet. This is a post on Indiaplaza which offered the book at a throwaway price, and now proudly proclaims that it has already delivered 15000 copies since the release 3 days ago.

Well, I don’t know how well they are managing to supply all the Harry Potter orders that they’ve received, since my order for some other books, placed on July 5th is still pending, with no response from their customer service either. Let me begin the story from where it actually starts.

On July 5th, I placed an order for 3 books, Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, Ambai’s Purple Sea, and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Teheran. Ofcourse the standard delivery time was listed as 3 to 4 working days. Till July 11th, the status on the website, kept showing up as ‘Ready to Ship’, upon which I fired off a mail.

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I got a response immediately that there was some delay and the order would be shipped out by the 14th. Fair enough, I thought, a few days delay on account of some unforeseen problem was not such a big deal.

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Just a few minutes later though, I got another mail that one of the books I had ordered, Reading Lolita in Teheran was not available, and my money for that would be refunded.

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I was a little annoyed and wrote back to them, that this should have reflected on their site. But still. It wasn’t such a big deal.

Then. The 14th went past. And the 15th and 16th. And the shipping status on the site remained unchanged. So I wrote in again, asking for my books. I received a reply from the customer service team, that both titles had been shipped out on the 16th and I was receiving them on the 17th.

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Sure enough, I received a parcel on the 17th. With only the Magic Mountain, no sign of Ambai’s Purple Sea. And. Including a statement inside that both books had been delivered. By now, I was getting quite irritated. The fact that my neighbour had picked up the parcel in my absence, meant that I couldn’t even open it in front of the courier and check. So I wrote back a slightly snarky mail, asking why I was being cheated.

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Not just the goof-ups, it is practically impossible to speak to a customer service person. There is one line, which is perenially engaged. So instead, I asked for a senior manager’s number whom I could speak to. Ofcourse I got a standard response, although it acknowledged that the second book was missing, and promising to revert in 2 working days.

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No such luck ofcourse. So. I wrote again. If this sounds tedious to read, imagine my plight!

Again, a request for more time.

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By now, I had come to the end of my patience, so I replied that I could not waste more time, and asked for a refund on the missing book. That was on saturday, the 21st.

Till date, though I have followed up on this twice, including mentioning that I am considering going to the consumer court to get back my money, Indiaplaza hasn’t bothered to answer. Honestly speaking, I don’t have the time or the energy to actually do anything about it. Infact, I think my money is sort of written off.

Harry Potter fans who have placed their orders on Indiaplaza – if you haven’t already got your copy, you know what to expect, don’t you?

The role of Indian Business

Any student of basic statistics soon learns that while some things may appear to go hand in hand (high correlation), they are not necessarily cause-and-effect pairs, or even related to one another in any way. Many people however don’t understand this at all, which is why you have people who blame the software industry for all of Bangalore’s problems, for example. The industry’s job is to generate the best products and services it can, improve its technologies etc, and thus achieve its overall goal of better revenues and profitability. In the process ofcourse, it creates jobs, creates demand for additional services like housekeeping etc. Its job per se is not ofcourse to improve living conditions in Bangalore. Thats why we have a government.

Lots of folks don’t get this though. Which is why we have people like this writing in, and surprisingly, getting published too, in publications like The Economist, of all things.

Nitin at the Indian Economy Blog reports, This week’s Economist carries a letter from a certain Murali Reddy of Lake Hiawatha, New Jersey.

SIR – So, Krishnan Ganesh, one of the proud products of India’s higher-education system, is busy developing tools to help improve the quality of primary education in America by outsourcing teaching over the internet (Face value, June 23rd). Meanwhile, precious little is done to remedy the neglect of primary education in Mr Ganesh’s home country. The commitment of India’s elite towards primary education, especially in rural areas, is bordering on scandalous neglect; funding goes towards supporting tertiary education at the expense of millions of poor children. [The Economist/Unedited Version]

Read the rest here

Madam President

So Pratibha Patil is President. Yoo hoo for womenkind and all that. Or not? Considering that the role of the President in India is largely ceremonial, I don’t per se have an issue with making it a token of some kind. So we had a Dalit president, we had a Muslim president, and now, a Woman president. Fair enough – its a token to show that we take equality issues seriously. Though most of the time, it remains just that. A token. Now even if we need a token, I would prefer something that represented Indian women at their best, not an average, middling sort of specimen.

I wish we had chosen someone more well known for her own achievements. That would truly mean something, if we had someone like Sheila Dikshit, for example, though its very likely that her strong stances on many issues mean someone like her will never be chosen. Yes, Pratibha Patil has been in politics long enough, but she just doesn’t seem to have done anything significant in her time. Plus ofcourse all the attendant controversies thats probably a first in a Indian presidential race. (So yes, she has done something significant now!). On the whole, it looks like she was mainly rewarded for her loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family, and yes, when it comes to devotion to them, you can never have too much, can you.

I particularly like Amrita’s piece on the whole drama, written a few weeks ago, (before the scandals broke), where she says, “This isn’t a blow for women’s rights, it’s an act of condescension. It’s the political equivalent of getting a pat on the head, a couple of sweeties to eat and then being told to run along and be good.”

Sigh.