Tech trends and business ideas

All things that motivate entrepreneurs

Friday, June 29, 2007

Revamping Mom and Pop

Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL), the FMCG giant has come up with a new initiative SVS fast forward, to give mom-and-pop (“kirana”) stores a leg up across the country. Titled ‘Fast Forward’, the initiative aims to fast track the SVS (super value store) program initiated by HUL — and the target is no less than completely revamping and modernizing the grocer outlet to give shoppers an enhanced experience. In a way, to help kirana shops retain their clientele that is fast migrating to snazzy shopping mall around the corner. HUL has also engaged Retailscape, an in-store marketing company for the SVS FF program.

The idea should fly. The kirana stores in Indian cities are cluttered look-alikes, mostly stacked up close together with barely a wall between them. They stock more or less the same stuff too within their store area ranging between 150-300 sq.ft. (and grain sacks spilling over to sidewalks for lack of space inside) with customers having to troop in and out in a linear column. Sometimes members of the same family compete against each other by having adjacent stores. Not wanting to be outdone, what if all these store owners sign up for the program and ask for same makeover?

Trouble. Store specific promotions (best deals, lowest prices etc.) as are normally used should work. But what if there are three adjacent copycat stores, one on the left announcing “best deals” and that on the right “lowest prices”?

The one in the middle, perhaps could still use “Main Entrance !”

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Waiting with geeks

As I watch some passengers at the airport working furiously away at their laptops, it is clear that our information systems reflect our machines instead of our lives. Life without email simply freezes over for these geeks as I think they spend most of their wake hours in front of the system. What If they ever have to go outside? Will they put on welding goggles to save them from a massive dose of non-CRT radiation? They might as well….

I observed the guy sitting next to me and sensed his innate nerdity. He has been talking to a woman (a fellow passenger) about his hardware so seriously without meaning anything sexual at all… If I showed him a magazine full of nude pictures, this guy is sure to comment "that's got to be at least 400 dpi, colour !" Junkies of a cyber kind…

What a pity. The machines designed to be commanded by us now have enslaved us. The most important problem in computing is how to leave the hardware behind, how to transcend the computer and not be limited by the electronic accidents that constitute its architecture.

Now I know why I like David Gelernter so much. Despite his accomplishments in computer science, he isn’t one bit geeky. In fact his pet theory of Information Beams is inspired by life itself.

Get us a few more IT renaissance activists like you, David…

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

How've you been, Ms.Williams...?

O.k. so Sunita Williams, the astronaut with the mop of hair my bald pate is extremely jealous of, is back on earth with her fellow crew members. Welcome've you been, Ms.Williams?

After spending more than six months at the space station, she has set an endurance record for the longest single spaceflight by a woman at 195 days. During her stay, she also set the record for most time spacewalking by a woman.

I wondered what must have tempted her to stay so long in zero gravity, the record notwithstanding, where even the most mundane tasks like shampooing her hair (oh, that flowing tresses!) takes such an effort. Not to think of having to eat on flying saucers and to swallow tooth paste after use since there’s no sink in there…

Not just that. Actually, the astronauts use a Russian-designed lavatory that, "sucks waste away with a vacuum." The waste is stored in buckets, which are moved into a Russian cargo pod that eventually "burns up in the earth'satmosphere." Now you know what people mean when they say,"It's raining buckets."

May be she found living on earth far too expensive. Who would say no to a free trip around the sun?

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Domain squatters back in business

The best reaction to the WSJ story on - a search engine used by businesses to find products and services (now on the auction block reportedly for $ 300-400 million) - came from John Murrel.

“I suppose everyone's got some coulda-shoulda investment story. I distinctly remember at age 11 regretting that my allowance did not allow me to put some early money into communications satellites. And I still get a twinge when I think that back in the early '90's before the Web took off, I could have (hell, anyone could have) snapped up a bunch of generic .com domain names, like,, Just two minutes of clear foresight and I could have done what CNet and some others did. Of course, the speculative domain name market peaked during the tech bubble, and knowing me, I would have bailed, probably way too early, and suffered a different regret. So it goes.”

Back to the bubble ?

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Outsourcing minting business

Each time a fake currency racket is busted in India, the RBI inserts new security features in Indian Rupee bills and informs the public through release of notices in the media. That lasts only till the fakers `adapt’ it in their `fresh batch’ and all or some of it gets busted. Then another new feature, yet another RBI notice. Few frequent notices later you slip up on features, with that your vigilance and just hark back on destiny to save your fortunes.
Sensing that the safety lies in preferring checks to cash especially while dealing with a stranger, you ask them to pay you by check. Your argument : Bankers are trained pros and they are good at spotting phony bills as they get them. If they don’t take phony bills, you won’t get any and if you draw cash only from a Bank or its ATM, you can be sure about its authenticity. No head aches, no more RBI notices to keep track of. Great wisdom....?

Wait a minute…now ATM technology allows cash to be deposited through an ATM. Who will spot if a bunch of high quality fakes get deposited across ATM that a sloppy teller lets in and you end up drawing some of them ? Intelligence agencies that handle our internal security, have recently alerted banks to the dangers of fake currency coming into the system in the form of cash deposits routed through ATMs.

Your idea of hell ? Then that's pretty much it. Dud notes flow out of ATM too thanks to fake cash floating around, crime syndicates, technology, and even masterminds operating across the border.…OMG….what will RBI do now ?

I have a solution. RBI should outsource its minting business to ISI. Heck, they don't even charge us !

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Xcavator for visual search

Conventional image search has a limitation. It doesn't throw up variations of an image except where its search spiders can `freely' crawl. Images hiding behind paid sites are out of its reach. In that sense, it's more of an online store than a search service provider.
Xcavator, the recently launched visual search engine that lets professional designers and others find images they want and buy, lets you do all that.

Xcavator lets users drill down further into a picture to find similar features on other photos.

Take an example. Let’s say you want an image of an old-fashioned popcorn box. You type in popcorn in the seach bar, and Xcavator provides results. Ok, so there are a couple of popcorn boxes. But, lets say you want to find variations of the red popcorn box on the second row (see below). You drag the red popcorn box image to a place beside the search bar, and Xcavator looks for images just like it. You can then use a hue and a intensity tools (the circle and orb to the left) to find popcorn box images that are say, red, and in a dark background for example.

The company hopes to attract marketers and advertisers, too. It will soon offer video search.

How will it make money? It has 2.1 million images in its database, and gets a small cut for every bought image. Some 300,000 images come from Photovault, which are so-called “rights managed” images — where you have to pay a few hundred dollars for near exclusive rights to use them for a period of time, say a year (you click on the image and Xcavator takes you to a page where you can buy these rights). The other 1.8 million images come from iStockPhoto, which typically cost just a few dollar but you aren’t guaranteed exclusive rights.

This company hasn’t raised any venture money. Many home grown entrepreneurs plodding on without VC funding can take heart. I’ve already alerted my friend Sanjeev Sarma of to the opportunity of providing Indian stock of photos they have.
Good luck, Sanjeev...!

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007


Yesterday at an E&Y interactive seminar, we were given momentary leverage to shape our own future. The first task was to take a bunch of pictures/taglines given and come up with an image of the future. Here's what I got and gave.

Picture : Ground Zero

Vision : Terrorism actually dies. No one cares enough to kill. High-intensity conflict ends but there is constant low-intensity conflict.

Tagline : Regulators everywhere ?

Vision : This is a world where the regulations lag rapid innovation. The world is rapid in developing new technologies, but it's slow to learn from them. It has a lot of stop-start dynamics and reinforcing loops of behaviour. It returns to a question of how to regulate or manage what we don't know with uncertain developments in the future and also how to meet the challenges of globalisation.

Picture : A human embryo in a test tube

Vision : There are monthly revolutions in embryonic care so people are delaying pregnancy to get the latest in in-vitro genetic modification.

There were more…but this is all I could recollect. We were asked to leave our `vision' behind at the venue for them to analyze and reward. [ or had it been that we were forbidden from `hustling' our future in a hurry....quite likely, yeah... :-) ]

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

Closest I got to a spacewalk

I can think of at least three rewards for taking a leap toward the unknown. First, simply acting on our fear releases us from self doubt. Even if we don’t defy gravity and fall flat on our faces our worst-case scenarios are often worse than the actual experiences of defeat. Second, we feel a sense of satisfaction for having achieved what we set out to do. It provides us with a greater sense of self, and builds our esteem. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the experience serves as a personal springboard to take another risk, then another. We tell ourselves, “If I tackled this, I could certainly handle that!” What freedom and power we give ourselves by taking leaps (or even baby steps) toward our dreams. Either way, we are winners!

This was metaphorical to the famous spacewalk by astronaut Sunita Williams. Sunita has now set a new world record for the longest uninterrupted space flight by a woman. She is scheduled to return home this thursday after NASA cleared space shuttle Atlantis' thermal protection system for re-entry into the earth's atmosphere. I had read her Pre-flight interview in a NASA publication and she was quite ecstatic about it all.
I may probably never get to do a real `spacewalk' in this life, but I have this sense that I am doing it virtually everyday - the closest I could get to Ms.Williams !
Congrats Sunita, make sure all the tiles are in place in your shuttle's heat shield. Safe landing !

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Saturday, June 16, 2007

Crawling out of jams

You've been driving on a busy road when traffic suddenly slows to a crawl. You inch along for many minutes while guessing what had caused the jam. Often it could even be caused by a 20-year-old driver behind the wheel with a cell phone, whose reaction time could be the same as a 70-year-old driver who is not using a cell phone. It's like instantly aging a large number of drivers with that gadget.

Did you curse the cell phone ? Hang on, with some GPS tweak, it could be a blessing.

Now Tele Atlas, a Boston-based company that provides digital maps and navigational content, has integrated new trafficking software developed by Inrix, a startup based in Kirkland, WA, into its map database so that drivers can find the most optimal route based on speed rather than distance--for any stretch of road at any hour of any day of the week. So it's like having an experienced cab driver with you all the time who knows which roads to avoid to find the most time-saving route. Full story here.

Something intrigues me. The Nav system tells you where there are backups and how to go an alternate route. What if it tells everybody the same thing ?

The system will tell you there was a 3 min backup 1 km ahead but you should take the next exit to avoid it. You did as told and was immediately informed that you were not 5 km from another backup which would take 15 minutes to clear caused by rerouting traffic from the first backup. It could be messier... "take the next exit... no don't because everybody is doing that... no they've changed their minds again..." Hell would break loose.

The only way to avoid it would be for the system to anticipate the consequences of its own recommendations on users and adjust for them in advance, creating equilibrium flow.
Use cars sparingly. Get used to public transport, pool cars or hired vehicles. Globe's warming too fast already.

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Friday, June 15, 2007

Colayer experience

I made friends with two great folks yesterday. Markus Hegi (Founder) and Shadab Lari of Colayer Web Conversations.

My normal Web App scouting exercises have one basic premise - to facilitate productivity enhancement while consistently reducing operating costs for my clients (I am a fan of anything that kills costs for my clients). This leads me to several new web apps, and this week it was Colayer. Besides saving costs, it clearly stood out in terms of its utility and functionalities. In essence, I liked the simple, easy-to-use (on demand) feature that renders a powerful virtual organization. It also lets you scan the latest and the most recent events within the virtual enterprise on a e-newspaper and colloaborate across workgroups within micro communities. It was just a friendly getting-to-know that got me absorbed into a wonderful Web App these folks have put together.

It’s a Software for Intra and Extra-nets to model companies and organizations. Every department, every team and project gets a virtual workplace. The layers have been stacked up as Times (Company Newspaper), Comty (Workplaces) amongst several others as are in the making.

A company which got founded in 2004 (with under $ 0.5 m initial investment), having a developer strength of about 40 as of now, have come a long way in solving real life problem for companies in the Life Sciences and Technology R&D space by eliminating the pain points arising from Loss of Context (Fragmentation), Spam issues and inconsistency in communication.

No wonder it already has Eli Lilly, Mednetwork, Medix,, eCheminfo as some of its major clients from Europe, aside of numerous others brought in by its European Partners.

We spent a couple of hours over lunch when we discussed its potential for Indian pharma and Life Sciences market. I wouldn’t be surprised if Indian drug research organizations talk to Colayer en masse with its potency and feature richness that is sure to augment research efforts with near zero time loss on account of its in-built six sigma like prowess. Indian companies like their European counterparts are known to eschew transparency, but Colayer takes care of the need for confidentiality as well. [Markus is a Swiss national and knows more than a thing or two about need for secrecy emphasised by the Banks in his country]. I wish them well and a little more aggro on sales front - my supports are assured as always. I can see a great value creation potential for all its stakeholders if Colayer gets its act together, but fast.

I would safely recommend it to my clients in R&D space, knowledge driven enterprise and distributed organizations. What the heck – it’s available on demand, requires no software to be installed (that messes with your legacy systems), saves you a fortune in terms of telecons and physical seminars / meetings, preserves your need for privacy and confidentiality even as you feel a need for transparency amongst the select group of people working towards the same goal and, and, and….has a “pay-as-you-go” delivery model…

My advise to R&D heads and CTOs of pharma companies – try it out !

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Nothing private

When your life is an open book, others get less snoopy.

Hasan Elahi, the Bangladeshi-born American found that out the hard way. The US government mistakenly listed him on its terrorist watch list where once you're on, it's hard to get off. Wading through those turbulent times he discovered the best way to protect his privacy is - to give it away. Now he does it in style, by making his life an open book – he webcasts his life 24 / 7 in his site to convince the Feds of his innocence. A GPS device in his pocket reports his real-time physical location on a map.
Extreme transparency ?

Not so sure, but a nice way to keep off Guantanamo bay for nationalistically suspect. Elahi also figures the day is coming when so many people shove so much personal data online that it will put Big Brother out of business. Plus, no ambitious agent is going to score a big intelligence triumph by snooping into your movements when there's a Web page broadcasting the Big Mac you ate four minutes ago in Boise, Idaho. [ Hat tip : Vinnie Mirchandani ]

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Saturday, June 09, 2007

To get a rating done

Does it rhyme with Harper Lee’s 1960 classic “to kill a mockingbird”? The parallel stops at just one character – Atticus, the attorney and the father.

You smell some trouble ahead in your business or personal life and need to find an attorney. What would you do…? Check out a few friends and get some referrals for good lawyers. Often you may need them in areas where none of your friends have been before, say, a divorce ? Then…choices are well, limited.

Not quite, if you have something like AVVO.

I found this heavily funded Seattle startup that hopes it can help consumers navigate the legal maze and choose the best attorney for the job. After 16 months of secrecy, is unveiling an online rating system that ranks thousands of attorneys in more than 110 practice areas based on their experience, education, disciplinary actions and dozens of other factors. The company is launching in 10 states, including Washington and California, with Chief Executive Mark Britton hopeful that it will expand nationally by the end of the year.

If this one works, a lot of similar stuff would sprout all over.

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Lessons from Madhouse

You do not know much about DVD rental business. But if it sounded like a good business to start, what would you do ? Ask others who have been in it to share their experience. What if there were none to ask around ? Use your own common sense, do some basic market research, find out the operational metrics, try and find some co-investors, advisors who have a lot of common sense and general savvy before you get going.

New Delhi based goofed it all up and left everything to fate according to industry insiders. This is what we heard: It hired 6 hot airbags for advisors (who hardly gave any), raised $ 2,28,000 ( Rs.1.08 crore) in angel funding in Jan 2007 and was forced to sellout to yesterday. The talk is that the founders had to resort to this extreme step when investors (masking as advisors) breathed down the founders’ neck even before it could give as much as a good fight at the market place. It’s anyone’s guess that all the 6 advisors must have been angel investors (altogether pooling under piffling $ 230 k !) that could have forced it to sellout at a huge loss. [Sources point to 3 advisors for *Strategy* (for selling out even before it took off), 2 each for *Team Building* (less than 6 months is hardly any time to build team) and *Fundraising* (no funds raised after angel round) - all in a startup ?] ....Misery complete. It reminds me of a similar story played out by ComVentures on Filmloop.
There are some lessons to learn from this madhouse.

Lesson 1Ego giveaway - Designations of three co-founders (1) Sameer Guglani, CEO (2) Ankur Agarwal, COO (3) Nandini Hirianniah, Chief Product Officer - Frankly for a startup, all three co-founders should *function* as `salesman / saleswoman’ till it achieves breakeven. Period. [Chief Product officer for a DVD rental company ? OMG !] Designations prop up egos but won't get you customers.

Lesson 2Never hire advisors who can’t dig it in at least for 3 years. At the most, hire not more than 2 advisors. Make sure they are indeed advisors and not Assholes, as Bob Sutton would call them.

Lesson 3 - Pick your Angels : Angel Investors should have some pedigree besides a fair idea about the startup risks…should not keep calling up for daily collection figures to see if they can take their money back. If they do, at least start hunting for replacements if you can't buy them out.

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