Tag Archives: business

The Feedback Loop

One of the things that I feel that makes certain people and organizations tick while others don’t is ‘The Feedback Loop‘. I believe most(all?) successful  people/companies have a good feedback loop which helps them gather external information, couple it with internal hunches/insights and improve their course of action/style of working.

“The Feedback Loop” is a great tool when you are learning something. It could be internal/self imposed practice->finding gaps->closing them or taking feedback/help from someone else/internet and improving your skill. This is purely an execution skill. Figure out how can you best assess your current level(the more sources the better), and then use your sense to improve yourself

For instance: If one were to learn a foreign language remotely. They can
Watch videos, join an online course, study tutorials, read a book or use an interactive app.
An evolved brain would be able to choose the best options from the above mentioned which in turn would help them by leveraging the benefits of feedback loop. Let’s say an app which let’s them not only learn the language but also practice it and rate their skill set and provide suggestions

The Feedback Loop

Similarly people/organizations which have evolved, have a tight feedback loop (Identify gaps/scope of improvement ->Have yourself/team figure out how to fix them->repeat) which serves as a continuous self improvement process. Like the perennial structured software testing which never stops and is actively followed up with not only bug fixes but also some learning in the system which ensures that such mistakes are not repeated again. To make the process water tight, there’s a metric/check in place which makes sure that learnings are executed and not lost

Most people are not good at taking direct feedback and thus end up seeking only the indirect feedback if at all. Which needless to say is less efficient. They are anti-feedback types, every time honest feedback about their abilities is pointed out, they start looking in opposite direction. If only they could set their egos aside and taken in as much as they can without bothering the form and source.I’d blindly side a guy who has figured out a way to improve themselves/their work on their own.
Implement –> Test/Seek Feedback –> Learn –> Fix –> Repeat

At a organizational level, there are various sources of feedback, namely employees, customers, partners, investors(if any). If you don’t have a process of continuously seeking their feedback, logging data in a structured format, analyzing it and using the insights to improve the ways things are done, you are missing out a lot.

Got any thoughts on ‘Feedback Loop’ for individuals and organizations?

The Rise of the Indian Online Marketplace

If you are part of/related to the Indian e-commerce scene in any manner or read desi start-up blogs, chances are you might be familiar with the concept of Marketplace.

A “Marketplace” connects buyers and sellers who otherwise have trouble finding each other.

Marketplace(think eBay), is simply a model which has multiple sellers providing various goods/services through a platform. In the context of this discussion, an e-commerce website instead of sourcing and fulfilling the orders just manages the listing of products and passes on the order details to the sellers who then handles them.

Recently, India’s biggest online retailer (Flipkart) made their first move as a part of shift towards the marketplace set up.

To start with, Flipkart has on-board 50 sellers that will sell books, media, and consumer electronics.

Other Indian online retailers on scaled up marketplace model are Snapdeal(which recently raised $ 50 mn from ebay and others), Tradus, Infibeam and Shopclues. Let’s understand how the marketplace model and inventory led model compare in execution

The key components of an e-commerce set up are

  1. Customer Acquisition
  2. Catalog
  3. Technology (Customer facing/related and backend)
  4. Inventory
  5. Fulfillment (Sourcing, Packaging and Delivery)
  6. Payment Processing
  7. Customer Service/Support

Setting everything up for a rookie is quite demanding (capital and effort wise) and will take months to get off the ground, however to signup as a seller on a marketplace and/or opening a shop using SaaS based ecommerce store building platforms like Zepo, Buildabazaar or Martjack is a quickie. So for a newbie it makes perfect sense to open up their own shop (SaaS) and list on various marketplaces as a seller

Based on one’s expertise and priorities there are various ways of building the e-commerce store set up. For eg: while someone will prefer to control the last mile delivery experience, someone would rather let logistics companies take care of that.

The most common model is mix of Inventory led and Marketplace both (think Amazon). Here’s how it works

  1. Inventory Led – Short Tail (Fast moving, Commodity products, Easy to warehouse for ex: best selling books/movies/pendrives etc)
  2. Marketplace – Long Tail (Slow moving, Niche products, Difficult to warehouse for ex: medical books published in hindi/very old foreign language films/Furniture etc)

While it might not very clear from the examples but Inventory led model makes sense for products which aren’t perishable(both utility and demand/vogue), are easily available offline too and move fast enough while the Marketplace model makes sense for products which one doesn’t know exist or even if one knows they don’t have any clue on how to stock them, how to source them etc.

Customer Acquisition,Technology,Payment Processing and Customer Support are done by the e-commerce company.

Here’s how various models are implemented in some of the biggest Indian e-commerce companies.

break_up

A couple questions come to the the curious mind.

  1. Why sudden rush towards Marketplace all across?
  2. Is Marketplace the future of e-commerce in India?

1. Why sudden rush towards Marketplace all across?

The answer to that question (from what I’ve heard) lies in the deep VC pockets. With the Govt of India dillydallying around the FDI regulations for e-commerce, apparently Marketplace is the only way to get external funding needed to sustain the business.

Also, it could be because the bigger e-commerce companies have figured out that

a) they can’t possibly go that strong on increasing the  quality/quantity of the catalog on their own
b) they ran sick and tired of doing everything on their own.

To get a sense, compare how Flipkart was managing these functions in it’s previous avatar and compare it to say Snapdeal

 

break_up1

2. Is that the future of e-commerce in India?

On doing some rough calculations based on the information available Flipkart, Infibeam, Snapdeal, Jabong, Bookadda and Homeshop together would be doing around 1,15,000 orders a day (Flipkart and Snapdeal contributing about 60-70 %).

There are a lot more sites (ending with kart and otherwise) who just might be doing another (20-30,000 transactions or more a day)

As per my guesstimate all independent smaller e-commerce websites and platform powered online shops selling long tail products would be doing not more than 5-10,000 orders a day.These numbers could be significantly different from the mark for all we know but based on these numbers before marketplace became the buzzword, top 5-6 established players were doing about 90,000-95,000 orders a day in total while the others in long tail were about 5-10% of their size.

The balance has started to shift towards the marketplace model transactions. For now their share could be 10-15% of the overall e-commerce transactions.  Going forward we’ll a lot more smaller businesses and niche startups coming online and by 2013 end their share could be upwards of 20-25%(going by the fact that between Flipkart and Snapdeal they are the biggest online retailers).

A couple of factors to speed this up would be

  1. More platforms like Buildabazaar and Zepo
  2. Better payment gateway/cash collection mechanisms (Ghar pay etc)
  3. Better logistics (for end to end fulfillment)
  4. Third party SaaS services for other components like (Catalog, Warehousing, Customer Support)
  5. Some VC investment in 1-2 marketplace companies

The sooner we get to see the above mentioned things rolling the faster we’ll get to the long tail moving online. At some time in the  mid term future(5-7 years) the demand for long tail items (Niche/scarcely available/custom made) products could become comparable if not more than the demand for short tail products.

So the marketplace model and independent shops powered by various sites are here to stay and the current biggies like Flipkart, or maybe Snapdeal will evolve into a mix of (Short tail – Inventory led – Self Fulfilled and Long tail – marketplace – Logistics company) models.

Your thoughts?

Perspective is Everything

For some time now I’ve started thinking more about ‘Perspectives’, particularly about my Perspectives.

Everybody has a way of viewing things and mostly your views about various things would be different than mine. Perspective to me is a deep and thought out opinion about something. The more you think about something, chances are the better you understand them and the more you understand things, the more you like and enjoy them.

I believe most people tend to have perspectives on only a handful things, particularly things that impact them. For ex: Not everyone will have a strong opinion on the design of things or  internet freedom or climate control or the way cities should be planned etc. I strongly feel that it is very important to have a perspective on a few things if not a lot. Having a perspective on certain things opens up your mind about them, it helps you deconstruct the current state of things, particularly what’s wrong and also on how they can *possibly* be fixed.

You need to deliberate deeply about something and be emotional about it to be able to have a perspective on it and to me having a perspective on something is why/how most innovations and disruptions happen. You feel passionately about healthcare for the poor, you feel motivated enough to change things around, you figure out a way to get things moving and bang your idea becomes a reality and ends up changing someone’s life for better.

Think about it, if an entrepreneur doesn’t have a strong perspective about their new startup idea/product what are the odds that their product will be different(and maybe an improvement) from others, will add some value and end up becoming a sustainable business?

Unless you really want to change things around and have some idea on what the change should be, you can’t be good at it. Not only this, my perspective is that we as entrepreneurs need to have perspectives on not just one but a lot of things. Say as a start-up entrepreneur I should have perspectives on disruption/innovation that I want to bring to my industry, building a profitable and sustainable business, hiring, customer service etc etc. The number of these aspects I feel strongly about would determine to a large extent to how I fair in this journey.

Also, I feel that the person who has perspectives on more and possibly varied things the better positioned they are to change things and have an impact. I have certain perspective on usability, product design, health care, education, independent artists, social media, publishing/media among a few other things. I have spent fair amount of time analyzing some of this things and have some idea of how I can add value in these domains. Hopefully soon enough I’d get a chance to move things around in them.

Till then, what do you think about this? Do you Agree/Disagree with what I just said?

 

Cash on Delivery(COD): The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

COD or Cash on Delivery as we now know it wasn’t no where near its popularity today a few years back. Today quite a few people (who call us at dialabook and otherwise) know and talk about Cash upon Delivery as a concept (books milne ke baad paise de sakte hain?) if not the exact term. COD as we know has taken the entire e-commerce Industry(if we can call it) by a storm.

To give you some perspective, about 2 years back when we(@dialabook) started collecting payment for books on delivery, we had no idea about this term and no notable e-commerce site had this option. Fast forward it to today and almost all e-commerce sites(and a few others like the one below) accept(or rather promote) COD to lure more customers.

While COD as a concept has been there for ages under the name VPP (Value Payable Post) by India Post. Here’s how their website defines VPP

The value payable system is designed to meet the requirements of persons who wish to pay for articles sent to them at the time of receipt of the articles or of the bills or railway receipts relating to them, and also to meet the requirements of traders and others who wish to recover, through the agency of the Post Office the value of article supplied by them.

Govt VPP however seems to have an upper limit of Rs 5000/-, which means you can’t send goods worth more than 5k through them.

Not just VPP, some courier companies in India have been supporting COD since March 2009 at least. Though some  startups like @dialabook might have been offering COD locally before, the big shift happened in April 2010 when country’s leading e-commerce player Flipkart introduced COD in April 2010 with a cash limit of Rs 2500/-, followed eight months later by Infibeam (FYI: Indiaplaza announced COD on 25th March 2010, a few days ahead of Flipkart ). It is also worth noting that some services like travelguru.com were offering COD option at least 2 years before e-commerce companies started adopting it. Seeing its success elsewhere, online travel portals yatra and Ezeego1 also launched COD in year 2011

As it turns out India isn’t the only breeding ground for COD. China,Russia etc have been a witness to the popularity of COD for long.

Going by the stats in India, as much as 60% customers of top 5 e-commerce sites in India use the option of paying by cash on delivery (COD) and many of these sites have credited COD  for fueling their rapid growth. While COD for obvious reasons makes a lot of sense for Indian customers and definitely opens a new market (students etc) to e-commerce it isn’t exactly what the doc prescribed or should prescribe. Here are some of the things wrong with COD

  1. Cost: Nearly all courier companies charge extra for collecting cash. This cost is divided in two parts
    Fixed Cost: Rs 20-150/- ;  Variable Cost: 1-3% of the COD Amount. (This is mostly for high price items like mobile phones, laptops etc). If the item is priced low then the COD charges at times exceed one’s margin in the product and if the item is priced very high then the % COD charge turns out to be in hundreds or even thousands
  2. Delay in payment: Unlike credit card transactions, COD payment generally takes 1-2 weeks or more to be transferred to your account. This bites your cash flow especially as the COD amounts start becoming huge.
  3. Delay in deliveries: On an average COD deliveries are delayed by 12-36 hours when compared to normal deliveries. The reasons for the same are mostly non-availability of customer or cash and many a times both. Here unlike regular deliveries the parcel can’t be dropped to a neighbors place
  4. Higher Returns/Cancellations: Since the customer hasn’t paid in advance, they can always cancel/refuse to take the delivery and sight reasons like I found this phone cheaper locally and have bought it from there or I have changed my mind, will buy a new laptop later
  5. Overheads: Collecting the cash, collating the receipts and maintaining records et all is a nightmare

With increasingly every online business offering it despite its disadvantages(to retailers) the situation might just go out of hand and turn into a death spiral (at least for some non/less funded businesses that rely heavily on their internal cash flows). Small startups are the ones that should be really concerned about these issues instead of blindly aping others and starting COD.

With time as the e-commerce market in India matures, there *might* be more trust in established mechanisms of swiping cards for paying and some people will get over the liking for COD and prefer pre-payments. But, given the case in China, Russia etc it looks like unless the e-commerce majors deliberately start demoting COD and promoting other payment options we just might replicate what’s happening elsewhere i.e 60-85% people using e-commerce sites paying by COD.

Some ways around COD

  1. Multiple Payment Options (at least 5-6)
  2. Pre-payment methods (like wallets, cards)
  3. Mobile banking and SMS payments
  4. Card on Delivery
  5. Giving incentives to users for choosing online payment against COD
  6. Alternative payment methods such as paypal etc

While COD is a good option to have in some cases its double edged sword which should be used with a lot of caution and foresight. What do you think?

E-commerce to M-Commerce?

This post is partly meant to be a rant and partly to share what I feel. Feel free to agree/disagree.

In middle of a telephonic conversation with a friend(web entrepreneur) I popped a question,

Did you see Indian e-commerce stores putting up phone numbers on their website/product pages to help people buy (read order) products?

Gladly, as expected he replied with a “NO” which brings me to the question if/why/how do things change in the startup/business world with new things being introduced and then blatantly reused (copied) by others.

When we started Dial-a-Book some 1.5 years back, we were the ONLY ones that took orders on phone and accepted Cash on Delivery(COD).  Yes, none of the existing players had anything remotely similar in their way of working.

Come 2011: The two biggest e-commerce players in India have started COD (about 6-8 months back for one and  2-3 months back for another) and now they also have put phone numbers on their portals to take orders.  Surprising? Hardly.

Wait for a couple months and you’ll see almost everyone following steps. In fact I remember one of the young and aspiring e-commerce startups went to the extend of launching a service similar to ‘Dial-a-Book‘ and branding it as “X.com’s Dial-a-Book”, Duh.

I don’t mean to say we are the inspiration behind these but definitely the uncanny resemblances are a bit too much for them to be completely independent in thinking and execution. I know it might be really difficult to acknowledge but that’s how it is. The idea of sharing this here was that I felt like putting it done of paper/web for records.

Copying a feature or idea is one thing and doing justice to it is completely different. The most painful part of it being the big guys almost always get the credit for doing new things which aren’t really new.

It will be interesting to see how things change going forward with the e-commerce scene also extending to the phone commerce scene. Stay Tuned !!

My Interview with YourStory.in

It’s been a long time since I scribbled something here but hopefully things will be better in the coming few days.

Anyways, here’s an excerpt from  my email interview with YourStory.in, hope you like it

When was the last time you went to the neighbourhood book store? The chances are, you can’t recollect readily. Gone are the days when buying books involved a visit to the trusty book store round the corner. Online book stores, with a practically unlimited collection and simple search mechanisms, have sprouted by the dozen and the good bit is, all of them are seeing patronage. We at YourStory recently caught up with entrepreneur Mayank Dhingra, the co-founder of Dial-a-Book, who promises to make book buying even simpler. In this exclusive chat with YourStory, he speaks about his startup and how he intends to create a community of book-lovers.

If someone asked you to tell them about Dial-a-Book in about three sentences, what would you say?

Started with the aim of simplifying the process of buying books, Dial-a-Book is India’s first service that lets you order all kinds of books and novels over the phone. We offer free home delivery across India and accept payment by cash upon delivery.

How is Dial-a-Book different from other online bookstore models?

While online bookstores let you order books only on their site, Dial-a-Book allows you to order books over phone, SMS, email, and even Twitter or Facebook. You can even order the books that are not listed in our database but are otherwise available. We accept cash upon delivery and have our own delivery team for the Delhi/NCR region. And most importantly, we just don’t sell books. We are working towards building a community of avid book lovers.

How did the business idea for Dial-a-Book come about?

I have been an avid reader since my college days. I had always thought of doing something with books at some point of time. The advent of the online bookstore concept in India intrigued me and I spent some time observing various online bookstores, their way of working and other variables. I also used to observe how people shop for other things like medicines, groceries, food etc. It was during this time that I realized that the process of buying books can be further simplified and made more user-friendly, just like ordering burgers or pizzas. And hence, Dial-a-Book was born

Tell us about your background.

I did my Electronics & Communications engineering from Delhi College of Engineering (2005 batch). Towards the end of my college stint, I started toying with the idea of staring my own business. I joined Fidelity Investments as a campus recruit and worked there for one and a half years, building software for internal use.

From Fidelity, I joined Slideshare where I worked on various features of the website and some back-end technologies. In Slideshare, two friends of mine and I started an online platform called Kwippy. Kwippy started as a status message aggregator and got a lot of traction in both Indian and international online media.

After working at Slideshare for a year, I left the organization and joined MPower Mobile. I worked there for a year and quit to start something of my own. That’s when Dial-a-Book happened.

Let us know about the tie-ups that you have. Is there acceptance for your concept?

We’ve tied up with most local distributors based out of Delhi along with a few small to medium-sized publishers and we regularly procure books from them. We did a trial run before starting the service and based on the feedback, we decided to venture into the business. We’ve sold books in almost all of the 27 cities where we have Cash on Delivery (COD) and a few other places as well. A lot of our customers regularly buy their books from us and many of them recommend us to their friends and family.

Where do you see online book buying and Dial-a-Book five years from now?

Five years from now, a significant percentage of books sold in India will be sold online and over the phone. In five years, we see ourselves as the number one player in the ‘over the phone’ category and amongst the top 5 in the online space. Currently, there are a number of guys vying for a piece of the pie(online). But my view is that the next few years will see a lot of consolidation in this space and the market will have just a handful of players who will do a majority of the business.

In the next five years, Dial-a-Book will tie-up with more publishers, expand to other cities, explore other/faster modes of delivery, work more closely with authors and build a passionate community of book lovers. We have a lot of interesting ideas for the business which we’ll put to test soon.

This is an excerpt, you can read the complete story here: http://bit.ly/i1wdfV

Product Vs Service Based Businesses

Here’s a post I recently wrote for Shack’s blog.

I’ve been into the business of building web applications for a good part of my professional career. During this period(around 3.5 years) I’ve worked for a MNC, two start-ups and also started two companies on my own. A couple days back while thinking about some business it dawned upon  that there are basically two types of businesses (guess you probably know this already) as far as my view point is concerned (Otherwise trading is also a business). If you are not working for someone else (basically a job) and doing your own thing you are either

  1. Building a product (A website, a facebook app or something else for Ex: Kwippy)
  2. Providing a service ( Social Media Marketing, Website design/development, SEO or something else for ex: Dial-a-Book)
  3. Mix of both (for ex: Shack Companis)

These two kinds of businesses (product and service) have almost equal scope when it comes to growing big, becoming popular etc. However what’s interesting is what it takes to get them to that level. I’ve been on both sides of the line that separates a  product business and a services business. I’ve build a product and am now building a service . Kwippy and Dial-a-Book are as different a business as they can get. While Kwippy was all about building a web product from India that had a global appeal, Dial-a-Book is a over the phone service that’s aimed at the local/domestic market(for now at least).

If you think about it product and service based businesses require way different inputs and take way different life forms once they start to grow. I’ll attempt to explore those differences and what we can do to leverage/optimize them

Product Vs Service Based Businesses:

1) Starting Capital: Product based businesses on an average require more capital to startup than the service based businesses due to the raw material and infrastructure needed. While web products don’t require as much starting capital, services will more often than not be relatively cheaper

2) R&D: Irrespective of the line/domain in which you are building a product, you’ll need to spend considerable amount of time as a team or as an individual to understand what’s been done before, what’s not been done, latest technologies involved, costs, maintenance and other issues. While (most) service based businesses don’t need to think as much(it’s a plus if they do) before starting up.

3) Time to go Live: Product based businesses by their sheer nature will take longer time to go live as compared to almost no-time to launch for a service based business. Essentially a service based business is live from the minute the founder(s) decide to start.

4) Business Development/Marketing: How good a services based business will do depends significantly on the founders interpersonal/selling skills the same gets tough for a product based business. For a product based business you need to have the product right, you need to make it easy to find and spread(viral) and market it in a completely different way.

5) Technology/People Balance: I kinda feel that after a while product based businesses are more dependent on the technology than the people as compared to the service ones. For a company that makes diapers for example, the machines, the processes, raw materials are an important bit and once the basics are taken care of it can run without as much involvement  on the founders part. However for a services based business, say a consultancy service started by 5 guys with a finance background the business depends a lot on the people. Even when the organization grows big it will be known/trusted for the few names of smart/senior guys and once they leave for some other company, the clients might just follow them to their new home.

These are some of the differences I could feel and keeping them in mind I feel one might be (slightly)better of choosing the kind of business they want to do depending on their personality/skill set etc.

Guess you know what I mean, if not drop in a comment and we’ll take the discussion forward.

Link to Shack’s post: http://shackcompanis.com/post/1521371790/service-vs-product-business

Customer Development Design

I’ve been a regular follower of Seth Godin’s blog and like almost all his posts. However there are some posts of Seth that I like way more than others. A couple posts that really caught my attention a few weeks back were on choosing the customer and training your customers respectively.

Posted at an interval of two days these two blog posts taken together offer a nice(different?) perspective of looking at things when it comes to Customer Development. Against the common notion that you should try to attract all kinds of customers Seth suggests that you choose your customers. Yes, you choose your customers for your business by your brand value proposition, pricing, customer experience and other things. All aspects of the way you run your business attracts or repels certain kinds of customers. You might wonder, why is it important to choose your customers?

It is especially important to choose your customers if you have a perspective/vision and you want things to happen according to that and not according to the terms defined by the market. For example sake, consider two product companies, one of which is very choosy when it comes to picking their customers and would rather prefer a smaller set of customers of the kind that they’d like while the other company is not really that choosy and is open to catering to all sorts of customers, the more the merrier. Assuming they both start from the same point, it won’t be difficult to imagine how differently would shape up after an year into the business. Company A which focuses of select customers will emerge out to be almost on the lines of the founder(s)’s vision while Company B which wants to get as much customers as it wants will have significant difficulty living up to the varied expectations and might just give in to the (un)reasonable demands of the majority.

Not only this, Seth suggests that businesses should also train their customers. Yes, training the customers by encouraging certain type of behaviour by rewards etc and discouraging certain type of behaviour. For ex: If you’ve priced your product slightly above the market standard then there’ll be lots of customers complaining about your price and trying to negotiate their way down(in terms of prices). Now there are two ways to go about it, one that you let customers negotiate and other is to don’t bother. Over a period of time if you follow the don’t bother policy you’ll observe how some price sensitive customers will move out and the remaining customers will get used to the higher than market price and stop complaining (This assumes that their is something that the business  offers to offset the high price).

Another interesting effect that this has is that it helps in building a culture among your customers that’s decided to a large extent by your terms and not the markets.

Dial-a-Book gets covered in Todays Mint Lounge

My new startup ‘Dial-a-Book’ has got its first mention in print media today. It’s been almost a year since I started working on Dial-a-Book along with my younger brother and it’s been an absolute fun ride.

Here’s an excerpt from the article

Past life

Dial-a-Book is a Delhi-based start-up founded by brothers Mayank and Tarang Dhingra. Tarang, 25, is a final-year student at the University of Delhi. Mayank, 27, is a software engineer who left a corporate job at Fidelity International in 2005 to work for a string of tech start-ups—from SlideShare, an online presentation hosting service, to MPower Mobile, which works with mobile payments. In 2008, before the Twitter bandwagon bulldozed its way across the country’s Internet landscape, he experimented with creating a Twitter-like service for India called Kwippy—which Mayank called a “conversational platform”. The site folded in mid-2009, and subsequent dabbling in ideas on what to do next led to Dial-a-Book

and you can read the complete article here

I know some of you *might* find this surprising and *might* have some questions for me, so feel free to ping me anytime :)