The Khemka Social Entrepreneuship Forum at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, may as well have been called the conference on scale. While the attendees and presenters were scheduled to touch on various nuances of social entrepreneurship, the word that arose again and again was “scale.” Sponsored by The World Bank and the Ford Foundation, The Khemka Forum was an gathering of 100 top stars from various disciplines, business and organizations who met to “accelerate the business of social change,” so said the event Web site.
For statistics junkies and demographers, India is the promised land. ”India is like a miniature Europe,” said Professor Madhukar Shukla, but even this colorful metaphor understates the complexity. The world’s second largest country by population, seventh largest by land area and boasting the 12th largest economy in the world, according to Maps of India, India is home to more than 16 percent of the world’s diabetics and a whopping 41 percent of all poor people on Earth call this country home, according to Nation Master.
President of the ICICI Foundation for Inclusive Growth, Dr. Nachiket Mor, said that India, a pilot program has 15 million participants. With so many languages, cultures and religions united under a single flag, the true test of any innovation are those that can reach India-scale, in the words of Teamlease owner, Manish Sabharwal. Firstly, Sabharwal said, it is critical to identify those businesses that are babies and those that are dwarves. You can give all the food and attention you want to a dwarf and it will remain a dwarf, while the same care will make a baby grow and grow. Companies work the same way; some are destined to remain small because it is in their DNA, while others have the potential to impact millions. Identifying those ideas and companies and making them India-scale was the order of the day and one of the most important challenges of the years to come.
One hour from the center of Hyderabad is Ramoji Film City, India’s equivalent of Universal Studios in Hollwood. The 2,000-acre site, with an amusement park and two hotels, can boast of an impressive array of amenities. Accommodating over 5,000 daily tourists, as well as the needs of wedding parties, conferences and associated gatherings.
We went to Ramoji Film City to scout out locations for a possible conference and we were told by our guides from the events team that 20 movies can be shot on the ground simultaneously as well as accommodating nearly 600 hotel guests and various wedding activities. As part of our tour of the conference facilities, we got to see the Hotel Sitara’s four themed VIP suites. Apparently it is standard practice for the director, the hero or the executive producer to have lodgings with an unmarked door that leads directly to the fire exit. One can assume this extra evacuation measure is in place to safeguard the screen icon’s well-being and has nothing to do with enabling affairs or off-screen trysts between star and costar.
Later in the site tour, we visited the giant, empty sound stage, where thousands of attendees could gather before a main stage, were it to be assembled, followed by the Moghul Gardens, Princess St. and a dash to catch our flight at the Bangalore International Airport. All were sets of course.
The most striking thing about Ramohji Film City is the way in which the studios allow for the trickery involved in making movies. In essence, Film City is a blank canvas onto which we can paint any dream.
Moving to India has been the start of a necessary reeducation. We live in a knee jerk era and as time passes I am fighting to overcome my ingrained reactionary tendencies. Although problems arise seemingly over night, this is rarely the case and it is equally true that meaningful solutions must take time. However, whether its business, politics, health or romance, I am used to expecting immediate solutions. I attribute this largely to my American world view.
The most important period of my financial education came at the height of the dotcom boom, 1998-1999, a most American of occurrences. As a senior in high school, we engaged in the ages old ritual of choosing a stock portfolio and monitoring its fluctuations daily. At this time, the NYSE and NASDAQ were reaching stratospheric heights; each subsequent trading day demolished the previous day’s market-topping record. The word “day trader,” which later came to mean bathrobe clad, quick buck mercenary, still had some allure as savvy investors won and lost tens of thousands of dollars from their living rooms.
In this era, any feat of financial legerdemain seemed not only appropriate, but encouraged. Technology–in the form of worthless dotcom stocks, as well as desktop trading software, offered anyone the chance to become a millionaire. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I am home! I suddenly realized. On Old Airport Road, watching traffic careen through a chaotic intersection, I felt for the first time that everything was exactly as it should be. What a glorious mess! But it had become my mess. I was beginning to think like an Indian.
After three months in Bangalore I’m much more comfortable in a country known for overwhelming all five senses. The bright colors, spicy foods, heat and rain complemented by a distinct urban potpourri are unmistakable qualities of the Indian experience, but while they assault, ambush, and assail the body and mind, I know I will miss them when I’m gone.
In a country as large and diverse and diverse as India, there are few things that link Hindu, Muslims, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain and Jew alike in this psychedelic tapestry. Anyone who spends enough time here realizes that they too have an inner Indian and, in a country that wholly embraces reincarnation, this isn’t hard to believe.
The following are some tricks I have picked up to help me think like an Indian and learn to love this country along the way.
I used to love downloading music off the Internet, but it has been years since I kicked the habit.
The year was 1999 when I made my first download, a Jimi Hendrix song, but since then filesharing has grown from a collegiate rite of passage into an outlaw art practiced by pirates and thieves. Judges have been successfully lobbied to hand out stringent penalties, even jail time to violators and, in the process, the ossifying record industry has made a declaration of war against its consumers.
Late last week a Brazilian judge made the use of all peer to peer (P2P) filesharing software made illegal in the country. The ruling, handed down by the 6th Civil Chamber of the court of Paraná, makes it a criminal activity for any Brazilian Web site which displays add to distribute P2P software, according to a story which appeared in Torrent Freak.
According to Torrent Freak story, the lawsuit was issued against Cadre Information Technology Ltd, whose products include iPlay.com.br. As the article states, iPlay distributes a piece of P2P software called K-Lite Nitro that attracted the ire of the Protective Association of Phonographic Intellectual Property Rights (APDIF). “The outfit, an anti-piracy group now part of the Anti-Piracy Association of Film and Music (APCM), unsurprisingly counts EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner as key members,” the article said.
In another jurisdiction, such as São Paulo, the appeals court may have sided with Cadre, who argued that they are not the developers of the software, but a heavily-funded industry group was able to steamroll the judges of a kangaroo court to achieve a precedent-setting decision. Although Cadre said they will appeal, according to the article, it seems to me that little can be done to reverse course, in Brazil at least.
It’s impossible not to take sides. On the one hand we have the record-buying public who, some would say, rightly feel that the business of recorded music is and has been a racket. Even a quality album may at best have four standout songs, which hardly justifies the $18 purchase price of a compact disc. In the perverse, criminal mind of a file swapper, downloading one song–or an entire album–is thus beneficial to the artist if he or she subsequently buys tickets to a see them perform live. The benefits to the musician are delayed, but more meaningful when they occur.
Opposing this viewpoint are record labels such as Sony, Universal and Warner Brothers, who argue that they rightly own the musician and his or her music and any future offspring. It is, therefor, the prerogative of the labels how you the customer receive their product and will you quit complaining about it already? Doesn’t sound like there is much room for compromise here.
With the help of Napster, my first personal computer, a Dell Dimension with 12 gigabytes of memory, became the vessel in which I explored uncharted galaxies of music. In late August of 1999, 12 gigabytes of ROM seemed an astronomical, almost comic storage capacity, especially when bolstered by a 256 mb Iomega zip drive. However, by January, I was a Napster addict, and as we all know, you can’t tell an addict when he has had enough. During this time, I could have filled a hard drive with 18 gigs, 25 gigs, who knows, maybe even 30 gigs of music if I only had the space!!! Today, 40 gigs fits into the fifth pocket of my jeans, but the late 90s was a different era. (Definitely click the last link for an awesome gallery of cool USB drives.)
Just like an addict, the first thing I would do each morning was add new songs to my download queue, and at night, I was often awoken by the sudden, irrepressible urge to mainline more music into my system. The ability to download my favorite artists from the Ninja Tune catalog, the Jimi Hendrix Blues album and every other song and album I could think of. However, every junkie faces a reckoning sooner or later.
During the winter break of 1999, stories started to circulate in that Dr. Dre and Metallica (whom I called Metalliscum), were taking action against their fans and threatening lawsuits against anyone who had used Napster to download any of their music. Around this time, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic 2001 was released, and when I returned from ringing in the new millennium, I too had an email from Dr. Dre warning me I might be sued for downloading it. While I was quick to delete any tracks by the humble and unassuming Dr., I was hardly off music downloading.
While Napster was eventually shut down, reincarnated and doomed to languish as a paid service due to a lack of interest. Without Napster, I was chasing the dragon again, and I was willing to experiment with all sorts of torrent clients, such as Gnutella, Kazaa and anything else to feed the urge. However, just like the war on drugs, the war on music downloads has been an evolving cat and mouse game, with new technologies arising only to be crushed by the calloused, unforgiving hand of copyright law.
In fact, public performance was the start of my road to recovery. Few people know this about me, but I spent several years in Seattle recording music and making the occasional, impromptu performance in Seattle clubs. All the while, I was kicking the downloading habit, but it was ultimately the result of more practical concerns.
Firstly, as anyone who has paid his or her own bills knows, the price of broadband Internet is not cheap. Although American ISPs don’t cap bandwidth, no one in his right mind would want his home network tied up with an endless download cue. While its fine to exercise this level of disregard on a college campus, it’s just a pain in the ass at your own place.
Secondly, as clever as any torrent operator might be, there’s no escaping the watchful eyes of the record companies. As soon as a download client gets big, they’re bound to shut down. This doesn’t just mean loading a new piece of software onto your computer. It also carries with it the risk that you will be downloading scads of new viruses onto your machine.
There’s also the matter of ownership. When downloading first became possible, the dominant medium of music performance was the CD. In fact, I remember how me and the other nerds in my dorm would compare the price of a blank CDs, in sold on bulky spindles of 100. The last time I moved, I couldn’t be bothered to pack CDs I had purchased retail, including album art, because they were already part of my iTunes library. The iPod changed everything. Businessweek reported recently that Apple has overtaken WalMart as the world’s foremost music distributor and it’s all because of the iPod. I’ve downloaded a total of two albums to my iPod since I bought it over a year ago. The rest of the music I have, I copied from friend’s hard drives and never bothered to ask how they came across it.
The real reason why I don’t have to download anything anymore is because of streaming. While iTunes may have changed the game as far as paying for music, the music industry has another problem; mainstream music still sucks. No amount of file sharing technology is going to make bad music good, even if it is free. The one or two good songs on any album I like, I can listen to on YouTube, iMeem, Pandora, Jogli or…you get the picture. I can now get my fill of good music without owning anything, so why buy anything.
In the end, it was the recording industry itself that got finally got me, a former download junkie, to stop downloading copyrighted tunes. It wasn’t fear, intimidation or a new technology. No, today more than ever, mainstream music is just crap. Congrats record labels, it looks like you won after all.
Today The Atlantic announced the full release of The Atlantic Wire, a slick compedium of political news and opinion from around the Web. It’s actually rather brilliant.
One of the first stories that caught my attention was the impending release of a tell-all from a former speech writer to President George W. Bush, Matt Latimer, who said that while in office his boss slammed other politicians such as Sarah Palin and Sen. John McCain. Watching the political fracasse over health care reform from afar, I was surprised by how captivating I found the new opinion aggregator site. While I find it frustrating that The Atlantic Wire doesn’t have an easily accessible search function, I could easily imagine myself coming back for a second and third helping of beltway gossip.
Herein lies a problem, however. While I just found a new content site that combines a beautiful interface with a stimulating blend of opinion, I have to access articles from on their site which is a huge problem. This morning I read an article in The Globe and Mail called ‘Information-Rich, Attention-Poor,’ that sums up the situation very succinctly. The quantity of information I have readily available is almost infinite, however, my attention is scarce. All the multitasking and browser tabs in the world isn’t going to make me more thoughtful or well read when I can only devote a minute or two to any particular news item.
The Atlantic just made this problem even worse by creating a site I want to visit, but probably won’t because I don’t have time. Adding a new content source to my daily routine has zero transaction costs, but takes effort and some repetition to become a habit. What’s needed is a new delivery system that takes any work out of the process.
Earlier this week I had an article published in VentureBeat about Busk, a startup I encountered while I was in São Paulo this July. Busk uses real-time search technology to deliver news content based on tagged keywords and topics. Any mention of the word cricket, for instance, would search a database of 15,000 manually-added news sources and 100,000,000 articles to bring back every mention of the word cricket. Not too bad.
While this solves one problem, it doesn’t fully address the addition of a single source to my daily reading diet. One solution would be to change my home page, but in doing so, I lose the page that I used to have there. Similarly, with an RSS reader, such as Google Reader or Feedly, I have to check them whenever I want to know about the latest articles posted. As it turns out, Twitter and Facebook Fan Pages are becoming my preferred method of receiving news. I filter most of what I know about the world through these two sites. Anything worth knowing finds its way to me. To put it another way, I’ve become accustomed to the news seeking me out, instead of going to it.
While Facebook and Twitter are good at presenting information in a ‘river of news’ format, it’s far from perfect. For instance, I have to be logged in to either site and separate hard news from social fact. While I don’t have much of a problem with it now, this is due to the scarcity of news sources I receive on Facebook and the sheer volume of duplicated news on Twitter. If I was more serious about it, I would need a more robust solution and so far I’m not aware of one that does the job. I’m sure there is a product out there that stays on top of interesting news sources–preserving the user interface without commodifying the information–and adds new sources without pain. If you’re out there somewhere, I hope we meet soon!
While the Western world slept, India’s next generation of tech entrepreneurs was meeting to discuss the future of cleantech at Startup Saturday, a monthly event. On the verdant campus of the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore campus, nearly 80 people gathered to talked about the challenges and opportunities of meeting India’s future energy needs through innovation, reducing consumption and even converting human motion and waste into electricity. Bangalore has been one of the world’s startup hotspots for much of the past decade, so it’s not as though the West was unaware of the meeting. Any meeting at 11 am Bangalore time is the middle of America’s sleeping hours.
Although we got to the event late, I still got to see a couple very interesting presentations. Karthee Madasamy of Qualcomm Ventures (whose list of succesful exits includes PayPal) spoke about cleantech companies in which his firm invests, both in the U.S. and Asia. One of the most shocking revelations of Madasamy’s talk was the opportunities available entrepreneurs who can reduce the power consumption of India’s mobile phone towers. Madasamy said that after the Indian Armed Forces and national rail system, celular phone towers are the number three consumers of diesel fuel in the entire country. Only 10 percent of towers are “off-grid.” Tell me more …
Nearly lost amid the stories of startup heroes and plucky entrepreneurs is the plight of Brazil’s poor. While Sao Paulo is the cosmopolitan hub of industry and commerce, it most starkly embodies the work that must still be done to create financial opportunities for all. In a city of more than 21 million, the overwhelming majority are poor. In 2003, 21.5 percent of Brazil’s approximately 190 million citizens lived below the official poverty line according to Rural Poverty Portal.
While an economic miracle is happening in Brazil, over those without proper education are in danger of missing the boat. One of the keys to ensuring Brazil’s continued success as an economic and, soon, technological powerhouse, is through the education of its young people. Colleges schools such as USP (Universidade de São Paulo) and Unicamp (Universidade de Campinas) are where the country’s best computer scientists, engineers and doctors are trained and their education is free. However, the condition of public education at the primary level is abysmal, according to nearly every person with whom I spoke during five weeks of interviews.
Investing venture capital funds in Brazilian startups is a lot like match-making, which would make Monashee’s Capital partners Eric Acher and Guillerme Decourt part investor and one part Yenta. Today we sat down at their office to talk about educating the market about the role of a venture firm, taking the long view of investments, how to spot a winner and the importance of saying “no.”
“We’re not techy guys, we’re strategy-oriented,” Acher told me. As such, marrying the right idea with the right team is a strategy that Monashees views as central to their long term success. “An idea is a commodity,” Acher said. “The name of the game is compatibility.” And, just a like a couple who saying their vows, Monashees is committed to the long-haul.
What if you had the ability to designate where a small portion of your tax dollars were spent instead of giving 100 percent of your income tax to incompetent politicians? What if government agencies could compete directly for a small piece of your federal income tax returns for special initiatives? The crowdfunding model that is being tested in journalism could also help spur innovation and transparency in government by making agencies compete for money using social media and a good, old-fashioned charm offensive. Let’s call this new tax regime ‘Flex Filing.’
Part of the democratic process is electing leaders who are responsible for spending public money, but in many ways, it’s like throwing your money into a black box. In 2008 the U.S. Government spent over $3.16 trillion on the military, forests, education, health care, roads, bridges, tunnels and a million other things. Some of the government’s priorities I agree with, such as investing money in scientific research, while others I oppose, such as two wars and domestic spying. ‘Flex Filing’ would enable you track your tax dollars and follow the results from start to finish.