Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Airtel - Accursed Buggers

I can totally imagine how Rishis of yesteryear were trigger-happy when it came to curses. If any of the rishis had had a chat with these Airtel muppets that I have had for the past 3 hours, the entire Airtel organization might have been converted to Turtles or some such.

To cut a long story short, Airtel screwed me over. They basically told me I had used 12GB of broadband in the 10 days during which I had logged multiple complaints stating that my broadband was not working. They told me that their measuring device COULD NOT be wrong and I could rhythmically collide my head with a hard surface to see if that would make me feel better. I tried. It didn't.

The issue is not that Airtel took some money from me. (Those of you who know me will know that far less accomplished foes have taken money from me) The issue is not even that my broadband speed is going to be poor for the next 3 weeks. I am from India, we entrepreneurs have always seen worse. The issue is that I have wasted an entire day on this. The issue is that I will go to bed feeling bad that I let myself get fingered by these buggers again.  The issue is that my brain is not wired well enough to say "Dont talk to this call-center person. Buy broadband for 1000 bucks more this month. If you dont waste the next two hours talking to them. You can create more value than 1000 bucks."

I am still more the Yossarian from Catch-22 who says the immortal line "Oh, it doesn’t really upset me. What does upset me, though, is that they think I’m a sucker. They think that they’re smart, and that the rest of us are dumb". The longer conversation can be seen here (go on, read it.). I feel so aggrieved at being screwed over that it gets to me. Not the being screwed over monetarily part. But the vague feeling that this person screwing me over thinks he/she has all the answers; that gets to me.  

I am learning. Next time I will quit sooner. May be I will become savvy enough to set aside 2000 bucks a month in a bid to retain my productive hours. May be I will one day become mature enough to shrug this off without a humongous unfunny blog post. I am just afraid that when that level of maturity comes around - either I will no longer have the capability to actually create something new; or I would have had to become numb in order to build another cocoon around myself.

Already abject poverty barely moves me. Nor does government apathy. If I add Corporate arrogance to this list, I will soon have to worry about becoming overly dispassionate.

The only hope is that Karma catches up with these guys. May be 2G scam was just that. Perhaps I should say a silent thanks to the King for that.

The longer, more boring part of the Airtel saga

I have had issues with Airtel Broadband for 2 months now. The latest set of skirmishes started on the 4th of November when I had lodged a complaint. No one turned up for 2 days. When contacted again, the electronic voice said "Your complaint is still open. It will be resolved by 5th of November". This message was on on November 6th. Thankfully, service Engineer came and 'fixed' our broadband issue.

Within the next 24 hours, our broadband conked again; and we complained again the next day, this time on Nov 9th. After the same cycle, this issue was 'resolved' on Nov 13th. Out of curiosity, we asked the service engineer how to check our usage levels. Turns out we could, and the stat said that we had consumed 80% of our 15GB limit already. This usage cycle started on Nov 5th. Awesome.

By this time, I might have become an irate customer. But I was still some distance from the let-me-murder-someone-now-in-the-off-chance-that-he/she-might-have-something-to-do-with-Airtel state that I find myself in right about now. The next 2 hours of phone conversations took me there.

Airtel billing arrogance kicked in at about this time. The first dame that I spoke to asked me to check my usage statistic with the official Airtel site. Our conversation went somewhat like this.

Me: I have an issue with the broadband consumption statistic.
Airtel person: Whats the problem, Sir?
Me: I narrate the whole story.
AP: Go to Go to my account and check usage statistic.
Me: It says server down
AP: I can do nothing about this.
Me: I am not worried about what the stat will tell me. I am contesting the claim that we have used 80% of our usage limit
AP: You will be able to see how you have used 12GB if the report is there
Me: Is there a chance that the total usage will add to less than 12GB?
AP (huh): We have to see that.
Me (now slowly losing it): Is there a chance?! If the overall number says 12GB, then the individual components should add up to the same?
AP: The total will add up to 12 GB, Sir. But you can see how you have used 12GB.
Me: I HAVE NOT USED 12GB. How can I complain?
AP (more patronisingly): You have to check the usage levels through the website. This will tell you how your usage has been
Me: If I have to complain, whom do I speak to?
AP: Once you check, you can complain
Me: Assume I have checked. It adds up. Can you tell me whom I have to speak to

Call gets transferred. Repeat on loop two more times. The accursed buggers at Airtel have been programmed to not even acknowledge the possibility that there is an explanation beyond the customer being wrong about his usage. The senior person told me that the Modem would measure ONLY what has been used and send that to the Airtel server and I would be convinced after I saw my usage levels.

Airtel broadband has failed more than 5 times in 2 months now. Every time, they have fixed it only after the second call. Every time their server has said that the call will be fixed on a date that has gone by. The Airtel service-men who came by did not even know how I could check my usage stats. Airtel can commit ALL of these errors as mistakes can happen anywhere. However, their billing system CANNOT be wrong. Apparently, they have done some process to demonstrate that their billing is infallible. And so, I can check my usage levels if I so choose to, but they cannot be wrong.

The level of arrogance and the patronizing air these guys have is phenomenal.

Still, these guys should know that you cannot con your customers endlessly. The higher they seem perched, the harder they fall. This is why, for all its flaws when 2G scam unfolded, and ALL of us could see it for the perversity it was; not one person felt really sorry for the existing players who had been screwed over. We all felt, at some level, that the select few Corporates that paid the price probably had it coming. Certainly, Airtel did. In fact, I wish that some other scamster screws them over with 4G or 4.5G again. I, for one, wont feel bad if the company bites the dust and goes to zero.

I am still waiting for the day when one large corporate in the company starts treating its customers well.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Online platform - What the hell is this?

I get a call once a fortnight from someone or other hawking an online platform. You know, the kind where you can have a single integrated platform for all your stuff. The discussion goes roughly like this

Sales person: We have an online platform that you can use
Me: What does it do?
SP: You can transition your entire teaching online
Me: What does it do?
SP: It is a single platform that can host your content, tests, videos, etc
Me: What does it do?....

This goes on for a while. Then slowly, I realize that said salesperson does not get sarcasm and I need to do better. So, I ask a few questions

Me: Will you come to my classroom and shoot videos?
SP: No, we provide a platform for hosting
Me: Will you edit and make my content online-ready
SP: The platform can host any type of content. (To be interpreted as NO)
Me: How much will it cost me?
SP: We can work on royalty model or revenue-sharing model.
Me (finally losing patience): Please send me proposal (that I can send to recycle bin) (mental note to self: Rajesh, you idiot. There is no such thing called as online platform. When will you learn?)

I can post questions on a blog, I can post videos on youtube and link it to my website and blog, I run a test series that has gazillion tests, in gazillion formats (Test series can be picked up from google for free). I can link all of these to my website at the cost of Rs. 0 per month paid over 1000 months. I need an online platform like I need a bullet to my head.

The content provider gives the content, youtube provides hosting services, blogs and test series are available for free. Now, if there is a value in putting all these together and packaging it well, online platforms might be able to justify the existence of the term, if they demonstrate this well.

Online platform is just a phrase used because it is perhaps trickier to say "I would like to enter into a revenue sharing or lease model with you. I bring nothing to the table". 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Jiah Khan suicide, sympathy and all that

One should not speak without sympathy for the suicide-committer and all that. And honestly, I am not against any outpouring of grief. People have sympathy to spare, let them distribute it however they please. But this whole Ms Jiah Khan brouhaha is making a mockery of the idea of a sense of perspective.

Watched some bits of random TV yesterday where some great anchor was saying that this latest episode was again clearly telling us how tough an industry Bollywood is. I nearly fell off my chair laughing. Lets be honest here, if alpha from Chennai had been a jilted lover who commits suicide, its newsprint for 2 days tops. Just because this dame is from Bollywood, these anchors should not talk nonsense. And this Jiah Khan issue crossed nonsense some time ago.

There are hajaar farmers who commit suicide every year, but we never hear that 'agriculture is a tough industry to be in'. Bus drivers, vegetable cart-pullers, the vast humanity of India employed in the unorganized sector take serious risk with every day aspects of their life that most of us white-collar types cannot even begin to appreciate. I do not want to sound like a shrill left-winger, but this fetish for sympathising with famous people is becoming indecent. First we had the Sanjay Dutt-has-been-a-model-citizen bulcr*p. Now, it  is poor heroines of Bollywood.

Bollywood is a winner-take-all industry. Winner-take-all industries are tough. Winner-take-all industries generate lots of losers. If you cannot take that, you should have not chosen the industry. It is ok to sympathize with the losers. It grates when people begin sympathizing for the winners. "Poor Shah Rukh Khan, what kind of pressure he must be under" just sounds indecent.

Jiah Khan, may she rest in peace. And be a lesson for all dames who are willing to fall head over heels in love with despicable characters. But thats about it really. Women have done this for long, and will probably do it for much longer.        

Monday, April 22, 2013

Nash Equilibrium and Tipping Point

Nash Equilibrium is one of those juicy ideas that sticks in one's mind. It can be explained wonderfully with  simple examples, and it holds the promise of even working in very complex scenarios.  One possible extension to the idea of Nash equilibrium is the idea of adding a probabilistic basis to decision-making. As in, for the famous prisoner's dilemma question, what if each prisoner evaluated his decision after attaching a vague probabilistic metric to the other prisoner prizing loyalty over a beggar-thy-neighbour policy? That could be fun.

I must warn that there is no academic basis to this line of thought. Random pontification was never inhibited by mere lack of academic basis. So, here goes.

In the prisoners' dilemma game, prisoners are expected to base their response on how the fellow-prisoner has taken his/her previous decisions. So, arguably if we allowed for this kind of scenario where everyone takes decisions based on how others have done, we approach a pseudo-intellectual basis for the other popular idea - a tipping point. Somehow loyalty begets loyalty, self-interest begets self-interest. And beyond a point, exception becomes norm and vice versa.

From society's point of view, it is in the overall interest that the Nash equilibrium be avoided, as it is collectively sub-optimal. However, if individuals reach a level where they worry only about themselves, we would inevitably land at the Nash equilibrium. the momentum for the tipping point can be either way. So, society has to perhaps create levers that give momentum for the trend away from the Nash Equilibrium.

Let us take a simple example to see the basis for this. In Chennai, at every traffic signal, we have what I am going to refer to as the ungentle-creep. When a signal reads red, all vehicles start behind the stop line. But, slowly, inexorably, all vehicles start inching up every second until they finally reach a point where they severely constrict the flow of traffic for the lanes that currently have the green-signal. There is a belief that if this inching-up is not done,  the lane that currently has green signal will have a bunch of guys squeezing through even after 'their' green turns to red (because they can). So, in order to defend a narrower set of interests, everyone has to opt for the collective sub-optimal solution.

The traffic in Chennai has reached this blissful Nash equilibrium at many levels.

Perhaps a great time for an external agency to provide an incentive for the system to go towards the other tipping point. Not likely in my lifetime. :-)

Monday, February 4, 2013

AC rooms and OC (free) Coffees

A few conversations, dialogues from movies and anecdotes just stick in the mind. For me, this is one such. Apparently, my boss's ex-colleague (let us call him Mr. X) had started his business a decade or so ago and was going through the grind of setting up a company. In the early days, one of X's well-meaning friends had a telephonic conversation with Mr. X regarding various business plans. In his infinite wisdom, said friend had given some advice/gyaan/inputs/ideas on running the business, reacting to which Mr. X apparently lost his cool and said "AC room-la OC coffee kudikara ___ laam advice kudukaraanga." (Dudes sitting in AC rooms and sipping free coffees have taken it upon themselves to provide guidance)

Awesome stuff. And so apt.

A great many people do not understand the travails of the entrepreneur  And so friends, I have tried to outline a few points about entrepreneurs that one should know before talking to them. Most of these are based on my interactions with entrepreneurs and my own mini-stint as a quasi-entrepreneur.

1. Entrepreneurs are less receptive to new ideas: Entrepreneurs will be incredibly patient with taxmen, might positively grovel before their auditors, and might be really accommodating of requests from other government servants. At the same time, or perhaps because they take so much cr*p from these sources, they will be less responsive to your genius recommendations. Not because they are really that busy, but your genius recommendations are usually cr*p. Please remember this.

2. Entrepreneurs have giant egos: If you do not understand this, you are in trouble. All other things being equal, most entrepreneurs will accept it if you say you have bigger brains than them; but purely by dint of having started a business on his/her own, every entrepreneur believes he/she has something employees can never claim to have - Cojones (described with a word describing spherical object more colloquially). Key take-away from this. Never, never talk to an entrepreneur about risk, risk appetite, risky venture, etc. if you are among the salaried class.

Now, moving on to what phrases/conversation strands you should avoid while talking to entrepreneurs.

1. What is the end game in this business?: Only someone bred in AC rooms and OC coffees can ask some entrepreneur this. The business survives through the bad weeks, inches forward in the good weeks,  and improves largely based on incrementalism, a concept alien to "big idea" guys. Should it survive a couple of cycles and should the entrepreneur want to bank it, he/she will then speak your language. But the same pseudo-intellectual babble that can make you look the big-picture guy in investment offices will classify you as exhibit A in entreprenuer-land.

2. Reverse engineering a firm's revenues: What is your turnover? is an ok question. Ask it if you must. But if you do not have the cojones to ask that, don't do the other thing.

How many units do you sell? What are your per-unit revenues, per-unit variable costs and overall fixed costs might all seem like great questions, especially spaced over a 30-minute conversation. But if you do this, you are just taking a short-cut to the place ear-marked exhibit-B in the clueless-ness fair. When you are smooth-talking your way into the numbers, and crediting yourself for your guile and back-of-the-envelope genius, the entrepreneur's inner voice is screaming "Give up on this guy"

3. Are you guys thinking of raising capital?: This is a big no. Unless you can cough up $10m+ no questions asked before the entrepreneur moans "Oh, oooh Yes", you do not ask this question. No, it does not matter if you have worn a tie to office for 10 years in a row now. You still cannot ask that question. Especially if the entrepreneur's business has NO requirement for capital.

Work-life balance, recruitment plan, and other such strategic gems are to be avoided as well.

I read this somewhere about new businesses - New businesses suffer from gluttony of ideas, than a starvation of them. There have been few truer statements. Entrepreneurs agonize over their ventures. They probably shoot down 15 ideas a day because they want to focus on the 3 they have going.

If you can take up a small part of the execution component of the strategy and take some cr*p out of a friend's lap, chip in. If a friend says he wants to shoot the breeze and discuss things about business be a listening board. Do not try to live down your inability to quit the boring job by being an uninvited board member.