Monday, December 29, 2008

A Note on the TATA NEN Hottest Startup Contest

I stumbled upon the TATA NEN Hottest Startup contest yesterday. The site can be accessed at The site features a slide show on the 30 finalists, 5 of whom get declared as the hottest startups in India. I spent some time going through the websites of the finalists and I found the array of ideas and business models extremely stimulating.

A word here. It is one thing having an idea, it is another making it work. "Making it work" involves pricing it right, selling it in packages the customer wants, having flexibility to adjust to demand, managing operations, managing short term and long funding etc. Essentially, the same idea can be operationalised in different ways. One way to break down the operational aspects of a company are in terms of the 4Ps. (Product, Price, Promotion, Place) One can take an idea as old as the hills and play around with this mix and come up with an entirely new offering. Therefore, you could have a lorry business, but maybe if you came up with an innovative pricing scheme, and if pricing was very important to clients in this business (which is the case), then just that innovation could make your company different. You can take this one step further and become a company that comes up with pricing solutions for the lorry industry. (Of course, the demand would have to be large enough and all that) This is on the marketing side. On the finance side, for a startup, if your idea does not generate cash quickly, the pressure is that much more. Getting all these elements right ensures success. Frankly, it is not as complex as it sounds. One must always remember this. The MBA program is 100 years old, Corporate Finance in the modern form is 50-60 years old. Business on the other hand is thousands of years old. Hence, all these fancy terms constitute a checklist of stuff that the entrepreneur needs to be wary about. A more organized form of this "checklist" is the business plan.

Enough talk. Let us get into some ideas that I thought were worth sharing. (Please note that the list is very very subjective. These views are shaped purely by the personal experiences of one individual and in no way a reflection on the other startups)

There is a startup called Wyn Brands whose business model is based on managing the supply chain for fresh vegetables for customers like McDonald's, Domino's, Pizza Hut etc. Till now, I assumed that this would be an in-house function. Apparently, these firms outsource vegetable procurement (maybe even cutting of vegetables) to vendors! Who knew! But once you are aware that this opportunity exists, it makes perfect sense. If I ran a big restaurant and my vegetable demands are well understood (which is usually the case), why not leave the headache to someone else and just focus on quality check. I like this because the idea is simple and the value is clear. The problem is that it is easily replicable and risk of margin pressures in the future (due to competition). But that is ok. I am sure something can be figured out in time. What matters is that someone has got this to work. The company started in 2003 has a turnover in the range of 1-5 crores. Again, it would be interesting to see the net profit margin, but I still quite like the idea.

Another interesting startup is FieldTurf Tarkett. This company offers artificial grass for landscaping, indoor sports flooring, synthetic tracks etc. I would have expected that designers/architects would have normally been responsible to find a subcontractor for this kind of thing. In the case of sports flooring, I suspect that one would have had to contact foreign vendors. Currently, there is a lot of interest in non-cricket sports in India and I think these guys have come in at the right time. Of course, there is always the question of pricing and profits. But the reason I am highlighting this idea is that just by looking around us and asking how did this get here, we could get thousands of ideas. All of us walk into beautifully designed offices day in and day out. Some of us admire them, but we just assume that the builder would have taken care of it. But even the builder would have to contact so many vendors to achieve that goal. Just breaking down those elements and researching about them could be a starting point to ideate for the budding entrepreneur. For example, maybe, specialized energy management solutions for buildings are a big business segment. Observe and ask!

One totally whacky idea on first encounter, but kind of obvious on reflection is Sacred Moments. The company offers designer pooja kits! Outwardly, all of us like to pretend we are oh-so-rational, but face it, all human beings need something to hold on to. One would expect that this business is not only recession proof but one that thrives in recessions! I am sure these Bhakti Packs are sold for a few hundred rupees, but I doubt if it would cost much to put one of these things together. The biggest costs should be packaging and transportation costs. I would expect it to be a high margin business. Since I am currently not a pooja doing type, I don't see the value of this product for me. It would be interesting to see how this evolves. But I still like the entrepreneurial thinking! :) This is to highlight that you don't need to have high funda to the max ideas to become a "succesful" entrepreneur. If your objective is to earn a steady and comfortable income by working a few hours, then such "low funda" ideas could give you more bang for the buck.

In the Indian business environment, legal services and logistics are two huge huge gaps. Remember both of these are essential for the smooth functioning of companies in the macro operating environment. In the field of legal services, the startup featured here is Imagine, there is a fresh faced kid right out of school who wants to start something. The biggest stumbling block or the "fear factor", in my opinion, is the labyrinthine legal system that one may have to confront. I guess most people would go to their family lawyers. What if you never had a family lawyer? Then you would go by referral. Normally, lawyers do not advertise. (Someone told me that they are not allowed to advertise) This kind of a site, while clearly not advertising, serves just as that. By presenting some oft needed resources on the net, the company must be able to strike up quite a few clients.

Coming to logistics, we have Chennai based Ennovasys. Ennovasys' company profile says that "..[It] is a software company providing real-time asset visibility across supply chain." This is a really cool idea. Imagine you were a trucking company owner and could monitor your assets on real time basis. For the right price, I would buy it.

A related idea is Rasilant Technologies which offers tracking services based on RFID. However, their product offering is quite interesting. They offer inventory management systems, smart card solutions for campuses and clubs as well as secure access systems. There is nothing new about the business model but the reason I have featured it is because they have claimed in their profile that "Rasilant tackles Security concerns and improves organization processes through RFID automation and has a turnover of INR 1 Billion in three years." If this number is true, damn, who knew!

This post has gone for too long. The full list of finalists can be found here. In the IT services sector I liked DeskAway. I did not understand the exact value proposition of some of the other ones, but some of them have really high turnovers.

I will conclude shortly. There are two business models that I found to be very innovative but not sure about the take off for these ideas. One is This startup uses the internet to revive that beautiful tradition of lending libraries. You choose a Price plan and the books get delivered to you! They claim that there are no late charges! Even with all that, I don't see myself signing up for such a service. But again, I would be very interested to observe this startup.

The other one is Mumbai based Ecomove solutions. While the argument that increasing pollution would see people switching to alternative modes like bicycles is well taken, unless the government makes special facilities for cyclists I don't see the idea taking off. Again, I could be wrong. It is not for nothing that these startups made it to the top 30 from over 500 nominess.

There are many more exciting startups here. Happy ideating!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Reco

I guess this is not the time when people would be going behind books on Derivatives, but I recently came across a nice book. It is called "Option Volatility and Pricing: Advanced Trading Strategies and Techniques" by Sheldon Natenberg. The Amazon Link can be found here.

The most popular book used on Indian campuses is "Options, Futures and Other Derivatives" by John C Hull. It is cheaper and much easier to obtain. It is my personal opinion, but I found Hull verbose and difficult to read.

The basic difference is, Hull gets into the mathematics, whereas Sheldon Natenberg is more of a "How Things Work" kind of book. Sheldon Natenberg was an Options trader while John Hull comes from an academic background. Both books are excellent in their own ways but the difference lies in the language and the mode of presentation.

Hence, if you are looking for a starter book that is mathematically less intimiditating or if you have read Hull and found it a bit above your head, I would strongly recommend Sheldon Natenberg.

Another book that has been strongly recommended to me (from the point of view of practise) is "Dynamic Hedging: Managing Vanilla and Exotic Options" by Nicholas Nassim Taleb.


'Tis the time for alternate views

Given the current turmoil, one chances upon more articles questioning the integrity of the markets. In my view, the question is not so much as to whether markets work, but more of whether we must accept the boom and bust behaviour that has been characteristic of markets. While all of us enjoyed the highs of the boom, the current "bust" (which would be an understatement) has left most people questioning whether that was all worth it. (In fact, whether it was all there to begin with in the first place)

One such work which questions market fundamentalism is "The Alchemy of Finance" by George Soros. He delves a bit into philosophy, raising fundamental questions of how the human mind learns and understands. He uses that to build his "Theory of Reflexivity" making some important observations in the process. Frankly, I have found the book very difficult to read. I have been truly laboring through the pages. In fact, if it was not written by Soros, I would have discarded after one sitting. This blog is purely meant to highlight the existence of the theory. I shall not attempt to explain the theory as I am not sure I even understand it.

It may also be noted that the Theory of Reflexivity has not been taken very seriously in Academia. But, there are some intuitively appealing points for the practitioner. Again, if you have never been truly convinced or impressed by the Efficient Markets Hypothesis, this could be an alternative viewpoint to consider.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Musical Treat

A gifted singer. One of the most sensual yet powerful voices that I have ever heard.


Where is the party?

I was waiting to get on the train to Turku to catch a boat to Stockholm. I had half an hour to kill, so was just wandering about when I came across this.

Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting the Chemical Toilets. The way it works is, when people want to organize an outdoor party to enjoy the sunny day, they setup stalls for food and stuff. They also call in the chemical toilets people who install this so that you can enjoy the outdoor party without doing chee-chee on the environment around you.

Of course, after some time these chemical toilets get kind of unbearable. However, I think there is some potential for this in India. The next generation Sulabh anyone?

Anyway, upon seeing this, I guessed that a fair or party of some sort must be going on nearby. I came across what could have been an impromptu performance by the Finnish Royal Orchestra. It was superlative and it piqued my interest in Western music. Any suggestions on pieces I must listen to? Also, does anyone happen to know anything about this gifted singer?

(Note 1 to self: Too much pondy and toilet talk. Must clean up act henceforth)

(Note 2 to self: Must sing paeans about the Exchange (Erasmus) program at Helsinki School of Economics (HSE). Anyway, if you are looking to go on an exchange program, I strongly recommend the Helsinki School of Economics as a place where there is a good balance of fun and academics. More later!)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Romances of the Past

It was half past three in the afternoon. Rita stood at the small balcony in her friend's house overlooking the Juares metro station. She savoured the warm Parisian day. The sound of happy chatter from the cafe below made her feel elated to be back in Paris. She had just returned from a trip that she would rather not think about and on returning to Paris, she headed straight to Crazy Betty's apartment. Betty had promised her that some boys would be visiting in the afternoon and they could start off the party in the evening itself.

Rita heard the bell ring. She opened it to find four boys, all full of excitement due to their first visit to Paris, happily chatting away, living in the moment. Betty, Rita and the four boys sat down to tea in the cramped apartment. Soon, the apartment was filled with the sound of happy chatter.

Rita noticed that one of them did not speak nor did he even appear to be interested. He was mostly peering out through the window, and sometimes took out a black comb to style his hair.

"Vain sonofabitch", she thought to herself.

After half an hour, the chatter died to a comfortable silence. Betty started speaking about the plans for the day.

"Can I smoke in the apartment?", the guy who had not spoken so far interrupted.

"No honey, please step on to the balcony", Betty replied.

"When did you become such a prick?", he said, with a shy smile.

"Oh no... I don't have a problem. As you can see this is a small place and my landlady - that self righteous boring nosy teetotalling old fart - is visiting tomorrow", Betty sighed.

"You do love her don't you. Well, if she is visiting tomorrow, we cannot have the party here tonight, can we?"

"That is what I have been saying Dan. Don't you ever listen?"

He was already on the balcony before she could finish.

After some more talking, everyone got up to leave. This was going to be a legendary night, they exclaimed.

"Come on Dan, Rita", Betty shouted from the door.

Just as Rita stepped towards the door, Dan grabbed her by the hand, pointed to her watch and showed five on his hand.

"Hey Betty, I have something to catch up with. Will be with you in some time, you guys carry on", Rita shouted.


Dan stood up from the bed. Rita looked at the clock which showed half past five.

"You leaving already", she asked


"Well... Betty is not going to be back any time soon, if that..."

"Are you begging me to stay"

"Not begging you mister", Rita said making a face. She reached out for a cigarette and lit it.

"You know, I have wondered if there is a Freudian interpretation to women smoking"

"Well if you are suggesting anything, it is not happening", she giggled

Dan smiled and took out a writing pad and pencil. He positioned himself on the opposite side of the bed from where he could get a view of Rita lying on the bed.

"Have you forgotten about Betty's landlady?", he asked

"Who cares. What are you doing?"

"Nothing. Just stay still"

Rita shifted her weight on to her side and placed her hand in a position to obscure her bosom.

"You got to tell me if you wanted to sketch me in the nude, you know. I have to be mentally prepared. I wish for my derriere to be given prominence"

"You shall henceforth be my muse", Dan said with finality.

Rita blew a cloud of smoke. She expected him to continue. After another puff, she said, "Oooh... am I supposed to be honoured? Where will this go?"


"So, these are the trophies for your conquests. Your trunk of love?" (wink)

"It is interesting", he interrupted as if he did not notice. "Have you noticed that the nude is actually less erotic than concealement. I have a clothing theory to evolution. The Modern Man has to go to great lengths to get women out of their clothes. He can succeed only if he has money, valour, power, personality or any combination of the above. This forced modern man to invent machines, organize labour, get into politics. On the other hand, cave man could see all the breasts he wanted. Bereft of mystery and the lack of a chase in life, the cave man just met his basic needs.

If you see the pace of progress, it took the cave man thousands of years to move from the stone age to the iron age to the bronze age. Whereas look at the rate of progress achieved by modern man. All because the latter was forbidden to see the woman in nude without any effort"

"Horse crap. Geez, I thought you were one of those strong silent types. After some time in the bed you turn into a drivel machine", she laughed

"I knew an Algerian girl who used to pose the very same way", Dan continued.

"It was my first trip to Paris. I had come here with my friend Jack... to paint. We took boarding in a tiny hostel. The bar in that hostel was run by this girl. I fell in love with the city. Jack fell in love with her. She was going to be Jack's Raging Passion."

"Ah...", she muttered softly and leaned forward.

"Stay in one fucking position", Dan commanded

"Well, if we were fucking, I would be in one position", Rita retorted.

Dan paused for her to pose.

"My first painting of a nude was an amazing experience. Somehow, tracing those sensual lines of the female form on paper, was an aesthetic experience in itself. So it was for my friend as he hurtled to Jack's Heavenly Torment"

"Tut tut... poor sick bastard"

"The girl had skin the colour of olive oil and hair as black as jet. She wore a floral patterned gown and a black blouse atop. She was the picture of calm and had an almost holy air of innocence. Jack tried his best to win her favour, but she remained faithful to her lover who had gone to Algeria for a while.

This enraged Jack. He could not fathom how that uncouth beast of a man could win the devotion of an angel. Soon Jack was going crazy. Then he remembered the experience at art school. He convinced her to pose naked for him. She charged a hefty sitting fee. He made one sketch, then a second, promised he would stop with a third and after many a sketch, was soon penniless. She refused to let him inside the bar. At the end of his wit, he took to selling the nude portraits on the streets of Pigalles. He would go back to that bar every time he made money. One day the lover returned. He discovered these paintings and thrashed Jack. He was about to knife him when the police intervened."

Dan paused. A cloud of smoke hung in suspended animation, as if waiting for Dan to end his pause.

"Jack begged for some days on the streets of Pigalles for money to buy some paper and pencils. He needed to make money. The only thing he could think of was to get to Sacre Cour where tourists paid for caricatures. After a year of that he went back to art school. He was famous there. Even now tourists come in search of the artist with the scar under his left eye."

Rita gasped. She went and embraced Dan and tenderly caressed the two inch scar under his left eye.


(I had challenged myself to write a "clean" dirty story once. I think this fits the bill quite well . Was inspired by couple of pages in "On The Road" by Jack Kerouac)

(I also thought it would be cool if Edward Norton played the role of Dan and Salma Hayek played the role of Rita) :)

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Porn Industry in Crisis?

(Point 1: This is a NSFW blog. (Not Suitable for Work) Of course, I know that warning just made you read further just like the "Video is Flagged" tag actually increases the tendency to watch a video on Youtube. One of these days I am going to put a NSFW tag and make people read a boring post on Indian economy or something)

(Point 2: What with this being a momentous days for our polity, the topic below is... somewhat... unsuitable. I figured the net must be full of analysis anyway, so I might as well do my thing)

I have been extremely disturbed by the emergence of Youporn and Redtube. As I shall demonstrate below, the problems in the internet porn industry are a reflection of the troubled times we live in.

First of all, look at the names Youporn and Redtube. Both are plays on the same word Youtube which is anyway a boring word to begin with. Booble is not innovative but does merit a giggle, but on the other hand how unspiring are Youporn and Redtube! Can't they atleast play on some other thing. How is "Porn R Us" for example? Funny in a twisted and audacious way methinks. :P If anything, there are red light districts but blue films, so not to be anal or anything, but shouldn't it be Bluetube?

Gone are the times when sites had names like Milfhunter. Now that was a name that launched a new word in the vocabulary, a signal of who was in and who was not. ("In" as in... oh forget it)

That invention alone places the founder of the site in the ranks of other word inventors like Shakespeare and the black rapper dude who says shizzle, dizzle and all that.

Exhibit B. Look at the name of the actresses. It is always a Nicky, Vicky, Heather, Sandra or Nicole. As a result of this, every "dancer" from Wan Chai to Shinjuku gives these as their fake names. Another example of American standardization killing Asian creativity.

Exhibit C. The wonderment of porn is lost with these free sites. There was once a time when teenagers found a lost credit card, exclaimed hallelujah and tried it for porn. Imagine, the modern day youngsters growing up on this... this free stuff. Galling!

Exhibit D. I am getting bored of augmented assets. As they say, if they do go either way, they are usually fake. How about going natural this season? Go girl power!

Last but not the least, the days of wonder are dead. Gone are the days when one saw certain videos and thought to oneself, "Damn, they can do that!". Now it is all the same stuff. A typical outcome of our times where self aggrandisement leads to boredom. Where is the shock and awe I ask, where is the shock and ugh?

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Dying Lion at Lucerne

A Hero's death

One of the memorials that impacted me deeply was the monument of the Dying Lion at Lucerne, Switzerland. The sculpture of a wounded lion is carved onto a granite cliff.

The expression of the lion is a work of genius! Who can believe that such emotion can be crafted onto emotionless stone. Somehow the sculptor has managed to capture the last few moments before the lion's death in one motionless piece.

The wounded lion lies vanquished in its last few moments of existence, yet one gets the feeling that it was a brave death. Even in this position, the lion's mane gives it an authority and there is a nobility in the face. Is this the elusive hero's death that the epics talk about?



I spent a few quite moments there, bought a souvenir of this monument and continued my journey. I just knew this to be a monument for Swiss soldiers who died in some battle. I did not bother to find out about the battle.

Today, I stumbled across this link which tells the story of the monument. Apparently, this was a monument built in honour of Swiss Mercenaries who died while defending the French Royalty in the French Revolution!

I was a bit surprised. The monument which affected me so powerfully was intended to honour people who were protecting the "bad guys" of the French Revolution. However, this still does not diminish the artistic brilliance of the monument. I will ignore the meaning and just take the beauty out of this. More importantly, whatever may have been the intention, it is still a fitting tribute to bravery, valour and nobility.


The Swiss Mercenary Tradition

I was intrigued by the phrase "mercenary tradition". Here is an interesting article on the same.

"For more than 500 years, young Swiss men went out into the world in a controlled military environment at an age when they are quite naturally a little wild," said Anselm Zurfluh, director of Geneva's Museum of Swiss in the World.

"They usually returned calmed down and wanting to work, settle down and have families. I firmly believe this is one reason Switzerland is so peaceful."