August 16, 2011

"Entrepreneurs against Corruption?" - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

“I had to apply for a new passport booklet as I had run out of pages. Having applied online – an altogether different experience - under the tatkal scheme, I was hoping to receive the passport in under a week as I intended to travel for a conference soon. I then was confronted by this uniquely Indian phenomenon of a “police verification”. There was a change in my address since the last passport and my new address had to be verified by the police. I was therefore visited by a constable from the local thana. A few days later, upon enquiry, I was informed that the police verification process was still underway. Surprised, I visited the local thana. To cut a long story short, I was told by the constable that it would help if I paid some “speed money”. I refused and demanded to see the officer who, I was told, wasn’t available. I waited for some time and left. I returned much later in the evening and met the officer and complained. The officer immediately called for the constables and admonished them asking them to clear my “case” and how could they not see what kind of a person I was!”

This was the tale recently narrated to me by an entrepreneur. There are myriad such cases that all of us have to deal with on a daily basis. The issue of corruption isn’t limited to any one government department alone. There are an immense number of cases of corruption involving various functions in the private sector as well. For example, kickbacks in functions such as purchase, administration, finance and recruitment are not unheard of. Fudging of travel bills, using company resources for personal work, taking advantage of say, the largesse of a channel partner are other examples. In fact, award conferences too have their versions of such corruption. Satyam Computers was the recipient of the 2008 Golden Peacock Global Award for corporate governance. Lobbying, influencing of judges and the like are after all “legitimate” and “pragmatic” business practices. It is not unusual to see unknown companies with less than stellar credentials claim via loud media advertisements how they’re better and bigger than everybody else. The media doesn’t expose any of these companies lest they lose the big advertising bucks that these companies spend via their channels.

The last thing an entrepreneur should be is be idealistic – right? An entrepreneur should be pragmatic, no? How else will he able to negotiate the maze of Indian laws, bureaucracy and ethics? Idealism? That’s reserved for the NGO-social activist sector, isn’t it? An entrepreneur has enough on his plate, struggling to build a business in the best way he knows, frustrated with having to deal with several road blocks and we expect him to be idealistic? Idealism is meant for those who can afford it or those who have nothing to lose. Or so goes the dominant logic. So is it acceptable to inflate expenses to save on taxes? After all, the entrepreneur is focused on creating shareholder value and higher profits are what shareholders want. Is it OK to take money out of the company via inflated invoices to a friendly contractor? The list goes on.

We live in a world of declining ethical standards where making money – somehow, anyhow – is the new standard of social acceptability. The standard therefore tends to settle at the level of the lowest common denominator and that’s perfectly understandable for all of us who unquestioningly embrace the dominant logic. Of course, we can all rationalize and explain away our situation as a special case. Of course, we all love to complain and blame the other person, the system for the state of affairs. But as entrepreneurs and those interested in it, are we not supposed to question the status quo, the dominant logic. Isn’t that what entrepreneurs do? Don’t entrepreneurs take matters into their own hands and decide to upset the apple cart because they’re unhappy with the status quo and because they believe there’s a better, faster, cheaper way ahead for everyone? Don’t entrepreneurs work hard everyday to make their ideal, their vision for how things should be come true?

No - successful or otherwise - entrepreneur ever admits to paying a bribe! They’ve all built their businesses the straight and narrow way. Is this true?

So would it be idealistic to ask every one of us to introspect and make deep personal commitments to fighting corruption? Or would it be pragmatic to just go along with the way things are?

But that wouldn’t be the way of the entrepreneur, would it?

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.

August 06, 2011

"Entrepreneurship By Design" - Article by Sanjay Anandaram

I recently had to renew my passport and learnt that “everything could be done online”. I then went to the web-site (passport.gov.in) and learnt that for a resident of Bangalore (and some other cities) one had to “refer” to the home page of the Bangalore passport office (rpobangalore.gov.in) and there was no way to get to this from the home page. Anyway. Filling in the application form is certainly a test of patience requiring intuition, guess work, luck and prayer. And to think that India’s largest IT services company designed this!

Anyone who has filled in forms (and there are more than plenty of those to fill in our great land) will certainly, more often than not have had experience in micro-calligraphy since the space allotted for entering names and addresses is miniscule, while that for entering say a 6 digit number will be an inch wide.

How many times have we stood in a queue not knowing information might be sought by the clerk on the other side, many times not knowing if one is indeed in the right queue!

There are many thousands of such examples where lack of thinking gets demonstrated from web site designs to application forms to chairs and pens to buildings and cities. Thinking that relates to the context, the ease of use, the need, the clarity and cost. And perhaps it isn’t surprising. In a nascent developing market economy, basic utility and functionality is the dominant requirement as even a small obvious change (such as say, offering the ability to fill an application online) is actually enormous given the starting point. As awareness, aspirations, affordability and expectation of consumers and citizens change, the demand for well designed, affordable products and services will naturally increase.

But is that the way it should be? Shouldn’t there be any effort on the part of suppliers to provide a great experience to their customers – right from the point of interest to the purchase and post purchase service? By not putting in the effort to create new better designed products and services, aren’t suppliers at grave risk of being outflanked by nimbler, customer friendly entrepreneurs? Better design doesn’t mean higher costs. It could mean higher prices though - because customers will always pay for a better overall experience.

That hardy symbol of post independent India’s automobile engineering prowess, the Ambassador, is a case in point.

World class companies spend enormous amounts of time and effort to get their “user-experience” right. They employ experts in human behaviour, design, sociologists, technologists, man-machine interface, time-motion studies, scientists, and the like to observe, study, document, measure, take feedback, and prototype as part of the process of designing products and services. How many Indian companies can make that claim?

Design is still a hugely under-appreciated discipline in India. It shows in the way our cities are designed, our buildings are architected, the way everyday goods and services are created and offered. Either they’re crude and terrible copies of designs from the West which are out of place given the differences in usage and context in our country. A look at the glass and steel monstrosities dotting our cities as part of “modern” India is a case in point. Unfortunately, designs have come to mean designer – usually outrageously expensive and over the top - in India!

Given the appalling lack of design aesthetics, surely there’s a great opportunity for entrepreneurs who think in terms of design and user experiences. Who are demanding, innovative and willing to push the envelope.

Many years ago, a young entrepreneur in Silicon Valley decided to make “insanely great” products. He stuck to his core beliefs even as Steve Jobs is acknowledged today as the entrepreneur who’s redefined consumer experience with technology. To him, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works. In most people's vocabularies, design means veneer. It's interior decorating. It's the fabric of the curtains of the sofa. But to me, nothing could be further from the meaning of design. Design is the fundamental soul of a human-made creation that ends up expressing itself in successive outer layers of the product or service.”

Surely, there are many equivalents of Steve Jobs all over India. Let us celebrate entrepreneurship by design!

Sanjay Anandaram is a passionate advocate of entrepreneurship in India; He brings close to two decades of experience as an entrepreneur, corporate executive, venture investor, faculty member, advisor and mentor. He’s involved with Nasscom, TiE, IIM-Bangalore, and INSEAD business school in driving entrepreneurship. He can be reached at sanjay@jumpstartup.net. The views expressed here are his own.