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Anything but new normal – Coronavirus Pandemic

Make no mistake, this is turning out to be the greatest challenge of our generation or perhaps for many generations. What has hit us is not a one off event, it is a volley! The pandemic will be followed by a Series of crises. It is going to be anything but new normal. As a result I think we need a new strategy to deal with this incredible challenge, one that allows us to anticipate, prepare & adapt to this whole new world. Hang on, what whole new world?

The world is changing in profound ways we don’t understand yet

anything but new normal
We are at the precipice of cascading changes that will literally change everything

The world economy is already in a recession. Shortages of food are expected, especially in the lower income countries. The ripple effect of coronavirus on public health infrastructure is going to inevitably mean more suffering and death. As a result, many cities will suddenly find big companies moving their employees to “cloud”. Twitter, Facebook, and Shopify have already announced permanent work from home as an option. Some have announced they will become 100% remote.

What are the implications?

What happens to real estate? rentals in places like San Francisco? Also, why can’t companies like Shopify then hire a fully remote talented engineer in Manila? Or Dhaka? How will this change the Job Market? Will Bay Area remain lucrative? what about Bangalore? Will Harvard, and Stanford be the same they used to be? Will we as a generation accrue same amount of education debt? What about retail to e-commerce shift? Shift from television to streaming? What about shift towards cashless? Cryptocurrency? Remote education? Rest assured, many have already become mainstream and are here to stay. Everything is on hyper-drive. In conclusion, it is mind numbing and we won’t be able to stop it or slow it down!!

Prepare for anything but new normal

Many governments around the world fumbled, jumbled and simply didn’t get their head around what was coming. Many touted this just as a flu, others said we will acquire “herd immunity”, some were debating until it was too late. This is not the criticism of the governments, they have a tough job balancing precaution with overreaction. However, it underscores the nature of the challenge. It is completely unpredictable. Although some have done better than others, and there are lessons to be learnt. The unpredictability stems from the pandemic itself, for instance, it cannot be predicted whether therapeutics / vaccine will arrive in a month or in a year or in a few years. Although most of us have an optimism bias, it is a dangerous proposition if it does not prepare us for what is coming.

Anything but new normal presents opportunities as well

WHO’s chief scientist recently painted a bleak picture suggesting it will be 4-5 years before the COVID-19 pandemic is under control. We cannot assume that people in charge, or governments necessarily know what they are doing. You need to be in charge. Do what feels right, don’t let anyone tell you that they know better. The more original solutions and meaningful actions the more our chances of coming out stronger as a community. Especially, the younger generation has a massive responsibility to figure out what is wrong and fix it and also build a better future. If someone has an issue with how you are doing something, then let them do it their way and you let history decide who did it better. Remember, all crises come with great opportunities.

Adapt and build a community for what you believe in

We need to adapt to the changing landscape. Many small private label retailers and some big fashion brands are now partnering with Amazon to keep going. Some of my dear friends have completely changed their area of expertise and adopted to upcoming technologies such as Cloud, AIML among others. I have seen a massive push in areas such as group buying, where farmers sell their produce direct to the consumer – cheaper prices, fresher produce, and elimination of middlemen. No big tech involved, whatsapp and google sheets do the job just fine for these pandemic entrepreneurs. Many of our team have joined up with academia, and friends to help governments make policy decisions. All of these are heroes in my opinion.

Passion economy has become very big as well!

Passion economy is about celebrating individuality and sharing it with the world, and in return getting paid handsomely for it. As per the linked article, the top writer on the paid newsletter platform substack makes US $ 500,000 a year from reader subscriptions. All of us have hidden teachers, cooks, music tutors in us, and we too can make an opportunity from it. Turn to YouTube and start a v-log, open that Shopify storefront you always wanted to sell Socks, write a blog, create a private label on Amazon, start a podcast, help someone with parenting, pick up someone when they are feeling low, or help a stranger who needs a job. Do something you are passionate about, and who knows you may have the next million subscribers.

anything but new normal
Source – Social Media Credits Unknown

Good luck on your journey, it is going to be unique and challenging, but I promise you it will be worth it. After all we are in anything but new normal.

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Opinions

Building Social Capital in a Pandemic

building social capital in a pandemic
Be on the lookout for what is lost – Satya Nadella (source – nytimes)

Building social capital in a pandemic shouldn’t be any different than any other times. Correct? This excerpt from Satya Nadella’s recent interview with nytimes got me thinking. All of us have social capital built up. Some of us are spending it as we ride out the worst pandemic the world has seen in a 100 years. What happens when the hardships increase or conflicts arise? Can we simply continue to build more social capital in this socially distanced world? Perhaps we can!!

We are in this together

I have spoken and connected with many long lost friends. Virtually met friends from primary school that I hadn’t heard from for decades. This happened only because of the pandemic. I have shared more intimate moments with my child, and with my loved ones, that I wouldn’t have probably done to this extent. Our innate human nature is compensating for lack of social contact. Moreover there is a really clear underlying sense that we are all in this together. We may or may not have herd immunity but we definitely have acquired herd empathy.

Purpose is greater than productivity when it comes to building social capital in a pandemic.

A lot of organisations track productivity metrics. I have seen and even experimented with many approaches to measuring productivity. While they are certainly useful, they do not generally encapsulate nuances of behavioural psychology let alone a raging pandemic. As Satya mentions, poor mental health, widespread burnout, and false sense of euphoria over magically switching over to an all remote environment are all real dangers. The best thing about office for me, is it offers a clear boundary between family and work – this blurring boundary is not something a virtual setup will be able to solve for easily.

Practically, what I have observed is that in this environment a sense of purpose trumps productivity metrics. A sense of purpose need not necessarily be a big visionary statement. It can be simply clear, concise and collective objectives. Such clear collective objectives can actually ensure that layers and layers of communication are not needed. It also ensures effort on the right kind of tasks with minimum redundancy. We can also federate decision making and ensure speedy decision making.

Shared values, Shared trust and reciprocity

We all know that Interpersonal relationships form the very heart of social capital. We have to put in concerted efforts to create new social relationships, especially at work, reach out to new people.. setup virtual coffee sessions, help someone out without necessarily expecting something in return. Teach a new skill, ask for advise, give advise, mentor someone. What is most important is that we share common values – values that your organisation chooses to identify with. Also build trust and common sense of purpose relentlessly. That I believe is what keeps the team going.

I find 1-1 informal conversations as frequently as possible helps a lot. Last but not the least, reciprocate! If someone reaches out, take the time out to have small chat. Someone seems a bit down, offer help or a chat. If someone calls you, make an effort not to forget to call back – be approachable – especially as a leader.

I hope you found this useful, but these are just my thoughts. I’d appreciate your views too, thanks for taking out the time to read.

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It’s time to build – Reflections on Marc Andreessen’s clarion

It’s time to build. Marc needs no introduction!! He is the co-author of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser. He is also the co-founder of Netscape. In addition, he is the co-founder and general partner of Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz. Marc makes a hard-hitting point about our pervasive failure to build. COVID-19 crisis has literally revealed all our weaknesses. This is aptly personified by the quote below by James Lane Allen.

“Crisis Doesn’t Build Character, It Reveals It”. 

This has been exposed by the Coronavirus crisis. We have failed to build so many things. Including but not limited to medicines, vaccines, ICU Beds, ventilators, masks, and PPE! This is not to say we lack the capacity to build or innovate. However, we knew about bat-borne coronaviruses for a long time. Because, we were caught un-prepared. In Marc’s words, “it is failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to build”.

it's time to build during coronavirus pandemic
Failure of action and inability to build is leading to catastrophic consequences

Effective governments have managed to “flatten the curve”. Containment, tracing, and lockdown have enabled this. Ineffective governments and their health systems have struggled. I find this argument flawed. I believe the real issue is over complication of decisions. This may be putting in place too many processes. This is exasperated by legal landscape, middlemen etc. Our failure to build and scale the health system has resulted in chaos. As a result, loss of life. Perhaps some of these failures could be explained using Chaos Theory. Edward Lorenz and his definition of chaos seems quite relevant now!

“When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future”.

According to Marc, this is not because of lack of money. It is because of lack of desire to build. We have tried to optimize everything without regard for second & third order effects. For instance, by outsourcing manufacturing just because labor is cheap. As a result, there is now a quantum shift of “build” expertise to offshore locations and worse strategic reliance on them. “Short Term” Investor focus exasperates this. Marc argues that this is why we haven’t seen flying cars, massive delivery drone fleets, or Hyperloop mass adopted yet.

While the essay is America centric, I can imagine that this has crucial bearings on developing economies as well. Take India for instance, we shouldn’t just aspire to become the “services” provider for the world. We should take urgent steps to improve our manufacturing prowess and reduce reliance on foreign manufacturing. Marc goes on to say that we also see major discrimination when it comes to building and scaling up in a few sectors. These include – Education, Healthcare, Housing and Infrastructure.

On one hand, this has resulted in escalating price curves for these sectors. While, on the other, while availability of smartphones and consumer tech becomes more affordable than ever. Again, this is not only applicable to America, but developing economies such as India as well. In our generation, we have seen incredible escalation in price curves of Education, Healthcare, and Housing. It is clear that we are heading for a ticking bomb.

There is a need for 10x improvements across sectors. One reason why, it’s time to build.

We need to scale up our high quality education. Also, we need to use 10x improvements in Online learning to educate every remaining soul in India. We need to unleash telemedicine and last mile delivery services to massively scale up and improve our healthcare system. Through public private partnerships we need to build new cities to reduce strain on our metropolitan areas and also control spiralling housing prices.

Finally, Marc makes a passionate appeal to stop obsessing over whose model of building is better. Instead, start holding left and right both accountable for results. Upon reflection, in a place like India this is of paramount importance. See Twitter on any given day, you will likely see trending topics downplaying or up-playing the ruling government. Whether you are a Prime Minister Modi fan or not, we need to support him. Please do not get polarised by social media. Instead, focus in your own capacity for nation building.

it's time to build and come together
It’s time to come together

Finally, a crisis demands us to come together, sacrifice, and resolve. As Marc says, building is hard but our forefathers did it. We can too. If now is not the time to start a “build movement” I don’t know when is?

Thank you Mark for your seminal call to arms. I will surely be building!!

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Opinions

Misinformation effect – workings of a trojan horse

Misinformation effect can be explained best via a metaphor. A Trojan horse – usually an eavesdropping kind of a computer virus, or as some of you may know the mythological wooden horse with hidden warriors inside used by the Greek to end the siege of city of Troy. I think the metaphor continues to evolve and its latest incarnation is social media! Specifically, the rampant misinformation effect on social media.

Don’t worry I am not asking you to give up your WhatsApp! However with great power comes great responsibility according to Voltaire or Spiderman 🙂 depending on whose philosophy you follow. I strongly believe that Social media is being used as a Trojan horse to manipulate and literally hack into the minds of billions of people. We need to do something about it.  Social media is probably as profound an invention as the internet itself. However, I believe it is a huge contributor to some crises of our times. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of world-wide-web, highlights these challenges in 3 parts. First, we have lost control of our personal data (huge topic, not for now). Second, it’s too easy to spread misinformation (a.k.a. Trojan horse 3.0) and third,  political advertising needs transparency and understanding. In this blog post, I share my perspectives.

People are the biggest subjects of mass internet adoption & social media

Arab spring is when we saw the first signs of this. People used social to rally public opinion and an uprising. We began to see fundamental impact in Tunisia and other places. Fast forward to today – Brexit is a reality, despite our utter disbelief. America elected Donald Trump on a super controversial and rather ingenious campaign.  Misinformation effect of social media has enabled this outcome. Can anyone predict what are the long-term consequences of these events? One thing is certain, the reductionist narratives are succeeding. Savvy people who know how to manipulate social media are grabbing power. Social capital is declining. The future, to say the least looks very much on an edge. How did we let this happen?

Majority of people do not verify facts, and are prone to misinformation effect. We need to acknowledge this, without an excuse

Most people look at a headline online and assume it must be true. People look at an internet meme negatively associating someone with a crime, and over time, they think it must be true. We are not the most logical creatures we think we are, we are prone to errors of judgement all the time. Information bias, confirmation bias, belief bias, ambiguity bias, conjunction fallacy and more are pitfalls of our own cognition. These make us an easy prey when we face complex social decisions. We favour simple looking options and complete information over complex options and incomplete information – often ignoring truth or facts in the process.

Ironically, real world is often full of complex options and incomplete information. Consider Brexit. People were given simple options (In or out), and total but apparently complete mis-information i.e. we go out of EU and we get back £350m a week, we keep single market access, and we are in control of free movement – sounds awesome, right? well except it was not a fact. This red-bus photo or similar ones were distributed and seen millions of times, thanks to social media.

brexit-bus
Courtesy : mojoworking.eu

Reality however, turned out far more complex. We have heard ridiculous red, blue or white Brexit, hard Brexit, a “deep and special” partnership. In conclusion, However people still voted leave.

There is no silver bullet to address the root cause of misinformation effect, however we can make a good start with a transparency movement, and a sufficiently strong industry response to this phenomenon

With billions of people X times the content, it is literally impossible to police everything. I have seen algorithms and AI tasked with identifying “bad” stuff, but it is also well known that algorithms are probably even more biased than human beings and are prone to manipulation. Perhaps, a good start would be to start with a transparency movement – Google has made a good start by including a fact checker on some of its content.

google_fact_check
Courtesy : Thisinsider.com 

At least it will act as a warning sign to not take information at the face value – others should follow suit. In fact, I believe with Google and Facebook pretty much controlling most of the products in question, there should be a strong industry response translating in explicit features such as the one describe above, online ads reminding people, awareness campaigns and TV commercials.

Ultimately though, we do not believe everything a stranger tells us in the real world, we use discretion. Why should the virtual world be an exception?!

Thanks for reading, please let me know what you think in the comments section.

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Opinions Technology

Smartphone is now officially boring. Wait, that can be a good thing!!

The rumour is true. When was the last time you got really excited watching a smartphone launch? I bet it was a long time ago. Even the once highly sought after leaks are all too lacklustre these days. I love to be on Twitter during a major launch event and watch some really funny mock-tweets. It has got to a point where people don’t even know the difference. They just love Apple and buy! see one of the Jimmy Kimmel creations below!

In all seriousness though, we all know that smartphones have transformed the world. Growth in smartphone base, number of apps, and the amount time people spend on the apps is just staggering. This is true despite seeming lack of innovation. I highly recommend reading this blog post. It highlights that Apple & Google are now unassailable until the next S curve is here. AR, VR, AI, voice and chatbot may all turn out to be a thing, but that may not affect the S Curve of the Smartphone. In fact, as the unit growth in smartphone continues, Apple and Google will focus more on improving software, experience and the ecosystem.

The massively increased share of revenue via app stores, is certainly a leading indicator of this shift. The reason I say the slow innovation is a good thing is because I believe it is an opportunity for Enterprises. They can focus now more than ever to catch-up on the incredibly challenging task of gaining, keeping and transacting with customers on Mobile. In fact, I strongly believe that many enterprises need to re-think their very perspectives on this.

We need to stop thinking of Mobile as “an interface” and think of it as “the interface” and invest sufficiently, where it matters

Imagine, a fictitious sandwich company that wants to leverage mobile. Sounds like a great idea. You can build an app to enable ordering, delivery, streamline payments, click-to-buy and a host of other things. Alright, assume you have a great app and a fantastic user experience but think about it for a second. How many of us will care to download the Sandwich company app, and even if we did, how many will use it or keep it without deleting? With almost zero footprint of user’s attention, it is incredibly hard.  Even more so for a sandwich company! Business, technology and operational complexity even in a sandwich business is significant, and it would be foolish to suggest that there is one strategy.

However I believe, as enterprises strive to leverage mobile they need to consider the following 3 key dimensions. Attention, interaction and transaction. If we consider economics of an app based commerce, we can assume for most businesses it means lower costs, increased margins and potentially great 1-1 customer experience. This is very foundation of e-commerce, so nothing new here; but apart from having a great product, I believe we need to incentivise customers along these dimensions.

Attention

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Unless you are Snapchat and you can make a rainbow jump out of people’s mouth, there needs to be a compelling incentive for customers to even notice your app. Some offers are simply not good enough – for instance “a chance to win X” or “a chance to win trip to Y”. We can do better! something tangible, of real benefit to the customer.
Best fulfilled in context and instantly. For the sandwich company for example – 40% off your first purchase, or £5 credit on first usage. Nothing new here, most mobile native start-ups do this, so I wouldn’t dwell on it too much.

Interaction

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How many times a day do you expect people to open the sandwich app? In order to continue to occupy people’s mind-space, we need to incentivise the customer regularly for visiting the app. I understand that this is easier said than done. Obviously some app categories don’t need this kind of interaction incentive. For instance, great content e.g. Netflix, ultimate productivity e.g. Dropbox, Social e.g. Instagram, to name a few.  So, interaction incentive is when you give something to the user for coming back to the app. Some games do this really well – every time you stop playing but come back to the game after some time, you get free virtual coins. Depending on the nature of business you can decide the frequency of your incentive. For instance, the sandwich company could do one of their best deals exclusively for app users every 2 weeks.

Obviously all needs to make commercial sense – generally though customer retention cost is less than acquisition cost and there can always be limited number of deals. Oh and there is word-of-mouth! invite a friend and both get credit. Remember Uber? Virulence is an important feature that needs to be built in to the app. It is expensive though! You could build social invites too. We all hate random invitations on Facebook, something to keep in mind!

Transaction

FreeCharge-Mobile-App

This is the holy grail. Assume that customer downloads the app, interacts with it regularly to redeem your generous incentives. How do you ensure they transact? Well firstly, the sandwich better be good, the ordering, payment, click-to-collect all needs to “just work”. That often is not enough, we still need to incentivise. You might think we’d be out of business after giving so much away in offers. However, with added volume of transactions, you will realise that it almost always makes commercial sense. Otherwise Starbucks wouldn’t do it – collecting stars on the app whilst having the ability to cut the queue is simply fantastic. So, how about an app exclusive loyalty program for our sandwich company? There can be a mix of options – coupons, points, virtual currency, or simply cashback.

It is needless to say that apart from offering direct incentives, your app can just create magic through experience that cuts the time and effort it takes for customers to transact or reduces anxiety associated with the transaction. Invisible payments (Uber), cutting the queue (Starbucks), live waiting times (Citymapper), real time tracking (Dominos) are all fantastic examples.

To sum up, I believe that whilst its not necessary to pester the users with deals & offers enterprises must make explicit effort to address the attention, interaction and transaction barriers when they think about their adoption and engagement strategy. While we hit the maturity curve of smartphone product lifecycle, it is now more important than ever for enterprises to catch-up.

A small disclaimer – I realise any generalising is dangerous & this may or may not apply for everyone. Thanks a lot for reading, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments section.