What a Pakistani can learn from an Indian entrepreneur

I was reading an article on Techcrunch and it occurred to me that the article had some very concrete lessons to teach anyone willing to either start, maintain or grow his or her enterprise. The article was about a company from India, but I read it like a lesson in the application of simple yet solid principles. (Maybe the principles are solid because they are simple?) So let me put on a different set of glasses than what the author of the article used, and see this in a *ahem* different light.

It is about Learning

The ability and the willingness to learn is possibly the most under-rated ‘quality’ of any successful person. But not so with RedBus, an Indian startup (http://www.redbus.in) that sells tickets for – and no, you can’t guess it – buses. Their market share for selling bus tickets is 1% of the total 750,000 or so seats sold in India daily. So what is RedBus ‘really’ doing that got it going and keeps it going?

  • For starters, it serves a very decentralized market. This gives you the opportunity to ‘centralize’ it as it fits you. You become the center in fact, which in most cases, is good.
  • The co-founder and CEO Phanindra Sama met his mentor Sanjay Anandaram, at a ‘networking’ event. Many people I know look down upon such events as being demeaning and too ‘in-your-face’, but they work, now don’t they?  (The meeting was through TiE’s JumpStart Program)
  • The co-founder and CEO Phanindra Sama actually found a mentor. This also means that he possibly was looking for one. Are you ever looking for someone like that? In most cases, you are not. You should be.
  • The CEO actually listened to his mentor. For example, as the article puts it:

    [The CEO] cites Anandaram’s advice. When RedBus was trying to sell software to the bus lines, it was Anandaram who said: Don’t keep trying to sell the same thing, ask what they need and build that. The bus lines needed to sell seats. So RedBus built a site, and bought the inventory itself from the bus lines to list on the site. Once it proved it could move seats, the operators were happy to pay the company a percentage of seats sold.

  • The company learned from the market, rather than teach the market. As is clear from the above para, RedBus relied on a seasoned pro, who in turn did the simplest thing in the world when you think about: he told them to make a product that the market is already asking for, rather than making a product and then convincing the market to buy it from you. This attitude in itself is the major ingredient in any recipe for business success.
  • The CEO kept a level-headed approach towards expectations as well.  He was told by his mentor to tell a bus operator that RedBus can sell one seat for them a month, even if they ‘project’ and ‘expect’ to sell fifty, and if they sell two, they’ll be a hero, not a disappointment. This rock-solid, proven technique of under-promising-over-delivering that I can vouch for was, again, given to the CEO by his mentor, whom he listened to (refer to points above.)
  • The CEO Mr. Sama did not bother about ‘stereotypes’ when he listened to advice and followed it up without letting his ego get in his way (“I am a businessman, I dont need anyone’s advice” attitude is to your business success what gravity is to a meteorite; destructive). Sama’s company operates their call centers from seven different location within India, why? Because of the dialect, and the ability to create rapport of the call operators with the person calling. RedBus also thinks of itself not as an internet company, but a business that has Internet as just one of many channels of and for business. That is solid, simple, straight-forward thinking that is seldom seen implemented in operations.

So, are you looking to start up your own business? What can you learn from the above?

Also, one of the biggest problems you could face is not that of funding, but of the ability to find the right teachers and mentors. You are probably worried about not having money, where the problem might as well be that you don’t end up having the right mentor.

The Eternal Student

You, as an individual, should always be a student. A student of life, for life. Then you’d agree, that a student needs a teacher. Find him, her or it. Learn. Don’t be afraid to implement and test what you have learned. Chances are you will falter, but that increases your chances of success the next time around.

I have only recently stepped up my efforts to find the right teachers for as many facets of my life as I can. Most of these teachers do not know that they are so valuable to me. They think that I am their friend, just a friend. I was only calculating yesterday that I traveled by road, more than 1500 kms in the last 7 days to meet a total of two people, both of them I consider my teachers. Note, I met them for the first time in the last 10 days or so, and I literally had to hunt them down. I was willing to pay them for any trouble of sitting and/or going with me, but they have refused payment of any sort so far. These ‘teachers’ are from and for the specific field of livestock. I think the you can safely assume the presence of God’s Grace in your life if you have many good teachers for different facets of your life.

So go out there, because that is what all really good books are made of.

Happy learning,

This is the student signin’ out,

God bless and good luck to us all.

An Idea Sir Jee! Reduce Poverty Through Livestock

The idea to reduce poverty through self-employment is of course not a new one. You would not be alone to think that a good idea on poverty reduction methods would be a good start. But you’d be wrong. There is no dearth of ideas, and if you can put away your bag of cynicism and sarcasm away for a while, then this availability of ideas is a very good place to start. The problem is the doing bit. There is absence of that ever-illusive political will to really provide sustainable methods of employment, hence poverty reduction.

Now, behold, as I present to you an idea that has already been tested in the field by the likes of Malik Hanif, and have so far seen success and nothing but. Are you beholding? Good, let’s begin.

Continue reading An Idea Sir Jee! Reduce Poverty Through Livestock

Let your calendar be your boss

It is about choices, never forget that.

So, choose that you will let your calendar be your boss. You will let it tell you what to do. You will listen. Being someone who is ‘unemployable’ (i.e. self-employed), you find it hard enough to cancel important social events like weddings and friend get-togethers because you have to work. “But you do not have an office!” is what you hear, “But you do not have a boss to bring hell upon you!” is what your friends and family seem to ‘complain’ about. So let them know that you do what your calendar tells you to do. Let your calendar be your boss.

Integrate Google Calendar with your phone (I have a Blackberry and Google Calendar syncs like a glove!). Set reminders on it like crazy. People will end up thinking you have an army of secretaries who are scheduling your work load. And if you have more than a few things on your plate, keeping a not-so-tight schedule becomes all-the-more important.

With the new Google Smart Rescheduler that is available for all users of Google Calendar, I think the bar has been raised. The company that is making billions out of a search algorithm, has written up a small calendaring algorithm that helps you reschedule. The idea is best exaplined in their post here.

For all the Google Calendar users, you need to activate this feature in the Labs section, a link to which is found on the top right corner of your gmail. Once there, go down to the Rescheduler (of the Smart variety of course) and Enable it. You are good to go.

The point is, choose your ‘tools of the trade’ carefully, and then let them do what they do best. Trust your tools, just like you ought to trust your employees. This way, you not only get more done, you get a lot more done in a convenient and cool-lookin’ way.

This is the calendar man, signin’ out,

Happy scheduling.

Force Majeure?

Force Majeure: It is the easiest escape route, you as an individual and as an entrepreneur can take. Blame it on ‘superior’ forces. (Quickly, read the first paragraph on Wikipedia on Force Majeure – it’s alright to not know – now go, quickly, click here :P)

When I first started in agriculture, the land I had on lease had only 1 tubewell. Over the course of five years, I have been able to install three more. Why? So I can plant the rice crop with ease and take it ‘to the next level’. What happened? I had four tubewells ready to irrigate the crap out of the land, but I had no electricity.

All through the summer of 2009, the electricity situation was not bad because really, there was no electricity to actually have ‘any’ situation. Whatever you went through sitting in your residential homes in the big cities of Lahore, Karachi or Islamabad – the situation where I have leased the land was worse! 8 to 10 to 12 hours straight without electricity. The light would come one for one to two hours, and then gone for the next 8 to 10 to 12.  So what use were the tubewells? It was an expensive lesson, but a lesson nonetheless.

That there is a reason this Force Majeure is used in contracts, because when shit hits the fan, no one remembers to turn the damn fan off. You can not plan for everything, just like you should not. It is a myth to think that you, as an entrepreneur, need to know the ‘nitty gritty’ to start work. Because as far as I am concerned, I am convinced, it is this ‘Superior’ Force that gets me to where I a trying to go anyways. It works both ways.

Meeting Malik Hanif, the Unicorn breeder

Feeling big about travelling hundreds of mile in my not-so-comfortable car to just ‘meet’ with someone who has reached the epitome of success as I’d define it, I was already happy that I was in Hafizabad. The person I was to meet has been breeding Unicorns it seems.

I have a direct interest in the business of agriculture, and recently been involved in setting up dairy farms. I have visited a few, read about the different techniques, applied them to gauge results and talked to all sorts of people in the business of livestock. Here’s what I have gathered so far, related to the selection of cows vs buffalo:

  • Buffalo suck. Buy cows if you ever want to be profitable in this business

That’s pretty much all that I have heard and read about. From SMEDA to PITB to every ‘serious’ businessperson in between, buffalo are the ones that had got to go. You can already see the effect of preferring the imported cows versus our own indigenous buffalo in brands like Prima, that proudly claim to give out 100 percent pure cow milk.

The reasons quoted for ditching the Buffalo completely are not many, but are simple enough to understand i.e. the buffalo, on average gives 6 to 8 liters of milk over the 10 month lactation period. The imported cows give anywhere between 20 to 30 liters. The difference in milk yields is more than significant to convince any would-be entrepreneur to write off buffalo completely.

But I have been in the milk business for the last three years (via my other project, Kemaak) or so and I know that selling cow milk is harder. People are more attuned to the high-fat, relatively sweetened taste of buffalo milk. I had a direct interest in keeping buffalo in my dairy farm, instead of cows. That is where Mr. Hanif comes in with his unicorns.

He breeds buffalo that give, on average, 15 to 18 liters. When I heard it, I was sure that this is the Unicorn i.e. a myth borne out of the sheer desire of people to have buffalo that can give high yields of milk. I found the unicorns to be not-so-mythical after all, when I met Mr. Hanif in his 100 Acre orchard. Nestled in this orchard is his small farm of animals, both cows and buffalo.

And you know what was the first thing he said when I asked him about his method of operation? “I don’t do it for the money, I do it because I love these animals.”

His herd size is hardly 20 animals, but the milk yield is more than what other people I know produce with 80 or 100 animals. He proudly told me that in the last 4 decades or so, his love for buffalo and his desire for excellence (his own words) has given him the finances to buy 100 acres of land, put his children through 16 years of education and have given him respect that only winning 5 Presidential awards in Cattle Breeding can bring. And after saying this, as an after though, he adds, “I did not do it for the money though”

The buffalo are highly priced, but they are proof of concept. Apart from proving the inefficiencies of our government and private enterprises for developing the indigenous buffalo breed of Nilli and Ravi, the buffalo at Malik Hanif’s farm are proof of concept that when it is from the heart, it is far better.