Saturday, February 27, 2010

Innovations that will reshape business

Trend spotting can be tricky. Just think about all those predictions a few years ago that people, especially the Baby Boomers, would retire early and then enjoy the fruits of their labour for many years to come. And then along came the recession or slowdown or financial meltdown or whatever it was and suddenly, early retirement was no longer an option for many. In fact, for many Boomers retirement itself now seems a distant possibility.
So the new, post-recession mantra is ‘ postpone retirement and work longer’. Almost simultaneously, and perhaps inevitably, the idea of the ‘multi-generational’, ‘age diverse’ workplace, with each generation benefiting from the wisdom of the other(s) took on a life of its own.
Or consider all the talk from a few years ago about financial innovation, globalised financial systems and the supremacy of credit being the way to go. And then consider where all that innovation took the world.
So it’s pretty interesting to see that the Financial Times has got into the trend spotting act with this story on 10 innovations that will reshape business.
One instance of an innovation that could transform business over the next decade, the FT says, is the revolutionary discovery that “Greed isn’t as good as we thought”. Truly visionary!
While it will be great to see businesses renounce, or at least temper, the Gordon Gekko ‘greed is good’ philosophy, will this really happen. I wonder. While values such as passion and purpose drive entrepreneurship and business, the desire for profit is, arguably, what fuels corporates. So while the single-minded pursuit of profit may be diluted with values such as responsibility and a sense of purpose, corporate greed won’t simply disappear.
The FT piece also talks about how people will have to ‘work longer, work older’, with more people in the 50s and 60s choosing to turn entrepreneurs. This innovation will in all probability throw up demographic and social impacts that will need some serious thought from communities and governments the world over.
One possible impact of the ‘work longer, work older’ movement could be in the workplace, especially given another innovation that the FT article talks about: ‘Generation Xers come into their own’. How businesses handle a multi-generation workplace, with a mix of Gen Xs, Gen Ys and Baby Boomers will determine the contours of corporate life. Especially interesting will be corporate efforts to find a balance between the leadership aspirations of the Generation Xs and the Boomers who are hanging on to the reins of power.
What really makes me go hmm… is the assertion that trial and error could become a legitimate business technique! Equally odd is the declaration that governments, companies and individuals should “roll up for some risky business”. ‘Innovative’ financial products structured around risk, it seems, aren’t going away any time soon, their perceived role in the global financial meltdown notwithstanding. But then as the FT piece points out, according to Robert Schiller, professor of economics at Yale University, the credit crisis merely shows that “much more work needs to be done to democratise finance. The crisis occurred because the principles of financial risk management were not being applied to the widest possible population.” I do wonder where this innovation is going to take business?
In all fairness though, the FT piece also talks about a couple of innovations that are truly innovative. One is the, move towards smarter energy use and management. The other focuses on the changes that are spreading through the world of shopping; for instance, the move towards creating pick-up locations for goods ordered online. An option that is likely to be a hit with shoppers who are time-starved.
Now some of the innovations the FT piece talks about, are ideas that have been floating around for a while. So they really aren’t new. Yet, it will be interesting to see just how much they reshape business over the next few years.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Shah Rukh Khan gets down to business

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a spike in the media coverage of actor Shah Rukh Khan. Not particularly surprising given the ruckus that engulfed the release of his film My Name is Khan on February 12. So I’m not going to mention all that here.
What interests me, though, are a couple of pieces that appeared in the business press — Business Today magazine and the Financial Times, to be specific. For both stories — in varying degrees — focused not so much on Shah Rukh the entertainer, but Shah Rukh the entrepreneur!
Last weekend, the Financial Times featured Shah Rukh in its popular Lunch with the FT column. Though the piece was more of a general-ish profile, it also slipped in a mention or two about Shah Rukh Khan “the multi-million dollar superstar brand”.
Business Today, however, really put Shah Rukh the businessman in the spotlight in its last issue. In a cover story titled SRK Inc, it talked about how Shah Rukh is not just the badshah of bollywood, but is also an entrepreneur with an eye on building a business empire. His business interests range from the predictable film making and producing content for television to the slightly more unexpected ad film production and visual effects business and, not to forget, his stake in the Kolkata Knight Riders Indian Premier League cricket team. Most of these businesses are run as divisions of his company Red Chillies Entertainment, which according to the Business Today story had revenues of Rs 73 crore in 2008-09.
Shah Rukh is not the first bollywood actor to take a stab at running a business. While actors like Jeetendra and, more recently, Shilpa Shetty and Preity Zinta have dabbled in entertainment-related businesses, the most famous example of an actor-businessman is, arguably, Amitabh Bachchan. While Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd (ABCL), Bachchan’s first corporate venture, in the mid 1990s, went horribly wrong, he appears to be having more success with AB Corp, the new avatar of ABCL.
However, what makes Shah Rukh stand out from his bollywood peers with entrepreneurial ambitions is that he appears to have the sort of business savvy that will make India Inc proud. Some of this business sense seems to have come the hard way, from his experience with Dreamz Unlimited, his first go at running a production company; a venture that wasn’t too successful.
The Business Today piece, for instance, reveals that while Shah Rukh takes all the creative decisions, business decisions are mostly taken by the professionals who head the various divisions of Red Chillies Entertainment. Yet, Shah Rukh has, in a sense, influenced business decisions too because he’s the one who hired the professionals! And like any good entrepreneur, Shah Rukh is passionate about his ventures, but also appears to have the detachment needed to take hard decisions if one particular business isn’t doing too well.
Yet as Shah Rukh says in the Business Today story, his philosophy of business is less about the bottom line and more about a business’ larger purpose and whether it lives up to this purpose. This ‘purpose is the soul of a business’ approach is what, perhaps, what really makes Shah Rukh the entrepreneur interesting. So much so, that I wouldn’t be surprised if a b-school somewhere soon writes a case study on him!
Of course, a misstep or two could throw Shah Rukh’s empire-building ambitions out of kilter as the ABCL experience testifies. The badshah of bollywood, though, will be conscious of this. But as the Business Today story puts it, if Shah Rukh needs to raise some money all he needs to do is shake a leg for a few minutes at a private party or pick up a brand endorsement or two and the money will flow in.
Now that’s a funding model that even the canniest entrepreneur will find hard to replicate.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A private retreat by the beach

Back in the 1990s, Surya Samudra was one of the hippest, and priciest, resorts in Kerala.
Scattered across a cliff in Chowara, south of Kovalam, near Kerala’s capital Trivandrum, Surya Samudra was a little enclave of down-to-earth luxury that offered an amazing view of the Arabian Sea. The resort’s dozen or so ‘cottages’ were mostly traditional Kerala houses built primarily of wood, bought from across the State, painstakingly dismantled and then reassembled in the resort with some modern conveniences thrown in. The romantic twist to the tale of these old buildings, most with exquisite woodwork, was that they were saved from demolition or being sold as scrap.
A swimming pool of granite and a couple of semi-private coves with only local fisher folk for company added to Surya Samudra’s coolness quotient. What really pushed its coolness quotient up though was that the cottages did not have frills such as television or in-room music. It was just the sand, the sea and the sky.
In some ways, stepping into Surya Samudra back then was like entering a private home; a very snooty, art-filled home with personalised service. Which, in a way, was what it was.
For Surya Samudra actually started life as Klaus Schleusener’s private retreat; his own slice of paradise. He moved to Kovalam from Chennai in the mid-1980s and built the first house. Schleusener’s early guests were mostly friends from Europe, but seeing how much they loved to visit and stay with him, reportedly sparked the idea of the resort. Over the next few years, additional cottages and facilities were added to cater to the constant flow of tourists, mostly from Europe. Schleusener also bought up most of the land around Surya Samudra to ensure it retained its ‘private atmosphere’.
However, by the early 2000s, Surya Samudra hit a bump of sorts. Schleusener sold the resort and moved away to develop another private hideaway on an island near Alappuzha. This was followed by a period of obscurity till the property was bought a couple of years ago by Jupiter Capital. Surya Samudra’s new owners then shut it for renovation.
Rechristened Surya Samudra Private Retreats - Kovalam, the resort has just re-opened its doors to guests. It is the first of several Surya Samudra Private Retreats that are to be built across India — in Kumarakom, Waynad, Puducherry, Chikmagalur and Goa.
What I am looking forward to seeing is whether Surya Samudra Kovalam has regained that fascinating bouquet of uber-coolness, down-to-earth luxury, snootiness and personalised service that the original Surya Samudra exuded.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A forest’s tale

Forests are slowly sprouting across north Kerala.
A couple of years ago, the Nila Foundation, Kodeeri Nature Camp and The Blue Yonder‘Traveller’s Forest’ and hoped that it would increase green cover in the region and thus contribute to eco-restoration of the area. decided to plant and nurture trees in a large plot of land along the Nila river in Kerala’s Malappuram district. They called it the
The Traveller’s Forest is also an effort to involve travellers and the tourism industry in “greening the globe”. So tourists visiting the area are encouraged to plant a sapling to celebrate their visit. What, however, distinguishes this ‘greening’ initiative from many other similar ventures is that the saplings don’t simply wither away; instead, they are taken care of by the guardians of the Traveller’s Forest.
And though it’s called the Traveller’s Forest, Gopinath (Gopi) Parayil, who is the soul of the Nila Foundation and The Blue Yonder, says that the trees will be planted whether or not the travellers come. People, especially those from the area, are also encouraged to mark important events in their life by planting a sapling: so saplings are planted to celebrate birthdays, weddings, anniversaries and so on.
Now, interest in the Traveller’s Forest is growing. A few weeks ago, Gopi, spoke at the MES College in Ponnani. Soon after that the principal of the college offered to set aside an acre of land on the college campus for setting up a local Traveller’s Forest. And though much needs to be done to translate this into reality, it is an encouraging step.
As Gopi puts it in a blog post: “If only 10% of our school and college management decides to follow M.E.S Ponnani college, Kerala would be a better place to live in and visit!” Can’t but agree with that.
It also is a small example of how responsible tourism and businesses that operate on responsible tourism principles can make a difference.
Disclaimer: Gopi is a good friend and someone whose work I admire.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Business lessons from The Dead

Practitioners of the art of management have often found inspiration in the most unlikely places.
Sport and the military have, quite unsurprisingly, been major sources of inspiration for management best practices. For instance, some time last year IMD hosted Usain Bolt the Jamaican sprinter who won a gold at the Beijing Olympics. During the discussion, Bolt offered his b-school audience thoughts on success, motivation and standards.
Equally interesting is that India's film industry has provided food for thought to managers and business thinkers. Almost a decade ago, the Hindi film Lagaan created a buzz, not just for its entertainment value but also for the management lessons it offered. In fact, Totus Consulting — a company based in Chennai, India — did some qualitative research on the management lessons the film had to offer.
And now the news that there are business lessons to be learnt from the band the Grateful Dead. According to a piece in The Atlantic magazine, the Grateful Dead Archive is scheduled to open soon at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
While the archive is expected to be a treasure trove for academics of all hues, the biggest beneficiaries may perhaps be business scholars and management theorists, the article states. This is because management thinkers are finding that The Dead were business visionaries who focused on things like creating customer value, promoting social networking and strategic business planning long before the corporate world warmed-up to these practices.
The Dead, for instance, focused very intensely on its most loyal fans or ‘customers’. “It established a telephone hotline to alert them to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order house,” the piece in The Atlantic points out.
Similarly, The Dead also had a Board of Directors, with the CEO’s position rotating, and set up a profitable merchandising division. The band even allowed fans to tape shows for free, based on the “assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on merchandise or tickets,” the article adds. A forerunner of the ‘give it all away free’ Internet business model, perhaps?
It appears, in fact, that John Perry Barlow, The Dead’s lyricist, had it all figured out over a decade-and-a-half ago. In a piece in Wired in 1994, he suggested that in the information economy “the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away."
So do sport, music, art and literature have lessons for management? Perhaps; just as management may have lessons for sport, music, literature and art!
PS: I also suspect that business thinkers and managers will soon look to the Hindi film Three Idiots for nuggets on the art and science of management!