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Category Archive : Travel

My Jabalpur Visit Confirms that Bharat is Booming!

I was part of the final jury that was judging business models at a weekend hackathon in Jabalpur. It was a massive event with almost two hundred teams competing to build the best solution to different problems. I was impressed by the progress that some of the teams made in the short span of 40 hours.

The Executive Director of Jabalpur Smart City Limited (also the organiser of the event), Mr. Chandramauli Shukla encouraged the audience of over 400 budding entrepreneurs to work with the government. He committed to the top 30 teams that the government would be the first tester or consumer for their solutions, since they were working to solve problems that had been put forth by the government itself.

There was a palpable energy at the venue, and the teams presented with confidence regardless of their preference of language. It was powerful stuff.

Even outside the venue, Jabalpur is a town on the move. The city is getting a rapid upgrade with the implementation of multiple projects under the Smart City program. Roads are being concretized, filthy lakes are being cleaned and beautified, garbage bins are being given RFID tags and the data from them is being analysed. There are multiple but unheard-of restaurant chains like Chai Sutta Bar that are choc-a-blocked with teenagers. The city will also get an autonomous traffic management system soon. I was told that the citizens have responded positively to all these developments and I even met people who have moved back to Jabalpur after emigrating to developed countries like China!

What I saw was a stark contrast to the image I had in my head of a Tier 3 start-up ecosystem like Jabalpur. I was pleasantly surprised.

Just under a year ago, I had written about the transforming effect that Jio and GST would have on the Bharat that exists beyond India and the importance of positioning my VC investment gun on start-ups that cater to these underpenetrated ecosystems. Since then, I have made a conscious effort to visit the start-up ecosystems of Bharat like Udaipur, Kharagpur, Kanpur, Goa, Lucknow, Chandigarh, Mysore, Guwahati, Indore, Surat, Raipur and now Jabalpur. During my visits, I witnessed the wave of change that is taking place with my own eyes and I cannot emphasize any harder (as I already have before) that the next wave of start-ups will come from Bharat. However, after the visit this weekend, I realized I have underestimated the speed and the size of that wave.

A truly Mera Bharat Mahan & Jai Hind moment for me. 

9/2019

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It Took this Infographic to Fully Appreciate 2018!

2018 has had its fair share of highs and lows, and it wasn’t until my team summarized our progress through the year (personally and professionally) that the all-encompassing scale of this year was visible, and what a year it has been!

2018 in a Nutshell

Armed with this data, I’ll be evaluating and sending out the hits and misses for 2018. I will especially keep in mind the misses when planning my goals for 2019. I will be sharing my list of goals for 2019 within the week because I truly believe that unless one announces their goals to the universe, there is very little chance of actually achieving them.

That’s it for this year, see you in the new year!

104/2018

Perfecting the Vacation Auto-Response

I have been finding ways to manage the dual stress of entrepreneur and venture capitalist through 7-day breaks with the simple objective to ensure that

  • I am (almost) completely off my digital devices
  • I have time earmarked every day to read books
  • I am disconnected from work, especially my emails
  • I am pursuing a hobby or spending quality time with family

So, as I write this blog post from the departure lounge at the airport, embarking on my 4th 7-day quarterly break I am excited about the benefits these breaks have provided me. I return from these breaks with my creative batteries recharged, armed fresh perspectives on solving issues within Artha or the portfolio we manage and (most importantly) my energy levels are renewed and restored to 100%.

However, a major stress factor for me before (and after) these breaks is the massive pile-up of emails that I am supposed to go through once I am back. I thought that my auto-response emails that inform the sender that I am out of network and my replies will be limited until I am back would reduce the influx. However, I would also come back to a bigger email problem than I had assumed and I would get hounded by people in the first 2-3 days after I was back in the matrix.

I realised that the issue was that the auto-response implied that as I soon as I was back I would be responding to those that had sent emails in my absence which wasn’t going to be the case. Therefore I needed to try something new. So when I read a post from Brad Feld from 2015 wherein he talked about dealing with the same issue that was plaguing me, I was all ears!

Brad’s post was refreshing because it puts the onus of being on top of my priority list, on the sender of the email, not the receiver. I believe that the approach is brilliant but for someone of Brad’s stature especially as Indians are highly affected by the tone of something more than its intent. I deliberated over this for most of the evening and I decided that I should test whether my fears are grounded in reality. Therefore if you are one of the people that emails me in the next 9 days you will receive an immediate response that will say:

I’m checking out for a vacation until the 24th of September, 2018. I’ll be completely off the grid.

When I return, I’m going to archive my inbox so I’ll never see this email. If you’d like me to read it, please resend it after the 25th of September, 2018.

If you need something urgently, please email sandesha@artha.group and she’ll either help you or get you to the right person at Artha Group to give you a hand.

Cheers!

Anirudh A Damani

I am going to test out the hypothesis that those that really wanted to reach out to me will make the effort to reach out to me on the 25th of September and if their issue requires an urgent resolution the competent hands of Sandesha will be available. In essence, I have made the decision that the renewed energy I bring from the 7-day breaks should be expended on my portfolio companies and my team instead of cleaning up my inbox!

88/2018

Is Hong Kong’s Octopus Card a Model for Mumbai?

I am in Hong Kong attending the Rise 2018 summit.  This is the first time I walked out of the Hong Kong airport and my expectations of this city were based merely on what I had heard about Hong Kong from the people who live here. Little did I know that I was in a for a surprise.

The first thing that I noted about Hong Kong is the lack of digital penetration when it comes to modes of payment i.e. digital wallets, debit cards and credit cards are useless here as Hong Kong thrives on cash as a medium of exchange. My first experience with the lack of digital options started when I tried to get into a cab from the airport to go to my hotel but was denied service as I did not have any Hong Kong dollars on me. I had to go back to the ATM inside the airport so that I could pay the cab service.

Another incident took place when I was trying to buy some groceries from a store at the MTR station and the store didn’t accept any of my cards.  The experience at the bakery a few doors down wasn’t any different. It was a surreal experience considering how deep the digital payment players have penetrated the Chinese and Indian lifestyles and since Hong Kong is supposed to be the gateway to investing in or out of China I just expected digital payments to be universally accepted here. In fact, this peculiarity stumps even the local expats, especially those that often visit China and I think it is a phenomenon worth further investigation.

While I spot an opportunity for a smart founding team to penetrate the Hong Kong payments market, they could face fierce competition from a local closed loop card called the Octopus card. This closed loop card is just like London’s Oyster card or Delhi Metro Smart Card in that,  it allows the user to deposit money to utilise the public transportation infrastructure. However, the interesting thing about the Octopus card is that it is an acceptable mode of payment at most pay points that did not accept digital payment mediums. Take for example this morning, I ordered an amazing breakfast smoothie at the local breakfast place, the cashier would not take my credit card but they had a reader to accept the Octopus card. I found the experience weird and brilliant at the same time.

It made me think of creating a similar closed loop payment ecosystem in an Indian metropolis like Mumbai or Delhi. A payment card could be used to access the public transport infrastructure, pay at stores, maybe even pay tolls etc. The card (like the Octopus card) should be partly owned by the local government so that there is a strong trust with the consumer as well as the merchants accepting the card. To ensure a seamless experience, the card will require an able tech team, an ambitious entrepreneurial team and a strong network infrastructure.

However, the transaction data, the fees from merchants and interest from the balances on the cards could create solid revenue streams. Introduce the ability for banks, P2P lenders and NBFCs to provide the consumer & the merchant credit based on the transactional data and it is a serious business!

57/2018

Why Artha has Hopped Aboard the Travel Train!

Co-edited by Dhiral & Karishma

Why we want to invest in travel?

Indians love to travel. Whether it was the protagonists in epics like Mahabharata/Ramayana travelling far and wide to fulfil their duties or Mahatma Gandhi travelling across the country to identify and abolish the evils of British rule; India and Indians have travel embedded in their culture.

Post-independence, governments pursued socialist policies to cut spending on expensive leisure travel. Red tape & licensing was extensively used to clamp the airline industry to prevent the outflow of precious foreign exchange to purchase fuel and planes. The hospitality and railway industries weren’t treated much differently. It wasn’t until the liberalisation in the 1990s and infrastructure boom in the late 2000s that the presence of airports, airlines, buses and hotels skyrocketed. Thereafter, the state & central governments actively invested in such projects to make life easier for travellers.

As per the data available from the Ministry of Tourism the number of trips taken by resident Indians for business or leisure (not employment) touched 1.6 billion in 2016 more than doubling from the 748 million trips taken in 2010. The impressive CAGR of 13.6% is more than twice the pace of growth in the overall economy! The ever-increasing internet penetration only made discovering and booking trips worldwide more accessible to consumers and in turn catalysed the growth of this sector. As per an IAMAI report travel makes up 56% of all online transactions in 2016 at Rs.95,200 crores ($14.9 billion) and is estimated to grow almost 50% to $22.5 billion in 2017. The TREND is clear – The fraction of wealth from the Indian wallet allocated to travel has clearly increased and will continue to do so.

aD_Blog_2017_10_23_Investment Thesis for Indian Travel_Chart

Source: CEIC Data

Furthermore, the UDAN scheme that subsidizes air travel in tier 2 & 3 cities will increase the number of mango people that are able to afford flights, therefore increasing airline traffic. This would also allow the impressive CAGR of domestic passenger traffic – 11.8% (2010-2017) to continue on an upward trend.

 

What are the problems worth solving?

  1. Corporate Travel

According to the Federation of Hotel & Restaurant Associations of India, 59.2% of all hotel bookings are made for business purposes. As any executive or their assistant (who actually books their travel) will tell you, there is no sole platform that understands and resolves every requirement of a business traveller. OTA’s today are solely competing on the basis of who can provide the steepest discount and burning holes in their own pockets in that process.

Corporate travellers however, are more concerned with the efficiency and convenience of platforms that would save even a minute of their precious time. Any EA/PA out there would tell you that booking travel for their bosses is a royal pain in the *** and that they would unquestionably spend the extra $$ to get it done without the headache of having to deal with it themselves. A top executive at Google went to the extent of saying that the main reason his EA/PA’s were quitting was due to the stress of organizing his hectic travel schedule.

I suggest that a set of smart founders sit down with EA/PA’s to study the pain points in the process and design a platform that incrementally solves the problems. This platform would not only be responsible for finding the best route or price, but also do it keeping in mind each individuals preferences, loyalty program memberships and the discounts offered by their credit/debit card companies. The founders can work closely with flight operators, OTAs, hotels, taxi operators, etc to amalgamate the process of organizing travel by making it a stress free procedure.

Initially the platform could promote itself as a free tool for EA/PAs and monetize affiliate commissions. However once it is up and running full swing with additional features like restaurant suggestions & bookings, expense reimbursements, etc. it could switch over to a monthly subscription model. I have no doubt that EA/PAs would convince their bosses to pay the minor fee in exchange for avoiding the million hassles. (read: EA/PAs have a lot of power). I do have other ancillary benefits in mind including revenue streams from data mining, AI and even credit schemes but I’d like to meet a team capable of making this a reality before disclosing more elaborate plans.

  1. Door-to-Door Travel Management & Multi-Modal Travel

It is essential that we create a platform that amalgamates the process of organizing travel from start to finish, from initial planning all the way through the effortlessly executing every logistic along the way to ensure an enjoyable and pleasant experience to every traveller. Pre-travel approval/gathering travel information, poor booking experience and travel debrief with travel departments are amongst the top 5 challenges faced by Asian travellers as per the latest Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) survey conducted in 2017.

Imagine a rome2rio platform that not only allows a user to conduct a meta search amongst all travel options (airlines, buses, trains, taxis, etc) to get a person from point A to point B but also manages the entire process ; from booking the taxi that would  take you to/from bus or train station all the way to checking you in according into your seat preferences 24 hours before your flight.

Such a venture would act as the layer on top of all the current players entirely avoiding any form of competition with them as it would be foolhardy to compete with the incumbents OTAs’ business model where they spend more on promotions than the revenues they make from them.

Why should a founding team in the travel space choose Artha?

A large portion of my previous portfolio at Artha India Ventures was invested in travel. We took early positions in companies like Maximojo, OYO rooms, Repup, Confirmtkt, Roadhouse Hostels and have been a part of their struggles and growth from close quarters. Therefore, our strategies & advice have been refined over time from real experience in the sector. My family also has a vast network in the hospitality industry which would facilitate the opportunity for start-ups to reach out to relevant people and give them the opportunity to test their ideas immediately.

I am convinced that travel as a sector will continue to outperform the economy and I have made a personal commitment to invest in this sector. If you or someone you know wants us to review their business proposal, then ask them to email me on prospects@artha.vc

 

Delighting the Customer – the Taj way! 

I usually do not write my blogs before 6-7 pm but the events of my breakfast wont allow me to keep my thoughts within my head.

The last time I was in Bangalore I was put up at the Taj Gateway Hotel on Residency Road. The stay was pleasant except for a couple of issues and unlike my nature I took the time to fill out the feedback form that was emailed after my stay was done. My apprehensions with these feedback forms is evident in my long held belief that these feedback forms are directed to the trash folder or to a person who has no power to effect a change… but my belief took a paradigm shift today thanks to, Executive Chef Naren Thimmaiah.  
In my feedback form I had complained about the hotel using a brand of ice-cream that had everything but milk in it. The ice-cream had an atrocious after taste and it isn’t good for health as its made with everything but pure milk. I complained about that and completely forgot about it.  

Last night I checked in again at the Gateway and as I sat for breakfast this morning, Chef Thimmaiah approached me at my table addressing me directly, as if we knew each other! He proceeded to explain that my suggestions from my previous stay were taken very seriously by the hotel and that they had decided to change the vendor for the ice-cream!  

Chef Thimmaiah profusely thanked me for taking the time out of my day to register my discomfort with the food item and that he will be happy to serve me the fresh brands of ice-cream available at the hotel at my convenience.

Think about that… a company the size of Taj Hotels took the time to read a feedback form filled out by an insignificant customer like me! Infact the entire staff was aware about the feedback form and I was asked on multiple occasions throughout my breakfast if I was comfortable or needed anything else.

It is a lesson for all entrepreneurs that no matter how big or small you are a focus on developing and delivering a customer experience is paramount to the repeatability of business from that customer. When the customer is delighted by the service offered he/she will recommend it to 10 others or write a blog post and post it all their social media forums – like me.

Save India from being Buried

After 20 years I returned to Kullu Manali for a short trip. The drive from to the hotel was breathtaking. The beautiful scenery, the clean roads and marvelling at the development work that has happened and is currently on going. Suddenly the breathtaking was stunned by an unbearable stench of garbage. The stench refused to die for almost a kilometre and the culprit is kept away from the eyes by a wall that unfortunately could not control the stench. 

A short drive away from the smell I look back and notice a garbage dump that could make the strongest stomachs churn. The unscientifically managed dump will take decades if not centuries to turn to compost as it has plastics mixed into it. As it is an open garbage dump on the side of a hill that is a few hundred metres from the Beas river during the monsoons the rainwater will mix with the garbage and dump leachate into the river that will carry on from the mountains into Punjab on the West and Bihar on the East. 

That the garbage problem would affect the ecology of a district of not more that 20,000 people is alarming enough to sit-up and take notice. The area earns hundreds of crores in tourism revenue and that should have been sufficient for the local municipality to create a systematic garbage disposal system. However, since the problem will only be the current persons for a few years before they get transferred someplace else it is often overlooked for more visually appealing development that can be touted in the next election or promotion. 

My travel across India has shown that this garbage issue isn’t one off situation and there Garbage-Ghats acrosss the length and breadth of the subcontinent.  I have presented on this issue a couple of years back at StartupJalsa where I highlighted the problems of a lack of waste management across the country. My presentation got me a few meetings with a minister who was in attendance but after initial enthusiasm the issue was passed off to a subordinate who then was too busy to give me or my partner in RegenBiosystems any more time since it wasn’t a “burning issue”. 

Finally we could no longer push through the red tape and the administration was happy building walls to protect our eyes from the garbage than to clean the mess. However I would prophetically state that if we don’t start cleaning up our mess.. very soon we will buried under an avalanche made of our own garbage.

 Photo Credit: https://bizimages.withfloats.com/actual/580eeecf9ec66811c401e2e7.jpg

Uber Goes Free For The Week- my thoughts

Uber is free for you if you pay via the Uber wallet (T&C: 5 FREE rides up to Rs. 300 per ride).

This is of course a great way to increase wallet usage (something which Ola has cracked very well), though such ‘predatory pricing’ activities are bound to attract wrath from the auto and taxi industry.

From an earlier comment by Anirudh Damani (Managing Partner at Artha Venture Partners) :

My family is an investor into a taxi booking company so let me be clear that we follow this space closely and we may or may not see higher values for the investment but what I have seen in this space in the last 6 months is disrupting the lives of many taxi drivers and fleet owners.

Here are the major issues I see:

1. These cab companies are selling below cost… this is obvious when you take account of the recent strikes that hordes of drivers of the taxi-booking companies went on strike as they were out of fuel! They get the subsidized amount from the customer which is not enough to put fuel into the car and the “credit” or difference comes a week later. Are they supposed to physically push the car until then?

We invested in this space as booking a taxi simply by a click makes things easier for the riders and gives incremental revenue to the driver which they didn’t have earlier. It is a pure win-win and net positive for society.

“We will organize this unorganized market” – That is what the pitches used to say…

But right now, we have companies that are selling at unsustainable prices which will drive out all small players and leave the industry in the hands of a few.. this is exactly the opposite of what should be achieved.

This era of free money will come to an end.. and we will be left poorer as a society especially a cab driver who right now is making spending decisions and investment decisions that he/she will not be able to complete.

Isn’t this what happened in the housing boom with free money and no controls? Will we ever learn?

2. Rules are being flouted by unlicensed players that have scant regard for any of the laws in the country… what is very interesting (and sickening) is that it is our own local companies that are flouting the laws relating to taxation, KYC, labour, etc.

In the name of adding supply some of them are paying off taxi drivers through pre-paid cards that are registered in the name of the company and not in the name of the user – is this what we want to call “fair” competition? Is this even legal?

When foreign money is being doled out without KYC and without any trace on the money.. what stops that from being used for means that are anti-social?

What happens when the ED. IT, FEMA, FERA, EOW, Service Tax authorities catch hold of these erring companies and shut the show?

What if it is too late by then?

The show is on right now.. and it’s all beautiful.

Once the song stops.. you will see that we have destroyed whatever semblance of sanity there was in this space.”

Good for consumers. But what about the industry?

Are parts becoming greater than the sum? Think about it while you enjoy the ride.

(Article published by NextBigWhat on 27/11/2014, containing excerpts from a comment I left on a previously published article on the same platform titled The Big Battle Between Funded Taxi Startups And The Rest.)

LinkedIn’s Inmail Credit – An Example for Other Businesses to Follow

I had recently written a post regarding unnecessary meddling in the Indian aviation sector by DGCA. A day after that Captain Gopinath wrote an article for the Economic Times which voiced similar concerns (albeit on a different tangent) on the sector too. Captain is a pioneer in the sector and I have a huge amount of respect and adulation for him (I have read his book, Simply Fly , twice and recommend it to any budding start-up as a book on winning against insurmountable odds in India) I sent him an Inmail to review my post and give his thoughts.

Being a busy man as he is, he may not have found the time to respond to the Inmail (I have my fingers crossed that he read the post J) , LinkedIn sent me an email stating that my Inmail credit that had been used to contact Captain Gopinath was hereby being returned and that I thought was – “Simply” Amazing! From my perspective, I am the one who wanted to reach out to someone I have a not direct connection with (yes Linkedin says I have a 3rd level connection with him, but that is just to flatter me), they gave me that opportunity to atleast have my voice reach him, he chose not to respond/missed my Inmail on account of not logging in, in the 7 days response time frame that LinkedIn has as a policy for InMails – which is absolutely his choice and they felt apologetic enough to refund the credit because the “intention” of using that credit wasn’t completely utilized.. I “simply” want to say – Wow! Kudos! Shabaash!

131112-LinkedInInMail-700x357

In a world where most businesses will hide their inability to complete a service (please don’t ask for a list, I’ll have to send you the yellow pages for the city you reside in) here is a public listed company that is taking the onus for a job that they couldn’t complete and refunding back what they took from me without a class action lawsuit (which would support the lawyer’s annual bonus).  I remember that back in the US when I had an account with Charles Schwab , they would refund my wiring fees because I had to call in to get the wire done as there was some glitch in using their online system to wire money, they would gladly charge and refund the wiring fee for calling in. With such a commitment to service there isn’t a doubt that these two companies hold such a dominant position in their markets.

This is an example for other companies to follow. If you don’t provide the service that you intended to, fess up and give your customers a credit back. If a booking is made for a hotel and the pool or gym is shutdown – refund to the customer (without haggling) a few hundred rupees that would have been input in the costing of his room based on him using the facility. Let me be clear, I am not advocating for those customers that choose to not use the facility even if it is available, but if it is not available – refund that portion (or give a dining credit) at check-in itself so that the customer is already ecstatic at your honesty (it is the best policy J) and is easy to please.

Another example would be that, if I choose to fly Air India (yes.. I “simply” do), a full service airline and they cannot reach on time or they give this food packet to me in the name of breakfast – kindly refund the money it would have cost to have given a real breakfast or refund the money on the extra taken due to your tardiness and for which my company paid a heftier price in booking through your airline.

This is the dinner on Air India.. Fit for the Maharaja of the skies?

This is the dinner on Air India.. Fit for the Maharaja of the skies?

Yes we aren’t in an Utopian world, but in my experience a policy wherein you own up to your mistakes and offer something back to the customer (it doesn’t have to be spectacular but don’t be cheap either) – they will appreciate you for your upfront honesty and they will choose you in the future (even if you were pricier) because they are sold on your commitment to get the job your customer intended (please mark this word – intention and not your own convoluted, contradictory and magnifying-glass-needed-to-read policy). They will appreciate you back and you will have a customer for life.

A start-up that ingrains this into their DNA from the very outset will go a very long way… that is “simply” a given (yes this will be the last time I will say “simply”)

Err.. okay that was the last time, I promise J

(I am requesting your comments on what other types of companies can institute this, how your company is instituting this (please don’t put up any ads advocating for your company – we will remove the comment) and whether you have seen or experienced this in dealing with a particular company. Please keep your comments anti-inflammatory and non-threatening to avoid being censured)