Archive for the ‘Reading List’ Category

Migrations to kinder shores

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

What is this desire to go to a better place? The will to conquer all the challenges before you so that a better life may be made for your kin. We live in times where mass migrations are very visible and people have been clamouring to move out of dysfunctional countries and societies to gentler shores.

It has always been so but the rush of time and the obviousness of such a desire did not mark them as very visible events. Some migrations caused enormous upheavals and are still debated. Take the migration of the Aryans into India. The word is usually termed as an invasion among most historians. Here were a group of pastoralists moved from around the caucus and made their way into the fertile lands in Indus and Gangetic plains. Perhaps it was an invasion, mayhap not. However, the heat is felt these days in India because the Hindu right-wing cannot abide by being somehow related to “foreigners”. They don’t want to be clubbed with Muslims, Christians and Jews who came later.

Take another example which still lives in people’s mind. That of Alaric and the Visigoths sack of Rome. It was inevitable that the empire fall into ruin at some point. No empire will ever last for eternity. In modern times, the fate of the British Empire’s fall has been quite keenly felt by Britons. Churchill’s attempt to hold it together during and after the second world war are well documented. Getting back to the sack of Rome. The Gothic migrations on the frontier into the Roman empire due to the depredations of the Huns, and the subsequent ill treatment at the hands of the romans caused the same Goths to rise up and defeat Valens at the battle of Adrianople. From then onwards, the prize of Rome was there to be taken. I do hope we don’t read too much into this history and equate the migrations into Europe from Syria and Africa with those.

Let’s look at a still later example where the migration was the culmination of a dream for jews: the establishment of the independent state of Israel. During the first world war, the Balfour declaration had overwhelming support in Great Britain and Europe at large; not only because of the sympathy felt for jews but also in a perverse antipathy for their presence in “Christian lands”.  After the horrors of the holocaust, sympathy predominated and most European states agreed to an establishment within the Palestine mandate of two different states: Israel and Palestine. Of course, as was the wont of Imperialist powers at that time, nobody thought to seriously engage with the people already living in the land. Of course, calamity ensued…and it is still unfolding.

Migrations need to be very carefully managed, particularly by host countries, otherwise there is hell to pay. In modern times there are very few such instances. One very satisfying instance is the resettlement of refugees from Pakistan in India after the horrors of partition. Many families in Delhi can trace their lineage back to Pakistan within a couple of generations. The good news is that assimilation was quick, relatively speaking, and no one even talks about it as an issue.

The other migration, which is now causing a lot of upheaval is the one from colonized countries from Asia and Africa into the colonizing countries of Europe and Americas. Overall, it has resulted in the betterment of both the migrants and the local population. However, it has to be recognized that to get to this point, lots of effort has been put in by the host countries too. Multiculturalism has been targeted by a lot of xenophobes but it generally work well. Much better that the alternative of denying those entry who would die otherwise.

I have migrated twice to the United States and both times the support systems in place have warmed my heart and made my life very easy. From healthcare to free utilities like libraries, schools and financial support, there is a lot of giving in these societies. A lot of heart goes into putting together these programs and i think that is why a lot of people are seeking out the West.

Migration to kinder shores can work for the betterment of all concerned and is the natural order of our species. Let’s embrace it and each other.

A Framework for Measuring SaaS Product Success

Tuesday, June 13th, 2017

This is a generic framework I would use to measure the success of any web-based SaaS tool. It could be an app, a website, or even your own blog. This could apply to any tool but that is too broad a base and tons of books have been penned on the subject.

Grow Visitors/Users
It is imperative to grow visitors so that we can improve the visibility of the tool.

1. Where is the traffic coming from? (SEO, PPC, Social Media channels etc.)
2. What are the main landing pages on the site? ( are they optimally designed)
3. What are the main partners or referrers to the tool? ( any referral entities or affiliates)

Grow Registration/Subscriptions/Orders

1. Minimize steps to sign up or to shop.
2. Are registration pages/landing pages based on different personae?
3. What are the calls to action? Are they prominent enough?

Improve Onboarding

1. What happens when a user subscribes or signs up? How do we drive them quickly through the process?
2. Track sharing of information, queries through chats, email etc.
3. Is there an onboarding video walk-through for the users so they can quickly see what they are getting?
4. Improve Usability & UX based on user testing of people navigating after entering through the paywall.

Improve Speed and Performance
1. This is where you look at your technology and ask if you need to migrate to better code.
2. Improve all landing page speeds by using either CDN’s or removing external elements ( Youtube videos) that will slow it down.
3. Enable tracking in such a way that the technology and product teams are always aware of the load that each page inflicts on the servers.

Pricing and Retention

1. Every product has several pricing options online that have to be tested and optimized every year. Your costs go up every year but SaaS pricing people are very reluctant to do anything with product prices lest customers be driven away. If you communicate the reasons clearly, your customers will agree to small price changes without a problem.

2. What happens when a customer cancels? Is there a churn management system? How are customers enticed to continue on?

3. Is there a way a customer can upgrade to the next pricing tier? Are they emailed or otherwise contacted about it?

Gather Customer Feedback
1. I have already mentioned usability testing but talking to customers and how they want information packaged will be very important for any tool.
2. Customer satisfaction surveys and NPS scores, if used properly can help the product owners and hence ultimate user experience tremendously.

There are going to be hundreds of KPI’s that you can build on these measures but I urge you to have as few vanity metrics as possible. Otherwise, you will be drowning in unnecessary data that is of no use to anyone.

A voyage, long and strange indeed.

Saturday, June 3rd, 2017

Review:  Indica – A Deep Natural History of the Indian Subcontinent by Pranay Lal

Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2016, 384 pages, Hardcover

For long ages, we have read accounts of how the world came to be – from the supercontinent of Pangaea to the continents of today.  This book is unique because it focuses on the voyages and indiscretions of a small bit of Pangaea that went its own merry way and speeded through the oceans, finally crashing into Asia with a dull and rather sickening thud. This little sort-of-triangular land is India. This lovely book is about this beautiful and bounteous land.

The author takes us on a rollicking journey with India, from its origins to the present day, recounting all the adventures in between. What makes it very interesting is that this treatment has never really been done for the lay reader. God knows, it is hard to get people interested in geology but the author manages it easily.  Just see his introduction of the landscape of Bengaluru which goes like this:

“Closepet granite was formed between 3 and 2.5 million years ago and can be found in the district town of Ramanagaram close to Bengaluru. If the granite rocks of Ramanagaram, some of which seem perched precariously one on top of the other look familiar, it is because they provided the hideout of the archetypal villain Gabbar Singh in the film Sholay.[emphasis by author] “

Figure 1: Courtesy https://www.tripoto.com

 

What a great marketing pitch for a book on geology! Now every Hindi film fan who has a predisposition towards paleophilia is hooked. The author takes pains throughout this book to paint pictures (the illustrations are fantastic), even giving latitudes and longitudes for places so you can look them up in Google Earth/Maps if you are so inclined (I did look at them all). This makes the book even harder to just skim through.

Lest you think that Mr. Lal confines himself to geology, I would hasten to point out that this work encompasses much more than that. He takes into account all the wonderful plants and strange creatures (Rajasaurus, anyone?) that dominated the migrating landscape throughout its history. The book almost parallels the history of the planet looking from the perspective of the Indian subcontinent which further draws the Indian reader to it. The great calamities like mass extinction events are considered for the impact they caused in the migrating continent of India as are the formation events of the terrain like the Western Ghats and the Deccan Plateau.

This book is so interestingly and evocatively written that even after having read it two months ago, I am fascinated by the formation of the Deccan traps due to the rupture of the earth’s crust when India blundered into the deep mantle plume near the Reunion islands. It is theorized in some circles that this could have contributed to the great dinosaur extinction event 65 million years ago. Reading it definitely helped me make up a geologist’s pickup line which goes like this: Baby, your eyes are like Deccan traps; 4 million years of molten lava!

Hey, geologists are human too! In fact, that is one of the main strengths of this work. It is particularly written for those who wouldn’t know the difference between an igneous and a metamorphic rock. India’s geological journey, from the split up of Pangaea, to the squabbling and bitter splits with Antarctica, Australia and Madagascar, to the formations of the Giant Himalayas is narrated beautifully.

Interwoven as it is with facts about the flora and fauna that evolved and went extinct along the way, from Barapasaurus – the giant vegetarian dinosaur, to Titanis – the Terror Bird that preyed on ancient horse ancestors, add very much to this narrative. The story of how mammals evolved in India and how they migrated from or to the subcontinent (tigers are not native to India) when it joined with Asia are also very beautifully covered. I had no idea that the ancestors of early whales arose from the inland Tethys sea (which is now the large Thar desert in Western India and Pakistan).

This book really does remind one, with significant nostalgia, of the great biologist Stephen Jay Gould. He also did a lot to explain evolution and its intricacies in very simple language to all of us interested in natural history. Those who have read the famous geological texts of John McPhee, specifically “Annals of a Former World” and “Basin and Range” will notice that Mr. Lal gives the same treatment to India and its geological formations that Mr. McPhee gives to the continental United States. To some, this will also feel like a travelogue. Indeed, this book of science and travel most resembles in its humour, lucidity and vast range, “A short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson.

To all those who are interested in India’s geography, geology, fauna and human interaction with them will find this book very hard to put down even though it is a relatively long one. The reader gets that rare feeling that the author could write another book with his research material (the bibliography and notes take up more than 60 pages!). India is not done yet. It is still on the go, pushing up the Tibetan plateau on its way. I hope Mr. Lal is not done telling this story too!!

 

 

 

In praise of inefficiency

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

Setting sun

What price Efficiency?

The glory of the dying sun on the plains of India stirred interesting thoughts. Why is so showy? Why are we so gaudy about everything? Is the beauty of the universe reliant on the waste of energy?

These are heavy thoughts and perhaps belong to the philosophers, poets and mystics among us. On to more prosaic matters, a few weeks ago, I read an article on how Amazon had figured out a no-friction way to make shoppers get what they want. Just this week, the Economist brings in an interesting article on why too much efficiency can be a bad thing. The one-click ordering from Amazon.com that makes me buy too many books or the no-click Pizza buying from Domino’s through it’s app comes to mind.

Similarly, in SAAS products, we try to make the funnel narrower and thinner all the time to induce the customer to buy right away. What we forget many times is that subscription products are longer terms commitments and do require some thinking before the “Buy” button gets clicked. It may help to introduce some inefficiency the process by required watching of a training video or some demos from experienced sales folks before we allow users to swipe their cards. “But we will lose a lot of orders”, you might say. Well, perhaps. Have you considered the amount of churn you already generate by allowing anyone to just swipe their card and then cancel a few days later. I bet, that impacts more of your bottom-line than people taking their time ordering pricey services online.

The Volga Vikings

Talking of inefficiencies, let’s talk of these tribes of marauding Vikings who traded and raided all over Europe, sometimes to everyone’s credit and at other times, just causing mayhem all around. It is conjectured that these people came to so ferocious because a cataclysm(a meteor or comet) hit Northern Europe in the middle of the 6th century. It caused lots of hardship and caused the people to spill out looking for food and provisions for their families. Couldn’t they just trade, one may ask?

Two excuses come to mind. One, there were already established trade networks in Northern Europe and the raiding of Monasteries was to break their stranglehold on these networks. Two, there was lots more loot to be had when you could use physical threats with those you traded, Imperial East India Companies of later years come to mind.

They had mastered the sail and some raided on the coasts of Europe to get loot and other went the route of the Volga and traded with Byzantium and Baghdad. They brought in slaves and furs and traded them for gold, silver and spices.

Volga Trade Routes

Some of these groups of Vikings settled lands like Iceland, parts of Greenland and some early settlements can be seen in the coastal United States and Canada. The trade route linked to the famous silk route and so flourished until the Abbasid Caliphate had control, petering out in the 12th century.

To learn some more of their achievements, please listen to this lovely podcast and read about them in these lovely books.

 

 

 

Interesting reads for the week of 27th March 2017

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Gathering quantitative and qualitative data for sales leads.

We have been struggling to divine what customers tell us via their click trails for the last 2 decades. For the last few years we have the capability to gather data in real time. That doesn’t mean it can be put to proper use. After all, what hits the bottom-line matters most. Real-time engagement and segmentation on where the visitor lands on your site and making them into leads right there is a challenge that Segment is trying to solve. This isn’t the only path but it is a good idea nevertheless.

While bed sheet sales may seem to be a bit of a stretch to move using data but Brooklinen seems to have a good strategy figured out. This site focused on collecting all the quantitative and qualitative feedback, used some good intuition and tested it. They had a great thought in trying to satisfy men who are often under-served customers of bed linen. Also, they carry a ruthlessly narrow inventory based on all that customers demand and don’t go for any frills. Do read this lovely piece on their efforts

 

Les Miserables and how it rings true in every era.

It is a horrible read. Torrid at times, uplifting and cautiously optimistic rarely; and truly sad most of the way. However, Victor Hugo was probably on the money when he said

“AS LONG as there are ignorance and poverty on Earth,” wrote Victor Hugo in his preface to “Les Misérables”, “books such as this one may not be useless.”

The Economist put together a really nice piece on it. Do read it.

The Sasquatch fights, tooth and nail and hide!

Now for some contentious reads. The book by Mr. Meldrum is written for people who operate from a premise that there could be a hominid still living in the boreal forest of North America. He has some personal experience as an encounter with a beast like that while hiking in a very remote area. There is lots of evidence presented, presuming that all sightings are NOT hoaxes.

Mr. Nash operates entirely on the other side. His starting premise is that human cognition fails entirely when they encounter something strange and no eyewitnesses can be trusted at all. He is not really being very cynical. He has lots of data to back up his premise. However, it is impossible to deny certain eye-witness accounts, not only of Sasquatches but also other “monsters”. Just labeling them as cultural myths and not be treated as real beings. Please do read the following books. They are very interesting and quite cheap too!

 

 

Reading list for the midst of March

Sunday, March 19th, 2017

As always, I am going to try to foist only three thoughts on you this week.

Horrors of War

The First World War was one which killed enormous amounts of people. The numbers were truly staggering for the time.  There  were 17 million dead and 20 million wounded!!! All for European powers to prove who could rule over more people. It ended the most prosperous era the western world had seen in a long time and also ended the dominance of the British Empire forever.

The monarchies of Europe felt the brunt of the war and were clearly responsible for starting it. The workers International could not prevent it even by appealing to worker solidarity. The armies of Europe were downright eager for it. The following three books talk very eloquently of each and the part they inadvertently played in each other’s roles; both in fomenting and then exacerbating the conflict.

 

The Ambassador car

AmbassadorCan anyone who lived in India through the 1980’s ever forget this classic car? Even now, Kolkata taxis are all Ambassadors. Why, I asked a taxi driver. He responded ” They are the cheapest to maintain and we can manufacture spare parts locally.

This fabulous article by the sagely Mr. Thomas conveys the mystique and the genuine love for this model that we all possess. He is a Master of branding and he should know.

 

Smoothing the path through a customer’s task flow

All product makers struggle with making it easier for customers to use said products. Stumbling onto a product and not realizing what you can do with it, is probably the most probable cause for abandonment. No amount of hard selling or discounts will effectively make the customer loyal to your product. Well, Amazon understands this very well as this article in the First Round shows us.

Do you want me to cover any specific topics or have questions that are creating a slow burn in your brain? Do write to me and I will recommend the palliative, balmy books or studies to deal with them.

Holi Week Reads

Sunday, March 12th, 2017

Holi

This week is Holi, the festival of colors in India. This festival is mainly celebrated to mark the coming of spring. Lots of folk gather around after the winter harvest and sprinkle colored water, throw gulal(made out of flour and psychedelic colored dyes). Let’s take a look at the three interesting articles/videos that came my way this week.

Cooked by Micheal Pollan.

This is a great show in four parts: Fire,Water,Air and Earth. It is really fascinating for old lovers of Mr. Pollan’s books.

 

The Real American Pie: No, it is not Apple Pie. It is mince pie instead. The author explores ways in which this pie became famous and how it lost it’s mojo over time.

Cover of the December 17 Reader; click image to enlarge
Enough about my fascination with food. Let’s get real and talk of one of the most dangerous lads in history: Genghis Khan. I first read about him in Mr. Weatherford’s seminal work, Genghis Khan and the making of a Modern World.

Over time, several other writers have come forward and tried to complete, compare and contrast the picture of this ruler of the largest empire known to man. In this article, the BBC History magazine explores the various facets of this fascinating ruler.

Until next week then! Have a good week and remember to play some Holi with friends and not get too drunk on Bhang. Yes, it is indisputably legal in India, during Holi, at least.

The March Madness starts

Sunday, March 5th, 2017

The first stirrings of spring and rather than bunnies going crazy, this is the good stuff we are looking at this week.

 

An Amazon employee inadvertently took down part of the internet

It transpired that the laddie(has got be a lad, thinking woolly thoughts), working on an issue accidentally switched off more computer servers than intended at 9:37 a.m. Seattle time, resulting in errors that cascaded through the company’s S3 service, Amazon said in a statement Thursday. S3 is used to house data, manage apps and software downloads by nearly 150,000 sites, including ESPN.com and aol.com, according to SimilarTech.com. [More]

For all those of us in need for a little buck me up this week, take a look at these nice TED talks.

7 TED Talks That Will Inspire You to Succeed

Everyone wants to succeed, but not everyone knows how to succeed.

There are many things that will help us go the distance, but few are as empowering and inspiring as a TED Talk.

Listening to a TED Talk is a great way to gain information, discover new sources of innovation, and jump-start your life toward success.

Here are some that are especially powerful with wonderful takeaways. [More]

The MVP is dead. Long live the RAT.

There is a flaw at the heart of the term Minimum Viable Product: it’s not a product. It’s a way of testing whether you’ve found a problem worth solving. A way to reduce risk and quickly test your biggest assumption. Instead of building an MVP identify your Riskiest Assumption and Test it. Replacing your MVP with a RAT will save you a lot of pain.[More]

 

Some nice books for the week:

Given how much the Kohinoor is talked about, it is surprising that it has taken so long for the history of the gem to be written. That, however, may have been for the best, as the delay has led to Kohinoor: The Story of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond – a beautifully written, engrossing story about the undesirable fate of conquerors entranced by a small, lustrous ancient stone.

The authors go all the way to Tasmania to experience the thylacine or lack thereof in the beautiful wilds of this island. The challenges to wildlife and the human experience around the very unique creatures, like the Tasmanian Devil is delightfully explained in this book.

 

Well! I bought this one because Steve Bannon was reading it right after the election. Before going off on a rant, please do read it because it is written by a journalist who really deeply cares about the Vietnam War and the danger of an over exuberant and too proactive presidency taking us down the path to ruin. The book is really a list of the character sketches of all the people involved and literally reads like a greek tragedy. It was almost inevitable if you put all these bright people in one heady room.

 

Three fabulous travel writers

Saturday, July 16th, 2016

Today, I will give you three authors who have written really great books on travel. These authors all have a common approach. They don’t judge;they include lots of anecdotes and personal interactions with locals; they use dollops of humor very judiciously.

Paul Theroux

One of the originals in travel writing. Very few people have invested so much effort in knowing and empathizing with people and places they have visited. Two recommendations for you.

Micheal Palin

Monty Python maybe his more famous work but his travelogues are some of the best in recent times. Rich in wry humor, very english! i would recommend that you listen to him in the following books.

Bill Bryson

An American who writes like an Englishman. Great humor! Some of his books read really well as Audio books while you are traveling. I will give you a couple that you will really enjoy.




Commute listening : July 12th 2016

Wednesday, July 13th, 2016

Author of the day: Eric Weiner

There are a couple of books by this wonderful, quirky and humorous writer.

1. The Geography of Bliss

I read the above about 10 years ago and it is all about where are people happiest in the world. Yes, money is involved with happiness but interestingly boredom plays a part too. A must read because it costs you next to nothing in the US.


2. The Geography of Genius

I am listening to the Audible version during my commute and it is hilarious. I do get strange looks by people thinking I am a bit of a crank. Can’t fault them really.

Podcast of the day

Nice Podcast on Simple Rules to run your business operation. It is really hard to make an entire business run on simple rules but the author makes a nice pitch for it. Buy this book from Amazon.