Do you have it in you – Startup offer

Update, 16 Aug: Thanks to all the good folks who’ve been helping spread the word. I’ve updated this post to indicate that we are no longer only looking for someone out of Chennai. We’d in fact prefer if the person was based out of Bangalore / Mumbai since they’d then be closer to the brands. Please keep spreading the word.

 

It’s been great getting back to work post all the madness of the wedding. Yes, it does deserve a separate post of its own and I am working on it. 12 days, 14 events across 2 cities.

So back at work – things are as usual at Influx. Business is robust, cash flows are getting better and generally there’s optimism that better times are back.

Some of you close to me also know that I am working on Haptik – an app that’s expected to change the world and when it does release this September, you are going to be asking the now cliched question – “where was this all this while!?”. I was to take on a pure advisory role at Haptik initially – however, we have recently been talking of a fuller role at Haptik. So between Influx and Haptik (and the wife!), my time is pretty much sorted.

However, there is this other project that I have been working and thinking about for the last 6 months that I’d like to see gather some steam over the next 6 to 8 months. A website that lets you order samples of everyday FMCG products from the comfort of your home, all in exchange for your honest feedback. Titled, eksample.com, the project would be cultivated and mentored by a gentleman (we’ll call him Kay for now) with oodles of brand marketing experience and me. The key challenges to this project are getting customers on to the portal (traffic) and getting the brands to get on to our site (listing). While the former is something I do every day at work and comes very naturally to me, Kay through his days as an ad-man has vast experience and a wide network of people in FMCG brands. Between us, the major strategic challenges will be overcome.

However, like any solid business idea, it’s success will depend on it’s execution. And its towards this end that we are looking for someone (young) who is willing to come on board full time and take this idea forward. The Chennai/Bangalore/Mumbai based position will include having to liaison with brands, travel to meet with brand managers across India, engage in digital marketing to reach out to customers, make sense out of the gigabytes of data that the website will produce, etc. We are typically looking for someone who wants to startup by themselves but is either looking for the platform or just hasn’t had the guts yet to quit his/her first job and do it. We’ll be fair – we’ll pay a survival fee of about Rs. 35,000 per month and take care of expenses. We are going to be bootstrapping this till we reach the first 1000 unique, repeat users before we look out for seed/angel funding. We are also keen to tap both the UAE & India markets in our bootstrapping phase.

Whether you have more questions, feedback or know someone who fits the bill or are interested yourself, feel free to write to me on harish at thesharck d0t c0m and I’d love to engage.

PowerPoint – Pain point?

Disclaimer: Owing to the ubiquitous nature of Microsoft’s Office products, my article below references to them. Feel free to replace them with any similar productivity tool you may use – eg. Keynote instead of PowerPoint.

I’ve always received compliments for my PowerPoint presentations. Truth be told, I don’t really enjoy making them. Further truth be told, my footing into the world of online media started off when I was 13 and making PowerPoint presentations for my mother’s travel company. Still, I never really enjoyed it back then either. The only thing that drew me toward it back then was transitions – it was the first time I, an early teenager, could see my creation (words, mostly then), come to life – literally.

Today, I encounter at least 6-8 PowerPoint presentations in a day of which maybe 2-3 are made by my team at Influx while the rest are from media owners, sponsorship solicitors, etc trying to peddle their wares. I wish I could say 9 out of those 10 sucked. But I’d be pushed to say 9.8 out of any 10 suck, including those made by us at Influx. I almost ALWAYS re-do presentations made by my colleagues. Why do I let them still do it in the first place? Since I pay them money to do so and it’s something they ought to learn.

At the risk of being non-stop preachy, I’ll get down to it. What exactly does it take to make a good PowerPoint presentation?

1. Structure – I almost always start off by typing out my presentations in Word so that the structure flows from my head on to paper. Some people may prefer to even write it down on paper and then put it into the presentation – whatever works – but do it. Remember, PowerPoint is a visual medium – the software’s design is something that I have found to hinder flow of thought the way Microsoft Word or even Notepad encourages.

2. Layout –
It is not cool to center align all your text, title, pictures, etc – No No, NO! Even if you have zero exposure to design or design skills, think of a newspaper or a magazine. Think of how it is laid out – there’s a masthead on top, there are columns and the layout adapts to the amount of content available. There are margins, and things align up – just like your second grade teacher taught you – draw a margin and write within the lines.

3. Fonts – Honestly, if you don’t know how to use Photoshop or even the most basic visual enhancement tools of PowerPoint, just try and get a good looking font. Remember, fonts say a lot. A bold font can make a statement, a sans-serif font is easier to read on screen, a rounded font type is a little more emotional and so on and so forth. Caution: Don’t overdo it. Head to www.dafont.com or www.google.com/webfonts for a fabulous collection of fonts. I especially recommend the later since all the fonts are web-safe. And finally, NEVER use more than 2 fonts in a deck – one for titles, sub titles and highlights and another for body copy.

Some interesting articles on the subject:

4. Transitions –
Yes, that fancy, amazing thing about PowerPoint presentations – lose it. Transitions died somewhere between 1999 and 2003. Invest that time into ensuring your presentation is perfectly aligned or in looking up a great font. Similarly, timed or ‘auto proceed’ presentations are virtually obsolete today.

5. Avoid ‘multimedia’ – Embedding video or audio somehow always ends up letting you down at the time of the presentation. There’s no harm in inserting a slide indicating that the presenter will now be leaving the presentation window to another one to showcase a video or a PDF.

6. The King: Content –
Everything else aside, unless your content is sound, well researched and presented in a great flow of natural thought, you will easily lose your audience. Keep it brief – avoid paragraphs of content – bullets are your best friend. Avoid filling your presentation with content the way you speak it – that’s what you are there for or in your absence, your audience’s imagination /intelligence is.

7. Invest in design –
While yes, content is king, the design makes the first impression unlike anything else. Whether the audience comprises visually attuned folks or not, just like how a rose is a rose to anyone, most people will appreciate something that’s well designed. It might not secure you that round of funding or win you that pitch but it will definitely ensure that your audience is ‘charmed’. Needless to say, design is subjective as well as very very easy to screw up. So exercise reasonable care to stay within your skills. Make the effort to request friends who are designers or even engage an agency. Better still, just buy a template and try and get your presentation to look as close to the original template even AFTER you have put in your content.

These are just the basics, but if you keep these in mind, you’ll make a fairly good deck – better than 98% of those out there! Remember, a presentation you share or e-mail with someone is filling in for your actual physical presence. So equate how much you’d invest into it as against how much you’d invest if you personally made the presentation – the content is your research & preparation, the fonts the clothes you’d pick to wear & the design being the perfume, watch & pen you choose to carry.

Have any great PowerPoint presentations you’ve come across? Feel free to share links to them in the comments.

 

Exploring Entrepreneurial Experience & Excellence

About three months back, I was introduced to Vidya Venkatraman, Postgraduate student at the London School of Economics who was working on a rather interesting research project titled – “Entrepreneurial Leadership: Exploring how young entrepreneurs become successful and effective leaders without the benefit of experience”. The introduction was made by the venerable, Ms. Bhairavi Prakash. In conversation with Vidya, she explained how while successful businessmen had written books and been written about, chronicling their efforts at getting to where they had, entrepreneurs had stories to tell and lessons learnt that had not really been documented or shared – thus explaining the choice of her topic.

 

The questions appealed greatly to me and sent me on a wonderful trip down memory lane. I was happy to have been a part of her research efforts. Hope it worked out well for her.

The entire length of the interview:

What type of work is organisation involved in?
Influx Interactive is a digital media agency. While we started out in 2005 as a website design agency, we today have a full-fledged creative team as well as a technology team that helps brands by building websites, online marketing campaigns, manages their social media presence as well as builds out applications for web, mobile & more recently, Microsoft’s newly launched Windows 8.

How long have you been involved in this?
Involved is a loose term. I started in this direction in a much disorganized manner when I was 16 (2000) in the form of an outfit that built websites for my mother’s friends. I used to sport the name ComPort Technologies back then! Influx in its current avatar has been around since 2004 though ownership structures underwent a change in 2005 & then again in 2011.

What sparked off the idea to start your own company?
Fairly early, I figured that the 44-year age gap between my father and me would manifest itself as a huge financial burden upon the gentleman when I turned 18 and ready for college. As a result, I wanted to be able to pay for college myself and I worked towards this general direction since I was 13. I started off with a library from home (Oxford Youth Library!) with books obviously my parents had bought and then one thing led to the other. However, it was after a brief stint with a technology firm in Delhi (1 month) where I earned Rs. 2000 as stipend that I realized that I would NEVER want to work for someone else. This was confirmed since in the next thirteen days after this internship, I went on to build out websites for my mother’s friends, three to be exact and made about 6 times the amount I made in the entire month. That was a math equation simple enough even for ME to solve!

Could you briefly talk about your educational & professional background?
I went to school in Chennai at Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan Senior Secondary School, Nungambakkam. I was in the first five of the class till around sixth grade after which I preferred to delve into extra-curricular activities just as much as academics. I soon moved down to within the top fifteen but ensured I made a mark with everyone in the school through my involvement in a variety of activities in school. Thereafter, I decided to pursue the law at Chennai’s (then) brand new School of Excellence in Law. Here again, I was doing well in academics till I decided I wanted to be more rounded. As a result, I preferred to participate more actively in Moot Court Competitions and represented the country and college at competitions across India and in Australia. However, since this was now running in parallel to a fast growing business, I did not get an opportunity to complete my college education. It’s not really a regret but something I might choose to try and fulfil at some later point in my life. I have never really worked in any company besides the 1 month internship stint mentioned earlier, while in Delhi.

Have you had any kind of experience in entrepreneurship or in the field/industry that your organisation belongs to? This experience could be in the form of formal education, training or work experience.
None.

Team composition and development

Do you have a larger team of co-founders or other team members?
I did have a set of co-founders right up front in 2004 but they weren’t in a position to commit full-time to the business. As a result, when my first angel came around in 2005, they chose to pursue their academic paths while I forged a very healthy alliance with my new found partner. The whole switch over was seamless and I continue to be great friends with my past co-founders. I later went on to acquire my partner outright in 2011 in what was again seen as a decision in the company’s best interests. So as of now, I have no partners or co-founders but a wonderful team of 34 people, some of whom I can proudly claim to be amongst the best in the creative industry.

How many employees does your company currently employ?
As on date, 34. We should touch 55 by January with the only hindrance being the easy availability of good people!

What are some of the most important factors you consider while hiring employees?
Willingness to experiment, accountability, levels of exposure to technology & social media, the desire for a better life.

Often, in entrepreneurial set-ups, there is no formal training given to employees owing to various factors such as time and cost. What do you think should be done in start-ups to enable employees to learn and develop? How does this work within your company?
Just as with other entrepreneurial set ups and as rightly mentioned, we too suffer from the same issue. At this point, it’s not really about the cost but more so the time since any time spent in training is usually seen as time lost in delivering projects. This is more so the case when you have managers down the line entrusted with delivering projects. However, we have plans for Super Saturdays which are the alternate Saturdays that we don’t work where we want to introduce fun based learning activities. We also have provided our staff with a training budget annually which they are free to utilize for any training programs they come across related to their work with us. More recently, I have been in touch with a corporate training firm to formalize a training structure.

Prospective employees are normally attracted to the legacy/brand value or the money that a job has to offer in addition to the ‘job itself’. The brand value of an established organisation also creates a sense of trust in the organisation and credibility in the competence of their leader(s). As a relatively new enterprise, has it been a challenge for you to create a sense of trust and credibility amongst your employees? If so, how have you dealt with it?
In the initial days, it was simply about sharing my passion. I would speak at great length (as you’ve probably figured out by the time you’ve gotten down to reading this bit!) about my vision and expectations of my company and that usually helped convince people. As time went on and we realized the need to attract a ‘better breed’, I realized that I was the company’s biggest asset and started building a brand that was me. This is VERY VERY important for any entrepreneur to succeed. It’s not so much about gloating but about being able to convince people that they are a part of something much larger, ably led by someone they can count on in their time of need. At the same time, it’s important to realize when the time comes to move out of that mode and switch to a more organization motivated hiring role than legacy based hiring. This happened for us in 2012 and we helped make that happen by putting together an office that definitely stretched and pinched our budgets but is an instant win the moment a candidate walks in. This also translated itself into a more comfortable, convenient work culture that potential employees see when they walk in (pets at work, shorts, video gaming, etc) as well as keeps current employees satiated.

How do you motivate your employees?
Besides whatever mentioned just above, the one thing I ensure to keep them motivated is staying in close touch with them on a daily basis. This is easier when you are a small team but once you grow bigger, it’s natural to get castled in your ivory tower- beware! I like spending time with my staff, acknowledging and appreciating their contributions, celebrating our successes, discussing our failures, letting them participate in policy decisions, reaching out to them in their times of personal need, regular and healthy compensation revisions, off sites (we recently spent 4 days in Goa!) and great air conditioning!

Communication

How does communication work within your organisation?
As much as we promote E-mail based work flow, things still happen ad-hoc through face-to-face discussions. These aren’t even formal meetings unfortunately but are more discussions where quick decisions are made.

What are the formal and informal channels of communication in place within your organisation? Is there one channel of communication that you find more powerful or effective over another?
Yes, an innocuous little tool called IP Messenger that is like an Instant Messenger but within an office. It lets us chat and transfer files while logging everything that’s shared which makes it a great tool for easy communication. However, it also breeds a highly disorienting work process flow since it’s hard to maintain version of documents and files this way. It’s a known devil for now and we are slowly trying to reduce the reliance on it for transport of files and encourage its use only as a communicator.

Knowledge

A lot of times, entrepreneurial ventures are started by people who have gained several years of experience in the field. This experience gives them domain knowledge of the industry which helps them deal with familiar issues. It also gives them wisdom and a sense of intuition in dealing with unfamiliar situations by drawing on past experience.

  1. Has this been a challenge for you as a young individual in setting up your own start up?
    It was, but the advent of my partner in 2005 really helped. He acknowledged that mentoring was what I needed most and that he gave me with great patience. Else I definitely see how I would’ve struggled to learn the ropes and more importantly, make the right decisions.
  2. What are some of the specific challenges that your relative inexperience has created?
    Administration and Financial management. Even for those who come through business school, what they don’t teach you is how the system is built to work against you. Handling our country’s statutory requirements and bodies requires smart thinking and the only way to learn is through experience – either first hand or handed down. In the former, you’ll burn before you rise (if you manage to) and in the latter, you can just count yourself plain lucky. While online guides speak of when an entrepreneur should look to hire help to take care of aspects of finance and administration, for an entrepreneur trying to do business in India, do it right from day one. Else, you’ll spend more time than you can or want in hassling over statutory riddles.
  3. How have you dealt with it?
    My partner was a great source of learning. Along with him also came two great administrative staff who have been invaluable to the company. In eight years of existence, we have had only two people managing our administration and finance, the second still working with us having completed five years. It’s crucial to prevent too much churn in this department since it’s a nightmare to fill and till the right person comes along, you’ll be back to handling all the nonsense yourself.
  4. Is there stress associated with handling the conceptual, technical and interpersonal aspects of your job? How do you deal with it?
    Tremendous. You have to grit your teeth and trust in the future of your idea and back yourself. In fact, it helps to know right up front when you choose the entrepreneurial route that your life is going to be 24×7 right from day one till when your own end actually comes – it’s a burden you have to live with at first and an addiction that you’ll never want to give up as time goes along. 

Problem solving and Decision Making

Entrepreneurs such as yourself work in a dynamic, fast-paced environment. In such a situation where the time is short and the demands are many, how are decisions made within the organisation?
I love this part and unfortunately, my answers here will be specific to me and my journey. I am a completely intuition and gut based decision maker. Fortunately it has stood by me till date. I back myself to make the right calls and then do whatever it takes to ensure I see it through, while not being fool hardy to support a decision where it apparently seems to be wrong. I believe decisions are made up of two parts – conviction and doubt. The proportion of one to the other will determine how effective you are in decision making as well as how much time you spend researching, talking to family, friends, peers and others for nothing but validation or affirmation – to convert doubt to conviction. I must admit that I have been pretty lucky with my gut till date but would encourage most other entrepreneurs also to give themselves more credit than they usually do. 

What role do your colleagues (both co-founders if any and employees) play in decision making?
Today since we have a work flow in place, I have shifted a lot of the decision making at an operational level downwards towards my staff. I prefer to take the final call only on policy matters, strategies for clients, marketing and creative work.

Are decisions centrally made by the management or is it jointly evolved by the management along with the employees?
Jointly, as far as possible. It’s important to be inclusive though that may not necessarily always mean participative.

When faced with a dilemma or a problematic situation, what has been your most commonly chosen course of action in dealing with it? (For example, do you withdraw in order to think it through and collect more information independently [or] do you analyse the problem with your team to brainstorm and jointly evolve solutions. Or perhaps you analyse the situation and break it down into components and divide it amongst yourself and others based on their strengths.)
When it is a client or delivery related issue, it’s a team discussion and we try to jointly evolve solutions. When it’s a company related decision, I just trust my intuition.

Leadership development

What do you see as your main job as a leader?
Making people happy and accountable at the same time.

What experience(s) do you think have best helped you in your development as an entrepreneur?
Working with a myriad of people from across the country, networking, learning from mistakes and losses and working with my partner.

In the context of the issues and challenges discussed so far, what do you see as the three biggest strengths of your organisation and the three biggest challenges?
Strengths – client portfolio & creative abilities, work culture, quick decision making.
Challenges – efficient delivery processes, training, a better breed of technologists

Professionals often seek feedback to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Whom do you normally approach for feedback?
My staff, clients and a couple of close friends.

What advice would you have for young individuals who have aspirations to set up a start-up of their own?
Read Vidya’s compilation! I think this is a great idea and the questions are well formulated such that if one answers honestly, a lot of learning is available from these answers for future entrepreneurs. Few other points:

  • Take the plunge the moment you know it. I am not a big fan of balancing a job with entrepreneurial interests – it’s like having two wives and doing justice to none. Plan to sow but choose to sow it only when you are fully committed to growing it.
  • Try and bootstrap your idea as much as you can. It’s very easy these days to get carried away by reports in the media on funding and investments doing the rounds. Remember that what doesn’t get reported is the struggle each of them have had to go through to survive the first few years to ensure they come out successful and well-funded. The stronger your balance sheet when you go to an investor, the bigger the bargaining chip. Also, I personally believe bootstrapping helps you own the idea more passionately and ensures you are willing to stand by it, no matter what.
  •  There is no such thing as perfect. It’s great to chase perfection but it’s also easy to get lost in that pursuit. Sense when something is getting there, and move ahead so that you are never left wondering, what next.
  •  Scaling up or expanding is a HUGE decision. Take your time over it but don’t kill yourself over it. The first 20 employees and the first Rs. 1 Crore are the toughest targets. Once there, it will ease out for sure. Plan it well.
  •  Learn from your mistakes – I cannot stress this enough. Document, commemorate, and decorate your mistakes to ensure they are always in your face or at least at the back of your mind. 
  • Reward yourself – it’s important to celebrate success as much as it is to document and learn from failures. Let there be holistic celebration where you celebrate the success with your team as well as personal, material rewards that mark an achievement.
  • There will always be an easy way out – critics and literature will tell you that there’s no easy way out, but there is. What ensures failure or success in that route is your ability to gauge the risks and then decide whether to explore the route or not. Quick thinking on your feet and the ability to weather any storms that come by your way should govern your decision to take the easy route or not. Most often, the easiest route to anything starts with a great idea and measured execution. Good luck. 

Summary of my talk at Design Camp 2012

Design Camp 2012

Design Camp 2012 Logo

Watch this space for a summary of my presentation at Design Camp 2012held at Chennai on September 29 & 30, 2012. I will be putting up reference links of my talk as well as my presentation itself, for download. Please re-use judiciously.

My topic:

Designing Apps with Windows 8 personality
Through the bold use of color, typography, and motion, Windows 8 design style brings a fresh new approach to the user experience. In this talk, you’ll learn the design principles and get insights into how to apply these principles in your own apps.

Apple Maps and Tim Cook

So the whole of the internet world and media went crazy today about Tim Cook’s letter of apology to customers about Maps – Apple’s latest offering as part of iOS 6 that apparently has left the company red-faced.

Apple's Maps replaces Google Maps from the latest version of iOS

Google Maps on the left and the newcomer, Maps on the right.
(Pic courtesy – persquaremile.com)

Personally, what annoyed me most was industry experts writing off Tim Cook as having not just let customers down, but having let Steve Jobs down! I mean, give the guy a break! It was right under Jobs’ nose that Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007 without bluetooth or the ability to forward a text message. It was under his stewardship that they launched the fourth generation of their iconic phone with a serious signal / antenna problem. No one’s perfect. But what sets apart men from great men is their ability to respond to exigent situations.

Apple has come under media fire for their Maps app. Tim Cook goes out and issues a letter of apology. Cut back two years – customers who had just bought the (then) new iPhone 4 were unable to use their phones on the AT&T network the moment they entered their homes, buildings or basements. Outrage is the only way to describe the paying public and media’s response to this glaring error by Apple. What did Steve Jobs do? Ordered the issue of external antennae! I mean, you gotta love the guy and his guts!

Now I am never going to be CEO of Apple. And neither am I pointing a finger at Cook’s apology letter. However, if I were to have been Tim Cook, yes, I would have written the letter. Would I have apologised – no. Would I have rewritten it differently – yes. For the better or worse, I will let you decide and tell me through your comments / tweets.

My version of Tim Cook’s letter dated September 28, 2012

Dear Customer,

At the outset, I’d like to thank you for your warm embrace of the latest version of our iconic operating system, iOS 6. We currently have over 100 million of you who have chosen to upgrade to the latest version with more coming on board each day.

I write this e-mail in specific response to a lot of focus that has been around the launch of our Maps service. At Apple, we have thrived by disrupting the most established of market places – be it personal computing, music, publishing, telephony or even tablets. It is because we have dared to dream beyond what you were content with and give you something that you loved. Our latest Maps app is not, as being touted by sections of the press, an attempt to prove a point. Google Maps has been an integral part of iOS devices since launch and has been loved by all of you. However, we want to take the maps experience many steps further and were thus constrained to go at it ourselves. We want to give you turn-by-turn directions, voice integration, flyover and vector-based maps. In order to do this, we had to create a new version of Maps from the ground up.

When Steve and the rest of us built the first iPhone way back in 2007, many wrote us off as having no experience in building telecom hardware. We were decried as having omitted some of the most basic features in a phone. However, you did not write us off. You went out and bought our phone – 300 million of them. You believed in us. And we assure you that your faith in us is well placed, that we continue to work day and night to ensure you get the best Maps app you have ever experienced.

We appreciate that some of you may have been inconvenienced by the introduction of Maps and certain aspects of it not living up to expectations. Rest assured, we hear you – and we will keep working non-stop until Maps lives up to the same incredibly high standard, as everything else that makes Apple products the best in the world.

Tim Cook, CEO, Apple.

 

Leisa’s Secret’s need to discover Marketing’s secrets

Leisa's Secret Hindu Metro Plus ad

Leisa’s Secret Hindu Metro Plus ad

Welcoming me to today’s copy of the Metro Plus was a large prominent ad for a new brand called Leisa’s Secret. The ad was aided by the presence of a pretty lady and a bold headline that screamed – “The weight loss secret for those who’ve tried everything but failed” – as someone who resonated with that, I was hooked and started reading. 3 minutes into reading the ad, I had already decided the following:

  • I would be interested in learning more about them by contacting their call center or looking up their website
  • I would be doing a bit of reputation research about them on the internet

As I ventured into the first of the 2 next steps, I was pretty annoyed. What followed was a series of marketing faux pas that this new brand launching into India seemed to have just committed.

  1. Website – there wasn’t one!Upon typing their URL (which thankfully they promoted in the ad pretty well), I didn’t see a website! Rather, the website had been wrongly configured and what I did see was an IIS listing of all the dot net files on the server!Update: As of 1700 hrs today, 10 hours after most people probably saw the ad, the website was still not working!! However, just now, as of 1830 hrs, someone seems to have caught wind. So what did they go do? They just redirected the .in domain to the .com website! Decent enough temporary cover up, but now, a 13L print ad is pointing customers to a website with zero relevant data! Weird are the ways of this world.

    Leisas Secret website - Config error

    Leisas Secret website – Config error

  2. Domain Name – The brand was called Leisa’s Secret. As a result, their domain name was www.leisassecret.com – the double S leaving enough room for confusion. In such a situation, the ideal thing to have done would have been to a) register the obvious domain people would type in – www.leisasecret.in – without the plural S, and b) advertise the domain name as www.LeisasSecret.com – the typographic play helps people read the domain name better and establish the brand’s identity also. It anyway doesn’t affect the resolution of the domain name, whatever case you type it in.
  3. Irrelevant Call To Action –I went back to the more conventional call to action at the bottom of the ad (where you normally have dealer or branch information) and found they had indeed listed physical locations of nutritionists who recommend their product. This was great – validation and information, in one place. And then came the bolt – they ONLY had ‘Nutrition Partners’ in Bengaluru! Then why advertise them even in a Chennai ad??!!!

    Leisa's Secret - Useless Call to Action

    Leisa’s Secret – Useless Call to Action

  4. The (Useless) Offer– As most brands launching in the country, I expected to see a ‘launch offer’ somewhere. On cue, they had an offer for the first 500 callers to their call center – a “Free personalised weight loss consultation with a Qualified Nutritionist, near your home”. Sure, if there was a Qualified Nutritionist near my home, then why the hell didn’t you list them in the first place!!

    Leisa's Secret - Useless Offer

    Leisa’s Secret – Useless Offer

  5. Socially absent – Was eager to offer my feedback to them, especially the website (point number 1 above) and thus opened up Twitter to look for them – surprise, surprise! No twitter handle either. This prompted me to re-look the ad in the paper and was surprised to not find any mention of their social channels in their ad. Heck, just the other day, I even saw an automotive component manufacturing company promote their social channels in their print ad.

I decided to drop plans of taking my bike out for a spin in this lovely Chennai morning and chose to pen this instead. The intent of this is not to write off the creative. Obviously a lot of effort went into making it and the agency will not stop short of blaming reasons at the client’s end for this while the client itself (read brand manager) will further point to decisions from above causing confusion. Whatever be the reasons, the brand is what suffered. And the agency & the brand manager as custodians, would do well to read this and perhaps adopt a point or two, if they agree with what I have said.  Would you? Feel free to comment and let me know.

 

Mother Culture Magic

I can’t seem to blame one single factor for the dwindling influence of our mother tongues or ‘mother-cultures’ (if such a phrase even exists though it probably makes sense) on our every day lives. At a very macro level, I think I’d say globalization – it forced upon us the need to be competitive at a global level which translated into the adoption of western practices, taste and whatever little of a culture that existed.

A traditional game of vermillion at Durga Puja – the shining star of the Bengali festival calendar.

But occasionally comes across a day like today when you experience an exposition of your ‘mother-culture’ that shakes certain assumptions and beliefs that have formed. I wanted to quickly list down here some examples of my culture that I have / had written off or just passed by.

Perspective: I have lived in Chennai all my life. I was born here to parents who are an eclectic example of national integration. Dad was a Tamizhian, born and brought up in Kerala where growing up, he had more Malayalam influence than Tamizh. Mom is Bengali, born in UP, brought up in Bihar, that part of Bihar that’s now Jharkhand! They moved to Chennai in 1976 post which I was born here in 1984.

I have always been more Bengali than Tamizh / Malayali. Rarely in contact with the paternal side of the family, I spent most of my childhood (vacations) attached to the maternal uncles, cousins and their homes in Kolkata, Kharagpur (West Bengal) & Jamshedpur (Bihar, now Jharkhand).

Now coming to the glaring cultural omissions / wrongful assumptions of my life till now:

  1. Bengali music
    Growing up, all my lullabies were in Bengali. Owing to the beautiful nature of the language, there were very few ‘designated’ lullabies – most normal songs also passed off as lullabies. As a result, while I never really actively engaged in bengali music, it always stuck in my head somewhere and struck a chord that every once in a while when I heard it playing at a public place. Today while sitting back in my office and listening to Aami Chini Go Chini and Jodi Tor Daak Shuney (as made popular in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice in the 2012 movie Kahaani – Watch) in their original renditions, I was really moved and felt bad for having missed out on years of enjoying this fabulous genre of music. In fact, every time I am in Kolkata, Rahul exposes me to some great numbers that never really find room in my luggage back to Chennai. It’s especially impressive how Bengali music has flourished in genres like Rock and Rap, doing much better than more mainstream languages like Hindi, Tamizh or Telugu. I can only think of Sindhi as the other language where music has flourished as much as bengali.The other wonderful part of Bengali music is the lyrics of the songs. Almost every song seems to have such powerful lyrics that make some connection with your mind somewhere. Of course, this applies only to those who actually understand the language! To this end, bengalis owe it to a certain Pandit Shri Rabindranath Tagore who, almost 150 years ago, set the bar for Bengali song writing so high that the contemporaries and generations to follow almost felt compelled to keep up :-)But that said, trust me, Bengali songs or rather music makes for very easy listening, even to those who don’t understand the language.
  2. Bengali Cinema
    If there was Tagore in helping shape Bengali music, there was a Satyajit Ray in shaping Bengali cinema. A legend in his own right, Ray’s films were “pure cinema”, as described by many sections of Indian and British media. Just reading the Wiki on his life brought a smile to my face, his especial disdain for “stupid western clients” during his stint as a Junior Visualizer for a British run advertising agency in 1948. That junior visualizer went on to deliver some of the best exposition of Indian cinema the world had seen till then – Panther Panchali, Mahanagar, Charulatha, Devi among others. His most successful commercial venture was Goopy Gyne Bagha Bayen which was a comic story of 2 men who travel by foot to prevent impending war between two neighbouring kingdoms. When viewed through the lens of perspective of the period when this movie was made, one gets to appreciate the genius of Ray’s narrative and art of story telling. Even more popular than the movie itself was its music – again, composed by Ray himself. The bhooter naach or Ghost’s dance was a great scene from the movie, representing the state of political & socio-economic affairs of pre and post independence India.  As kids, we did watch this movie and remember rolling over in laughter. Unfortunately, it still remains as the only Bengali movie I have watched entirely. In recent years, directors like Rituporno Ghosh and Srijit Mukherji have kept the flag of quality Bengali cinema flying high.
  3. Bengali Food
    Probably the least guilt raising of the 4 points listed here, I have done good justice to Bengali food in the last 2-3 years thanks to Bay Leaf, the bengali cuisine restaurant in Chennai. From the classic Rolls to more authentic Jhingey Posto, Daab Chingdi, Chola’r Daal, Maach-er Paathudi, Bhapa Eelish (Hilsa) and Kawsha Mangsho, Bay Leaf has been rocking it for us. Come Durga Puja and out comes the awesome Panchmeshali Shobji, Khichudi, Shukto and Tomat’er chutney as heroes of those 5 days. Aah, bliss. And then there’s our wonderful Chaale’r payesh (Arasi payasam for my dravidian friends). More bliss. I strongly recommend all of you sample bengali cuisine at some point in your lives. Contrary to rubbish rumours, not all Bengali cooking has sugar nor is it made in mustard oil. You will definitely come back for more.
  4. Bengali women
    Like everything else to do with women, this point is stickier than the rest. From what I have seen in my life – my family and Bengali families around me, Bengali women are always the primary driving force. I am resisting from use of words like domineering with the hope of being served my next meal in the house 🙂 As a result, I had created a mental block that I did NOT want to marry a bengali woman EVER! I had even gone on to convince myself that I would enjoy marriage with someone from another region or background since it would allow me to learn and absorb a lot about a new culture. Agreed, there is some merit in that theory. But off late I have realized that my theory was bull shit. Bengali being the thread that it is, is a fabulous culture and common ground for the foundation of a great marriage. The joy of sharing beyond just lives but also souls of the partners definitely augurs for a beautiful married life. I wish myself luck in possibly finding a partner with whom I can sit back and enjoy a Satyajit Ray movie on Sunday afternoon after a fulfilling meal of Luchi, chola’r daal & kawsha mangsho. 
I somehow feel I am not alone in this conundrum. I think a lot of people who live outside of their ‘mother-territories’ (Yes I know I am really pushing creative license here!) tend to get distanced from their ‘mother-culture’. However, I am not sure how many of them have this awakening in time to change course and still get a chance to enjoy the joys of their cultures. I have and I am glad.

Party Host 101

Admittedly I don’t blog enough. I have an Evernote with a whole list of topics to blog about – but none really pushes me to open up my computer and start typing like NOW! (The iPad is great for consumption, rarely for content creation). But an incident that happened last night had me thinking overnight and I decided to pen this today.

Disclaimer: Some points of this post might have me come across as bashful and indulging in self-praise. My only defence is that narrating of those parts was important to set context for the post. Thank you. 

My mom got back into town after a 5 month stint in the US (mostly chilling & cooking up some great food for parties in SoCal) and decided she wanted to throw herself a homecoming party. About 15 of her friends were invited and I decided to call about 7-8 of mine. That number eventually swelled to a grand total of about 40 at peak during the course of the night. One of the last minute additions was my dear Prashanth P2 Nagarajan and his group of about 10 people! Before he left for the night (around 3:45am), he repeatedly stressed on how he wanted to learn from me on how to be a perfect host. He said he was particular impressed with how I was never fazed by last minute additions to the party list and was always open to more people joining in. Prashanth is in the process of rebuilding his home and hopes to become a prominent fixture in the city’s party venue list – trust me, with a heart like his, he sure is on his way to being a great partyman.

This post is to encapsule some key elements of throwing a great party. How to come out unscathed and guests waiting for the announcement of your next one.

1. Heart

Throwing a party is 60% heart, 40% effort. You really have to love entertaining people to be able to throw a good party. And trust me, all those frustrating moments of putting together the perfect evening will fade when your guests come forward to graciously thank you at the end of the night.

I almost put in as much effort into planning a party as I might into wooing a woman – everything’s got to be perfect, take the person by surprise and ensure a smile. Also, if you throw a party regularly, it’s not about making EVERYTHING unique each time – it’s about that special something that’s unique THIS time.

2. Discovering & leveraging your USP

B-52

B-52 by The Sharck

Every party and every host has his or her own USP. In my case, the entire party always revolves around my bar – it is the venue as well as the centre piece. Coupled with the fact that I love serving alcohol (the finest, even if I often get ranted at because of it) and cocktails makes my bar the USP of my parties. Similarly, when Prashanth becomes party host, I think besides his awesome house to be & bar to be, the most identifiable aspect of him is his sense of humor – great timing and quick wit – he will and must learn to capitalize on the same, not necessarily always resorting to comedy of the stand up variety.

3. Preparation

Do NOT leave anything to chance – something ignored is something definitely bound to go wrong. Here’s  quick check list of what to do before the party:

  • Plan the event somewhat well in advance, at least 2 weeks. People are getting increasingly social and may not be available at short notice – not necessarily putting up their price. Just respect their schedules.
  • Make the guest list – Send out SMS invites and try to get confirmations to know the party size you are expecting
  • Set the menu – decide if you will be cooking at home or ordering in. If you do NOT know the party well enough, ask how many Veg & Non Veg people you are expecting. Also, do note that if the group is somewhat close and booze is going to be free flowing, you can down play the food aspect. Most people will drink till late and a decent array of short eats will do the trick. Just throw in a biriyani, rotis, some paneer & a basic dessert as dinner back up.
  • Try and spread the cooking (if cooking at home) between hours 36 and 12 before the event. Will give you enough time to recover from mishaps if any.
  • Test your appliances – if you are living in Chennai or most other parts of India (excepting the winter months in cities up north), you will definitely want to ensure your refrigerators are defrosted and your air conditioners working. If at the slightest hint of stress in cooling properly, get your air conditioner serviced and gas re-filled (Rs. 1800-2000).
  • Play List – Decide the sort of music you want to play through the evening and into the night. Go about arranging it on CDs or downloading them. GET THE SEQUENCE RIGHT! You do NOT want to welcome your guests with Mr. 305 Pitbull at 8:30pm. Start off with some easy lounge or bollywood music and then transition to something with rhythm but not necessarily very loud. Go with the (alcohol) flow and keep building up the tempo as the night goes on.
  • Sound check – Check your sound system to ensure everything’s ship shape. You might think this is be being paranoid but trust me, at my uber planned last weekend party, the sound system completely let me down with my rear channels as well as the sub woofer completely refusing to work. I decided not to bother too much about it and ensured people got served more alcohol (:-p). When I checked it the next day, someone or something had caused the sub woofer’s setting on the receiver to Off instead of On! If only I had done my sound check….
  • Ensure power back up is in place
  • Cutlery, crockery, glasses are sufficient, cleaned and readied for use
  • It’s quite easy to forget the mixes – Soda, water, Coke, 7 UP, Red Bull & Orange Juice are bare essentials. If you plan on whipping up cocktails, get their mixes sorted out – usually various types of juices, bitters, bitter lemon, ginger ale, tonic water, etc help.
  • If you have pets, have a pet plan – they react very differently to different situations – loud music, people petting them, people eating around them, ignoring them, etc. Ensure you have that sorted.

4. The Bar

– Alcohol

The not-so-secret ingredient of a great party, the alcohol requires fair planning to ensure you don’t run dry – your bar as well as your bank! It’s quite acceptable if you just have the basic whisky, vodka, rum and beer on offer with some basic mixes as said earlier. However, if you do enjoy bar tending and want to push out some cocktails, plan them up front and make a list of what cocktails you will serve. WARNING – DO NOT try and wing this. You will either miss out key ingredients (and you will realize this precisely when all the other ingredients have gone into the shaker!) or ruin the cocktail.

– Ice

The key to the best drinks is ice. Ensure you buy from a reliable source to the rough thumb rule of about 100 gms per person attending.  I almost always buy atleast 10 kgs. I get mine home delivered by Mr. Padmanabhan from Golden Ice (+91 9080335522). Rs. 20 per kilo and approx Rs. 150 delivery charges to most parts of Chennai.

– Equipment

Clean up your bar and the equipment. You do not want to be serving your guests in dirty glasses with dirty ice tongs or mixing with soiled stirrers. Also, if you are in cocktail mode, do keep in mind that you will need more than one shaker. Usually drinks with juices will dominate one shaker while save the other one for drinks with milk and cream. This will save you the hassle of constantly running to the loo to wash a shaker.

5. Liven things up

Party Night - Invite

Invite to a party at B-52 in September, 2012

As passe as they may seem, setting a theme for your party almost always will get your guests excited. While some will make the effort to adhere, the others will simply not bother. Let this not deter you from livening things up with a quirky theme. Western, Retro, Polka, colors, etc have all been done to death. I particularly remember bling, silver and underwater as themes that excited me in the recent past.

I try and get some livery going around the event by putting up a specially designed invite and a curated menu for the evening. I like e-mailing this to guests, putting it up on Facebook and indulging in other such PR. Besides getting you recognition, it also adds to the ‘hep’ value of the evening where your guests are going to be that evening.

6. Ask for help

Unless you are super human, you will never be able to pull off throwing a good party for anything above ten people without help. If you are lucky, you probably have good, reliable domestic help. If not, don’t hesitate to ask your friends for help. Remember, if you are going to be captive behind the bar or DJ console or camera through the night, most guests are going to have a tough time having a good time, without access to you at your party – especially if it’s a disparate group. Let friends help you with the bar, music, taking pictures, cooking, serving & cleaning up even.

7. The smoking areas

If you live in a flat, your guests are most likely to smoke either in a verandah / balcony if your house has one attached or some other common place. Prepare the space with an ashtray and possibly some aromatic oils. Especially in the case of common areas that other apartment residents’ use, ensure your help cleans up the place immediately after most guests have gone. You are definitely going to be served a notice by the association if they discover cigarette stubs and empty beer cans in the common areas.

8. The back up plan

When things go bad, you have to be prepared. Some basic steps:

  • Have spare bedding for those who have had one too many to drink
  • If possible, have a driver on standby to drop people off (I always do)
  • Candles in the case of a power cut – plus they look nice and cool and some dark room games could help too. Use this time for some flash photography also.
  • Midnight food delivery service if people get hungry
  • Some basic medicine for the over indulgent who might take sick

Finally – open up your heart and house on party day. If your friends want to bring their friends, as long as you don’t mind, encourage them to bring them over. Don’t let your preparation stop you. What’s the worst that can happen? They know when they are last minute inclusions into your friends’ lists and will not mind in case you run out of food or alcohol for them. They are over to have a good time and the music ain’t going to run out for nobody. Yes it might generally be a good idea to avoid complete strangers since remember, you will still be liable for any events / actions arising out of your party.

Good luck and tell me how your next one goes by tweeting to me @TheSharck or commenting here.

Single & Successful: Why not, thank you!

What would this world be without friends? Well one thing’s for sure, I’d be less famous or in the spotlight! After Vidya’s kindness last time landing me an interview with mylaw.net, this time, it was the turn of Mr. Rahul Bhardwaj & the very lovely Ms. Jas Banwait to sneak me into the Single & Successful section of their blog on TwoMangoes.com – a dating site for Indians in North America.

Much flattered, good souls. May your tribe increase.

The full interview is available here – http://blog.twomangoes.com/single-successful-an-interview-with-harish-anand-thilakan/

Windows 8: Release Preview Review

Yo people. So I recently managed to install the Windows 8 Release Preview (Consumer Preview has been phased out) on my PC at home. However, I haven’t had a chance to test drive it much.

15th July – I consciously decided to start using the PC to see how well the OS performed. Since Influx was working on building apps for Windows 8, it was only right that we knew the software’s UI in & out. Thus began my journey and love affair with the OS.

As of now, I am completely in love with it. I even had withdrawal symptoms of not having Win 8 on my work PC on Monday, July 16 & left for home by 5pm! I have put it through extensive browsing, app download & usage and even designed an app on Photoshop on Windows 8 and have come away a complete fanboy!

Watch this space for a more detailed review coming soon, once I have spent more time on it, tested a few games as well, connected a few more devices and installed the Release Preview of the spanking awesome new Office 15 (2013) on it!