Business lessons from the life and times of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits

Its a curious case about Dire Straits & Mark Knopfler. People who know them would die for their music. People who don’t know them don’t know them at all. When I tell the younger generation about them and make them listen to their music, they find it weird and boring. But when I go on the internet I see kids swearing by their music. The disparity is so vividly glaring. This is the legacy Mark Knopfler has created for himself and for Dire Straits.
The name of their band in itself defines their music. They were asked to give a name to their band during their struggling years and what came first to their mind was that they were broke and had no money with them. Dire straits actually reflected their situation at that time and was not put as a funky name like other music bands at that time. This honesty has always reflected in their music. Mark Knopfler has been in many ways the Steve Jobs of the English music world. As music evolved from jazz and rock and roll from the 1960s to fixed categories of rock, pop, blues, etc. towards the late 1970s, Dire Straits was inspired by all the different categories. Their music had everything going on together. In those times when heavy synthesizers, guitars, drums, long hair and crazy outfits came to be considered necessary to be successful as a music band, Mark Knopfler refused to throw in the towel and give up his dream of making music he wanted to in exchange for fame and money. This is essentially why they were initially in dire straits. For quite some time, Apple did not make computers for everyone to use. Steve Jobs waited for his computers to evolve in the market and its demand to build up. Microsoft makes Windows for everyone to use which is in fact the hardest business model to follow. It is simply not possible to have something for everyone which is reflected in the numerous updates Windows versions needs and the different Windows versions themselves. In the similar vein to that of Apple, Dire Straits made the music they wanted to make and let people evolve into their music. Commercially this is a huge risk to take. But thankfully, in the world of art and music, creative satisfaction always takes precedence over commercial success. What this translates into is how we should position ourselves and/or our products in the market. If what we have is genuine and can truly cause disruption and create it’s own space in the market, put it out there, keep working on making it better and be patient. Success will eventually catch up.

The second and the more important aspect is evolution. From the late 70s when they started off their music evolved as more and better musical instruments were added. Mark’s lyrical and singing skills became more silken with each album. Their popularity peaked in 1985 with the release of their “Brothers in Arms” album. After being on the road for almost 2 years on shows across most of the world, Mark seems to have realized that they were moving away from making music for themselves to playing music for the people. It might have sounded ludicrous to many at that time, but when the passion goes out, so does the creativity. He could not let fame and fortune take control over his passion for making music which was possibly why he disbanded Dire Straits. This is a massive lesson for the business world. No matter how successful a company or a product becomes, to continue to be successful it has to keep evolving and to evolve the passion for it has to remain intact. This is probably why Bose Corp. has never been on the stock market. They do not seem to want business and commercial success to take precedence over their need for creative excellence.
Dire Straits did come back together to make one more album “On Every Street” in 1991 but that experience also taught them an important lesson. It is a superb album by all means but unfortunately ended up being compared with Brothers in Arms which should have never happened. They were like two different products from the same company and should have been seen and evaluated as such. If Dire Straits fans are longing for their reunion which Mark is staunchly refusing to go back into, it is because people themselves killed the confidence he had on them. Mark disbanded Dire Straits forever and started collaborating with other great artists such as Eric Clapton, Elton John and Phil Collins among many others and eventually started to make music under his own name.
Here is the most critical lesson to learn. Be it with someone’s life or academics or jobs or business or products, the growth graph will hit a high sometime. But it won’t stay there for long. What goes up has to eventually come down. Many musicians and music bands shot through the roof initially and then disappeared without a trace. This keeps happening all the time. There are two aspects to consider here. The lessons we learn from our experiences as our graph grows up and realizing that our graph has hit the high. Mark seems to have realized this when On Every Street got compared to Brothers in Arms. Dire Straits had hit their peak with Brothers in Arms. Unless they created something better than Brothers in Arms, every album they released in the future would have had been subject to comparison with Brothers in Arms. That was a phenomenal expectation and disappointment to live with. Their evolution was complete with Brothers in Arms. The option was to either continue to exist in that painful situation or let it all go and mature as a musician by himself and give everyone else in the band the opportunity to figure out their life ahead on their own.
When businesses grow and hit their highs their evolution gets complete at that point. Then they need to settle down and mature. True fans of Dire Straits know what a gifted and amazing songwriter and guitarist Mark is. He has wisely and craftily used the reputation of Dire Straits to build his own brand name. Steve Jobs has always used this strategy with Apple products. Apple has a core consumer segment that will buy anything Apple sells. After establishing that segment they released a dazzling array of products to bring more customers into that group. Now they are in the maturing phase and are focused on improving their products.
Mark Knopfler still makes music and does world tours but at his own pace. His music has always been what his passion for music has brought out from him. We need to tread the same path, be it in our professional or personal lives. True passion will eventually bring in fame and fortune but the key is to hold on to that passion at all times. Fame and fortune will wither away with time. But everything we do and create with passion will have the hallmark of fine quality and it is the quality that always stands the test of time.

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Companies and products don’t die they become irrelevant and fade away

I have heard from many people that the startup initiative in India has been a failure but no one said why. Below is a list I obtained from a social network about the top reasons why startups fail.

 

Interestingly, a startup company had contacted me few months back asking me if I could be their mentor. Their product is on the lines of Askme.com and they were trying to market it in Kerala, my state in India. The key problem was the people of Kerala are not even fully used to the shopping mall culture yet. We still prefer buying from local grocers, medical shops etc. So searching about products on the internet is still a long way away. My question to the company was, do you know if there is a need for your product in the market you are targeting? They had no clue. This is the top reason on the above list. Lack of proper due diligence. What they wanted from me was to understand how to market their product. I told them that you need to go back to your drawing board and figure out something crucial. Simply putting your product out there is of no use. You cannot force people to use your product. So what can you offer them for using your product? You need a better product strategy before you get on to business strategy and that is where marketing strategy comes in. I haven’t heard from them after that.

Even worse is not understanding when the product is ready to be in the market. Mature companies too have new products and services in their pipeline but what makes and keeps them successful is their ability to time their launches precisely. The extreme of this is Apple launching their products whenever they want to because they have a phenomenal market following. But that’s Apple. There is a concept called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which can help understand when to stop working on the product and launch it. How do we know this? Work on creating those aspects of the product which could create market disruption or get noticed in the market quickly. When this is successful then it becomes easy. People will take over from there. All we need is to take feedback from customers. Customer expectations will tell us which features of the product are more relevant and need to be out there in the market quickly.

There are two phases of every lifespan be it that of the Universe itself and everything within it. Evolving and maturing. Business also follows the same pattern. A friend is learning to be a professional cake maker and my advice to her was simple. If she is going to bake cakes like everyone else is, she is not going to get far. Evolving stage is the experimenting stage where she needs to mix and match and see what unique she can create. So how will she know she has matured? When customers start calling her for her cakes.

My dad has always loved cooking non-vegetarian food. He looks up on a lot of recipes on the internet but then finds his own niche way of cooking. He has been asking me to help him find a market for his food. He cannot compromise on the quality of the products he uses for cooking which essentially means he cannot target the lower and the lower middle strata of the market. If he tries to sell at those levels, he will have to lower his price thereby lowering his profit margin considerably and moreover there will be very less appreciation among those customers for what they are getting. All of this means the key is in the positioning of the products. Positioning will determine the pricing and marketing strategies.

I believe products and companies become irrelevant and fade away rather than fail. Nokia and Kodak are great examples. Nokia phones became irrelevant when their Symbian OS was run over by Android and iOS. With Kodak, the most fundamental mistake happened. They matured and stopped evolving and got run over by technology. Evolving to maturity shows the growth trajectory of the company or the product. Sustaining and staying relevant in the market demands continuous evolution of another kind. This is where the sheer genius of Steve Jobs shines brightly. In the middle of iMacs and Macbooks and iOS and iPods and iPhones and iTunes, he still found the time and space to figure out that there could be demand for a device that could bridge the gap between the Macbook and the iPhone, thus creating the iPad. I have wondered how tuned his mind was into the world of business and how he used to keep his ears to the ground. He seems to have understood the threat of stagnation and becoming irrelevant which should be the reason why he created such a huge product catalogue and a possibly unknown product pipeline on which he was supposedly working till the time of his demise.

There are great companies and greater leaders to look up to. But ultimately success depends on the course we charter and when we are able to muster the strength, wile and guile and navigate ourselves through the choppy waters of the business world.

Nature’s insights for the millennium life

There is a very good reason why we are causing mayhem in the world. We no longer feel the need to fit into the realm of nature. Two things are happening as we continue to evolve away from nature. We are no longer understanding and learning from nature and we are losing our survival instincts. The problem with this is, we are still part of nature’s ecosystem and though we have built our own Matrix, our roots are still buried in nature. What we are not realizing is that if interpreted correctly, there are reasons and solutions in nature for everything we experience in our modern urban lives.

Consider this. Traditional martial art forms such as Kung-Fu evolved from the observation of movements of animals such as snakes, monkeys, tigers and cranes. But as our society evolved past the Renaissance we stopped observing and learning from nature. Aren’t we bored and tired of our monotonous 5 day weeks in the corporate world? Then head out to a lake or a water body where there are Cormorants, Darters or Terns and observe them fishing. 50-75% of the times they dive into the water, they come up with nothing. When they do catch a fish, half the time the fish slips out and escapes. How many times do they need to keep repeating the dives to find enough food to satiate their hunger each and every day? There are no weekends in nature. What if they thought this is boring and monotonous? What if they said we had enough and we are not doing this anymore? They would perish in hunger, as simple as that. And people complain about not getting jobs and talk about retirement. There is no complaining and retirement in nature. Just one rule exists out there: Try till you die and die when you quit.

There is something very fascinating in nature we don’t reflect upon. Why is it so difficult to spot animals in the wild? It is because of the prey-predator relationship. A successful catch of a prey depends on who sees or senses who first. What we see as beauty in nature is actually camouflage, to hide or distract, be it from the prey or the predators. Everything in nature is trying to hide itself from one another all the time. Lions are colour blind to the stripes of zebras so when zebras run together, lions do not get any visual sense of what is happening before them. But they still hunt down zebras. How? Because they have heightened levels of their other senses. What does this come down to? Nature always pushes the boundaries of every being in her ecosystem. Nothing comes easy. Every being has to be at the top of it’s game all the time to stay alive and procreate for it’s species to survive. The primordial force of nature keeps pushing the limits of everything within it and this is what propels evolution; every animal tries to evolve continuously to be a dominant species in nature.

How does all of this translate into our lives? For wildlife photographers they have to stay ahead of all these hide and seek games in nature to get great pictures. There are 3 aspects to getting great wildlife photographs: spotting the subject, anticipation and hand-eye coordination. Take this to Agile methodology, the management practice that has taken over almost all industries. Whenever I hear or think about Agile, what comes first to my mind is the image of a tiger. Agile methodology is not just about doing things faster. Why is Agile predominantly a product based methodology? Because it is essentially about spotting those little opportunities in the market, anticipating which way market conditions could swing, what customers might need and getting the products out into the market accordingly. This is exactly how tigers or any predators hunt in the wild. Be it in nature’s jungle or concrete jungle, success has the same underlying roots. The change management principle of focusing on small wins, consolidating them and targeting bigger goals is a lesson that comes right from nature.

What has changed about us is that we evolved into beings of a complex cooperative society and what has got affected the most because of this transformation is our surviving skills. A support system gets built around every individual from where we get help whenever we are in need. The size of the support system depends on our needs and what we can give to the society. Social media networks are all examples of such systems. This highly interconnected way of living reduces our need for surviving skills and this I believe has been the biggest liability of becoming intelligent beings. Our needs have grown exponentially which in turn has raised the bar of our desires. With our waning surviving skills, when life becomes difficult, we become frustrated and start feeling helpless, turn to Gods and eventually to superstition. No other being in nature believes in getting help from a higher power to succeed. Every animal believes in it’s own skills and abilities to survive. This is why in highly competitive market conditions, mere skills and abilities do not take us far; it is our contacts in the favours based society that help us to get ahead.

But there is an anomaly here. Less surviving skills should ideally make us less competitive but the reverse is happening. Urban life has become a mighty arena for wealth based competition. We are vying to buy bigger and more expensive houses, cars, gadgets and an infinite number of assortments. This is an endless pit and once we fall into it, we spend our entire lives chasing more wealth to keep buying newer and supposedly better things. Think iPhone and all it’s die hard fans who literally live in queues for days outside Apple’s stores to buy new versions. Our status quo in society built around wealth mandates that we keep chasing wealth all the time. Business is thriving with marketing strategies fine tuned to exploit this wealth based competition to the hilt. But wealth is a commodity and acquiring wealth is not a skill; it is all about exploiting the needs of our fellow beings. A great example is the real estate industry. Buy land for lower cost and sell for higher price based on demand. All business models are built around understanding and exploiting people’s needs, going to the extent of creating new needs if they do not exist, something which Apple epitomizes. Is there anything in our society that keeps egging us on to become better human beings? Nothing. This means we are not evolving and we have stagnated. Technology has only made us dependent on it and has not helped us become better beings.

Nature develops 3 critical aspects in every being for survival: Patience, Perseverance and Resilience.  Nature teaches us to keep scouting for every opportunity, keep doing the same things relentlessly till we succeed and to keep moving ahead in the face of every adversity. Nature teaches us to appreciate every moment of our lives. We take time for granted, ours as well as that of everyone else’s. In nature, a lapse in moment is what stands between life and death. Nature sharpens our skills and abilities continuously and keeps us ready to face the next challenges. We need all of these, even to live in the bubble we have created for ourselves. But we have made ourselves lethargic enough to choose the easy way out every time. No schools or universities can teach us nature’s lessons. In the extremely competitive world we live in, we need our fundamentals firmly in place. Only the eternal Mother can make us evolve into better beings.

 

Is the startup ecosystem becoming the next bubble?

This has been the decade of startups. From the time not so long ago when technology was ruled by the now legacy companies through the advent of the Cloud ecosystem, technology has had a huge makeover. Business strategies and models have had paradigm shifts and new business ideas do not want to work with legacy business models. The hegemony of  the big technology corporate have waned too quickly. They were never prepared for such drastic changes in such a short span of time. Central to these radical shifts is the concept of startups. Everyone aspires to own a startup now. The hype has grown so huge that there are companies that are ready to hire failed entrepreneurs to tap into their experience. There is a saying that even divine nectar in large quantities can become poison. Sometimes I wonder if the concept of startups is going that way.

I am mentoring a startup initiated by a group of electrical engineering students. Essentially they are trying to unify and streamline an existing chaotic business model. Interesting for a bunch of business students but what are engineering students doing with such an idea? They got bit with the startup bug. Can’t blame them, everyone around them in campus are caught up in the same startup frenzy. I met their head of department one day and had a very interesting conversation with him. He was complaining that many students are not even interested in completing their courses or writing exams because they are chasing their startup dreams, so I asked what type of startups. He said all of them are IT based. Then I wanted to know what his department was getting out of those startups. He got lost. I asked him again, what is the electrical engineering department getting from IT startups which have absolutely no connection to electrical engineering? Nothing. My next question was, where is the next innovation in electrical engineering happening? The three people in the meeting gaped at me. I told them there is a simple solution. All engineering students have to do academic projects in their final year. Make those projects their startup ventures. By industry standards, it takes a minimum of 3 years for a startup to get the first level of funding. Kick start the projects from second year of engineering, set up a team of industry professionals and investors, arrange a bootcamp during the final year, do technical and business reviews of the projects and fund the ones that pass the reviews. With their teaching mindset for the past 2 or more decades, this wasn’t something easy for them to digest. I do not know if they have taken up my idea because it will take a momentous change in the system and in the mindset of all involved people.

What is a startup anyways? Why is there such a hype around it? Every company in it’s infancy is or has been a startup, in the present or in the past. 24 hours not enough in a day, uncertainty at every single breath, the Damocles’ sword of financial breakdown and company’s closure hanging over everyone’s necks, the end of an idea and a dream, all of these have existed from the time business has taken off. People have waded through these miseries and tasted success or failure. 20th century has been the pinnacle of humanity’s greatest technological inventions, never mind the conspiracy theory that the invention of transistors in 1948 was actually reverse engineered technology from the alien spacecraft of Roswell UFO incident in 1947. But we had already discovered vacuum tubes and had made TVs and even computers with them. The magnitude of those inventions can never be matched because no matter how technologically advanced we become, the roots of technology will never change. They were made by the ones who dared to challenge and look beyond all conventional logic. Edison once remarked that he learned a 1000 ways of not making an electric bulb. The Wright brothers had to make countless efforts before they conquered the sky. All these people had were ideas in whom the ones around them believed and stood by them through flawed executions and strategies. Their greatest inventions were born from the mistakes they made. In a post on a social media I read that the value of an idea is in it’s execution. But I am inclined to believe that true value is in the flaws of the idea and in the flaws of execution. I believe that an idea becomes an innovation when we work diligently towards correcting those flaws. Everything in the Universe is flawed and it is in the nature of the Universe to always try to improve itself. That’s why it is tending to infinity in integral calculus.

This is my biggest concern with the world of startups. It’s all about financial valuation; everything is measured in terms of revenue and ROI. The pressure is on full blow from the moment startups seek investment. Seed funding, Series A, B and C funding; catchy terms, huge hype around them and now the startups get measured with respect to these words. Weren’t nascent companies in the past taking investments? Yes. Weren’t they under pressure to not fail? Yes/maybe. So what was different then? I believe those people were able to focus on their ideas and build their core values without the stress of investors holding them by the scruff of their necks. Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, they all started small from garages and dorms and I believe they grew because of their unwavering focus on their idea and vision and not because of perfect execution. The chronicles of mistakes Steve Jobs made in his professional life is legendary. Now big companies are looking to acquire startups and startups are looking to be acquired by big companies. That’s a complete shift of focus from core values of innovation and building a company to making quick money and fame. It is nice to be in the league of successful entrepreneurs who sold their companies to bigger players and even better to tell the world that the next target is to look for bigger and better ideas or look to invest in a startup. On the other extreme was a certain Amar Bose who quietly built Bose Corp, one of the biggest companies in the world without even being there on any of the stock exchanges. No fancy stuff there, they just put 60% of their profits back into their R & D and into their people. Momentous strategy, something every company aspiring to innovate should look up to. But the rules of engagement have changed in financially challenged market conditions. Big companies are willing to acquire startups only if they are making profits or at least they have achieved their break even and if they have decent cash flow statements. I believe all of this is killing the true spirit of ideas, innovation and entrepreneurship. The number of innovations that have truly changed the world before and after the advent of the concept of startups will tell the whole story. How many companies of the magnitude of a Google or an Apple or a GM have come up from the present startup ecosystem?

Nothing in the cosmos lasts forever. What goes up has to come down eventually. This is why I am wondering if the startup ecosystem is another bubble that will burst in the near future. The question that we always seek answer to is where is the next wave of ideas going to come from? This has been the origin of the startup ecosystem because investors want the first and the biggest bite of the innovation pie. One positive aspect of all the startup buzz is that it has managed to extend the innovation and entrepreneurial mindset into the student community all over the world. Uncluttered minds, buzzing energy, ability to absorb failures and look ahead, the mindset to take risks, all these are the essential characteristics for innovation and thinking beyond all boxes. We all know about the college dropouts who have built the biggest companies on the planet. If Africa is going to be the next hub of business then undergraduate classrooms and even schools are going to be next hub of fresh ideas. The fancy terms of the startup environment may not fit that realm. I know someone who along with his team conjured a brilliant idea to convert coconut husk into completely biodegradable plastic like sheets as their engineering project. The idea is lying in cold storage because they never managed to get investments. They are all employed and settled in their lives now and are not in the mindset to let go off their current lives and chase their idea. The kids just need to be put in the right direction at the right time. It is the older generations and the academic world that need a complete transformation and makeover to understand and fit in with the exploding young minds.

H1B lottery – beginning of the end of another gold rush?

The din over the H1B saga is growing louder and the accusations against 3 Indian MNCs seem to be a bit over the top. I am not trying to exonerate them in any way, they have indeed played their part in deteriorating the situation, but they are not the only ones involved.

I believe the US government itself has diluted the true purpose of the H1B visa. The objective of the H1B visa is for the American MNCs to recruit and move skilled people from around the world to work from the US. Now which are the companies that fit into the category of American MNCs? Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, etc.  are the names that first come to mind. Do these companies need to bring in 65,000 people every year from abroad to work for them in the US? Only fresh applicants and the ones whose visas have expired consume the 65,000 visas. The lifespan of the visa is 3 years and at any point in time, 130,000 active visa holders are already out there in the market on top of the 65,000 visas issued in any year. It would be unbelievable to even imagine that American MNCs would bring so many workers into the country every year. What will happen to the employment market for local people? Even then, Bill Gates and many other IT corporate honchos have been openly advocating about increasing the H1B visa numbers. So if the American MNCs are not getting a decent enough piece of the pie, who are the demons gobbling up the visas?

I am a little blurred at the moment with regards to the definition of a MNC. Top American companies have operated in the US for many years before they expanded their presence to other countries. Indian companies operating out of India register their companies in the US and they become MNCs? Is it just that easy? Why is not required that a company needs to have a pedigree and legacy of operating out of its parent country for say, 10 years in a given industry and have documented proof to show that they are a profitable company before they are allowed to set up offices in other countries? Why didn’t the US government set up a different visa quota system for American and foreign MNCs? With due respect to everyone and without any racial discrimination, a company registered in the US solely with the intention of outsourcing work from the US to the native country of the founder/a stakeholder should not be given the status of a MNC. Why didn’t the US government strictly ensure that Indian MNCs pay their foreign workers the same salary as local employees in the US? Indian MNCs have made mountains of money by paying a fraction of the salary of what they should have.

What Theo Negri experienced (http://www.firstpost.com/world/h-1b-whistleblower-theo-negri-on-how-lottery-salaries-are-gamed-by-tcs-infosys-cognizant-3404384.html) and what the real threat to the visa system is does not come from the Indian MNCs though. Indian MNCs ensure that they do enough background verification of the employees before they hire them. But there are plenty of devious companies that don’t. They don’t hog visas but the damage they do to the visa system and genuine applicants is enormous. They have offices in the US, they hire people from India on their payroll, take them to the US and contract them out to work for companies there. People have to pay a lot of money to these companies to get the visa and they are tied down for at least 2 years on bond to work on the company’s payroll. Contracting can happen through several intermediate companies with the effect that what employees get in hand as salary becomes very less. It becomes an uphill task for these people to recoup what they spent and break even. These body shopping companies develop excellent knowledge of the US market requirements and they know how to showcase the resume of potential candidates that fit the job requirements. Bloated work experience and skills and even fake certificates are the usual methods these companies use. They even know which cities people should fly to in the US at any given time, where border entry checking would be a bit more lenient.

Indian MNCs have also misused other types of work visas like the L1 and the B1 visa. How did this blatant misuse of the US work visa system continue for so many years? How is it possible that these companies openly flouted the country’s labor laws? How do body shopping companies know which city to be used as port of entry? Why did the US government allow the visa system to be manipulated so badly that people with below average skills could enter the country and get employment? There has to be a lot more at play here that is seen. The powerful Indian lobby in the US must have kept the entire visa system at bay by keeping all the stakeholders happy. After all, the money involved here is monstrous. Forget everything else; I was wondering one day about the number of people who might be applying for US visa of any type every single day. They all have to pay visa application fee. Many of the visa applications get rejected as well but the application fee is not reimbursed. How much money is the US government making each day simply from visa application fee from around the world? It is staggering.

With the Green Card as the point of attraction, the world ended up believing that US is the heaven in the new world, just like the people of Europe believed Jerusalem is a land flowing with milk and honey and headed there to start the Crusades. From the time Europeans arrived on the Mayflower and landed on American soil, people have had to toil really hard to make America what she is today. Life is not different anywhere in the world and to come up in life, we have to toil hard no matter where we are. The higher value of the dollar and the status symbol of being in the US is what drive most people in India to the US. It even helps Indian grooms get more beautiful wives and higher dowry. The gold rush had to stop sometime. I saw this coming in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. I am surprised it lasted so long.

http://www.firstpost.com/world/white-house-h1b-visa-assault-powered-by-indian-origin-professors-research-3412766.html

The heroes amongst us

The other day, I was watching a movie in which the male and female protagonists meet, fall in love, get killed and are born again. The male protagonist is born as an immigrant worker, as a thug and then as a gaming software professional. It was a crazy movie with over the top emotional scenes and I watched it only for a while, but it set my mind into thinking about one thing. Our never ending search for out of ordinary personalities and our need to glorify them. 

Humanity’s history is littered with whom we call as heroes, people who have braved the odds and succeeded in their quests. If people of ancient times became heroes by slaying demons and dragons, unearthing wealth and by putting their lives on the line in gladiator arenas, today’s heroes are sport stars, rock stars and movie celebrities whom we drool over. But the thread that connects all of these people have remained intact through the ages. Our need to idolise and glorify some amongst us has remained undimmed with time. But the people we make our heroes are quite controversial.

 People who have fought and defeated evil, vanquished villians and chased away the bad guys. The movies we make are a simple reflection of this. But the fact is, we have also idolised those people who raped and slaughtered millions of fellow beings. We speak of Alexander and Genghis Khan with admiration. We even admire Achilles who as the legend says owed his alliegance to no one and fought wars at his own wish. Now we make movies out of their stories and glorify them even further. We book the tickets in advance to watch these movies and the producers of the movies make millions and even billions of dollars. Fast and Furious movie franchise is a great example. Even though we all know most parts of the movies in the franchise are made through advanced computer graphics, we still throng to watch them to see Vin Diesel and Paul Walker defy all impossible odds including gravity itself to pull through unimaginable stunts. 300 is another movie that comes to mind. Blood and gore all the way, but Leonidas and Xerxes are admired as powerful kings even now. When Greece won the Euro 2004 Soccer championship, their style of playing was compared to the tactics of Greek and Spartan armies during their heydays.

So what are we talking about here? Do we admire and glorify people who challenge the existing norms of society? Does that mean we throw our weight behind the underdogs? No. We have always sided with the ones who have had more power and more power has always come with more influence and control over people. We have owed our alliegance to the ones whom we have empowered and we have let them rule our minds and bodies. I have never been able to wrap my brain around the fact that black skinned people in Africa allowed white skinned people to control their minds so much as to enslave them. But what disturbs me more than anything else is that we admire and look up to people who have amassed wealth. Bill Gates might be a well known philanthropist but what is the first thing we remember and talk about him? Microsoft and Windows. What does that translate into? Revenue. Ditto with Steve Jobs. Apple and it’s unbelievable horde of profit. Warren Buffet is admired as the best investor and what does that translate into? Money. In an ever expanding capitalist ecomony around the world, money is fragmented in such a way that some have most and the rest have few or nothing. The objective is to maintain the world this way so that everything can be bought with money, even the choice of the people to elect the representatives to govern them.
This leads to one simple question. Who are our real heroes? The ones who show us how to make money? The ones who have money and shows us how to live their snazzy lifestyle? Well, these are the two categories of people who are always in the limelight now. What about someone like Narayanan Krishnan who is devoting his life to care for every destitute he comes across? I have never come across anyone who learnt to cut hair for the sole purpose of cutting hair of street dwellers he cares for. What about Johan Eliasch, the Swedish millionaire who bought 400,000 acres of Amazon forest land just for preserving the forest? We make heroes and Gods out of everyone we could find, including politicians and film stars. Why have we left people like these out? The only logical reason I could find is, these people are spending money and have no lust for power which completely contradicts the expected behavior of the ones we idolise. 
I have wondered for long why Indians have so many Gods. When I understood about Lord Rama, Krishna and many more, I saw the connection. They embodied strong personal characteristics like patience, perseverance, focus, conviction, self belief and most importantly, the courage to stand up to what was right, not only to them, but for the greater good of beings around them. This is why they came amongst us, to teach us these virtues and these virtues are what we need to seek when we pray to them. All true leaders only expect us to learn their virtues and rise to a higher consciousness where we can coexist with our fellow beings and with Mother Nature. None of them have wanted us to glorify them. Jesus did not create Christianity and Buddha did not create Buddhism. They saw that all of us are heroes in our own ways and all they tried to do was to make us enlightened with this knowledge and show us how to reach there. But unfortunately, we are stuck too deep in the world of wealth and the seven sins to see their true message. When all of us find the heroes within ourselves will be the time all sufferings will end on our planet.

The giant slaying of Nokia

Yesterday, when I updated my social network status saying that I had an inkling of what was coming to Nokia all along, a dear friend asked why didn’t I predict it earlier. Analyzing companies is one thing, but predicting strategies is a totally different ball game. SWOT, Porter’s Five Forces, PEST and financial analysis all help us to get a very good picture, but there are other factors as well.

So why did Microsoft make the move at Nokia now? Analysis of both companies gives interesting insights. I knew something was cooking in Microsoft’s strategy kitchen the day Stephen Elop announced that he was joining Nokia from Microsoft. That was a time when Nokia was beaten black and blue by Apple and Samsung. Nokia has one of the best talent pools but when it came to strategy, they lost it completely. They didn’t have a direction for their Symbian OS and they started looking at MeeGo, but I guess they got confused about that direction as well. Their large number of mobile phone brands, which worked so well for them in the past, started becoming a liability once smartphones captured the market. Apple became successful with iPhone because they had, well just iPhone and they were able to devote all their resources and strategy on one product. Samsung found success only when they focused on the Galaxy series. Nokia did not have something to compete this with, that’s why even though they had sales (of normal phones) to show, their profit margins kept nose diving.

So how must have Microsoft played this out? They like to have their fingers in every pie at the same time, but coming up with a smartphone was something that burned them bad. Nokia had two fundamental weaknesses. Lack of a smartphone that can compete with Apple and Samsung, which was partially because they did not have the right OS and Symbian and MeeGo didn’t make the cut for a smartphone. Looks like the whole exercise of Elop getting into Nokia was to see if they can master Nokia’s mobile hardware with Windows.  Both companies must have built common strategies to fit Windows on Nokia’s hardware. Finally success came in the form of the Lumia series. Now what’s left for Microsoft to do? Put the Microsoft logo on the Lumia phones. Exactly what they are doing now. For all the success of Android platform, there is one serious flaw with it. It’s open source, so app developers build apps with their own hardware configurations. When apps built under different hardware configurations work in a single device, it can cause serious resource utilization issues. This is a pain area which is going to hinder the growth of the Android market. Apple and Microsoft don’t have that problem. They have solid hardware baseline configurations and hence they can offer very good stability with their mobile phones.

So Microsoft was successful in developing a short term strategy into a long term one. If they had realized that they couldn’t get Windows to adapt to Nokia’s hardware, they would have had left the scene a long time back. They have used all the analysis tools very well. They identified their strength as their Windows OS, weakness as their inability to enter the mobile market and Nokia as an opportunity. Nokia has the best brand name especially in Asia and Microsoft has huge stakes in the Asian markets. But is it just about the analysis and the strategies? I don’t believe so. This has to be more about the prestige factor, about having a successful Microsoft smartphone in the market, about making a statement that we can have our own too . I do not think beating Apple and Samsung is a strategy Microsoft has for now. Selling a phone by replacing Nokia’s brand name is no easy game, so I guess Microsoft will wait it out for now and see how the transition works out. Profit margins will depend on what strategies Microsoft develops for Lumia and if they have more smartphones in mind and also on how Apple’s and Samsung’s pipelines look like. Apple has already applied for a patent to build hydrogen batteries for their mobile devices (rumor has it that hydrogen batteries need to be charged only once in a month) and if that becomes a reality, it is going to put an ocean’s distance between Apple and everyone else. For now, we are going to see the demise of a brand that has become a part of our lives and we have come to love and trust so much. RIP Nokia.