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.

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Hiring for the right fit

Over the years, one of the things I have watched with a lot of interest about the corporate world is how people get hired. Hiring people is an extremely fascinating job and I have spent time with people in HR teams to understand what goes on behind the scene. But like other aspects of the corporate, HR activities have also been automated and become process oriented, with the result that rather than making it easier for the right people to get into the right jobs, finding the “right fit” for a job has become more complex.

Resumes are now run through automated software to search for keywords in the resumes that match the ones in the job description. I am not able to wrap my brains around it. Are companies hiring people or robots? All of us evolve continuously in life and the work place plays a very important role in that evolution in our lives. Who we are today is not who we were when we started our careers. Our personal lives also play a major role in determining how we mature in our professional lives. Describing ourselves completely in our resume is impossible because we are all unique from one another and that is how we have been created. We can only highlight what we have done in our past and present jobs in our resumes, but experience and knowledge we have gained from the jobs can never be written about. Most interviews are conducted based on what is in the resumes rather than how the candidates can add value to jobs they are being considered for. Even though interviews give companies the opportunity to understand candidates better, it is still hard to comprehend someone’s ability to adapt to new challenges and the desire to keep learning.

What we are seeing now is organizations growing irrespective of whether all their employees are also growing as well. This is simply not right. Bose is a company that is not registered in the stock markets and they pump back 60% of their revenue into research and development, which basically means back into their employees. We can now see how Bose has become a market leader. All businesses are by and for the people, so everything that is attributed to the organizations should also be applicable to the employees. If a company becomes market leaders because of more efficient management, it’s employees should also become more efficient. Employees should be motivated to improve their working standards and have the passion to grow. For an organization to stand out and be competitive, it’s the people should be in that mindset first. Throughout our academic lives, we compete with our classmates/batch mates for some reason or the other which motivates and drives us to perform better. For most people, this competitive spirit dies off once the stress of life and work engulfs them and for the rest, it becomes a matter of one-upmanship and usurping the position of someone else in the companies they are working. Neither contributes towards the growth of the employees and the growth of the organization.

People are trying out different things in the name of maintaining work-life balance. But again, planning a trip during the weekend keeps us excited through the week but the thought of going back to office and the back to the same old life makes the return journey dreary. Now all businesses are in a stage where cost is the primary driving factor and this is putting more pressure on employees to perform or perish. All of us are innately talented in one way or the other, be it in arts or sports or in something else. Most of us never find this within ourselves, because we are always busy with academics, work, responsibilities, etc. Increasing number of people are trying their hand at different things outside their work place, like taking up sporting activities or trying their hands at music, theater or some other art form. But this is mostly to beat work pressure rather than to excel in it. If people start taking up activities with the objective of competing and excelling, it could put a completely different spin to the organization’s overall efficiency. People will have an outlet to release pent up energy and they will carry the need to excel into their work place as well. This is why companies should promote and start hiring people who are doing productive activities outside office. Top colleges give admissions to students not only based on their academic skills but also on what else they are excelling in. In one way, this is an indicator of how effectively we manage ourselves and our time, implying that they are checking our leadership capabilities and our ability to handle multiple responsibilities together and excel in them. In short, they are looking for what they call as “well rounded resumes”. This is what companies need to do as well to find the “right fit” for the jobs they have.

Something that puzzles me is the fact that most companies give provision for candidates to upload their resumes on their website. The objective is to inform candidates when suitable opportunities come up. I have tried searching for jobs this way as well but I have never understood the objective. If I, as a candidate is trying for jobs in a company, I must be having a reason for it. Either the company is into a business which I am or have been working in or the company must be having a business unit where I can fit myself in. So I would do basic research about the company before uploading my resume into their website. But when I am doing this, I feel more like a robot than a human because everything is automated and I don’t get the human touch. What I believe will truly work well here is, I should be able to schedule an informational interview with someone in the company I am aspiring to work for. This will give me the opportunity to highlight my skills and showcase my objective and passion for working for the company in the role I am seeking. This will also help companies find the “right fit” for the jobs they have. There will of course be a cost in employing people to do the informational interviews, but it will be more than offset when the company¬†improves significantly.

So much gets written about how to prepare resumes, how to prepare and appear for interviews, how to negotiate for salaries and so on, the basic part I feel is missing is treating candidates as humans and giving them the opportunity to showcase their abilities. The whole process of job search is in itself a revelation because it can give plenty of insights into what we can potentially do and how and where we can extend our capabilities. A little bit of “human touch” to the recruitment process can definitely add a lot of value to the company and people aspiring to be a part of the company.

The false & murky world of advertising

There was a time when watching advertisements was one of the eagerly awaited aspects of TV viewing. Many of those advertisements of old are still so endearing, I see people flocking to see them on YouTube. And the best part is, we have so many of our own memories associated with them. All of that changed and changed so fast, advertisements siphon off major portions of our time now, be it on print or TV, earning nothing else but our loathe and ire.

Advertising is truly amazing and fascinating. Being a part time business correspondent and caption writer in an advertising firm during my under graduation days was a massive learning curve. Caption writing can become so crazy, it can cause mental disorders if we do not control our mind. A great caption is just good enough to capture the imagination of customers. So a good caption writer should be able to write captions for anything that they see. Every morning, I used to think what caption would I write to sell a toothbrush and toothpaste when I am brushing my teeth and it would start off from there. There was a time when great captions and pictures were enough to push a product into people’s minds. But that was also a time when markets were not crowded and competition was not intense.

All of that changed, and changed drastically in very short time, especially after the Cold War ended. Across the world, markets started opening out and many of them, like India, were green pastures yet to be grazed. Companies flooded their products into these markets and after the initial mayhem, settled down into what has developed into intense, ‘mother-of-all-battles’ competition to occupy every inch of market space. All of this changed the face of advertising forever. The effects are cataclysmic. More products meant more space and airtime for advertisements in the media, so companies started buying space and airtime which led to the creation of more magazines and TV channels. What is worse, companies are increasingly buying more airtime for advertisements on news channels which is all the more pathetic.

Now there are so many toothpaste brands in the market and they are so everywhere on advertisements, I have no clue which brand will be better for my teeth. This is the case with everything in the market now. When so many products and their advertisements stifled markets and jammed people’s minds, companies took the ladder to the next level. Use celebrities to endorse their products, creating the next wave of calamities. Cricket, once considered the gentleman’s game changed into a money spinning genie in no time. In fact, a new format of the game got created just because companies were pouring in money for more airtime to promote their products. Now celebrities from all walks of life, be it actors or sportsmen are being roped in to endorse products, be it jewellery, talcum powder, cement or PVC pipes. And it is working perfectly. Human beings have the habit of herding, like cattle. We have a natural tendency to follow anyone who takes the lead. So when an actor endorses a product, his/her fans are more than happy to vouch for that product. Markets have become segregated and marginalized just because of people’s affinity towards celebrities. What companies ultimately succeeded in doing is to hijack people’s buying power and rob our purchasing sense. But things haven’t been so hunky dork for them after all.

The cheesy and tacky advertisements of Axe brand of deodorants and other products attracted the ire of an Indian customer who used the products for three years and then sued Unilever for falsely claiming through their advertisements that using Axe products would attract the opposite sex. I was watching a video on a social network a few days back in which a lady is seeing addressing an audience and she is enlightening them about how photos of models are morphed and trimmed using advanced software to make them look more lean and curvaceous, leading to the rapidly spreading ‘disease’ called anorexia. Girls are losing their health permanently because of eating disorders developed from their obsession to lose weight and look like the celebrities they worship. Many of them have ultimately developed mental disorders and lost their lives.

But it doesn’t look like all is lost. Kate Winslet, the leading Hollywood actor issued a statement saying some of her pictures that came out in print recently were morphed and specifically mentioned which of her body parts were morphed to make her look leaner. In India, Aamir Khan, the acclaimed Bollywood actor endorses products only when he is convinced that he is not passing on a false message to the customers. But these examples are far and few. The money that comes from endorsements is many times more than what comes from playing a sport or acting in a movie. So, becoming a celebrity is the easiest way to make loads of cash in no time. All those reality shows that have sprung up across the world are prime examples. Kids are no longer interested in education and why not, when there are so many avenues to cash in on money and fame in so less time. The game of cricket is losing it’s charm and sheen because youngsters are increasingly finding it an easy way to find fame and money without investing a lot of effort and years. And to top it all, so much money breeds nothing but booze, prostitution and drugs which is disintegrating the very fabric of our society.

Laws making companies and celebrities equally responsible for the products they sell and endorse will rein in this money bonanza to some extent and I am so glad this step is being considered in India now. Paying so much to celebrities sky rockets companies’ expenses and the only way to make up that cost is to pass it down to customers. In a country like India which is plagued by inflation and corruption, all these advertising gimmicks create another layer of never ending struggle for the common man. It is high time people have greater awareness of the mired world of corporates and their advertising strategies and how the virtual world they have created have engulfed our lives and made us their puppets more than customers.