Life

How Much Do You Spend on Technology Every Month?

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Is all that money spent on fancy new tech going down the drain? (To know more about this picture, read till the end.)

This post is inspired by a TIME Money poll that asks people how much they spend on technology every month. About 37% of the participants so far say they spend over $200, including their cellphones, Internet plans, streaming services, etc.

It got me to calculate my tech spend, and to this post. In fact LinkedIn is one of the first purely technological entries in my monthly expenditure spreadsheet. I have a “Premium” account here, and have been paying Rs 1,400 for it the past couple of years.

Then I have an Airtel 8 Mbps/80 GB connection, for which I pay Rs 2,299. (Well actually my wife pays that bill, but it’s part of the same spreadsheet).

My mobile bills are actually pretty low, thanks to a sucky Vodafone service that mostly keeps 3G down to a very anaemic 2G. I spend about Rs 800 a month for that. I seldom download paid apps, games, or content.

We recently upgraded to a TATA Sky HD set-top box and have a channel package that costs Rs 924. (I am not including the EMIs I was paying till last month for our new Sony Bravia HD LED TV.)

On average, I use Ola or TaxiForSure to book cabs at least 3-4 times. The tab is anything between Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000. (These are trips that I would have otherwise made on the Metro, costing me a fraction.)

A small but regular technology premium I end up paying is for booking movies on BookMyShow. In “convenience charges” alone I pay an average Rs 200-Rs 300 a month.

Finally, I have a Maruti Alto K10, for which I shell out an EMI of about Rs 9,000. (It maybe a bit old-fashioned to include a car on a tech list, but for whatever it is worth, it is a gadget all right.)

Put together, I spend about Rs 17,000 on tech every month. These are more or less fixed spends; I am not including things like the hyper-inflated electricity bills we pay during the summer months thanks to non-stop AC use.

I have not included e-retail either because it’s a non-regular category for me. I also don’t have data to prove whether I spend more on Flipkart etc than what I would have spent at physical stores.

Now the question is: What’s the RoI from this sizable spend?

LinkedIn: No perceptible change in my status before other LinkedIn users, just because I am a “premium” member. InMails, one of the key attractions of the paid subscription, have had at best a lukewarm reception. In fact their periodic mails telling me I have been “unstoppable this week!” are a great annoyance, because they have nothing to do with my actual usage of the site – which is not deserving of such encomiums.

Airtel: Generally trouble-free, but I have experienced agonising throttling with a new video-streaming service. Now, this has become a subplot in the larger Net Neutrality debate in the country.

Vodafone: Pathetic experience. Constant call drops, barely any 3G coverage at home.

TATA Sky: Mostly OK.

Ola/TaxiForSure: I used to be a big fan of these services, but since relocating to Delhi from Mumbai, there’s been a sharp drop in the quality levels. My last four rides on Ola have been pretty bad, and I noticed that now the company doesn’t even reply to my complaints on Twitter. It is quite possible that as users like me form a habit of booking cabs using their apps, they will stop feeling the need to give us good service – which was their key differentiator against local taxi services when they started out.

BookMyShow: Pretty flawless experience.

Maruti: Nothing against the car, except I am not much of a lover of cars and don’t enjoy driving on the manic roads of Delhi and Noida, where I live and work. In hindsight, the EMI for the car is a pretty pointless drain, because I hardly ever use it except to drive to work and the rare weekend eating-out trip.

So there you have it. On a monthly spend of Rs 17,000, I’d say my RoI is not more than Rs 5,000. That’s less than 30%.

The math is pretty eye-opening. But the biggest thing I learnt from this experience: It is unlikely I will stop any of these wasteful expenditures. I am caught in a tech-spend inflation bubble, and even if my money fetches less and less, my addiction/need to spend on tech will only increase.

What’s your experience? Does this pattern fit your tech life too?

The photo attached to this post shows a Japanese commode that recycles waste water, if I remember right. I shot it during a Japan trip four or five years back. I have no doubt I will snap it up in a heartbeat if it ever comes to India. Even better if it’s available on a subscription model. 

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The Third Space: Business and the Culture of Coffee in India

India may not have a Silicon Valley equivalent just yet, but something’s been brewing amid the hum in its coffee shops.

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Harpreet Grover, 30, says half the techies his company employs have permanently shifted base to cafés. “In the office, people bug them with random questions,” the CEO and cofounder of Gurgaon-based assessment and campus hiring startup CoCubes (backed by Infosys cofounder N.S. Raghavan’s Ojas Partners) tells us. “They concentrate better in a café.” He adds that in some of CoCubes’ other locations, like Pune, there are no offices at all. “Instead, we give people a Rs 2,000 monthly café allowance. They can work from anywhere, so long as it’s somewhere inexpensive—mostly a CCD [Café Coffee Day]!”

Till 2012, Grover’s tribe would have fitted the stereotype of startup junkies allergic to formal workspaces. But research published that year by Ravi Mehta, who teaches business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hints that their café love reflects something more universal. “We found that ambient noise”—like in a coffee shop—“induces distraction, and a moderate amount of distraction helps you move away from very focussed thinking, which in turn enhances creativity,” says Mehta. “Previous research has argued positive correlation between creativity and risk-taking. That speaks well with innovation and entrepreneurship, which involve the willingness to take risks.”

Risk is a word Grover and his co-founder Vibhore Goyal understand well: Both are IIT-Bombay grads who left promising jobs at consultancy Inductis and Microsoft Research Centre, respectively, to start CoCubes,which has been adjudged one of India’s ‘Top 10 Emerging Companies’ by Nasscom. Many in their 40-member team (average age: 27) are of the same mould.

MEHTA’S RESEARCH finds prominent mention in online chatter around the mushrooming of portals which recreate the café hum for those who need their fix on the go. Coffitivity, one such portal, even made it to Time magazine’s best 50 in 2013. While Mehta studied predominantly North American individuals, he says the creativity-boosting effect of the sound is a “human phenomenon” that should be just as valid in the Indian context. But the marginal status of the creative type—innovators and entrepreneurs—in India meant no one here had time for such trivia.

The attitude is now changing, with the rush of big money and media attention sparking unprecedented interest in the anatomy of the entrepreneur, a la Silicon Valley. And, intuitively, cafés are emerging as a key symbol. It’s not just about eccentric geniuses though. “Cafés are a blessing for sales guys, who need to park themselves somewhere between meetings,” says Grover.

“I conduct most of my meetings in coffee shops—including with investors and clients,” says Arpit Gupta, the twentysomething cofounder of Piquor, a startup based in Gurgaon that helps companies connect with their target audience through branded selfies. “They are accessible, comfortable, and no one bothers you if you sit for long hours. Importantly, they are cheap.” That last point resonates loud and clear within the entrepreneurial community. “That’s why we love CCD. Startups can’t afford Starbucks,” says Grover.

The accent on affordability is a departure from the origins of the coffee culture in India. “It was triggered during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when India’s upwardly mobile middle-class was thriving on the IT boom,” says Ankur Bisen, senior vice president (retail) at consultancy Technopak. But for patrons like Grover and Gupta, it’s all about the idea of coffee rather than an indulgent drink.

“IN THE GLOBAL NORTH, people still go to a café to drink coffee first,” says Ravi Murugesan, former vice president at Mumbai-based language services startup Cactus Communications and consultant with an HR startup in Wisconsin, who now works in the development sector and shuffles between Africa and India. Murugesan says in India—where per capita coffee consumption is a measly 90 gm compared to 4.2 kg in the U.S.—it’s the third space between work and home, a space occupied by pubs in the West. “The few places in India that have a homegrown coffee culture, like my hometown Chennai, don’t have the same buzz around cafés. Everywhere else, the label on the mug matters less than familiarity and vibe.”

The café’s informal vibe is finding use in traditional businesses too. Vipin Clement, senior talent development executive at the Bangalore office of British risk management, reinsurance, and human resources solutions provider Aon, talks of “no-obligation meetings” which are increasingly popular at mature organisations. “As part of succession planning, more and more organisations today encourage business heads to meet prospective talent at cafés. Both parties know there’s no immediate intent to hire; such interactions just won’t work in a typical office.”

(Published in the October 2014 issue of Fortune India, with inputs from Anjali Kapoor. Artwork by Nilanjan Das.)

Tech’s Trust Imperative: why Evernote Hates Talk of Owning Users

It’s Silicon Valley lore that one night during the 2008 financial crisis, Phil Libin, CEO of Redwood City, California-based Evernote, discovered that his company had barely enough cash to last two weeks. But at 3 a.m., as Libin resigned himself to breaking the news of impending bankruptcy to his employees, a mail arrived from an Evernote user in Sweden, thanking the productivity suite for changing his life by helping him get more organised. He was so impressed, he offered to invest in the company. Two weeks later, the user—who goes by just that moniker in the story—wired half-a-million dollars to Libin with minimum fuss, effectively saving what is now one of the world’s hottest startups. Six years on, Ken Gullicksen, COO, and Troy Malone, general manager-Asia Pacific, were in India, Evernote’s third-fastest growing market. Among other things, they spoke to Fortune India about trust—the ephemeral asset that gave Evernote a second chance, a global user base of over 100 million, and a billion-dollar valuation. Edited excerpts:

How is Evernote different from all the other apps out there?

Gullicksen: We want you to think of Evernote as a company that makes you smarter and more productive. A big part of that is the core Evernote app, though we also sell physical products like notebooks and scanners in some countries. The app itself is not just a storage locker for your data or another note-taking tool, but a workspace where you get things done—whether it’s an article you have to write for your magazine, or a paper that you want to submit in school.

Malone: In the era of knowledge working, there are countless ways in which information enters our lives: web links, photos, e-mails. Evernote helps you organise all that and do something productive with it. Our CEO Phil Libin calls Evernote a 100-year startup; we fully expect our users to stay with us for the rest of their lives. That’s the vision and that’s the opportunity. If you look at popular productivity suites, Microsoft Office is 26 years old. There’s a lot of demand for [a new kind of] space where you can spend your day—whether it’s on your mobile phone or laptop or whatever else—having meaningful conversations about the information in your life with your colleagues, your wife, your friends.

How do you make money? Give us a sense of your markets.

Malone: We have three service levels—free, premium, and business. We don’t release our conversion rates, but we desire to keep it at a level where the free product is good enough for people to use for a long, long time. We also sell physical goods through our e-commerce store; we have sold over $10 million (Rs 61 crore) worth since we launched the store eight months ago. We don’t release revenues from the app, but globally, 2.5 million to 3 million new Evernote accounts are created every month. About 75% of our market is outside the U.S. and Canada; the average age group of our users is between 19 years and 45 years. Most come through word of mouth.

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Where does India stand?

Gullicksen: India is our third-largest growth market globally, behind only the U.S. and China. India’s ascent is fairly recent—it has got here in the past few months. We have more than 25 lakh users in India right now and are adding about 150,000-plus each month. That’s an average 5,000 to 6,000 new users a day. The conversion from free to paid subscriptions in India is lower than more mature markets, but this is principally because you can only pay for Evernote in India with an international credit card. We do plan to introduce more comfortable payment methods in India soon.

While apps like Evernote claim to simplify life, their very existence depends on life necessarily getting more complex…

Gullicksen: It is a fact of modern life that things are getting more and more complex. We are aware of this, so we try not to add more complications to our users’ lives. Most products that have come in this space over the past few decades demanded a lot of you to make them work for you. Evernote on the other hand has a very unstructured approach. You just put everything in there, and then it’s the software’s job to take over from there. If you are someone who really likes organising things [manually], we give you the tools to do that, but we don’t force it on you.

You talked about people staying hooked to Evernote for their whole lives. Is there a limit to which a company can stretch this aura of indispensability before users start sensing arrogance? Think of Facebook forcing users to download its messenger as a separate app, and the backlash from users.

Gullicksen: A company’s job first and foremost is to fulfill a need. Whenever you begin to get away from that, you get into trouble. Thinking in monopolistic terms, in terms of owning the user—that’s a crazy idea! What we do in this respect is actually counterintuitive. We make it extremely easy for our users to export all their information out of Evernote with one click. It’s not our job to control your information. It’s our job to earn your trust, so that you wouldn’t want to take your information elsewhere.

Malone: Evernote becomes you as you enter your thoughts, ideas, research, conversations in it. It is intensely personal, so we thought about data privacy and security very deeply right at the start. We don’t have an incentive to drive page views. We don’t do big data on our users to serve ads or juice out every user. We do small data on each user that helps them become more productive. Our business model revolves around that, and we love it.

In June, you suffered a pretty serious attack, which blocked users from their accounts. How do you regain trust after such scares?

Malone: We restored access quickly, thanks to network-level technologies that are used to mitigate such attacks. No accounts were compromised and no data was lost. Over and above our security systems, Phil has personally penned Evernote’s three fundamental laws of data protection: Your data is yours. Your data is protected. Your data is portable.

Coming back to India, has the growth here kept pace with your expectations?

Gullicksen: Particularly in the past two years, the evolution has been extremely rapid. For us, the biggest enabler has been the explosion in smartphones and the general air of business optimism.

Malone: A distinct nuance in the India growth story is the way the quality of local smartphone brands has improved, not just the adoption. Micromax, one of our key partners here, is a great example. The quality of experience with Evernote and the app’s penetration have also risen because of that. We spoke to business students at Amity a few years ago, and only one guy said he had heard of Evernote. We were back there last night, and this time a good 25% to 30% of the hands went up. In two years, that’s an amazing transformation.

Do you see Indians as natural users of Evernote?

Malone: Absolutely, because work plays such a big role in daily life here. The DNA of people in India is not to sit back and relax after putting in the mandatory number of hours. They are ambitious. They want to be more productive. They will probably not work less, but we can help them get more done in the same amount of time.

How do you deal with the famous Indian penchant for customisation?

Gullicksen: We hear that word a lot when talking to partners, but I must say there are several countries around the world—Japan, China, Korea—which are similar. When we entered some of those markets, we were advised to roll out all sorts of customisations. We resisted, and ended up being quite successful. Fortunately, we are not a gaming or media company, where the pressure would have been more acute. Of course, it’s different when you talk of marketing—that has greater room for localisation, especially language localisation. Also, all our eight offices across the world with 350-plus employees stress on hiring locals.

Malone: There’s one more thing: Wherever I travel, I try to experience Evernote like our local users do. Last time I was in India, I used a Micromax Canvas phone with a local SIM. It’s difficult to make decisions for a region as diverse as this sitting in Silicon Valley.

Is there a plan to set up base in India?

Malone: We are looking at options. Right now, we have only one contractor who works on marketing and business development. Obviously, one guy is not nearly enough in such a large country.

Anand Mahindra tweeted after the $19 billion WhatsApp acquisition that young people may no longer have any incentive to build anything “real”. Do you feel that there is still more virtue associated with building physical things, rather than something nebulous like software?

Gullicksen: The idea of attributing value to software is something that people have to just face. Different societies are at different points in the curve, but they are all moving there.

Malone: To your point of building real things, I know of architects in Korea who use Evernote to
master intricate, traditional Korean architecture, which is a thousand-year-old art form. Evernote is not something that replaces “real” things—it’s very much an additive. We have close to 15,000 businesses that use Evernote to create very real, utilitarian objects. I even used it to build a skateboard ramp with my son.

Who or what is your biggest inspiration?

Gullicksen: This may be a cliché, but we look up to Apple. Before Apple, the idea of beauty was alien to technology. It was all about functionality. Thanks to them, companies now don’t start with market research but with user experience design.

The Wall Street Journal named Evernote among 30 startups worldwide with a billion-dollar valuation. When’s the big IPO?

Gullicksen: We don’t spend a lot of time thinking of the IPO, it will happen when it does. IPOs don’t create value. Serving people’s needs does.

(Published in the October 2014 issue of Fortune India.)

Why I hope #AchheDin won’t reach Andaman’s primitive Jarawas

Amid the euphoric surround sound announcing Achhe Din (“Good Times”) for every Indian courtesy Modi, newspapers recently reported the anointment of Dambaru Sisa, a member of Odisha’s primitive Bonda tribe, as a Biju Janata Dal MLA. “I do not want framed photographs of my people decorating drawing rooms of the rich,” Mr Sisa said. “I do not want people making money from development programmes meant for Bondas.”

The nexus of tribal life and development reminded me of a brush I had with Andaman’s primitive Jarawas 10 years ago. (It was actually during the 2004 tsunami Christmas, when I was vacationing at the pristine beaches of the Andamans – and later at relief camps across the islands – but more on that in a separate post.)

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The Jarawas of the Andamans; photo courtesy The Unreal Times

Not much is known about Mr Modi’s views on India’s tribes. But based on my experience with the Jarawas and their relationship with money/development, I am not sure if his Achhe Din paradigm should stretch quite as far as them. And no, I don’t say that as a breast-beating, development-will-ruin-the-tribal-way-of-life-spewing, jhola-type. I say that purely as an anxious middle-class tourist, for whom Jarawa-watching has traditionally been a money’s-worth part of what is otherwise a ridiculously expensive holiday destination.

Here’s an edited excerpt from something I wrote immediately after my 2004 trip that explains my stand. Pardon the mawkishness; I was only 21.

…The protected territory marked for the Jarawas has the ambience of a safari, so that the tourist sitting in his moving vehicle constantly hopes to “spot” Jarawas as if they were a featured species on Animal Planet. In my own vehicle, at least three cameras were ready to carry back home proud evidences of having seen a “real” Jarawa. At every Jarawa-less winding of the hilly road, my father and my cousin would let out sighs of disappointment. They had had enough of trees and rocks, they now wanted the real thing.

Before entering the territory, forest officials had expressly forbidden us from giving the Jarawas any food or money, or getting too cozy with them. Thus alerted, the word Jarawa invoked several exciting images. Mystery. Animal power. A mythical cannibalistic relationship with the civilised world. A language-less-ness that added to the occult feeling. In other words, a platter full of delicious assumptions of difference. The typical tourist spends money traveling precisely to max out on such difference. Seeing a buck-naked Jarawa is quite the jackpot for him. 

(Of course, later in our trip, stranded at a tsunami-hit jetty, we would learn from a forest officer how Jarawa men now hum DDLJ songs and love wearing T-shirts and pants. The officer would also tell us how in his hurry to reach his flooded village, he had to depute a Jarawa youth to man an outpost meant to guard a portion of the Jarawa territory from prying eyes. But at this point of the trip, our innocence was still in tact.)

Sensing my family’s growing restlessness, our driver decided to entertain us with stories of his daily rendezvouses with Jarawa folk on the route. “I can guarantee you will see one today,” he said. “And don’t be bothered by the forest people’s nonsense. Of course you can give money! They know what money is. Just don’t give a badi patti, else they may get pissed off.”

Now for all our eagerness, we were not about to part with a badi patti (100 rupees or more) for the pleasure of Jarawa company. Like all good middle-class tourists, everything we did followed a strict budget. But why would a poor Jarawa not like being given more money?

They are only familiar with fivers and tenners yet,” the driver explained, “because that’s how much tourists generally give. If you give any more, the buggers think it’s fake money and get very angry. They even attacked a friend’s car a few days ago…”

Sadly then, our mysterious, brutish, animal-like Jarawas were getting civilised. The good thing was, it wasn’t happening fast enough to make people like us redraw their travel budgets.

PS: We did see a Jarawa that day. I do not have photographs.

A Good Samaratan

Samara white wine 180 bucks in a green bottle, take a bow. Don’t hog the whole stage though, leave some room for this blog, since it is this blog that I have returned to under your influence, fighting off dearblankpleaseblank and textsfromlastnight, the two undisputed linchpins of the season.

Why, you ask, have I adopted you though, especially since I seem to have arrived in life – enough to start thinking disdainfully of the Borivali local and sticking only to the Andheri variety? You are cheap, you taste like cough syrup, and you do not even have a name that is difficult to pronounce. But you are in many ways like this blog – a convenient means to an unglamorous end. A bit like my early morning date with the commode whose seat could do with a repair job, but whose unflattering touch makes me feel all’s well with the world nonetheless. Nothing in comparison to how I felt on those profligate afternoons back from Alibaug and taking a dump in the Taj loo, but 15 stations closer and that much more instantly gratifying.

Birth Buddies

Those who don’t know me, behold, and draw a mental picture of me.

Those who do know me, behold, and understand how much of me you never knew.

This is what has made me what I am. As I count down to my 27th birthday, it’s finally time to own up and show the world who I am all about. These are my birth-buddies. I am particularly thrilled by the first and third entries. Happy birthday buddies, let’s totally do this thing again!

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Tallulah Belle Willis, 3rd daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore

Maitland Ward, born in Torrance, California, actress, Jessica-Bold and Beautiful

Karen Bradley, Miss Rhode Island USA 1996

Maria Itkina, U.S.S.R., sprinter, 9 world records

Charlie “Pretty Boy” Floyd, FBI Most Wanted criminal

Camille Bombois, French circus wrestler/painter

Joseph Gordon Coates, Prime Minister of New Zealand, 1925 – 1928

Charles VI, King of France, 1380-1422

Maa’s meat shelf

Home was maa’s meat shelf. Milk powder, tea leaves, sugar and biscuits on top; moong, arhar and masuri in the middle; baking powder and custard mix at the bottom, all in
see-through Horlicks and Dalda jars. Maa had a way of arranging everything in the order of immediacy. Somehow, in maa’s hands, complete misfits lived transparently and in happy harmony. Maa also knew a magic trick which quietly converted a ‘meat shelf’ into a halfway house for a melange of everything but meat. Much like her twenty different dreams and fears converted me into twenty different people, strange(rs) to me at first sight, till I eventually became them.

Baba was a rough-hewn critic of everything maa did, but, above everything else, of the food she cooked. The life cycle of every family meal traces a unique set of rituals. The hierarchy of chairs or the levelling comfort of the floor; the orderliness with which the food is served or the chaotic plunging of fists; the timbre of serving spoons resonating differently with different bowls and pans or the heavy cluck and grunt of approving mouths; matter-of-fact replies to rhetorical questions or, as was baba’s wont, dramatic footnotes on a mysterious deficiency in the food, one which he always said he could not put a name to.

Baba did not know the cold precision of “the onions were not sautéed well, and they are hanging loosely to the potatoes instead of hugging them.” Having made up his mind there was something wrong with the food, he would suddenly stop chewing and turn to maa, always to his right. Maa would continue eating from her makeshift plate on the floor, propping her small self on her left arm – veins shooting upward in a blue shock – but keenly anticipating a comment from her critic of twenty-five years.

Isn’t there something missing from the aalu poshto?

A swift and indifferent round of “No”s from maa and me later, he would return to his food, resuming his noisy chewing, almost happy that we vetoed his suspicion.

After every meal, maa would lament the excess rice in the haandi, and baba would blame it on her “bird-like” appetite. “Your maa has never eaten like a human, not once in these twenty-five years. Look at how she nibbles from her dented aluminium plate. A stranger would think she’s been punished!” Maa would let him score a mini victory, veering the conversation to my studies and my grandparents’ health. The finger marks on our long-emptied plates would emerge as ridges of dry turmeric, and the meal would end with baba asking maa about the next day’s menu while sucking his crusty fingers before the final loud wash – involving hysterically coughing out, nearly choking, and generally splashing great volumes of water while rinsing. Baba’s palate demanded a perfect purge after every meal, ugly and elemental.

And so it continued, unchanged for eighteen years, till I tiptoed out of the frame, landing headlong, unprepared, in the world of high tables, eat-outs, modular kitchens and resto-bars. Maa has been replaced by Google, baba by the sophisticated gentleman who knows exactly when the sauté isn’t right. My fingers are sterile from holding cold cutlery, and I have never seen anyone else stocking lime pickle and arrowroot on the same rack. It’s also much easier to spot real problems with the food in this world, though I don’t think that’s enough to make baba want to live here.