Thursday, October 25, 2007

Comrade Varma wins the Bastiat 

Last night, I attended the Bastiat Awards dinner with fellow bloggers, Prashant Kothari, Yazad Jal and Manish Vij. As regular readers know, our colleague and friend, Amit Varma, was one of the finalists for the Bastiat prize. Given that he was facing the likes of Clive Crook and Jonah Goldberg, it's fair to say the odds were against Amit.

So, imagine all of our collective surprise when Amit in fact won the Bastiat. We were all thrilled to bits for him. Amit won the award for his libertarian essays in Mint. True to form, Amit delivered a really funny acceptance speech extempore (pic above, courtesy Manish Vij). He was also gracious in acknowledging the Libertarian Cartel, and Niranjan Rajyadhaksha for his superb stewardship of the Mint op-ed pages.

Congratulations once again, Amit! Boy, you deserve it, and here's to a continued defence of Bastiat's ideas in the Indian media and blogosphere.

If you're wondering who won the prize last year, it was none other than Tim Harford. And Tim's out there somewhere raising a toast to Amit as well.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Reminder of the Role of SME's in Job Creation 

On this blog and elsewhere, I have hammered away at the importance of the small and medium enterprise sector in job creation and employment, especially in fast-growing developing countries. A large proportion of new job creation in developed countries (let alone developing ones) has been in the SME sector. I was reminded of just how large this number is while reading the innovation special in the last issue of the Economist.
From 1980 to 2001, all of the net growth in American employment came from firms younger than five years old. Established firms lost many jobs over that period and dozens fell off the Fortune 500 list.

IPEG Happy Hour on Oct 25th 

This is very short notice, but hopefully many of you IPEG members will be able to make it to this short-notice happy hour.

Many IPEG members are in the process of successfully raising emerging markets focused funds, the latest example of which is Mike Hokenson’s successful closure of the $40 million fund with CDC. There are a bunch of other South Asia and Africa focused funds that are also in the process of being raised or being closed.

Come hear all about it and discuss other issues of interest, over drinks, with your colleagues this coming Thursday, on October 25th from 7:30 pm to 11 pm at Amsterdam Cafe on Amsterdam Avenue at 119th St. Amsterdam Cafe also has a decent food menu, so you can also have dinner there, if need be.

Discovering Jack the Dripper in You! 

Yes, I know it looks eerily like a Jackson Pollock painting. Not. However, you took can indulge your Jack the Dripper fantasies by heading over to www.jacksonpollock.org.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Global Social Venture Competition Asia Round 

The Global Social Venture Competition (GSVC) is the largest student-run business plan contest in the world, which provides mentoring, exposure and prizes for social ventures from around the world. GSVC started off at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, and since then, Columbia Business School, Yale School of Management, London Business School and the Indian School of Business have joined as partner schools.

This year's Asia round for the GSVC will be held at the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad, with the preliminary deadline for submission of plans being Nov 15, 2007. The Asia round finals will be held at the ISB this between the 8th and 10th of March 2008, and the global finals will be held at Berkeley on the 18th and 19th of April. So, if you're sitting on a business idea, model, concept or even an existing business which has a double or triple bottomline, and would like exposure and perhaps even seed/growth capital, head over to the ISB's GSVC Asia Round website, where you can find all the instructions necessary for submission of business plans and participation, including vital information and FAQ's for entrants.

I served as a judge for the 2007 finals, so i can give prospective participants some idea on what to expect. First of all, don't be flaky and keep in mind that there is no business that can meet a second or third bottom line without meeting the financial bottom line. The judges at the Asia Round tend to be very hard nosed and you can therefore expect the same questions that you'd expect if you were to pitch the plan to a venture capitalist. The higher the social impact without sacrificing your commercial viability, the higher your chances of getting through to the finals. Last year's top prize at the Asia finals went to a bio-technology company from China that had patented a technology to drastically improve crop productivity while the second place went to a Thai team that had developed a new dental technology (the Thai team went to place second at the global finals). One team was also chosen on the basis of their Social Return on Investment (SROI) Analysis.

I know there are several ZS readers out there who are budding entrepreneurs while being socially conscious, so here's your opportunity to make a difference and potentially get your business up and running. Questions, if any, should directed to the organizers. Needless to say, if you know of someone who might be interested, feel free to forward the information.

The Classic Rock Blinkers 

This post is a mea culpa. For most of my life in India, I, like most of my friends, listened to nothing but classic rock. That would be defined as music largely created before the time I was born. Typical of this category would be Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles etc etc. Now, these bands are truly non-pareil in the annals of music and I still get an amazing rush from listening to Led Zep II for instance. However, the trouble with the classic rock business in India was/is that in the fervour of the classicism of rock bordering on puritanism, I missed out on a whole load of fantastic music. I, like everyone else I knew, also used to be extremely sarcastic towards anyone who stepped out of line with what was considered to be "good" music. I guess a good indication of this bias towards a certain kind of music could be seen at quiz contests where the audio round would consist of nothing but arcane facts about Floyd or the Stones or some such.

Now, what did I miss in the meanwhile? Well, top of the list would be Radiohead. I was literally bludgeoned by my buddy, Jaideep, to listen to Radiohead and when I did, I was almost instantly a convert. I also missed out on the most creative (IMHO) phase that U2 went through, post-Achtung Baby, because I thought they were veering from the true path. Of course, I missed the entire electronica scene in the 90's, so that would include everything from Aphex Twin to Orbital to Thunderball to Fatboy Slim. I have spent the last 8-9 years repenting and catching up on all the music I missed out in the late 80's and 90's.

So, why am I writing this? Well, I was reminded of everything I've said above when I first listened to the lush minimalism of the new Radiohead album, a sound that I would never even have heard if I had kept my classic rock blinkers on. Secondly, I suppose this post is aimed at ZS readers in India who continue to wear these blinkers (you just need to go to Pecos on any night to understand). The whole classic rock puritanism works the way any other kind of narrow mindedness does, which basically denies you the joy of discovering something amazing and new. So, if you're still hooked on classic rock, I'd say stop listening to "Roadhouse Blues" for the millionth time and try Kid A, or O.K.Computer or anything by Aphex Twin, or Zooropa or anything by the Flaming Lips or Vegas or Sounds from the Thievery Hi-Fi or anything by Kruder and Dorfmeister. You could also listen to sounds from the Asian Underground, like Saad Chisty (check out Manzoor in particular) and by now, everyone has at least heard of Karsh Kale, Midival Punditz, Jalebee Cartel etc. I am not saying you will like any/all of this, but at least give it a shot.

Financial Times Video Lectures 

The Financial Times is hosting a 5-part video lecture series called Exploring New Markets: The Base of the Pyramid. The introductory video lecture is done by me, followed by my colleague Ravi Bapna on mobile telephony in BOP markets, Shamika Ravi on the myths behind the microfinance industry, Harish Bijoor on marketing to the BOP and Mudit Kapoor on the sustainability of the Indian economic growth story. Only Ravi and I are online currently, but the other lectures will follow during the course of the week.

As for the nervousness and squinting in my segment, blame it on extempore lecturing, 3 hours of sleep, jetlag and bright sun and reflectors in the eye. Excuses, excuses, I know :)

Friday, October 12, 2007

Buy In Rainbows. Now. 

Back in 1999, at the Columbia Institute of Tele-Information, we did some research to unpack the economics of the music industry and especially of album sales. We found that typically the artist would get 1-15%, while overheads ate up the rest. It also became obvious why the recording industry preferred one-hit wonders, because they could squeeze the one-hit wonders on royalties much more than they could do to Elton John, Pink Floyd etc. Anyways, having been a Grateful Dead fan and knowing how much money could be made the Grateful Dead way (touring, merchandise etc), I wrote a paper saying that recording artists should use new technologies like the Internet to bypass intermediaries and reach out directly to fans. Since then, Napster happened, RIAA lawsuits happened, Napster shut down, Itunes happened. Etc. Etc.

I was therefore absolutely thrilled and stunned to hear of Radiohead's brilliant idea to sell their new album, In Rainbows, directly to fans since they were not tied to any record label. What was even more innovative was that they asked fans to pay whatever they liked for DRM-free music. I did some calculations on how much a label-free digital format would cost and paid $6 for the album. Radiohead was obviously betting on the fact that most of their fans would pay something for the music, rather than download it for free.

Initial reports suggest that Radiohead was spot on. 1.2 million downloads have been reported in the first day alone and the average fan was forking out $10 (I don't know what the median amount looks like). That's pretty damn amazing for an experiment. Mind you, other artists have tried giving music away, but not using Radiohead's pay-what-you-like strategy. More importantly, Radiohead is a massively influential band if not the most influential rock band today, much more so than Prince, Nine Inch Nails etc. News has already been filtering out that Nine Inch Nails, Madonna, Jamiroquai, Oasis are all re-considering their marketing model after the success of the Radiohead experiment.

Does this spell the end of the recording industry? Almost certainly not, but it will seriously cause a lot of bands to think twice about signing royalty agreements which enrich the fat cats and leave them with very little. In particular, one has to wonder whether a Radiohead fan is fundamentally different from those of other bands. For instance, do they belong to a higher income strata and therefore do not mind paying money, despite not being forced to? I have no answer to these questions, but there is no doubt the release of "In Rainbows" is a seminal event in the history of recorded music.
As for the album itself, I absolutely loved it. It's a very downtempo, electronica influenced album (not quite as much as Kid A though). I had heard most of the tracks through the live bootlegs that emerged from the Radiohead tour last year. Even so, I am amazed by what a beautifully crafted album "In Rainbows" is, so make sure you listen to it in whole, rather than as parts. "15 steps" has elements of trip-hop, but evolves into something that only Radiohead could do. "Bodysnatchers," which was my fave track from the live bootlegs is a really rocking track that you cannot but tap your feet to. However, the album really takes off from this point. "Nude" gives way to one of my favourite tracks, "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi" which is an absolutely gorgeous take on our being returned to the fishes, via the worms. "Reckoner" features the best percussion ever by Phil Selway, who probably has the most prominent role on the album besides Thom Yorke. My favourite songs after 48 hours of endless listening are "House of Cards" and "Videotape" (which I preferred the live version of, by a teeny bit). Videotape, of course, is just a beautiful little song about, what else, suicide! And above all of this hangs some really extraordinary piano and organ and Thom Yorke's signature whine. I think it would be apt to describe this album as somewhere between "O.K.Computer" and "Kid A."

I cannot possibly recommend this album enough. So, go to www.inrainbows.com and buy your copy now. If you're confused about how much to pay, my guess is that anything between $5 and $10 will be ideal. You could also download it for free and buy the CD at a higher bitrate as and when they hit the record stores.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cartoon du Jour: Redefining William Blake 

While trawling the New Yorker's Cartoon Bank, I came across this gem by Mick Stevens. It made me laugh even harder than yesterday's cartoon.

If you cannot see the lines, here's what is says: "What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?"

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Cartoon du Jour 

One of the funniest cartoons I've seen in the New Yorker in recent times.