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Meditating For Moolah

Posted by anandrr on January 28, 2010

This being my very first trip to an Ashram of any kind, I was expecting to run into a strong cult of personality, but little that would annoy me. The surprises started at the get-go.

The ashram is a huge swath of land in San Ramon covering many hills, valleys, lakes, and what appear to be moderate-sized farms. We visited on a Saturday, the only weekend during Amma’s two weekend-Bay Area visit that she would be meeting with the public. “Giving darshan,” as we Indians say.

The main action is centered around an auditorium, a  middling barn-like structure built on the side of a hill. The area around the ashram had been converted into make-shift parking lots, each with a jarring title: the Kailash lot, the Rishikesh lot and so on.

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Punyam Trail to the Parking Lot

The Kailash lot is connected to the auditorium via the Punyam trail that cuts across the intervening hill. No word on whether those who take the longer scenic route to the auditorium are missing out on the short cut to salvation.

As you walk to the event, you are surrounded by cars whose owners proclaim both their love for the mother as well as their extreme liberalism (2-heart-Amma license plates cheek by jowl with bumper stickers sloganeering for Peace) You also find that you are surrounded by a wide variety of Indians, some non-Indian Asians, and a large number of Caucasians dressed in white kurtas, salwars, and donning beads and necklaces. It is then that you realize that this combination of Indian and white is only seen in one other type of event in the Bay Area: classic rock concerts. Those who have been will recognize this readily: if you went to a Roger Waters or Mark Knopfler or Jethro Tull concert in the Bay Area in the nineties you would have come upon a curious demographic mix, old baby boomer Americans with tie dyes, pony tails and young twenty-something Indians raised on a steady diet of  classic rock. Replace the older hippies with a younger version, and you have the demographic mix of the “mother” events. As you approach the auditorium, you realize that the similarity to a rock concert is not entirely incidental, the business model seems to be almost entirely copied. There is one vital difference: the main event, the meeting (and embrace!) with the “mother” is free. But this event is surrounded by commercial merchandising that will take your breath away. To start with, just as the Stones go on tour with the prominent “lick” logo, so does the “mother.” She comes complete with a swooshy logo that would make Nike proud, as well as a slogan for the North American leg of her tour (Embracing the World, natch). Everything is on sale with a high markup. Books, tapes, CDs, holy water, holy ash, holy sandal wood, holy incense, holy puja material, holy everything, all duly blessed. Pictures and paintings of doubtful artistic value but incalculable blessing value. Food of doubtful nutritional and even less culinary value. But the one that had me gasping for air was the table with the offerings to the mother. Devotees like to take offerings to the mother when they gain darshan. Towards this, they can buy at this table a small box of Hershey’s kisses for $4 or a large bag of the same candy for $7. This is chutzpah that would make Donald Trump proud. Buy the items at Costco for a cheap $1-$2, sell them to a devotee at around 4x the price and then, follow me carefully here, get it right back from the devotee as an offering.

‘I don’t understand why you buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Malta and sell them for five cents’
‘I do it to make a profit’
‘But how can you make a profit? You lose two cents an egg.’
‘But I make a profit of three and a quarter cents an egg by selling them for four and a quarter cents an egg to the people in Malta I buy them for seven cents an egg. Of course, I don’t make a profit. The syndicate makes the profit. And everybody has a share.’
Yossarian felt he was beginning to understand. ‘And the people you sell the eggs to at four and a quarter cents apiece make a profit of two and three quarter cents apiece when they sell them back to you at seven cents apiece. Is that right? Why don’t you sell the eggs directly to you to eliminate the people you buy them from?’
‘Because I’m the people I buy them from’, Milo explained.

— Joseph Heller, Catch-22

At least Milo would be proud.

Once you’re past the curious demographics, the branding and the commercialism you finally find the groupies. You can’t have a rock concert without them, and the same goes for a  darshan. There they are, overcome by the mere sight of the lovely lady, alternately rapturous and stunned into speechless wonderment. I was put in mind of this one time that I ran into Vijay Amritraj at the Leela in Bangalore and my jaw dropped to the floor as I stood there and reminisced about his game-changing performance at the Davis Cup against Martin Jaite. I found myself strangely immobile, overcome by the dueling emotions of wanting to fall on my knees and kiss his ring and simultaneously unable to do anything lest this heavenly apparition suddenly disappear. I’ve never  been much for the divine souls myself, but I must imagine the feeling on encountering the amma is somewhat similar.

All told, I suppose the most egregious aspect of the experience was encountering such a blatantly capitalistic enterprise cloaked in so much anti-materialistic spiritualism. In a sense, it is a matter of  some not insubstantial aspiration and achievement that a mere girl from the fishing villages of Kerala has ascended to the head of a huge multi-million (billion?) dollar enterprise, and who am I to fault her for her enterprise and gumption if this is how she chose to get there. On the other hand, it leaves one with the realisation that perhaps nothing is really sacred any more, not even the sacred. That takes getting used to, when I get there, perhaps I’ll have true zen.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Corruption, Culture, Economics, Philosophy | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Arnie Pulls a Kim Jong Il

Posted by anandrr on September 2, 2009

Yet again a foreign state-head with a liking for Hollywood action movies has imprisoned a citizen of the free world on what the victim claims are made-up charges. We tried to send our ex-President to rescue the poor sod, but he was unreasonably frisked and detained at the airport and never made it off the ground. The bastards! They thought of everything. Perhaps we should send Shah Rukh (his name is Khan!) to distract the prison guards with his dancing while Mr Jon sashays away to freedom.

Posted in Airlines, Business, Films, Funny, Showbiz, wtf | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Pricing Win

Posted by anandrr on August 27, 2009

You can buy 1 of these for $3, or you can buy 15 of them for $42$45…$48. Are those your giant sized balls of steel, or are you just happy to see me?

Pricing Win!

Tsuya 1pcs US$ 3, Tsuya 15 pcs US$ 48

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Incentives, wtf | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Microsoft – Yahoo: Thoughts

Posted by anandrr on July 31, 2009

My first thought on Microsoft-Yahoo was that Yahoo seemed to have gotten the worse end of the deal. They seemed to have ceded search to Microsoft, got little to no revenue upside but certainly boosted their bottom line. Indeed Lex at the FT seems to agree. Negotiating with no leverage is a bitch. But having slept over it, I am beginning to see why Yahoo had to do what they did.

When I think about Yahoo, Microsoft and Google, they seem to have fundamentally different business foci, Microsoft and Google on one side and Yahoo on the other. Google focuses on helping consumers find what they want. In the process if advertisers have to be inconvenienced, so be it. It’s a curious business that doesn’t mind pissing off the people who pay the bills, but Google does it. This is why the Google marketplace and the Google algorithms have to be opaque, transparency would tilt the balance between the advertiser and the consumer and Google can have none of it. Microsoft is like Google in many ways. They are relatively new to advertising-based business models and would be quite happy to take the side of consumers over advertisers, it is individual consumers who helped them build their core business anyway.

Yahoo is in a different place. While they started out as a Google-like company, the downturn of 2001 forced them to think more about their advertisers. Cash was in short supply and so Yahoo changed the way they thought about their business and ensured that they were as advertiser-friendly as they could be. This worked wonders for Yahoo and they emerged from the downturn looking better than the rest of the dot-coms. The Overture search marketplace was a perfect match for them, it rewarded advertisers willing to pay the most and didn’t consider relevance, advertiser quality or any other metric that Google adds to their auction mix. But of course that made Yahoo search a terrible business, search cannot be won unless you have a consumer focus, in this way it is different from other publishing.

When a consumer searches for a car, she would hate it if the results included advertisements for Tylenol. It wouldn’t matter that Tylenol had research that revealed that 80% of all car-buyers needed a Tylenol within a day of commencing their search. But this does not apply to a page on autos.yahoo.com. Yahoo can show any banner/display ads it wants on those pages so long as the ads perform well for the advertiser and the advertiser is willing to pay for the impression. Yahoo does not risk alienating its consumers by showing irrelevant ads alongside its content (so long as the ads are not objectionable in content or overwhelming in number). So long as Yahoo owned and operated a search advertising exchange, they were in constant internal conflict, the search exchange required Yahoo to prefer its consumers over its advertisers, the advertising business side required Yahoo to prefer its advertisers. This could not hold.

The current deal breaks the dichotomy for Yahoo. All of Yahoo can now focus on helping their customers get the best advertising deal on the Internet across search, display and any other platforms that Yahoo is/will be on. By jettisonning the exchange, Yahoo’s sales team is free to treat the search exchange as just another platform on which clicks and impressions may be bought and consumer data may be gathered. They can even help their customers integrate their display purchase with advertiser click-streams driven from, gasp, Google.

It is in this way that what appears to be a financially weak deal for Yahoo could turn out to be a strategically great deal.

Next up: Google is attempting to create an advertiser-focused exchange on Doubleclick. Our new-found theory indicates that this cannot be the roaring success that it could be, Google will be as internally conflicted as Yahoo was. Yahoo will win that battle with Rightmedia on its side.

Posted in Advertising, Business, Incentives, Internet | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

What Would Google Do Indeed?

Posted by anandrr on February 20, 2009

Me emailing the moment to JP, Editor, Bookmarks magazine: With any luck the reviews on [What Would Google Do] are coming in at around 1 star.  Walked in to the bookstore and this douche of an author is standing here and being himself. God what a load.

But  more interesting  than the author and his speech was the audience itself. The bookstore in question was Books Inc in downtown Mountain View, hometown of the aforementioned Google. I was emailing on the (supposedly citywide) free public Wifi provided by Google to the fine denizens of that fine town. The last time I had seen a Google-related talk at Books Inc was when Battelle was there flogging his Search book. Back then, Google was the new darling and everybody wanted to fawn on the Google. This time, it was very different. This book might have top-picked the Google phenomenon. For a Mountain View audience, they were distinctly hostile to the ideas that the author was flogging, they pooh-poohed transparency, calling Google the most secretive company on earth (when the author challenged that, they gave in a little and admitted that perhaps the CIA and FBI were more secretive), they questioned whether the concept of beta products extended to much more than free web offerings and brandished bug-ridden Android phones as proof, they didn’t think Google would exist at all without vast Government expenditures and so where did we get off belittling other Government initiatives (the specific topic being global warming)?

This turn in sentiment is curious, very curious.

Posted in Advertising, Book Review, Business, Capitalism, Communism, Economics, Internet, Literature | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Newspapers in Decline

Posted by anandrr on January 30, 2009

The headlines blare: Newspapers are Dying! Being a voracious newspaper reader myself, this is a matter after my own heart. FT’s Lex tried to attack the problem. But he stops way short.

As Lex points out, the problem is simple: newspapers cost too much to produce, but print ad revenues are declining rapidly. Online ad revenues are growing but fall well short of the costs of running a newspaper. To wit, the New York Times costs $338M per quarter ex-printing and distribution, but online ad revenues clock in at a meager $74M. But Lex is blind to the solution. Presumably with good reason. Lex’s salary depends on his/her not seeing the truth in front of his/her eyes. The newspaper business model has been broken for a while now, and while the newspaper companies are trying to fix it by going online, very few of them seem to understand what that really entails. And so we are still where we have always been, online ad revenues can’t make up for the high cost of producing a quality newspaper.

First, let’s look at how well they’re doing the online bit. We’ll stay with the New York Times, they have an exceedingly good website (by newspaper standards) already.  Assume for the moment that you’re researching the 9/11 attacks. You search for 9/11 on Google, notice how not a single link on the first page points to the Times’s coverage of that seminal event. Indeed, not a single newspaper on that list of links. So if you were trying to research an event that happened in the New York Times’s own backyard, the New York Times doesn’t want you to know that they can help you. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the Times ran a series called Portraits of Grief, an incredible series that memorialized every victim of the 9/11 attacks. Only the Times had the resources to do something like this. And yet, search for 9/11 victims on Google…. And on and on it goes, you can search for anything New York related let alone US related and the biggest US newspaper is nowhere to be found. In short, the Times has a great website and certainly gets a large subscriber base that reads it everyday, but in so doing they have replicated the offline business model online.

Offline, newspaper publishers are only interested in today’s newspaper. Advertisers have already paid for yesterday’s newspaper and are unlikely to want to advertise in it again, but there are advertisers who wish to be in today’s newspaper, so let’s make sure we attract them. As a result newspapers spend a lot of money to ensure that they put out the best product for today’s news and ignore yesterday’s newspaper altogether. They charge $1 for today’s newspaper but $10 for archived newspapers precisely because they can’t monetize yesterday’s newspaper with advertisers.

But online, the game changes. All your webpages can be monetized with current advertisers. Newspapers therefore have to make sure that all their webpages are available and searchable by all consumers, news consumers, researchers, everybody. But that isn’t all. The New York Times doesn’t add much value by having its own Wall Street desk most of whose work is reporting on earnings and other announcements from different companies. Reuters already does a great job of that with people sitting in Bangalore. It’s not at all clear what value the Times desk adds over a wire service (even if they were sitting in New York not Bangalore). All in all, it’s not clear why the Times has to pay $338M in salaries mostly to reporters who don’t add value over a generic wire story. There are stories that only the Times could cover. New York based stories for instance, just as the Wall Street Journal is extremely good at covering business, and the San Jose Mercury at covering Silicon Valley, and The Hindu at covering south India. What newspapers need to figure out is what their core competency is, cover that by themselves, outsource the rest of the reporting and stop pretending like their Op-Ed pages matter (thought experiment: if the Times stopped publishing tomorrow, which of their columnists would you read if all they had was a blog each? My answer: Paul Krugman, and yet certainly the Times spends millions of dollars a year on its elite stable of columnists).

If they did all this, the Times would gain a lot of impressions because their website rocks and attracts a lot of visitors, they would lose a number of impressions because nobody thinks the Times is such a great newspaper any more, so lets say their quarterly revenue falls from $75M to $50M. At 25% margins that’s still a great business, it’s not a change-the-world business, but in a world where news and opinion are both commoditized, it’s the best you can do. Unfortunately the Times will never accept that, they have to be the “paper of record” (whatever that means) after all. And nor will the San Francisco Chronicle, and ultimately that is what is dooming the newspaper business. Not that the business is unhealthy but that every newspaper owner has an inflated sense of the worth of his or her business to the world.

Posted in Advertising, Business, Capitalism, Economics, Globalisation, Internet, Media, Newspapers | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

L’affaire Satyam: Two Thoughts

Posted by anandrr on January 12, 2009

Just two quick thoughts about this whole Satyam business.

Not to condone what Mr Raju did, has confessed to doing or might confess to over the days to come, but I’m forced to ask: How much of the cavalier attitude towards the law that seems all pervasive in Indian businesses is fostered by the excessive regulation of business with a low price bar set for (apparent) compliance (i.e., just pay off the official in charge of ensuring compliance)? For a country that prides itself on the entrepreneurial spirit of its people, we make it exceedingly hard for entrepreneurs to start companies. To take a tiny example, just being a Director of private company requires registration with the Government, while I would argue that even for a public company the most that should be required is SEBI clearance. I’m not a Laffer curve enthusiast for the most part, but the situation in India seems very pre-Kennedy and it seems like a reduction in regulation would increase (real) compliance very greatly.

Second, we are now in an environment where a large number of software engineers are suddenly going to find themselves out of jobs with a full blown recession ensuring that they have nowhere to turn. Sounds like a great opportunity for the Central Government. The Government has many fine labs and research centres (DRDO, ISRO, HAL, NAL…) suffering from an acute shortage of good engineers because all the good ones go to the private sector for the money. If the labs have any sense, they’ll all go and set up shop in the Satyam’s parking lot and scoop up the best people from there and make some real lemonade from lemons. If I know my Government well, this opportunity too will pass like many others before and many more to come.

Posted in Business, Capitalism, Corruption, Economics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that

Posted by anandrr on December 1, 2008

A great many websites in India are simply inaccessible, thanks to the mighty powers of Google and Firefox. Google and Firefox aren’t just helping us find the information that we seek, they’re ensuring that we remain safe while we seek it. And that safety mission is just too important for them to allow us (mere seekers) to jeopardize it.

Google results for Whirlpool

Assume for the moment that you’re in the market for a washing machine. You’re all very fancy with your air-conditioned office and high speed Internets so you think, let me first check what models are actually available. So first, you google “whirlpool.” You’re met with the page on the left. That’s right: Google has a little text that says, “This site may harm your computer.” “WTF?” you think to yourself, we’re talking about Whirlpool here not some neighborhood store company, and anyway I’m on my Mac, (and always up to date with my security updates, right, right?) nothing could possibly happen. whirlpool_google_attack_websiteSo you click on the link anyway. But Google isn’t done with you yet. Instead of taking you to the harmful website, they take you to the page on the right here. That’s right, they really don’t want you to visit the website. But you’re all, “come on now, we’re talking Whirlpool, it should be ok, just take me there.” Aha, but try finding a link on the page that will take you there. Google really doesn’t want you to go to the website. There isn’t a single link or button on the page that says, “Take me there anyway, dammit!” All you’ve got is the link in simple text, that they want you to copy and paste into the location bar. And it’s not even obvious where that text is. You have to read everything to find the url hiding in the text. You finally locate it. whirlpool_firefox_attack_siteHaving located it, you copy-paste it into the url bar. You’re done right? Hah! Think again. Now it’s Firefox’s turn to warn you away from the website. This time in angry maroon! At least, this warning has a link that lets you ignore the warning and infect yourself with all manner of viruses and trojans. Sure the link is almost invisible, it’s a tiny footnote to all the exclamation marks and large buttons urging you to get the hell out of Dodge, but it’s there. You click it, and yes! Mission Accomplished!whirlpool_websiteThere it is in all its ugly glory. The Whirlpool website with its flashy flash and unusable interfaces and poorly laid out tables. But it’s there, and for that we’re grateful. Now we can actually get down to the serious business of picking our seriously fantabulous washing machine with bells and whistles and more horsepower than the computer you’re on now. You navigate the silly Javscript menu to click on the Products->Washing Machine link. whirlpool_inner_firefox_attack_siteOops, you declared success too soon. Firefox is going to bug you for every link you click on. It doesn’t care that you’ve already said you don’t care for sites with malware. It doesn’t care that it’s really just making life really really hard for you. It just cares about you and your welfare. Thank you Firefox, for looking out for me at every turn! Where would I be without you?

But really, there ought to be a law. Firefox, we can pardon. But Google? With all their monopoly power? Net neutrality for me, not for thee, indeed! And does anybody doubt that if Whirlpool were buying the link, Google would happily charge for the clicks and let you go to a website that distributes malware?

Posted in Advertising, Business, Capitalism, Economics, Internet, Media, wtf | Tagged: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Beautiful Bangalore VII

Posted by anandrr on October 14, 2008

Bangalore International Airport at 2am. Listless much?

Bangalore International Airport at 2am. Listless much?

Posted in Airlines, Bertie Heads to the Photo Shop, Shutterbug | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Beautiful Bangalore VI

Posted by anandrr on October 7, 2008

Toy Factory in Channapatna

Toy Factory in Channapatna

Posted in Bertie Heads to the Photo Shop, Business, Shutterbug, Travel | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »