Archive for August, 2008

Bringing constructive changes in education (or the way of learning!)

Some of you who knows me personally are aware that I am extremely crazy about bringing basic services to Rural India (I do have a personal blog in this regard). One of such services is Quality Education.

What causes learning? 

First of all, learning initiation happens through the exposure. For example, if I am watching a movie wherein someone traveling by flight then I may learn about how a flight looks like or even the feeling of journey in a flight. But then I get exposed to a variety of stuff every day. Do I learn all of those? The answer is ‘No’. I learn only few things which I am curious about. Depending on ‘how much curious I am’ about a particular thing, that much I learn about it. So, it is very clear to see that if we are interested in something then we would learn quicker and deeper. Moreover, interest makes our learning much more enjoyable.

How to identify a child’s interest?

How can we understand what the child’s interests are? If we can figure this out then we can encourage the kids in those stuff. We can even personalize the teaching content to each child. For a long time, I have been thinking about this. Recently I could get the answer for this interesting question. If you interact with any child for sometime, whenever he observes some stuff (interesting to him) he starts asking questions. As you answer he would ask more and more. Most parents and/or teachers discourage this process as they get disturbed frequently or if they don’t have answers. Actually asking questions shows his interest on that particular object/thing.

What a child needs to learn at minimum in order to succeed in this digital world?

Atanu has written a detailed post on this topic. Let me reemphasize it. Digital world is full of information (currently it is in the magnitude of petabytes) and it is much much more than any individual can consume. This means, child need not learn whole text-books that are available to him rather he should learn few concepts that are interesting to him. In particular the child must learn how to construct such concepts on his own. Here, technology/schools/parents/friends/etc may help in filtering the petabytes of information and provide qualitative information which suits his requirements. In order to utilize this aid effectively, at the fundamental outset, he must be skilled in “reading, writing, logic or arithmetic and ‘how to learn’”.

 How to train a child to learn on his own?

We have a private school of 700 children (Sarojini Vidyalayam) in a rural village near Guntur (Andhra Pradesh, India) and experimenting this process in the following manner. Every week we have one specific day called “FUN-DAY”. On this day, we conduct some interesting stuff to entertain children. One of such thing is called “Question Hour”. In order to attend this class, each child is expected to bring a note (Doubts book) wherein he mentions his doubts those came into his mind during the week. These doubts could be anything like, why sky is blue? or  why don’t fan falls down? or why is air invisible? etc and need not be specific to their class subjects. Now assuming the classroom containing 50 children, all are divided into 5 batches (10 students per batch). Now batch-wise, that is, 10 children are to clarify their doubts among themselves. When they can’t answer certain questions which will be written on teacher’s notebook along with the names of the students who raised those doubts. Now the class teacher answers whatever she knows and passes unanswered questions to Principal. Question hour ends with this. Then the principal arranges a “Dial an expert” hour on the next FUN-DAY. Wherein, on a speaker phone an expert answers some of those unanswered questions to the children.

The goal of this process is to make sure that children ask right questions (obvious ones are filtered out much before it comes to the expert level). Now the expert is required to give answers filled with many more questions and provide examples/reference books/programs/etc. So that the children get the answer but then they become much more inquisitive to answer those questions (of the expert) on their own by reading the reference materials. We are considering the rewarding program for the children who answers these. Yes, learning happens through practice. So why, we have created this process in order to make the children learn on their own.

Can this process be scaled to the national level?

We are piloting these concepts at our school. Once we have matured processes, we want to use technology in order to automate and scale it to the masses across India (or elsewhere). This is what I am currently working on. If anyone is interested, then write me a mail to my gmail id: malapati.

NOTES:

  1. Expert could be anyone who is relatively higher educated and regionally known person.
  2. Children (for that mater, anyone) learn by observing others or things around.
  3. Before inventing such system, our initial constraint was that not to disturb existing school system procedures.
  4. I am writing a book on Google tricks in order to help children to filter information on their own.

Opportunities for service providers in education

During the last two weeks I have attended my brother’s engagement and as well as his marriage in Andhra Pradesh. As these were planned on a short notice, I had to travel on busses from Hyderabad to Tenali (via Guntur) and Guntur to Hyderabad. As usual, through the bus window I was observing at all sorts of changes happening here since I left (12 years). Although I observed many interesting things however I like to stick to one particular thing for the discussion here.

 I was observing each bill-board present on the road sides of these journeys. I found at least 30-40 percent of them are about engineering colleges. I am familiar with the similar scenario in late 90′s, most ads on all newspapers/local cable channels during the summer are about admission to schools and junior colleges (mostly boarding ones). This clearly shows that Andhra is the hub of education. Here, competition is fierce. Although such competition did not yield improvements in the education system per se, it does provide good infrastructure to think on global scales. Education is controlled by government and so, fees are fixed. Then ..

 Where is the money, honey?In the case of engineering colleges it is mainly the management quota of 15 p.c. which yields the enough money for competition. Regular fees for the students under management quota is Rs. 90000 p.a. and this excludes donations which may run into several lakhs depending on demand for a particular college. I have done a little arithmetic and found that a typical college earns about 7 crores of rupees per annum(see below for details). The reasons for such change in the mindset of parents for sending their children at any cost to engineering colleges are usually attributed to opportunity to collect higher amount of dowry (yes, it is academically proven fact), attraction towards USA returnees, social prestige, etc.

Assuming 300 private colleges are present in Andhra Pradesh, revenues on all colleges equates to half billion dollars per annum which is a decent market to provide enhanced services to this segment. If I also consider private boarding junior colleges then the number would perhaps be more than 5 times (for example, there are more than 2000 private boarding junior colleges offering intermediate or PUC course wherein a typical student pays anywhere between Rs. 20000 to Rs. 50000 per year). 

Now if we look at the opportunities: finishing schools, e-learning or m-learning, softwares for colleges, infrastructure up-gradation etc are the low hanging fruits using the competition between those institutions. So I think, anyone who wants to provide services to education segment should start from southern states — Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka (in that order). Anyone listening?

NOTES:

  1. Estimate on revenue of a typical engineering college: Civil, Mechanical 120 seats each, Computer, ECE 60 seats each and 1-2 other branches having 40 seats. So it is like 400 students per batch. This means: 1600 students on campus on a particular year (engineering course is a 4 year one). 15 p.c of 1600 students pay Rs. 90000 pa and rest of the students pay Rs 30000 pa. This equates to: Rs. 6.2 crores (62 million). Coming to donation part, on an average if each fresh management quota student pays about 200, 000 and this equates to 1.2 crores (12 million). So total revenue of a college on engineering is about 7 crores of rupees.
  2. There could be many more science students studying MSc or MCA or even MBA on campus. But for our estimate, I sticked to engineering students.
  3. Number of engineering students graduating from Indian engineering colleges: 400,000 students is actually a 5 years-old number. This year the capacity of intake into AP engineering colleges is about 150,000 students. So I expect the student intake in overall India would be more than 8 Lakhs.

The case of SonimTech – And lessons we can learn

( Some parts of this post may not be totally accurate, I got the info from google and a senior Sonim employee)

” Sonim Technologies (www.sonimtech.com) was founded somewhere between 1999-2000, with a vision to provide Push-to-Talk (PTT) platform over VOIP over major phones. The market was large enterprise sales force which can use PTT to call any colleague. The fund size raised was about $80M. “

The company hired the best talent in VOIP and mobile platform. It spent almost 3 year, building a state-of-the-art VOIP platform. The main challenge was low bandwidth and computation power available to mobiles (back then). They finally launched an almost perfect PTT solution in 2003-2004.

Almost same time or an year later, other phone vendors like Nokia and Skype came up with alternate technologies to achieve the same :(

Sonim tried the best to sell this stuff to enterprises and changed the CEO twice … no luck. They started selling handhelds bundled with their PTT stack … no luck.

Finally they got a break with a large healthcare firm in 2005-06 and started selling two-way VOIP communication stack in PTT solution (skype and Nokia are one-way on mobiles). They made some decent money (between 2-5M).

Then the Sonim product management started asking the customers some “must have” features and got one more prominent reply – ruggedness.

In the next handset, they rubber padded the entire circuit and body … and to their shock and serprise the phone started selling only because of its ruggedness !!!  Now they have exhausted almost 80M, dumped PTT stack (as primary feature), rebranded the website …  and selling just – Rugged Mobiles :)

Moral of Story -

  1. Test the market well, before you start …
  2. Build dirty build fast
  3. Ask your customers …. and be open for change
  4. Be persistent and patient

Are the Best Years of Outsourcing Behind Us?

Hi,

My firm, Venture Intelligence, is organizing a conference, IT Services & BPO Connect ’08, next Thursday (Aug. 28) at Mumbai to explore the above and relation issues facing these key sectors. The event has speakers from the largest companies as well as the most active investors in IT Services and BPO, including:

Aparup Sengupta, CEO, Aegis BPO
Nitin Shah, CMD, Allied Digital
Subbu Subramaniam, Partner, Baring Private Equity
Abhay Havaldar, Managing Director, General Atlantic
Partha De Sarkar, CEO, HTMT Global
Srinath Batni, Director, Infosys
Shailesh Shah, Chief Strategy Officer, Satyam
Ranjan Bandyopadhayay, Global Head of HR & Strategic Initiatives, TCS
Sunil Kolangara, Director-Private Equity, UTI Ventures
Ashutosh Vaidya, CEO, Wipro BPO

I would be happy to extend a few complimentary passes to IT Services and BPO entrepreneurs in this group. Interested members can email their name, designation and company name to info@ventureintelligence.in. Please include “VentureWoods” in the subject line.

Thanks

Arun

Lessons for a 1st Gen Entrepreneur – Managing cash flow

I had often heard of the importance of cash flow and thought that I had taken adequate steps in year 1 to guard against running dry. But, when a fully charged technical team is at work, minor details like cash flow are sometimes temporarily ignored or wished away till reality stares you in the face.

I guess until you reach the brink, you never realize the true importance of managing cash flow. There was one VC I met around the same time we demoed at Proto that gave me the words of wisdom – “If you truly believe that your idea will work, you will have to make it work yourself”.  

Until then, I guess my vision was clouded by the wish that some angel will give us money to take us from lab to market. “Save” is a better word, I now ponder. 

Spurred to action, we got cash started by consulting. We continued to fund the technology development, but choked it enough to remove any inefficiency that might have crept in. Consulting revenue grew rapidly (we were good), but, with growth came larger cash flow management challenges. 

I guess it is true that when faced with challenges, solutions come from unexpected quarters. In an earlier assignment, I had worked with State Bank of India and helped customize an Aussie banking system to match SBI’s products. One such product was called Packing Credit – a revolving receivables financing product tailored for export business and subsidized by the Government of India to enable SME organizations generate more export revenue. 

Armed with the knowledge of structuring a proposal for credit with a PSU Bank, we got a healthy overdraft sanctioned at a very decent rate of interest. Thanks, Canara Bank. Funding growth based on booked business was now not a problem. 

The other big advantage of going through the process of getting credit sanctioned from a PSU Bank is the rigors of reporting they put you through. Added to this were the really well thought of clauses within the Packing Credit product which spurs the business availing this credit to constantly (every 90 days) get fresh business into the system.  

Once the concepts of finance take hold of the running of an organization, I guess it’s in the right hands.

Business Oriented Architecture

Once primary focus changed from building a product to selling it, i-Create was a different place. We realized that there was going to be no external funding that could help us spend some more time in the comfy confines of the lab and delay diving headlong into the competitive world that is Enterprise IT sales. 

Amazing things happen when a team is looking for business problems to solve. Every problem that a potential client discusses becomes a candidate for our technology to solve. The ADS solution was one such result.  

A bank in South Africa had been doing small ticket business for over five years with a growing customer base. Its OLTP database was bursting at the seams with reams and reams of small value transactions. They needed to get them out of the OLTP system and archive them. 

The traditional way to solve the problem would be to archive these transactions on low cost storage where retrieval would be a manual operational process on demand. Not so with ADS (Archive Data Store). Combining data warehousing techniques with the traditional need to archive, the solution provided a BI-ready, real time query and search facility on historical transactions which would otherwise have been banished to the realms of archival. 

A company’s urge to solve business problems with innovative application of technology assets and management’s urge grow the company while also making every customer engagement profitable – Business Oriented Architecture?

One year in the life of a technology startup

Once upon a time there was a group of people who wanted to create the next generation Business Intelligence software for the Banking industry. We theorized that there is a lot of data being accumulated and wasted by Core Banking systems which could be used to drive profit enhancing decision making. 

We set out to create a technology platform that would be cheap to buy, easy to install, maintain and enhance. The outcome of this technologically charged, creative attempt was Vyasa – A Web 2.0 J2EE platform weaving together various BI technologies such as OLAP, Search, Reporting, Scorecards, and Analytics etc.  

We made business plans claiming to sell this technology to banks across the world that were looking to reduce the cost and complexity of Business Intelligence implementation projects.  We spent iteration after iteration of development effort in perfecting the platform, integrating it with workflow and OLTP systems. 

Vyasa was showcased in the first edition of Proto.in, a proud moment for the team that spent a good part of a year developing it. Proto.in, January 2007 happened to be a turning point for the young company that was i-Create. Several conversations with a number of people across various stages of the startup experience triggered action on a thought that had lingered for a while, but, never had come to the forefront till then. We need to sell this thing! 

Experienced hands at entrepreneurship (we were new to it then) would know that a whole new organizational architecture emerges when the primary goal of an organization changes from building a product to selling a product. We called this Business Oriented Architecture.

Medical Tourism Opportunity

If people thought the outsourcing of IT was significant, then medical tourism promises to be several times larger by the middle of the next decade.  The Economist article provides a chart projecting the number of US patients expected to partake in medical tourism. 

Medico

The base case sounds like a 100% per annum growth through out next decade.

Start ups in US have started taking advantage of the same. Take a look at  at www.medretreat.com , medical tourism service agency assisting consumers in traveling abroad to receive medical procedures.

Links :

Businessweek Article

Economist

3G – What does it mean for startups?

The promise of 3G is live again, and as consumers, I am sure most of us are looking forward to it. It would be great to get people’s views on what it might mean for startup opportunities. Some of my thoughts:

  • 3G in India is fundamentally about cheaper scalable voice capacity. At a basic level, 3G doesn’t change much for consumers – operators should be able to continue their drive for user growth, hopefully at better service levels.
  • Data becomes faster – the big bet on this seems to be music. Mobile can become the de-facto music delivery device with advent of 3G. Big question/opportunity – to own the music experience on the device – hard place for startups to play, but promising if one can find the right channels (including operators, handset vendors, and so on). A sound business model, and ability to rally the industry around it is the key. I have heard people mention gaming as the other killer app – I think monetization is an issue here, unless its ad supported.
  • Open gardens – IMHO, this will remain a dream. The fundamental piece here is the charging capability. So while free content browsing should expand (see next point), any kind of paid content/services will continue to go through operators. Watch out for takeoff in any mobile micro-payment mechanism. The second important piece remains low cost marketing, which is available through operators.
  • Mobile advertising should grow with increased data usage on the handset. Ability to target well on the phone is a key capability. Equally important might be to target across media types (voice, sms, data).
  • User experience and control thereof on the mobile phone will become more and more important. With operators in India not having control on the handset configuration, this space is vacant. One key set of players will be device folks. Startups can play an important role if they can figure out dissemination mechanism (a la mobile viral apps). Also, the fundamental unit of user experience needn’t be a web page… and that opens up a few innovation opportunities.

Any thoughts, comments, rebuttals?

PS: Just saws this - why is this all percentages, no one seems to know/report how many users are actually using this stuff!

Call for nominations – Under the Radar Conference

Under the Radar is inviting mobile startups from across the globe for their conference on November 12, 2008 at Microsoft Campus, Mountain View, CA. Apply here before August 15th.

Under the Radar: Mobility is a one-day conference in the Silicon Valley that will uncover 32 bleeding edge mobile startups from across the globe that have launched within the year. Selected startups will present in front of a panel of expert judges (including representatives from T-Mobile, Verizon, the iFund, Motorola, Sprint, Comcast, Microsoft and more). Over 350 industry influencers, executives, press and VCs attend.

Past Under the Radar companies include startups from Germany, Spain, Israel, Sweden, UK, India, Canada and beyond. Success stories include Flickr, Loopt, LinkedIn, MobiTV, Photobucket, Blinkx, Glu Mobile, Sling Media, Userplane, Zimbra and more. Past mobile presenters have gone on to raise $430 million in financing, while others have been acquired or inked strategic partnerships.