Before you innovate, get out of your comfort zone

I had the pleasure of speaking to a batch of about 130 students, startup aspirants, product developers last week at the Innovate Delhi event. I was teamed up with Rajat Garg, of SocialappsHQ, and a heavy-weight with facts, numbers, trends, valley companies and slides. We were to cover “opportunity hypothesis’ broadly – how does a startup get an idea; validate the idea; build a demo/prototype and how the idea evolves into a business. Rajat and I spoke the night before (having him as a co-conspirator for the TIE Indian Internet Day event helped) and we decided to put on a joint session rather than one followed by another. Rajat would put up some slides, covering the theoretical framework and I would lead a workshop type session engaging the audience around their observations.

As I reached the venue a bit early (surprising since I had a long drive from Gurgaon to Okhla) I had some more time to gather my thoughts and think about what/how I would try to communicate. On a hunch, I decided to move around the hall (library converted to a training hall, with cameras, voice recorders and lots of other gizmos that only professors at Stanford can afford to have 🙂 and observe the batch to find some ideas that I could build on.

innovate delhi teams
As I went around the hall, some patterns started to form. Most of the folks were in blue jeans – the de-facto dress for the generation. About 20% of them had Apple laptops and the rest windows (similar to trends in India) but nearly all of them had squeaky clean covers – no personalization, no stickers proclaiming their love for free world! Nearly all of them had their laptop chargers plugged in (though it was an hour prep session and most laptops were fully charged). Though it was a hot day and so many bodies made it a wee bit sticky, all of the attendees were glued to their desk/seats even though the assignment was to think and come up with ideas on “marriage apps”. And the most critical observation of all, nearly all of them were glued into their course workbook; and the FB page setup for the event.

And then it struck me – this was a typical group of young Indian professionals, who love to “conform”. They all had been good students, mostly good kids, folks who would describe themselves as “being different” but would completely fit into a “stereotypical” definition of an IT/tech product persona. They were all living in their comfort zones – not ready to push their own limits, not expressing their yet-to-be-formed personalities, safe in the middle-of-the-road lives they were living. As I looked further to validate these assumptions new patterns emerged. Only 2 out of 130 had brought along tablets as their primary device. Nearly all of them had smartphones but very few were working on the FB page/course app on their phones? Few were taking pictures of the class and tweeting.

innovate delhi 2I had found my core argument for the day – I was going to challenge the group to think of their own personalities, experiences, behaviours. I was going to inspire them to reflect on who they are, and who they want to be and how they would differentiate themselves first before thinking of great, differentiated, innovative products that they would design, develop and bring into the world. I would show them how living (and using) on the edge of technology is almost a pre-requisite to pushing the boundary further; how great ideas evolve from personal needs and small advances which turn into big stories cause as the follower crowd discovers the same challenges when their use graduates and are happy to use the solutions the leaders have created.

And therefore, as Rajat opened his talk with the big concepts around finding an idea; finding a space that has some tailwinds, taking risks etc and set the stage for some curiosity, I found the means to engage with the audience with these questions:

  1. If the fashion trends for the day are colored trousers (yellow, green, orange), why are 90% of you in blue jeans?
  2. Why don’t I see any art, stickers, graffiti, pictures of any laptops?
  3. Why don’t I see folks using tablets when we all know that tablet volumes have crossed laptops this year
  4. Why did folks prefer to sit at their desks than take their laptops out into the terrace with a lovely garden view for the ideating exercise

But most importantly, could they think of pushing the boundary of any tech usage when they were not living on the edge themselves, when their own habits were on the trailing edge?

Needless to say, the rest of the talk was fun, interactive and stimulating. Rajat had some great slides – internet & mobility trends, numbers and wisdom from the trenches. I was able to co-relate those slides into how folks should use that information into their own “opportunity hypothesis”.

innovate delhi3As I look back at the end of the week, I find myself thinking again about the ‘conformity” of our post-independence indian culture; the regimentation of our education system and our social expectations that we need to break first before disruptive, revolutionary innovators and entrepreneurs will emerge. Hope this brief note makes you think a bit about yourself!



The Chief Irritation Officer – Why Product Companies Need A Customer Champion

This is a true story – one that taught me a very useful lesson. I hope you will find it useful on your journey as well.

In 2000, Adobe launched InDesign 1.0 to critical acclaim. With its modern code-base, fresh UI, transparency and powerful text engine, finally here was a challenger to the dominant Quark Xpress. Though it was late by over a year (which v1.0 product is not lateJ) and it was not yet fully powered to knock out the incumbent, the potential was there to see and sure enough over the next 3-5 years, InDesign overtook Xpress as the dominant page layout and composition tool.

But my story is not about InDesign – it is about its predecessor, the humbler (and still standing), PageMaker – one of the first mega software tools that had come to dominate an industry. As Adobe focussed its engineering and innovation might on InDesign v1.0, PageMaker with its old code-base, 10+ years of legacy, and challenges with the architecture had been sick and losing weight (read revenue) with each quarter. Age had caught up with it and the end was near it seemed. No engineer worth his C++ wanted to poke into its C code – why waste hours on globally scoped pointers when you had the safety of InDesign’s COM architecture.

Yet, PageMaker had millions of users. Users who were gainfully using the tool day in and day out. Livelihoods depended on it though increasingly with its weak integration with other new-age tools and old-age limitations, it may have been the cause of plenty of heartburn and some occasional hypertension itself. PageMaker was a misfit in the 21st century desktop and fixing it needed some ‘fools to tread in’. No prizes for guessing who the fool was in this case!

My team had just delivered a bunch of plugins for InDesign v1.0 and we were high on adrenalin (mostly testosterone variety) and blinded by our powers of concentration, seeped in enormous patience due to our culture and motivated at getting a shot at a product with a couple million users. So we jumped at the opportunity to build a new version of PageMaker (and delivered PageMaker 7.0 – the last release for the product and probably the first product mostly developed from an India campus). We had to setup a renegade team with non-conformists and I had to put on my best “nothing can stop us” mantra to power thru many many, many many, many many issues but that is another story.

Today’s story is about how the collective wisdom and efforts of people can fail if you don’t have the right inside knowledge. Its also about how critical it is to understand the evolution of systems before one can inherit a legacy. And finally about how a sense of humour can turn a nasty situation into a friendly productive work environment.

So, after 6 months of working 60+ hours a week, with minimal team and near zero code documentation, the Zoji-la team (code name for PageMaker 7.0) reached the summit. All planned features were done, all major bugs fixed, no major new bug had crept in, and the UI had had some fresh paint – new icon, new splash and some proud Indian engineers on the about screen. Then disaster struck (what else were you expecting). Nay, catastrophe rather. Our shining new build would not print. NO PRINTING ? The whole purpose of a page layout program is to PRINT, damn-it!!

Sure, it would work with PCL printers (mostly HP) but ask it to postscript and it would simply eat up all your pages. And we had not made a single line of change to the printing sub-system (we were too scared of touching printing anyways). NO POSTSCRIPT PRINTING? Can you even imagine what people will say, Adobe, the creator of postscript could not get PageMaker (a tool to demonstrate postscript efficacy) to PRINT POSTSCRIPT ?? We could not have this, could we?

After a couple of days of frustration and anxiety we broke the rule – seek help from the old foggies at Adobe who probably had some stories about PageMaker in their years. And floated a simple question – hey guys, we did not change anything on Zojila printing sub-system but guess what, its not printing postscript? Know what’s happening?

There were many responses. One particularly funny one that I remember is a good friend and colleague saying “You are doing PM 7.0? Who set you up” (to do this). The more helpful folks offered advice on driver checks, version checks, print to file, steps on tracing and debugging – the whole nine yards. We might was well have written the OS ourselves. Time was running out and the team was losing momentum – perhaps all the Nay-Sayers were right and we were wrong and foolish to have tried this; perhaps our desire to cover ourselves with glory had blinded us.

Then came a ray of hope. A golden light dressed up in the darkest of languages. A curt one liner – “did you change the application name?” Of course we changed the application name, you $#%@^&, I told myself. It’s a new version of the application, it can’t have the same name. My insides were screaming to write back to write my best one-liner and show the respondent his obvious folly  but sanity prevailed and I sent back a safer and ignorant response – “Yes we did. Anything we should be knowing that we don’t?”

The glorious reply to this made me wiser beyond years. Turns out that back in the days of DOS, when postscript had just been introduced and Microsoft could not find a way to integrate the postscript driver into their printer driver, a special “hack” was created in the operating system for “PageMaker” – the printer driver and ‘PageMaker” were joined at the hip so to say and the printer driver would behave differently for other apps while “PageMaker” got pride of place and a postscript highway. Of course, once you know who all are in the bed, it is easier to figure out who to jump on to get your fix – lo and behold we had fixed the issue. All was well!

At our weekly post-mortem meeting, our project manager, a hard-working simple bloke who was tired with all the poking around to figure out the issue and bore the brunt of jokers saying – “huh, this team will be revving up PM, they can’t even get it to print!” could not hold his anger any longer – he pointed his baritone at the gentleman who had given away the cosy secret between Adobe and Microsoft and challenged him – “and just who the hell are you? And why the hell did you not let us know this six months ago?” A fairer question had not been asked before, I was sure, and did well to put the gent in his place, I said to myself.

A moments silence ensured. Most of us were expecting a strong rebuttal with a “hell with you. I don’t work for you” type response. But this gent was made of different steel – “I am X. And think of me as the the CHIEF IRRITATION OFFICER” he replied to loud guffaws and smiley faces. Chief Irritation Officer – indeed! He had done his job well!!

So, as I said earlier, the combined wisdom of people will fail if you do not have an inside track of how things have evolved in an industry. This is why context and continuity are important. Also, there are many co-workers who can irritate you with their smartness, mannerisms, politics and sometimes just presence. Whenever you feel like killing one of them, think of my new CIO – unless you have a champion for the consumer on your team prepared to ask hard questions, chances are your product will fall short on some parameters.

To all customer champions out there – keep pushing !!


Have you seen a large ship going down? I have, from close.

Polaroid Corp was a great company. Its instant photography technology ruled the world for 70 years. It served presidents, leaders, businessmen and even common people – it was the only way to take an instant picture (a position taken over by the mobile phone post 2007). It had some of the best talent, great chemical engineering skills, manufacturing plants, distribution and experience in selling photographic products.

When I joined Polaroid, it had a problem. Its revenues had been flat at $2.1 billion for nearly 3 years. A new technology – digital camera – was making inroads into photography and a upstart called Adobe was riding a popular wave, on the back of an editing software called Photoshop. Within a week of joining as head of the software team at the India office, I was at its HQ – it was a grand office, old-world teak panelled, lined with glorious Renaissance Art, reeking of tradition and quite intimidating for a newbie!

8:00 am sharp we were in its massive board room, 10-12 senior managers with the CTO chairing the meeting, huddled over the Question – what should Polaroid do to compete with the digital camera threat ? The options on the table were a kiosk, an instant, digital camera, a digital camera with an instant printer, the instance camera with a digital storage, AND consumer friendly software to target hobbyists. SWAT teams had been assigned the task of researching each option and present their research, insights, analysis and recommendations. Then we would have a brainstorming session and short-list two candidates that could be presented to the management team.

As each team presented its report, I was impressed with their in-depth study of the problem, the technology landscape, the challenges, risks – it was very professional and I was happy to have joined such a team. They talked all the right talk – customer engagement, service, innovation, simplicity, fun, lower costs, ecosystem, partnership, leverage the brand – every management jargon you can think of (in the context of ideation) was perhaps mentioned.

Yet – there was a big problem. After clearly establishing that digital technologies were a disruptive force, with a significant growth potential, all the teams tried to answer the question – “How can this help Polaroid sell more film?” All their ideas, at this point, moved from the exciting to the complexities of trying to marry film with digital. How can we add an instant printer to the kiosk? Can a digital instant camera process film and store digital at the same time? Can a digital film be created? Each team came up with innovative, but complex ways to address this.

Since I was a new hire, with some fancy education and smart ideas (at least the CTO thought so when he hired me), I was asked to give my comments as we got started into the brainstorming. So, I started by asking the obvious question bubbling in my mind – “Can I ask why it is important for a digital product to sell film?” – it was as if I had dropped a bomb! The silence in the room was prophetic. It was as if a naxalite had been dropped into Lehman Brothers board-room. VPs looked at each other and the CTO, as if asking – “is this the bright guy you’ve hired?”

The CTO, a 60+ senior veteran, having seen many young bulls off, told me politely – “film is our unique strength. Film is where we are leaders. Film is how we make money. Film is what Polaroid is all about”. That should have shut me up, but as some of you know, I can be argumentative when I want to. So I told the board-room why digital, in my view, was a complete new technology – easier, cheaper, more fungible than film and in fact it would disrupt the film completely. Why we should build a digital only business and make money in completely new ways – software, storage and sharing.

In the discussions that followed, many people complimented me for my insights and said they were happy to see that “we have a good leader in India”. But the discussions for nearly half a day were around, you got it – “film”. When you put 10 engineers on a problem with a hard constraint, they will find 10 new ways to solve the problem, and they will love each one of their solutions, its given! Not one person in the room, with many years of experience, challenged the notion that film was not needed for a digital economy and that force fitting film was just going to make it hard for the consumer, which would likely get rejected in the market.

Later, at dinner that day, the CTO shared another piece of insight – ‘We are Polaroid”, he said. We cant do things that small companies like Adobe are doing. We will do it the Polaroid way. I accepted his wisdom as he was more experienced, celebrated, richer and he was my boss! In 6 months, I heard that Adobe was setting up its campus in India and I jumped across to the young upstart. The CTO tried his best to retain me back and asked me what would help change my mind – “you have to become a digital company, sir. I don’t see that happening if all of the company is chasing film”.

In the next 5 years, Polaroid invested significant profits to build these instant, digital products. Not once did they think of digital-only as an option. They continued to dismiss internal voices and the traditional, high-margin film business continued to be the black hole for ideas. The revenue stayed flat at $2.1 billion. In another 2 years, the profits from the film business fell off the cliff, digital had taken over the world.

In 2008, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy.

Moral of the story – Large ships go down when they are obsessed about their past and ignore the present and the future.