The Process of Creativity

November 8th, 2011

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Calvin and Hobbes summarize the process exceptionally well!!

The Secret Sauce of Creativity!!

Rights of art work, acknowledged…

The Peeta Goes Jetsetting!!

June 18th, 2011

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Got a very strange invite last week, inviting me to join as a ‘virtual board member’ of a new project that the super guys at Wildpeeta were cooking. Now, being a part of the Tribe of Peeta (the supporters of Wildpeeta, a group/franchise of Shawarma restaurants in Dubai), I was intrigued to say the least and was game to check it out.

Reaching there, found an eclectic group of ‘socially’ active people, some of whom I knew well and some not, but all awesome tweeple nevertheless. It appears that the two Peeta brothers – the ‘wild’ one and the ‘wilder’ one (@WildPeeta and @GourmetShawarma) have been cooking a great idea for a year and have graduated it to something that will be a real company soon. Their idea of a ‘different’ travelogue program – which uses a deeply interactive, socially connected model of engagement with its audience. On one level, it caters to the always connected, living-on-the-web, chord-cutting and geeky demographic – while at the same time plans to fit in with the tv-watching, linear-minded, ad-served, well heeled video audience on a completely different level.

The brothers plan to travel to interesting places around the world and present their journey as a travelogue of a different genre, using a community supported model to reach out to the TED-liking jetset in each country they visit. Using this ‘local’ guide on Twitter, they will document the off-the-beaten-track view of the city they visit in the form of 6 defined segments. These segments will air on the web and will allow viewers to comment and vote, giving the interactive engagement that most programs lack, while the end result will be packaged as a linear TV program, to be aired later on suitable worldwide TV channels.

It is a courageous step, to say the least. The plan is to go around the world and to bring the world together. They are looking to and want to take ideas and inspiration from the large number of well-wishers and supporters they have and that’s what this first session with their ‘virtual board members’ was all about.

They are supported in their venture by TwoFour54 and its sister companies. I am sure these two prolific teams will give rise to an exceptional, unique program that I, personally, am proud to be associated with.

Go Jetsetters!! Go PeetaPlanet!!

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Its All About People

January 12th, 2011

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Few days ago we all saw in a Dubai newspaper, the coverage on the plight of the family blessed with a set of six babies, a gift of God for which they were completely unprepared for. Goodwill of readers and well-wishers poured in, and everyone pitched in, to make sure that family was not overwhelmed and could really enjoy the great occasion.

Similar is the fate of the young startup with an exciting product that catches the fancy of its target customers, raising expectations and usage, so much so that their success in getting the customers’ interest lays the foundation for failure. Since the growth is unexpected and, by definition, startups being strapped for resources – their nascent infrastructure gets strained leading to customer experience deteriorating and if not scaled immediately, leads to the demise of the product itself.

This brings us to the conundrum – should a startup spend time in shoring up the resources to support its untested idea or should they be quick to the market and test the idea as they go along? While the former is more conservative and, probably, something that is more reasonable in thought, it risks investment into untried areas. On the other hand, going with the flow is fraught with issues of scaling and bad customer feedback.

This lesson was learnt very quickly in the last few weeks by the new darling of Silicon Valley startups, Quora (www.quora.com). Started by some really smart people with a lot of experience in places like Facebook and Google, they set up this invitation-only site with questions and answers on any topic. Users can ask any question and anyone who is a member can answer. Something as simple as this has caught the fancy of a very large number of great influencers and the growth has been exponential. I have been asked by many for the invites and I even see a vibrant set of questions originating from and about Dubai and the region. More heartening is the fact that there are a lot of people answering them, raising the quality of the responses and the interactivity makes it an invaluable resource. Quora’s success had the same pitfalls, they had trouble keeping up with the growth and users complained of slow responses and delayed emails. But, their response is the learning – the team threw all they had at it and built enough capacity overnight to scale up to user expectation.

This proves that while getting more customers to use your service is the biggest measure of your success, being ready for them and to be able to provide the service effectively and efficiently is the essential measure. This is achieved by a resource that is not on the top of the agenda of most startups in the region – exceptional teams. The quality of the team gets tested at such times and hiring people better than you is a great way of making sure that you create a team that can take the stress and pressure that accompanies the formative years of any startup. While I am an advocate of outsourcing and focusing on the core – I believe the core team is something that needs to be given far more emphasis in startups here. Young companies usually consist of a single ‘owner’ or idea person, rest being glorified employees. It is unreasonable to expect great success when only you ‘own’ and the rest follow.

What is needed is to share the vision and the ownership with smart people. This way success will be long term, quicker and scalable as there will be more people who will share the passion and in depth knowledge on the subject and will, in turn, reduce the risk of failure and dependence on a single person. Since no single person has a monopoly over ideas and also its almost impossible to execute a good idea alone, the depth of the team can make or break the startup. While doing it your way may stoke your ego, ruling a kingdom of one is a lonely task.

The biggest test comes on judgment day – the day someone wants to buy you out. Reality dawns that the value of the company is tied to you as the only central pillar. Remember, you can only cash the value of your creation when it runs equally well without you. So, make sure you have ‘team building’ as an essential item in your shopping list while putting together that great idea into reality towards a stellar startup.

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This article was originally published in Gulf News on Jan. 12, 2011 – See it here

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Harsh realities of being your own boss

December 11th, 2010

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Last week I saw this tweet on my timeline — “Have not had a vacation for three years, tell my why I should celebrate entrepreneurship?”. A very frustrated twenty-something was complaining to whoever would listen about his recent introduction to the hard reality of being your own boss.

I am not sure if you should feel his pain and sympathise, or blame him for jumping into the deep end of the sea with wrong expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I spend a lot of my time evangelising for people to do what they want to do, and not what they have to do — my definition of ‘retirement’.

A lot of glamourous words are used for this state of mind, including entrepreneurship and being in a start-up. I have been blamed to be one of the few people in the world, asking for Techcrunch to be banned by TRA in the quest to create a real start-up eco-system in the region.

The gasp of shock that follows is intended. I am in complete support of freedom of speech and choice, but the lack of local knowledge, local support and role models makes our promising young idea-people to look for more mainstream and international sources and expect the same ground rules here.

Nothing could be further from the truth as it stands here. Setting up a small business here is synonymous with a strong and regular doses of hard knocks. Besides running all around to set up a cost-effective base and getting the first few co-workers, there are an unending number of small, but irritating, procedural issues to keep you busy.

Staying focused

Once you have found the resources, paid the cash deposits (and postdated cheques) to guarantee your up-front commitment to pay the powers that be, you may begin to do what you set out to do. But then, we seem to be digressing.

Let’s go back to our friend and his quest to reach success in his chosen mission of doing a successful start-up. The truth is that a start-up is nothing but a small business like any other and has the same pressures of making ends meet.

Many, in their pursuit of the great idea, forget that the venture has to make financial sense in the first place. That an idea is cool is no barometer for a business to be successful.

The venture has to be based on solid fundamentals and sound market research. The need to generate revenue and to get to a stable footing is essential. Any and all investment into the start-up will be based on its financial potential, and not just the promise.

It would be unreasonable to underestimate the sheer hard yards required to create a successful start-up at any time, leave alone in a recessionary economy.

From failure to success

It is usually a lonely trudge in a dark tunnel for the team that decides to put its faith in its idea and embarks on the path of entrepreneurship.

But this step is taken with open eyes and not for the faint-hearted. Competition is severe and the race ruthless and failure has a greater probability than success.

So it’s not unusual to find driven people focusing more on proving a point rather than building something of long-term value.

A far more important requirement in such an environment is to form a formidable team of key people and co-founders, something that is invaluable and provides for the knowledge and management bandwidth required to go past hurdles which are bound to be many.

A frequent reason for failure at this juncture is the so-called “one pillar” venture, too dependent upon a single individual, with the rest being a “hired” team. A single bout of pressure or simply burning out of the main individual may spell disaster.

So, another promising venture dies a premature death, just because the entrepreneur thought he was superman.

So, before you reach this point, let better sense prevail. Go and find yourself some worthy partners and mentors, even if it is just to share the dark, lonely trudge through the wilderness of Planet Entrepreneurship.

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This article was originally published in Gulf News on November 24, 2010 – See it here

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Striking a balance on the balance sheet

December 11th, 2010

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There are two ways to make money; one by earning more money and the other by spending less. The latter is a time tested remedy that gets taken out of the closet whenever the economy sneezes and the business environment feels congested.

It’s prudent to keep overheads low at any time, irrespective of the economic climate, as a few saved pennies are always welcome. When you are setting up a small business or running one, money is always tight. Being intelligent and prudent at this time with your resources may mean the difference between eventual success or failure.

Making the dirham go further will be considered value that you will be able to cash in on once the company becomes successful. Doing more from less is an essential part of any business plan for a small enterprise.

Usage of technologies and the internet, even if your business is not an on-line business, is a surefire way of saving cost and to generate greater mileage. A mix of technical DIY and a simple search can provide the enlightened entrepreneur with a toolkit of services which are either free or provide great value at a low cost.

Here is a jargon buster tutorial:

Use Cloud Computing and reduce dependence on dedicated hardware and related infrastructure. Services like Google Apps allows you to host a small business e-mail, documents, calendar, etc. for free. This allows you to do most of the tasks the expensive systems that larger organisations utilise. This translates into an edge over others at no cost.

Negotiate

If your company has a few telephones — mobile or land lines — consider negotiating with the telecom provider (yes, even etisalat and du in the UAE) for a better package with special offers such free internal phone calls and cheaper long distance dialling and handsets. The saving such consolidation creates will surprise you by the time the year ends.

This also provides you a dashboard to actually view your usage and to efficiently plan for the future and to plug any holes.

At least in the initial phase, try to outsource as many of the tasks as you can — accounting, administration, technical support, IT, cleaning or whatever that is not core to the business. These should not be a load on your time.

Whatever anyone says, even if you don’t get involved, there is a certain management overhead that essentially creeps into it and distracts you from the main task.

Social media

Communicate with your customers regularly and use more efficient and economic methods to do so. Technological advances have made it possible to use social media e-newsletters and e-mail to your advantage at almost no cost.

An effective Twitter and Facebook presence clubbed with a simple and informative website will be a great asset to the business. And if you are a social person, it may be an invincible combination and trying it out is usually free.

Find a mentor and guide to take you through the travails that any start-up faces in the early phase. However much you may know about the business, the aid of a sound head at times of challenge cannot be belittled.

The idea is to find someone who gives you sound advise because he wants to not because he is enticed to do so by incentives such as stock options or consulting fees. You may even be surprised by people who would give you valuable insight for nothing! Grey hairs count in making things easier, even if it’s because someone else has committed mistakes before you had a chance to do the same. They save you from making one!

Keep your eyes and ears open and network a lot. There is no alternative to making contacts, nurturing them and to build on them. Most business opportunities come your way through people you know.

This circle of people is also a gold mine of helpful resources from lawyers to accountants, technology geeks to marketing mavens. Innovators will find a way to encash this valuable asset and create successful enterprises we all will talk about.

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This article was originally published in Gulf News on October 27, 2010 – See it here

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Innovation Critical to Dubai’s Success

December 11th, 2010

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A lot has been said and seen about Dubai having built something out of what was considered nothing.

A long time ago, its founders started a tradition of welcoming people with diligence, ideas and perseverance to come here and prosper, which has continued in its various reincarnations.

In recent years, its speed of growth and buildings evoked the envy of many a competitor and as the boom slowed down, the hankering began. While there are some areas where more prudence would have been desired, a lot of pioneering work often gets criticized.

It does not require a rocket scientist to understand that time has come to reinvent and rebuild on the strengths, which are many; and build on its long tradition of entrepreneurial innovation.

Like our founding fathers, it’s time to welcome the creators. Creators are those who look beyond the ordinary and build things that leapfrog them and those around them into prosperity. Be it artists, designers, programmers, thought leaders or free thinkers – we need more of these to come and make Dubai the beacon of creativity and creation in the region.

Remember a majority of jobs and opportunities are created by small businesses, those with less than 20 people. Reduction of licence fees, visa costs, rentals and front loading of the setting up process will make Dubai attractive for a lot of such people.

A case has often been made for the economic downturn having made Dubai an unattractive market. But then Dubai was never a local story – it was the best gateway to the whole region.

The strength of its infrastructure, geographic location and connectivity are beyond compare, despite the financial downturn and impossible to match by any other city, by far.

Building on strength

Let’s build on this strength to remove all hurdles to its success. Let the government consider removing all barriers to setting up new ventures, and actually encourage small companies.

In the past large corporations have had an advantage of being able to negotiate better terms due to their clout, Let’s turn it in favour of innovation and enterprise. Remove the link between license and real estate and the overemphasis on transaction-based clusters.

The downturn has made business in these clusters unviable and counter intuitive to enhancement of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Encourage the filling up of empty real estate by people who will actively commit to create, bring innovation to the fore and create jobs and support the economy.

Let their success be counted by the number of real partnerships and enterprises they generate with the national youth.

Dubai was built by people who thought outside the box – encourage this pioneering spirit by reiterating the need for such initiatives. New leaders of the national workforce need to be guided, but at the same time encourage them to think anew and not to fear failure, nor be afraid to air their ideas.

What we need is a change in sentiment to one that is encouraging, inspiring and full of positive ideas for a future that beckons. Undue emphasis has been given by some quarters on the odd headline emphasising the eternal tussle of tradition and the drive to being a modern metropolis.

With growth and modernisation comes a lot of responsibility and balancing the yin and the yang is a delicate are. But, in the drive to excellence we need to focus on the larger goal and probably be prepared to such instances being blown out of proportion.

What will speak louder than anything is our success to build on our strengths to achieve the pinnacle in our carefully chosen areas of excellence.

The new generation is not afraid of hard work, in fact it revels in challenging times. It’s time to channel their drive and power through the guidance of the more experienced into making Dubai cement its position as an unparalleled hub of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity.

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This article was originally published in Gulf News on October 13, 2010 – See it Here

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Do we really need the iPad 3G?

June 3rd, 2010

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As time goes by, and the novelty wears off, you are forced to evaluate the iPad for what it is – actually – and not just as the new toy you got (“… shipped on the first day, through Shop and Ship and…”). Well, I was not impressed initially and my best description was – “the overblown iPod Touch..”.

But, I am happy to report that it has grown on to me as time goes by. It has replaced my laptop for most work that I do at home, mostly browsing and a few internet transaction tasks daily. I find it really easy to use and the overall package is great – right size, great to the eyes and seamless in user experience. Most of my usage has been limited to Wifi enabled areas and I have rarely missed the ‘unfettered’ connectivity offered by the new 3G version. In reality, I was not confronted, once, by a situation where I wanted connectivity and did not have – in the one month of trying it out before the 3G was released.

And then, the 3G was released and the gizmo-freak in me got the better of me and I wanted it!! As luck would have it, the trip to the US was round the corner and my research told me that both Du and Etisalat SIMs worked on it in the region. So, cutting the long story short, bought two of the coveted 32GB 3G iPads while in the US (its a different story that the US stores are out of stock and there is a two week delivery wait – got mine thanks to some Eastern ingenuity :-) )

Now, that I did not get even one is the ironic part of the story!! Both were hijacked by good friends, as soon as I landed. Not really inclined to getting a new one shipped from the US, I sat down to give myself a reason to believe that I did NOT really need a 3G iPad, especially when I had a perfectly good, new, Wifi version. And did I find a good reason ? I think I found a brilliant reason!!!

The reason is called – PersonalHotspot (its a new genre of 3G-Wifi modems). This product is revolutionary and intuitive in the same measure. We did exactly the same (remember Twestival #1) with a USB 3G data card and a PC with a wireless router. In simpler words, this product creates a small Wifi hotspot around itself, while providing the Internet connection through a standard USB 3G Data dongle from any operator. Hey presto! you have your own personal hotspot, which allows all your gadgets to connect to the Internet, with no wires!! The version I tested was made by Trendnet and even had a rechargeable NiMH battery, which once charged gave a working hotspot for a few hours, anywhere, with not local power requirements. And it cost a total of $150!! And, did I tell you that the total size of the unit is smaller than a smartphone :-) (Verizon in the US and many other operators sell a branded version of it called the MiFi, made by Novatel Wireless, including the service)

Now, the incremental cost of a 3G vs. Wifi iPad is $200 – for the same memory size. I have decided to have the MiFi as a permanent accessory in my kit. With the  cost of the data package from the provider being the same in both cases, it allows me the added flexibility of sharing the data line with other devices and people – a great added advantage, at the same or even lower cost. The experience is seamless and effortless.

So, do we really need the iPad 3G ? I don’t !!

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While we sleep…

April 25th, 2010

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Having written about the ills that seem to be ailing the entrepreneurial ecosystem (or the lack of it!) in the region, almost critically, it is ironic that the small points of light in the desolate landscape are being enticed by others. The many years of constant nurturing over the years have produced some distinctly promising enterprises, but it seems that while the powers-that-be sleep, the promise is visible to others from outside and they are not losing any chance to get to them.

Lack of support has meant that at least one very promising company has visited another country, which has made it a mission to attract talent and ideas from all around by really investing – time, support, money, cost breaks, tax breaks etc. etc.. and it seems that the offer is attractive to say the least. If this happens, we lose a lot more than just a promising company, we lose the long term opportunity; we lose the faith of other budding companies and we lose that spark of innovation that would have driven the ecosystem forward.

While we focus on getting and attracting talent from all around, lets not forget those who have already made the leap locally – the captive audience. Lets not be like marriage matchmakers who, once they have got you hitched, delete your profile since you are not ‘eligible’ anymore. Our success is not in just attracting them, it is in their success – lest we forget…

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Wake Up Call

April 24th, 2010

This last week has been very interesting and enlightening. I attended and helped organize a very interesting TiE event on VC funding in the Middle East and had the chance to meet some really promising young startups and awesome, passionate founders – right here in Dubai. I did write about my interaction with Infinitec (who unveiled their product recently) and how the brave souls decided to base a product/IP company in the Middle East, with all the trials and tribulations attached.

Heard similar sentiments from other pioneering teams of startups ranging from a Game Creation Network to a Social Media site for Geeks – impressive lot this! All had gone through the rugged path of spending time, effort, money, contacts and had risked stable jobs, relationships and family life to bet on their ideas and the lure of the region.

But, surprisingly, all had a common thread in their stories – that of disappointment and regret. While they had all worked hard against all odds – the lack of an ecosystem, the drought of good team members, relatively nascent institutions of learning and general apathy to new ideas – the system had let them down at all levels. The major common theme was the fact that they had spent the most of their budgets in paying for real estate rents, fees and surcharges of many hues and colors – and not enough on the team, the idea and execution of the idea.

It is so disappointing to note that the group of people that should have been the most enthusiastic about creating something of value were a greatly dismayed lot, and it had little to do with their idea and, in most cases, with their execution of the idea. As if the system had almost set them up to fail.

I believe its time for some people who matter and make decisions on behalf of the region to wake up to the pains and troubles of this creative group of highly desirable kind of people. These are the people who make Silicon Valley what it is – the cradle of innovation and creativity, Bangalore the hub of technology creation and New York the hub of creative design. Their requirements are not really big – surely not even consequential in the large scheme of things Dubai is known for. Looking at them as an essential part of the new UAE 2.0 or Middle East 2.0, after the meltdown, is the first step. Providing them REAL support and incentives – not taxing them with unreasonable rents, visa costs, surcharges, licence fees and other expenses!! We need to realize that such single minded commercialization is killing many a promising company, the enthusiasm of its founders and the great commercial contribution it would have made to this economy – before it even has a chance to breathe. The whole ‘value for money’ or ROI of the free zone model is under question today.

Let us not live in the false and arrogant belief that they have no other place to go. Lets not wait till its too late – and we lose all these enthusiastic people, innovators and inventors to other places who will be more enlightened  and nimble than us.

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Introspecting Dubai

February 28th, 2010

Mishaal Al Gergawi (@AlGergawi) has, with his Mapping Dubai series (and a series of articles in Dubai newspaper Gulf News), started a discourse on Dubai, its past, present, and most importantly, the future of Dubai. Dubai 2.0, or the reincarnation of the city we all love and live in, is a topic that concerns us all. What will our abode look like when it will, inevitably, emerge from this financial meltdown – and, the connected, meltdown of faith.

A lot of us have invested the best years of our lives in this city and in the quest/journey of Dubai at the top of the ‘achiever’ cities of the world. It is only natural for us to feel jittery and concerned with the concerted, unreasonably harsh tirade by the international press and by the lack of clear information to counter it. But there is a lot that can be done to make the recovery easier. For any business, increasing revenue may not be as easy as decreasing costs – similarly, the first step could be, for Dubai, to cut unusual and unreasonable costs and, procedures that cost, so as to increase its competitiveness as a hub for business. A lot of us are being pressured and a lot will perish in this environment, and with it will perish all the jobs and contribution to the economy.

Mishaal and those like him, the real stake holders of Dubai, make me believe that this debate will eventually lead to real introspection on how to not repeat past mistakes and to achieve a more robust and inclusive growth that will weather such upheavals and separate the men from the boys.

As Mishaal writes today, we are here because we love Dubai and want to be here… Don’t let the shortsightedness of some deviate us from the larger thought of the value brought in by the long term residents. Its only a matter of time before others wake up to this valuable resource and harness it, loss will be of Dubai and all us stakeholders – alone!!

Good beginning, Mishaal! You have touched a chord that resonates, with all of us.

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