Thursday, January 28, 2010

Business, Marketting and Innovation: Things I unlearned

As my friend Nesmel told, I had to write about unlearning things. Unlearning as in what? There are so many things I learned. So I was wondering what did I overlook before coming to IIT and had to completely change my views and opinions about it. One main thing is about Product development and making business out of it. This topic evolved mainly after talking to a guy I met in Bangalore, who liked Physics but working in Biochemistry (or related areas).
He was asking me, what did IIT do to Society? It was a question every IITian would think and answer. I said, well all these telecom revelution I can say is from IIT Madras. Even there was an ATM Machine which costs 1/10 or lesser than normal one and can count even old notes. Then he was asking me, why did it not come to market.

Well that was something similar I overlooked while I was in my teens or in engineering. I thought making a product working, with much efficient way than currently existing one is called innovative business. Now I know, there are million ideas like this ATM. There will be a thousands of them successfully implemented out of which not even a hundred of them will go to market. If you feel this is stupid statement, please rethink. Simplest example. Taking the same ATM machine. Assume that it is functional. And you approach me and I am head, business operations for a multinational bank. The maximum I will do is to give you a job as a technical advisor, but not to take that ATM. It is fairly simple. For me as a head, I need a machine which is not foolproof; but with strong backup from another multinational firm. Will I risk the decision to take this where you fail to prove that you can supply it in bulk to establish throughout the country, give support for faulty machine round the clock and your company will exist for another five years.

Business is not about ideas into reality. It is reality to selling and to customer support. So is that the fate of all research? No. Absolutely not. For example there is another idea. This is a program which made an interface between Interactive Voice Response System (IVRS) and a human using an emulator which mimic dialling. All that he had to do is to make the program working in small scale and to sell it. So is the ATM. You sell it to an MNC and do jump to next venture.
Well is that the way to do business? Is there any other way? Well for me, as my understanding is concerned, the best thing to sell is something of the cost of one day's food expense of a middle class person. In India, it could be in range of 100 to 200 INR. If it can be used by common people; your business will grow. That is the place where a beginner in business may try his/her idea.

I left this post here.. some time back... and continuing now. :-). Again Nes inspiring me to write more. He quoted the ""KISS" principle. No !! he did not mean to "kiss" someone to get inspiration. It is "Keep It Simple and Stupid". The idea of KISS is one good way to start.

Before coming to IIT, I did not believe much in "branding". But this is a part of that unlearning process. Here when I write the post, this "business" I am talking is in large scale. In the scale of sales in a populated country like India, where you want to have a "brand name" of your own. The breakthrough research success to have a quality product is merely a beginning. With this you can convince your friends' circle; your city or at the maximum two-three cities. You want to scale to national level, you need
  1. A good bank with strong support with prompt transactions and healthy policies which fits in to your needs
  2. Good finance advisor who understands the fluctuations in the stock better than the financial advisor(s) in competing companies
  3. A clear awareness on competition
  4. A good way to get customer feedbacks
  5. A strong and dedicated core team whom you can trust and who complements each other by understanding the strength and weakness of the team members
  6. God father(s) and media coverage to get grip in the market
  7. ......
List is long as the company grows. As per my current understanding, this is what makes a "brand". Hei am not in to business. This is just my thoughts on this line because I designed simple devices from locally available things, for our labs which I found much better in functionality and it is value for money thing. My friends asked me "are you going to launch it?" If it was the attitude and knowledge which I had, like the friend in bangalore; I might have said "yes, why not". Now what will be my reply, I am leaving it open for you to imagine.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The length of the Emperor of China's nose and a few simulation stories

After getting in to IIT and in two years getting a campus placement; is not uncommon. On one side appreciations from people, asking for treats etc etc. On the other side it is a puzzle if I complete MS in time or not and you will kill your time lost in thoughts.
One funny thing facing me is that one year back I proposed a way to improve the existing wireless system. I could envisage it beautifully. I was so happy at that time that it is something unique. Now it is time for Annual Progress Report submission and I am puzzled again on what to write. I never implemented it. In fact I am not even convinced that there will be any use of such a "theoretically beautiful" protocol to be implemented.
If you are not wondering why such a situation; surely you might have done research. Anyway; let me try to explain my situation. The proposal came after a series of articles and scientific publications on the area I am working on. It is a 10 year old technology and still results are in simulation. People propose millions of ideas; simulate it and says "oh my way; look at it!!! it is awsome... it improves performance by 200%". Then another one says "oh yeah I have changed parameter x to parameter y, reason being a probabilistic modelling using ...blah ..blah . and improved results by 300%". I being stupid or what; believed such things will actually work in real hardware. Thus my proposal was based on previous results of my great predecessors.

I tried to implement my solution in real hardware. Learned a new operating system, learned to work with a system which does not even have a monitor or a display to tell me if an error occurred. I got initial results. Weired!!!! It does not even give me 10% of what it is capable of. If I implement my method; that will give another overhead and will reduce performance. Huh!!!! Now the puzzle comes back to me. Do I need to believe that someone will find it fascinating and will implement. We are researchers; we just create models.

I felt the whole research is like the story of "length of Emperor of China's nose". Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China's nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China's nose is, and you average it. And that would be very "accurate" because you averaged so many people. But it's no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don't improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging. It is not that I can also tell, mine is more accurate by adding survey with another set of people and says "oh mine is 300% more accurate ".

If you try to build the system; it is more funny. You need to average at least for 100 nodes, because predecessors did it for 10000 or even more. Purchase of 100 nodes will take its own time. Then you realize that off the shelf devices does not give any performance you wanted. Design new one. Another purchase!!! Funniest thing is that it is always a story of re-inventing the wheel to come up with a design. Once the prototype is built; which costs 1/10 or even lesser than that of imported one and perform better; you try to scale it to 200 nodes. One node will have say 4 components to be assembled, manufactured by four companies. You need to get quotes at least 3 for each. You will try to call up persons in India. If not you need to figure out how to ship from country X to India including customs clearance and taxes. Once it is done, after 2 weeks reply will come from purchase that; quote is no longer valid. Then you try for re-quote. It take another month to give Purchase Order. Each component may take their own time from 1 to 3 weeks. If you are lucky; it will stay in customs office for another month because there is additional free cd came with that consignment which was not mentioned.
Meanwhile you try to find people for making custom boards. It take a month to get and you will see that the connection is reversed. It goes for revision. Once it comes out well; you place the devices and try to do measurement; it fails for no reason. You debug the circuit and see that component x and y do not inter-operate. You go for another revision. Then integrate 200 of them and verification will take weeks. Then you need to implement your algorithms which might not have considered the models we integrated. That will take another fortnight. To deploy and test with one setup takes hours in ground. You need at least 5 people with average of 20 nodes per person. To have a common time for them to measure one setup will be once in a week. Assuming you have 3 parameters to change; you need all permutations and combinations of them to measure. Each one needs update of 200 nodes and do the measurement. It can eat up months.

And if it works; your results will be pathetic compared to supermodels in simulation. By this time you will see hardware advancement and your design is no longer valid. Now you can at least think yourself; how to find the length of Emperor china's nose.