Thursday, September 11, 2008

On My Way Back

Finally, I am back in Dubai, after an almost three week long visit to India. My longest till date, most involved, and most frustrating at the same time - but I learnt my lessons and going back with enough food for thought.

I spent most of my time in Hyderabad, where our business is primarily based. My time was productive - we signed half a dozen outlets in Mumbai, as well as started an interesting conversation, which may actually lead to a few big orders. More importantly, I got significant strategic insights - not something completely new, but something which I have been thinking about and needed proof to take action. The insight is, as I actually wrote earlier, that we got our business definition wrong - we are not in the English training business, we are in the franchising business. We got this wrong since day one - trying to run the courses ourselves and creating a tried-and-tested model. But the truth is, while we learnt important lessons by doing training ourselves, financially it does not make sense - given the investor expectations - and what we got to do now is to franchise, aggressively and nationally.

I have also learnt how some of our competitors franchise. Some of the models appeared too good to be true. Guaranteed returns, for example, is common, and license fee is actually uncommon. While I am not too agreeable on the guaranteed return part, I think there is merit in fee-free franchising, where the franchise pumps in the money to the market and create high visibility. It may be difficult in our model, where we have actually paid quite a hefty fee to get the license in the first place and we must recover part of the fee by selling franchisees. Food for thought, and I have to come back with an answer on this soon.

Our corporate training part is also doing well. It shows that the common belief that English training isn't that relevant in corporate market is not necessarily correct. Agreed, most of the corporate training hasn't been in the classical Direct English format, but then corporate training is hardly ever in a standard format. It is tempting to think that we can build a business model on corporate training, but I am not yet saying so - we need to be more prepared for that market and there needs to be a business model change before we can compete effectively.

My frustrations primarily relate to the state of business ethics and integrity at the workplace. I was rather amazed by the lack of basic work ethic among even senior managers, across organizations. Punctuality, integrity in terms of expense claims, commitment to work, professionalism at the place of work - basic attributes that one will expect in the workplace - were found wanting. I was left wondering whether this indeed is the nature of modern Indian workforce, but in the end, skipped the generalization but could not stop feeling bitter about what I saw.

It does not of course mean that I am praising the western work ethic any higher than what we see in India. Over last few weeks, I have seen two relatively large organizations behaving almost childishly, with the usual western arrogance and short-sightedness. As an Indian, I fail to appreciate the western love affair with contracts, mostly drawn up in a zero-sum way and hardly a productive arrangement can be built around such instruments. However, last few days, I have observed, altogether bemused, two companies dancing around an useless contract in the hope of an order which does not exist, only to reaffirm in my mind that the western business culture has certain fundamental flaws hidden in its underbelly.

However, the highlight of my visit was, of course, none of those. It is that I met a very interesting person. Yes, yet again, someone you can almost write a whole story about. Someone who wish to be ordinary and keep the potential unknown; someone who is aspirational but uncommitted, involved but disconnected, who hides in the comfort zone lest the big world disrupt the journey. This is really interesting - I thought - because not only this story can be told, this story can be created. And, this story can be created not just on paper - possibly never on paper - but in the real life. And, I thought, while I try to create the story, the story will create, change, me. In between work, over last three weeks, I was thinking about this - so my visit was never boring.

And, sitting now in the airport lounge in Dubai, I understood what this story is. Unmistakably, this is about India. Yes, India. I can now feel it - India is everywhere. You can't escape it, you will meet it everywhere, every moment. And, the lure of this story is to get involved, in India, with India, and be a part of its story. This is probably my big take-away, and one which I am likely to follow up.

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