Musk-ian Callings

The following quote has always resonated with me:

Going from PayPal, I thought: ‘Well, what are some of the other problems that are likely to most affect the future of humanity?’ Not from the perspective, ‘What’s the best way to make money?’ – Elon Musk

How liberating and uplifting: dream as large as you can, unencumbered by your own limitations or financial gain, and then do what it takes to get there. This got me thinking – if Semantics3 is my PayPal, i.e., exciting business aimed at solving market needs, what would my SpaceX or Tesla, i.e., future projects aimed at shaping humanity, be? Two candidates that fit the bill:

Smart Garbage

Coffee cups, plastic bottles, food containers – you simply can’t live an urban life without generating a bag of trash each week. Americans discard 800kgs of trash per person each year. Most of this trash ends up in the ocean, in landfills or is incinerated. This isn’t sustainable existence. There is only so much land that we can fill and waters we can clog before we run out of space. We are still in the first century post industralization, which is why we haven’t yet been overwhelmed by the issue, but it is unlikely that we can maintain status quo in the long run without a major change.

How does one solve this problem? Recycling, levies on wastage, policing and appeals to benevolence can only take us so far. To succeed, habits have to be fundamentally altered; since societies are made up of largely economically rational actors, the answer lies in alternative products that can compete in the free market on cost and convenience. Think smart packaging and containers, which auto-clean themselves and compact at the press of a button, fostering reusability. And retail shops which pack your order on-demand, eliminating the need for packaging for each individual item in your basket.

Market-Driven Free Universal Education

Equality in education is an ideal we can aspire to now, more realistically than anytime else in human existence. High quality public education or subsidized private education are stabs at this, but even if achieved, they do seem to be artificially manufactured states, especially in a world that is largely driven by the free market. Seems like such equilibriums could collapse when economies tank or governments change. Moreover, policy-driven methods are unlikely to deliver free and equal education worldwide during my lifetime, and we simply can’t wait that long.

What if the cost of education dropped to $0? And if this free education were the best possible education available, could the strong link between economic background and career prospects be broken? Could this in turn transform us into a more perfect meritocratic society?

E-education efforts of today are certainly a step in this direction, but they are still used, and likely to be used in the near future, to supplement rather than supplant conventional options. As a result, even in cases when the poor have unfettered access to the internet, the rich still have access to better education.

Here’s one approach that I find appealing: currently, while in education mode (school & college), we are consumers and hence pay into the system, while in work mode (rest of our lives until retirement), we are contributors and hence extract remuneration from the system. What if these two phases were fluid, effectively achieving the goal of bringing the “cost of education” to zero? A rudimentary example of how this may happen – tests presented to children could be designed to have implicit problems which, when solved, could help corporations complete operations that would otherwise have been sourced to MechanicalTurk at higher costs. This could in turn help the students earn money and offset the cost of their education. Alternative business models can work wonders. Take Google search for instance – it is free, treats all users equally, and there isn’t a better version of the search engine available to the rich, because that’s simply not where the money lies!

In sum, this is the future of humanity I aspire to: a world in which human existence is sustainable, and all members of our species have equal opportunity to education and the fruits of our progress.

Visit to Pratham @ Chikkajala

Ever since I’ve read Poor Economics by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, I’ve been an admirer of Pratham, an NGO that works towards the provision of quality education to underprivileged children in India. The methods adopted by Pratham as described in the book seemed highly rational to me and I was inclined to learn more. Hence, when I visited Semantics3’s Bengaluru office this summer, I took the opportunity to have a look-see myself and signed up for a site visit via prathamusa.org.

On the 14th of July, a few of my colleagues and myself made the trip to Pratham’s offices in Chikkajala, a little town 45 minutes away from the heart of Bengaluru city. The trip lasted ~6 hours and although I had to take some time off from work, it was well worth the time investment. I left with several useful insights, five of which I would like to pick out in the rest of this article.

First, I noticed that nearly all the employees of Pratham whom I’d met took great pride in their work. The staff members were keen to share with me their teaching techniques and show me the unique teaching props that they had built; this made for a rather interesting conversation, even though I don’t speak Kannada, the local language. Turns out that Pratham, or this particular branch atleast, has a hiring process that optimizes for drive as much as ability. Having seen NGOs, and for-profits for that matter, where the drive of upper management and donors doesn’t always percolate to the entire organization, this was quite pleasant to witness.

Second, some of the challenges explained to me seemed simply mind-boggling. One of the schools had several students who were children of migrant workers who had recently moved to Karnataka for work from other Indian states. These students do not speak Kannada, and yet sit in a classroom where the mode of instruction is foreign to them. Teachers can’t be expected to know all of the 22 official languages in India, never mind the hundreds or so dialects, so these students inevitably fall behind and stay behind.

Third, some of my stereotypical images of public schools in India were shattered during this trip. There do exist public schools in India which, as far as infrastructure is concerned, can put middle-income private schools to shame. One such school that I visited had been funded by a nearby private school, the affluent stakeholders of which had made donations to assist their public school counterparts. Local communities can certainly play their part.

Public school 2b Public school 2a

Fourth, I really enjoyed the fact that quantification lies at the heart of Pratham’s work. When we made the trip to a nearby public school, I had a chance to glance at some of Pratham’s progress reports; the students of this school were being transparently evaluated on a near weekly basis to track progress using very intuitive metrics. For instance, students with weak math skills were bucketed based on whether they could recognize the numbers 0-9, 10-99 and finally, 100-999; this allowed the teacher to tailor tasks based on the capability of each student and lowered the risk of any single student falling behind.

Public school 1a Public school 1b

Fifth, I learned that the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional schooling is particularly detrimental in India, where the diversity of economic, social and linguistic backgrounds in each classroom inevitably results in some children being left behind. Teachers, well-intentioned or otherwise, are aware of this choice, but it seems as though they are neither incentivized nor have the resources to do anything about this. Amidst these unfortunate circumstances, it helps to have external organizations with the resources and personnel to tackle the problem from a different angle. This certainly doesn’t seem like a permanent solution, but I guess it’s a fool’s wish to desire an elegant formulaic solution to a problem as complex as education in India.

I quite enjoyed this trip. I am aware that, as with my internship at Hand-in-Hand, such indulgences satisfy my curiosity at the cost of drawing NGOs’ limited resources away from pressing work; the only way to justify the net ROI on social good is if this leads me, or those who accompanied me on the visit, to take lasting steps. For now, I’ve begun a monthly recurring donation to Pratham as part of my plan to give away a fixed percentage of my monthly income to organizations doing compelling work. Time will tell if this leads to something larger.

Missing Seatbelts in Uber Cars in India

Through my two month stay in Bangalore, I’ve been using Uber rather extensively. While there’re a boatload of reasons to love Uber, the lack of seatbelts in many cars (empirical estimate: 60% of my rides) is not one of them.

Before I flesh out my gripe though, I must say that Uber has made a world of difference in the quality of my stay here. There’s a lot to like about Bangalore, but the traffic and the roads are not one among them; thanks to Uber, my daily bouts of frustration commuting to work and back have been reduced and my productivity has gone up, ’cause I can now focus on work even during my ride.

Unfortunately, I am rather put off by the fact that many Uber cars in Bangalore do not have seatbelts in rear seats. Typically, I find both seatbelt and seatbelt latch completely missing. At one point, this trend was so prevalent that I wondered if certain models of Tata Indica, the most popular car model in the UberGo category, are simply sold without seat belts right from factory; I couldn’t find any evidence supporting this though. On the contrary, it looks like since 2002, all manufacturers have been legally required to equip their cars with rear seat belts.

Now, I know that those of you who reside in India are likely to dismiss this as a non-issue. There exists a collective apathy towards the need for seatbelts in the general population. Even in cars that are well equipped, when I reach out to buckle my seatbelt, I often catch family and friends shoot me a dismissive look or smirk at my NRI ways. When I present my case, one of the justifications provided is that average speeds on Indian roads are far lower than those observed in more developed countries, hence seatbelts are redundant in India. This line of reasoning is complete nonsense though. In absolute numbers, more people die on Indian roads than elsewhere and India accounts for nearly 10% of all global road fatalities. If you don’t buy the numbers, the next time you get into a car at night, or take a trip to Bangalore airport, take a look at the speedometer – seatbelts can be good company during 100kmph crashes.

Uber isn’t technically in the wrong here; rear seat belts are not legally necessary in India. What’s more, Uber seems to have little incentive to mandate that all of its cars carry seatbelts, since this would probably lead to many drivers dropping off the service – not ideal for growth plans on the supply side of business. That said, if ever there was an opportunity for a growing company to become a thought leader and bring about social change through corporate prescience, this might be it. The most admired companies in India are often those that deliver public good by staying a step ahead of antiquated public infrastructure, policies and incentives; if Uber is in it for the long run, this might be a great opportunity to spur change and build a positive public image.

If this isn’t enough incentive, here’s a thought – imagine the PR disaster that would erupt if an Uber ride in a car without rear seatbelts were to result in the fatality of a rider.

Having been in more accidents than I care for, I feel rather strongly about this issue. If you feel the same way, I urge you to do what you can to amplify these sentiments. Maybe email or tweet at Uber? We might just save a few lives in the process.

A Vestige of the Moon

A year to the day, your presence remains deeply felt;
there had been much to say, when you tiptoed and left.

Those foreign moments, in more ways than one,
still occupy my thoughts, and my emotions overcome.

Miles away I was, longing to tend your side,
but astute in loss, my anguish I did hide.

And then that timeless hour, when the world stood still,
weeping by the shower, my sobs pierced the night’s tranquil.

You’d think you’d know, how you would manage,
the impending blow, the arriving carnage …

But enough of the sobering end. The phoenix’s fire,
doesn’t portend, that which its presence did transpire.

Amidst the meaningless noise, amidst the incessant chatter,
his was the only voice, that didn’t seek to flatter.

Oft did his eyes speak, cutting through the mundanity,
in a tongue quaintly sweet, of tales, of dusk, of humanity.

They say that time, adds a coat of gloss,
makes mortals divine, by virtue of their loss.

But I write not of greatness. I extol not his ambition.
I write of prudent guidance. Of quiet compassion.

For this soft mannered man, we have deeply cared,
but now that he is gone, in his spirit let us bask, let us share.

5 years on. Sharing multiplies joy and divides grief. Thank you Amanu Thatha.

There and Back Again: My Trip to Alaska

As I fly out of Anchorage, Alaska, I look down at the snowy land with mixed emotions. Awe, happiness and fear, all bundled into one, consume me. In a space of just 10 days, this crazy land has considerably altered my notion of what it means to be a living, abled human.

Before we get too far ahead, a few notes about me. I am more likely to greet the phrase “life changing experience” with scepticism rather than careful consideration. With fair reason too, I suppose – I have travelled somewhat extensively and tried my hand at a handful of activities, but never have any of these experiences transcended sensory stimulation. Yet, I sit here in my chair trying to come to terms with all that I’ve gleaned in the days just gone by.

 

The human body is fragile.

Food, water, sleep and excretion – these are the four fundamental physiological needs that we consciously seek to fulfil. Everything else, including love, wealth, respect and intellectual stimulation lie at a higher level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Alaska in the winter is quite unsettling because it adds a fifth conscious physiological need – homeostasis. When the temperature is down to -40 degrees Celsius (which by the way, is also -40 degree Fahrenheit), you become very aware of the need to keep yourself warm just to get through the next few minutes pain free. During our treks through Denali National Park, if at any time we took off our gloves to draw on the dexterity of our fingers, we would be served with a chilling and numbing pain. Even a minute’s exposure would ensue in pain that would require more than 15 minutes of shelter to recede. Since we were, at times, two hours away from the closest shelter, I became very conscious of the inadequacy of the human body to sustain itself. This feeling of vulnerability was further strengthened when a friend of mine stepped in water and sprinted to safety to prevent the pain from consuming him. It was quite humbling to contemplate that at the heart of the walls of success, relationships, intellect and confidence that we build to make ourselves formidable lies such a perishable core.

 

Human endeavour is cumulative and inter-dependent. 

While on the one hand I was aware of my fragility, on the other, I developed an appreciation for the collective efforts of humanity that were helping keep me safe and alive. I was being kept warm by 21 pieces of clothing manufactured by 15 different companies, some possible due to the ingenuity of scientists, and some due to the hard work of farmers. The path between the trees that kept me oriented in this expansive wilderness was a result of careful planning by assiduous park rangers. The bridges that helped me trudge across thin ice without falling in had been well thought out and built to last by park keepers. The promise of a shelter just hours away with thorough heating and drinking water was the doing of ingenious engineers. The fact that I was even in this part of the world in the first place was a tribute to hundreds of daring explorers, many of who navigated these treacherous conditions without a map in hand. Each one of these contributions was critical for my comfort and survival, and yet no single contribution was more important than the rest. To me, this was a viewing glass into our roles in the grand scheme of humanity (I guess such insights are easier to crystallise while out in the silent wilderness). With endeavour and ingenuity, we can use our abilities to make incisive and critical contributions to the human race. However, nothing we do can hold any utility without the thousands of contributions that help the ecosystem come together. This realisation in turn made me reflect – if we truly understand this, how can we ever submit ourselves to arrogance or to a sense of superiority? How can we not permanently remain humble and in awe of the body of human achievement on which our own endeavours rest?

 

Any breath can be your last.

“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose” – Steve Jobs.

I’ve heard Steve Jobs’ Stanford Commencement speech a dozen times, but never have those words hit home as hard as they did during this trip. Have you ever witnessed a serious car crash? Have you ever seen or been in a car that skid and disappeared off the highway? Let’s just say that on the icy roads between Denali and Fairbanks, I had a glimpse at how feather thin the gap between life and death is. I have seen people on their deathbeds before, I have had loved ones pass away and I have watched videos of fatal car crashes. Experiencing a serious car crash unfold in front of my own eyes took things to an altogether different plane though. There is something very unsettling about sitting through a sequence of events that can push life to give way to death. It makes you realise that not everyone has the chance to finish their stories, contemplate their ends and bid their goodbyes – in a flash of light, it could all be over. You may have planned out a long and eventful life, but you may not be given the chance to stay the course. A full stop can cut you off mid-sentence, no matter how young or promising your story.

Before I went to Alaska, the idea of death was, to me, a useful intellectual tool representing a finish line in the distance. In fact, I recall quipping when I turned 25 that I have 75 left to go. Following the trip, death seems like a very real physical phenomenon that could rear its head at any time. At first, I found this to be quite overwhelming. My goals in life are based on the premise that I will live for another 40 years at the very least. I have often thought through how I want to live life in my 30s, my 40s, my 50s and onwards, never once questioning the assumption that I would live that long. In light of this, it’s no surprise that this new found awareness of death made me very uneasy.

Now that I’ve had a little while to think things through though, I find that this unease has given way to a strange sense of calm. The little things don’t seem to bother me as much anymore. I also find myself smiling more often than usual. The best part is that I’m not even trying all that hard; yet, I’m doing a better job at staying sunny than when I was making a conscious attempt to be happy. I guess on a subconscious level, I’ve realised that I might as well enjoy every moment while I still have the chance. Since there isn’t much to lose in the larger scheme of things, why worry about the consequences of worldly affairs; why not just opt for peace of mind? My hope now is that this new found calm doesn’t fade away with time.

 

All in all, suffice to say that Alaska has left me with a range of thoughts and a mixture of emotions. As my plane disappears over the clouds, I am not sure when I will return, or for that matter, if I even wish to return. What I do know, though, is that the experiences and insights that this land has granted me will not leave me anytime soon.

Tinted Lenses

In a quest to remain open-minded, I’ve been making a conscious effort to run my thoughts through the filter – “would I think this way were I a different person, with a different set of experiences?” Far too many problems in this world are caused by people trying to assert their beliefs, without making room for alternative perspectives. The US and the USSR paralyzed the world over social and economic preferences. Parents and children fall out over disagreements on religion and culture. Everyone sticks to his or her ground exasperated, yet no one is better for it.

Keeping this filter on is challenging; I try to aid this process by periodically reminiscing moments that shook my beliefs and revealed flaws in my understanding. One such lucid moment was when I first understood special relativity and quantum theory. My Newtonian perception of the world had then been shattered to bits. Objects could be in two places at the same time! Time could slow down and speed up! These statements were true, and yet they were in direct conflict with observations that I thought to be self-evident. My views were verifiably fallible. Who knew?

I hope I always live up to this interpretation of “open-mindedness”, and not just some liberal version of it. I leave you with a few other statements that I once believed, but have since come to reconsider:

  1. Religion has no place in an evolved society.
  2. Representative democracy is the best system of government.
  3. Unadulterated capitalism is the best system of economy.
  4. Citizens are entitled to more rights than immigrants.
  5. There is unquestionable nobility in being a soldier.

E-commerce in the Year 2025: Drones, Oracles and Block-chains

E-commerce has come a long way in the last 10 years. Same day grocery delivery, catalogues spanning hundreds of millions of products, seamless payment gateways, ad retargeting, dynamic repricing and predictive analytics have changed the landscape considerably for both consumers and businesses. As average consumer spend increases and as businesses strive to keep pace with the innovations of the last decade, it helps to ask — how is e-commerce likely to change in the next 10 years?

In this two-part article series, I would like to give my take on how a few select components of e-commerce are likely to shape-up in the year 2025. In part 1, I will tackle this question from the consumer standpoint, focusing on evolution in delivery time and prices. In each case, I would like to consider two scenarios — expected, i.e., the minimum outcome that we should expect, and ambitious, i.e., the outcome were more ambitious possibilities to materialize.

Ode to a Landmark

Earlier today, I discovered that my favorite bookstore, Landmark on Nungambakkam High Road, had recently closed its doors after nearly 27 years. The reason, apparently, was the store’s inability to keep up with competition from e-commerce and digital goods. As I am wont to do, my initial instinct was to evaluate the utilitarian impact of this event; before I get down to that though, I’d first like to pay tribute to my experiences at Landmark.

As a child, my experiences were strongly rooted to specific physical locations. Since I didn’t have the same degree of freedom of movement that I now do, I spent most of my time in a few familiar spaces which shaped my experiences. This list of spaces included home, school, a few select restaurants, favorite family holiday destinations and a bookstore called Landmark.

One of the highlights of each summer was the trip to Landmark. Once I’d made it past the shady dog that seemingly permanently resided on the first floor, down the basement staircase and past the entrance, I’d let my instincts take over. I’d race to the Enid Blyton section and search for the next selection in the Famous Five series. After reading a few pages, I’d switch to the comic book section at whim, and begin my hunt for promising Chacha Chaudhary books (avoiding those that had Raka on the cover ofcourse). Before long, I’d come to my senses; lingering by the comic books section was a waste of time since comic books were also available at the airport and the railway station. Moreover, in light of my planned budget of three books, they were a waste of resources since they took barely a couple of hours to read cover-to-cover. I needed books that would sustain me through the holidays. I’d come to my senses, drop the comics and wander through less familiar aisles in search of a new genre of book to indulge in. Man-Eaters of Kumaon by Jim Corbett! An entire book about tigers? 300 pages on such a specific topic? Little did I know that I’d go on to read a half a dozen Jim Corbett books, every single one of them about tigers.

Entrance to Landmark

Eventually, I’d find my way to the video games section and examine thoroughly the new EA Sports releases. Left handed batsmen! Realistic stadiums! No matter how elaborate the features though, I was never convinced. For that price, a few additional books seemed better value for money. Instead, I’d look in the bargain games section and pick out a lesser known game, which would later inevitably disappoint (Anil Kumble’s Googly Cricket comes to mind). Then would come the customary hunt for 49/- cassettes before I’d rush back to the books section to finalize my choices. I’d also rendezvous with my sister, who typically chose books slightly larger than mine. I’d marvel at her intelligence, until she’d hold up the checkout line trying to decide which chocolates to pick out (everyone knew that she’d buy three 5-stars and possibly one packet of Gems, plan to eat one a day, but eat all of them within 24 hours).

As the years went by, my interests would evolve. The full spectrum, including Agatha Cristie, Steven Gerrard biographies, Introduction to Ruby on Rails, Ruskin Bond, R.K. Narayanan, P.G. Wodehouse, Ramachandra Guha, Ayn Rand, Chetan Bhagat (don’t those two names look good side-by-side?) and more were covered. I’d also visit on my own more often and spend more time reading books in-store. But the joy of discovery and revelation in choice would remain.

And now the store is no more. No more wild evenings in Landmark. I should’ve seen this coming though. After all, I’ve turned into a Kindle wielding proponent of e-commerce. I’ve probably contributed to the store’s demise. My last few trips didn’t involve any purchases; I searched for books at the store, but chose to buy the book from the Kindle store instead. If book readers weren’t buying books, how could the store have sustained? It didn’t help that music CDs and movie DVDs, a sizeable portion of the store’s business, were fast becoming a relic of the past.

The Store in its Last Days

In the larger scheme of things, is the average book reader in my locale poorer for the demise of Landmark? As far as availability and selection is concerned, not really; Flipkart/Amazon provide consumers have a wider selection of books. The process of sampling books hasn’t suffered either; downloading a book sample onto my Kindle is wonderfully convenient. The serendipity of stumbling onto an interesting book may be a factor worth lamenting; most of our actions online tend to be intent driven so there’s lesser room for serendipity online, but new apps and web experiences are well on their way to fixing this. So is this just a matter of the old giving way to a better new?

I think the world has suffered a loss, not in terms of quantifiable benefits, but in terms of human experience. Will the kids of tomorrow be able to look fondly upon their cumulative reading experiences the way I’ve been doing? Can our Internet-centric experiences ever stimulate the same degree of emotion? Perhaps they can, but I am a tad skeptical for one reason. My Kindle experiences involve sight alone – my Landmark experiences involved sight, smell, touch, hearing and on occasion, taste. I hope the Landmarks of tomorrow find a way to replicate the full spectrum of human senses that the bookstores of yore did.

For now though, farewell Landmark, and thanks for the memories.

Start-ups & Football

Football affects millions of lives, if not billions. Yet, most of us can do little to impact the sport beyond supporting our teams from afar. We may have harboured dreams of being players as kids, and subsequently, of being coaches (England job anybody?) or commentators. Realistically though, these jobs are out of reach if you haven’t been part of the system from your early days. How then can we be a part of the sport? As a technology enthusiast, my response to this is: start-ups. In this article, I’m going to explore ideas for building start-ups centred on innovation in the beautiful game.

Conventional Businesses

Before exploring start-up opportunities, let’s take a look at some of the well-established methods of making money from football:

1. Television: Broadcast rights for football games involve big money. This year, BSkyB and BT paid $1.7 billion for Premier League television rights. In fact, television was the reason the old English Football League was rebranded to the “Premier League”. The amount of capital involved here makes this market prohibitively difficult for newcomers to enter.

2. Clubs: Buy a club if you have the spare cash. Be warned though, football clubs aren’t very sound investments. More than half the clubs in the Premier League made losses last year, and most are grovelling in debt, a state of affairs consistent across Europe. Occasionally, some even slip through the cracks (Leeds United), a function of the increasing levels of risk introduced by high wages and transfer prices. If purchasing clubs at the top is not palatable to you, you could buy a lower division club and guide it to promotion through good management. In general though, buying a club is not be the best way to make money.

3. Physical Merchandise: Nike, Adidas and the like have a firm grip on the market for sports goods having secured rights from players and clubs, delivered quality products and built brand consciousness. There’s certainly a lot of money to be made from the sale of boots, shirts and scarves, best exemplified by the fact that David Beckham shirt sales alone have generated in excess of $1.7 billion in revenue. Once again though, the path for entry here is blocked by intensive capital needs, established competitors and long-standing incumbent relationships.

4. Digital Merchandise: EA Sports reportedly generates ~$300 million annually from its FIFA series. Other titles like Pro Evolution Soccer and Football Manager haven’t done too shabbily either. If you’re planning to compete head on with EA Sports, you’ll have to match their technological sophistication built upon years of effort, unless you manage to build a more minimal but viral game a la Angry Birds. Also, be ready to work without naming rights, which are often exclusive to EA (if you’ve played PES with modified player and team names, you know what I’m talking about).

This list is by no means comprehensive; there are many hundreds of businesses that profit from football including beverage companies, bookmakers, event organizers and more.

Start-ups

Now that we have an understanding of how money flows in football, I’d like to explore opportunities for you, the reader, to tap into these existing streams, or create new channels where none have previously existed:

1. Analytics for Clubs: Moneyball like insights, but for football – a much discussed idea that hasn’t yet come to the fore in a big way. One of the reasons for this is that football, unlike baseball, is a fluid game, i.e., it does not have discrete plays. Of late though, companies like Opta Sports have managed to define and quantify a whole gamut of events on the football pitch quite thoroughly. While this has in turn led to the growth of predictive analytics, there still remains a lot of scope for improvement along several lines:

  • Transfers: Success in the transfer market remains unpredictable as ever. The people making these decisions are not mugs and work in tandem with statisticians; nonetheless, these decisions often go horribly wrong. Can you develop better methods of modelling player ability and compatibility? Can you account for additional factors such as a player mentality, or ability to adjust to new surroundings? Deep learning is all the hype these days; can you apply smarter approaches to existing data? Even a marginal improvement in transfer success rate is worth a lot of money, considering the sums involved.
  • Strategy: Managerial decisions on formations, starting elevens and substitutions can certainly be aided by analytics, and to be fair, they are already playing a hand. That said, how often do we see a manager marauding his touchline with an iPad in hand? During the 90 minutes or so that spectators come in contact with their clubs, do we ever see any explicit signals of the utilization of analytics? Once insights derived from data prove reliable and actionable, they will be more openly accepted and become a more intricate part of the process.
  • Scouting: Ideally, clubs prefer to sign-up the starts of tomorrow when they are in their early teens, before their prices skyrocket. This is, however, difficult to do since ability at a young age doesn’t directly correlate to success in the bigger leagues. Or at least that’s what traditional methods have shown. Can you find a better way to unearth future superstars and optimize the scouting process?

2. Buy Shares in Young Players: The better the analytical insights you can provide, the easier your sell to clubs who are interested. If your insights on players are really good though, why give this knowledge away? You could invest capital in purchasing the rights of promising young players, in exchange for a slice of their future earnings. These young players will in turn benefit from access to better resources. Think of this as an analogy to early stage funding in technology – you can be the venture capitalist and your players can be your start-ups. Back a future star and you might make it big, even if your success rate is 1 in 10. Whether such investments make sense depends on how accurate your insights turn out to be.

If you don’t wish to be a traditional VC, you could take a crowd funding approach, or setup syndicates, the way they’re done on AngelList. If you don’t have the insights yourself, you could choose to be the enabler by building a FundersClub or an AngelList for players looking for scholarships and sponsorship. [For those who are genuinely interested, wyscout.com might be a useful place to get started.]

3. iTunes/Spotify for Football: WatchESPN has been my saviour this world cup. I’ve had the luxury of watching matches on my phone, laptop and TV (via Chromecast). The television gods aren’t always this kind though. Once the league season gets started, cord cutters like me with no cable subscription will be left hanging. Several folks around the world find themselves in the same situation and are often forced to resort to illegal streams, even though they’re willing to pay for quality and convenience. This state of affairs reminds me of music piracy pre-iTunes. I’m not sure if the monetary damage caused by pirated streams is as yet sufficient for football leagues to ease control on television royalty channels, but the day will come when consumers win their battle for choice. Will television networks themselves deliver this choice, or will a new entrant step in? Once this happens, will be begin to see innovative business models; for all you know, broadcasters might one day provide football streams for free in exchange for digital ad revenue and opportunities to upsell.

4. Asia-Centric Efforts: Some of the lesser-known Asian clubs of today will turn into the powerhouses of tomorrow. When this happens, the fan bases of these clubs will skyrocket, even as the average spending capacity of Asian fans rises. You can tap this potential by selling merchandise or experiences as an early mover in the market, before incumbents step in.

5. Game-time Innovation: Football has traditionally resisted change; yet, new innovations are gradually finding their way in. Had you developed the vanishing foam spray used at this world cup (915fairplay.com), you could’ve netted yourself a fortune. Win a contract with UEFA for implementing goal line technology across all European leagues, and you have yourself a large recurring revenue stream. Further such possibilities are likely to rise over time, especially once Sepp Blatter bids us goodbye.

6. Wearables: Devices for real-time monitoring of player fatigue or heart-rates carry obvious value. Think of a scenario in which tiny devices gather millions of data points from players and feed them to the cloud, from which strategic insights are beamed down to the managers’ iPads.

The Market

Once you’ve achieved product-market fit, you’ve got to evaluate the cost of customer acquisition and the size of the addressable market. Football centric businesses can choose to go B2B (i) Clubs ii) FIFA iii) Regional Associations like UEFA and CONMEBOL iv) Leagues like EPL, Serie A and La Liga) or B2C (direct to fans).

B2B: FIFA recognizes 327,008 clubs, 265,000,000 players and 5,000,000 referees. Despite these large numbers, most of the wealth in football is controlled by the top 100 or so clubs, with the largest Real Madrid, valued at $3.44 billion dollars. This number drops off quickly, with the 20th on the list, Napoli, valued at $296 million. I’d venture a guess that not more than 250 clubs are worth more than a million dollars. This means that if you are selling to clubs, you’ve got to target the top clubs and make sure that your average customer order is sufficiently high. It’s safe to say though that you aren’t going to build the next super-unicorn ($100 billion+ company) in this market alone, since your customers don’t command enough revenue themselves. If you do plan to go this route though, you could choose to either sell directly to clubs, or strike deals with governing bodies like FIFA, UEFA and La Liga. The disadvantage of the former is that you’ll have to handle several repeated sales cycles, including, possibly, repeated demands for exclusive access to your product. On the flip side, signing deals with governing bodies will leave your revenue stream highly vulnerable.

B2C: If you are looking for a larger market, you can choose to sell directly to football’s 3.5 billion fans. While the number of genuine supporters is probably a fraction of that number, the market remains massive whichever way you look at it. If you can link your product to people’s love for the sport, you stand to generate a lot of revenue.

Some of these thoughts and ideas were inspired by discussions at an event titled “Innovations in the Beautiful Game” held recently in San Francisco. Details of the talk here.

Am I a Good Person?

For the longest time, I had no doubt that I was a good person, a conviction that contributed a great deal to my personal identity and self assurance. Of late though, I’ve come to doubt my own goodness, and in the process, been facing a bit of an identity crisis. This led me to lay down a personal framework for leading a good life.

Why be good?

Why does being good matter so much in the first place? For most people, being good is almost a mental axiom, planted by repeated conditioning by family, society and academic organizations. If these axioms aren’t reinforced with rational explanations soon enough though, they may fall apart at the base during trying times, when our moral inclinations conflict with personal gains. To this end, I think it’s important to clearly understand why we should attempt to be good people:

1. Religion: All religions recommend that its followers lead a moral life and care for the well-being of others. This alone should be sufficient cause as long as a person’s belief in his or her religion is unshakeable. If religious edicts don’t do the job, ideas such as karma and adrsta phala, or perhaps the fear of purgatory and the desire for salvation, might do the trick.

2. Eudaimonia: According to Aristotle, eudaimonia, a life of true happiness and well-being, can best be achieved by being virtuous towards others. In other words, we maximize our own happiness by being good to others. Note that eudaimonia is characterized as true happiness, which is asserted as being superior to hedonistic pleasure seeking. In short, goodness is the only path to happiness.

3. Ethical Frameworks: Utilitarianism is the school of thought that individuals should aim to maximize happiness in this world; if you subscribe to this school, it follows that you should be good to others to maximize global happiness. Deontology, specifically Kant’s categorical imperative, postulates that you should always treat humanity as an end and not as a means. In simpler words, you should respect human dignity and rights; it follows from this that being good to others is the right thing to do.

The next logical question to ask here is why one must be ethical in the first place. There’re many ways to approach this issue, but the argument that puts me at ease is that ethical frameworks are an evolutionary imperative – humankind evolves when humans learn to treat each other through the prism of mutually beneficial sets of logical rules. Thus, in the interest of evolution, we ought to be ethical, and ethics in turn command that we be good.

Evaluating your own goodness

Few, if any, would categorize themselves as bad people, but this surely doesn’t make us all good people by default. How then can we decide if we’ve been rational beings and heeded our calls to goodness? I’ve come to evaluate myself through the lens of six questions, laid out along two distinct spheres of life:

1. Family, Friends and Colleagues: The people with whom we come in contact during the course of our lives. For most of us, our impact on this world is measured by our impact on this small group of people. Here’s my checklist for my interaction with this group:
a. Have I consciously hurt anyone either through my action or inaction?
b. Have I been empathetic enough to recognize when I have unwilling hurt someone through my action or inaction?
c. To those who seek my affection, where appropriate, have I sufficiently obliged?

These points may seem obvious at first read, but I find that they’re an effective reference point for my daily interactions. You may find that a misplaced remark has caused someone grief, or a delay in a long-awaited phone-call has left someone longing. The keyword here is empathy, the ability to look at things from the other person’s perspective.

2. Society/The World: What of the world outside of regular human interactions? In this era of globalization, our actions resonate beyond just a block radius, or a city boundary. The extend to the entire world, including all that’s living, non-living and yet to be born. My checklist for this group:
a. Have I knowingly hurt anyone or anything either through my action or inaction?
b. Do I have sufficient knowledge of the impact of my actions or inactions on society, either upstream or downstream?
c. Have I been proactive in leaving the world a better place than I found it, and rectifying wrong even when I’ve not been the cause?

These may seem obvious too, but chances are you haven’t been mindful of them. For instance:
– When you purchased your last iPhone, did you know that your purchase implicitly involved weighing the impact of your purchase on migrant labourers in China against a potential job-creating boost to the economy? If not, you may have violated the knowledge requirement of #2b.
– In choosing to pick-up a new plastic bag at the supermarket instead of bringing your own, you might’ve contributed to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and violated #2a.
– By choosing to binge on the Internet rather than helping out at that homeless shelter next door, you’re probably not doing justice to #2c.

Note the two keywords highlighted in this section – empathy and knowledge. In this suggested framework, becoming more empathetic and actively learning more about the world is a moral imperative. In other words, merely being kind and loving in response to day to day actions is not enough. You’ve got to do more; you’ve got to make an active effort to understand those around you (empathy) and learn more about the wider impact of your actions (knowledge).

So, is your author a good person?

I think I’ve done decent job on the family and friends front, but not so on the society front. Yes I’ve turned vegan out of concern for animal welfare, minimized my wastage of plastic and electricity, and contributed towards job creation through my startup, but I haven’t yet done enough. Considering the tools that the Internet and my education have given me, I know far too less about the goods I consume. For all my desire to do something about poverty and hunger, I still walk past hungry homeless people every night on my way back from work feeling helpless. Even though I’m a well-paid engineer in Silicon Valley, I contribute far too little to causes I believe in.

Having said this, do I think lesser of myself? What of my identity crisis? Now that I’ve laid down my thoughts clearly, I find that I’m less concerned about fears of self-inadequacy, and more concerned that by failing to be a better person, I’m acting irrationally, jeopardizing my eudaimonic well-being and violating my evolutionary imperative. That’s a scary thought if ever there was one.