On fancy job titles

This article is the fourth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Oct the 19th, 2016.

In one of my corporate venturing roles with a large Indian conglomerate, I served as the country manager of a European country. That was also the job title on my card and in my email signature file. The important sounding title was not just about sitting in a fancy office overlooking Zurich lake. I made a lot of calls and set up my meetings with prospective clients for business development purposes. I also went daily to the post office to collect our mail, printed and sent and filed my own faxes, made coffee and washed my own coffee cup, took out our recycling, and did a whole bunch of administrative work that people in large companies do not even think about or farm out to secretaries and assistants.

It was, after all, a new and small operation albeit with a BigCo parent company.

Startups are no different. In the early days of a startup, founders do everything from washing cups to taking and making calls to filing papers to paying bills. They do VAT returns, meet account filing deadlines, minute board meetings, keep an eye on the cash in the bank and so on. They pack products and take those packages to the post office for mailing. They also go out and represent the company to customers, partners, vendors, media and financiers. There is nobody else to talk about the brand, the company, the product but the founders who created the business. In other words, early days are when the startup founders are always selling, trying to sell or fulfilling orders.

Is there a need for startup founders have important sounding titles? Some even argue over them!

Titles serve a purpose.

Titles are useful in signalling to customers, partners, vendors and other third parties about the roles of the individuals they are dealing with. Giving such comfort and confidence is an outward facing utility of titles. Yo can go the ego-boosting heavy title route, or take a leaf from Craig Newmark’s book. He is the founder of Craigslist and calls himself “customer service rep”.

Inside the startup, roles and titles can help start a useful and essential conversation about allocation of responsibilities as the early rapid growth forces functional specialisation within the founding team. The CEO should ensure there is enough cash, that the company is heading in the right direction, and that there are enough people on the team — or from vendors and partners — to do what is necessary. The COO’s role may be defined by the context often spanning revenue ownership, supply chain, operations and other processes. The CMO takes charge of all marketing and communications with an aim to establish the brand as well as drive inbound inquiries and sales.

Then there are the future employees. As founders, you sell the vision to future employees so they consider working with you. Some of these employees then actually want big corporate-sounding titles e.g. VP. In an early stage and relatively flat organisation, a title such as VP may mean little. But what it can do is catalyse the thought process required to develop an organisational structure that will support future growth including growing numbers of employees, their roles and their career trajectories.

I am no fan of hierarchical organisations but equally the evidence from holacracy as implemented by Zappos and others following their lead, and from self management structures as implemented by Buffer is mixed. So, for now, even for startups, organisation design for growth remains an active challenge on the table. Titles are not essential but they could bring much needed clarity as jobs evolve away from the traditional functional bases of design to other philosophies including customer at the centre of the organisation.

During my country manager stint, I had several meetings with big-cheese type persons in prospective client organisations. It was not uncommon, when I turned up, to be asked by the gatekeeper to the said big-cheese, “Wo ist der Geschaeftsfuehrer?” (Where is the boss?).

I was, after all, a petite and young Indian woman, turning up to meet an important man in their company!

Handing over my card with a smile, I would reply, “Ich bin die Geschaeftsfuehrerin, bitte.” (I am the boss, please!).

The big title? It always worked.

Authenticity and Vedic wisdom for luxury brands

Alicia Keys, the talented musician and singer, was in the news recently for having chosen decidedly to eschew makeup. In a monograph in a newsletter, she said she feels no need to cover up any more. She talked about her journey to self discovery and finding her authentic self which did not need to be hidden under layers of makeup.

On cue, and missing all the irony of Keys’s commentary, Harper’s Bazaar featured 74 models in selfies with the faces they were born with. Hashtag #nomakeup.

Ladies & Gentlemen, authenticity is now on trend, and branded.

In a related development, one of my favourite web friends, Jackie Danicki, has started writing Burned Out Beauty, a beauty blog which is my new not-so-secret indulgence. She was the original beauty blogger in 2004 on the world’s first beauty blog Jack & Hill.

Jackie is not being a contrarian. She took a break, so to speak, and she is back doing something that she loves, enjoys and is knowledgeable about. Jackie is authentic.

The good thing about being authentic is there is no need to be contrarian.

But how can brands find where their authenticity lies? Indeed what is authentic and what are the sources of authenticity?

Eagle-eyed readers will remember my agonising over the “authenticity” of the Porsche symposer some time ago. I ruminated on it a while. After all the car is man-made, as is the symposer, and it is humans that manifested the Porsche vroom in the car’s engine as well as the symposer. It is not about the engine, it is about the sound. Once I had reached that essentialist unifying thread, I was at peace.

Where a sensory signal is not the only or the main signature of the brand, a brand may have to work a tad harder to define what it stands for, what its authentic self is.

A beautiful and effective tool is to be found in a Vedic method of inquiry.

What the essence of something is is often arrived at by answering what it is not.

Neti-Neti. Not this, not this.

Unlike other fixed signals of authenticity, the process of Neti-Neti also accommodates indeed nurtures growth and reinvention. If we are no longer something, if we no longer stand for something, we are one step closer to being our authentic and whole self.

So with brands.

When luxury brands with deep heritage struggle to reinvent themselves and their relevance in a world with modern technology and newness, they can choose to look inward and answer what they are not.

What are you not, any longer?

Authentic & still relevant

Luxury watches and tech: who is driving whom?

Luxury products, it seems, are being trampled over by technology-enabled products enticing luxury customers.

Apple created its own version of ceramic enforced gold. The real number of the Apple watches in gold casing shipped remains a mystery although an estimated total of 10M pieces are expected to have shipped by the end of 2015.

Apple approached Hermès, the 600 year old luxury marque for a collaboration. Possibly so Apple could open a new market for itself and Hermès could make its mark on tech savvy luxury buyers.

Hermès, however, is an odd choice, seeing as it is far from being the top luxury watch maker and seller. Apple gets to borrow Hermes’s aura, their channel and possibly their customer base — Hermès does not market aggressively to its masstige customer while its prestige customer may or may not like being sold to — and Hermès gets to sell some fabulous leather straps to Apple. The collaboration looked like Apple is driving it.

Meanwhile out of Rolex, Omega and Breitling, the top 3 luxury watch marques, only Breitling has dipped its toe in the smartwatch waters. With its Breitling B55 Connected.

Brietling’s vision is to make the phone subservient to the watch, to enhance the watch. To wit: “In creating its first connected chronograph, Breitling has applied a new philosophy placing the smartphone in the service of the watch so as to enhance its functionality and conviviality. The instrument of the future.” The Breitling B55 Connected builds on the earlier launch of B50, which is an an electronic multi-function chronograph movement, with analogue and digital displays. The idea was to serve pilots — Breitling’s primary audience, but also its aspirational audience — better and to pave the way for other developments.

A few others have made their first moves too. Gucci unveiled a high fashion version of Will.I.Am‘s smartband. Will.I.Am’s role as the creative innovation lead in Intel’s wearables business is not widely known. He is not afraid to fail or experiment. Movado has teamed up with HP to create an Android and iOS compatible watch – the Movado Bold Motion – which uses Bluetooth connectivity and vibrations and visual cues to upcoming important things, all while looking stunning as Movado watches do. At Baselworld 2015, Bulgari unveiled its Diagono Magnesium Concept watch. The watch uses WISeKey’s NFC chip to unlock an application that can store encrypted data on the cloud and communicate with other devices within its range. The data is reportedly secure in an underground bunker in the Swiss Alps. Um, ok. WISeKey’s technology works with both Android and iOS. Then there is Tag Heuer’s Connected, which runs Google Wearable OS, and the order numbers have just been upped significantly to serve the upcoming holiday demand.

With all these options, one wonders: What does a customer choose first — the watch or the technology platform/ OS? More to the point, will the technology platform ever drive a watch purchase?

Curious, I conducted an unscientific survey of (admittedly male) friends, who own watches each costing over £10,000. Unsurprisingly they are all eyeing the Tag Heuer and the Breitling, but not as their main watches.

“Look, I need the battery to last weeks not 6h. I sometimes have two flights to catch in a day and a tight meeting schedule in between.”, said one.

Another said, “As I become more senior, I am less interested in being available to all messages and people all the time. I need time to reflect, uninterrupted by pings and notifications, and as far as I can tell that is all smart watches are doing right now.”

“Whatever it is, I ain’t changing my mobile phone for a god-damned watch. Something will come along that suits me and does not ask me to suit it. Capiche?”, said another. Ooh, burn.

So, if the smart watch is not the main watch, is the connectedness spiel just another nice-to-have and not really a need-to-have feature?

What does that mean for the market that can actually afford luxury smart watches?

Who understands this subtlety of customer behaviour in the luxury market?

It sure ain’t Apple. Or HP. Or even WISeKey.

The luxury brand, on the other hand, owns the customer relationship and understands their customers’ behaviour and quirks. The brand also gets to choose which tech to use, and may choose technologies that are OS-agnostic so as to serve all of their existing customers. The brand, if not inclined to investing in development by itself, could always reach out to wearable companies such as Olio Devices, which were among the first to understand that the customer doesn’t want to change her phone OS, based on the watch she covets.

So, back to — who is driving whom as far as luxury watches and tech go?

Tech may have started it all but tech isn’t driving the conversation in this space any more.

As luxury goes, consumers rule, and luxury brands are expectedly showing a more subtle understanding of the consumer than tech players may assume.

PS: I am an all-in Apple ecosystem user.

Four For Friday (31)

This week’s links on design-thinking and design come right after I shared some observations made on a recent trip to India.

Apple is giving design a bad name, writes Don Norman, who established the User Experience Architect’s Office later becoming Vice President of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. His co author is Bruce Tognazzini, a usability expert. A long read that Norman first said in August 2015 he was writing.

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business. The production of beautiful objects is only one small component of modern design: Designers today work on such problems as the design of cities, of transportation systems, of health care. Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.

So, what is the special sauce that makes one an exceptional designer?

Exceptional designers have strong human values such as empathy, respect, and honesty. These values not only influence a designer’s approach to developing products, but also their approach to working with colleagues. After all, building great products doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Here is another twist on design. Our desire to design humans has a long and peculiar history. With a presentist lens much of it is quite squirm-inducing. But a worthy read.

Not all Americans who supported eugenics were racist and nativist. To a first approximation, everyone was a eugenicist in the early 20th-century US. But for the core of the movement, the eugenic tenet that any disability was all in the genes also put scientific teeth into laws setting racial quotas for immigrants. Reformers pressed for mandated sexual sterilisation of those deemed unfit, including the feebleminded, the criminal, the deaf, the crippled, those with venereal disease and other conditions.

Finally this eclectic collection of one hundred quotes on design caught my eye. Here is one:

Design is thinking made visual. — Saul Bass

Design stories from recent travels in India

This post has no photos. None that I took anyway. Because taking photos is hard, while we navigate badly designed situations.

When we don’t understand or care about customer experience.

My flight on the world’s favourite airline ran out of disembarkation and customs declaration forms for India. For now, I shall refrain from commenting on this not-infrequent occurrence.

At Bombay’s International Airport arrivals, one had to pass immigration and then seek the customs forms. Near the desk called Customs, I asked where the forms could be found. I was told, in Marathi, “Near the flag”. The “flag” turned out to be a 1 inch by 1.5 inch plastic or paper thing hoisted on a 4-5 inch high pole, kept atop the counter, surrounded by so many things it was hard to see.

As it were, I took the last form they had. Since I was amongst the first to disembark, there was bound to be trouble after as many of us were without forms.

It is hard to imagine how such poor design decisions — organisation, choice of language of communication, quantities made available — helps those, who are not Indian, visiting India for the first time, and likely unfamiliar with the “jugaad” element so common to nearly everything in India.

When we sometimes use fancy new technology, but mostly not .. well, who cares?

I used a bathroom in a swanky new-built commercial building in Bombay’s famous Bandra Kurla Complex.

When I entered one of the loos, the light turned itself on. “Clever use of motion sensor technology”, I thought. Pun unintended, and not applicable, as you will see next.

Then I saw a manual flush handle in place. So the user of the loo touches the flush with what may not be clinically clean hands. “Could this not have been a sensor driven flush?”, I wondered.

Needing then to wash my hands at the basin, I saw the tap needed manual turning on. “Another lost chance to use a sensor”, I thought.

To dry my hands, I couldn’t find either tissue paper or a dryer. The attendant in the bathroom had to show me a broken almost hidden sensor with which I was to turn on an air-dryer. The dryer was located just above a bin where people had been discarding paper towels. Uh, ok.

In a tropical country teeming with dust, dirt and possible infections, all opportunities for fomites have been left intact in this fancy bathroom. Random things have been sensor-ised.

Well done. Not. On the obvious incomplete thinking in designing the bathroom.

When we don’t care about accessibility and safety.. 

Arriving from Bombay late at night, I was reminded why I avoid taking domestic flights to Delhi’s T1 terminal. As an able-bodied person, I was required to navigate a trolley amid 3-5 lanes of taxis and cars speeding toward the break in the Metro barrier, where I was to get out to wait for my car on the main road. Along with a gazillion other people.

Forget pedestrian priority, the awful road surface was its own challenge. Tough enough to push a baggage trolley till I saw a young airport staffer pushing — struggling with it actually — an old lady in a wheel chair towards the same exit, navigating the same cars coming at him and her at some speed.

When you get out, you find yourself on the road with many others, no identifiable markers anywhere. This means your driver has to inch closer, driving while on the mobile phone call with you till he visually locates you. Nice one, eh?

I thought about this airport experience for a while, but soon I had occasion to experience a new hotel and an orthopaedic hospital.

In India, nearly all bathrooms are wet rooms. This means that the probability of slipping is finite.

One might think this necessitates some mechanism for steadying oneself both in hotel and hospital bathrooms — not to mention a hospital, where people are suffering broken bones already.

None of the bathrooms had any grab bars or any support. In the hotel bathroom the shower area was treacherous, complete with black marble floor on which it is  hard to distinguish dry and wet areas, while the bathroom in the orthopaedic hospital had no grab frames around the loo seat. This is a picture of the bathroom in the hotel [(c) Cleartrip].

The Hotel BathroomThe absence of empathy in all these places, caring for neither accessibility nor safety, was quite disappointing.

Can we blame legacy?

None of these bad design experiences in these stories could be blamed on legacy. Each of them took place in a newly built, plush looking facility. The hotel is so new that as of October 2015, it had not formally opened. The hospital is about twenty years old. Bombay’s international airport opened for business in February 2014 while Delhi’s T1 is being renovated.

This was doubly disappointing.

So much money and material spent on building things comfortable and modern and pretty, but not a lot of time spent on thinking about making things that are fit for purpose!

There is a long way to go before the world is made at least comfortable for all of us.