The real story in India’s demonetisation saga

“Who benefits if we all go cashless?”,  asked a friend* of mine. This is indeed the money question in India’s demonetisation saga with its moving goal posts. “I am not here for the enrichment of Visa, MasterCard etc.,” she added.

Apart from convenience and fraud protection, the economic case for an individual consumer is near impossible to make. Many problems solved by card issuers are those related to card usage, not arising from the transaction or commerce itself.

The benefits of consumers going cashless accrue variously to businesses, who can reduce the cost of cash handling; to various players in the payments ecosystem — card makers, technology providers, POS terminal makers, card issuers and acquirers, wallets, and schemes such as Visa, MasterCard and RuPay — who make a fraction of a basis point on each transaction; and to society at large, in aggregate and in the long run.

My friend* remains suspicious of ideas where consumers were required to participate without having any agency, since, she argues, we do have agency in using cash e.g. when hoarding cash as vulnerable women do.

This is a fair concern. But consumers accept the notion of a state-sanctioned currency as a widely accepted means of value exchange within a territory. Consumers make trade-offs to get things they desire while accepting certain loss of agency even if they do so holding their noses.

As it stands, the state has unfair power in determining whether the currency has the value it is supposed to have. It is a power imbalance where the consumer’s agency is considerably less than the state’s. Consumers begin first and foremost with the belief that the state won’t mess with them and their stash of wealth. This trust is essential to exercising the consumer’s agency in stashing away hoards of cash. Acts such as the overnight demonetisation and the cack-handed execution of it destroy trust. The cash hoards of those vulnerable women have been destroyed in value overnight. Their agency is hugely reliant on the state’s benevolence in this instance.

What happens when the state does mess with consumer trust such as by demonetisation or overnight devaluation of the currency?

This is where the conversation veers into virtual currencies such as Bitcoin that remove state as the holder of power and distribute power to the two or more parties transacting. It would be the subject of an altogether different essay on why we are happier trusting an algorithm than we are trusting elected representatives whom we can bring to account.

The chatter about the demonetisation of certain currency notes and going cashless — the latter being some ways off in India, given the lack of infrastructure needed to make cashless work — is just a sideshow.

The main game is data.

When the economy goes cashless, a lot of data will be generated and the aggregate economic case for society will begin to emerge. At the very least, there will be new money brought into the system with convenience reducing the friction in commercial transactions and money.

Professional — and armchair pro-am — economists have wondered a while how India’s GDP would change if the unorganised sector, including the vast cash economy of domestic and unskilled workers, quotidian daily purchases like cigarettes and paan etc were to be recorded formally. The probability of such aggregation will increase with more data collection, though it remains to be seen whether this newly counted GDP growth will weather, balance or exceed the drop in GDP predicted by many due to the demonetisation.

“Who benefits if we all go cashless?”.

The key beneficiary of India going cashless will be whoever can make sense of the gazillions of exabytes of data that these transactions will generate, and that will enable the study of deviation from patterns to identify funds that may fail ATL/AML scrutiny. In an ideal scenario, the money that otherwise goes unnoticed while transacting in cash will be noticed and people in possession of it brought into the tax net, netting more money into the state’s coffers.

Money in all this is still the distraction. The real story is data.

As consumers, this real story should worry Indians because Indian citizens have no guaranteed right to privacy and India has no data protection laws to speak of. Despite a massive universal ID programme, named Aadhar, the government appears to have very little appetite for change in this regard. The Government of India’s open government data platform was launched in 2012 but is rightly criticised for incomplete thinking. A consultation on it  was opened to the public in July 2016.

My advice to my friend and to those watching the demonetisation story in India is quite simple:

If you want agency, watch the main game of data — and what unfettered, unregulated  access to data might enable — not the sideshow — of moves towards cashless society.

If this be the only lesson of 2016, so be it.

Here’s to not fearing the anomie of 2016 and to rebuilding in 2017!

*(Thanks are due to my friend, whom I do not name, for asking the vital question that sparked the conversation on November the 27th and 28th, 2016, and for permitting me to use her words in this post.)

Pay for a good startup lawyer

This article is the eighth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Dec the 23rd, 2016.

I am aware this is controversial advice.

Especially since the last column said: “You pay for some things, you do not pay for some things; you should take your time to understand which is which.”

Especially since we all know free legal templates are available online, or a friend can send you their stuff, and you can take them and tweak them, and you are done. This is where I mention that I have seen startups in India working with documents that state their jurisdiction as England and Wales. They certainly found a template for free! But is it serving them and their purposes?

The ability to make sense of legal documents is not for everybody. The inability to make sense of legal documents could however be quite expensive. The advice of a competent, experienced startup lawyer is something founders would do well to pay for.

Here is why.

A good lawyer will not just write you legalese and lots of documentation but she will build you the scaffold for a future of success and high growth. It is something to plan for now, because let’s face it, when you are blazingly successful, you won’t have time to come back and re-do the paperwork assembled from a random assortment of templates.

One of the first decisions in a startup is about location and structure. A competent lawyer, equipped with adequate tax advice if necessary, will help set up the most optimal structure for future growth and in a location that works for you. “But I am incorporating in India,” you may say. Fair point, but a good lawyer, who understands the competing jurisdictions you could incorporate in, such as Singapore, will explain the options to you, thus helping you think more broadly and globally about your business right from the start. Tax is not the only consideration, of course. A location can often beat your default location on the entrepreneurial ecosystem, the ease of finding and hiring talent including from other countries, and most crucially, the ease of doing business.

With cofounders on board, you will need a watertight shareholding rights agreement everyone agrees to sign. A shareholding rights agreement outlines founder shares of equity, but more importantly, outlines important issues that may come up including cofounders wanting to leave, resolving matters in a going concern, potential conflicts arising and so on. I have lost count of how many founder conflicts could have just been avoided or resolved more easily, had someone thought of writing a sensible shareholding rights agreement up front.

As you build the business, you will need to think about several other contracts e.g. with service providers and partners. Service providers may send you their own contracts on which it would be wise to get legal eyes so you know what you are signing up to and what recourse is available to you if things don’t pan out as expected. Next come employees and their employment contracts, which for startups may be different from those offered by BigCo employers. A major difference, for instance, may be the inclusion of stock options in the employment contract, as well as termination clauses and what happens to unvested or unexercised options in different scenarios. Especially if your startup is a success, this is an important matter to not deal with in an amateurish manner.

Whether your website is transactional or not, it is an essential for business and brings responsibility. A good startup lawyer will help write the right policies governing the use of your website for the visitors, and policies disclosing how you will treat data you may collect on their visit, their interaction and their transactions with your business.

These considerations are common across startups. Some specific startups may need specialist advice.

For instance, if you are creating a startup in a regulated industry, such as FinTech, in which none of the founders has adequate deep experience, the importance of a lawyer with industry specialisation cannot be overstated. A competent lawyer can advise you on compliance and regulatory challenges arising from, say, your business model.

In case, you are creating a social enterprise or a non-profit, correct legal advice would save you much heartache. Can you set up a trading arm? Who can and cannot donate to your organisation? What tax benefits are and are not allowable? How do you ensure adequate transparency, disclosure and compliance?

And of course, if you are creating a startup with a patented product, you will have already dealt with a lawyer specialising in intellectual property, and the advice here would dovetail with your experience.

Ignorance of the law, in no jurisdiction, is an admissible excuse for violations or non-compliance. Ignorance is definitely an expensive indulgence should anyone, from your cofounders to your customers, bring about a lawsuit against your startup.

Be smart.

Startup on a shoestring: a heuristic for thinking

This article is the seventh in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Dec the 1st, 2016.

A startup, while it works to make revenue with its product or service, incurs essential costs. A shoestring budget calls for resourcefulness and creativity in building the business.

An earlier column discussed building the MVP on a small to vanishing budget. The Tl; Dr for this column is as follows: You pay for some things, you do not pay for some things; you should take your time to understand which is which.

The advice applies whether you are bootstrapping or playing with someone else’s, i.e. an investor’s or a VC’s, money.

How to know which is which? There is a thumb rule for that too.

For all startup related decisions, ask yourself: “Is this expense helping me advance our startup’s objectives?”. If the answer is “yes” then go for it, provided the cash in your bank account allows for it. If the answer is “no”, just stop and reconsider.

If you fear this will take all the joy out of your life, there is a third possibility: re-purpose some of your treats and desirable experiences such that they serve both your startup and to enhance your personal joy. Founders, rightly or wrongly, are not often able to separate work and non-work in ways others can. The approaches that work often address this peculiarity of the founders’ existence. Some call it leveraging, I call it maximising several of your life’s purposes in one go.

But since life is less than black and white, this week we have some tips, gathered from the trenches, which will hopefully give you a spur to more creative ideas. Some of these tips may not be new to the more experienced founder.

First off, we cannot manage what we do not understand or measure. The very first thing to measure and track is your weekly spend. Tracking gives us data, and data can help us make smarter choices in many instances. I once asked a founder, with a professed love of a specific drink at Starbucks, to estimate how much money she spent on Starbucks annually. The number was eye-watering. She then chose a two-pronged strategy: she now makes her coffee at home using ground coffee and a cafetière, and she holds work meetings in Starbucks so she can occasionally treat herself, while writing off the expense as a legitimate business expense (check business expense rules in your country with your accountant before applying this blindly).

Second, get creative, and discover “free” or “freemium”. Identify the business costs that you can keep low. Do you really need that co-working office space, or can you work from your home or shed in early days? Communication costs can be reduced to quite low with generous free minutes on mobile plans but it may be wise to keep them for making those calls, where you cannot use Skype or WhatsApp-to-Whatsapp calling. Identity the business-critical stuff you cannot afford to lose and make backups. Some of the best established project management tools such as Asana and Basecamp get you started with a free account, sometimes with limited features and you can then upgrade to a paid plan for additional features and more projects. New tools come along with free offerings, but be alert to their data export policies in case they go bust and you need to move to a different platform. Did I say make backups?

Third, manage your costs of training, learning, and staying up to date with stuff essential to your business. Most publications these days tweet out their best pieces. The web gives access to a lot of materials on software skills to business news. This column series is a good example of such materials. Find libraries, ask friends to give you their subscription copies once they are done.

Fourth, in doing all this, do not be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Do not scrimp on coming across as a professional, whether it is how you dress when you meet a potential customer, advisor or financier, or whether you turn up on time. I can see some of you rolling your eyes at this. Perfectly fine, if you feel comfortable turning up to meetings with a customer, while not showered, wearing clothes that smell, and late! Remember in the early days, founders are always selling. Choose the impression you want people to take away.

Finally, get a grip on tax rules for business expenses. Ask your accountant. Write off every single legitimate expense. This should not be hard if you have paid attention to the point at the beginning. Getting a grip on what you are spending is essential to staying within a shoestring budget.

In the next column, I will address a question I hear very often, my advice on the issue, and the reasons for it.

Startup on a shoestring: building the MVP

This article is the sixth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on Nov the 15th, 2016.

“You may be a business man or some high-degree thief,
They may call you doctor or they may call you chief,
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.

Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan is not known as a business advisor but his words are worth pondering.

A startup may be your dream, your personal pain point, your vision but unless you find enough people to say “yes, we share this pain too” and “yes, we will pay for the pain to go away”, there will be no startup beyond your dream. This is where building the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) comes in.

An MVP, as founders will know, is a bare-bones prototype that can be used to test if the dream should remain a dream or if some elbow grease may help its realisation. Its value in getting early adopters in is significant.

Early adopters are different beasts, psychologically speaking, from later adopters. They get your drift, your vision; they will use a less than perfect product and give you feedback; and you will gain several things. You will gain some early champions, you will get to see how the product works in the hands of actual users not just the people who designed it and how it needs to change, and you will get a better idea of what you need by way of talent to drive the startup.

Open source tools and cloud services enable quick building up of MVP for web based services. But not all startups are building web services or apps. How does one build an MVP for a physical product? As the following examples show, the web can be immensely useful in these contexts too.

Svaha-USA makes STEAM-themed clothing for children. Some mums asked them for STEAM themed dresses. Before swinging into action based on some feedback. Svaha-USA chose to test the wider market by setting up a crownfunding campaign for their first such collection. Not only was the campaign oversubscribed, they built a new following and now STEAM themed dresses for mothers are an integral part of their offering.

The founders of Onnix Bags in London, aiming to offer customisable, handcrafted bags at affordable prices, started by building a community first. Practising artist Austin Kleon’s advice, Show Your Work, they shared their process of design and building supplier relations with the community. This community came through in a big way when they ran their crowdfunding campaign, and you guessed it! They benefited other founders in their community by sharing in great detail how they went about their campaign. Where markets are finicky and unforgiving, such as in fashion and personal goods, building an MVP could go hand-in-hand with early marketing and brand building as Onnix successfully did.

Similarly, Que Bottle, the Bay Area based makers of collapsible, food grade silicone bottle, tested the concept in a secret but global group of founders, before launching their crowdfunding campaign which was swiftly successful.

Of course, one could always develop and distribute a finite number of prototype product or devices and collect feedback but the upfront capital investment may be substantial. Founders with a track record and solid social capital, such as Jo Aggarwal and Ramakant Vempati, who founded Touchkin, a mobile predictive healthcare startup in India, may find the path to raising funding eased somewhat.

You may have noticed the emerging theme here. To ease the path to success, it helps if one is plugged into the entrepreneurship ecosystem, and both ask for help and share your learnings. While entrepreneurship ecosystems may differ slightly in their cultural origins, the core values of paying it forward and helping one another are notable in both the Silicon Valley and London ecosystems. As the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem matures, these values are already taking hold and helping strengthen the ecosystem.

Many founders see themselves as outliers or iconoclasts. But in reality, most of us are ordinary with extraordinary dreams. That iconoclast bit is true only for a minuscule number. And even those would benefit from knowing about, joining, and participating in the local founder ecosystem. Many ideas are tossed around in these communities, but only some make it to the MVP stage and even fewer become successful businesses. There is, of course, no better cure for founder loneliness, more on which later in this series, than to see a whole community, who understands you and empathises with your pain and helps you deal with it.

There are two angles to the startup on a shoestring budget. This column focused on building an MVP before going big, the existential aspect of building a startup on a shoestring budget. In a later column we will discuss how founders can keep costs low.

Brexit and the luxury brands of Britain

(A version of this article appeared in LiveMint on November the 17th, 2016.)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s visit to India and trade talks with her Indian counterpart take me back to the midsummer’s day in 2016. We in Britain woke up to find that the Leave campaign, colloquially called Brexit, had won the referendum. The pound plummeted and for a while, the stock markets were in chaos. Markets stabilised but the pound continued a downward trend, beating historic lows.

Britain luxury brands are known for their heritage, design, craftsmanship, and quirky individuality which together shape a luxury narrative matched by no other country’s. London too is a choice destination for the experience of buying both British and non-British luxury brands.

The weakened pound was good news for tourists visiting the UK. The month of Ramazan, which traditionally brings wealthy visitors from the Middle East to London, followed. Flight bookings from Europe as well as Asia reportedly rose after the referendum. Premium and luxury hotels benefited from a rise in reservations and stays by overseas guests too. All this made London the hottest and cheapest luxury shopping destination this summer. Much shopping took place as is evident from UBS’s analysis of tax refund receipts. Tax refunds, which are typically sought on big ticket goods, rose by 36% in August.

So far the Brexit vote looks good for luxury shoppers from outside the UK. The picture for luxury brands is more complicated.

The iconic British brand Burberry has seen a 30% rise in sales in its British stores in the last six months. Facing headwinds otherwise, Burberry has also cut prices in its Hong Kong stores, taking advantage of the weaker pound as the brand notably incurs 40% of its costs in Britain.

It is a mixed picture for luxury watches, which are often presented as investment pieces, hence seen as considered purchases not impulse buys affected by currency fluctuations. Many coveted luxury watch brands are imported into the UK and the weaker pound has made the imported goods more expensive. Prices for brands such as Cartier and Mont Blanc, owned by the Richemont Group, have been increased while Hublot, Omega and Tag Heuer, owned by LVMH and Swatch Group, are holding on. The latter category of brands is taking the impact on its margins. For now.

The British luxury watch maker Bremont however is quids-in despite 30% of its costs being imports of Swiss watch parts, which are now more expensive. A weaker pound has helped the firm deal with falling sales in Asia and come out stronger.

To complete the picture and London being a hub for creative entrepreneurs, I spoke with proprietors of several upcoming luxury brands. My conversations revealed a mixed picture. Many small luxury brands source parts, finished products or packaging abroad while serving mainly local British customers. After the referendum, the bill of materials is decidedly more expensive by 10-30% depending on where they import from. As small businesses and nascent brands, however, they cannot always pass on the costs as price increases to the customer. Some however are slowly edging up prices of some products while keeping other prices steady. Overall this does not bode well for smaller, upcoming British luxury brands. Tighter margins will hamper their growth, and in many cases, their ability to survive.

It is also important to remember that despite the outcome of the referendum, Britain is, at the time of writing, still operating in the single European market with free movement of people. This makes it easier for people from Euro countries to travel to and shop in the UK. Any change in the ease of travel will affect Europeans travelling to and shopping in the UK just based on a weaker pound.

Luxury marques already under pressure, such as British car maker Aston Martin, expect a short term lift from the weakened pound but that may only last till Britain quits the single market. The automotive supply chain is global, and that will continue to affect the brand’s margins and profitability especially if Britain loses single market privileges and is not able to strike similarly attractive deals with the many countries where Aston Martin sells.

Some luxury brands are already thinking long term. For instance, Bremont is collaborating with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield to reduce its reliance on imported parts. Aston Martin too has made recent investments in product development and a new plant in the UK although its reliance on imported parts will continue for a while. But absent any clarity on the nature of trade deals Britain may be able to make, the return on these investments remains uncertain.

The pound recorded a brief recovery on November the 3rd, 2016 after the High Court ruled that the government will need parliament’s approval to trigger Article 50 which is essential for the official start of negotiations with the European Union. The judgment has temporarily buoyed the Remain voters. The uncertainty is further compounded by the government choosing to appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

Luxury brands, like many others, will just have to sit tight and watch. After all, what is a couple of years in the grand schema of luxury brands that have lasted or intend to last for centuries?