Aamir Khan and social change

Aamir Khan is an extremely successful Bollywood actor. He could have used his fame to continue to only become a better artiste and grow his wealth. However, for the past decade, he has deliberately pivoted his career to focus on using his power as an influential and his skills as a story-teller and showman to drive an organic change in how the common man in India thinks about problems faced by disadvantaged populations. This one-on-one chat at the “Women in the World” conference is one of my favorite pieces on how he thinks through and grapples with changing mindsets through his work. It’s powerful, moving, and brutally and simply honest.

My favorite Paul Graham piece

Paul Graham is probably the most prolific writer of technology entrepreneurship of our times. His widely read blog on startups and technology has some of the most fundamental lessons in starting new companies. I think a lot of what he writes applies to anyone starting anything new, for example someone starting a new movement.

While I have always loved his writing (and in-person advice), my favorite piece by PG is actually not an essay (or not originally intended to be so). It was his talk at the startup class at Stanford, run by Sam Altman. I have seen this so many times, and continue to enjoy watching it from time to time. It has a depth of truism that you seldom get to experience. Hope you enjoy it!

How I made a CRM in 3 hours

A couple of friends asked me “how?”, after I told them that I was not using a third-party CRM solution and had made my own (for my company) in a really short amount of time. This is my response to you 3 (in a stack-agnostic way) and anyone else who might find it useful.

A little context, first: I spent a few weeks (in my sales-allocated time) evaluating existing affordable CRM solutions for my lightweight single-salesman use. I actively signed-up and tried Hubspot CRM, PersistIQ, Close.io, and Mixmax. While all these products are really great, two things kept hitting the engineer in me:
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The Case for a Vegetarian’s delight

Why a liberal forward-thinking atheist vegetarian is happy about the beef ban in Maharashtra

Butter Chicken. In a cashew-based tomato gravy with rich spices like fenugreek and turmeric, paired with some piping hot naan. How can anyone resist this? At least I couldn’t. Every Friday, without fail, this is what I grew up eating in Oman. The rest of the days, there was all kinds of rich north-Indian vegetarian food – but then there was also a significant chunk of chicken burgers, chicken nuggets and chicken sausages. This was your typical less-conservative Hindu family’s extent of meat eating. But all of this was true for me until the age of 10. Something changed then.

For the majority of my early childhood, I suffered from a severe migraine; it was my biggest horror that my parents often shed tears for. For years, the finest doctors failed to prescribe medication that would give me temporarily relief, let alone cure it permanently. Finally, a popular malayali homeopathic doctor visiting Oman highlighted meat as a potential symptom. While I don’t think anyone in my family actually believed homeopathy to be a real form of medicine (we were wrong – thanks, Deepa Raman aunty), at least I found some internal comfort from this diagnosis, almost as if a latent desire were being aided. That’s strange – my close friend Neha still recalls and reiterates how fond I was of sausages growing up. Why, you wonder, a butter chicken loving 10-year-old would like to stop eating something he loved so much? Now this remains a mystery to me – but from my best recollection, my mind and beliefs were evolving quicker than my peers*. And by around this time, I was developing a deep sympathy for animals, holding a strong principled and polarized view of what on earth is created to be eaten and what is not, and enjoying my moral and health high-ground. And while my family continued to exercise their “natural” omnivore traits, supported by an independent medical diagnosis, I became a vegetarian. Specifically, an ovo-lacto vegetarian.

Cows, courtesy The Hindu

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If Facebook were a nonprofit…

Facebook is one of the few large technology companies who, as I believe, are for-profit social mission driven organizations. The organization’s repeated public claims to stay true to its mission to impact society at scale and forgive short-term financial wins from its very early days makes it a trendsetter in product and business model innovations on the web today, especially in the light of its $38+ stock price.

But more traditionally, (social) mission driven organizations have taken the non-profit path, and for good reason. Unfortunately, due to social and capitalism norms, mission driven organizations aren’t really poised to scale like Facebook has. This is why we cannot imagine a situation where Facebook would have been able to achieve the nature of impact it has under anything different from its current legal and equity structure. But just to put things in perspective, and a little bit of kicks, let’s go back memory lane when Mark, Dustin and the summer interns moved to the Bay Area and change only one thing about that situation: their legal structure. What if they were a nonprofit? Leave alone getting John Doerr behind them, they would have struggled to get a meeting with a foundation. And even after some struggle if they did get the meeting, and go through their “investment” process, here is what their email response from an ideal foundation may have looked like: Continue reading If Facebook were a nonprofit…

Unethical social design

I am “following” who? My “friend” uploaded a music collection? What on earth is going on?!

When I was taught social and online community design at grad school, we spoke about what users liked and felt comfortable with and what users did not like. You know: sign-ups, privacy, and feedback and incentives, etc. Probably the most uncomfortable topic was on intellectual property. But with the rise of social web start-ups fighting for a handful of seconds of user attention today, I believe that there is a need to develop and advocate the importance of ethics around social experiences. Why? Because I believe that companies like Quora and Spotify are engaging in what I call “unethical social design”, and this warrants a need for an intervention from wise people.

If you are signed up to Quora or Spotify, aren’t you sick of all those hundreds of notifications (in-app and email push) about how everyone you know in your real life is following you and how they are now a part of the network? Well, guess what, each of those friends of yours gets similar notifications when you move an inch. But wait – how did these services know who my friends were and decide to “follow” them without me actually choosing to? Oops – that damn Facebook connect button that was compulsory on sign-up!

You see, as web-based B2C entrepreneurs, we are being taught everyday how social networks are a great place to bring thousands of users into our apps easily, and leverage an amazingly powerful graph which we cannot possibly create organically. These have gone from being suggestions to becoming the new mandates and market development mantras. But unfortunately, this tip doesn’t come with a handbook of rules – and companies like Quora and Spotify are abusing the newly discovered power. They are the culprits of the powers granted to the creators of the social web.

It is okay to spam. Yes, it is. At least a little bit. Email is probably the most effective means to secure retention of your user base. But the point where this social design trick turns unethical is when the services starts making decisions about the users preferences without asking them. Sensibly, “follow”ing another user ought to be the result of an intent expression by a user. Building a social network in such an unethical manner is not just an act of timidness, it also means that the foundations of these networks are weak.

I am sure there is a setting where can users can change this default behaviour of following Facebook friends, after getting sick of this. But by hiding it from the user experience from sign-up through engagement, prior to the user realizing what is going on, is wrong. The reason I would demand for the introduction of ethics into social design is because not all users hate this – in fact, this could very well become their incentive to be engaged in the network, but as I misquote Steve Jobs, “users don’t know what they want”.


Ps. I am really fond of Quora’s vision and most of its functionality. I have even visited them in Mountain View, CA. And Spotify also does a tremendous job of figuring out a great pricing model around music content, along with nice user experience. And that is why I care to write about this in the first place.

Inkling’s Habitat: The biggest innovation in publishing since Aldus PageMaker

In 1985, Aldus Corporation gifted the world with PageMaker, a software which made publishing industry professionals feel more powerful than ever before. Before PCs became ever-so-common, PageMaker became the industry standard in publishing and carved out a new category of software, desktop publishing software, or in short, DTP. PageMaker was such an amazing invention, that some believe that it saved the Mac OS. It became the modern day letterpress. Since then, Adobe has made incremental improvements to this software year after year, and after moulding it into the newer InDesign, has brought the power of DTP to the masses. But I believe the next most extraordinary invention in publishing hasn’t come out of this PostScript giant, but from a small creative start-up in the Financial District of San Francisco called Inkling. And they call it: Habitat.


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Elitism of start-ups

Photo courtesy: LAUNCH on Flickr

Just a couple of weeks ago, I attended the LAUNCH conference (a conference for start-ups and investors) in San Francisco. As I was walking around the start-up demo tables, I started to realize the huge magnitude of what I think has plagued the tech start-up community today: ELITISM. To describe it in its simplest way, I define elitism in the context of start-ups as “ventures that aim to benefit a really small % of society”. I earlier believed that this was true only for the start-ups I was following closely and what I saw emerging from hackathons, but after looking at some of the best start-ups in not just the country but in the world line up to present their hardware and software that I struggled to consider meaningful, I knew my hypothesis was validated. This hypothesis has grown from a lurking concern in my mind to a mental block that I am struggling to come to terms with, and that is why I want to talk about it with you.

Why are most new companies, especially tech ventures, not trying to solve real human challenges? Let’s back up: why am I concerned about this, and what is it that I call meaningful that these start-ups are not doing? I believe that most of us have one common purpose of existence: to make the lives of other people better, in the pursuit of happiness. And that the more lives that we improve, the more we serve humanity and the more purposeful our existence becomes. And so, one of our core endeavours as we create start-ups and work nights and weekends to build products and services should be to improve the lives of more people and create more meaningful impact in human lives. If this theory is so reasonably sane and simple, then why are entrepreneurs all over the place solving small un-problems (eg. filters for pictures) and getting away with it successfully?

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