Till the morning of 3 Dec I was unaware of the exact extent of the Chennai floods. For those who have followed it closely would know that Chennai faced a bad bout of flooding just few days in the earlier week. Things were bad but the damage got magnified in the second round. But how would you know about this because the media coverage on the Chennai floods has been pitifully minimal.
Years earlier my friends and I would giggle when we would hear folks think of India as the land of snakes and tigers. They are geographically isolated and not interested or even aware about the world like us, we thought. Years later, the same thought hit me the hardest during the last few days. What do you say when people in the same country are not even aware of what is happening down south in the country. That an entire metropolis and surrounding districts are flooded as high as 5-8 feet in areas is of little concern or thought to most folks was inconceivable to me.
Rajdeep Sardesai explains that it is embarrassing but geographical distance and mindset is too blame. Imagine 18 people dying in a hospital ICU at Delhi because the power failed. Would that be news? Heck it would be front page news – top and centre. But that’s what happened in Chennai and more. Families got separated, were rescued after days and could not contact the real world for days. Maybe we should have reported that this happened due to intolerance or possible terrorist activity ; because that’s what gets eyeballs these days – the shootout at San Benardino or the stabbing at London. I am equally sad for all of these victims but wonder how we could ignore what was happening in our own country and spend hours on debating on other lesser urgent issues in the Parliament or spend time to make fun of a goof-up than try to help people in need.
From what I’ve learnt, people learn when shit hits the fan; their own fan to be specific. Till then , we will allow our mindset and geographical distance along with apathy to focus on what we think is fun and important. They say, that how you act in difficult situations defines your character and I am truly surprised and humbled at the hundreds who went out of their way to reach and rescue people, those who setup resources like ChennaiRains.Org, Volunteer Sheets and made sure that communication was never down irrespective of the power and network connectivity. They formed human chains to save people, made sure that relief reached the needy, the volunteer whom I didn’t know at all but took the trouble to check on my friend and family, the people who opened their doors to strangers to offer food and shelter, my colleagues who worked tirelessly to rescue people stranded in office and to continually check if the others were safe and more. While they do affirm our faith in humanity, the realization around this entire incident has been a bitter pill to swallow.
” Oh dear..do we need to order food from F for dinner again today ?” I raised an eyebrow at my partner while I tried to stuff our lunchboxes with appropriate portions and simultaneously tried to think if I could avoid ordering food again. Since I was unable to do so, I shot my loaded question “Why??”. “Well, you know… I think their standards have not been good lately and I am surprised that they fell so fast.” “Well, I am yet to see a startup which can scale well” I offered helpfully though it wasn’t really helping my point.
To be honest, when I think back , most of the startups I have encountered in the present and the past have not scaled well at all. Of course there are some that have bounced back as well like BigBasket. I can’t remember since when I started using BigBasket for grocery. It was like a dream come true. I hate doing grocery so when I discovered that there was a way of spending minimum time and effort on this activity, I embraced it whole-heartedly till the experience went from good to bad.
There were too many roadbumps in the journey with BigBasket. The crates and items were dirty, often covered with loose earth. I had to spend time in cleaning up each and every item. At least I didn’t have to do that for the nearby supermarket! I didn’t feel comfortable collecting stuff from some of the delivery guys who were too intrusive or tried to chat with me. Additionally, the delivery guys came according to the time that suited them. There were never late but they arrived well before my actual slot, which meant that if I had ordered frozen items especially proteins, the frozen items were making a longer journey. I called up, emailed , explained the delivery folks multiple times. No one cared till I got fed-up and stopped ordering. I figured out that there were other alternatives (read competitors) and I could always go back to the shops in my own complex.
My relation with BigBasket can be closely compared with the one I had with my cook. She would leave and ask to return or I would ask her to leave and then request her to return. This went on for few years till I fired her for good in the end. While I am not sure my relationship with BigBasket will end in the same way, I thought the getting a delivery slot after 4 days was the last straw! I called them up just to figure out what was happening and the lady said ” We can’t help it. There are just too many orders.” I wondered what was the justification of overloading oneself with orders if they could not retain their older and loyal customers . Obviously, I stopped ordering again.
However, a week back I did receive a generic email from the Chief Experience Officer who explained how he was suffering as a BigBasket customer himself and how they have made sure that the experience is better than before. Huh! I thought.. I’ve been through that cycle enough number of times to get disillusioned and start getting used to other “grocery startups” ( or whatever they call themselves) just like I started getting used to my new cook :). I still order from BigBasket but just once in a while; not as regularly as before.
Note: Today I used BigBasket and realized that Shahrukh Khan is a BigBasketer.Okay! Is that why I am unable to get a delivery slot only for tomorrow evening? Are you telling me BigBasket has money to afford celebrity advertisements, logo change but zilch for handling timely deliveries and slots?
Irrespective of my experience, it’s sad to see people who can actually start a business by providing value, mess themselves up by finding it difficult to scale. The apps for cab market was bit of a mess for sometime when users and myself would find it difficult to get a cab. I still do face these problems but then consolidation happened. Ola acquired TaxiForSure, Meru pulled their socks up and Uber, well is trying to make the best of its present circumstances of trying to make travel a safer and better experience. It’s not great but its better than some time before when you wondered who was actually able to order a cab!
The incessant problem in trying to expand very fast and the gaps in being able to scale the business efficiently ensure that experience is never the best. I spend double of what I would do in a cab ride during office hours. How long do you think I am going to use it regularly? Most of the expenses are rising and salaries are not increasing at the same rate. At some point, inflation will force me and a whole lot of other users to make cheaper decisions, which is a serious matter because very few startups can afford to continue to exist for long without a profit. Now, let’s not compare everyone to Amazon which has some other money making machines other than being a giant marketplace to keep it going longer than the others. Just like you need outrun your friend to escape the hungry tiger in hot pursuit of you both, Amazon probably needs to survive ( without a profit) just long enough than the others till it is the sole choice of the consumers for most buying decisions. Scary.
In earlier days and now, companies had to struggle against what their core business needed them to do versus what the shareholders wanted them to do. Today we see this game being played out way earlier thanks to the funds poured in by VCs into businesses that are best not defined as startups. However as pointed out by my colleague, few people like Jyothi Ganapathi (of Dosa Inc) are able to make that differentiation and resist the temptation to grow their businesses very fast . For the remaining folks, trying to run businesses that introduce a different and perhaps lengthier interface ( getting connected via phone instantly to place an order vs search+ several clicks and swipes and typing in) still remains the final choice. Hopefully they are able to avoid the unnecessary hoopla and focus on what actually matters – the business and the users.
This blog is/was about my tryst with modular kitchens. But the tryst now seems to extend to other furniture required for the new house. Since the only essential furniture missing from our collection is a wardrobe, we have been trying to look at options. As usual, I am not fond of most of what I see around. The ones that catch my fancy are going to eat into the budget for other items. Also there is the dilemma of “to hire an interior designer or not”. Since I am aware that few areas of the house will have complicated carpentry and decor, I am in favour of hiring a designer who can deal with the carpenters and anybody else. However, many interior designers prefer a full turnkey project as opposed to working on few specific areas. So the conflicts continue and dear partner thinks the easy way out, is to invest in nothing at all till we are decided and have greater liquidity. I haven’t disagreed but that hasn’t stopped me from doing my homework or getting aggressive with my short-term investments.
Nevertheless, quite some time back, I came across a ‘startup’ for renting out furniture, Furlenco, when it was possibly still named as RentUrDuniya . These days, the term startup seems to be used very freely and I am not too keen when people use this term to define new companies that provide existing solutions with a user interface. However, the world doesn’t care for my opinions or for Neil Blumenthal’s opinion ( co-CEO and co-founder of Warby Parker) . Neither do venture capitalists and their assorted ilk whopour in truckloads of money to hedge their investments and make sure that they do not miss out on the next big thing.
Irrespective of definitions and reasons behind funding, what actually matters in the real world is whether something is useful and I think Furlenco is. It helps to solve a common problem in cities like Bangalore which is home to increasing number of students, professionals and expats. If they do things correctly and deliver great customer experience from start to end in terms of product and service they should turn out to be very successful. Right now Furlenco offers limited furniture in Living, Dining, Bedrooms and I am hoping they increase the categories and specifics ( remember I needed a wardrobe). I thought I read about an experience centre or something like that but I can’t seem to find that info again. However, the pricing is worth testing it out and if the furniture turns out 90% like what it appears on the website then, my not so low expectations will be met.
The catty comment on the gap between seeing the furniture on websites vs seeing the furniture in real life is from my own experience. After furniture buying moved online, lazy souls like myself heaved a sigh of relief. Nice furniture at okayish prices, in fact some seemed to be a steal at the prices they were advertised. So I spent time gazing on UrbanLadder, Pepperfry and FabFurnish. Recently I managed to visit a small retail store of FabFurnish and realized with deep sadness in my heart, that a lot of the furniture on display aren’t as nice as they appear on the websites. A lot, not all. While I am yet to walk into the physical store of Urban Ladder I have passed by it plenty of times and can make out that this ‘gap’ is very low and could be nil too. Any bias towards UrbanLadder is due to their well-designed website which has limited number of options ( choice overwhelms and confuses users ) and also because I feel they have taken the time to scale up well too.
Anyhow, I am digressing. Coming back to rentals, Furlenco isn’t the first company to offer rentals. There are plenty of shops in Frazer Town, Shivajinagar where you can do the same. If you prefer shopping online, then some companies like Home Essentials, RentalWala ( not only furniture), Rentongo, RFC Rentals, Rentech Designs also provide an interface for customers. I am yet to come across modular kitchens that are rented out though I don’t see why some enterprising team/company can’t make it work; especially since modular kitchens on display can be bought off ( and at discount ) if they match your general layout or if you can make it work.
If you have used any furniture rental company, it would be helpful to know about your experience.
My recent visit to Higginbothams yielded new treasures and “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith is one of them. By now everyone is probably aware that Robert Galbraith is a pseudonym for J.K.Rowling, the famed author of the Harry Potter series. I now realize why Rowling used a pseudonym. Despite knowing that this is a different book in a different genre, I just could not shake off the bias of reading a book by J.K.Rowling in my head. At the end of the book, I realized that I liked the book but did not love it. But then I never loved the Harry Potter series either. However, I was hooked to both of them because Rowling has an amazing grip on her reader in terms of the story she writes and the plot she creates. Unlike other people who weren’t happy because they were looking for the familiar writing of Harry Potter, I found some similar traits in Rowling’s writing of the two different series. The huge plot with multiple sub-plots, personal stories of many characters are common across both Harry Potter and the Cormoran Strike series. And they are equally slow stories with the reader feeling that the story is going in no direction till it abruptly reaches its logical end. The Silkworm is a comparatively slow thriller, the slowest I have come across till date. The story plods its way into numerous lanes and by-lanes of characters, suspects, their stories, their plots till you begin to feel as if you are in a car that has lost its way in the woods. However, in the journey through the woods you get to know each tree and its bearings well enough to enjoy the ride to your destination. And that’s the beautiful thing about The Silkworm or ‘Bombyx Mori’, the Latin name for the former and an unfinished manuscript. It manages to hook you into its story of a private detective , Cormoran Strike trying to find a missing and obnoxious literary author of ‘Bombyx Mori’ named Owen Quine. Strike realizes after making some initial queries, that Quine’s disappearance is not so simple at all. Complicated by the fact that Quine was going to publish his latest book in which he treated members of the literary fraternity sacrilegiously, and that he was an unfaithful husband and a bad father, every person close to Quine automatically seems to have a motive to harm him. And truly enough, Quine’s dead body shows up finally, after 158 pages of introducing majority of the characters and giving us a glimpse into the lives of these people.
In the process of solving the crime, we get to know more about Strike and how his past as an illegitimate son of a rock-star who has made his own life and is ex-Army shapes him as a person. He is aided by an able assistant Robin who wishes to become an investigator herself. There is an almost unseen and smouldering triangle between Strike, Robin and her fiance Mathew with Robin being forced to put up a brave face and pacify her fiance. The focus and development of each of the characters is probably the beauty of Rowling’s writings but to go to the extent and make Strike’s leg or lost leg a character can be really annoying. The leg has equal attention and mention as Strike in the story. The story has a lot of dialogue and sometimes it feels like it was written for converting to a film later. The characters are very human and sometimes annoying. Like most thrillers, Strike is the sole hero ; he is always right ( almost) and he seems to have the last word on suspects and theories. Towards the end, a lot of the investigation leading to collecting evidence doesn’t get detailed out so that the reader can hold their breath till the very end to know who the murderer is. Very smart but I still prefer Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries from start to end in terms of writing and the peeks into the solving of the mystery.
Over the last 2 years I have been slowly and patiently researching different stuff on house interiors ( including modular kitchens , based on the assumption that I might spend greater time cooking in a well designed kitchen :D) because we were planning to buy an apartment. A lot of that research did pay off and I would have to thank Houzz.com mostly for increasing my knowledge and time spent on the tablet :).
Apart from gushing over the wonderful high- resolution photos and helpful guides, I also realized that for some reason, the website and company has managed to create a wonderful community of users ,besides acting as a design guide, place for inspiration and advice and (very recently) go to place for shopping products in the US and Canada. I am yet to figure out if there is some
behavioral design that has been used, but for some reason my gut says that the high resolution ( and obviously beautiful) photographs meticulously categorized, labeled and attributed to, along with the calming green theme does help in a lot of ways. I do think there is a bit of clutter and using Laws of Subtraction might help quite a bit, but the slight feature overload won’t deter the huge and loyal user base.
While Houzz did help to make me aware of some basics and what kind of interiors I may be drawn to, I also realized that I would need some amount of expert help to get the look and feel that I was gunning from. Using the “Find a Pro” section to find interior designers, contractors based out of my city in India was not very helpful a year back either. Of course now things have changed and you can find countless professionals listed and some of them have thankfully taken the effort to upload pictures of their projects.
Till the time that there was some content on India, I started doing some research. I realized that for most people around me, word of mouth reviews helped in choosing the interior designer. In fact most of the time, I would come across people, friends and colleagues who had used carpenters and managed to decorate their flats very well. This model works wonderfully in the big apartment complexes that have turned up in the metropolitan cities of India. It is easy to choose a carpenter by just asking the apartment security or asking your neighbours around. The head carpenter has a team under him, is usually experienced and can suggest decent to good designs. He expands his team based on demand and manages to get work done in multiple flats based on a cross-recommendation system. Of course, in most of the cases the flat owners also go through a lot of heart burn, anxiety because the carpenters never deliver on time and some times don’t match up to expectations or create issues with service and compensation. In fact, if a carpenter and his team was excellent for a single owner, chances are that he wouldn’t be able to provide the same service or product quality to another simply because he might take up more assignments than he can scale up to.
Unfortunately the recourse of using an interior designer, contractor and other
professionals might end up exactly the same way if their teams are full of part-time contractors. Most of this industry is unorganized and hence at some level, you end up depending more than you would like to. Very obviously, I was trying to look at reduce the dependence to a great extent. One simple way would have been to use the option of going with our builder’s choices for part of the furniture and the modular kitchen. They had chosen good brands and I liked some of them. But with a mixture of budget issues and timing, I decided to tackle things on my own. In hindsight, I could have gone with the builder options but of course there is some amount of excitement ( and sense of ownership) in getting involved in your house design.
During all of this, I also managed to come across some new startups which had started selling furniture online and seemed like a Godsend. Soon I started looking up UrbanLadder, FabFurnish, Pepperfry and few others with gusto. A recent visit to the retail store of FabFurnish cooled down a lot of the enthusiasm when I realized that some of the furniture looked and felt a lot of different in real life. But honestly, you can at least save time and buy a lot of other useful materials that you would have had otherwise spent in driving , searching for the exact shops and buying.
Obviously, during this entire period I was also furiously hunting for interior designers I could hire and came across countless names. If it was within my budget then rest assured I didn’t like their projects. And if I did, usually their budgets would be way off what we had mind. Thankfully or not, filtering the list of designer was easy because I found very few designers that I liked. And the reasons are pretty simple.
Industry being unorganized there is no basic database or site that you can search such professionals
Interior decor magazines like Elle Decor, Design Source etc spend pages
and beautiful spreads on celebrity designers who are out of our reach
Some designers are listed but scattered across different websites, blog posts and magazine articles
Some startups have come up to help you design your home interiors but they may not list designers with years ( read decades ) of experience
Experienced designers have their own list of clients, accolades, relationships and hence are usually not discoverable easily unless you have met their clients or move in similar circles
It is easier to decide which firms and contractors not to use by using Mouthshut.com
I like designs which lean heavily to those from Northern Europe which is not a common deliverable for designers in my budget
I believe I am just part of a greater population with similar needs and pain areas. However the current solutions might end up forcing me to use traditional modes of word of mouth recommendation ( which may or may not be available online) to choose experts who can help me design my dream home.
Long story short, there is a lot of opportunities in this industry and connected domains which is obviously being lapped up by new firms and VCs. While there are lot of firms which bank heavily on the products or a mixture of product and service, there are still very few in this space, which are tech oriented like a Housing.com or say an Indian version of Magic Plan ( from Sensopia). Also, in the interiors space, final quality of delivery in terms of both product, services and experience will count heavily in determining growth and future services. Unless the companies take this into account and deliver, they will fall below in the recommendation chain.
I am never able to determine which is my favourite book by Daphne Du Maurier ; the famous Rebecca or the not so famous The House on The Strand. Incidentally , My Cousin Rachel scores very high in my list of favourites too. However The House on The Strandhas a special place in my heart, possibly because like its protagonist, I would love to disappear into another world whenever I wished, my physical surroundings notwithstanding. In my opinion, the best review and insight of the book is actually provided by Celia Brayfield’s introduction. So if you are reading the book for the very first time, you should start off with the story and return to the introduction at the very end. Celiaprovides a wonderful understanding of the characters, the context in which Du Maurier had shaped the events, characters and the story. And of course it’s fun to compare notes at the end.
The story starts off with a description of Tywardreath in the fourteenth century which looks similar to the current day country land around Kilmarth to protagonist Dick Young. The conflicts start off early in the book. Sometimes it is the shape of the land and what existed on it or didn’t and some times it is about Dick’s internal struggles to come to terms with his professional failure and the fact that he might have to accept wife’s help and offer to work in America. Hence it is not surprising that Dick gladly accepts his old friend and successful research scientist Magnus Lane’s offer to test out couple of experimental drugs. Very similar to medieval dream poetry where there is a guide for the central character, Dick ends up with one named Roger Kylmerth. He is a horseman with considerable authority, to Sir Henry Champernoune and his evil wife Joanna. Every time Dick experiments with a recommended drug from Magnus, he ends waking up in Roger’s vicinity. And he sees the medieval world of Tywardreath through Roger’s eyes albeit a guide’s eyes. While Dick is glad to lose himself in the world of nobility, politics of the fourteenth century, he gets too involved and addicted to the goings on due to his softness for a certain Lady Isolda Carminowe or ” a lass unparalleled, who alas would never look at me “. In his waking hours, Dick is enthused into researching the village, finding old buildings that survived from the fourteenth century and looking up old records of landowners. He finds historical records and hence proof of existence of the Priory and people that he had seen during his visions. His visionary world seems more real, and his addiction is fuelled by Magnus’s own interests albeit selfish ones. Magnus has an unwavering hold over Dick and the latter’s attraction is mixed with confused adoration and willingness to be “suggestible” as Magnus describes him. Unfortunately for Dick, the events going on in his own life like the arrival of his wife and kids for spending the summer seem rather dreary to him. So much so that when “the telephone began to ring, sounding , in its insistency, like a summons from a lost, unwanted world ” Dick lets it ring. Bad decisions continue and Dick tries to make excuses, cook up stories to keep his family at bay with disastrous consequences.
With numerous experiments, the physical toll of the drugs and the two worlds start taking a toll on Dick. He starts confusing between the two worlds and things go behind control when Dick is unable to give an explanation for his presence or absence as well as his unpredictable behaviour. Unfortunately for Dick, things are not hunky dory in his other world too. Lady Isolda’s jealous husband murders her lover Sir Otto Bodrugan and Magnus decides that things in fourteenth century are too interesting to let Dick take the trip alone. He plans for a visit to Kilmarth but mysteriously dies in an incident implicating Dick as a consequence. After a lot of trouble, investigations , the appearance of an astute Dr. Powell and an inherited house, Dick is finally at peace and free of the need of visiting the medieval word of the fourteenth century in his visions, but only because his guide, Roger Kylmerth has died . Of course whether Dick would physically be free of the effects of his numerous visits to Tywardreath is something that future can tell.
My first introduction to Khushwant Singh was when I came across few of his joke books. Reading those ribald jokes at a young age made me feel squirmish and I assumed his writing would be similar. Naturally I didn’t read any of his books till a very long age. I also started reading books by Indian authors during my final year of college. However I didn’t come across Khushwant Singh’s books and neither did I search for them. Few years later, I chanced upon “Death at my Doorstep”. The first story blew me away. It was his obituary. The way he had written his obituary made an impact on me rather than the fact that he had actually written his own obituary. That someone could be so critical and laugh at himself in writing was new to me. I naturally read the whole of the book and finally got hooked into his writing. I also couldn’t believe that I had been silly enough to assume that the man who could compose those jokes could actually write well. Well silly and ignorant. Despite work increasing by the day, I do take out time to read but I feel sad that I cannot read as much as I would have loved to. Khushwant Singh’s death on March 20 brought back those memories of how I loved reading his books ( I have actually read very few ) and I decided to indulge in my favorite past-time again. I’ve always preferred his writings about real people and situations than fiction. “Not a nice man to know” wasn’t any different. The book starts of with an introduction by Nandini Mehta and a foreword by Vikram Seth; both of which give an insight to the man Khushwant Singh actually was. My favorite part of the book was the section on “Profiles” where there are an assortment of famous people from Arts, Social Work, Politics. I wonder if this actually proves that deep at heart Khushwant Singh was more a journalist than an author. Despite being a self-proclaimed agnostic, his profile of Mother Teresa would make you want to believe in miracles and think that he believed in them too. While profiles of Shraddha Mata , who was famed to be close to Nehru, Amrita Shergill are interesting, my love is reserved for the political profiles and stories. Be it “My Days with Krishna Menon” where you get an insight into Indian politics abroad or the story of “The Hanging of Bhutto” which makes you feel that you were in Pakistan when it happened. While I had read similar profiles in “Death at my Doorstep”, the columns were new for me. Giving a glimpse into his life, Khushwant Singh also teaches readers about few basics. How to avoid great talkers, how to be happy and the best “Prepare for Death while Alive“. I must admit that I did take some pointers while reading and hope to implement them. It is funny to think that as a child, I have often thought of why I was born as an Indian. And in “Why I am an Indian“, Singh explains that very simply by saying “I did not have any choice: I was born one. If the good Lord had consulted me on the subject, I might have chosen a country more affluent, less crowded, less censorious in matters of food and drink, unconcerned with personal equations and free of religious bigotry.” The book also contains translations of his poems “Shikwa”, “Bara Mah” ( believed to be Guru Nanak’s last composition). Since I have never been inclined towards poetry I can hardly comment but they would be a delight to anyone interested. There are few jokes which are not the short bawdy ones I encountered as a child but fun to read anyway. Some of his short stories like “A Bride for the Sahib”, “The Death of Shaikh Burnahuddin“, “Train to Pakistan” stay with you a long time after you have read them and this is the sole reason why I can never get over the debate in my head about whether Khushwant Singh is a better writer or a journalist.