September 23, 2006

House Shopping

Oh, I have a blog that I used to write frequently on? Good that you reminded me, because I'd almost forgotten that I had one or what it looked like. You can blame the sad state of affairs here on life getting incredibly busy of late, the rediscovery of Orkut by most people I know (and also by people I'd not known in a while) and not having much to complain about in general. It is hectic at the best and sedate at the worst, but in all honesty, it is quite good.

Now that most people that I know have stumbled down the aisle (it happens in some cases after they've reached a fair distance down that lane), the latest fascination in town is to now 'invest' in a shack of their own. It was not for me, but for someone else, that we went house-shopping last Sunday and it was quite an experience. Some of the places we had seen were like a sneeze away from the back of beyond, bordering bona fide villages (with authentic buffalos too thrown in for good measure) and even thick woods in some cases.

If you want to buy a two bedroom apartment (known as 2BHK in Delhi parlance) in South Delhi, chances are that you'd end up spending anywhere between Rs 16 lakh and Rs 50 lakh, depending on the locality. And yes, I am one of those much-derided South Delhi snobs, so sue me. But the sweetest one I had seen was in a place called Freedom Fighters Enclave - a three bedroom beauty that was way too well built to belong anywhere in the land of butter chicken and bhangra, where quality construction is as much an urban legend as good caramel custard is in Delhi.

Only problem was, as you could have guessed, the price. At over Rs 45 lakh the place was a steal, but it was considerably over budget for the couple who were looking at it from the point of view of a second house. For myself, I have decided to keep off any purchase options for at least another year, which should probably convince me that I am more or less settling down here. Right after which, as luck would deem it, would follow the unexpected uprooting of the self. You know, life's like that most times.

September 15, 2006

Updates

To think that at some point in life (not too long back, probably five years at the most) I used to write emails with "dat" and "coz" sprayed all over it strikes as nothing short of, well, extreme silliness for me. It is amusing at the best and embarrassing at the worst; the things we have done and the things we continue to do! Ah well, probably the only good thing about life in all of it is that it continues to be unpredictable. Wonder what else would I look back and laugh at some more years down the line? Not that there's been much time to sit and introspect, but that's another story altogether.

The past weeks have been very hectic, in fact dizzyingly so. It is not fun to serve the cricket crazy fans in the country on a high traffic website on a day when Murphy's Law works much better than any service that runs on your servers. That apart, I managed to go for a crazy gig last Sunday (grainy, awful videos here and here), bought two new books (Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and Gao Xingjian's Soul Mountain) and a bunch of new music (INXS, Billy Joel, Talvin Singh and Beautiful South). Ergo, I have been doing quite well other than for missing out on 'My-Time', which mostly denotes spending time by yourself precisely in the way you want to spend it.

Eco, as usual (okay, I never liked Baudolino much), is an absolute pleasure to read and you can always sell me any book which is about trying to figure out who you really are, so it is all the more sweeter when it is written by one of my favourite authors. I have sampled only a couple of pages of Soul Mountain since I am not too fond of reading more than one book, time constraints notwithstanding, at the same time, but the tiny nibble I got was stunningly delicious. Of the music acquisition, INXS, Billy Joel and Beautiful South are typical 'best of' compilations, while Talvin's HA is refreshingly different from his normal work and I've been listening to 'The Beat Goes On' almost non-stop ever since.

It is hard to believe that I've done over a year in the new job. The work is not exactly risk-free and doing well is rewarded with even higher targets to achieve, which I actually do enjoy. I think the dreams of doing something on my own is now firmly in the back burner and I do wonder if it will ever be back on top of the priority list. The idea right now is to work really hard for another four years and take a call whether I can slow things down or not. The four year plan depends a lot on optimising resources and generally living better, which I have been able to do little by little, but I still have a long way to go.

p.s: If you have not seen DailyLit by now and if you are one of us lazy readers, you really should. All they are missing is a PDF link.

September 06, 2006

Notch

Personal management is an art that is as highly specialised and complicated as personnel management. While the latter involves finding common grounds and meeting targets within a group of people, the former involves finding common grounds and meeting targets within your own group of necessities and limitations. A post today by Jace on 'Moving up in life' pretty much summed up the way I have been feeling for close to the past year now.

As you might have guessed by now, this post has nothing to with the personnel part of it. It just made for a nice compare and contrast situation and nothing more. And coming back to the topic, I can't agree more with the fact that finally, when it all becomes a bit easier and achievable, you can't help but wonder if it was you or the target that ended up being too ordinary, that now keeps you wondering constantly about the next impossible that you should chase after.

But it sure does feel to be taken seriously when you say something, mostly shorn of the 'too-young' cliche and to have things to worry beyond where and what to eat any given day and also not have to keep a constant eye on the expenses just because you splurged a bit on yourself on the odd day. Somewhere along the way you start to believe that you can actually get things done and that good things eventually do happen, even when you are going through a really bad patch.

September 04, 2006

Net Vibes

Help! Both The Hindustan Times (in the delicious Brunch) and The Times of India have declared that the Internet is the new happening social scene in India. While HT takes a look at it from the point of view that it has not done a great deal of good to the singles (welcome to my world, thank you) in the city, ToI does a 'what-the-hell-is-it-all-about?' story on the same, with a new mental health therapist (Samir Parekh is on vacation?) also thrown in for good measure. And to add to the mix, we have K's post on the struggle within traditional print houses on how to deal with the whole internet juggernaut, which I could not respond to because of a lack of time and the office firewall barfing on the infamous media blog he'd linked to from his pages.

Internet and social networking is hardly anything new in India. Just because Fropper spends a great deal of money on advertising, it does not mean that social networking, blogging and other 'community' oriented stuff has taken off in India. One of the best kept secrets of the online industry is that you don't necessarily diversify into other areas because there is essentially a market available for your wares, or even that you can do it better than anyone else out there. You often do it out a sheer lack of advertising inventory to pitch new clients with.

For most online properties, organic growth flattens out after a point (with the notable exceptions of Youtube and Myspace) and with that comes stagnation in your numbers related to your most visible property - the hallowed homepage. Almost every top website in India struggles with overbooked homepage advertising slots that are not available for any rates or for anyone for months to come. Thus you end up doing the predatory act, of moving into areas that really do not belong to your core set of competencies - like email, social networking - just for the sake of beefing up your stock of inventory. It often helps, when you get into such forays, if you are a Rediff or an Indiatimes, whose presence in the average Indian internet user's psyche is mind boggling.

Even with a 10% conversion ratio, for such major internet players, the numbers can turn out to be quite beneficial. Let us assume that of the half million unique visitors that an Indiatimes or a Rediff would get on a daily basis, the 10% conversion would translate into 50,000 users from the word go, which is an awesome number for any new service. In such set ups, they are not limited by infrastructure or development costs that constrain smaller start ups. And if you can convert even half of that 50,000 into regular users, you end up with 25,000 users who could comfortably be generating upwards of 8 to 10 page views per user. That's at least 200,000 page views worth of ads you can now now serve on a daily basis. Not bad, huh?

In all of this, the odd man out is Orkut, which is yet another of Google's much ignored services. For some weird reason India has fallen in love with Orkut all over again. The phenomenon is nothing short of an alternative lifestyle, where you have to be a wizard to follow conversation threads in forms of 'scraps' with everyone's replies stacked on different pages. And really, what is it with high traffic websites and awful user interfaces? Myspace, Hi5 and Orkut are nothing short of third degree torture to use. When did they change the rule book that you need to be completely unusable and slow like hell to be successful? And here we are breaking a sweat in trying to brand even our second newborns as a 'two point ohs' and pouring DHTML and Ajax goodness all over it.

Coming to K's post, what I can say for sure is that credibility is not a major factor anymore. One of the good and bad things about recent developments in media is that we are gradually throwing out the 'unbiased' label. Media was never unbiased. Hell, no human is. So how can something that is created by the same humans ever be unbiased? The difference between print and online right now is that they represent different activities. Online can't do a print. Most people don't log on to news websites to read stories in excess of 1000 words. They want it in a jiffy, scan and run back to whatever they were doing earlier. At the same time, print can't do an online. It can't really 'break' news anymore, that's a competency it has long forfeited to internet and television.

What has changed recently is reach. More people are on the internet these days, while you've probably reached everyone you'd want to reach with print as the medium. And even then our penetration is so pitifully low that the potential numbers are worth bucket loads of marketing and ad sales drool. Print also has a problem in terms of inflexibility with target demographics. I can advertise in a publication knowing the target audience, but my message would still be lost on a small percentage, who are the minority within the publication's readers, because they don't fit the profile I want to advertise to. The beauty of online ad delivery is that I can specify by region, by platform, by time and by frequency, who and where I deliver the ads to, even without forcing them to register on the website.

But none of this what is going to create the maximum amount of trouble for the traditional forms, print and television. What is giving them trouble are costs, of production and distribution. In print it is not good enough that you can create a lovely newspaper in QuarkXpress every night. You still need someone to dirty feet, hands and risk other parts of their anatomy in the awful world of print distribution. Costs of newsprint are awfully high and from what I remember it is a process that is still strictly regulated. Most of the publications can afford to sell their wares for an 'invitation price' because it is underwritten by the advertising, the rate for which is hiked every time the new circulation numbers come in, provided you've held your ground or even improved on it. Effectively, the reader gets an increasingly smaller piece of the pie because, well, he does not really figure in the picture.

Television pretty much follows a similar pattern, though production costs are considerably higher there (unless you are one of those fancy nuts in print who still own a printing press of their own), which shows up in exceptionally high advertising rates. Again, distribution is the nasty piece to bite on here. Ever wondered why some godforsaken channel that nobody wants to watch still shows up in your prime band? It is not because your cable guy has a soft spot for the channel, it is because he's been paid a nice sum of money to do it. That guarantees the channel a minimum degree of viewership, which in turn brings more than enough cheers to the ad sales teams.

That leaves us with the question that was asked, how do you monetize your internet audience? For starters, start up costs are minimal on this side of the town. A cheap dedicated server with truckloads of bandwidth will only set you back less than Rs 6000 these days. The average internet set up does not need more than a designer, a technology person and two for the editorial. Even with page views in the thousands in a day, an optimized website will generate enough cash by means of AdSense to cover the costs of at least half of the set up. That, of course, is doing things on the cheap.

When you have the moolah to throw around, you profile your audience like your life and your entire family tree's depended on it (a certain company based in Mountain View is very good at doing this, raking it billions every month) and keep your costs under control (not in the maha kanjoos way, but in terms of spending in places where you can actually recover your cost or acquire a new bunch of visitors). Marketing and advertising yourself does get you new visitors, but if you don't have a good product to flog, they'd never stick around. So, it is generally a good idea to be at least excellent at what you intend to in the first place. Rest is to incentivize every damn thing. How do you do that? Well, that's worth a lengthy post in itself.

But, to answer the core question, yes, people do make money publishing on the internet and some of them make a lot more than what you or I would give them credit for. The industry still suffers from the age-old ailments of inflated numbers and other artful misrepresentations, but the clients are wizening up and it is a practice that's very much on the decline. The numbers are still nowhere in the region of what print or television can boast of, but, like I said earlier, the production and marketing costs are lower in this side of town too, thus making my margins much more healthier. All you need is a bit of patience, a good product and oodles of respect for the user.

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September 02, 2006

Identity

The air too, like the skies, always turns a dull shade of grey when it is overcast and rainy here. Much before I finally started for home, sometime past eight in the evening, what was left of the late evening sunlight was already being given a tough time in finding its way to the ground by the millions of tiny, needlelike drops of rain.

It is a very strange kind of rain, for even when it rains hard, it is more like a shower of micro-sized pins, than the usual mid-sized splotch that we are normally used to. Surprisingly, it was all fine at the first flyover and quite okay at the second one; but it all came to naught after passing under the third one, when I was caught in another of those infamous traffic jams in the rain.

Logically, it has to be an unsavory situation. The windscreen fogs up, the lighting is always lax, traffic crawls along in four unruly lanes and you can hardly see anything, nor can anyone see you. But I adore such situations. I’ve always loved strange, dark places filled with strange dark people, where there are no set rules and everything from your ancestry to your professional status are of no import.

Chasing down such thoughts, I end up with the essential irritant of a question: who am I? I am afraid I don’t have any answers for that. I represent varied things like a decent professional, a wayward and quasi-estranged son, a good friend who is no longer that to so many and a former lover to some others. But, what do I mean for myself? I don’t even know.

I’ve always lived with ideas of what I should represent, but I’ve never known what I actually am. I could almost never identify with the way I look (helped in no smart part by the fact that I don’t look good from any angle), though I could not figure out which look I could have identified with. And I could never believe, even without any indoctrination, in things I was supposed to have believed in when I was growing up.

Flash-forward to now and having been in this city for seven years now, I can hardly identify myself with where I came from or with anything here. Apparently, my accent has gone a bit wonky in my mother tongue, I speak the language here with shades of my mother tongue and my English represents the places I’ve been, the things that I have read and the things that I’ve seen. In a sense, I can belong only to a feeling of being perpetually lost.

But when it all works out fine, there is this most amazing sense of calm and lucidity; for you are moored to nothing and there is nothing to fight against, because you are for and against everything at the same time, thus amounting to a sweet nothingness. When it does not work, well, it is a mess. You struggle to clasp on to foundations, even virtual or non-existent ones, while searching for even a single smell, a familiar feeling or verifiable memory to hold you together.

Meanwhile, the deadlock disintegrates, and after another traffic light, trees, vehicles and blurry lights fly past me. It is quite unsafe, for I can’t see half the things, including vehicles, potholes and people crossing the roads, out there. But I have grown to like uncertainty to the point of it even being quite a flirty relationship. We don’t quite ‘get’ each other, but we certainly do seem to thrive in each other’s company.