Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Ten interesting things we read this week

Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Know your competition; World's toughest business school), Productivity (Interview with Marc Andreessen), Philanthropy (Surviving disaster gave this founder a new lease on life), Sports (Rahul Tewatia and the romance of the struggle) and Science (What research in Antarctica tells us about isolation)

Published: Oct 3, 2020 08:15:26 AM IST
Updated: Oct 2, 2020 01:30:20 PM IST

Ten interesting things we read this weekImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, ranging from zeitgeist to futuristic, and encapsulate them in our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most fascinating topics covered this week are: Business (Know your competition; World’s toughest business school), Productivity (Interview with Marc Andreessen), Philanthropy (Surviving disaster gave this founder a new lease on life), Sports (Rahul Tewatia and the romance of the struggle) and Science (What research in Antarctica tells us about isolation).

Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended October 02, 2020-

1) Know Your Competition [Source: The Irrelevant Investor]
Stock price keeps changing every day. But does this change the tricks of the trade? What’s that one most important metric to evaluate a potential equity investment? All would have said earnings. Attractiveness of an investment is simply a function of what you’re paying for earnings. The game has changed. Free-cash flow has become an increasingly important metric in the investor’s tool box.

Not only are earnings not as important as they used to be, but they don’t even appear the same way they used to on financial statements. This concept is covered in depth by Michael Mauboussin and Dan Callahan in a new paper called One Job: Expectations and the Role of Intangible Investments. In it they write: It used to be that earnings were on the income statement and investments were recorded mostly on the balance sheet. The rise of intangible investments means that the bottom line is now a mix of earnings and investment.

It’s not just the income statement and balance sheet that have been altered by the rise of intangible investments, the cash flow statement also needs to be reexamined. When you’re buying and selling stock, you’re competing against people that are doing this sort of work. It’s important to respect the fact that you’re probably transacting with people who have a much greater understanding than you do. Whether or not their understanding actually matters, well that’s a whole other topic altogether. 

2) The world’s toughest business school [Source: The Economist]
Karasira Mboniga’s life changed for ever when he started his own business in 2008, selling food and performing money transfers. That business came under threat when the pandemic hit earlier this year. But Mr. Mboniga was one of many refugees to be helped by the African Entrepreneur Collective (AEC), a charity which started to disburse grants from a special covid-19 relief fund in June. AEC, which started in Rwanda in 2012, has had a focus on job creation from the start. Eventually it realised that helping refugees would serve that aim, as jobs would also be created in the host community. Until the pandemic, it focused on making loans, rather than grants, to small businesses. Its new covid-19 fund was established with help from the MasterCard Foundation, the payment processor’s charitable arm. It has already helped almost 4,000 entrepreneurs; 91% of the businesses that were closed have since reopened.

Sara Leedom of the AEC says the charity has put few restrictions on how the refugees can spend the money. Some have used it to settle debts; some to pay their employees; some to restock the business; some on covid-related issues, such as sanitation; and some have invested in new technology. Many operate small shops, kiosks or cafés; several work in agriculture; and a few in tourism and hospitality. “We were blown away with what was possible,” she says.

The challenges of operating a business in the middle of a refugee camp are enormous, to put it mildly. Almost everyone there relies on aid. Access to traditional sources of finance, like banks, is extremely limited and expensive. Many goods need to be brought in from outside but the Kiziba camp has only a dangerous road linking it with the nearest town. Creating a business gives refugee entrepreneurs two things: a degree of control over their own lives and hope for the future. For those who have languished in such places for years or decades both are invaluable. AEC’s entrepreneurial wards may never become the next Apple or Facebook. But turnover is not the only measure of business achievement. Small can be beautiful.

3) Small firms catch the deadly IOU virus [Source: Livemint]
The outbreak of coronavirus has affected the smaller firms the most. Dhruvam Thaker, founder of car rental company The Smart Taxi, aggressively pursued two customers that delayed payments. They ran up combined invoices of ₹2 lakh. Nonetheless, there was no word on clearing the dues even after four months. After following it up with the respective companies’ CEOs, the bill was cleared. Mr. Thaker is both bold and lucky. Not every entrepreneur can stand up to larger buyers; few small companies have been able to recover stranded payments in a post-covid world. In many ways, they are living their worst nightmare. Bigger customers are holding onto their cash reserves and delays in payments go much beyond the gentleman’s agreement of clearing dues in 45 days.

The list of entities delaying payments include private corporates, ranging from large textile firms and retailers to truck makers and telecom companies. Then, there are public sector units, central and state government departments as well as municipal bodies. About 13,565 cases are currently under consideration at the Micro and Small Enterprises Facilitation Council (MSEFC), sometimes referred to as the ‘MSME Court’ since it settles disputes over delayed payments. So, how can this problem be resolved? Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) has requested its members to adhere to payment timelines, too. “We said that the small and the medium companies should be immediately paid. We have a very strong follow-up mechanism. Every national council meeting we have had so far, this has been a topic of discussion," Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of CII, said.

Nitin Gadkari, the minister of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises provided an update on the dues payable to MSMEs by the union government and central public sector undertakings (CPSE). Between May and August 2020, the dues totalled ₹12,555 crore; about ₹9,545 crore has thus far been released to clear the pending dues, the minister informed Parliament on 17 September. Apart from requesting private sector corporates to pay up, what can the government do? A top chartered accountant said on condition of anonymity that there is some brainstorming in government circles about a technology platform similar to the National e-Governance Services Limited (NeSL). “In all company accounts, any amount outstanding has to be reported. Delays attract an interest. This information today is in disarray and no authority looks at it," the CA said. “A platform similar to NeSL can capture all the information on payments outstanding. The authorities can then move against companies delaying payments," he added.

4) Marc Andreessen on productivity, scheduling, reading habits, work, and more [Source:]
In this interview, Marc Andreesen, an American entrepreneur, investor, and software engineer, talks about how he plans and manages his day, reading habits, and much more. Talking on his guide to productivity, Marc Andreesen says that he has become a more structured person now. The typical day for him right now is quite literally following the calendar very closely. He is trying to have as “programmed” a day as he possibly can. He also talks about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s open calendar and the upside of having unstructured time in your day and the flexibility you get with that.

On how does he manages to read so much, Mr. Andreesen says, “I’ve really read all the time since I was a little kid, it’s been a lifelong thing. It’s basically trying to try to fill in all the puzzle pieces for the big discrepancies. A great term is “sense-making”. Essentially, what the hell is happening and why? The world’s an incredibly complex and erratic place and trying to figure that out is kind of a lifetime occupation. The thing I’ve tried to do the last few years is really “barbell” the inputs. I basically read things that are either up to this minute or things that are timeless”. He also says how he struggles with finishing every book that he picks up. “I have a whole bunch of books that I haven’t finished which I really should just toss,” he says.

On how and what he does on improving himself, he says, “What you’re always struggling with is to understand what’s actually happening. Like, what’s actually happening on the ground. An obvious example is if you ask an entrepreneur how the company is, they’re always going to say “great”. And that’s probably not right. You’re probably dealing with a hurricane because that’s generally the job. So, what’s actually happening inside a company? What are customers actually buying? What’s actually being adopted? What’s actually happening with the technology? What’s happening with the competition?”

5) Pandemic Be Damned: Business owners are still opening stores [Source:]
Most of the businesses struggled due to the coronavirus pandemic, especially the brick-and-mortar businesses. And in such a situation, expanding is not a clever decision for such small businesses. "You're not 100 percent sure [growing] is the right thing," says Erik Allen Ford of Buck Mason, the Los Angeles-based menswear brand he co-founded with Sasha Koehn in 2013. Nevertheless, the company launched its 11th retail location in Austin in August. "You have to weigh the odds, and you have to figure out what the risk tolerance is."

Buck Mason is not the only one to expand. When Amy Errett sought to expand the footprint of hair-color stalwart Madison Reed amid the pandemic, the entrepreneur said she was able to negotiate discounts of 30-35% of what landlords had been asking. "We had a number of leases that had not been signed yet but had had the terms negotiated, and we've been able to add some favorable terms to those deals. We would not go back to an existing space and say to them: 'We're going to pay you less just because of the market,'" she says. "We are negotiating." After starting the pandemic with 12 color bars, the company now boasts 22, the newest among them located in greater Atlanta, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and the Washington, D.C., area.

In the second quarter of 2020, the total amount of newly vacated U.S. retail space exceeded the amount that became newly occupied by 14.6 million square feet, according to an analysis by commercial real estate firm CBRE. That marked the first time the gauge turned negative since the first quarter of 2011. And while the overall retail availability rate nudged up by 3 basis points to 6.4% in the second quarter from the first quarter of 2020, the neighborhood, community, and strip-center segment posted the largest availability rate increase at 40 basis points, quarter over quarter. So, for many, this is the best time to buy property for your business!

6) Surviving disaster gave this founder a new lease on life. He's making the most of it by giving back [Source:]
Surviving the devastating Haiti earthquake in 2010 put things in perspective for Dieuveny "DJ" Jean Louis. A live music event planner at the time, Louis had returned to his native Haiti from Miami to plan a benefit concert. He checked into the Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince, dropped off his bags, and ventured out to grab some lunch. When the earthquake hit, the hotel collapsed, killing more than 50 people. "I look at my life as a blessing," Louis says. "I'm here today because I was given a second chance."

Today, Louis is founder and CEO of Toast Distillers, which he launched in 2015. Toast's core products are premium and well liquors, but that's just one aspect of the business. The Miami-based company's philanthropic arm, Toast First Response, donates supplies to the frontlines in the wake of natural disasters. When the Covid-19 pandemic reached the U.S. in March, Toast quickly pivoted to begin producing hand sanitizers, shipping its first pallets by March 25. After receiving a flurry of inbound interest, the company put the sanitizer operation into high gear. It sold to retailers and to the states of Florida and South Carolina and donated to the Army, Navy, University of Miami, and Boys & Girls Clubs in Miami-Dade County. In all, the company has produced and shipped more than 500,000 gallons of sanitizer, about 50,000 gallons of which was donated.

When Covid hit earlier this year and hand sanitizer began disappearing from shelves across the country, Louis knew that being an alcohol manufacturer with its own facilities put his company in a position to help. His company quickly began manufacturing sanitizing gels, sprays, and lotions under the name EZ Hand Sanitizer, which it continues to make today. "Everybody in our organization understands the roots of this company," Louis says. "So whenever we call on everyone, they jump on board to help with the social good side. It's part of our DNA. If we can donate and give back, we don't even think twice about it, we go all out. And when we're needed on the frontlines, that's what we do. We show up."

7) How mismanaging marketing causes many startups to fail (and how to manage marketing better) [Source: Forbes]
In this interview, Matt Hirst, Partner at West, a venture studio that specializes in designing, building, and launching brands, highlights how start-ups undervalue marketing. On why so many startups mismanage marketing, Mr. Hirst says, “So much of this is a misunderstanding of what marketing is and can do. First, companies need to focus on their product’s truth and the outcome it provides or the need it serves. At West, we have this saying around ‘Build for Impact’. The impact you have or the purpose you serve is the core tenant of your brand. Marketing is a key driver in crystalizing that message and disseminating it out into the world. 

"When a product is made, he says that the marketing team needs to ask a few questions. “What was the insight that drove (you to create) the product?”, “Who is the audience?”, “Why should they care?” The issue, of course, is that all of these questions need to be asked much further upstream. The marketer’s role is to help extol the value of consumer insight, helping product teams see around corners and build products that address truly unmet needs. Teams love to build, iterate, and push their updates out into the wild, none of which is bad. But all of that energy is lost — and conflicts or frustrations with the marketing teams arise — when what they’re building does not meet a true consumer (or technological) need.

This isn’t just true of product development - creating features, use cases, adoption and ongoing engagement. We live in a world where in any given category there are a number of apps, widgets or services, thus ‘Brand’ and brand resonance is critical. So how can the start-ups do a better job leveraging marketing to achieve success? Mr. Hirst says, “Successful companies have been those that allowed CMOs to have seats at the sales, retail, brand/product design, etc. tables, rather than purely acquisition or traditional brand. This requires a certain type of CEO and a significant amount of discipline and trust by the organization in their marketing partners. These are the brands that everyone wants to emulate (Airbnb, Red Bull).”

8) Rahul Tewatia and the romance of the struggle [Source: ESPN Cricinfo]
Many good hard-hitting cricketers have risen from the IPL. It is the game format that can change any cricketer’s life. Ricky Ponting introduced to Delhi Capitals a concept of "Change Room Man of the Match" to appreciate the support acts that don't get spoken about during a match. He hands them badges for their contribution. Ponting debuted this at the start of the 2019 season, which they began with a big win after losing the toss at Wankhede against the winningest IPL team of all. While Ponting commended Shikhar Dhawan for a forty, and Ishant Sharma, Trent Boult and Kagiso Rabada for their bowling, there was one person who was expecting his name to be spelled out. But that didn’t happen.

So Rahul Tewatia stopped Ponting. After few exchange of words, Ponting turned around and patronisingly said, "Boys, Tewatia took four catches, and wants a pat on the back." To the sound of mocking laughter. And walked off with an even more patronising smirk on his face. Axar immediately walked to Tewatia to mock him. "Who begs for recognition, bro?" Axar asked Tewatia in Hindi. "Bro, you have to fight for what you are owed," Tewatia replied earnestly. Tewatia had probably done all that was asked of him that night.

In his first match back for Royals, Tewatia managed to annoy the biggest fanbase in the IPL. Not only did he take three Chennai Super Kings wickets, he also brought out the "fingers in ears" celebration to mark one of those wickets. In his second match back for Royals, Tewatia's 31-ball stay at the wicket brought forth the best and worst of T20 cricket the format. The kindest of people wanted Tewatia to commit the less dramatic version of stepping on his wicket: just leave the crease and swing so that you can at least get stumped when you hit. Tewatia kept the noise out. In the end, the sensational turnaround - six sixes in the last eight balls Tewatia faced - didn't prove any of the rationalists wrong. He was perhaps not the right choice to send at No. 4, but you have also got to look at the shallow batting line-up.

9) The Future of the Entertainment Industry Beyond 2020 [Source: 
This year has been a very impactful year for businesses in every industry, and the entertainment industry is no  exception. The good news, however, is that just as other industries are finding ways to return to a semblance of normality or innovating new approaches to continue operations, the entertainment industry also has prospects for the future. Here are some of the most important ways the entertainment industry could change going forward. 1) Streaming: “Over-the-top” video content is becoming the most important way that people watch movies nowadays. OTT video revenue for media and entertainment (think: HBO Go, Hulu, Netflix) in the U.S. reached $20.1 billion in 2017, up 15.2 percent over the preceding year. PwC predicts that growth rates will begin to slow as the market matures, but revenue in this area is expected to reach $30.6 billion in 2022.

2) Production and creativity: Across various industries, there has been a commitment by participants to democratize access and promote inclusivity to enable any interested person to access the tools necessary to achieve success. The entertainment industry is far ahead on that curve, as seen in digital platforms like YouTube that allow actors, singers, and other entertainers to showcase their talents while bypassing the traditional gatekeepers. In addition, many services have been established to give performers the opportunity to hire staff such as producers, songwriters, and voiceover artists on the cheap, or to even buy products like ghost-produced songs that they can use without any restrictions.

3) Digital takeover: The shift toward digital has been happening for a while but the events of this year have only served to accelerate it. In 2018, the number of TV viewers fell significantly to less than 300 million. At the same time, the number of OTT viewers grew to 198 million. Likewise, the amount of media ad expenditure that was going to TV fell 2 percent, largely due to a shift in focus by advertisers to digital video channels. The shift to digital consumption is likely to be fuelled to an even faster acceleration by the deployment of 5G networks across the world. The increased reliance on smartphones is also another factor that is likely to have the same effect.

10) What research in Antarctica tells us about the science of isolation [Source: Scientific American]
“Social distancing” is not just a phrase now, it is the way of living life now. Many of us have found ourselves separated from family and friends—or at least from our normal social lives. As humans grapple with pandemic-induced isolation, science is starting to offer insight into what may be happening in our brains when our social contact with others is dramatically reduced. That insight happens to come from a place with more penguins than people.

Tim Heitland of the Alfred Wegener Institute Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research in Germany spent 14 months in Antarctica between 2016 and 2018. When he returned, daily life felt overwhelming—everything from the colors and vegetation to all the other people. Part of the shock may have come from returning with a different brain than the one he left with. While the members of Heitland’s crew conducted research on the earth’s iciest continent, they themselves were also being studied by researchers interested in how extreme work environments trigger neurological changes.

The investigation showed that most of the people in Heitland’s team lost volume in parts of their hippocampus, a brain region involved in spatial navigation, learning and emotional processing. The phenomenon is similar to what scientists believe happens to prisoners in solitary confinement, where social isolation and sensory deprivation can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder. This research appears particularly relevant now, when vast numbers of people are spending more and more time alone. Some scientists hope the work will lead to interventions that counteract the damage of isolation before it causes long-term problems.