Archive by Author

NextDrop is My Tribe: Home For the Smart Creative (Hacking Real World Problems)

20 Nov

I read Seth Godin’s definition of “tribe” a long time ago, but didn’t have anything to relate it to.  At that time, I remember wishing I had a tribe, something I felt so strongly about, something that I felt connected to.  I was sitting in San Francisco the other day, reading Eric Schmidt’s book on Google, when I realized that NextDrop had become my tribe.  I belonged to a set of like minded individuals who were intent on using startup frameworks to hack real world problems dealing with governments and citizens.  Most importantly, we are a group of people who believe that the why is just as important as the what and the how, and at the end of the day, company culture trumps all.

So my biggest challenge: How do I get a like minded group of individuals together to hack problems in this space, but more importantly, how do we create that environment for them to thrive? Those Smart Creatives?   And most importantly for the discussion, how do we do that in emerging markets across the world? How do we do that in India? Kenya? Indonesia? Given the education systems, and the parental structures, and the cultural barriers, how do we a) find those smart creatives and b) create a space for them to..have fun? Feel like they are doing things that actually matter? Feel like they are expanding their minds, (and very selfishly, expanding my own realm of possibilities) to move this tribe to really change the face of government and citizen interaction as we know it?

That seems to be top of mind for me right about now.  It’s a very interesting problem to have.  But I think if we can solve this problem and have NextDrop become the haven for smart creatives around the world, the rest will take care of itself.

Any inputs welcome.

Wow Our Last Post Was From February! But We’re Still Here, Promise.

25 Jul

This is what happens when I can’t think of a better title.  And when you realize that half the company wasn’t even a part of NextDrop when that was posted (which is completely crazy, let me tell you.)

 

Things are fun.  Crazy, awesome, fun.  It’s a great time to be working at NextDrop (and guess what, we’re hiring! And if you’re awesome and you don’t see a matching skillset, we’ll make a job for you anyway- yes, that’s how we roll). ANYway. I digress.  The point is, it’s been awesome times at NextDrop High.  I have to say, one of my proudest moments at NextDrop came last week, when we were presenting to the Chairman of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (because, yes, we now meet with them on the regular!) and they saw their own data for the first time.  And they started to DO something about it!  In the meeting itself, making plans! YES! Making change! One government utility at a time! It was…incredible.  It was such a rush.  And the best part? They were asking us for MORE STUFF.  More data, more analytics, more predictive models.  When does that happen?  Apparently when you work at NextDrop.  And for the record, they’re a great group of people- they really want to make good things happen.  I love working with them.  Backing up, we actually signed an MOU with them in May to monitor their water supply, and it’s been a wild ride ever since.  If you live in Bangalore, you should be hearing about us soon.  We’re making a push to recruit residents (because actually, the utility itself is asking us to collect citizen feedback- so cool, right?) And if you just want to say hi, or want to re-imagine the Bangalore water supply network, let us know/drop us a line!

Another cool thing happened when I started talking to all the people that work at NextDrop.  I wanted to crowdsource a vision statement for NextDrop- why do we exist? Why does everyone want to work at NextDrop?  And it was crazy how similar the answers were.  And it was pretty enlightening too, because I didn’t think about it before.  But.  The main reasons people love NextDrop are that you basically have the freedom and learning/growth potential of a startup, but the incredible real world impact of a traditional non profit.  They basically said they loved it because it was the best of both the worlds.  The vision for NextDrop was not just an external one, but an internal one as well.  (Not your typical vision statement eh?) Learn something new every day right? Who am I to argue with organic sentiment?

But that made me so, SO happy.  When I quit my job and moved to India about 3 years ago (and wrote this first blog post) I don’t think I could have imagined, in my wildest dreams, what a great group of individuals NextDrop would comprise of.  And now, when we’re working as a unit, I still blows my mind thinking about what the sum of our differences can create. It creates magic.  Pure magic.

And it’s just beginning.  I still feel the same way I did 3 years ago.  Scared. Not sure if I’m doing the right thing.  But I do know one thing now that I didn’t think about then.  That we have an amazing team.  And we’re only going to get better.  We work hard, we make lots of mistakes, but we learn from them, and we get better for it.  We stick by each other in good times and bad, and we help each other out.  It’s such a rush.  I’m so honored to be a part of something great.

And I think that maybe, just maybe, we’re going to put a dent in the universe.

I can feel it.

It’s Time For Another CEO Post (I Should Probably Recap 2013 or Something)

21 Feb

I feel like that’s what all the good CEO’s do.  And who am I to argue with tradition?  Except the problem is that it’s pretty hard to truly capture what it was like at NextDrop in 2013.  Not gonna lie, it was a tough year.  But we survived.  The best way to describe it is to compare it to my first two years in undergrad.  I went to UC Berkeley and did my undergrad in engineering, where your first two years were filled with things called “weeder courses“.  These courses were literally designed to make you fail (or at least try it’s very best to).  To be fair, when I was the graduate student instructor for one of these weeder courses, I finally understood the point- the professors were only trying to create a normally distributed curve, and the test was written to challenge those that were at the top.  But that’s pretty much how I think of the last two years at NextDrop.  The weeder years.  But when you get to upper division courses, it’s still hard, but nowhere as difficult as the first two years.  I don’t really know why, because the material is more challenging, but maybe it’s just because…you’ve survived.  You know you can survive.  I think you’ve also developed the coping mechanisms for working in uncertainty, and stress (pretty much all the time).  You’ve developed the framework for success.  That’s how I feel about where NextDrop is.  I think we’ve paid our dues, and we’re leaving behind our weeder years.  We’re getting to the fun stuff now.

Anyway, I thought I should somehow try to describe what the weeder years at NextDrop felt like.  In December, Quijano asked the Exec team to write down month by month, what was happening at NextDrop in 2013.  This was what mine looked like:

Jan- Meeting Desh, realizing we need money
Feb- Start asking for money
March- Asking for money
April- Begging for money
May- Really frickin desperate for money
June- Please, I will sell my left kidney for money
July- WE GOT MONEY! Moving to Bangalore
August- Trying to get some more money in India
September- Now that we have money, lets use it!
October- Lot of Progress on the utility side
November- Learning more about our customers
December- Customer systems in place, valvemen systems in place, Bangalore office

This was Devin’s

Jan – Reservoir monitoring. Bangalore pilot. Fixing.
Feb – Celery (periodic tasks). Outbound calls. Incoming SMS. Fixing.
March – Missed call! Valveman report. Billing.
April – GeoDjango! Maps! Bhargav!
May – TESTING! YES!
June – South Migrations. Caching. Telephony handling!
July – Valve areas state changes. Pipe damages (leakage squad)!
August – Utility dashboards. Supply Durations.
September – Feedback loop.
October – Supply Schedules. Geocoder!
November – Predictive analytics. Modular Feedback 2.0.
December – DevOps. Backups. Water clock.

Personally, I like QJ’s the best (But he stopped in September- apparently life at NextDrop stopped after September for him)

jan – 424 emails!
delivery reports for how many messages were being delivered. believe it or not at one point we weren’t sending messages to landline numbers that didn’t have a 0 before their number
zero customers in areas
presentations for BWSSB
India Water Week submissions
customers who are deactivated but paid

feb – 550 emails!
fund raising – Unitas
emails about tech fixes
will poole teaches us about increasing returns
twitter india
devin forks the nd repository
mapping and sweeping
charging residents in bangalore
experimenting with PPP for company operating system
valveman reminder sms
using data to scheduling areas to bill
QJ aspires to be a hacker
sms receipts
deactivations because we’re sending incorrect messages
experiments with customers using advertising books to refer other customers
reservior level monitoring contract
forbes 30 under 30
creating dashboards to quantify good areas
integration of ODK collect

march – 414 emails!
fund raising – Khosla
accepted to speak at IWW 2013
meeting with Rutvik from Inventus capital on scaling sms products
experiments with kirana shops billing
experiment with advertising in movie theatres
mapping, mapping, mapping – billed all the areas where we launched customers correctly
no more excel for data collection
mannually transfering customers based on geotags
anjana sends out the last ‘customer’s launched email’, the thread had started on 17/9/2012, there were over 3296 customers acquired, and 50 messages on teh conversation and this was the end of the customer service team acquiring customers on hand bills
pronita commits to nextdrop
pitching to the BWSSB
GEODJANGO integration
MISSED CALL customer acquisition systems
april – 480 emails!
fundraising – IAN
reservior monitoring MVP
HD1 center billing partnership
city view map – pretty map
billing getting approvals from valvemen team
talking about websie updates
vagrant
realizing we have customers in unmapped areas!
We got a postcard from a customer saying everything should be in kanada
Bhargav joins!
Madhu shadows utility engineers
Devin starts watching pycon videos
experiments with price sensitivity in bangalore
Anu starts to learn python!

May
fundraising – Venture East
Our first interactions with GSMA
Srikanth and aadhar
time studies on HD1 centers and people paying there
Intro to the World Bank, India
working on Bangalore expansion
Testing the code

June
fundraising – Soc+Cap closed!
valve monitoring emails
experimenting with intern team in Bangalore
e xperimenting with value added service of collecting other bills
first interactions with KUIDFC
nextdrop advertisements on local hubli+dharwad channels
NUWA visit
AngelPrime
hubli interns big push for geotags
paid utility contract from Hubli

July
looking into feedback
progress in NE3
geotagging customer before launching them
bhargav begins developing utility product
Devin and Pronita meet in California
survey on water tanker prices MVP
looking at ez tap
fundraising – mumbai angels nextwrok
coverage report
valveman customer referrals
SalesForce foundation
franchisee opportunities
exit interviews with first set of bangalore interns

august
pronita arrives in India! starts to crack billing
training second set of bangalore interns
trouble shooting geotagging in bangalore
NextDrop GameClock gives us insight to our representative resources
overlapping polygons makes it difficult to recruit customers
missed call for leakages
second application with GSMA for grant
Hubli EE changes and wants to provide the service to the city
integration of supply schedules to our application
meet with some Mumbai angels
finish off geotaggin in Hubli+dharwad
switch over to ZenPayroll
backlog in bangalore customers
entire team meets with AngelPrime
manual send sms to customers
feedback loop mvp

september
Peter Thiel schools NextDrop with CS183
nextdrop_secrets
feedback mvp experiments

I think Pronita and Nishesh decided to do theirs in person when we had our meeting so I don’t have it, but I think you get the idea.

Also, I’d like to state, for the record, that just like my weeder years at UC Berkeley, I was probably a horrible person to be around.  I’m really surprised that I still have co-founders and a staff actually (i.e. they didn’t mutiny).  Being a boss is really hard, and I must admit that I did a very poor job last year, in general.  What with the stress and all.  It really hit me when one of my employees gave me feedback- he said hey Anu, it would really help if you just asked how we were doing when you got into the office.  Wow. WOW.  I didn’t realize it, but it had gotten so bad that I wasn’t even treating my own people like regular human beings,  I was so engrossed in my work.  (Thank you SO much Melwyn for bringing it to my attention, I hope I’m doing a better job this year!)  But I think that was my takeaway/learning from last year.  Sometimes, especially during your weeder years, you as a leader forget that you have an entire organization to take care of.  Not just externally, but internally as well.  And at the end of the day, organizations are human.  Very human.  And if you abstract that out, and treat your internal organization like a machine, bad things happen. (I know, that totally sounds like a no brainer, but let me tell you when you’re in the thick of stressful situations, its funny how many things you stop doing…)

So I’d like to apologize to my team and thank them for sticking with me through trying times.  Speaking of team, I should probably write out who works with us now in 2014!  But lets make it fun- this is how I see each of them

Quijano: He’s our Co- founder/COO.  He’s pretty awesome and in undergrad he used to help me with my engineering homework.  He was definitely one of the smartest people I knew at Berkeley, and that’s saying a LOT. The coolest thing about him was that I knew he could be making so much money at other jobs using his brains (read: financial sector), but he turned them down to learn about the water sector (as evidenced by turning down his Amex internship to work with the San Jose water utility).  I think that takes serious guts.  In undergrad I knew I wanted to start a business with him (in the very very unlikely possibility that I would be running a business…)

Nishesh: He’s our Co-Founder/VP of Product Develop.  Nishesh is probably one of the most solid guys I know, and he’s the guy anyone on the team goes to when they’re having issues.  I would even go so far to say he’s the rock at NextDrop.   But besides his internal rock-ness, he’s the go to guy for anything related to governments or utilities.  So all of that, “What, you’re working with governments and utilities?! Not possible!” We have Nishesh to thank for disproving all of that. (Sorry girls, he’s getting married next month :)

Pronita: She’s our Co-Founder/Chief Growth Officer.  Pronita is awesome because I truly admire the way she relates to people.  We used to do dance together in college (that’s how we met) but then we sort of became travel buddies, and then she was also the other person in college I knew (in the very very unlikely possibility that I would start a business) I wanted to work with her too.  She’s an absolute boss when it comes to anything relating to customers, or making NextDrop come alive.  Seriously, some of the stuff she comes up with, I’m just like..whoa.  Yeah- lets do THAT.  She brings the flesh to the NextDrop skeleton

Devin: He’s our Co-Founder/Software Engineer.  Devin is a friend of Quijano, and when we met, Quijano told me that he knew the next Bill Gates.  And then I met Devin. And I was sold.  And then in true startup style, he dropped out of college and started NextDrop with us.  Seriously, look out for this guy.  He’s 20 and he’s a powerhouse.  Devin comes up with stuff, and I just think, holy CRAP.  That’s awesome.  Why are you so smart?

Thej: He’s our Chief Technical Architect.  Thej sort of does a lot of amazing things, but mostly, he is just a really really cool guy.  Did you know you can find his name on the new Mozilla Monument in San Francisco? Yeah.  Enough said.  I love working with him, because every time I leave the conversation knowing so much more than I did before.  And that’s not just work related- about the world, politics, feminism, history, you name it, he knows about it.

Bindu: Bindu runs operations in Bangalore, but that’s really code for doing lots of important things at NextDrop.  She’s pretty much responsible for any progress we’ve made in Bangalore re: utility contracting stuff.  I also really admire her because when I hired her, she told me she doesn’t work weekends, and she holds to that rule because she wants to spend time with her daughter, and her family.  I was like…YES.  Because she gets it done during the week.  And I respect her for that. I’m trying to learn from her actually.

Bhargav: Bhargav develops with Devin and Thej and he’s just pretty awesome.  I know I say that a lot but it’s true.  His attention to detail is amazing.  It’s fun because he hides little details on our dashboards!  He was teaching me front end development stuff recently, and we had a great time going through the D3 documentation to pick out visualizations for our customer service team.  I got to see how he thought about design, and it was really really cool.  Loved pair programming with him- especially on front end stuff.  Keep on being amazing Bhargav!

Kavya: Kavya works on our customer service team, and I love the way she interacts with customers.  She has a way of gleaning information from them without even asking!  It’s the absolute best (I like seeing her customer service entries, she never asked this stuff, but she writes it in there! So Great!).  She also has great ideas on how to improve our customer experience, which I love hearing about!  I think she really has fun with customers, and I think customers really like that! Love having her here!

Madhu: Madhu works on valvemen stuff in Bangalore, but codes on the side (Yeah, I’ve seen your commits to the NextDrop code repository Madhu- go you!)  If you want things done on the valvemen side that you think are impossible, you ask Madhu.  It’s a lot of firefighting, and it’s a difficult job, but Madhu keeps it under control.  It’s great to have him on our team!

Aseem: Aseem also works on the valvemen side, but we hired him as an intern 2 years ago.  He worked at NextDrop through college, and now works here full time.  In a very Nishesh sort of way, he’s just a solid guy.  If I want something done, I have no doubt in my mind that Aseem will do it, and not only that, deliver amazing results.  It’s very rare to have people that you can forget about what you told them because you KNOW they’ll do it and they’ll do it on time- Aseem is one of those people.  Pretty much the best!

Fanus: Fanus works on the valvemen side and the thing that I remember about him was being amazed that he learned English just from watching movies! I was just floored.  You really wouldn’t be able to tell.  “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish”- Steve Jobs, I’d say that definitely applies to him.  Wonderful to have him on our team!

Melwyn: Melwyn works on the customer side and like Aseem, worked through college with NextDrop and now works with us full time.  It’s been a joy to see Melwyn grow-  the types of questions he asks now and the level of thought that he has now is leagues above where he was before.  He has so many great ideas- just yesterday he saw my bus ticket from London and he asked- hey Anu, why can’t we just do this in Hubli? See- McDonald’s advertises on the back, and these are the people who would use NextDrop- the public bus users! YES.  He asks the best questions, and gives me good feedback (he’s the one who had the courage to tell me hey Anu, this is how what you do makes me feel, do you think you could change that? So great).  Keep doing your thing Melwyn!

Anjana: Anjana works on the customer side, is pretty much the one who keeps us in check fiscally, and her story is interesting.  I was recruiting at a college where she was working as industry recruitment director, and at the end, I met the kids and I wasn’t really interested in hiring any of them.  She came in, and convinced me to have a coffee and talk to her about how they could improve their system.  By the end of the conversation, I knew that I wanted her to work for us! And..well, the rest is history :)  She is the enforcer who makes sure we abide by the rules and when we’re not, she definitely yells at all of us (and I mean ALL of us- I have not so happy WhattsApp messages from her as well).  Which is awesome.  Keep on keeping us in check Anjana!

Prabhu: Prabhu works on the customer side and his story is pretty interesting as well.  He started off as a part time rep that went door to door to recruit and bill for NextDrop.  I clearly remember that he would come to the office early to pick up phones, and come back late to deliver the phones back to the office. I was really impressed.  And one day, he took the time to get his ideas translated from Kannada to English, and sent us all an email on how we should run marketing campaigns in Hubli.  I was sold.  We hired him full time to work on the customer service team.  Keep on learning and making us get better Prabhu!

Amit: Amit is our newest team member, and he works on both the valvemen side and the customer side.  The thing I remember most is that he asks the most insightful questions.  That’s what got me at the interview too.  It felt like he was thinking 2 steps ahead and asked the right questions.  I hope you keep asking good questions Amit, I love it! (And make sure people are giving you good answers- especially me!)

Ok! Now you know the ENTIRE NextDrop family!  Feel free to drop us a line, or if you’d like to be adopted, I’m sure we could find a job for you too (especially if we think you are cool).

No seriously, that is really how we hire people.

Ok done plugging NextDrop careers.

What do we have planned for 2014?  Well, for one thing, we’re going to try and keep things updated more regularly here on this blog.  But in short, I’m excited because I think this is really where we get to do the cool stuff.  The fun stuff.  The big stuff.  The opportunities are in front of us, now it’s up to us to work our butts off to make it happen.  I think that’s the best possible position to be in.

#GameFace

 

Bada Bing, Bada Boom: CEO Post Time

18 Jun

I bet everyone is just really excited that it’s not just me posting on this thing (finally!) right?  Yeah, our team is pretty awesome, and have really amazing insights that I thought should be shared with the world at large (or at least internet-dom for starters). I thought it was time for a post from me though, mostly because I was getting a bit nostalgic since it’s been a little over two years since I officially became CEO of NextDrop.

Good News: Company has not been run into the ground yet.

I digress though.  What did I want to talk about today?  I wanted to talk about company culture, because I think it’s probably one of the most important factors for startup success.  Why do I think this?  Greatest influences on my business life thus far: books like Good to Great, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, and learnings/slideshares/conversations with people who have actually done stuff that I want to do, like Chamath Palihapitiya and Fred Destin.

How have they influenced NextDrop?  In a few ways.

Everyone Learns Python.  Yeah, Even You, Civil Engineer

I remember around January, Quijano approached me and Nishesh after a team meeting and basically said that we would suck as a company if we all didn’t learn Python. (Ok maybe not his actual word choice, but that was my takeaway).  Of course Nishesh and I were terrified because…well..IT’S PROGRAMMING.  I am a CIVIL ENGINEER.  That was WHY I chose civil engineering, and not..Computer Science or something.  Same with Nishesh- Water Engineer and POLICY.   Totally not what we signed up for.  We tried to push back, but Quijano was adamant.  Luckily we both secretly (but not so secretly) sort of think Quijano is a genius, so we decided to just go with it and…learn Python.  Best decision EVER.  Why?  Think about what we’re actually doing at NextDrop.  We’re using simple technology to solve complex social problems.   The hardest part is understanding what problems need to be solved, and how we can solve them.  But the other really important part is knowing what technological solutions are available in your arsenal to solve these problems.  Without an intimate understanding of your system, there is no way you can accomplish this.  Also, it saves a TON of money on development, because in this early stage, most of what is going to hold you back is programming.  So if you have all key people focusing on the biggest barrier to moving forward, then you make the most progress.  I know I know, you’ll probably argue that everyone should be focused on what they do best. Sure, in an ideal world yes.  But in that ideal world, we would also have all the technology we want developed in an instant and we would have all the data we need at our fingertips.  Without data, we have nothing.  Plain and simple.  And speaking from experience, let me tell you this is what makes or breaks you as a company.

Again, I would encourage everyone to adopt this policy.  I’m currently working on a program that more accurately breaks down/visualizes our valvemen data so that we can make more informed decisions around our valvemen incentive program.  Really stoked about it actually!

Hire People You’d Want To Hang Out With

It’s pretty simple actually.  You’re going to spend most of your waking hours with these people.  If you wouldn’t even want to be friends with them, chances are, you wouldn’t want to work with them. No matter what their resume says.  This goes even beyond work though.  I think it also self selects for people who believe in your vision and mission.  Chances are you hang out with like minded people.  At least for me, I hang out with all sorts of people, from different walks of life.  But the thing they all have in common, is that they think what I do at NextDrop is pretty neat.  They get it.  They may not want to do it themselves, but they get the vision.  The most important thing I can do is make sure I populate NextDrop with people who jive with the vision, and are working at NextDrop to build a new reality- one that doesn’t exist today.  And have a really good time along the way of course.  As long as that is your motivation, I’ll probably want to hang out with you and we can hire you at NextDrop.

Fail Fast, Fail Often, Learn As Much As Possible

The Hacker mentality and the Lean Startup.  Let me tell you, another thing that really influenced my personal life greatly, and all of us at NextDrop, was the essay, How To Be A Hacker along with Eric Reis’s book, The Lean Startup.  In short, the life of your company is determined by the number of experiments you run, and the number of learnings you can acquire within the lifetime (i.e. burn rate) of your startup.  You’re probably going to be wrong, so just be nimble, and as soon as you know you are incorrect, pivot.  Putting ego aside, just look at the facts and do what needs to be done to achieve our goals.  Pivot or persevere.  It doesn’t matter, as long as we know we are headed in the right direction.

Those are the 3 major takeaways regarding culture I wanted to share/learned along the way.  Personally, it’s been an incredible journey, and in addition to just being really thankful that I get to work on solving really interesting problems, with the smartest people I know, I’d have to say I’m a pretty lucky person.

I also wanted to say thank you to everyone out there, reading this post.  It’s been two years, and with all of your support, we’re still alive and kicking.  We wouldn’t be where we are without you, and I wanted to make sure everyone knows how much we appreciate it all.

So thanks, from all of us here at NextDrop.

NextDrop In Bangalore

7 Apr

It’s a bit difficult to keep this blog updated on everything interesting we’re doing, but we’re trying our best!  Today we have our newest employee, Bindu, who is running operations in Bangalore (yes, we’re actually working in Bangalore now), writing about her experiences/our progress thus far.

Where do I start?
For someone who had spent 9 years enjoying the centralized AC, freq cafeteria visits, chit-chats (most frequently discussed were traffic jams, where is our country heading? kind of interesting topics..;))
The pilot in bangalore has made me go through ‘A hell of an experience’ (of course in good sense ;))
Right from searching for the water tank in the area we first visited (I remember how me and Anu were asking every other person on the street if he knows where the water tank is.. no one seems to know and they gave strange expressions.. like why are these two girls so desperately looking for a water tank after all!) to sitting across the table with top BWSSB (Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board) officials explaining the outcomes of our pilot and astonishing them

We got the necessary permissions from BWSSB to carry out the pilot in Bandappa Garden NE1 sub-division and Bhoopasandra NE3 sub-division (Of course it was as simple as that! :D).  We trained the valveman, enrolled people for our service and started monitoring the notifications.  4 weeks down the line, taking feedback from customers was so much fun – they totally loved us! :))

Our observations in Bandappa Garden after 3 months pilot – 2 Skipped supply, 6 Unscheduled supply timings.  Not trying to point out any inefficiencies here but, the goal is to make sure people know about it so that they plan their tasks accordingly.  The delays in the supply or the skips may be genuine (lot of times) due to shortage of water supply to the reservoirs or power cuts/pipe damages etc.  If they are made aware of it in advance, I am sure most of them would understand and co-operate.  Thats exactly where we are pitching in.
This is how the supply graph looks like.. Do you see the streamlined supply timings?  Don’t want to take away all the credit.. But yes, our monitoring has definitely made a difference (I see a steady trend continuing since)
Graph

Bhoopasandra was even more interesting.  To bring in a seriousness in the valveman to notify us of every supply was a challenge (he thought it was OK if he forgot to let us know?!)  Other than 11 Unscheduled supplies, it was fascinating to see that he was supplying water to the area every day continuously for 15 days!!  And no one seem to know about it.  When our reports reached the Engineers, initially they denied that was true and when we confirmed it was actually true, they gave us a ‘oh’ look. I know for sure that they have inquired into it, the valveman got back on track following supply schedules (took so much to convince them that a lot happens under their nose!)

Then the question came up.. why did he give water to a specific area for 15 days at a stretch???
We have not been able to arrive at a conclusion but here are some speculations at a high level..
a. Could be political pressure.. since the elections are round the corner?
b. Someone from the area pays him to open the valves for them?
c. He lives there? (actually No, he doesn’t)
d. He might simply be trying to impress us? Wants to show he is doing a good job?Well end of this luxurious supply period, on one end we have the Engineers with surprised expressions and on the other hand residents complaining that the supply was great and now its gone bad (No no! trust me! they mean that its only alternate days now!)Summarizing the study:  The board faces a challenge in coordinating within its various levels and effectively communicating with its consumers.  This gives us a great opportunity to make a difference.  With due respect to the enormous task the board has, to supply water to the monstrously growing city, we think that slightest of the change in the way the supplies are currently administered can bring in a drastic improvement in the system.  And we want to help them and be the instrument for change and move india forward!

Throughout the pilot the experiences I have had dealing with super-fast auto-rickshaw drivers, amazingly slow BTS buses, naive valve men, surprised looks on arrogant officials, encouragement from knowledgeable officers, long waits before the meetings, walking down lanes of North Bangalore which I never had, friendly slum residents, curious people who are amused to hear their phone ring a while before the supply was simply amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Do you want to see what the residents of the pilot areas has to say about us?  Do watch this video
My sincere thanks to the officials of the water board especially Mr. Amruthesh, Executive Engineer North East division for being so supportive and letting us into his fort.  Also, MSSS for helping us choose these areas and introduce us to the pilot area residents.

Who Is In It For Some Incentives – Part I

6 Mar

Today, we have our Vice President of Product Development, Nishesh Mehta, talking about what he’s learned about Incentives since he’s been here thus far.  Really fascinating topic, with implications across many sectors.  Why do people do what they do? Why do valvemen give us information?  I’ll let Nishesh take it from here

NextDrop was featured as one of the practioners at the ACM Dev 2013. At the conference, we witnessed some of the most innovative ideas in action that married crowd-sourcing, ICT with the mobile platform. One of the questions I was asked most often was, “So why do the valvemen work with you? How have you crafted your incentive program to get them to give you accurate information?”

To answer the question, we have to go back to September 2012. I had recently moved back to India to join NextDrop. My charge was to set up an incentive program that would convert each valvemen into human sensors – accurate, timely and most importantly consistent. Over the last 6 months, we have been able to devise a program that has achieved good results. About 70% of the valvemen working with NextDrop in Hubli report water supply timings accurately.

The incentive program that we designed works like a frequent flier program. For each correct notification, valvemen accrue a certain number of points which can be redeemed at the end of the month in the form of rewards such as jackets, T-shirts, petrol, ration etc. Essentially, they can get anything except cash.

What have I learnt in the process of designing this incentive program? I am going to summarize these in a multi-part series. Here goes Part I.

1)     The signalling effect is much stronger than actual incentives – When valvemen can see the rewards being given to other valvemen for good performance while they are left out, it creates a huge “I also want it” effect. In economics, it is called the signalling. What we learnt is this signalling effect has a disproportionately larger impact on valvemen performance than the actual incentive. It is also a powerful attraction to get new valvemen into the fold. Consequently, all incentives are given in a group setting. It not only enables the signalling effect but also gives you credibility that you will deliver on your promise of the incentives.

2)     They must decide on the methodology to score points – This is crucial for any system to work. If they perceive the points system to be biased, they will never buy into the incentive program.

3)     You want them to fight over points – Once they trust the points system, however, you want them to fight over points. You will be at the receiving end of a lot of flak, a few disparaging remarks even. The questions may sound accusatory such as – “How did I get so few points?” or “Why did he get so many and I received so few?”. When you start to hear those – you know you have traction. You have their ear. Now is the time to fill them with the sweet music of rewards! The worst thing for an incentive program would be if everyone ignored it.

4)     Who is afraid of unions – One of the first meetings I had when I started was with the union leader of the valvemen in the city. What a meeting it was! If I said, I came out with a bloody nose that would be putting it mildly. However, we have learnt that having a union can be really helpful. A union is a great way of organizing the valvemen and it provides a readymade chosen few who could then influence all the valvemen to work with you. Once we convinced the union leader on the incentive program it has been a lot easier to function with the valvemen. It also provides you a new voice when there is any sort of disgruntlement on the other side.

5)     You need institutional backing at least in name – In our case the valvemen are contracted by the city water board. Being the primary employer, they hold sway with the valvemen and are consequently cast in the main villain’s role in their saga. Their influence however is crucial here. We developed a feedback loop from the water board to the valvemen. The water board now monitors valvemen performance through the same messaging system that informs the customers. As a result, if a valvemen didn’t send correct notifications, they would hear about it from their water board supervisors. Even though it is primary a verbal warning or praise, it goes a long way in cementing the importance of sending in timely notifications to the NextDrop system.

6)     Are you funny and charismatic? – An important note in conclusion; No incentive program can work without some old school charm. I continuously feel that the role of charisma is grossly under-estimated in enhancing productivity. Here is a perfect example. None of the ideas on the incentive program would have worked without a team that has been able to charm their way into the valvemen’s daily lives.

 

Here ends the first part on what I learnt while creating the incentive program. In part II, I will throw in some field experiments based on behavioural economics, game theory and some highly original ideas that we have come up with to structure the incentives. In the meantime if you all have any ideas you always thought would work and are itching to find out, here’s your ready laboratory.

 

NextDrop FAQ: Why Did You Guys Start in Hubli?

25 Jan

Since we recently got invited to be a panelist at The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) event in Hubli, I was thinking about questions that we had interesting answers to/we get asked the most often.  The top question: Why Hubli?

I thought it would be interesting to go through the Pros and Cons of starting in a Tier II city (as opposed to a Tier I city like Mumbai or Bangalore).

I’ll start with the Cons:

  • Banking: It’s is pretty tough.  Trying to get Foreign Direct Investment through the Indian banking system is tough enough without having to deal with the fact most Tier II city branches have never dealt with it before. 
  • Human Resources: It’s much harder to get top talent to move to Hubli.  The US equivalent is basically choosing between a job in San Francisco or a job in Wichita, Kansas.
  • Location: Given the fact it there are only 2 flights into and out of Hubli (which actually shut down for the last 8 months and just reopened), it’s difficult to get places.  To get to Delhi, it would take about 2 days (because I don’t want to land at night for…safety reasons).  Also, you don’t get many visitors (again, hard to get to).

The Workarounds/Business Hacks (to overcome the Cons)

  • Banking: There was a very large learning curve there, but after a while, I think they got the pattern.  Once a pattern is established, things go smoothly.  It took about a year, but it’s good now.  If we were to do it again, I think we may have had our “local” branch in a big city (because we go there once a month anyway).  I don’t know if it’s any better, but I think I’d like to try it that way.  Most things can be done online now anyway, so I think it could work.
  • Human Resources: This one is pretty interesting.  I was talking to one of the founders of a pretty famous Hubli company, Sankalp, and they said their competitive advantage is really by training students from Tier II city colleges (the ones that didn’t get accepted into the prestigious semi conductor companies) and just make them stellar.  This seems to be the trend in India because I know other famous companies like Infosys, Wipro, Accenture, IBM etc.. do it too.  Their training programs last between 6 months-2 years (Crazy, right?!) But it’s the Indian corporate workaround for the fact the Indian college education system does not really seem to prepare students for the corporate world.  But what does a startup in Hubli do when you need people, and you need them… yesterday?  Sankalp worked around it by starting in Bangalore, and then when they got big, moved to Hubli.  They already had built enough reputation for people to take a risk and join the company.  Their solution for small startups like ours (whichI thought was incredibly insightful/pretty much what we ended up doing): The founders just need to do be incredibly hands on and do most of the work/train their staff.  Let me say that again, because I felt like this was a huge nugget of wisdom that most people can learn from: the founders need to be on the ground and put the proper systems in place/train their staff to reach the levels of excellence they expect.  Essentially, you need to create a 6month-2 year training course,  implement, and execute it (in real time/while you grow your business).
  • Location: Batching meetings so you can just make one trip and knock out 3-4 things.  It makes you more focused and saves you money anyway (because you won’t leave unless you have 3-4 compelling reasons why!)  Also, honestly, in the beginning, you don’t really want people coming by to visit because you don’t have much to show that’s interesting yet.  It’s better to fly under the radar until you have something good.

The Pros:

  • Focus: The problems that we are working on are the same across India, just at different levels of complexity. So when you start out, you want to isolate one variable, and figure it out.  In Hubli, we asked one question: Can we get useful and accurate information from the valvemen?  The answer: Yes. That’s the only thing we tried to solve, and that’s what we did.  If we had started in a much larger city, we’d be spending so much time figuring out the pipe network, who reports to who, the politics, and navigating the beauracracy, we wouldn’t have time to answer the most pressing questions.  
  • Human Resources: Back in high school, our basketball team had a very effective strategy to see who would make the team.  Anyone who made 5am practices (getting there by 4:45am) for a whole summer, made the cut. Guess what- our team was undefeated and we won our league every year.  It’s the same with starting in a Tier II city.  The upside is that you know that the people who do join you are incredibly committed to your cause, and will do anything to make it survive.
  • Less Red Tape: Related to the first point, it’s much easier to navigate…everything really, in a Tier II city. And for a startup, that’s really one of the most important things it can ask for.  The people in power are much more amenable to trying new things, and the systems are much more straightforward (which is still incredibly complicated!) But figuring the path of least resistence in a smaller city and then applying the same concepts to a larger city, I think, gives you the most bang for your buck.
  • Location: Similar to the Human Resource answer, you know that the people who do visit you (investors, interested individuals), are really interested in what you do.  Also, we mostly travel by bus/train, and tickets are really cheap- I can book at the last minute and still get a good ticket (~$20 round trip gets me to Mumbai or Bangalore in a sleeper bus!)
  • Cost: Hands down, super cheap to live and work in Hubli (Compared to a bigger city).  Food is great, and housing/transport/office rent is inexpensive.  We’ve kept our burn rate considerably lower because we live in Hubli.

Overall, if I had to do it again, I would still start in Hubli.  Yes, it’s much less glamorous, but the pro’s, in my head, definitely outweigh the cons.  I would also encourage any other social enterprise starting out to really figure out the overall problem they are trying to solve, work backwards, and figure out the first key question they need to answer.  Then ask yourself: what’s the easiest geography to answer the question in?

As always, thoughts/questions/comments are much appreciated!

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