Overconfidence of the ‘Bengaluru’ entrepreneur

flipkartThe last time I was in Bengaluru in late January and early February, almost everybody I met either wanted to be an entrepreneur or had already become one. I know I am stretching the truth here, nevertheless, the enthusiasm for entrepreneurship that I saw in Bengaluru is clearly missing in Mumbai, where I live, and Delhi, the city where my extended clan does.

A major factor that is needed for an individual to become an entrepreneur is “overconfidence”. As Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich write in Why Smart People Make Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: “If people were not overconfident…significantly fewer people would ever start a new business…That their optimism is misplaced—that they are overconfident—is evidenced by the fact that more than two-thirds of the small businesses fail within four years of inception.”

It is worth clarifying here that overconfidence here does not mean arrogance. So what does it mean? As Belsky and Gilovich write: “What research psychologists have discovered about overconfidence is that most people—those with healthy egos and those in the basement of self-esteem—consistently overrate their abilities, knowledge, and skill, at whatever level they might place them.”

The entrepreneurs work along similar lines. In fact, research shows that even when entrepreneurs are told that their chances of survival are small, they don’t believe in it. As Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States is about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that statistics apply to them. A survey found that

American entrepreneurs tend to believe that they are in a promising line of business…Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said their chance of failing was zero.”

Given that a whole host of Bengaluru denizens have worked in the United States or know someone who has, it is hardly surprising that the American way of doing things, has caught on, in the city as well. Nevertheless, this overconfidence works in several sways. It encourages people to become an entrepreneur in the first place. Further, it helps them to keep running the business in the face of all odds.

As Kahneman writes: “One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles…[The] confidence [of the entrepreneurs] in their future success sustains a positive mood that helps them obtain resources from others, raise the morale of their employees, and enhance their prospects of prevailing. When action is needed, optimism, even of the mildly delusional variety, may be a good thing.”

On the flip side overconfidence also leads many entrepreneurs to launch businesses without any business model in place. Take the case of the Indian ecommerce companies, many of which are headquartered in Bengaluru. A significant number of these companies are operating without any business model, backed by an unending amount of private equity and venture capital money that has been pouring in.

The money that keeps pouring into these companies shows the ability of the entrepreneurs to keep raising money from investors in the hope of their companies making money someday. And this couldn’t have happened without them being overconfident.

As Kahneman explains: “Inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid. However, optimism is highly valued, socially and in the market; people and firms reward the providers of dangerously misleading information more than they reward truth tellers.”

Given this, at this point of time, ecommerce is the flavour of the season, and anyone raising points about the viability of the entire sector, is usually shouted down upon. Nevertheless, as Warren Buffett said during the course of the dotcom bubble which burst in 2000, “but a pin lies in wait for every bubble.” And that is something worth remembering here as well.

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on Sep 30, 2015

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

E is now mc2: The changing face of Indian ecommerce

flipkartThis is a slightly different column from the ones that I usually write, given that it has no hard core economics in it for a change.
In February earlier this year I was in Bangalore at a literature festival, moderating a discussion titled old retail versus new retail. And this discussion along with some recent family experiences and reading leads me to believe that some interesting things are happening in the Indian ecommerce space.
I first discovered ecommerce when I started ordering books on Rediff.com(of all the places) sometime in 2007 or 2008 (I don’t remember when). I found the process very convenient and ended up finding a large number of books which weren’t available in book stores. During those days the discount phenomenon hadn’t really caught on.
While ordering yet another book on Rediff I discovered a small advertisement (if my memory serves me right) of a website which offered discounts on books. I had never heard of the website before and was sceptical ordering from it.
But the discount finally did the trick and I placed a order. The book was delivered a few days later. And that’s how I discovered Flipkart.com. In the days to come I discovered other book websites like Infibeam.com, Uread.com and so on.
All my book shopping moved online and I stopped going to bookstores like Oxford(at Churchgate in Mumbai), Landmark(at Phoenix Mill in Mumbai) and Crossword(at Kemps Corner in Mumbai). This is how things stayed in the years to come.
My tryst with Indian ecommerce was limited to buying books. Nevertheless, the Indian ecommerce scene has changed dramatically over the last six years. The kind of goods that are now available (and are being bought) online, was absolutely unthinkable six years back. I came to realize this after I saw my mother buying everything from towels to cup-plates-spoons from e-commerce sites, using the cash on delivery option. This gave me the confidence to buy a water filter online, which was delivered within 24 hours. I even ordered a pair of spectacles online recently. The process was extremely convenient.
Everything from furniture to electronics to shoes to clothes, is now available online. The feeling prevailing in 2008 was that people needed to touch and feel a lot of things before buying them. Hence, ecommerce would never move beyond selling books and a few other goods. But that is not how it has turned out.
So, the question is why are people now comfortable buying those goods online which nobody thought they would six years back? I feel there are two major reasons for the same. The first is of course price. Professor Rajiv Lal of Harvard Business School who has studied the retail business all over the world explained this to me in an interview when he said: “Basically the margins that are build up because some of our retail chain are inefficient. Think about the amount of inventory that is being held in the Indian apparel business. It is humongous. Stores are full of inventory and most of them don’t even know how much inventory they are holding. All that stuff is being reflected in the prices that we pay.”
The e-commerce companies don’t have to maintain huge inventories. If they manage to build up an efficient supply chain network, they can keep ordering goods as they go along. Hence, they do not to have maintain a large inventory like the offline players. This helps keeps costs down.
Also, like offline players they do not need to maintain a huge physical infrastructure like showrooms, godowns etc., to sell their goods. They can also buy goods directly from companies producing them and get a better deal in the process. These goods can be then directly sold to prospective consumers without having to go through an elaborate distribution channel.
As Lal told me: “even situations that we think that it doesn’t make sense for people to buy things on the internet because of the inefficiencies in the Indian retail system, the price is so appealing that people are willing to compromise on other things.”
Further, the second reason for the success of ecommerce companies in India is that they follow a very flexible return policy. This allows consumers to touch and feel the product that they want to order. Let’s say a consumer wants to order a pair of shoes. Instead of ordering just one pair, he can order four pairs, see which one fits and looks the best, keep that, and return the other three.
While this is a logistical nightmare for ecommerce companies it has become an important part of the business model that has evolved, allowing the consumers to touch and feel the product.
Ecommerce companies can reach all parts of India even where old retail does not. A friend of mine narrated an interesting story about ordering diapers online for his newly born child. The ones that he wanted were not available in the small town that he lives in.
In Bangalore while moderating the discussion, the CEO of an ecommerce company which specializes in women’s inner wear told me that they deliver to all pincodes in India. It wouldn’t be possible for an old retail company to have that kind of reach through physical stores.
Also, as people get used to ordering stuff online, the ticket sizes of what they order are going up. “The biggest solitaire we have sold was priced at Rs 20 lakh,” the CEO of an ecommerce company which sells jewellery online told me in Bangalore.
Interestingly, Indian ecommerce now needs to be rechristened as mcommerce. Akhilesh Tilotia of Kotak Institutional Equities makes this point in a recent research note titled
e is now mc2: “India’s new internet users [are] coming primarily via mobiles…Flipkart said that ~70% of its transactions take place on mobiles across all categories (from electronics to fashion) and freecharge indicated that this number was ~90%.”
And in case you wondered why every ecommerce(oops I should be saying mcommerce) company keeps advertising their mobile apps, you now know the reason.
In fact, ecommerce companies now even want to set up physical stores. I came to know about this at Bangalore. Tilotia suggests the same in his note: “Online channel players (especially in high-value or experiential verticals such as furniture, jewelry, and beauty products) pointed out the challenges that they face in bringing the correct and complete experience to the customer. Issues such as the need to touch and feel a product, trust, dispute resolution, and handholding and demonstration need a physical outlet. Companies that started as online-only portals are now developing an omni-channel strategy.” Such stores should take care of the need of a consumer to touch and feel a product to some extent.
But that’s the good part. What nobody seems to be talking about is whether the ecommerce companies are actually making any money? Or when will they start making money? Right now, with money available at low interest rates in the developed world, private equity and venture capital firms are falling over one another to invest in Indian ecommerce. The question is for how long will that continue?

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Mar 10, 2015  

Number tricks


The main page of one of India’s largest e-commerce websites advertises an array of products which can be bought from it. It is interesting to see the prices of a large number of products being sold. As I write this in early August there is a bag being sold for Rs 399, an LED television for Rs 12,299, an insect repellent for Rs 199, a telephone for Rs 14,899, a pair of sunglasses for Rs 1399, a watch for Rs 999 and so on. There are many books also being sold at prices of Rs 299, Rs 399 and Rs 499 respectively.
There is a clear effort to sell products at a price which ends with the digits 99. Hence, the LED television does not cost Rs 12,300 but Rs 12,299. And the watch does not cost Rs 1,000 but Rs 999. This is the e-commerce avatar of what is basically an age-old marketing trick.
The original explanation for this trick was that it was a technique used by retailers to deter theft by their cashiers, before computers had made an appearance in retail. If something was priced at $1, the cashier could simply put the money into his pocket, when the consumer paid for it. But if the same product was priced at $0.99, it was unlikely that the consumer would offer the exact amount to pay for the product. He was likely to pay $1. Hence, the cashier would have to open the till to repay one cent to the consumer and the moment he did that, the chances of him recording the sale and not pocketing one dollar, went up. But this explanation sounds too good to be true in this day and age.
As Tim Harford the author of such wonderful books like
The Undercover Economist asks in a column “Cunning. That’s not really why product prices end in 99p[pence], though, is it?” Probably not – perhaps it once was, but in a world of credit cards, e-commerce and self-checkout, the story does not really fit. We need to look for a psychological explanation,” Harford goes onto write.
The real reason behind products being sold at prices ending in 99, lies in the fact that most people read from left to right and because of that the first digit of the price registers the most on the human mind. This is referred to as the left-digit effect. As Alex Bellos writes in his new book
Alex Through the Looking Glass “When we read a number, we are influenced by the leftmost digit than we are by the rightmost since that is the order we read, and process, them. The number 799 feels significantly less than 800 because we see the former as 7-something and the latter as 8-something.”
Due to this reason since the 19th century shopkeepers have chosen prices ending in 9 and hence tried to create the impression that a product is cheaper than it actually is. “Surveys show that anything between a third and two-thirds of all retail prices now end in 9,” writes Bellos. In fact, controlled experiments carried out by economists have shown that when prices end in 99, sales tend to go up.
As Bellos points out “In 2008, researchers at the University of Southern Brittany[in France] monitored a local pizza restaurant that was serving five types of pizza at €8 each. When one of the pizzas was reduced in price to €7.99, its share of sales rose from a third of the total to a half. Dropping, the price by one cent, an insignificant amount in monetary terms, was enough to influence customers decisions dramatically.”
In fact, just ensuring that the price of a product ends with the digit 9 leads to better sales. Eric Anderson and Duncan Simester explain this very well in a Harvard Business Review article titled
Mind Your Pricing Cues published in September 2003. As they write “Response to this pricing cue is remarkable. You’d generally expect demand for an item to go down as the price goes up. Yet in our study involving women’s clothing catalog, we were able to increase demand by a third by raising the price of a dress from $34 to $39. By comparison, changing the price from $34 to $44 yielded no difference in demand.”
E-commerce, which is the newest kid on the block when it comes to retail business, has been using this age-old trick very well. Interestingly, researchers also point out that pricing a product ending with digits 9/99 acts in the same way as a sale sign and tells consumers that they are getting a good deal. “Some retailers do reserve prices that end in 9 for their discounted items. For instance, J. Crew and Ralph Lauren generally use 00-cent endings on regularly priced merchandise and 99-cent endings on discounted items,” write Anderson and Simester.
Even Bellos makes a similar point in his book. As he writes “An up market restaurant, for example, would never dream of pricing a main course at, say, £22.99. Nor would you trust a therapist who charged £ 59.99 a session. The prices would be £23 and £60, which feel both classier and more honest.”
An e-commerce website trying to sell everything under the sun, doesn’t need to be classy. It’s unique selling proposition is based on giving the consumer a better deal than he is likely to get if he were to buy the same product from a local shop. Hence, it makes tremendous sense for e-commerce websites to price products ending with digits 99 and give the consumer a sense that he is getting a better deal.
To conclude, there is another number trick that the e-commerce websites can use to drive up their sales. Researchers at the Cornell University tested a very interesting idea at a Cafe in Hyde Park, New York. They found that consumers tend to spend more when the currency sign was left out of the menu. Hence, consumers were quicker to spend money when the price was listed as 10 rather than $10. By doing this they were able to increase sales by 8%. By leaving out the dollar sign, the researchers ensured that the “price of paying” response wasn’t triggered while paying and hence, the consumers ended up paying more.
This is something that e-commerce websites in India can easily test by doing a controlled experiment. Prices without the rupee sign can be offered to one set of customers. And prices with the rupee sign can be offered to another set of customers. The results can then be checked out to see if there is any increase in sales.

The article originally appeared in the Sep 2014 edition of Mutual Fund insight magazine.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of Easy Money: Evolution of the Global Financial System to the Great Bubble Burst. He can be reached at [email protected])

Flipkart vs offline retailers: Kishore Biyani ko gussa kyon aata hai


Vivek Kaul 

Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales in the introduction to their fantastic book Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists write “Those in power—the incumbents—prefer to stay in power. They feel threatened by the free markets.”
So who are these incumbents? “
The identity of the most dangerous incumbents depends on the country and the time period, but the part has been played at various times by the landed aristocracy, the owners and managers of large corporations, their financiers, and organised labour,” Rajan and Zingales write.
Something along these lines is currently playing out in the Indian retail sector. The incumbents (or what we can now call the offline players) are feeling threatened by the e-commerce companies, the new kids on the blocks. E-commerce companies like Flipkart, Snapdeal and Amazon have changed the rules of the game.
The e-commerce companies are gradually taking business away from incumbent offline players by offering huge discounts on products that they sell. One reason for the same is the fact that the ecommerce companies have managed to get around the inefficiencies built into the Indian retail system.
Professor Rajiv Lal of Harvard Business School explained this in an interview with
Forbes India. As he put it “Basically the margins that are build up because some of our retail chain are inefficient. Think about the amount of inventory that is being held in the Indian apparel business. It is humongous. Stores are full of inventory and most of them don’t even know how much inventory they are holding. All that stuff is being reflected in the prices that we pay.”
The e-commerce companies don’t have to maintain huge inventories. If they manage to build up an efficient supply chain network, they can keep ordering goods as they go along. Hence, they do not to have maintain a large inventory like the offline players. This helps keeps costs down.
Also, like offline players they do not need to maintain a huge physical infrastructure like showrooms, godowns etc., to sell their goods. They can also buy goods directly from companies producing them and get a better deal in the process. These goods can be then directly sold to prospective consumers without having to go through an elaborate distribution channel.
Take the example of books being sold online. One reason why 30% discount on books being sold online is normal because the bookstore’s margin has been taken out of the equation totally.
Given these reasons, the costs of ecommerce companies are significantly lower than offline players, leading to them being able to offer products at a discount to the maximum retail price.
In fact, people have even started ordering goods like clothes and shoes, online. :Until a few years back nobody thought such products could be sold online. One reason for this is the attractive price. As Lal puts it “even situations that we think that it doesn’t make sense for people to buy things on the internet because of the inefficiencies in the Indian retail system, the price is so appealing that people are willing to compromise on other things.”
There are other reasons as well. Online companies allow buyers to return the product under a certain time period. This has given confidence to people to order products like clothes and shoes.
All this has pushed offline players into a corner. As a retailer told The Hindu Business Line “The consuming class in India is in the age group of 18-30. Incidentally, they are also the ones who are driving up sales in the online space. This may erode our customer base.” Given this, it is but logical that these retailers now questioning the basic business model of ecommerce companies.
As Kishore Biyani told
Firstbiz yesterday “Laws in this country do not allow sales below cost price. This is anti-competitive. We (at Big Bazaar and other retail brands) never sell below cost price.” He did not clarify whether his company would be approaching the Competition Commission of India.
Praveen Khandelwal of Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) said that the association has already approached the Ministry of Commerce.
“We do not understand how online retailers gave 60-70% discounts. The prices at which they sold merchandise are lower than our purchase prices. This is a clear case of predatory pricing,” he went onto add.
It needs to be clarified here that not all products sold by online retailers are sold at 60-70% discount. This is the case only for special sales that they organise. Take the case of Flipkart’s recent
The Big Billion Day sale. Products were given away at throw away prices when the sale opened at 8 am. But the website ran out of these products very soon. Amazon had also recently been selling books at a discount of 60%, though they did it in a very low profile way. But not all products are sold at such huge discounts all the time.
The offline retailers are reacting in a way that existing businesses react whenever their business model is threatened by a new business model or innovation. The first salvo has been fired and they have questioned the basic business model of the e-commerce companies.
I wouldn’t be surprised if this argument is repeated over and over again in the days to come. Henry Hazlitt explains this technique in
Economics in One Lesson “The public hears the argument so often repeated…that it is soon taken in.”
In fact, the small and medium telecom retailers are trying to get telecom brands to stop supplying mobile phones to e-commerce companies. Aam Aadmi Party’s Adarsh Shastri is leading this effort.
As a recent news report in The Economic Times pointed out “It was at one such meeting mediated by Shastri last month that Samsung executives announced to the trade that it will go all out to limit or stop distribution to online sellers who are discounting products. More such meetings are lined up with other brands.”
The report quotes Shastri as saying “
Nokia has been cooperating on this. Some brands are more disruptive than the others, like Samsung and even Apple, to an extent. But Nokia, Motorola and HTC have been reasonably open to the idea of price parity between online and retail channels.”
Shastri also said that “”wherever the common retailer is being bullied by a large brand or by the large muscle of online retail, we (AAP) will step in. If it is required tomorrow to take up issues of small retailers, the party will absolutely do it.”
The idea here is to ensure that small and medium telecom retailers continue to stay relevant and are not wiped out by e-commerce companies. While this sounds fair, the trouble with this idea is that it just takes into account one side i.e. the offline retailers. But what about the end consumer?
The question is why is nobody talking about the consumer? First and foremost the consumer is getting a better deal. Doesn’t that amount to something? Further, he has more choice now when it comes to spending his money. If a consumer buys a product that costs Rs 1000 offline at Rs 800 online, he is left with Rs 200. That money he can spend somewhere else. This will also benefit some business at the end of the day.
The trouble of course is that no one knows where the consumer will end up spending the Rs 200 that he saves by buying online. Hence, a coherent argument in favour of the consumer cannot be made. This explains why people like Shastri end up representing only one side of the argument.
Getting back to Biyani, he obviously understands the power of ecommerce and hence is hedging himself both ways. While in public he has been questioning the discounting practises of e-commerce companies, he may also be in the process of tying up with Amazon. As a recent report in the Business Standard points out “Biyani is in talks with Amazon to sell his private labels and sharing back-end facilities.”
To conclude, it is worth remembering that when an existing way of doing things is under threat, the incumbents are bound to react aggressively. This is what is happening right now with the retail sector in India. Nevertheless as Lal of Harvard put it “Why haven’t people asked the question, that should we have introduced auto-rickshaws and taxis because the
rickshawallahs would have lost jobs?”
The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on Oct 8,2014 

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)