How thieving grannies got me to Best of Blogging.  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in ,

 DG's guide is simple: quit ploughing your pension into online betting, grandma! ©

Towards the start of my career I worked in a team that investigated technical problems on online gambling websites. We'd get calls from grannies who claimed their betting account had been hacked. "From 8pm to 12:30am, it was me who was playing on the account", they'd say, "but from 12:30am to 4am, it was someone else... please can you return my account balance to what it was at 12:30am". Investigating the call, we'd find that from 8pm to 12:30am the account had been racking up and winning money on the online slot machines - lots and lots of money. Then, quite suddenly, from 12:30am it all spiraled downward - losing money fast on those same slot machines. Could it really be that someone hacked into this granny's account and gambled away all her winnings?

In this team I worked in, we kept online journals of every problem we were investigating. We journaled a lot - the the eight of us would average writing 30 journals a day, each. We did it because the journals proved extremely useful. When that granny called up again, a quick search revealed that we had a serial fraudster on our hands. When we didn't know how to solve a problem, we quickly thought of new approaches by looking at how others on the team had solved similar problems. Most of all, journaling forced us to commit. We had to write down and commit to a plan of how we were going to investigate the problem. Then we had to do it.

For me, the habit of journaling from the early part of my career has developed into a way of working. Through the MBA application process, the team seems to have consisted of bloggers going through the same MBA admissions process. We peeked at each others' posts to see what was going on - who has interviews? who has been admitted? what are their profiles? The posts of MBA applicant bloggers of the past have been just as useful as those journal entries investigating online gambling problems. I know I've used Jag Paw's essay advice and taken heed of Ameya's thoughts on essay reviewers. ClearAdmit's Best of Blogging awards have become particularly useful for spotlighting where to look. So, I feel honored to be ranked in these awards for 2009 - thank you ClearAdmit and all those who voted. Congratulations to everyone on the list: particularly Tieny, whose lovable personality and passion for Columbia has always shone through.

For those embarking on the MBA application process, just know that you too don't have to suffer at the hands of thieving grannies and other tricksters to need a reason to start blogging. There are plenty of other reasons to blog. But that's another thought for another day...


The $250,000 Gamble  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in , ,

My worst nightmare for what 2011 will be like for me. ©

The call came in on Saturday morning, waking me up at about 9am. "Can you help on Monday night?", he asked. Within minutes I had been enrolled to help at a public speaking event that one of my MBA application recommenders was organizing. This was the third recommender, requested by some of the schools, for extra curricular activities. Though I could think of better things to do with my time, such as working on my business plan or doing some much needed house-keeping, this guy had taken time out of his days to help me. I should return the favor. So I did. However, this indebtedness pales in comparison to the prospect of a bigger weight of debt: financial debt.

When I enrolled on at Kellogg, I also submitted a financial aid form to the Kellogg finance department with the details of my salary and savings etc. A few weeks ago they provisionally offered me a loan. The formula they used seems to be:
loan = ( estimated cost of living for 2 years - savings ) / 2
You are given a loan for only one year; you apply next year for further funding for the following year. I understand that I'll get full details of the interest rates and terms in May.

What really gets to me about funding my MBA is the thought that I could surely be doing something more worthwhile with my savings than going bankrupt and then taking on debt. If I put my savings down as a deposit on a mortgage backed property, I could rent the property out and recoup the mortgage payments and then some more. My money would be working for me, as some would say. On my current trajectory, I'll be leaving business school with a negative bank balance over my head and finding myself working for the money to pay off the debt. This thought worries me doubly so because I plan to divert off the beaten path and create a venture. A high salary and bonuses to pay off that debt are not probable.

Yet, what keeps me on this path is the non-financial opportunity. At business school I will actually be in an environment offering above average odds for creating a successful startup, from access to mentors and investors to formal dissection and analysis of businesses and business plans. Even if the start-up adventure fails, the MBA will still leave me in good stead for the rest of my career, giving me a noticeable credential.

Perhaps most importantly for me, I'm not sure when I will have such an opportune moment again to establish a business. Some of my friends liken my plans to a gamble, and a big one after taking account of loss of earnings and the cost of the experience. I'm quite a risk averse person and do not quite see it in the same way. I think there will be all sorts of tacit benefits I do not even comprehend yet. For example, if I were to be in the position of my previously mentioned recommender, in dire need of help on a Saturday morning - I think about who I have built relationships - who might help me in such a situation. I then compare that to the relationships I might have built following the MBA. Based on what I've seen of the class thus far, I think my odds of success will be higher with those MBA folk.


Licenced to study  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in , ,

I wonder how long this guy has been waiting for his visa interview at the embassy? ©

The redial list on my phone features over 20 random numbers. This is the remanent of what for me turned into a panic-stricken Monday 13th April, a public holiday in the UK. It was on that day that I started looking at the documents necessary for my US visa interview I had the following day. I had been lazy. I had not counted on needing a special 2 inch by 2 inch photo for a US visa application. Nevertheless, after numerous phone calls, I found a photographer who would take my photo on a public holiday - adding £10.99 to my rising bill for the visa application. I spent the remainder of the Monday filling in forms and printing them out.

I arrived at the US embassy on Tuesday at 13:20 - a little while earlier than my 14:00 appointment. When they handed me a numbered ticket, the number of which would be called out for my visa interview, I realized that the appointment time was merely to control traffic flow. The waiting area resembled the departure lounge of an airport - rows of people waiting and looking at screens showing the current ticket numbers being serviced. When my turn came at 15:20, I walked over to one of the cash till style counters. The guy behind it simply took my forms and put it into an envelope. After they took my finger prints, I was told I had to wait another while for my number to be called again. At 16:20 I was finally called to another cash till style counter to have the interview. It lasted mere minutes. The guy interviewing me asked me questions straight off the forms I had filled in:

  • where do you work?
  • what is your job?
  • which universities have you studied at?
  • where will you study in the US
I was not sure whether he asked these because he was reading the form for the first time as he talked to me, or to check what I had put down was actually written by me! The only original question he asked was "what are you going to do after the MBA", to which I replied that I may return to my employer in the UK. Following Le Redacteur's previous advice, I figured it best to tell them what they wanted to hear - that I did not plan to stay in the US - than complicate them with everything going through my head. As though I had spoken a magical password, he then said "your visa is approved". I did not even have to show my financial statments / loan offers, showing that I could financially support myself, or evidence of "social and economic ties" to the UK - both required in the official requirements list.

After the interview, there was yet more waiting and queues. There was a queue to pay the £15 to get my visa couriered back to me (yes, further adding to that visa application bill). At 16:40, I finally got out - free of one less headache on the way to matriculation.


Talking to people about the business.  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in ,

Lunching with me can be an investment opportunity of sorts. ©

The psychological process of commitment is interesting. For me, it starts with a thought. I think it through a lot. I then come to a decision as to whether or not to commit. I will start talking about the commitment with people I know, to gather their views. When talking to them, I'll often tell people that it's just something I'm thinking about. In reality, I will be beavering away in the background to move it ahead. I'll tend to be far more committed than they know.

At the start of the year, I started publicly talking to people outside my social circles about my plan to intertwine starting a business with completing an MBA. The best part of talking to people has been hearing their interpretation of what they think my ideas are. Sometimes their interpretation is better. When I speak to people and they ask questions, I realise how much I have actually thought things through. I'm slogging away at writing a business plan at the moment, so I find these questions useful.

When I was at DAK in February, I even ran my thoughts past a few people there. These not only included students and admits, but also people ranging from those at the technology incubator (tied to Northwestern University) to Farley Center for Entrepreneurship. I left those conversations with two distinct impressions - (1) that entrepreneurship at Northwestern is not centered at Kellogg and (2) that there are people around the university that do have the expertise to help me take my ideas forward.

Since then, back in the UK I have been getting in touch with people who might be interested in partnering with me to build a prototype of the idea. Most of these people are friends from university, now bona fide software developers. I'd meet them for lunch, one day after the next. After about the third person, I got into the flow of giving a pitch. However, the sell has been a lot harder than I imagined. This is partly because everyone I speak to is in the UK and well, I'm leaving the UK for Kellogg in August. "Can I have a job in 2 years, when you finish?" said one. "I have a better idea... no I'm not telling you what it is" said another. Throwing in talk of a programming scholarship they could apply to at Northwestern has not enticed them either. Perhaps I need to improve my sales skills? As unlikely as it would seem, the person showing most enthusiasm is someone I met again at a house party - "yeah! re-igniting the face of news", he says.

While the business plan is a work in progress, I've carved out a small section from it as a slide deck to describe the concept. Hopefully, this will make it easier to convey to people what my thoughts are, as I start talking to more and more people about my business proposition.


The most expensive phone call of my life.  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in , ,

Arranging the visa interview is so expensive, I'm sure I must have been calling the White House or something. ©

When I enrolled at Kellogg by submitting my deposit, I also submitted my I-20/DS-2019 Request Form to the school to allow me to apply for an F1 student visa. The I-20 finally arrived from Kellogg a week or two ago. On Friday I moved this process on to the next stages, which meant getting myself financially bled three times.
  • First, I paid $200 online for SEVIS. I don't know what SEVIS is, other than it is a necessary evil.
  • Then, I had to call up the consulate in the UK to book a visa interview. They charged £1.50 (~$2.20) a minute and the call lasted about 10 minutes. For some reason this felt the most painful of the three charges. Maybe this was because I could feel the money slowly and surely drawn out of me, whereas the other transactions were quick.
  • Thirdly, the visa interview itself cost $131 dollars.
I've scheduled the visa interview for next week. I'm hoping it is trouble free; the documentation they've sent through lists numerous reasons for abruptly canceling the interview and have me arrange (and pay for) another interview, including arriving at the embassy with a mobile phone.


Business startup ideas: the opportunity.  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in ,

I'm flying over to America in the Fall to find out. ©

I believe one of the next big opportunities in entrepreneurship is in content. Of the five ideas I previously mentioned for starting a business, the two that I continue to investigate in 2009 revolve around content.

The Internet has decimated existing business models for making money out of content. In the past, content would be tied to physical goods. For example, movies would be tied to the limited copies of the DVD that were made. The consumer paid for the DVD and the physical production of that DVD with the content on it. With content becoming digitized, the cost of creating copies has become zero - it as is easy as copying a word document. How do you create revenue streams from this? The music industry has suffered and continues to suffer from the disruption. The movie industry will suffer as high speed broadband connections become more common place. The newspaper industry is suffering at the moment.

While taking naps away from MBA applications during the latter half of 2008, I developed five ideas by tiny amounts as inspiration came to me. I jotted my thoughts on a private wiki (a Google site). As 2009 dawned, and I got my free time back after the MBA application process, the ideas that I continued to investigate were the ones that related to content: #4, #5 (Sorry PA for a While, Ahembeea). Here is a recap of those two ideas:

  • Product Placement: Video-on-demand is growing, not only through Tivo boxes, but through internet services such as Hulu. People don't want to watch adverts when using such services - with Tivo, you can skip straight through them. How might television advertising work in such an environment? One possibility is product placement - such as the American Idol idols drinking Coca Cola. This has largely been a niche area, but has potential for huge growth.
  • A new model for news: It does not look like newspapers will survive in their current form. What kind of other things will replace them? Perhaps community blogs where people like you and me contribute? Or will it be philanthropy funded news, such as that from ProPublica? There is massive opportunity in this space.

With TV, the content is already of course "free". Supported mainly through advertising, the problem the Internet has created is that it has become possible to strip away the advertising and redistribute the content without adverts. Will it prove feasible for force consumers to watch advertising clips? With respect to newspapers, text based content is the easiest to copy. Why pay the cover charge of a newspaper? I believe the newspaper area in particular has great opportunity. There are plenty of open source tools for content management and manipulation. Though this low barrier to entry also means every person and their aunty is doing something in this space, I think the differentiator for those that are successful will be in execution and innovation.

Through 2009, as I have developed my thinking, I have spent some time reading around these ideas and posted on these topics on this very blog. I noted that television is currently a three way matchmaking business. Perhaps the future of television is in brand integrated TV shows? i.e. giving away the content because it is in actually marketing material. I also speculated on the newspapers of the future. Perhaps they will be free publications? Or written by bloggers? I found writing these blog posts to be very helpful – they helped clarify my thinking on these areas and forced me to form opinions.

As I continue to explore these areas of opportunity, I'll continue to write about them here. The trick will be to not give too much away ;-).

My previous posts on free content:


Business startup ideas: the short-list.  

Posted by Dino Gane-Palmer né Ganesarajah in ,

They say the best ideas are simple... ©

During the last 6 months of 2008, as I was working through the MBA application process, in my spare time I started scribbling down ideas which could be seeds from which I could draft business plans later. I ultimately came up with five ideas. All five were related to media, perhaps because I have always been interested in media.

The essence of those ideas follows. Can you guess which ones survived into 2009? I'll post the answer in a future post.
  1. Digital TV Production: Many TV broadcasters, particularly smaller ones, still use physical tapes to record content - tapes that are passed from one department to another. If digital technology was used instead, content could be made easy to search through, store, manipulate and transfer. The opportunity in this idea is selling digital technology to broadcasters stuck in the analogue age.
  2. Emails and Relationship Management: You want to be in regular personal touch with 300 people, but hand-cranking an email to each person requires immense effort. What I need is a mail-merge for email. Not just a mail-merge, but something that tracks previous correspondence and makes it really easy for each relationship interaction to be unique.
  3. Open Source Film Making: Amateur videos on YouTube will never be able to compete with professional videos so long as one person – the person creating the YouTube video – is relied upon to possess all the skills necessary to a create video. We need a way to bring together people with specialist skills to work together to create the video. Something like BaseCamp, but for film-making; something to take video production from concept development/commissioning through scripting, casting, production (filming), post-production and eventual distribution.
  4. Product Placement: Video-on-demand is growing, not only through Tivo boxes, but through internet services such as Hulu. People don't want to watch adverts when using such services - with Tivo, you can skip straight through them. How might television advertising work in such an environment? One possibility is product placement - such as the American Idol idols drinking Coca Cola. This has largely been a niche area, but has potential for huge growth.
  5. A new model for news: It does not look like newspapers will survive in their current form. What kind of other things will replace them? Perhaps community blogs where people like you and me contribute? Or will it be philanthropy funded news, such as that from ProPublica? There is massive opportunity in this space.
Remember folks, ideas are worth nothing unless executed. They are just a multiplier. Execution is worth millions. More on that thought, here.