Monday, June 15, 2015

Management Lessons from M-Store

Hi to all my readers! It’s been quite a while! Three months to be exact. These three months saw a lot of changes. I graduated from IIM Kashipur and started working in Mumbai. More on all that later – in my next blog post about my IIM days. For now, let us stick to the topic of this post.

Warning: This is a long, 3000 word post.

Note: This post may interest you if you are interested in entrepreneurship or would like to read about some of the challenges linked to it. Otherwise, this post may not interest you. Will come back with an interesting post for you soon.

MStore or Merchandise Store was a store that we ran during our days at IIM Kashipur. What is it? Who started it? Why does it merit a blog post? So many questions may arise. Let me answer all that, as briefly as I can.

A brief history of MStore:

The Inception:
The Merchandise Store of IIM Kashipur was started in September 2013. An initiative of On Your Mark, the Marketing Club of IIM Kashipur, the Store was started by our senior members of the Marketing Club, ably led by Mr.Lakshya Sharma. The initiative was an idea of our coolest Prof – Prof. Dwarika Uniyal. The idea of the store was to procure IIM Kashipur – branded merchandise for the students, faculty and staff of IIM Kashipur.  Many of my batchmates got on board as we were excited by an idea of such a store, run by the students. A chance conversation with Lakshya got me into the Store. All that I had to offer then was a contact that I had from Tiruppur – the textile manufacturing hub of the country.

Our First Order:
We started with our first order – winter hoodies to withstand the cold of Kashipur. That was a first-time experience for us and as novices, we made a lot of mistakes. Right from order-taking to negotiations to customization to money collection to sample checking to delivery, there were mistakes committed at every stage. The result was that the product was delivered late – late by about a month. What’s worse was that we had gone for a complicated design – a design that could be done only by a digital printer. Despite the supplier’s warning that the design would look awkward if done by traditional printing, we asked him to go ahead as we were running late on schedule. As informed, the design looked shoddy and awkward. We delivered the product and as expected, received a lot of flak. But on the bright side, the product quality was decent and it withstood the cold of Kashipur. In between, we also took orders for a winter cap, where again, some miscommunication led to a product that was too flimsy to withstand the Kashipur cold.  For both these orders, we went with a vendor from Tiruppur.

The Redemption:
It was March 2014. Having received mixed responses for our first 2 orders, we really wanted to redeem ourselves. We analyzed our mistakes in the first 2 orders and we learnt what not to do from our end. We decided to go in for a T-shirt order now, before it was time for us to leave for our summer internship. Despite the short operating time, we went ahead with the order, focusing exclusively on our batch alone. The result was that we were able to deliver the shirts right on the last day of the term. For once, the product was on time and without any mistake. For once, we received some positive response and that pepped us up.

The second year:
We were ready for the second year. We were completely in control and we planned it all. We knew that we had some good orders in store this year and our faculty members were supportive too.  During the short holiday we had, I paid a visit to Tiruppur and to that particular supplier. I visited his plant and tried to understand the manufacturing process. That visit convinced me of the credentials of the supplier. I discussed this with our team and we realized that the debacle of our first order was more of our mistake than that of the supplier’s, for he followed our instructions to a T. 

So we had zeroed in on that supplier for our biggest order to date – IIM Kashipur T-shirts for the students. This time around, having learnt from our past mistakes, we were spot on from our end. Right from order taking to order placement to money collection, we made no mistake. We were happy with our work. But then there’s Murphy’s Law right? If everything was going right, then there’s certainly something wrong and Mr.Murphy had to intervene. Like the classical law, everything that could possibly go wrong at the vendor’s side went wrong. Here’s a look-back on the sequence of events:

1.      We placed the final order to the vendor and paid the advance on September 2nd, 2014. The vendor promised delivery of the finished product on or before September 25th.
2.      First, there was a delay in raw material supply to the vendor.
3.      Then, the print did not stick to the fabric initially.
4.      As a result of these, there was an operational delay at the vendor’s end.  The production got delayed by 10 days.
5.      By September 15th, we were forced to take an additional order due to a confusion that arose with respect to the batch T-shirt. As a result, an additional 30 pieces were added to the initial order on September 17th.
6.      When the sample product was ready, the vendor sent a whatsapp image for approval, as I had already seen the fabric during my visit to Tiruppur. The image was of the shirt before the printing of our institute logo. The product was approved by us without the logo. Little did we think that the logo printing would go so wrong.
7.      The vendor dispatched the final product on September 30th. We were supposed to have it by October 4th.
8.      By October 7th, there was no sign of the product reaching us while the online status showed that the product was delivered. We contacted the vendor who contacted the courier.
9.      The courier service was clueless initially. Then they promised to get back to us within a day.
10.  We discovered the next day that the product got shipped to the wrong address due to some confusion with two similar packages. Whether, the mistake was on the courier’s part or the vendor’s, we were not sure. Anyway, the product then got shipped again.
11.  Finally, we got the product on October 16th. We were in for a shock. The logo that we did not check was printed in the wrong color.
12.  Imagine if Manchester United logo were printed in blue colour or Chelsea’s in red color, how blasphemous it would be. The same was the case here. Instead of dark blue color, the logo was in a light shade of blue. When asked about it, the vendor coolly replied that only with a light shade would the logo appear nice in the dark background. Oh God! I gave the vendor an earful that night. That was probably the angriest that I had been in Kashipur.
13.  The next 2 days were spent on contemplating what to do as the wrong logo would be deemed unacceptable. I was on the phone all the time for the next 2 days and the vendor finally agreed to take them back and rework on them, to get us the correct logo.
14.  It was an arduous task to repack the lot and re-ship them back to the vendor. The whole deal cost me about Rs.8k personally (which I adjusted in the final payment to the vendor).
15.  The lot was re-shipped on October 21st. Then it was a long wait for something to happen from the vendor’s side. So many tricks were tried on the fabric by the vendor to no avail.
16.  It was mid-November and by now, many people started demanding a refund of their money, and we had to refund a few people who were willing to wait no longer.
17.  Finally, the vendor decided to attach a patch of the right logo over the wrongly printed logo. Since we had no other recourse, we agreed and the patch-up work was done.
18.  Then the issue of payment cropped up. We had paid only 50 percent and the vendor felt that we may not pay him the remaining due to the delay. So he demanded that we pay him up or else, he won’t dispatch. Oh God! This was a shocker and he was behaving like a goon. I then spoke with him, paid him a token amount and got the goods dispatched.
19.  Finally, the goods arrived on December 3rd, 2014. A delay of 68 days. By now, people who ordered had even forgotten that they had placed an order with us.
20.  We gave away the shirts and for once, I was a relieved man.

The aftermath, the devil threat and handing over the baton:
The T-shirt order took a huge toll on me – mentally, physically and emotionally. I decided not to be directly involved in any of the upcoming orders. My teammates stepped in and they took care of some of the other orders like TEDx T-shirts, winter hoodies, fest T-shirts, fest hoodies and so on. Most of these orders were successful as we built a new supplier network consisting of suppliers from the vicinity that we managed to seal a deal with. 

But one of the orders – the TEDx t-shirts,  got delayed. The first batch of shirts was delivered on time, while the second batch got delayed by about 25 days. That delay spurred an anonymous mail sent in the name of ‘devil’, which spewed venom in every sentence. That only added to our headache, but we knew better to carry on with our work than to waste our time on anonymous mails.

Finally, it was time for us to hand over the reins of the Store to our junior team. We had a wealth of knowledge to share with them through our learnings from our own experiences– mostly on what not to do, rather than what to do.  But with the knowledge of all our mistakes to guide them and with a renewed list of a good vendor base in hand, we have left them with an excellent structure in place, from where they could take the Store forward. We had already hit rock-bottom during our tenure and so they have nothing to worry about.  I firmly hope and believe that the Store is set to soar high in the days to come.

Lessons learnt from MStore:

During the course of running the Store, we learnt so many things – both good and bad. Sometime during the T-shirt fiasco phase, I decided that if we ever come out of it, I’ll definitely write about it someday. Sounds like Chetan Bhagat, I know, but yeah, whatever. Here are some lessons that we learnt:

1.      Buy Right:
 Prof. Dwarika informed us that the golden rule of retailing is to buy right. We faltered on that front on many occasions and we paid the price.

2.      There are no friends in business:
 This may shock some of you, but if you’re serious about your business, you’ll understand. Don’t let any personal equation come in the way of professional relationships. I was on friendly terms with the Tiruppur supplier and we interacted like friends. I was able to negotiate a good price too, because of this. But all that changed with that T-shirt order and the day he threatened us to pay in order to dispatch. That was a rude wake-up call. That’s when I realized how it was a mistake on my part to try and be on friendly terms with him. While it was okay to be friendly, there always exists a thin line that separates the professional front from personal relationships and it is important to be conscious of that.

3.      Create competition:
 This is a simple rule of Economics. Monopoly seldom thrives. Always create a competition. Our reliance on a single supplier in the initial stages, cost us dear. 

4.      Seeing is believing – not quite:
 As far as this Store is concerned, I’d not settle for seeing. I’d need to touch and feel the sample, before I’d believe. Never go in for an order without physically examining the sample yourselves.

5.      The customer is always right:
 Well, this is the hardest lesson to take in. It is a simple fact. The moment a person pays you – be it 1 rupee or 500 rupees, he/she becomes your customer. A person’s behavior changes completely the moment a transaction takes place. Friends may turn foe, foes may turn friends. It’s all part of the game. Through it all, remember this fact! The customer is always right! The success of your business depends on his/her satisfaction. But then…

6.      It is impossible to satisfy everyone:
 This is something that you need to understand and accept. While you can strive hard to give your best, perfection is not always possible. There will always be that one customer who may not be satisfied, no matter what you give. Their sole objective might be to find fault with everything. You can never satisfy them. It is important to identify them early and weed them out slowly, if you are to move forward.

7.      Never promise more than what you can deliver:
 This is another important lesson that we learnt the hard way. You can promise less and deliver more. That way, you’ll delight the customer. But by doing the opposite, you will only disappoint him/her.

8.      Apologize when things go wrong:
 Yes. Own up your mistakes!  Apologize! The one thing that we became experts in during our tenure at the Store was in writing apology mails. :P  Not something that we can be proud of, yet, it is something that we learnt and learnt to do well. The numerous apology mails to all the angry emails that we received from peeved customers made us experts in the art of writing apology mails. And we received so many howlers. Most of them from people we knew well on the outside. That’s when I realized how people change the moment they become customers. I even wondered how so-and-so person could spew so much venom in his/her mails, when he/she hardly utters a word outside. That ‘devil’ anonymous mail was another case-in-point. But anonymous mails don’t deserve apologies.  I realized that even I might do the same the moment I become a customer. The other day, I received an apology mail from Ola cabs and I was laughing at it, for I felt that I could write the mail better :P Experience, you see!  ;-) :P

9.      Things can still go wrong:
 Despite all your efforts, there are certain things that are beyond your control. And so things can go wrong. So be prepared for it and don’t fret over it. During the months of October and November 2014, I hardly had a night of peaceful sleep. Whenever anyone questioned me on the shirts or passed a comment on the MStore, I felt hurt. Every morning, I used to wake up and the first thought that came to me was about the shirts. I used to open the MStore mail id the first thing in the morning and see if there are any angry emails from the customers. If so, I’d again get hurt on reading them. It was only later did I realize that I was taking it all too personally.  Come to think of it, we did everything right from our end as far as the T-shirt order was concerned. The only mistake on our part was to trust the supplier and approve the sample without the logo. That’s when I realized that things may go horribly wrong, even if you do everything right from your end. You just have to be prepared for it. For in Service industry, there’s no certainty. When things can go wrong for a product like Maggi, it can for anything and anyone. That’s why the whole Maggi ban episode amused me. I was observing how Nestle are handling it and tried to relate it to our own experience with the shirts.

10.  Never quit in the face of adversity:
 During the crisis phase, there were so many days when I felt like quitting the Store and running away from it. But then, I resolved to stay on and face it all, come what may. There would have been no bigger shame than to quit and run away in that kind of adversity. If you brought this upon yourselves, then be brave enough to stand up and face the consequences yourselves, than run away. The whole shirt episode strengthened my nerves many fold and I developed a thick skin.

11.  Easy to criticize, tough to act:
 We are all arm-chair experts. Yes, we are. You, me, everyone. We find it easier to criticize, but when  asked to act, very few of us would come forward. Only when we come forward, would we realize the truth in this statement. I realized it and learnt it the hard way. I know I’ve needlessly criticized some in the past. But this Store experience changed my outlook.  I realized how it is easy to talk, but a lot difficult to act. I’ve almost stopped criticizing anything after this experience. If I don’t like it, I simply ignore it, rather than criticize it; unless it really warrants that criticism.  The same was realized by a couple of friends who once wrote a venomous mail to the MStore. An assignment they took up later, changed their outlook. Having said this, I do believe that criticism is necessary. You won’t improve otherwise. But the criticism has to be constructive in nature. And you should be judicious enough to decide which ones to take seriously and which ones to ignore.
There may be numerous other learnings, but these are the ones that came to my mind right now. I read somewhere that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.  To draw a parallel, the glory of success is short-lived, while the scar of a failure, lingers.

There are so many success stories to talk about in my Kashipur life. But all that taught me so little. This one small seemingly-failed-episode taught me so much that I’ll cherish the learnings from this experience. I am calling it a seemingly-failed-episode ‘cause none of us would term it a failure. The Store may have failed to match up to our lofty expectations during our tenure, but we have put up a structure in place, that we are sure, would succeed.

There you go! I’ve shared all that came to my mind. Like I said, I promised that I’ll write about the whole episode. I was contemplating a case study, but then Harvard case studies require some drama and I’m hardly in a mood to build a fictitious drama around this episode. Hence this post here.

I’d be doing disservice to this post if I failed to mention the team that I was talking about. Nikhil Dudhe, Vineet Chauhan, Pavansivakumar Nalla, Harish V, Barnali Roy, Swami Sachidanand, Nikhil Kumar, Deba Pratim Sinha and Sherry Singh, along with yours truly. The MStore would have shut but for the efforts put in by these people, at different points of time –be it small or large.  I should also mention the founding members of the Store – Lakshya Sharma, Shashank Kumar, Shashank Jareth, Saurabh Bhise and Arun Kandikonda – our eminent seniors from the Marketing Club. The Store was their vision and we’ll remember it always. I also take this opportunity to thank all the well-wishers of the Store from different batches and some of the Faculty members who stood by us and encouraged us , especially Prof. Dwarika Uniyal and Prof. Rajat Sharma. 

Here’s to the prosperity of the Store in the days to come! Cheers!

-Ashwin Murali

PS:  MStore was started as a not-for-profit initiative. We reverted to a traditional business model when we found out that it is difficult to sustain that way. But even then, our bottomline is negative as it stands. It will take some time for this to change.

PPS: I may have learnt so many courses during MBA, but nothing taught me more about running a business than this experience with the MStore. And I’m immensely proud of that. I’ve shared some of my humble lessons with you here. I may be wrong about some of my learnings, but I’m happy that I’ve had the chance to make my own mistakes and learn from it. Just like the rest of us!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The mysterious phone call

 It was about 7 PM in the evening. I was sitting in my room, deep in thought, when the phone rang.

An unknown number.

Who would it be?

I picked up.

Me: Hello!

The other person (Let’s call it ‘Op’ in short): Hello! Am I talking to Mr. Ashmur?

A girl voice! Strange ‘cause very few people, that too only my close friends, call me that. Who is this then?

Me: Yes. Tell me! Who’s this?

Op: Never mind who I am. I wanted to talk to you.

Me: Sorry? Talk to me? About what? And why should I talk to someone who I do not know?

I felt strange. A sweet girl voice. An unknown number. Not revealing their identity. Must be some friend of mine who’s playing with me.

Op: About something important. Please listen to me. And if it’s important, my name is Lavanya.

Lavanya? I only know of 2 Lavanyas and I could confidently say that it was neither.

Me: Lavanya? Which Lavanya? Stop playing with me. Tell me who is this and what do you want?

Op: I told you. My name is Lavanya. I know you from your blog. I follow it. And I do know things about you that no one else would know.

That’s strange!

Me: Like what?

Op: Like you just watched the Nirbhaya documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ and you are disturbed because of that – especially the graphic reconstruction of the horrific event.

I was taken aback. How did she know that? Did I write about it somewhere? Oh yeah, I tweeted about it. Must be following me on Twitter too. But I don’t recollect any Lavanya following me on Twitter. And how did she get my number? By now, I was convinced that it was a friend who was trying to play a prank on me.

Me: You must be following me on Twitter. But tell me, who are you? Who gave you my number? Stop playing with me. I don’t have time for this. I am cutting the call if you don’t reveal your identity.

Op: Stop! No. Don’t cut the call. I’m serious. I’m not any prankster. You do not know me, but I know you. Beyond Twitter & blog too. I know you because I have seen you. I’m a journalist. But that’s what the world thinks I do. I moonlight for the intelligence bureau. 

Me: What? Enough of this kidding. Tell me who this is. Or I’m cutting the call now.

Op: I know you won’t believe me. I’ll tell you something about you that no one else in this world would know. You’d probably believe me then. 

She told me. I was stunned.

Op: Hope you believe me now. Just listen to me. The reason I picked you to make this call is because I felt that you are the most responsible of the 3 persons I had in my list. Now, I want you to do as I say.

By now, I was numb. Is it for real? What’s happening? Whatever she told me, stunned me to say the least. How could she know? Like she said, no one in the world knows.

Me: I dunno what to say. Please tell me. 

Op: I am recording this conversation. I’ll send you the audio file once we end this call. I’ll send it via mail. You are to write about this phone call in your blog within the next 3 days. Please quote me verbatim in the conversation. 

Me: What purpose will that serve? 

Op: It holds a cryptic message to what we are doing. I’m involved in an assignment with the IB. We are tracking down some cyber attacks. In that fight, we post such messages in some random blogs. That’s all I can say for now. 

Me: What you say is scary!  What if you are just lying? What if I’m being used as a pawn here? What if you don’t belong to the IB but some terror network?

Op: Even if that were the case, do you have a choice?

Now, that was really frightening.

Me: What do you mean?

Op: I mean to say that you’ll write it anyway, irrespective of whether you believe me or not.

Me: What?

Op: Yes, you will. Open your mail now. Your personal mail, not your institute id. 

I hurriedly opened my mail in my laptop, while the call was still on. There was a mail from someone called Lavanya. I opened it.
Hi Ashmur,
It was nice talking to you on the phone. PFA the audio file recording of the call.

And there was an audio file attached.
I was a little shocked. I got back to the call. 

Me: Hello?

Op: Got the mail? Fine! Let me assure you that there’s nothing for you to worry. This is a routine intelligence exercise. Just write the blog post and that’s all. 

Me: O...O... Okay!

Op: Now Ashmur, enough of my business. Let’s talk something else. 

Me: Wh...What?

Op: A word of advice. Do not worry about the days ahead! I know you are evaluating 3 choices in your mind. Go for the second one. That’s the best for you.


Op: I told you I know more about you than probably you yourself do. 

Me: But... But this?

Op: Ha ha ha!

She laughed loudly

Op: Don’t worry about it!  All your info is safe with the IB. Now, I’ll end the call. Don’t try to trace the number for you won’t find such number anywhere in the world! We use a cryptic app for calling. Also, you won’t find the mail id anywhere. So do not worry about it! Plus the mail will self-destroy itself in an hour. So download the audio file before that! Do not try to take any screenshot of the mail! It won’t work. We have fed a worm into your system that will disable the action. Again, do not worry! The worm will kill itself once the mail destroys itself. And that’s not all. The worm will destroy the audio file and all traces of it too.

Me: A well laid out plan?

Op: Ofcourse! It’s time for me to go. Just listen to the audio soon and blog about this whole conversation within 3 days. Your job is done. We won’t bother you again.

Me: But there’s hardly anything in this conversation that sounds secretive. It’s as plain as anything else.

Op: Well, that’s the beauty of it. It appears plain to everyone. But not to cryptologists like us. Just do what I say.

Me: O…O… Okay! 

Op: Fine then! Nice talking to you, Ashmur! Looking forward to your blog. Keep writing! Bye!

With that she cut the call. It took me 5 minutes to regain my senses. 

I opened the mail again and checked the id. It said Lavanya <>

I tried to take a screen shot. It was not functioning. My snipping tool was also not functioning. I took my phone and tried to take a pic. All that came in the pic were some blurred lines. Looks like the worm had taken care of this too. The screen resonance was at its highest, that hardly anything was visible in the phone cam. I downloaded the audio file and listened to it. It was for 7 mins. Once I was done listening, the ‘blue screen of death’ appeared and the system restarted. 

When I logged in again, the saved audio file was not to be seen. The mail was also gone and no trace of it remained. I checked my phone. The number was also not to be seen in the call records.

What kind of sorcery is this?

I went to sleep thinking about it. 

When I woke up the next morning, I once again checked everywhere. No traces were to be found. Was this all a nightmare? 

Must be! I forgot about it for two days and carried on normally until today afternoon when I got a message from an unknown number.

Hi Ashmur, hope you are posting that blog. Today is the third day. Wanted to remind you. By the way, your phone will restart in another 30 seconds.

As soon as I closed the message, the phone mysteriously restarted. When it started again, the message was not to be seen. 

I was now convinced that I had to write the blog. And hence this post.


 PS: Lavanya, here's your post. I know that can't be your name. But, I've kept my promise. So don't bother me again.

PPS: Truth is stranger than fiction.

PPPS: Nothing stops you from thinking that this is just a fiction. I'd love to think so too. But what if it's real?