René Seifert

Entrepreneur, Global Citizen, Flat World, Internet, Web 2.0, Innovation, Start-Up

Archive for November, 2008

War on Mumbai: View from Bangalore

Thanks for all the concern which you expressed in mails, tweets and calls. I can assure you that I am fine, not in Mumbai and in a safe place in Bangalore. Beyond the obvious shock from the news, today's attack send a very personal shiver down my spine, because I love Mumbai as a vibrant city unlike any other, have spent many times there, in particular slept many nights in the Taj Mahal Hotel. The same Taj Mahal Hotel which has been one of the prime targets of the terrorist attacks. The last time I spent there was some three weeks ago, where I also blogged here with a pic, me sitting with my friends Sasha Mirchandani and Amit Grover for a peaceful breakfast on the poolside. From media reports I am watching, this place has become a scene of carnage, horror and bloodshed, with a dead body floating on the surface of the water.

Today is not a day to talk about myself, my thoughts are with the many other innocent guests who were simply at the wrong time at the wrong place last night. More than 100 who have lost their lives, one of them the German entrepreneur Ralph Burkei from my home town Munich. As I am writing, the drama is still on. What started as as deadly orchestrated terror attack on 11 prime locations in Mumbai transformed into a hostage taking on an unprecendeted scale of magnitude. As the authorities won't release numbers, the rumours range between 30 to 200 people in particular the Oberoi Trident Hotel are being held hostage by the terrorists.

What is life like in Bangalore? As I also could observe in the aftermath of the Tsunami, India is very robust. At least what Bangalore is concerned, life seems to go on quite normally, all shops, offices and schools operate as usually. Also all international flights from and to Bangalore, including Lufthansa, are running on schedule. However when you speak to people you can feel their concern and shock by their subdued voices and sadness in their eyes.

My before mentioned friend Amit called me today to ask if I was ok and I asked him about the situation in Andheri (further north in Bombay). He explained to me that hardly anybody is on the street and people are following the government's advise to stay at home today. On German media, like most other international ones, the attacks are the top story with constantly breaking news of the latest development. In that context I got a call from my former colleague Thomas Linke from the radio station Bayern 3 whom I helped connect to Bernhard Steinruecke, the head of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce for an interview.

Let me clear on a misperception which might easily arise in the west: Foreigners have not been targeted specifically in these attacks, although the first impression with two 5 star hotels and Cafe Leopold in Colaba (where I have eaten many times) might indicate so. This attack was not motivated out of xenophobia or anything like that. An Indian hospital with predominatly women and children as well as the Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus (former "Victoria Terminus') have indiscrminately become the targets of attack. Also, from my experience, these hotels are not just sleep-overs for foreigners, but in particular the favourite meeting places for both business and personal meetings of residents of Mumbai. Hence, the terrorists carefully selected their 11 targets from a very sober and correct assessment where the terror would be perceived worst with the global media covering best. That, as Thomas Friedman puts vividly, is the dark and ugly side of the "flat world".

As the drama is still on, with innocent people still in the hands of madmen committed to go to the ultimate, it is certainly too early for an analysis, let alone scapegoating. Yet, I staunchly believe that the question will be allowed how at least 40 people were able to plot such an attack with significant planning and logistics undetected. What is more, raid 11 places in Mumbai in parallel, many of the the very neural centres of the city, like an army of mercenaries in state out of control. Especially, the hostage taking in the Oberoi Hotel reminds me in the first place of Bruce Willis' sequel "Die Hard", were it not a sad reality on a day India and the world will never forget. Yet, it should raise issues about the quality of leadership in government, in particular when in comes in protecting its people.

Good Morning, Vietnam …

… which is not just the title of a comedy-drama movie of the 80s, but also serves well as a motto for travelling in this lush and vibrant country. In the first place that means: Things start really early in Vietnam. Breakfast at 6 am and even in top-category hotels like Majestic in Saigon it ends at 9.30 am. So you better get up with the sun, before the hunger goes under with you. Then latest at 7 am the the omnipresent tsunami of motorbikes will start rushing through the city with each and every driver pursuing his  ambition for the day under the mandatory helmet. 

Motor(bike)cade in Saigon

As Vietnam is so full of beautiful people, landscapes, situations and expressions, it is photographers' paradise. I took some 300 shots, here on my Flickr-set. If I had to select my favourite one, it's this, from a young woman at a street market in the Mekong-Delta who is selling live chicken and ducks. 

Duck Dealer in Mekong Delta

Overall, as we learnt from our Vietnamese tour-guide Long, that "if it moves, it's edible." The Vietnamese cuisine will not eschew stuff like crocodile (there are farms from breeding them), lots of eel, sometimes even dog (I made a pass on that) and in various forms the snake will trail its way onto the table. What I tried, seems to be a true speciality (here are all the pics on my first collage on Slide): The snake gets brought alive to your table, in this case it was a venomous one, where it gets killed with a knife on the spot, its blood gets poured into a jar of vodka, likewise its still pulsating heart in another one after which it goes down with a toast. As Long explained: "Snake blood makes you strong!" 

Drinking Snakeblood with Vodka in Vietnam

I am not exactly sure about that, yet as I got critical comments for "killing innocent lives" for this snake-drink, let me tell you my view: From the perspective of a strict vegetarian, this might indeed me true, and then in very general terms for each and every piece of meat you consume. This moral stance is fully accepted. Yet, the very fact that the act happens in front of your very eyes, for me at least brings back the reality what each and every meal incurring meat means: Killing lives. When I saw it, I also felt lightly at unease – admittedly. Yet I also felt that I am not just an accidental bystander, but rather – if not the actual agent of the action – its very promoter. I for everyone being critical on that, the same person should consider the poor lamb in a remote slaughterhouse when all you see and taste is the yummy sausage on the plate in front of you. Finally, to just finalize on the snake: We did not "waste" it just for the sake of its blood, but we ate it in total in a soup which simmered in front of us, and made it a dignified element in the food chain. How it tastes? Let's say chewy and hard-bitten, but not bad at all.

Vietnam has been one of the darlings of the emerging markets, as the Economist neatly explains in its recent special "Half-way from rags to riches" with average annual growth rates of 7.5 % GDP, an elevation of a majority of its people from poverty and an open and accessible economy to foreign investors. One thing the puzzles me when I travel the length of the world, is the concentration of top-designer brands all over the place at one spot. In Saigon, how everyone still calls what officially is Ho Chi Minh City, it's on Dong Khoi Street where the Versaces and Luis Vuittons have set up shop.

Lous Vuitton Shop in Saigon

How well visited these will be during the current economic crisis, remains to be seen, looking into them these days the ratio between shop assistants and customers was consistently 5:0. But still, it show that affluence has arrived to a country which used to be sealed off, at the brink of a famine and its infamous "boat people" being the living nightmare on the shores of its neighbours. But then there is still the "Old Vietnam" which constitutes the true charm of travelling. Take the floating market of Cai Rang on the Mekong River where basically the entirely life happens on the water. Babies get born on the 15 meters long family boat which deals for one season only with pineapples (the entire hulk is full of them), exchange of goods and money happens on the river, couples get married, whole families live, eat and sleep on one boat. We even came across a funeral ceremony taking place on a vessel. Small scale business are around as well, what was approaching our boat was something like the "Starbucks" of Cai Rang.

Floating Market of Cai Rang on the Mekong River

The lady would bind her vessel to ours, pour coffee in a glass, add super-sweet thick milk with ice-cubes and blend it all together. So this is your Vietnamese version of an "I-Caffeee" (so the pronunciation for "ice-coffee :-) to go or rather "to float". Especially in the South people are so extremely hospitable and friendly, would greet you, children smile at you and make you really feel welcome in their country. It's quite amazing to reflect what the same kin of people have gone through when U.S.-forces bombed, shelled and gassed their homeland back to stone-age during the Vietnam-war. Although all this has to be put into the specific historical context of that era, I do hold a lot of the respect for the perseverance and resilience of the Vietnamese people to eventually prevail. A site not to be missed out for a close-up inspection are the Cu Chi tunnels close to Saigon, where the Vietcong rebels spun a 250 km underground network for surprise attacks on the G.I.s. before vanishing as quickly as they had emerged. 

Cu Chi Tunnels of Vietcong

Yet, Vietnam is not just forest and river, it's also beautiful beaches, as on the island of Phu Quoc in the Golf of Thailand, just 15 km south of Cambodia. In a rather simplistic comparison it reminded me of Koh Samui in Thailand 15 years ago: simple beach huts,  rudimentary restaurants, street-markets with food stalls and the vast majority of streets still dust and not concrete. But things are changing also on Phu Quo, too, lots of development for hotels is happening, one fantastic 5-star boutique resort "La Veranda " is already there (I recommend :-), streets are getting done and an international airport is in the planning phase. The nice thing, though, that at present is still has maintained its picturesque and genuine flair where remote and secluded beaches are in reach of a 45-minute motorbike-ride over the bumpy street. 

La Veranda Resort in Phu Quoc

In 9 days I am aware that I have barely scratched the surface of Vietnam, maybe dug a bit deeper in the South. Reversely, there is still so much to explore to the North, in Hanoi and its vast hinterland in the mountains. I feel I have to come back for more.

Bangalore Oktoberfest 2008: Many Nations and the Consul General, too

It must have been the third time in a row, if I'm not mistaken, that I attended the "other Oktoberfest", the one in Bangalore, which lasts exactly one evening, yesterday evening. On the big plus side – as also in the previous years – has certainly been the band from Lower Bavaria which combined true Bavarian "hum-ta-ta" Music with an amazing capability for re-playing contemporary hits. So the party was on, with dancing, in spite of the dance-ban in Bengaluru. 

CIMG3083

The most important: Pictures for such an event say more than a thousand words. Hence, here we are with the set "Bangalore Oktoberfest 2008" on my Flickr-account. Today I got the question by a journalist: "Is there a difference between the real Oktoberfest in Munich and the one in Bangalore?" – Well, I started with a lengthy intellectual answer on history, culture and tradition of the event, a bit like Barack Obama would do. Then I decided to swap for John McCain and the short answer was: "Imagine Germans in a dance school hopping to modern Indian music and try to compare that to Bollywood." 

The crowd was very diverse, with a variety of nations each of then expressing their own interpretation of Bavarian culture, well, at least in South India. Yo, yo, here are the Ladies in da House:

They love Germany :-)

In terms of representation of nation, the event was an official invitation of the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bangalore, Mr. Stefan Graf. (I just looked up out of general interest on Wikipedia, what the official address to a consul general would be. It's in German language "Herr Generalkonsul".) The consulate and Mr. Graf in particular are doing a great job here in South India being visible with their services, caring for the fellow citizens and always having an open ear in case of questions or issues. Hence, I put on my finest Oktoberfest-smile having the honour of a joint picture with the "Herr Generalkonsul" :-)

Consul General Stefan Graf & Me

Ein Prosit (Cheers).

Stories of Recession in India

Had a fully, yet excited day in Mumbai yesterday. Early morning at 8.30 am (and that's really very early for India) I met up with my friend Sasha Mirchandani from Blue Run Ventures and Amit Grover from Onida. Sasha is the founder of MumbaiAngels which I joined a few months ago, Amit is with highest efficiency and dedication taking care of operational matters with approximately 70 angel investors by now. Sometimes this seems to me like the challenge herding cats ;-)

Me & Sasha Mirchandani

We had an inspiring peer-2-peer exchange with respect to best practises on the entire value chain of creating deal-flow to closing a deal. In the context of funding I understood that some angel investors have become a bit hesitant since their stock-portfolios in India got destroyed whilst uncertainty has started to cover the entire economy. At the same time, as Google-founder Sergey Brin put it recently, "Scarcity creates Clarity. In my interpretation also in the sense that certain business ideas will thrive in a rather downturn economy as they help companies consolidate their act through cost savings when management attention is not just obsessively concerned with hyper-growth.

In the afternoon, like a year and two ago, I joined an invitation by INSEAD for its "globalization course" for a Danish Business School. The participants were all senior executives in Denmark who are undergoing an MBA-training. Three groups of companies presented to us their "India Business Concept" and we were supposed to give constructive feedback and share our experience on "founding and running a business in India".

INSEAD MBA-session

Between the breaks, us panelists exchanged our current state of affairs when it's no point denying that we are in a recession:

  1. One young entrepreneur told the story from above from the MumbaiAngels from her perspective (unrelated to MumbaiAngels, yet to investors in general): In spite of a signed MoU, the investors backed out in the last minute.
  2. The head of a globally active petrol retail company lost a higher double digit figure of his revenues when the oil price hit US$ 140 per barrel a few months ago. Reason: His company is privately run and therefore fully exposed to the price fluctuations it has to pass on to the customers while the majority of petrol-retail in India is state-run and heavily subsidized. In the meanwhile the price has dropped and the company's revenue recovered. 
  3. The India-responsible for a luxury clothing brand reported that two months ago, customer inflow into his stores has become incredibly lame. Understood that this sector gets hit first, as it is certainly not somebody's primary concern in uncertainty to spend EUR 1.800 on a new suit.

All in all quite eye-opening stories I wanted to share here, especially as they come from so many different angles: investment, consumption, government-spending where everything is related/looped to everything and we practically have the entire macroeconomic equation in front of us. Although one where the maths have recently become a bit shaky.