René Seifert

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

Archive for August, 2009

From Austria to China

After 2 days in Austria’s imperial capital Vienna, arrived yesterday after a yummy flight with Austrian Airlines in Beijing. Yummy flight, because Austrian Airlines entertains a real cook in its Business Class who fully played out his culinary art in 35,000 feet altitude.

The contrast couldn’t be any starker between the impressions from Austria and China. The capital of the former discounting a lot from its past, whereas the capital of the latter has fully embarking on its future.Without repeating stuff which everyone knows anyway about the political system in China, just interesting to note that in spite of staying in a hotel with many guests from the West, The Peninsula, internet-access to Facebook and Twitter are blocked (as are Wikipedia and XING). So please bear with me if I am not as flexible and in responding as I usually try to be. The only access I get is via my mobile phone – including the terrible roaming charges for my German number …

Just one last word from Vienna where I went into a very touching exhibition of Elisabeth of Austria, famously called “Sissy”, wife to the last emperor Franz Joseph. Sissy, who wasn’t any like a royal dumb-ass at all, was a sportive woman and also an avid writer, where I stumbled upon a line of her poems which resonated with me

Destinations are only desirable because a journey lies in between. If I arrived somewhere and knew I would never leave again, even a sojourn in paradise would turn into hell for me.

OLPC India fail and Plan B “Wipro Netbooks for Vatsalya”

This is the blog post I had hoped to avoid. For one, as I would have loved to proceed as planned and for second, starting a fight around good purposes is the last thing I ever wanted to get into. Still, in order to proceed with „Plan B“ of our Vatsalya-charity, I need to shed some light why I can’t keep to our initial intentions. These were, just for the record: providing 11 laptops from „One Laptop per Child“ (OLPC) to the Vatsalya Orphanage in Bangalore.

Preparation for the Charity with OLPC India
Sadly, when I thought what all could go wrong in the beginning, the least thing I thought of is what in fact did go wrong. All else went smooth so far: Getting the commitments, rolling the money in (it’s sitting in my bank account waiting to get spent), preparing the orphanage for the computers and so on. Yet, what I can’t deliver are the 11 OLPC computers, because OLPC India is unable to deliver them. By contrast, hereby also acknowledging its achievements, the organization has managed to secure a deal with the Indian government to roll out 250,000 laptops.

I will try not to bore you in a blame-game with details which e-mails were sent at what date and what phone calls were made on which hour, but I can assure you that Petra and I did our homework in getting the facts right BEFORE we started to communicate the project on this blog. At no point in time Mr. Satish Jha, the head of OLPC India, hinted us to any constraints in delivering less than a minimum lot of 100 computers. Through him, for instance, we received the information of the price (Rs. 16,499) including logistics to the desired destination.

OLPC India: Minimum 100 computers per order
However, when we enthusiastically posted our order to Mr. Jha, things started to go downhill as I alluded to in this blog-post four weeks ago. Now, after Mr. Jha unfortunately did not keep to his commitment to let us know how to include the 11 computers into a bigger lot of 100 units, I don’t shy away of sharing with you that I wasn’t particularly impressed by the phone conversation with him.

In the 40 minutes “conversation”, Mr. Jha spoke approximately 39.5 minutes, which to me came more as a lecture (albeit a genuinely friendly one) than the focussed attempt to solve a problem. Mr. Jha’s deep diving into intellectual nuances between the educational concepts of „Dr Negroponte“ vs. “Mr. Sugata Mitra” concluding in polished rhetoric with the well balanced synthesis that those of Dr. Negroponte were superior, was not really what I wanted to hear – lest to start from scratch convincing me of the unparalleled grandeur of the OLPC-computers. Hello? We were way beyond the sales-pitch. We wanted the laptops! Yesterday.

OLPC India: What goes wrong in the „Long Tail“
As a person, and I mean what I say, I find Mr. Jha really sympathetic, but from a managerial standpoint the 40 minutes conversation with such a „small fish“ like me for 11 computers was a waste of time – not for me, but for him. I don’t intend to pretend that I know everything, in particular better, but let me take the opportunity to share my thoughts from my entrepreneurial experience how to improve the obvious shortcomings at OLPC India for the „long tail“. By that I mean a high number of orders, which contain a small number of units that in turn seem economically unfeasible to process, manufacture and deploy one by one. In the phone call, Mr. Jha mentioned rather by the way, that he had “hundreds of other requests for small-scale orders”. I’d consider this an un-served opportunity.

  1. Sustainable communication: Instead of answering the same and again the same questions from long-tail customers, like me why not Mr. Jha start a blog, admitting openly to the problem of delivering small lots, continuously building up an online knowledge-base and having someone in the organization basically sending the right URLs as answers via e-mail?
  2. System support: Why not tie up with one of the IT-pros like Wipro, Infosys or TCS who would for sure allocate a few developers for free (in exchange for becoming an official „partner“) and build a simple, but smart online system. Like on Amazon, you place your order, the system aggregates them, considers geographical issues along a few to be established logistics hubs in India, and gives back a heuristic approximation how long the „waiting time“ will be till the magic threshold of 100 units is reached. Once, the number of 100 per logistic hub has been brought together, the „buyers“ are asked to make the payment and here we are. The rest is basic execution. (I feel one of the overarching problems is anyway that OLPC doesn’t perceive itself in any “business” where they are facing “demand”, “customers” who come with “expectations” which want be fulfilled and all that stuff. Which brings me to point number 3.
  3. Upfront-Capital: If we really, really break the problem down, then it is in fact a one of pre-capitalization. What I mean by that: Having upfront capital to buy, build and put the laptops on stock from where they could be delivered in an instant through a logistics network. I believe there are plenty of „social venture capital funds“ or „social entrepreneurs“ around who would be willing to put capital up-front against some (reduced) return on capital.

Sure, it would mean that there is all of a sudden a profit-component in the equation for somebody. One which would make the difference between dogmatic purity of a non-profit-concept (as Mr. Negroponte explains vividly in one of this TED-talks), yet at the same time loaded with problems as we have them at our very hands VERSUS deliberately blurring the lines to profit and being able to just deliver. To conclude from the philosophical standpoint myself: I can’t avoid the impression that Friedrich von Hayek, the Nobel laureate of the 70’s in economics, was so awfully right. That organizations which are not geared towards profit, tend to become be default inefficient or worse, ineffective.

At least starting with points 1 and 2 would truly start building an organization that is replicable and steadily builds up speed and scale. Point 3 could be part of a later stage in the roadmap. Or as Clay Shirky, author of the must-read “Here comes Everybody” put it last week during his keynote as the SES-Conference:

It’s better to build a working small system and scale it than set-up a big system and try to fix it.

Interestingly enough, I don’t seem to be alone with my impression: Harrie Vollard who runs an amazing charity Making Miles for Millennium as a side-project to his day-to-day job contacted me after finding out about our project through this blog. He pointed me to his blog post “Evaluation & Recommendations for OLPC Organization” which is a worthwhile read. Quote:

The XO is great, but the organization OLPC can be improved. The organization OLPC tries to switch from a pure research organization to a supplier of the XO when they first started to deploy the XO in 2007. However after 1 1/2 years it looks like OLPC still has no business processes in place. The people who work with OLPC have no experience with these business processes and do not know how to organize a nonprofit organization into a streamlined organization that can handle simple orders. After all it is only one product OLPC ‘sells’.

Let me just make this final point which is important before I revert to solving my own problem: Mr. Jha rightly explained that himself and his team have given up lucrative jobs in order to work entirely for free as volunteers for the good cause. Point taken. You have my full respect for this and I’ll over-stretch any benefit of the doubt for you. Yet, given the unfortunate course of action we have faced, I do have issues if such an argument is used to occupy the high moral ground that is supposed make someone immune against general accountability.

OLPC for Vatsalya: Plan B

Back to square. Almost, but from now on just looking ahead. These lines are directed at my dear donors whose trust I have earned and towards whom I will put all of my energy to put a plan into action. Let’s forget about the OLPC laptops, take a step back and rephrase what we jointly want to achieve: Bring computer abilities to young girls from an underprivileged background as part both of their everyday’s life. Both within the framework of a curriculum as well as for free exploration.

Thanks to the very same OLPC-laptops, a new category of computers has emerged in the last, say, 12 months: the netbook. Reduced in processing power and storage, it assumes that a big part of data and applications would be accessed from „the cloud“ on the internet. Roaming around Bangalore looking for alternatives, I stumbled upon „Chroma“, the electronic superstore from TATA, and came across these decent notebooks: NB e-go atom from Wipro for Rs. 19,999.

NB e-go atom

Interestingly, the manufacturer is Wipro, one of the Top 3 Indian software-outsourcing giants who has ventured back into one of its previous territories: hardware. The notebooks come with Windows XP and are fully WiFi-internet-enabled. (Coincidentally, the two available colours red and yellow are super-suitable for girls. What a mess if we had to paint them blue for boys ;-) The sales assistants told me that it would be possible to obtain the required number via cash & carry.

Hence, my request to the donors: Unless there is no objection to this plan B, I would buy these Wipro-netbooks and proceed with everything else as had been put forward within our project. I suggest reducing the number to 10 as we will save on one computer, which had been foreseen for the teachers. (Here we seem to face an unintended advantage, as the teachers are all familiar with Microsoft Windows as opposed to the OS of the OLPC). I am happy to cover the difference in cost of cumulated Rs. 18,500 (EUR 270) so that we can move ahead swiftly.

As with many things, life is a quest of constant adoption. After weeks of passive agony, I now feel relieved that we pulled the plug. More importantly, we can get positive again, as we have reclaimed the course of action for the newly named project „Wipro Netbooks for Vatsalya“ into our own hands.

One week of Friends and Food in California

Posting these foodie-fresh memories from a week in the Bay Area after a short connecting stop in Munich from the airport lounge. As always it’s been tremendously inspiring being over there, once for the Search Engine Strategies (SES) Conference in San Jose, then the weekend in one of my favourite cities San Francisco. Here, by the way the picture set on Flickr (please forgive the many conference-slides).

San Jose

As it goes, an event or a city by itself has some value or charm respectively. However, what really matters is getting together with the right people who are inspiring, honest and fun, such that you really enjoy having food with them. And in that respect this visit was absolutely phenomenal, kind of “social media delivered” – in real life on your plate. Most of the people, admittedly, Germans. But never mind. We seem to be welcome:

Walk through San Francisco

So we had at the conference the “German Stammtisch” with Marcus Tober, Horst Joepen and Andi Schwabe when we decided to skip the second event-party with an estimated male-geek ratio of 94 % and rather head for San Francisco for dinner. The side effect: male-geek ratio of stunning 100 %! Still we felt that the trip was deserved, as I dare to use the rare expression of food being “disgusting”, what it truly was at the SES with one and the same selection of abysmal junk food every day served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery.

Glad that the guys followed my recommendation to go to Morton’s in Post Street where you’ll get the biggest, largest and most obscene steaks in this world. Best is having them “Medium Rare Plus” and given the size of the meat being frugal with the side dishes like mashed potatoes. Also a must at Morton’s is the warm chocolate cake which has to be ordered together with the main dish as it takes time to create. When arrives with its inner core being warm it literally melts in your mouth to “death by chocolate”. It tastes as if invented by and for little angels.

Dinner with German Stammtisch in San Francisco

After the conference, on Friday if first headed south on Highway 101 to the Gilroy Factory Oulet to meet my former boss from Lycos, now friend Dirk Lüth who just moved over to the Valley with his family to start an exciting company in the Enterprise 2.0-space. Always held Dirk in highest regard for his smart, focused and at the same time easy-going manner.

Dirk Lüth and Me at Gilroy Factory Outlet

Not saying this, because he bought me lunch in this really honest American restaurant-chain Applebee’s. Overall, I can really recommend this factory outlet to find great deals on otherwise expensive brands.

When I “moved over” to San Francisco, I enjoyed as always staying in the stylish Clift Hotel with its unique Bar “Redwood Room“. On Friday, Thomas Bindl took me along with his travel companion Billy Brüggemann to meet his SEO-friends Frank Watson from New York and Todd Malicoat from San Francisco. We were headed to Tataki in Pacific Heights. Sushi in this little cosy place was really good there. After that I went straight back to the hotel where I fell into a deep jetlag-coma-sleep – no Propofol required.

On Saturday, I met my tall German friend Sören Stamer for lunch who got married to his charming American wife, Heidi, recently and moved to SFO a few weeks ago. We had some solid salad with shrimps & crab at Pier 23 where we passionately discussed the economics of abundance in the digital age and the value of this ever-scarce thing called human attention.

Lunch with Sören Stamer at Pier 23

The evening started with a sundowner with a breathtaking panorama on the Bay Bridge from the 39th floor at Marriott’s “The View” with Marcus Tober and Jens Brechmann.

Sundowner in "The View"

For dinner, I followed the advise of Sören to check out a really cool place “Blowfish Sushi”. The taxi ride there turned out to be an unexpected highlight when the Jamaican taxi driver made it a point to explain how “2 out of 3 men in San Francisco are gay” and therefore he was “having sex with elder ladies between 50 to 60 years who are desperate, because they can’t get anyone” and who after the accomplished act wrote him a cheque. “And if they don’t write me a cheque, I never come back to them.”

Blowfish Sushi in South of Mission turned out to be a unique hit, both from the deco with wild Manga-comics on the walls, but equally from the creative standpoint of the chef. The restaurant really managed to re-invent sushi, yet still respecting its very roots. So one would get sushi-rolls with fish, meat, vegetables, yummy dressing and altogether spiced up.

Blowfish Sushi in San Francisco

While Marcus and Jens headed back to the hotel, I went for a final drink to Rickhouse, a new bar in the Financial District to catch up with Auren Hoffman after the Menorca TechTalk. Auren’s parents were in town and so he proved to be a good boy for first heading out only when they were in bed and second to get home not to late so that his Mum wouldn’t worry ;-)

Yesterday, on a lazy and sunny Sunday, I finished my trip with a visit to the International Orange Spa in Fillmore Street. The therapist did a phenomenal job in providing a heavenly massage. Best prerequisite for meeting Heidi & Sören, who happen to the same place for yoga, for Oysters at the Ferry Building.

Embarcadero in San Francisco

Then it was time to head to the airport, upgraded myself with eVouchers to First Class where the food-festival continued. But more importantly, enabled me to have a night of good sleep in the plane before continuing my trip back to India. And I am sure, they will have something little to eat for me there as well …

EO Event: Laying out Urban Planning 2020 for Bangalore

Finishing off the day after coming from an interesting EO learning event in Bangalore about “Balancing Urban Development and the Environment” with two distinguished speakers Rajeev Chandrashekar, independent Member of Parliament, as well as Suresh Hebilkar, famous Kannada-actor and director turned environmentalist.

Mr. Chandrashekar who has taken on the big challenge of fixing Bangalore’s rotten infrastructure conceded that it has started to decline from 2000 and since then only gone from bad to worse. Compounded by the influx of more and more migrants, Bangalore has grown in the last years to a 8 million population and is expected to accelerate its growth to become a mega-city of 16 mn by 2020. Without a complete change of direction in urban planning, or better the holistic introduction of such thing, a collapse on almost any infrastructural dimension seems inevitable.

For that, he has proposed a change of law which would incur three levels of governance: First, the creation of ONE binding urban plan which is missing today (as one can tell just by looking around), second the establishment of a coordinating body for the various agencies (which does not exist today) and a partial self-governance of the regional communities through a democratically elected institution (which has been in the last years replaced by faceless bureaucrats).

What I found remarkable: Fully acknowledging the problems with politics and moreover politicians in India, Mr. Chandrashekar prefers to work with the current institutions as opposed to founding his own party. The latter might appear as a natural choice for an accomplished businessman he has been in his life. But after learning the basics of politics, he explained: “In a democracy where everyone has a voice, yours has to be the loudest to be heard and followed.”

For that, he is trying to bring as many supporters as possible behind his bold plan.

Getting addicted to IFR-flying along the Croatian Coast

Even after a few days, I am still entirely drenched from the impressions of last weekend’s flying adventure with my friend Thomas Leiber, to be precise Dr Thomas Leiber and his old youth- and tennis friend Achim Salomon. Thomas’ father Heinz invented the Anti-Breaking-System (ABS) and his son Thomas has inherited his father’s ingenuity with claiming to date more than 100 patent in the automotive space to his name. Besides, Thomas has been a private pilot for the last 15 years and owns a stunning plane Diamond DA-40. A few weeks ago we crafted the plan to fly from Augsburg to Croatia along the coast with a few selected landings. And so us three comrades did with Thomas as intrument-rated pilot-in-command:

We had the best weather and the most stunning views one can imagine, all the 234 pictures here on my Flickr-set. Our first leg went from Augsburg through Eastern Austria to Ljubljana …

Heading South along the Croatian Coast

…  with our first land on the Island of Brac.

Brac Airport

Here we passed immigration, re-fueled and landed after just 7 minutes of flight on this brown dust strip on the opposite Island of Hvar.

Downwind Hvar Airstrip

Hvar is emerging from an insider tip to a notable destination in line with Ibiza and St. Tropez – in a any dimension: style, chic, beautiful people and, well, also the prices. (Still trying to forget that we had to pay for us three at an indisputably yummy fish-dinner EUR 300 …)

Hvar City

The next morning we took off, and wouldn’t miss to fly past Hvar City from the seaside.

Hvar City

The flight overhead my motherland’s islands at a low altitude of 2,000 feet made a dream come true I had for the last 10 years, the Kornates, Dugi Otok and Losinj “up there” in the Kvarner Bay …

Hvar to Vrsar: Croatian Islands - Losinj

… and onwards to the east coast of Istra across the peninsula where Thomas landed with precision on Runway 36 of Vrsar airport

My friends seemed to enjoy their first trip to my Croatian home base Rovinj where we spent one night in my house and got rewarded with the most colourful sunset (I swear, I did not touch Photoshop)

Stop-Over in Rovinj

Next day meant departure from Vrsar to Pula for re-fueling, take-off where air traffic control sent us on Flight Level 150 (15,000 feet) across the Adriatic Sea across Venice, then north towards Bolzano where we faced the first clouds which got – as expected from the weather forecast – denser and denser. Hence, we had to circumnavigate a few cumulonimbus clouds with thunderstorms in visible distance

Cirumnavigating Clouds & Thunderstorm above the Alpes

30 miles ahead of Innsbruck is got quite nasty in terms of turbulence, flying in the cloud watching the screen and the wings getting iced at -7 degrees Celsius. Thankfully, the controller in Innsbruck was extremely helpful in advising us to pass behind the thunderstorm-cell till we broke the cloud and left the bad weather behind us. The rest towards Maisach, then into the ILS of Augsburg Airport was an easy routine for Thomas where we landed even in some rays of sun during dusk.

Landed in Augsburg

For me who has been flying in the last 7 years only under visual flight rules (“VFR”) having such an experience in instrument conditions (“IFR”) meant getting addicted. Thomas was the dealer and this flight was the crack-cocain he served me.

I will have to do my IFR-license soon. I just have to.