My latest email hack to get to / Stay at Inbox Zero

To set context, I am a very heavy email user. I tend to not like unread emails. I like to respond in a timely fashion (often times, very quickly). I am always on the lookout for good hacks. This is for my official email. I 💗 Inbox-Zero.

  1. Emails that I get are either actionable or archived for later reference
  2. Those that are actionable are:
    1. emails that I need to reply to
    2. emails that I need to follow-up on / be on my radar
    3. emails that I need to read later / watch later (meeting recordings etc)

As far as the ‘archive’ part in (1), I just hit Archive button. Exchange email search is pretty good. If the desktop ain’t that good, the Outlook Web Exchange (OWA) is leagues ahead. So you can choose. (I usually go to OWA for searching purposes).

For the ones that are actionable, if I can respond quickly to an email immediately, without having to refer anything or having to write a long-form email (I try as much as possible not to do this) and hence most likely not taking more than 30s, I action immediately.

For those emails that I need to read, refer, respond in detail, it goes into a folder called _Current (the underscore is an old habit to bubble up in text sort). Just adding it as a favourite folder is good enough actually. Other emails that go into the _Current folders are misc to-dos that I need to keep track of or det done.

I usually am following up stuff closely with <5 people. In my current scenario it is 3 – two of my direct reports and my engineering manager peer. All emails that are on the radar for follow-up go into the respective _Current<Person> folder.

Automated system emails from AzureDevops, FinanceReports, HR automated emails go into respective folders using Rules.

I keep scanning my Inbox 2-3 times a day to funnel stuff into the above CurrentFolders. Once or twice every week in my team meeting or 1-1s, I chug through the _Current<person> folders. It remains there if it requires more follow-up, or gets archived when done.

I have been doing this for the last 2-3 weeks, and it has been working like a charm. Let’s see how it works in the long run. One of the things I know I would need to worry about later, if there are more folks that I need to follow-up closely with. But then limiting that list would reflect my management / delegation abilities.

Book Review: Lets Talk Money

Author: Monika Halan

  • Easy read. Talks about familiar concepts but in a very pragmatic manner. Simplifies a lot of concepts.
  • If you want deep details, this is not the book for you. I wanted to read this book and Richest Man in Babylon, before I moved on to my next read – Psychology of Money.
  • Some main points that I recall and stood out to me:
    • Set up your cash flow streams – have separate accounts for spend it and invest it – and set up transfers.
    • Life insurance and health insurance are very important
    • Separate out Life Insurance from investment. Just do term insurance. If you do not reap the payout, it is a good thing (nothing untoward happened). The premium is the money you pay to someone who is backing your risk.
    • Mutual funds are great. The book explains market cap and indices in simple language.
    • Index funds are one of the best investments if you do not want to be tracking your investment too deeply.
    • Physical gold and real estate are still popular mainly because of legacy reasons.
    • Having a roof over your head is great, but that should be it. Don’t go in for investment purposes.

I am glad that both of these books are of the same philosophy as I am (my belief is reaffirmed) that, at the right time of your life, when you can afford it, your own owned roof above your head is a good investment.

I do have a personal caveat for the age-old second property ownership debate – again – at the right time of your life, and if you can afford a second home and the property is at a good location to let it out for a decent rental, I think its a good investment. It earns for you.

Overall this book is a good breezy read. Surprised myself by finishing it off in a day. Concepts are much more lucidly explained with good relatable examples. I think the relatable is what differentiates it from other books. The examples it provides, such as the pushy insurance salesman, and the uncle buying a property because someone told him it would appreciate 3X, are scenes that we see in everyday life in India.

Book Review: The Richest Man in Babylon

  • Author: George S Clason
  • This is a classic from 1926. One of the things that I realize is that – the typical questions that one faces about money and savings have remained pretty much the same. If one were to extrapolate, since the book uses parables from Babylonian times, maybe we could say that the questions have been the same from those times.
  • The concepts in the books are familiar ones.
  • The language – especially dialogues between folks in the stories – is archaic. Will take some time to get used to.
  • If the stories about the clay tablets and the contents mentioned, are true (I did not go and research further), then it is definitely fascinating education about the advanced civilization that seem to have thrived in Babylon.
  • I am summarizing just some of the brief concepts here:
    • Put a minimum of 10% of your earnings as savings. Try to live your life within the 90% as thought that much is your earnings.
    • If you have earlier debt, after you keep aside your 10%, keep 20% of your earnings as debt clearance. Go and renegotiate with everyone you owe money to and establish some a credible new repayment schedule.
    • Gold (money) should multiply and not idle.
    • One should not be miserly either. Keep aside for saving and enjoy within the remaining means.
    • Work hard and increase your ability to learn. I found this interesting – because it explicitly states that strengthening your skills by working hard can increase how much you can earn.
    • Keep money aside for old age and dependents.
    • Lend money to credible folks whom you know will multiply that money for you. (Interest) – the story of the cattle and the ass, told by the money lender, is a pretty interesting one.
    • Wherever you are in the financial strata, you can bounce back, if you put your heart and sole into it. Story of the slave who later became a camel trader

It is a fairly easy to read and a good revision of familiar concepts. I had been wanting to read this book, which has been on my book shelf for long. The first few chapters might seem daunting, mainly because of the archaic language. But once, you chug through them, you will get used to them.

The Travenues Story …

Moving this from my twitter pinned thread to here. It is time that I move on, and this is a logical intentional move to ‘get over it’.

On July 21, 2020, we announced that Spicejet acq-hired Team @travenues. What a fantastic 2 years that has culminated in this outcome today. Brief history thread with some experiences thrown in.

https://www.livemint.com/companies/start-ups/spicejet-acqui-hires-ixigo-subsidiary-travenues-11595312803601.html

Aloke Bajpai (@alokebajpai) and me have known each other since around 2015-ish. And yes – for those curious, the relationship did start with breakfast-and-dosa. I have been doing the #DosaWithMouli ever since I got into the startup ecosystem. No-agenda conversations over breakfast. Just get to know each other and the awesome stuff folks are building. I have met a significant percentage of my network through #DosaWithMouli.

Most of #DosaWithMouli has been in Sukh Sagar, Koramangala.

Back in March of 2018, the idea to start travenues was born. @alokebajpai and @rajnishkumar had always wanted to do a b2b travel play, and we felt that this was the opportunity. I was hired as VP – Special Projects for ixigo. Was still exploratory at that time. I looked around for a co-working space in Bangalore. A cupboard at home was the IT stock cup-board for the macs procured. Printed biz cards, stickers from Printo. You get the drift 😉

First cabin at 91SpringBoard and the laptop stickers we printed

Met and befriended so many folks at 91Springboard – folks like Sanket and his merry band at digio.in ; lalit and his gang at groww. Fun time.

With tons of help from ixigo’s HR/Talent team, we were lucky to onboard a rockstar team (with experience from the likes of swiggy, grofers, amazon, matchmove). HR, Admin, Finance were all remote from Gurgaon (for those wondering, yes, this is definitely possible).

We started off with a small 6 seater at a co-working space. The early days were heady and fun. It is amazing when you are part of the team where the team starts to build from zero (literally create gitlab account and do the first commit).

Fun fun fun ! (Did I mention the amazing Paratha that the 91sb in house check in their terrace cafeteria

We worked hard and partied hard. By partied hard, I mean, we visited every restaurant in Koramangala ….

Yes. Almost every restaurant in the vicinity …
We did an amazing offsite to Saklespura, won TT tournaments, celebrated birthdays, had a most awesome-max potluck. Phew

Meanwhile, I was out at CAPA and aviation festival conferences, getting our next few airline prospects. We won a couple of accolades – the Innovation Award from CAPA and the runner-up at the Amadeus Startup Pitch at WIT.

We won the Innovation Award at CAPA and snagged an exhibition slot.
We came a close runner-up at the Startup Pitch at WIT.

Learnt a bunch of sales, persuasion, partner management and a whole lot of other stuff on the go (did I mention thats the best ever way of learning stuff!).

With my bi-monthly red-eye trips to SG in Delhi, our relationship with our first paying customer (SpiceJet) forged deeply. Travenues engineers worked super closely with the SG counterparts and built this amazing next-gen e-commerce platform, that we were so proud of.

What we had built was something that did not exist, a beautiful B2B E-commerce SaaS platform for the aviation industry – call it a ‘Shopify’ for airlines, if you will. Configurable and extensible to the hilt, and deployable on any airline within months.

And I was out there pitching to new airlines in the South East Asia Region. There was definitely interest and we were moving forward (albeit slowly, but that is normal for the aviation industry, as I was told by Industry veterans).

That is when CoVid-19 struck. Quite understandably, the climate was not right for several of these airlines to invest in new tech. (in fact one of the airlines even liquidated).

SG was bullish about this, and very aligned with the future of the platform, and the wide opportunities that it presented. And culminated in the acqui-hire announcement.

Phew. What a journey. 0->1 at its best. And it would not have been possible without my fantastic team, Aloke Bajpai, Rajnish, and all of the support teams of ixigo. Y’all know who you are.

Image

HoneyCode and Amazon design

Suhas Motwani pointed me to honeycode.aws. This is airtable + zapier + more. Prepare to get disrupted (again). This is the amazing power of platforms. The thing is – AWS probably did this in half the time and effort (or less) that the startups pour into it – because they have the blocks, and it took a small pizza team to put it together.

This is probably the biggest fear of startups – what if one of the big guys created something like this!

The biggest thing that jumped at me was the design –

  1. Neat airy design
  2. Humaans type image
  3. Color icons
  4. Deviation from their usual black-blue-orange scheme
  5. EmberSerif for headings – not seen serifs on amazon pages before.

Very refreshing from the usual drab designs that Amazon typically has. Someone at Amazon really stuck their neck up and did something different. Kudos.

Communication …

Communication (n) – a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior.

During this very difficult time of the entire world fighting the CoVid-19 virus, companies have been forced into this new normal – a way of getting things done through entirely remote teams, connected virtually through mediums such as Google Meet/Zoom (meetings), Slack / MS Teams (asynchronous communications), and of course good old Email.

In this blog, I will attempt to condense my decade or so of learning to communicate properly. These are years of communicating with geographically dispersed teams across three continents, with teams that worked on strong waterfall models, with teams that have been extremely agile and dynamic, with cross-functional teams (business vs tech vs product), with teams that were amicable vs hostile ; you get the gist. Disclaimer – This subject is huge, and I am still learning.

Up until now, good/great communication has been seen as a productivity booster ; but now, with this new norm, it is a necessity ; and can potentially do harm if not done properly.

Just to recap, the advantages of good communication remains the same as always:

  1. Unambiguously transmission of information
  2. Get alignment
  3. Take quick decisions
  4. Reduce communication strain (reduce unnecessary back-and-forth flow of information)

And lets dive into the thick of it. These are points that are in no particular order (of importance or otherwise).

Email: 

  1. There is not a more trite advice than writing concise short emails ; but people still do not follow it.
  2. Subject line should always say exactly what the email contains. This is the first level of mind filter. Use it to your advantage. If it is important, use tags such as [Important], [Blocked], [Need Your Approval] etc to identify actionable emails.
  3. Start the email always with a sentence on what this email is about. Most people will choose to read the email or not or park for later depending on this.
  4. In this first sentence, always ensure you are setting the expectation for the reader on what she will get out of this email. Use phrases such as ‘short list’, ‘summary of..’, ‘detailed explanation of ..’.
  5. Use bullet points thereafter. The human brain processes this much better. Seeing three bullets (with explanations if required) gives the user a sense of quantifiable effort required to read/process the email – than three paragraphs (which will 90% get skipped).
  6. Last sentence – always summarize. Highlight or bold or identify with [Summary]. The hurried email reader will be super happy.

Slack:

  1. Use the right channels. Tag the right people appropriately.
  2. Decide when to write on channel and tag someone or DM someone directly. Its important. If the Signal-to-Noice ratio becomes unmanageable, focus workers such as developers and designers will inevitably mute the channel.
  3. Use @channel very sparingly – only for appreciations and announcements
  4. If you are a leader, and you are going to be doing this often, have a separate channel for the same.
  5. Have a separate channel for fun and banter.
  6. Decide early whether you want to have project based channels (#new-design-revamp, #add-apple-wallet, #loyalty) or any other way of identifying channels (#android, #ios, #frontend, #ui, #design)
  7. Use threads to your advantage. Keeps the channel clean.
  8. Use the ‘Sent to Channel’ also option sparingly. It is always confusing to see the same thing in two places. Reserve it for important information that you want to surface to the entire channel.

Zoom / Hangouts / Phone:

  1. Always set context on email / invite. Always repeat context in the first 2 minutes of the call (if you are leading the call).
  2. If there is a decision that needs to be taken in a meeting, there has to be someone who will continuously need to be on the look-out that, the conversation steers in that direction.
  3. If it is a catch-up call, that one person needs to ensure that, there is equal mic-time for everyone.
  4. For detailed discussions, Amazon’s written spec method or a separate presentation-followed-by-discussion is the best. We should all accept reality that not all discussions can be done in a status/catch-up meeting. Relevant folks have to get back together virtually and do it separately.
  5. Short focused meetings help attendees feel that meetings are not a waste of time. A few vague meetings are enough to change this perception. As a leader or yet another meeting attendee, let us do each of our bit to ensure that this does not happen. (This is also called meeting fatigue).
  6. For important meetings. one person should always take down notes.
  7. Brainstorming sessions are a different beast, which I will blog about later, as a separate post.

Hope this free rambling set of communication learnings help. Will try and write more on these in the days to come.


How to choose your co-working space

img src: wikipedia

Context – I had never worked in a co-working space until about a year ago. Made some mistakes, moved, made some mistakes, and moved again. So I guess I want to pass on these learnings to others who might end up in the same scenario.

  • Washrooms. Sounds gross/crude – but take a team member of either sex to go inspect. And inspect once more (another day) towards the evening. Will give you an idea of how frequent they clean.
  • Washrooms are non-negotiable. If they stink one day, do not dismiss it as – perhaps just that day it is stinking (community managers might tell you that). If it stinks even one day, run away. Shows the seriousness of the management.
  • Community Managers. Talk to them. Chat up with them. They are usually friendly. Ask how long they have been there. How much autonomy they get in running the center <– this is very important. Observe how they give a tour. The prouder they show you stuff, the more ownership.
  • Common Area. Ensure you ask for common area. Space for having lunch. Space for just ordering tea and sitting/taking a break. Make sure it will remain. Make sure it is mentioned in the contract. In one of the spaces we were in, common area suddenly was sold off to a client. Ensure that the common area is spread out. Nice to have – common areas / nooks spread out across the floors. Common area is different from play area. If your team is young and fun, look for TT tables/foosball etc. Again, make sure / ask if it will remain and won’t disappear.
  • HVAC (Air-conditioning) – This can really mess up workspaces and your team. If the floor has central AC, check who has access to the thermostat. Make sure it is handled only by the fac team. Walk around and check if temp is uniform. AC draft balancing is a science. Inspect on two separate days at different times – If it is too cold or too hot on either of the days, something is wrong. And if it is wrong on that day, it will be wrong many days. (Same as washrooms). Non-negotiable. At one time, my guys were wearing hoodies and working.
  • Infra – Check for seepage. AC duct drips. Glass cracks etc. If these exist on both days of your visit, then the team isn’t good enough to maintain the facility. We had buckets under the AC ducts in one of our workplaces.
  • Meeting rooms – Check if there are enough for your team. Check if at least some of them have TVs / whiteboards. Check if the TVs have HDMI/Chromecast. Check how to book meeting rooms. If they say whatsapp or physical book/register, run away.
  • Even if one of the meeting rooms has a sign saying – “Reserved for company Foo” on both days, think twice. Long reservations of meeting rooms for companies does not usually bode well for others.
  • Food – Best case scenario if the Coworking space has a wet kitchen on a terrace of a cafe attached. Food brought in from outside and heated doesn’t usually bode well. Do peek in to the pantry/heating room. Check for hygiene.
  • Pantry – Coffee/water dispenser area – bare minimum. Take a close look at the counter where the coffee machine / tea / sugar is kept. How clean is it? Can give you an approx idea as to how effective housekeeping is. Look at the sink. Loaded? Clean?
  • Internet – Look for the wifi routers. Ask about how one signs in. The best guys have location based auto sign-ins. Sub-optimal ones have a user-name/password to sign in. Check the speed. Ask the community manager to show fast.com results on their mobile. Check if they have back-up internet providers, if one provider conks off. Ask about any specific requirements like – we needed port forwarding and a static IP for our biometric machine.
  • Housekeeping staff – In both of your visits, look out for house keeping staff. Are they on the move. Are they even there? Ask for the cleaning schedule. Do they deep-clean on weekends? How many staff they have? And who supervises them? How does one request help from them?
  • Parking facilities – a lot of the co-working spaces do not have enough car parking spaces. Two wheeler spaces are available though, but they are paid for. Check the process for that.
  • Entry / exit formalities – Ask explicitly about security deposit, what it covers. If you are customizing stuff, explicitly check if there are any re-fitting charges. We removed a glass partition and were shocked to hear about a refitting charge !!

Over-all, basically, if you are working out of a co-working space, there are always trade-offs / sub-optimalities. These are proportional to the per-seat rent in most places. The higher you go, the better it is. There might be exceptions of course.

It is up to you to figure out, at which point your company is, how much you can pay, and which of these trade-offs you can live with. Happy co-working folks !!

Demo day at Shotang

Earlier this month, we, at Shotang, held our first demo day. It was a Friday afternoon event on our terrace. We could not have had better weather that day. The intent of this event is to showcase the technology and the product that is being built to enable the first large scale retail distribution platform. This would hence enable all the functions of the Shotang family to literally play with the product and gain a deeper understanding.

This was driven by the awesome product team at Shotang, ably supported by the equally awesome tech team. The product team coined a name for the demo day as well – Shotgun. We ran with a Wild West theme through the communications.

This being the first demo day, the event focused on the journey of an order on the Shotang platform. We wanted everyone to experience the full flow – from the retailer placing an order through the Shotang retailer app, to how it flows through the seller dashboard ecosystem, and the falcon logistics apps, which powers our pickers and the delivery executives.

We had set up POD stations on the terrace – one each for the retailer experience, seller experience, and the logistics platform. Engineers and PMs manned these booths and explained the flows with pride. There was a complete test bed that had been created on a test city, where guests could place orders, and trace their order through the entire platform.

It so happens that in a company such as Shotang, day to day agility forces each function in the company to focus deeply on their own domains. For example, the corporate finance team spends its waking days poring over the sales and spends numbers, but often do not get enough visibility into the actual product. Similarly for other teams such as our customer delight team, our commercial finance team, alliances team, and so on.

What did we get out of this?

  • Singular pride for each PM and engineer who showcased the products that they develop. You should have seen the energy on the floor.
  • Zonal leaders (P&L owners) from each of the 7 cities that we are live in, got insights into what is the current state of product and tech, and what is in store for the future.
  • Greater visibility on the amount of tech that goes in to developing our platform
  • Increased empathy for our end customer and what she goes through.
  • So much feedback that came in from non-tech folks on improvements that could be made with respect to user interfaces.

Moving forward:

We intend to have a Shotgun event every month. Product and tech developments since the previous month would be demonstrated. We would sync the event to the monthly planning meeting of the Zonal managers. We anticipate that the local field leaders and the zonal leaders would take back to their respective field teams, the latest developments and future plans.

At the end of the day, It is also a fun event, where we celebrate all the hard work that has gone in, to do, what we all love doing – ship!

BBMP door-to-door collection

I recently got to know that BBMP has a door-to-door collection philosophy of garbage collection. Apparently, you are not allowed to take your garbage to some location. Well, there is no location. And the BBMP collection people are supposed to take the garbage to a road corner (yes, I said road corner). From here small auto type vehicles showel in the garbage and take it to another road corner (yes, I said road corner again), from where the big garbage trucks haul it to, I dont know where – most likely a landfill.

Now two questions might have popped into your mind. Why road corners? And where is this waste segregation falling in this ‘methodology’?

garbage1
(link courtesy ibnlive)

It is road corners because, these centralized places where garbage is collected and moved into vehicles/bigger vehicles do not have waste bins. They are literally dumped on the road. So see, folks see this. For those places where the BBMP people do not go (yes, this collection does not happen everywhere), folks come and dump their garbage ‘near’ the centralized collection points. This makes these collection points larger and wider, and makes the area ‘very fragrant’ too.

bangalore.citizenmatters.in
bangalore.citizenmatters.in

Regarding waste segregation, there is none. The garbage that I mention above is ‘unified’ garbage. And even if you segregate and give, they take and dump it together in the same place.

(via thealternative.in)
(via thealternative.in)

I agree that, we should not be blaming it on the corporation (BBMP in this case). I also hear that several apartment complexes are doing their bit by trying to compost and segregate recyclable waste. And sure, I encourage as many apartments do it. But, is it not one of the civic responsibilities of the corporation to do this for us. I read somewhere that effective roads, water supply, and garbage management are the three main functions of any city corporation. Roads are written off. Water supply is off and on. And if we are expected to take care of garbage management also, so what IS the corporation doing?

My four year old son made a comment today saying, “Appa, all these cows, and stray dogs, and all other animals are in the middle of the road, only because of all this garbage on the road. When will all this garbage go away?”. If a four year old is distressed seeing this, I can only imagine.

(via deccanchronicle)
(via deccanchronicle)

This last picture is something that strikes my heart. I live less than 250m from this place. This ‘place’ appears right across the road to the Koramangala Regional Passport Office – you can see the building in the backdrop. I see this happening day in and day out. There is a residential layout on this side of the road. BBMP does not go in to collect garbage there. So what alternative do they have. They do not have a garbage bin anywhere. This is also a ‘garbage’ transfer point. So the entire layout dumps their garbage here. And the ‘transfer’ does not happen regularly either. There are cows eating that garbage all the time. That is just plain wrong.

In comparison, let us look at Chennai. It may not be perfect, but the methodology is perfect, in my opinion. There are bins on each roads. Folks are expected to come and drop their house’s garbage into the bins. There is garbage truck that has an automated mechanism to pick up the bin an dump the garbage into the truck. Bin is empty. Road is clean. I have not really seen mounds of garbage on the road anywhere in Chennai – atleast the places I have been to.

(via suhrid.net)
(via suhrid.net)

The same methodology is followed in the NCR region as well – I have seen this in Noida. And oh, this is exactly the system followed in the US too. And hm, I think all over the world too. It provides a balanced civic responsibility. Citizens are expected to put the garbage into the bins. The corporation is expected to clear the bins. You keep your side of the bargain, while I keep mine. Seems fair to me. This may not be perfect everywhere in Chennai. Sure there are overflowing bins. But there are bins. Atleast the methodology is in place.

So who is the brilliant mind who suggested this funda of the Bangalore corporation coming door to door and picking up the garbage. Even to a novice planner, this seems a non-scalable solution. 

 

My Dream Alarm Clock

alarm

I have been looking for an alarm clock with the following specifications. If any one has any info on something like this that exists, please let me know. Yes, all the specs should be met.

  • I should be able to set multiple alarms (need to wake my son up in the middle of the night for his pee-run).
  • LED display of the time with a much lesser intensity than the normal LED 8 segment displays – should be soothing to the eyes. Preferably blue colour. This display should not be ON all the time. It should come on only when I tap.
  • I should be able to set any tune for waking up (mp3).
  • Should be easy to snooze/switch off.
  • Should have dynamic snooze setting. I would want to set more snooze in the weekends vs week days.
  • Should run off rechargeable batteries (preferably li-ion). No power cords.
  • Should be small. Preferably flat and thin.
  • Should not have data connectivity. I have problems resisting urges to check email/rss feeds at all times of the day.  And no, please dont tell me I can disable data. I will on a strong urge, enable data and configure an email client in 5 minutes to check email at 2AM.

Anything available like this? Please let me know.

(image src: flickr)