Part I – Kerala Travelogue
Spice jet recently started a direct flight from Pune to Kochi – which is what tempted to make a short trip to say hi to Manoj Thomas, who was holidaying in Kottayam, 100 km south of Kochi. Nowadays it is fun to use the Compass google app – it works in the plane! We started by flying over Khadakvasla dam, which supplies drinking water to Pune and continued South East – flying mostly along the coast.
Kochi Airport viewed from the plane Tall Temple near Kochi Airport
My cycling friends had done a trip from Goa to Kochi a few years ago – and the impression they gave me was about Kerala being one big un-ending village, with houses continuing on both sides of the roads endlessly. So was surprised to actually see huge coconut groves, as the aircraft swooped over their tops and a river to land at Kochi’s new airport, which is about 30 km away from the main city. The aerial view of Kerala made it look very much like a bigger Goa. Green – beautiful. It rains 10 months a year, all months, except Jan and Feb. I don’t know if Kerala schools give summer vacations during those months!
We skipped Kochi city and went straight down MC Road. MC Stands for Main Central and it is the road that links Kochi to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. We continued down the road till Koothakulam, after which started a dizzying series of village roads, which only the seasoned driver of Manoj’s Alto, also called Manoj, could have known about. The terrain is hilly – we seemed to be traveling a combo of left/right and up/down at any time. The roads are narrow – and Manoj’s driving skills would have made him a serious contender in the Himalayan car rally.
Why do you think Kochi buses have rear windshields half way down the body?
Narrow winding roads meant that the roads were devoid of speed breakers, footpaths, pedestrians, cyclists and roadside parked vehicles. Manoj’s hypothesis was that it has been a long standing tradition to have good roads, starting from the days of the Travancore kings. It continues till date – probably because people keep governments on their toes – by alternating the Congress and Communists every 5 years in State elections. Some form of Rightism extends even when the Left rules the state – to pedestrians. The only way for a pedestrian to survive the narrow high traffic Kerala road is by walking on the wrong side – so that you can see oncoming traffic.
To my mind what makes Kerala unique is not so much its beauty, as its culture. Kerala people are followers of 3 religions – the Hindus, the Christians dominating districts like Kottayam and Islam, which is popular in the Northern districts. Christianity traces its roots to St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ apostles who landed up 2000 years ago. He is said to have converted 7 Brahmins to start the religion in India! He later went on to Chennai, where he is believed to have been martyred in Mylapore. Amongst the Syrian Christians in Kerala, the tradition is that the youngest son gets the property! Interestingly, among the Malyalee Hindus it is the daughter who inherits property from her mother. The husband moves in to his wife’s house after marriage.
Note the script below the photos – Syrian!
We visited a Syrian Catholic church of the Malankara diocese, which was about 500 years old. It was established by the Portuguese traders, with the benevolence of the local Rajah. The temple architecture is an amalgamation of the Hindu, Isllamic and Buddhist styles. You have Minars, dragons and deep sthambs in the church. The roof is a lovely one made entirely of wood, with walls which are load bearing. The external walls of the church are also quite old, with a construction which uses the porous Konkan brick. Inside there was a baptism table – which was made from a single piece of granite. Also there were paintings of the bishops of the last 200 years – all with long flowing beards, and with one exception – all white beards. Interestingly, the last 5-6 bishops were also spectacled.
Valliapally – The Big Church Altar
Deep Sthamb in Church! Baptism tub
Pig Fish at door entrance Should have commissioned one to mark my visit also!
We went on to another church in the neighbourhood, which was newer – about 200 years old. Was perched atop a hill, so had a panoramic view – and at one spot a refreshing breeze. This one had tombs also inside – right next to the church wall. We completed the religious journey by visiting the Juma masjid – the Friday Mosque. Unlike the church we did not find any people around – so we were not sure whether to enter or not. Hence the visit was limited to the outside. The mosque was built in traditional Kerala construction style – and had a lot of taps around – I guess to wash the feet of the praying fraternity.
Kerala is the fabled land of gold. With the Padmanabh temple treasure running into billions of dollars, the current fascination with gold seems to be deeply rooted. The village headquarters of Karukachal has 19 jeweller shops! Land prices in the villages in Kerala run at crores per acre. The high price culture is also found in retail: All prices are fixed. The North Indian bargaining boffin is going to be in trouble here. There are a few pleasant suprises though. In the middle of the Gulf money lavish palaces, you end up finding a few low cost no steel all brick– Laurie Baker – type of house. But inside the house you will still subscribe to Malayalam Manorama, with every other ad from an Alukka’s trying to sell gold to you. And in the classifieds, if next to the usual obituaries, you find a husband-wife photo, then don’t worry – they did not expire in an accident together. It is just the rich Mallu’s way of celebrating marriage anniversaries.
Another paradox to this wealth, is the retail institution – which is peculiar to Kerala – Margin Free – where everything is below MRP. Here is the bill analysis: Savings of Rs. 17.74 on a bill of Rs. 240.76, a percentage which is a shade less than 8 per cent. Not bad – considering the margins in retail are usually around 20 per cent. In order to make you feel that the margins are actually more, the bill first lists out what is called the U. Rate, which looks amazingly less – 24.5 is the U Rate for a Sprite bottle with a MRP of 30.00. Then surrepritiously the tax column appears – adding 4.9 to the U-rate – to give you a saving of only 0.55 on the MRP! We checked into one of the stores to check it out. Very well stocked and in appearance, no different from the Kirana stores of the ‘bhais’ – as the Mallus call anyone hailing from the North of Karnataka. They have good checks and controls, where like in a typical Kirana shop items are double checked before dispatch. There are no bar codes, so data entry is manual. For the math though, the shop assistants still rely on the computer!
Karukachal village is in Changnassery taluka, 100 km from Kochi and 150 from Trivandrum. It is less than 100 km away from most of the Kerala tourist spots: Sabarimala, Tekdi, Munnar. Houses in a Kerala village are never numbered. They have the same surname as the people who live in it – or maybe vice versa. The love for the surname is also extended lovingly by the Keralite to the buses and trucks that he runs in – Pallikkaparampil for example. Unfortunately the metro Keralite is forgetting his roots by abbreviating the surname out of his name
Manoj and Bini Their Pink House – Note the double roof
Unlike North Indian villages, where the houses are clustered in a central area between fields, the Keralite loves to live on his farm. So does Manoj, with his dad’s handsome Pink House proudly located on the edge of a 1 acre garden. Went on a conducted tour with Manoj’s dad and literally found variety which would put an Amazon forest to shame: Cardamom, Cocoa, Pepper, Pineapple, Rubber, Teak, Mahogany, Rubber, Joyphal. It wasn’t always this way. When Manoj’s dad shifted back to the village from Bhopal in 1993, the entire acre was full of rubber trees. But with rubber tapping being a labor intensive business, and the literate worker in Kerala loath to work on the fields, he decided to cut down the rubber and replace it with teak. The returns will only come 50 years later – but talk about vision.. Later on he realized that Mahogany is a better RoI crop – with returns coming in a relatively small 25 years, so Mahogany also got planted.
Cardamom Cocoa Pepper
The remaining plants are primarily kept for educational purposes – so that the grandchildren know what is what. The pineapples unfortunately are eaten mostly by the rats and the crows. Then there is this interesting allspice plant – a hybrid with a very tangy leaf. This has been promoted by Kerala government – and is a coveted leaf by the gourmet. Also there is the joyphal – a great fruit with a delicate net for seasoning, cover for chutney, and a seed which is a cure for indigestion. Interestingly, Joyophul trees have gender – the males have flowers but no fruit. But the males are required for fertilizing the female tree flowers..
Pineapple Shrubs Rubber Sap flowing after bark cut
Black Scorpion – being recycled by ants!
Kerala’s other agricultural claim to fame, apart from spices, is rubber. Rubber trees are harvested every alternate day by stripping a line along the bark – and funelling the sap into a coconut shell. The cuts are done around 7-8 in the morning and previous day’s sap – which by now has solidified is collected when the cuts are being made. There has been an influx of Orissa and Bengal labor into Kerala to replace the educated Keralite, who is loath to indulge too much into manual work. Given the propensity of rain, there is also a protective plastic shield placed above the shell in order to prevent rain water mixing with the sap. Trees begin to yield after at around 7 years of age and continue to produce sap till the ripe old age of 30. After which they end up as packaging wood. One of the bigger users of rubber in Kottayam is Paragon footwear, which primarily produces rubber chappals – its hoardings along MC Road claim that it sells more than 10 crore pairs a year!
On my morning walk, I was reminded of the bread sellers of Panaji, who cycle around honking their old autorickshaw type bulb horns, selling‘pavs’. The difference in Kerala was that – one they use a motorcycle – albeit a bulb horn fitted one – and two that they sell sea fish.
Kerala has been a wonderful gastronomic experience. Starting from the first day at Saravana Bhavan, a local not the Chennai chain, where I sampled Kerala Paratha and ending with the awesome Onam type dinner – with almost 16 courses – at Manoj’s house in the evening. On day 2 it was lunch in Kottayam town – at the Anand Restaurant – with par-boiled rice and lovely payassam. In the evening we sampled more authentic Kerala paratha with black chick peas and Set Dosas with stew from the streetcarts of Karukachal.
Onam Feast Not beer, just pink boiled water
Rice powder Steamer Cylinder Lid
One interesting dietary ingredient in Kerala is the tapioca – the humble root from which the ‘fasting’ delight – the sabudana is made. Manoj tells me that in the past, it was not rice, but tapioca, which was the staple food in Kerala. For Breakfast, mashed tapioca with curd chutney. We also had iddiappam and stew and boiled plantain. Desserts ranged from simple heavenly pineapple to Jackfruit halwa to rice balls stuffed with jackfruit. The Dessert feast still continues thanks to a shopping spree at a Karukachal bakery – where I stocked on the jaggery-banana Kerala Halwa, sweet banana chips, jaggery coated jackfruit chips etc. Diabetes, here I come!
Tapioca Plants – the roots are pure carbohydrates!
Part II – Insights from Manoj
An interesting conversation I had with Bini, Manoj’s better half, or on second thoughts, considering her extras-slim proportions – better one-third, was about culture. Bini and Manoj were neighbours in Bhopal, where they grew up. Both set of parents worked with BHEL there. They spoke with parents in Malyalam. But the lingua franca in the Thomas household in Ithaca, NY, is Hindi! Her elder son, Tushar, speaks a smattering of Hindi and understands very rudimentary Malyalam. The younger son, Mrinal, is totally Americanized – he watches a few Hindi movies – only with sub-titles. I joked with Bini about how her daughter-in-laws would probably be an American or probably Korean. In response she mentioned that her brother, who stays in Rochester NY, is already married to an American from Massachusetts.. Talk about International Integration!
Ithaca is a University town – with Cornell University being its biggest employer. Interestingly, Ithaca is benefiting from global warming. It had only 1 day of snow this year! Cornell is a private university, with the SC Johnson School of Business being one of its most profit making departments. By US standards, the Johnson school is small – with an intake of about 300 students a year. The faculty group in the school is about 50 strong.
A Professor in a typical US university has a workload of 2 courses every semester. Manoj’s lead course is called Brand Immersion. It is a very intensive course – with double the credit points of other subjects – and is offered in the first year second semester. In fact ‘immersion’ is the positioning that has been adopted by the Johnson school. It means deep involvement – Hands on Learning. Manoj’s students work on projects in this course, which are typically sponsored by companies. They spend a week visiting with companies to get better insights into the problems they are working on. Assessment is for the team (if peers mention you have not pulled your weight, you don’t get marks)
The School has just got a new dean – an Indian who is a PhD in Computer Science, who was earlier teaching at Insead. The faculty group usually chooses an insider, but this time they decided that it was time for change – and have got someone from outside. One great opportunity that is coming up for Cornell is a new campus in New York city, actually an island off the city. Bloomberg, the mayor of NYC, had a competitive bidding for this campus, with Stanford, Harvard and Cornell making it to the finals. Cornell is going to be setting up a campus, jointly with an Israeli university. Another of the things that the dean has put on his agenda is a syllabus revamp. Manoj is planning to orient his course more towards consumer insights.
Here is an example quoted by Manoj about what happens when you do research without insights. Land Rover is, even by US standards, an expensive SUV – costing 55,000 dollars. It is a UK (now owned by Tatas) brand, but with a not very great sales figure. 4500 or so vehicles a year get sold in the US. The company did a consumer focus group which told them that what customers wanted was a lower price. So Land Rover launched a lower end model called Hunter. It flopped miserably. The insight here is that people will never try to tell you that they want to buy expensive products.. Stand back and observe… Test your inferences. Steve Jobs could see a product or benefit – and be able to decide whether it would click or not – without any research. He just seemed to know what customers would want – and he relentlessly followed up on execution. Also, he set perceptions by pricing higher and then lowering prices for subsequent launches.
Manoj used an interesting analogy to compare Harvard and Cornell. Harvard is a market leader. And market leadership is a very powerful position to have. But so is ‘small by design’ – if you can make a powerful statement about how that smallness helps the customer.. ‘Customized.’ Looked like Manoj was implying that Cornell was the Apple and Harvard the Microsoft. But then isn’t Apple the market leader? Interestingly Apple is not a leader in any category that they are present in. (Exception being the tablet, but Manoj assures me that 5 years down the line, they won’t be, as there will be many more players) They are profit leaders, yes, but never volume leaders. And if they were to become volume leaders – they would just not be Apple…
Sometimes this positioning can also be accidental. Why did Kellogg’s become a marketing school? Because of Philip Kotler. A lot of his colleagues, do not consider Kotler a great teacher. I had once met Deepak Jain, who used to be his colleague at Northwestern. When I quizzed him about Kotler – he said he is there, so what? He is growing old now – but the school won’t let him go. He happened to have written the first basic text on marketing – and it got accepted worldwide. And he teaches at Kellogg, so Kellogg is the best school in the world for Marketing. Accidental – but the brand got built.
Psychology is Manoj’s area of focus in research. Most research papers have a model where you pick up a hypothesis and try to disprove it. As Manoj says, you can never prove a theory, you can only disprove it. As Taleb says in his book – Black Swan – you keep on looking out for black swans – and till the time that you don’t find any – your theory that all swans are white – is acceptable. But all it takes is one black swan to disprove it.
And how does one go about framing hypotheses? The usual route is to look at two contending theories and try to falsify one. The other way is to look at everyday judgments and base a hypothesis on this. We talked of one of Manoj’s papers – People tend to buy more unhealthy food when they use credit cards vis-à-vis cash. I asked Manoj where did the hypothesis come from? Manoj’s collaborator on this paper had access to a database of supermarket purchases. So they looked at this data as an opportunity. After sifting through the data they looked at trends – and this seemed to be one of them. Voila – the seeds of a research paper were found! In schools like Harvard, most of the research is into preparing cases – but in most other schools this is not the case (sic). Schools look at publishing research as a sine-qua-non. In case a faculty is appointed as Editor of a respected journal, s/he is actually relieved totally of the teaching load in order to concentrate on the journal. Of course, neither the school or the editors, nor the professors get paid for the papers. It is a chore that must be done.
Some of Manoj’s papers.
- When does expensive food taste better? Menu price and décor have high correlation when it is above median and zero if is below median.
- The Brevity effect in new product labels: Phonetic Repetition (Tata for example) and repeated exposure – people like. Companies try to make labels longer, but there is a tradeoff.
- Background music changes preferences: If a store is playing German music Vs French music – then there are more German wine purchase in that store. Music interferes with the System II preferences. (Read Daniel Kahneman’s excellent book – Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, for more about System I and System II preferences)
Two interesting tools that Manoj finds of use to researchers.
- www.whichtest1.com Manoj talked about this site, which is useful from the experimenter’s point of view – where you can check how your intuition works vis-à-vis majority behavior.. You plug in your answer – and the software then tells you whether you thought the majority way or not..
- www.mturk.com Mechanical Turk by Amazon -– equivalent to research panels. One response costs 1 dollar Vs 10 dollars that they had to pay Market Research companies to fetch. Amazon gets 10 percent of that 1 dollar. Note for Tushar Kanade on Amazon – (Tushar runs a very interesting college text book selling business – www.acadstreet.com.) Amazon allows used book sellers to list. Used books in Amazon are @ ½ the price.
An interesting business idea that we discussed. A Physician rating sytem by consumers. Revenue model is to ask pharma companies to pay for advertising. May use www.zagat.com approach. Zagat is a company that enables rating of restaurants by customers. Ratings are on food, décor and price. Basic ratings are free, but you need to be a paid subscriber to get detailed ratings. I visited the site recently and found that they had been purchased by Google. We will need to work on the rating areas for Doctors / Physicians. Maybe things like – Would you recommend this doctor to your friends? How effective was the treatment? (A good idea would be to ask peers / MRs / as they have good knowledge – but their responses would necessarily have to be anonymous) how much time did you spend waiting for the doctor to see you? Would be interesting to see if someone can pick this idea up in India and make it work…
Bini is currently in the process of getting back to work. I recommended Bini to do some IT sales work. She is interested, and I think she would be a good fit for smaller Indian companies looking at managing customer relationships in the Boston / New York area. If any of you have suggestions about such companies do drop me a mail. I have spoken to my friend Sujit Karpe in Pune and he is going to talk to Ecotech to check their interest levels.
Manoj has recently been ‘tenured’ – which is to say that he is now in a job which has no retirement age and from which it is very difficult to pink-slip him. A professor’s life has a lot of perks – there are no fixed work times, you don’t need to take permissions for holidays – as long as they are not interfering with your teaching – and till recently you even had budgets for your home office. We had an interesting chat about the process of becoming a tenured professor. It is an arduous one, which typically takes about 5 years. In these 5 years you should have published tons of papers in refereed journals, got satisfactory ratings from students that you have been teaching and kept your peers in the faculty group generally happy. Manoj has managed admirably on all three counts. He has been voted by students as the best teacher for 3 consecutive years. His paper writing has been so prolific that he is actually on the editorial board of the Journal for Consumer Research. And the faculty were unanimous in their approval for his tenureship.
We chatted about the positioning for Peepal Tree School. I discussed how we started with ‘Inspiring talent’ – and moved on the ‘Hands On Learning’. Manoj found that Hand on had a connotation of a trade school – where we are making students plumbers, fitters and mechanics. Manoj’s suggestion is to label it as ‘Active / Experiential learning’. Labels are important. But execution is still 80% of the task. So the next question is: what concrete steps are we taking for ‘hands-on / experiential’ learning? Also in Bulls Eye – what practices are we following to deliver on Personal Attention – and are they consistently being followed by all centers? Powerful questions – I think we shall put our heads together to answer these questions when our team meets in Bilaspur in December 2012.
Another of Manoj’s recommendation was to become an authority figure in your field. So I am now preparing for giving a TED talk on hands-on learning! And maybe write a book on hands-on learning. Now should that book be in fiction or non-fiction style? Subject maybe for my next essay….