A devaluation of privilege | Pitch decks | 3 readings

Sajith Pai's (hopefully) weekly newsletter #6

I started this newsletter during the lockdown last year; five issues later, it slowly petered out as life, laziness and an unlocked economy came in the way:) Well, here is another lockdown staring us in the face, and here is an attempt at reviving it. Hopefully it will stick this time.

Like the previous editions, all issues follow a template. Three sections. The first, ‘Writing’ - a piece of my original writing or a link to one; the second ‘Listening’ - notes on a podcast I listened to and liked; finally ‘Readings’ - excerpts from 3 articles or books that I enjoyed.

Here we go. Feedback below or at sp@sajithpai.com

Writing | A devaluation of privilege

It is an extraordinary time to be in India now, as the second wave of COVID-19 rips through the nation. We crossed 400,000 new COVID-19 cases yesterday, and over 3,500 recorded deaths; they do say the actual death count is at least five times higher. Every day brings with new records, as we rush towards the peak, expected mid-May, when we should hit 500,000 or even higher cases, and higher deaths. It will get far far worse, before it gets any better.

It is an extraordinary time to be on social media too. My social media timeline alternates between thought leadership from US / global VCs and founders, and cries for plasma, oxygen, remdesivir from people like me impacted by COVID in their families. I start scrolling randomly by habit, and then stop, overwhelmed by the pleas for help. I havent tweeted anything new for a week, and have had three people reach out on DMs enquiring if all is well in my family.

So far so good, is the response I give to anyone who asks me how we are doing. I count myself lucky that no family member or close relative has so far been infected by a severe strain of COVID. Even so, I go about my day ridden with high anxiety, dreading that one call, telling me that a distant family members has been infected, or dreading that one sign or symptom amongst us that warn that one of us may have it. 

If you are in the 1-2% of COVID cases that have breathing difficulties then you are in serious trouble. There is a clear shortage of hospital beds with ventilators, and a shortage of oxygen supplies too. Perhaps a few of the smaller states like Kerala or Goa, with better public health infrastructure, have beds on offer now. In all other regions including metros like Delhi, Mumbai or even the smaller ones like Ahmedabad or Indore, it is a challenge to locate and secure a bed in an emergency care centre, or oxygen cylinders or meds.

The system has broken down. Even for the privileged. I have never seen a situation thus far in India where the privileged are struggling. (see images below). For no amount of money, no amount of pull or connections, can guarantee a bed at this time. Because everyone else pushing for a bed or cylinder also has the same connections as you do. 

Just like the hyperinflation in Germany in the early 1920s led to a massive devalution in the German mark, so has COVID led to massive devaluation of Indian privilege, at least when it comes to accessing healthcare today.  While, I dont think the devaluation of prestige is permanent (devaluation of prestige should disappear as conditions improve) or universal (it holds largely in the healthcare arena), it is extraordinarly indeed, for the privileged Indian to be brought to heel like this.

Excerpts from Indian media / social media.

(a) Tina Gurnaney is an ex-Economic Times journalist who manages Communications / PR for Nokia.

(b) Puneet Kumar is MD, Steadview India, a venture capital firm.

(c) The author of the below passage is Soutik Biswas, one of BBC’s India correspondents. Source.

(d) The author of the below passage is Supriya Sharma, a journalist with online news site Scroll. Source.

Listening | StoryRules Podcast: Mohit Bansal, Deckrooster with host Ravishankar Iyer

Podcast link. Highlights Link. Transcript link. The transcript was organised by me.

Ravishankar Iyer runs StoryRules (he helps companies tell better stories / narratives) and Mohit Bansal founded DeckRooster (they help startups craft better pitches). This was the first episode of Ravi’s podcast where he profiles interesting storytellers and gets them to share about their craft. Here he does a deep dive into how Mohit / DeckRooster work with startups to help them tell better stories. 

If you go through the transcript (it is long, for the podcast was 1h 43m) or even the shorter highlights that I scraped together, you will see that the rules or guidelines that Mohit suggests for investor decks are remarkably similar to general principles suggested for writing good prose.

The reason most presentations are ineffective is the broad reason for ineffective prose too. In both there is an unwillingness to explain from the viewpoint of the other. You presume that the reader or the viewer (or investor) has as much knowledge of the subject as you do (‘The curse of knowledge’ as Steven Pinker says). When you set out to reduce the cognitive load of the reader or investor, say for the latter, by setting out what your product does - what benefit it offers to the customer, and how - you are able to achieve common ground, and then you can elaborate on all the other aspects - the adjacencies, the growth opportunities etc.

There is a great line by Mohit: “Many a time, many people feel that they go through an entire deck or entire pitch, but they can't figure out what the company does. It's like, you know, karte kya ho bhai?” This is altogether common feeling if you are an early stage investor. I have tweeted about this previously.

There is a great discussion around this in the podcast (1:12:00 to 1:16:00). Mohit refers to how Swiggy can be positioned as the transport layer or company, but this is hard to understand without having clarity about what they do. If you understand that they deliver food, and hence have this army of delivery people, and this infrastructure gives them the ability to deliver other stuff too, and hey during off-peak hours they can transport people too, and hence they can be seen as a transport layer, you make the meaning very clear. Without understanding the food delivery and the value proposition they offer through that route, it is harder to understand the abstracted phrase ‘transportation layer’.

How I wish startups pitching (to me or any other investor), would describes themselves not as a platform or marketplace, but really in terms of the problems they are solving, e.g., not a creator marketplace, but an app that helps creators set up a store online, or sell via a third-party ecommerce store online. The latter is far easier to understand, and build on.

Readings | What I read and found interesting

Here are excerpts from what I found interesting the last week or two. Presently reading Family Trust and Why Information Grows

Sakura Season in Japan / Pallavi Aiyar

Nothing brought on a bout of anticipatory nostalgia as strongly as bathing in Japan’s cherry blossoms in full bloom. There was a build up to the sakura season that set the pulse racing long before the flowers began to unfurl. From as early as January a Blossom Forecast on TV offered a petal-by-petal analysis of the advance of the blooms as they rippled from the deep south to the north of the archipelago, like a pink and white Mexican wave.

And because this was Japan, where accuracy was not an option as much as an axiom, the sakura season wasn’t official until a specially appointed civil servant, one amongst an army of whom spent weeks examining “barometer” trees in locations that were kept secret to protect them from blossom saboteurs, gave the signal that yes, indeed, the trees were in bloom. Over 600 different varieties of cherry trees exist, but it was the pale pink blossoms of the ‘yoshino’ – Japan’s most common type – that were used by the bloom-investigating bureaucrats as the yardstick by which to declare the season open in the nation’s capital. The green light was usually given after more than five blossoms had unfurled on a yoshino tree at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine. This could be anywhere between mid-March and early April.

Gathering feedback online in China / Dylan Levi King

In an interesting contrast to the West, the Chinese Communist Party listens to bloggers and message board theorists. Sometimes they do it so that they know who to put under house arrest during key anniversaries; more often, it’s so that they know what’s being said about their policies. They are particularly interested in the massively popular finance and development bloggers. These circles are usually—but not always—immune from the routine online rectification campaigns that see widespread take downs even of more innocuous social media accounts and websites. The People’s Online Public Opinion Annual Report in 2011 specifically mentioned the value of tracking the opinions of “high-income groups, such as real estate investors, businessmen, and investors.”

Political authorities have increased their surveillance of what is being posted, but also recognised that posters can give valuable feedback and ideas to the leadership. In China, ministries and even smaller state bodies have access to sources like Online Public Opinion, a People’s Daily’s publication that compiles online thought, and other service providers.

Computer scientist E W Djikstra’s 1,318 ‘reports’ or EWDs / Krzysztof Apt

“In 1959, (Edsger Wybe) Dijkstra began writing a series of private reports. Consecutively numbered and with his initials as a prefix, they became known as EWDs. He continued writing these reports for more than forty years. The final EWD, number 1,318, is dated April 14, 2002. In total, the EWDs amount to over 7,700 pages. Each report was photocopied by Dijkstra himself and mailed to other computer scientists. The recipients varied depending on the subject. Around 20 copies of each EWD were distributed in this manner.

The EWDs were initially written in Dutch using a typewriter. In 1972, Dijkstra switched to writing exclusively in English, and in 1979 he began writing them mostly by hand. The EWDs consisted of research papers, proofs of new or existing theorems, comments or opinions on the scientific work of others (usually critical and occasionally titled “A somewhat open letter to…”), position papers, transcripts of speeches, suggestions on how to conduct research (“Do only what only you can do”), opinions on the role of education and universities (“How it is not the task of the University to offer what society asks for, but to give what society needs”), and original solutions to puzzles. Later reports also included occasional accounts of Dijkstra’s life and work. A number of EWDs are titled “Trip Report” and provide detailed descriptions of his travels to conferences (“I managed to visit Moscow without being dragged to the Kremlin”7), summer schools, or vacation destinations. These reports are a rich source of information about Dijkstra’s habits, views, thinking, and (hand)writing. Only a small portion of the EWDs concerned with research ever appeared in scientific journals or books.

This way of reporting research was, in fact, common during the eighteenth century. In the twentieth century it was a disarming anachronism. Nevertheless, it worked. In EWD1000, dated January 11, 1987, Dijkstra recounts being told by readers that they possessed a sixth or seventh generation copy of EWD249.

Whether written using a fountain pen or typewriter, Dijkstra’s technical reports were composed at a speed of around three words per minute. “The rest of the time,” he remarked, “is taken up by thinking.” For Dijkstra, writing and thinking blended into one activity. When preparing a new EWD, he always sought to produce the final version from the outset.”