Of Vanaprashtha, Being A Dad, A Founder…And Running Marathons

My state continues to be what it has been for last several years – “happy but not satisfied” – and in all probability would remain the same for the rest of my life.

[Editorial notes : Zopnow founder, Mukesh goes UnPluggd. Shares a lot of great stuff!]

I turned 40 this year and probably crossed the half way mark of my life. 20 years back during my undergrad days, I was of the firm opinion that till the age of 40 one should never see a doctor. Jeetendra “40 plus” ad in the early 80s did have an influence on this decision – that ad somehow made me feel that post 40 its OK to see a doctor. Life has its own way – you get married to a doctor and see a doctor every day. Thankfully I have kept my promise with health and except a few paracetamols, never took any medicine and hopefully I can extend that promise to myself for another 15-20 years before life takes its toll.

I am an introvert. My introvert nature gets a double doze of potency with my long distance running – I get ample time to think. The last few years, I have come to the realization that my eventual identity will be determined by two things –

  1. My son Nick Naman Singh
  2. His twin brother ZopNow

At this stage of my life probably, these are the only two things that matters. The rest of the 2015 write-up is largely based on the learning with Nick and ZopNow.

Running marathon is fun, watching one is impossible

Earlier this year, as I was flipping TV channels, there was a live coverage of the London Marathon. For someone who is close to finishing his 100th marathon, its fair to assume that watching a good international marathon should comemarathon naturally. In less than 2 minutes, I switched the channel. Watching a marathon is probably the most boring thing one can do. Building a company is similar to running a marathon and I know enough people have quoted this. What amazes me is that less than 1MM of the 7 billion world population would have crossed the marathon finishing line, yet almost everyone seems to believe in this statement.

However, I can say this statement with more confidence than many others. When the last 50 years of hard work of a company gets summarized into a 350-page book – it looks as if the company was dashing a 100m race for 50 years. The highlight package of a cricket match is filled with boundaries and wickets. However, in real life, one has to play for 8 hours for that 10 min highlight package.

Building a company is a tough process. Do not go by the 10 min highlight package and assume that how company is built.

The 3Ps – Pillars of Grocery

One of the great things that Japanese taught us is the “5 Whys”. Its one of the better mechanisms to really drill down to the root cause.pillars

I am personally a strong believer of this. When it comes to grocery, invariably the “5 Whys” leads to the following 3 Ps”

  1. Predictable Inventory
  2. At Predictable Time
  3. And Profitable operation

One can argue that the above is the essence of any retail. In my experience with grocery, the need of the hour is to have a good range of products at a great price coupled with a great service. I am quite confident that we are building a strong foundation for ZopNow – a foundation that builds an entity that will last the test of time.

We are building a company which would continue to improve the ecosystem, continue to optimize processes, continue to solve customer pain points. The next several months we need to get the 3Ps of predictable delivery at predictable time and profitability in shape. It would put the basic foundation in place – more importantly this would start defining our culture as well.

We are not here to run a popularity poll on Google

More people know Usain Bolt than Dennis Kipruto Kimetto. Google says the ratio is 20million to 12 thousand (I bet many of you reading this document must be googling on Kimetto). Its important for ZopNow to stick to a logical path – even if its against the current short term trend. Earlier last year, “mobile app” was the most fashionable statement in our industry. If you are a “app only” company, you are new age. I am yet to come across an app that places a grocery order without an internet connection.

Many a people are blind of the fact that “chrome browser” is an app as well on the mobile phone. While there is no doubt that there would be a set of customers who would like the app experience but a larger set would exist who would use the mobile site. As a consumer one would prefer to have the option of desktop browser, mobile site, app and offline purchase experience. The same consumer in difference circumstances would prefer the most convenient channel.

Conventional wisdom would say that it makes sense to have all the channels available for consumer (web, mobile site and app) but the “popularity poll on Google” would have given the recommendation of “app only”. As we are building the company, we need to ensure that we are sticking to conventional wisdom and logical thinking than the current short term sentiments. I can’t fathom a retail world where in people will deviate from “large range of product at great price and service”.

In 2090 the customer demand wont be that they like a “small range of products at exorbitant high price and terrible service”. The fundamentals of retail would remain the same. New channels would be added (like what we are seeing with online and omnichannel trends), new mechanisms will come in place, new set of products will come (20 years back I could not have imagined a tetra pack milk that can be consumed almost 3 months after its milked) but the customer need would remain the same – “large range of product at great price and service”.

An Adult can never give 100%, a Kid canmukri

In all the organization I have worked for, we sing the song that we are giving more than 100% to the organization. This myth for me got invalidated during my first hike with my son. I did my first hike with my son in the jungle of Bandipur around Christmas.

It was a short 2.5Km one-way hike. For my 4-year-old son who does not understand the concept of distance, it was a fun walk. A walk which was beyond his physical capability and some part of the return journey he got to watch the jungle from a 7.5 feet height sitting on my shoulder.

That to me was 100% – he walked as much as he could and when he got tired he had the luxury of sitting on my shoulders. For someone to give 100%, (s)he has to be ignorant and innocent at the same time – which most of the adults are not.

I reflected back at my last 20 years of professional life and while there is no doubt I worked hard throughout but I doubt if it was ever 100% – I always found time for my marathons, outings, readings, traveling and many more things. Post that hike with my son, I have been observing this more closely – a kid always gives 100% – when they are playing or fighting or crying. As adults we are always careful and abide by a set of rules that inherently stops us from giving our 100%.

Money and the power of credit

A typical retail works like this – a manufacturer makes a product that gets ultimately paid by a consumer. In between there is an interim layer of retailers who help sell the product. There is a time gap between when the product gets manufactured and when it gets paid. An “Aashirvaad aata” that gets manufactured on 15th of August is bought and paid by the customer on 5th of September. While the ecosystem would continue to cut down this time – it will never come down to absolute zero.

A retail industry will always need a credit line between the various entities involved. In 2015, it would be fair to say that I got enough clarity and experience on this. Maintaining a good credit line leading to a healthy cashflow is critical in our business. This is something that is hard to learn in the current era where in there is plethora of venture money but at ZopNow this needs to be engrained in our culture.

A retail industry needs the engine oil of credit line for smooth functioning. I would take a lot of credit in building this internally and its important that in future we maintain the same stance. Without a credit line, an increase in business volume is detrimental – with a credit line, an increase in business is wonderful.

Product of the year – YouTube Offline

As a kid, we used to hear this story – “A shoes salesman comes to a village and tells his boss that there is no way one can sell shoes here as nobody wears shoes in this village. Another salesman comes to the same village and tells his boss there is excellent opportunity here as nobody wears shoes in this village”.youtube-offline

My favorite product of the year has been YouTube post its “offline” feature implementation. While everyone complains about the poor connectivity in India, YouTube took it as an opportunity and with its offline feature is creating a lot of sticky customer in India. Given that I use public transport in an unpredictable Bangalore traffic – I end up downloading a lot of YouTube videos that I can watch while traveling in the bus. As ZopNow expands into multiple geographies – we have to look into specific needs and accordingly tailor our approach and solution.

LeapSecond: Even Monkeys Fall off Tree

Vikash is definitely the best engineer I have worked with. In general, he would cover all the edge cases and is meticulous in his approach. However, as they say “even monkeys fall off trees”. On 1st of July 2015, we launched our latest version of the site. Prior to tleapsecondhe launch, we had done the classic 25% A/B testing for a fortnight before releasing it on 1st of July. When it comes to grocery, 1st of the month is most active day in terms of transactions. On 1st of July, our servers went berserk and the site almost came to a halt.

All alarms went off.

Almost everyone in Vikashs team suspected the deployment last night to be the culprit. The team went through every possible path including roll back of code to the earlier version and many such things. Finally, searching “30 June 2015” on google revealed that 30th June was awarded an extra leap second to accommodate for irregularities in the earths rate of rotation. That extra second confused our servers like how who thought they were running late by a second – talking of machines who really care about the lost second ?.

This event really highlights the importance of recognizing “unknown unknowns”. As ZopNow goes to the next level there would be a lot of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns”. Its important to accept this reality and with time reduce these unknowns.

First impression may de deceptivefirst-impression

At the age of 16, I appeared for my first serious interview. This was the prestigious NTSE (National Talent Search Examination). The NTSE interview panel to me was scary – there were 6 interviewers aged between 40 to 50 – interviewing a 16 year old. Of the 6 interviewers, 5 of them were quite active and the 6th seemed not to be very interested in the process.

The interviewers wanted to comfort me and started with some generic easy questions to make me feel comfortable – the second of them was the full form of LPG to which I answered – “Liquid Petroleum Gas”. The panel was moving to the next question and almost asked the next one, when the sixth gentlemen whom I thought was least interested in the process interrupted and said – “You just contradicted yourself”.  Thankfully I had the presence of mind and realized that I had used “Liquid” and “Gas” both – how can something be both liquid and gas at the same time.

I corrected myself and told “Liquefied Petroleum Gas”.  The next 60 min it was a one on one conversation between me and the 6th panelist whom I thought was least interested. We talked about the Newtons laws of physics to trigonometry and geometry. Till date, I think it was the most engaging interview. 

That incident did have an impact on me – post that I try to ignore my first impression and try not to make a judgment based on the first interaction. Interestingly, Julees view on this is diametrically opposite to mine – though she has given up on my dress code but occasionally she still insists to improve my dress code so that my first impression can be slightly better.


vanaprasthaI paid a visit to my village, Nawaranga, during the later half of the year. Its located in North Bihar in the district of Siwan. The rate of progress in the village has been incredible. In the early 1980s what used to be a full day journey from Patna to Siwan is now a 2.5 hour journey. Crossing the Ganges over a steamer is replaced by a smooth highway ride and it takes less to travel from Patna to Siwan than from HSR layout to Whitefield on a rainy Friday in Bangalore.

This time I traveled in a couple of nearby districts as well – Gopalganj and a few others. I have vivid memories of Bihar in 1980s – mud thatched houses, poor road and a sense of backwardness. The 2000 Bihar is a different story – irrespective of what the media states. The quality of life has certainly improved – right from houses to roads to cleanliness. I was stumped to see a public school bus in my village – the same village that in 1980 did not have electricity has two JCB, 8 tractors, well built houses and many more signs of development.

The irony of Bihar is that all the smart folks have moved away from the state for better career opportunities. My class of 150 odd students – more than 120 are living outside Bihar and majority of them successful in their professional life. Had only 50 of them stayed back, a lot of progress could have been achieved. While I do not have the power to roll back time nor its advisable to leave my current set of responsibilities, I am almost decided that 10-12 years later when Nick would be ready for college and ZopNow would no longer need me – I would start the last phase of my life and spend the last 20 years in helping develop the place where I grew up.

Now I think some of the old literature starts making so much sense on why the human life was split into four stages of Brahamacharya, Grihastha, Vanaprashta and Sansyasa. As a kid, when we were taught most of us thought that the definition of four stages is outdated, but now I do believe that these four stages is every much existent.

Three Reasons why I like Number Three

3hoursThis year I bought the most expensive phone of my life – One Plus Two. At 25K, this exceeds the sumtotal of all the 2 to 4K phones I bought in the last 12 years. While I do not believe in numerology, there is something about the number 3 and lots of events in my life is attached to this number three. The phone “One Plus Two” is yet another accident with three. There was no particular reason for ZopNow to have the tag line “Groceries delivered in 3 hours” – it could have been 2 or 4 or 5 or 6. Likewise it’s a fact that I come at number three position in my house – I still read my “Delighted to be at number three” email almost every month quoted below.

“While many of us are disappointed with our number 3 test ranking in cricket, I am delighted to take the number 3 spot at home. On Aug 30th, around 2:04 PM we were blessed with a baby boy. Both mom and son are doing well (and I am fully aware that nobody bothers about the sleepless state of father :))

I have received multiple feedback throughout my life that I do everything “ulta” and this time I safeguarded myself by picking a baby name that is a palindrome – Naman. The last two days Naman has been a good boy and has happily used his one word vocabulary of cry to communicate everything. On the request of several others in house to pick a good nickname – I took the clue from the word nickname and have nicknamed Naman as Nick. Nick Naman Singh has taken the first spot in household, closely followed by his mom and dad is in distant third place.

I have used the following paragraph from Tim Russert quite a few times, but I guess now I am understanding this better than anytime before

“For my entire life, I’ve been a driven person, always striving. I was the first in my family to attend college, and then I went to law school. I worked for the government, then joined NBC and lived in Manhattan, going to concerts, restaurants and cocktail parties. It was an exciting and wonderful life, but my career was central to it, and I was often in a hurry.  That all changed on August 22, 1985, at 7:11 p.m. My wife, Maureen, had been in labor all day with our first and only child. When the nurse put Luke in my arms, I finally understood unconditional love. I realized exactly why my father had worked two full-time jobs for 30 years; why my mother had spent her days sitting next to me when I was sick as a boy, putting her hand on my forehead to check my fever again and again. My love for Luke was as deep as theirs for me—so natural, complete, instinctive. At that moment, all my priorities shifted. My career became secondary to the blessing of being a parent. I wanted to stay at home and feed our baby; I wanted to watch him learn to crawl and say his first words. I wanted to coach his baseball and soccer games. I know it seems impossible, but I feel I can remember every day of his life. When I brought Luke to begin his freshman year in college in September, I knew that a major chapter in his life and mine was over. From that day forward, he’d never again be totally dependent on me. I gave him simple advice: “Study hard, laugh often and keep your honor.” I pray that I’ve taught him to make good decisions and given him strong moral grounding to do the right thing. Because, ever since August 22, 1985, at 7:11 p.m., I’ve known that when my life is over, there’s nothing more I’ll be judged on than what kind of father I was.”

Short term goals for 2016

I am quite confident of the implementing the 3P for ZopNow – predictable delivery at predictable time and being profitable. The next set of things we need to accomplish is a potential international expansion leveraging our technology platform and launching omnichannel features with our partner stores. My desire is to have Indian retail lead and set an example for omnichannel strategy. Just like in communication we migrated from “flying pigeon” directly to “cell phone” and bypassed the entire landline phone phenomenon; we would fast-track and migrate from offline to an omnichannel retail with pure online as a small flash in the pan.

Nick Naman has turned out to be a replica of me – both in terms of looks and nature. He is the same introvert shy boy like his dad. He does not have the luxury of changing his gene pool and I have full confidence in his mother to make sure that he does well in academia. My job would be largely to make sure he explores all facets of life and not just academia. He would be a good sportsman – soccer is coming naturally to him, his handling of ping-pong paddle was quite natural, he can run well and definitely he skates better than his dad. This year, my job would be to help him try many sports and let him pick a few that comes naturally to him.

End Note

My state continues to be what it has been for last several years – “happy but not satisfied” – and in all probability would remain the same for the rest of my life. However, the last few years has given a lot of clarity in terms of what really matters to me. Its clear to me that when my life is over, I would be only judged by what kind of father I was to my twins – ZopNow and Nick Naman Singh.


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