Archive for November, 2007

Fasten Your Seatbelt!

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

I spent a day in Delhi, India, meeting with various business executives, and the day jolted my world view.

Delhi 333 In the morning, I met Hemant Taneja, a rising superstar in the world of venture capital. Hemant is with General Catalyst, based in Cambridge, MA, U.S.A., but makes regular visits to India, and coordinated his fall visit to overlap with mine. He set up a meeting with the CEO of major business operation of MoserBaer, a company in Delhi. In addition, he and Bejul Somaia, a former venture capitalist with General Catalyst who moved to India three years ago, organized a dinner that night with a half dozen technology executives from India. At the end of the day, all I could say was, “Wow!”

MoserBaer is the world’s leading manufacturer of optical CD’s and DVD’s. The company’s roots go back to Switzerland, where it started its life as a manufacturer of employee time clocks. This unexciting business morphed over the years into the manufacturing of CD’s, and the company moved its operations to Delhi. It now employs some 6,000 people in India, has three different rapidly-growing product lines, and is a leader in technology and advanced manufacturing.

Delhi 332I’ve seen a lot of manufacturing facilities in my day, and none ever blew me away. MoserBaer’s did. To start with, it’s vast — some 350,000 square meters! And it’s automated beyond what I could ever imagine. Discs work their way down long production lines, without any human involvement. They produce a staggering number of discs a day, and it was a sight to behold these discs racing through the manufacturing line.

The company has now successfully diversified into the area of photovoltaics, and we met with the CEO of this division, Ravi Khanna, as well as one of the company’s top executives, Pratul Gupta. We also got a tour of their solar manufacturing plant, which just 15 months ago was undeveloped land. When these guys decide to build something, they do it quickly and effectively. The plant looked immaculate, and was churning out photovoltaic sheets in rapid fire fashion — again with no human intervention.

Conventional thinking about India is that it’s the center of low-cost labor. Well, MoserBaer has one of the world’s most advanced and automated manufacturing facilities, staffed by very skilled and experienced employees. The company is growing rapidly, has successfully diversified their product offerings, and is a world leader in cutting-edge R&D and manufacturing technologies. [And those smart guys from Warburg Pincus somehow figured out how to invest in them years ago and own about 1/3rd of the company!]. I was not just impressed with what I saw at MoserBaer, I was stunned to see what this company is accomplishing.

That night, our dinner included Sandeep Kohli, founding CEO of a company that focused on the retail sector in India, Samir Sood, Head of Corporate Development for Google in India, Kirin Konduri, serial entrepreneur and most recently founder of a company in the mobile search area, Dhruv Agarwala, founding CEO of iTrust, an on-line financial services company, Sahad PV, founding CEO of VC Circle (India’s equivalent of VentureWire), and Deep Kalra, founding CEO of makemytrip.com.

In my venture career, I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the best CEO’s in the U.S. I was so impressed that this group of executives. They could measure up against the very best in the U.S. — they were smart, charismatic, and strategic. And they shared with me over dinner the current status of building a business in India.

I learned that the cost of real estate in Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore is comparable to Silicon Valley; it’s always a bad sign when the square footage costs are expressed on a “per month” basis! And the salaries for senior executives here are also comparable to those in top technology centers in the U.S., with a real shortage of top executives. India still has an advantage in the salary level of more junior employees, but the all-in cost of doing business is beginning to approximate that in the U.S. All in all, though, the model many of us in the U.S. have that the reason businesses do well in India is strictly because of their cost advantage is just wrong. They have talented, technically-gifted entrepreneurial teams that are driven to succeed, and moving forward rapidly.

What’s so compelling about business opportunities in India, versus those in the U.S., is the many nuts-and-bolts business opportunities that are wide open for investment and new company formation. The economy is growing 10% per year, a sizable percentage of the 1+ billion people here are gaining more purchasing power each year (although the savings rate in India dwarfs that of the U.S.’), and many things that are commonplace and mature in the U.S. are just unfolding in India. It’s very energizing, and there is no doubt that India, its skilled workforce, and its economy will shape the world we live in. Fasten your seatbelts!

Baseball in Delhi

Wednesday, November 14th, 2007

Delhi Baseball 011 We flew from Bhutan to Delhi on Sunday afternoon, and went immediately to a baseball field there to play with a great set of kids from Delhi. The session had been organized by our friend Kristie Jochmann in Milwaukee, who somehow found Joel Ehrendreich, a senior official with the U.S. State Department. Joel, his wife Rachel and their two great sons live in Delhi, and are very active with Delhi baseball. They were incredibly nice, setting up the practice, meeting us at the airport, helping us get to the field, filling us in on Delhi and India, and making sure this day was special for all of our family.

Delhi Baseball 008 There were about thirty players at the practice, and a set of dedicated and skilled coaches. Most of the players were 14 years old, and were quite good at baseball. Gibson warmed up with one of their top pitchers and, afterwards, said to me, “Daddy, he throws HARD!!” Little did he know that he was soon to bat against this very talented pitcher!

Delhi Baseball 054 After warming up, the boys played a four inning intrasquad game, which featured strong pitching, smart field play, and some good hits (many with swings that looked an awful lot like a cricket swing :-) ). Then, they players did about forty-five minutes of infield drills, with a coach who hit more ground balls per minute than I’ve ever seen (except, maybe, for Coach Howell in Charleston!). It was a great practice, and Gibson was thrilled to be able to play with strong players.

Delhi Baseball 030 We brought each player a Red Sox hat, and it was terrific to give them to the players after explaining that the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions! They looked great in the hats, and should put them to terrific use. We weren’t able, though, to persuade the Ehrendreich brothers to swap out their favorite hats (Brewers for Cooper, and Orioles for Cal, as in Cal Ripken), but we’re working onDelhi Baseball 084 getting them to Rhode Island next summer and taking in a Red Sox game!

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Delhi Baseball 087 At the end of the practice, the team gave each of us a terrific present — a red travel bag with “Delhi” on it. We put it to immediate use, and it will not only be useful, but will be a fabulous memory of our time in Delhi. We really appreciated this groups kindness in letting us play ball with them, and giving us such a great experience!

Delhi Baseball 071 These kids seemed really fired up about baseball, and practice at length on Saturdays and Sundays. They now are getting the Little League organization established in Delphi, and the Ehrendreich’s are doing tons to help the Delhi baseball program move ahead. The interest in sports in India is quite high, with lots of athletic talent, so it will be great to see a Delhi team in Williamsport someday!

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Feel free to check out our photos from this fun baseball session!

Not One Stoplight!

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Bhutan 035 Bhutan is a country nestled between India and China, about the size of the state of West Virginia .  Until 1969, the country didn’t have a single paved road, and there isn’t a single stoplight in the entire country today!   Its population is 2.3 million, but Thimpu, its capital and largest city, has a population of less than 100,000.  This is the country whose king declared that their objective is to maximize Gross National Happiness (GNH), not Product.  This same king has four wives, somehow marrying four sisters on the same day!  Try explaining that to your eleven and nine year old!!

Bhutan 373 Bhutan has been called the last unspoiled frontier.  I can’t really comment on the “last” part of this assertion, but there is no question it’s an unspoiled frontier.  The air is clear and fresh.  The beautiful mountains had snow-topped peaks as the first sign of winter settles in.  And the trees have turned colors, making Bhutan a magical place.

Bhutan 550 We flew in from Bangkok and had been forewarned about the hairy approach to the airport.  We caught clear views of the Himilayas, including Everest on the flight in, and twisted through a valley in finding our airstrip in Bhutan’s only airport.  Whew!  That’s one landing we’re glad to have behind us.   The views of the Himilayas on our flight out of Paro (to Delhi via Katmandu) were even more spectacular.  We were on the wrong side of the plane, but our neighbor on the right took this great picture of Everest.

Bhutan 128 Our visit to Bhutan was short (five days), and we did a lot (way too much) driving around.  We started in Paro, moved to Thimpu (the capital, in the center of the country), and then headed west to Punakha.  As the crow flies, all cities are quite close to each other.  And we were very jealous of these crows by the end of each drive.  The roads in Bhutan twist through mountain valleys, and are in miserable condition.  About two minutes after our guide explained that we were on Bhutan’s first super-highway, I shot this video to give you an idea of the jolting nature of travel by “highway” in Bhutan.  And there are workcrews on the side of the road at very regular intervals (see picture above), mostly brought into Bhutan from India.  These crews worked with almost no advanced equipment, often breaking up rocks with a pick-axe.  And they almost always had entire families in the crew, including young babies with an older sibling caring for the younger child.  Anyway, I wouldn’t hold my breath for when Bhutan’s “superhighway” will approximate even a fairly basic secondary road.

Bhutan 369 In Paro, we poked around, went to a museum, took in a monastery/fort, and took a couple of short hikes.  In Thimpu, we met with a bunch of children at an elementary school there and had a great baseball outing (see my Baseball in Bhutan! blog).  And we had a really fun river rafting trip in Punakha, on which we had great views of several amazing birds (including the Crested Kingfisher, the Ibisbill, and the River Lapwing).   While we had to work hard for the birds we sighted, Bhutan had remarkable birdlife with some really special sightings (including the red-vented bulbul shot in the photo above). 

Bhutan 143 You can’t go a mile in Bhutan without seeing signs of the national sport of archery.  By the roadsides, they have concrete  blocks 140 meters apart, and use them to position small targets.  The archers then take turns shooting arrows across this vast distance in hope of striking the target.  When there is a “hit,” they then chant a song and do a dance (see video) that the NFL might try to copy for touchdown celebrations :-) .   Watch for Bhutan’s archery team in the 2008 Summer Olympics, and root for them!!

We loved Bhutan, even though our trip there had its issues.  We  stayed at the Amankora (they have properties in all towns in Bhutan), following our great stay with an Aman hotel in Thailand.  In Bhutan, Amankora supplied a mediocre guide, largely inept staff at the hotels (except for Punakha), dreadful room designs (imagine staying in a windowless bowling alley set in beautiful mountains), and an itinerary that involved lots of driving on torturous roads.  By the end of our stay, we felt like someone had blasted us with a jack hammer for five days.  Ouch!  So we’d encourage anyone to visit Bhutan — it’s lovely — but look for other options than the Amankora.

Feel free to check out our Bhutan photos.

Baseball in Bhutan!

Sunday, November 11th, 2007

Bhutan 278 We had an extraordinary morning at the Jigme Namgyal Lower Secondary School in Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. We arrived a the school in time for their morning assembly, which included all 1,295 students. The school’s principal, Tshering Dupka, invited us to address the student body, which was a real honor. It was so impressive to see all these great kids dressed in the standard clothing of the Bhutanese.

Bhutan 153 After the assembly, the principal of the school gave us an overview of his school and the status of education in his country. Bhutan realizes that it’s behind much of the world in education and commerce, and is making a real push to develop world-class education. It’s free for all children in the country, and most children go to school for at least ten grades. The principal said that most of the children in his school go on to college, and almost 50% attend a college in another country. Also, this school has more girls than boys attending, which isn’t the norm for much of Asia.

Bhutan 171 Our advance baseball “scouting report” on the children at this school was that they are good athletes, but had only played baseball once before. I was a little nervous about working with kids with limited experience, so I brought some whiffle balls. I’ve seen the damage a hard baseball can do to the uninitiated, and figured whiffle balls would be safe. Well, once the kids started playing, it was evident that they had great baseball talent, and the whiffle balls never came out!!!

Bhutan 210 Boy, these kids could hit. And hit. And hit. I’ve never seen so many pounded balls in my life. They hit as though they spent hours each week in a batting cage (and, trust me, there are NO batting cages within thousands of miles of Bhutan). I asked if they played lots of cricket, but their main sports are basketball and football (our soccer). Maybe it’s something in the drinking water in Bhutan, but the batters just sent pitch after pitch deep into the outfield. And, given that I was doing the pitching, I felt lucky to come through without a baseball planted in my forehead! Their throwing and catching isn’t nearly so far along, but I was stunned to see kids with little baseball experience so good at something as difficult as batting.

Bhutan 212 The school is committed to athletics for its students, and is planning to add baseball to the sports programs it sponsors. This team will immediately be the best in their nation! The kids were so enthusiastic about baseball, and it’s great that the school gives them encouragement and support for sports. We brought them a full set of baseball equipment (bats, balls, bases, catcher’s gear, batting helmets, and gloves) so they have the means to develop their skills. Our box with Red Sox hats didn’t arrive in time for the morning’s baseball, but somehow made it to Thimpu that afternoon, and we delivered them the next morning (see picture below, where I’m giving hats to Head of School Tshering Dupka.

Bhutan 297 While there is lots of enthusiasm for baseball at the school, their athletic director, Pema Dorji understandably has no baseball background. He made a suggestion which I’m going to think hard about. He asked if there would ever be the possibility that someone like him could attend a program to train coaches. He clearly is excited about baseball, but knows he needs more experience at running a baseball program. The idea of bringing a good-sized group of overseas coaches (many of whom we’re meeting this year) for a week-long program on coaching skills, perhaps tossing in attending a Major League Baseball game, is very intriguing.

Bhutan 205 I want to express special thanks to our friend and colleague, Kristie Jochmann, who somehow found this great school in Bhutan and organized a baseball get together for us. She is so creative, but also so amazing at making these things happen. Also, we got great support from a terrific non-profit in Philadelphia, Pitch In for Baseball, who helped us get baseball equipment to the school. I could go on for ten pages on the challenges posed by in shipping things to these countries and getting them through customs. Somehow, it ought to be easy for Americans traveling abroad to give things to children in the countries we visit, but that’s not the case today.

Click here to see our slides for Baseball in Bhutan.

Awe, Phucket!

Monday, November 5th, 2007

The fall portion of our trip included a week of “rest” in Phuket (pronounced “Poo-ket”). After being on the go for 2 1/2 months, we were enthused about having seven days to unpack and just hang out. We had a bit of a false start, but ended up having a great re-charging time here.

Phuket 192 Our stay in Phuket got off to an interesting start. We flew from Chiang Mai to Phuket, drove to a dock, and then took a gorgeous 45 minute boat ride to our hideaway destination, a hotel called Yao Noi on a small island. We were dazzled on the boat ride over with the beauty of Phuket. It looked straight out of a James Bond movie, and actually was (“Man with the Golden Gun” and “Casino Royale”). So we were totally psyched to get to our destination. But after arriving, our first several hours were spent trying to get our Thai point person to say something in English besides “still under construction.”

Four hours later, thePhuket 140 English-speaking Assistant Manager showed up, apparently having just spent time on a different planet. We learned we had thirteen different pillow options, but she had little to offer in the way of activities. We asked if the hotel had a naturalist available, and her answer was, “Oh, yes, of course. Would you like someone specializing in reflexology, or in self-healing?” Well, we knew we had a “code red” on our hands. To top things off, our room seemed to have been designed by Rube Goldberg. Fortunately, our travel consultant in the U.S. (Samantha McClure) and our local contacts (Abercrombie and Kent) did a fabulous job of getting things sorted out, and our Phuket stay got back on track quickly.

Phuket 243 We did have one highlight at the Yoi Nol prior to departing. The question our kids have for everyone is, “Are there snakes here?” The hotel staff assured us that there were no snakes at the hotel. Well, we saw three Indo-Chinese Rat Snakes during our brief stay, and Gibson got a great picture of this critter. Of course, the hotel’s “expert” looked at the picture and told us that we had seen a cobra (about the same as mistaking a labrador retriever for a sabre-toothed tiger!). Anyway, our stay did have its highlights!

Phuket 186 As we explored Phuket, we saw signs of the horrible tsunami of 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean. However, much of Phuket has been completely rebuilt, so it was not all that obvious that such a natural disaster had decimated the area recently. Odd that Phuket could recover, while New Orleans still struggles. But some of the natives here related their experiences, and it reminded us of Charlestonians experience with Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The boats in the photo above had been carried 100 yards or so on shore at a location that suffered 20 casualties during the tsunami.

Chiang Mai 152 We spent our last five days in Phuket, blissfully, at the Amanpuri Hotel, which was a fabulous spot for us. We didn’t do much of anything other than schoolwork, swimming pool, beach, and a little baseball. The food and staff there were wonderful, and it was exactly what we were hoping for — complete relaxation with suitcases completely unpacked.

Phuket 248 During our stay at the Amanpuri, we celebrated Halloween in an unusual way. Elizabeth made costumes for the kids and bought a big basket of candy. We figured it didn’t make sense to knock on the hotel rooms of perfect strangers from other countries and say “Trick or Treat” — unless we wanted to get arrested! So we took a big basket of candy and reverse “Trick or Treated.” We approached people, gave them candy, and did our best to explain the meaning of Halloween. Our kids didn’t see why this was a good deal for them, and some of the people we encountered looked justifiably wary of us. But the kids looked Phuket 265great, dressed as an elephant and a snake handler. We even managed to have an impromptu surrogate pumpkin, as our resourceful Thai chef turned an onion into a Jack-O-Lantern. Like everything else we encountered in Thailand, it was done with creativity and kindness — what a great country!

We had a lot of fun with hermit crabs during our times on the beach. At one point, Gibson got this video of Elizabeth and Sterling chasing down this particularly elusive crab. Take a look! Life can be tough as a lowly crab, that’s for sure.

Phuket 277 I regret to report that we had yet another boulder incident with Sterling. This girl just loves to live on the edge! Our photo album lays out the full story, but you can see that she had her work cut out for her in getting out from under an 18-ton boulder. Between boulders and snakes, this girl is keeping us on our toes!!

Click here to see our Phuket photos.