Guest Post :: Still Ranting & Rambling

[I needed inspiration. I needed that biting wry sense of humor bitching away about life served up straight and strong. I needed that no-nonsense attitude to make it’s mark once again. In short, I needed her back. Without any further delay folks, join me in welcoming the famous MBA/MRS out of her self-imposed exile (if you still haven’t checked out her blog, where the hell have you been?!)]

When OMJ asked me to write a guest post, I hesitated, thinking that I haven’t been able to write the final post for my own blog despite many tries.  But this is somehow easier – and doesn’t need to be nearly as conclusive.  And the occasion of your Summer Ball gives me plenty to reminisce about.

So, kiddies, was it the best night of your life?  You and your best friends spent the night dancing away, taking endless photos of yourselves leaning forward in a circle with the camera placed on the floor?  Aren’t you sick of that Black Eyed Peas song yet?  What about the one by The Killers?  Or do you now collectively adore something new and equally repetitive that I’ve missed out on while listening exclusively to classical radio since graduation?

I was tempted to go, but then things got… how should I put it?… disappointing… with one of your classmates.  So I opted to witness it on facebook instead.  I know it’s not where you are, but who you’re with, but our summer ball was in the Chateau.  You know, that humble little hunting lodge of the kings you drive by every morning?  The one with the weird mishmash of styles where a succession of Louises, Philips and Charleses sent the furniture that was going out of style at Versailles?   Yep, that one.

Oh, you youguns, how many things are still going to change!  The P3 BFFs – the ones you love to death now – might not be the ones you will keep in touch with after INSEAD.  That dream job you take over the summer might turn out to be completely boring or intense and miserable.  But in the meantime you’ll discover what you are really meant to be doing.  Or you’ll just end up drinking lots of pints and cursing at London bus drivers instead.  Either way, it won’t be how you think it’s going to be.

You’ll probably regret not going on the Silicon Valley trip.  And if you go, you’ll regret not going to Stanford GSB.  You’ll change your P4 and P5 campus three times.  And three more times after that.  The waiting list will flip and you’ll have endless fights with your new P4 BFFs about whether you should stay or go.  You’ll probably choose to go where your friends are, not where it makes the most sense for your career/education.   (Hint: your relationship won’t last.  Go to whichever campus has Kevin Kaiser teaching VCCR in P5).  You’ll live each moment as precious and unique, and your Italian week will be better than any national week the campus has ever seen, and your section dress up day will be the most fun and clever one in history.  Except that the collective memory of INSEAD is 10 months long.

In the fall, you’ll chase the consulting firms, shake lots of hands, fake lots of smiles, try to find the balance between drinking enough to be friendly and not drinking too much to embarrass yourself.  (Hint 1: always carry ibuprofen with you.  Hint 2: your real BFFs are the ones who’ll tell you when you have parsley stuck in your teeth at a company cocktail)  First you’ll court the big ones, then the second and third tier ones (then the no-name ones who like to call themselves “boutique”), even though you said you wouldn’t do that.  You might have a few fights with your friends who insist that you should think about Plan B.  In a moment of desperation, you might even interview with a tobacco company, or three.  Or, like me, you’ll stand and watch the madness from the sidelines, edit countless obsequious cover letters, and wonder if you’re not joining in the McKinsey lovefest because you’re a contrarian, or because consulting really isn’t for you.  You’ll find validation in your choices when four months out your friends are complaining about their golden handcuffs, and you’re being a content housewife with your fancy freelance gig that allows you to spend time wondering in the British Museum while everyone else is at work.

In P5 you might go to Singapore to see about a boy, even though you swore you’re not going to Singapore.  Except by the time you get there, you’ll no longer be on speaking terms.  But it’ll be fun anyways, and you’ll eat Chicken Rice daily to justify being in sweaty, boring Singapore.  The grad trip will be sloppy and fun, and after you’ll be happy to avoid all INSEAD functions for the next three months.  Chances are you’ll go back to being a normal person, with a normal job.  You’ll pick up the hobbies you’ve abandoned before – cooking, painting, opera-going.  You’ll probably get back with your ex because your INSEAD relationship didn’t make any sense anywhere but at INSEAD.  But beyond that, my predictive abilities fall apart.  Most likely, you’ll look back at that year and wonder if it really happened.

Since the life of an INSEADer can be counted in dog years, the remaining 6 months might as well last 4 years.  Go forth and live out your unique INSEAD experience.  And I’ll watch this blog to see how my prophecies bear out.   That is, if OMJ finds any time to write.

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DIVORSEAD

I came across this term just yesterday, courtesy of a fellow INSEADer who updated me about INSEAD’s dubious reputation. I always knew there were hook-ups and break-ups, but never knew that a name had been connoted as well. Sample this statistic: there were apparently 14 divorces in the previous year (!!).

It’s sad to think that nearly 30-something year-olds do not have the maturity to realize that they are no longer undergrads, nor are they at some frat-party, and be more sensitive to their partners. How can they forget all those days when their significant other would have goaded them on to do the GMAT, write those applications, prepare for the interviews, wait nervously in eager anticipation for that acceptance call? How can they forget the loving empathy the partners extended when that dreaded ding(s) came? How can they forget all that encouragement and support their partners (at the expense of their time and energy) extended to keep propping up their egos each time it got bruised like a rotten apple?

Partners, IMO, go through more than the applicants/ students during this whole b-school process. They have to deal with the insecurity of leaving their jobs, relocating to an alien location, keeping themselves busy when their partners are at school, waiting eagerly at home to see their partners in the evening (which would in all probability be the high-point of their day), listening patiently to their partners as they rant about their day at school, everyday. And, I’m talking only about those partners who move with their partners. Long-distance relationship is even harder. The insecurities the non-studying partner has to bear are immense. They would always be worried about drifting apart, as the b-school bubble consumes the student more and more.

B-school can be crazy, but students have to remember all those years that brought them to b-school in the first place. One or two years should never change a person to the point where they don’t care about hurting their loved ones. B-school will end and reality will bite. Who do they turn to at that point?

I dedicate this post to all the partners of b-school admits. You go through more than anyone gives you credit for and you need to be applauded for that. And, to all those insufferable pricks who are selfish enough to forget that, remember that what goes around comes around and b-school is and can never be an excuse to end a marriage/ relationship. Grow up and act the part of a mature student at an elite b-school.

Fishy Sushi

I attended the Open Day (Admits Weekend) for INSEAD a week ago. I’m not going to go into a breakdown of the day’s events and how it panned out; I’ll let the INSEAD marketing team do that. I will however share a story that one of the profs. shared with us during a session. This to me was probably the most important takeaway from the entire day. This story was related by the UDJ prof., Neil Bearden.

Neil was telling us how the previous night he had taken his gf out for a sushi dinner. It was her birthday and though he doesn’t like sushi, the gf was a big fan of it, and so like all good bfs before him, he sucked his stomach in and went for the dinner. He asked his gf to taste each sushi and let him know it’s “fishiness”-quotient before he sampled it. What he realized after a while is that the “fishiness”-quotient was getting exaggerated in his mind everytime the gf gave her honest opinion. Very soon he asked her to stop giving her opinions (which the gf took in a good manner) and decided to trial for himself the tribulations of the Land of the Rising Sun. He started enjoying his dinner more, and actually downed more sushis than he cares to admit now (the latest news is he’s now training to be a sushi chef in his spare-time)

The point about the story was herd-mentality (in case you missed it) and the power of suggestions. It must be a great social experiment to put highly accomplished individuals together, for a year or two, and see the dynamics. Since, each individual is as bright as the other, a form of herding happens, and the motivations of an individual get molded by the collective ideas of the group. There is safety in numbers. Have you ever seen a flock of seagulls fly-by? How come they are so coordinated? Besides the assumption that bird-brains are actually smarter than we think they are, the answer is very simple. The birds follow a simple evolutionary algorithm. The rule is to not touch each other while flying and let instinct guide the direction of flying.

B-school can become like that if you’re not careful. It’s easy to get into a herd and squawk like everyone else. Depending on the flavor of the month, consulting/ IB/ PE/ VC can rule the roost. It’s important to keep track of these herds and stay true to yourself. Easier said than done, but not impossible. I don’t know what the golden answer is,  but I suspect it involves praying a lot to Oprah (made harder by the fact that I’m not the greatest fan of Oprah and am actually looking forward to 2011 when she winds up that show).

Mediocre But Arrogant

I was having coffee yesterday with my friend. Till 8 months ago we were pursuing some entrepreneurial ideas. My friend is a successful entrepreneur and in his last startup, he successfully raised 2 rounds of funding and created some niche products. For various reasons, the startup closed down 2 years ago. Since then, we’ve been toying with different ideas.

My friend is a technical person and his passion lies in the technical domain. In his previous startup, he was, besides being a co-founder, the CTO and VP of Engineering. I have seen him sit down with the developers and get involved in the nuts and bolts of product development and engineering. I have also seen him talk to VCs and pitch the idea from a business perspective and win 2 rounds of funding from well-respected VC firms.

We got together about 2 years ago to brainstorm on new ideas. Somewhere along the way, we were joined by 2 friends from HBS and CBS. Together we threw ourselves into creating the idea, the product, the revenue model, the monetization plan, the business plan, etc. Naturally, the HBS and CBS guys were more focused on the business side of things, while my friend and I were more focused on the actual product development and product management.

As time went on, we noticed a disconnect between the business and product development sides. The business-guys did not really get product development and were trying to solve product development problems through business solutions. Eventually, things came to a dead-end and we decided to drop the startup, while still remaining close friends.

Yesterday over coffee, my friend and I did an impromptu post-mortem of the whole experience and this is what we came up with:

  • The business guys had too many ‘cool’ frameworks to come up with an idea for a startup; most times, all that’s really needed is just plain intuition.
  • The business guys were more focused on providing a service, while the development guys were more focused on creating a product. Instead, the focus should be on how the product is going to provide a service that can be used by many people. Surprisingly, this concept is harder to implement than understand.
  • The business guys vastly underestimated the efforts of development; analyzing a problem sitting 50,000 feet high doesn’t make the problem smaller.
  • The business guys were far removed from development (even though they had a choice of being involved). Not being involved created many assumptions in the minds of the business guys and this led to wrong business strategies and internal confusion within the team.
  • The attitude of the business guys was that development is a commodity to be used and discarded. What they failed to understand is that product development is very tightly coupled with business strategy.
  • Every idea was always focused on the monetization plan and seemingly good ideas were thrown away because there was no clear monetization model around it.

I purposely did not go into the problems generally posed by developers. There are many like the one where developers are usually blind to business needs and timelines; where they do not see the bigger vision of the market; where developers do not know the trade-offs between a ‘perfect’ product and a ‘ready-to-market’ product, etc.

My reason for focusing on the business folks is because I’m going to b-school now. These are some of the things I do not wish to forget after INSEAD. It is extremely important for an entrepreneur to be the creator AND executor of his/ her idea.

Too many MBAs these days have forgotten this and want to be just the executors of someone else’s creation. That would be all right if they at least gave the creator(s) the creative license to go about developing the idea freely. Business folks need to understand, appreciate and respect the efforts involved in idea-development. This holds good whether you are starting the next Starbucks or the next Google. You damn well better know all there is to know about coffee as you better know all there is to know about search algorithms and load-balancing techniques. Not everything has to have a clear revenue model at the outset. Look at Twitter. These guys still don’t have a clear monetization plan, but they are valued at $1 billion. If I had to come up with the Twitter idea, it would probably have been shot down since there is no clear way to monetize it.

It’s fine to know all there is to know about all those consulting frameworks, or knowing how to slice and dice derivatives, or knowing how to read an annual report, or being able to smooth-talk an investor (though this is infinitely harder these days). If you want your startup to succeed after an MBA, get ready to forget all that money spent on b-school, be prepared to throw that ego out of the window, garbage those gloves, coz’ the only way you’re going to be successful is if you get your hands downright dirty.

Don’t believe me? Show me one successful entrepreneur who did it without getting his/ her hands dirty.

Update 1Nov09: Read Paul Graham’s latest essay here. He’s captured the whole startup scene better than anyone else. For those who don’t know who Paul Graham is, please do a Google search.

(check)Mate

Doing an MBA entails giving up on a lot of things and making multiple sacrifices on  many levels. There’s the opportunity cost of doing an MBA, the strained relationships, the stress of the job-hunt, the lost hours of sleep, the insane studying, the loss of hair in trying to raise money for tuitions, etc. The list goes on for quite a bit.

Somewhere along the way, students make up for all these losses through the networking, the parties, the brand-name chip on the shoulder, the joining of an ultra-elite league, landing that PE job with Blackstone or that consulting gig with M/B/B. However, all these gains can never make up for the biggest loss of them all; old friends.

In the middle of this insane rat-race, I know a few MBAs who’ve forgotten their old friends. They’ve forgotten the days when as mates they climbed mountains together; as mates they consoled and comforted one another in times of bereavement; as mates they crashed together in motorbike accidents; as mates they cursed b-school apps together; as mates they consoled one another through broken relationships; as mates they saved each other’s relationship from self-destructing; as mates they called one another wherever they were in the world, just to say hi; as mates they would write e-mails to one another like a Skype conversation.

Whatever happened to those simpler times when there were no thoughts of an MBA or any other ego-bloating degree or activity in the mind? When will the realization dawn that an MBA will come and go? When will the understanding come that all that networking was, but, for a short while? When will that clarity shine through that b-school’s nothing but a bubble, and that after it bursts with a loud bang, it’s the old mates who will still be around? It is not unjustly said that MBAs lack heart and soul. When the shit does hit the fan, and realization finally dawns, it’s usually too late. Too much time would have passed and the hurt wounds of old mates would have become hard shields and they would have given up and moved on in life.

But, who am I to talk right? I’m just another MBA after all.

Winnie the Pooh and Where’s the Honey?

I recently attended an alumni meeting organized by my undergrad University. It was the usual get-together at a nice hotel, with free-flowing champagne, presentations on the latest happenings in the college world to make the alumni swell with ear-aching pride, endlessly boring talks by professors on their cutting edge research, etc. etc. Blah!

At the end of it all, there was of course the customary lucky draw. Up for grabs was a bottle of questionable Scotch, an University-emblem engraved pen (ball-point!), and a sinister looking teddy-bear key-chain whose nudity was covered by the smallest University t-shirt I’ve ever seen. I dropped my business card with huge misgivings into the lucky-bowl. Lucky draws are just plain evil. They raise your hopes, only to dash them. Anyway, my misgivings were because I was afraid I would actually win one of these  prizes.

The bottle of Scotch went (to someone else), and so did the pen. Both times, my card came agonizingly close to being picked. I could literally see my card just managing to elude the fat pudgy fingers of the MC. Alas, when it came to the last prize, those fat bastards grabbed my card by the scruff of the neck, and delivered the verdict, swift and fast.

So, I’m stuck with this sinister looking teddy-bear key-chain, and as I was eye-balling it back, I noticed a small yellow cardboard flap pinned on its butt (that must hurt, but would be a great conversation piece); you know, those cards which explain the product. Here’s what mine said:

  1. The filling 100% new material
  2. The fabric conforms to flameproof requirements
  3. The eyes are of the safety lock-in type
  4. Handwash in warm soapy water. Short machine spin in pillowcase. Do not tumble dry.
  5. Due to small parts this key ring is not suitable for children under 36 months.

(the bold above is how it is on the butt-card) I was beyond grief that I would not be able to pluck its damn eyes out. What really got my hair in a tangle though was the fifth point. How on earth did this company that makes sinister looking teddy bears figure that out? I can only imagine that they handed a number of these bears out to a bunch of kids of various ages and waited to see who was the youngest who died due to strangulation by the eye-balling freak.

My whole gout with this episode is that as an alumni of a pretty prestigious University, the least they could have done was to give out more materially valuable gifts. Com’n, I paid a heck of a lot to study there, and funding it was not easy. To give me a teddy-bear whose eyes I can’t pluck out, and who kills 3-year olds with the switftness of a ninja just reeks of cheapness and an attitude of go-suck-an-egg. This coming after all those talks meant to make us swell with oozing pride just didn’t go down well. If I wanted a teddy bear, I can go onto the online shop of my University, pay ~$3 and order it myself. I don’t need Ms. Pudgy-fingers doing that for me.

This then led me to INSEAD. The majority of the scholarship decisions for INSEAD came out today. I’ve been talking to a few people from my class, especially those from need-based countries like Africa, India, China, etc., and the general consensus is that raising money for the tuition and living fees is proving to be far more arduous than ever imagined. The exchange rate and the salaries drawn are just not enough to pay even 25% of the tuition fees. Bank loans are almost impossible to come by, with most banks asking for 100% collateral. Heck, if students had 100% collateral, they wouldn’t be going to INSEAD. They would be living very comfortably in their own countries. Most of these folks are literally banking on winning a substantial scholarship to see them through this difficulty.

The average scholarship award given per student last year was something like EUR 12000; that’s 1/5th of the tuition fees. And, only 20% of the admits get scholarships. If you are from a low-cost location, and you are among the 20% who get a scholarship, that still leaves you trying to pay for the rest of the course.

This problem is not isolated to INSEAD. Similar stories are being heard in HBS, Booth, GSB, Columbia, etc. MIT is the only one who’s managed to find a lender for its international students. Top-10 b-schools really need to put their money where their mouth is. Firstly, they make us go through this insane admissions process, and then they put us through this shit of trying to find funding. How can anyone be stopped from studying due to a lack of funds? That’s almost criminal.

If they’re really such great schools, they should have the gumption to vouch for the quality of their students, and agree to underwrite the whole loan. What I’m being led to conclude is that the schools themselves don’t have any faith in the quality of their brand. But, they have the gall to act like snooty lords accepting and rejecting applicants as they like.

INSEAD has claimed it’s hard for them to act as co-signers due to multiple nationalities present at it’s school, and that banks are uncomfortable giving loans to students whose credit worthiness they’re not able to verify. Excuse me, but isn’t that diversity supposed to be great, boundary-breaking, uplifting, etc.? Isn’t this diversity the primary fabric of INSEAD? Doesn’t INSEAD pick the greatest and brightest from all the different nationalities? Aren’t we told that we are probably the best from these different nations? Isn’t our potential to be global business leaders one of the reasons why we were selected?

Then, why is there a difficulty in being able to underwrite student loans with a global bank like HSBC (for example)? Surely the top-10 schools can do better? This almost makes me feel proud of winning the crummy teddy-bear whose eyes I can’t pluck out, and whose filling is made of, by the looks of things, sterner stuff than b-schools.

How To Contact Your Interviewer

OK, too many people seem to want to know how to write a mail to your interviewer. So here’s my template. Use it as you like it, or tweak around it or chuck it in the bin if you think its crap.

Hi Interviewer First Name,

My name is OutOfMyJeans and I am an aspirant for the INSEAD full-time MBA program starting in Jan 10′. My application has been short-listed for the interview stage. W.r.t. that, the admissions committee sent me your contact details to arrange for an interview with you.

Please let me when know when would be the most convenient time for you to meet. My timings are pretty flexible (if it’s not, mention it here).

You can always reach me on my mobile (number) if that’s easier. The admissions committee has given me your contact number as 123456789. Do let me know if there’s some other number to contact you on if this is not valid.

I have attached my application form (or CV), which was submitted to INSEAD, for your perusal.

Hoping to hear from you soon and thanks in advance for taking time out for this.

Warm Regards,

OutOfMyJeans