Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Social Entrepreneurship Vs Foreign Aid - Kind of Like The Pig and The Chicken

There's been a lot of discussion about the effectiveness of foreign aid, INGO's and donations versus social entrepreneurship when it comes to dealing with issues of poverty, infrastructure development, etc., especially in developing countries -- and I can't help but think of the classic story about the chicken and the pig, which goes something like this:
A pig and a chicken are walking down a road. The chicken looks at the pig and says, “Hey, why don’t we open a restaurant?” 

The pig looks back at the chicken and says, “Good idea, what do you want to call it?” 

The chicken thinks about it and says, “Why don’t we call it ‘Ham and Eggs’?” 

“I don’t think so,” says the pig, “I’d be committed, but you’d only be involved.”
Although we can't make blanket statements, but for the most part, it seems to me social entrepreneurs are committed, whereas foreign aid and donations are involved. You can't bring about sustainable change without having your skin in the game.

Friday, September 24, 2010

How to Count Beans when you don't have QuickBooks

I still recall the sense of relief when I mastered (well, sort-of) the art of start-up accounting during my first CEO gig. Our accountant (who visited us twice a month) gave me a crash course in QuickBooks, taught me how to read PNL, Balance Sheet, A/P, A/R - and also how to make entries for money coming and money going out. I have never been good at accounting, but I got QuickBooks - and pretty soon, I was dangerous enough to keep track of the business via these wonderful reports that QuickBooks could spit out on-demand.

But then came the two companies that I set up in Nepal, so far away from QuickBooks land. The first one is a software company, and we hired an accountant, an auditor (and also a lawyer to complete the triumvirate) -- and they were able to concoct something in Excel that let me get the reports I needed -- so far, so good. However, the second company we set up in Nepal last year - our solar energy company Gham Power -- now that totally threw me off.

For starters, there's more retail activity compared to software business - lots of client transactions, inventory to track,  VAT calculations, import tax, custom clearance, supplier credit lines, etc. etc., and I was very afraid. So I asked our team to get a decent accounting system in place - "it must be computerized, and we need to have up-to-date data each day", I said. 

Taking a cue from my startup experience in the US, I first suggested QuickBooks, but our accoutants found the interface too weird - "this is made for people who don't know accounting, we are accountants and we do direct ledger entries, dammit!". Well, you have to pick you battles, so I let them figure out the right course.

First - they brought in a software called Tally, I think with a trial license (the actual license cost was about USD $1,000 plus yearly support fee - yikes! higher than my beloved QuickBooks). Then they took about a month to set it up, and then told us it still wasn't right, and probably will not be right until we bought the actual license AND got a consultant to set it up.  Phew!

Meanwhile, I needed our numbers, so there was a parallel system in place using good old Excel, which takes 2 full-time staff to maintain - one to record each financial transction on paper and compile paperwork, the other to make entries in Excel. Needless to say, it is far off from where it needs to be, but sort of gets the job done.

Now I'm at a point where I'd rather just have someone scan all the financial paperwork and send it to a QuickBooks consultant who'll at least get me what I need. But one would think there's gotta be a better way - right?

I'd love to hear from fellow startup entrepreneurs in this part of the world (Nepal, India, China, etc.) on this. What has worked for you? Anyone use QuickBooks, or found a QuickBooks for this part of the world? Is Tally our only option as far as software goes? 

Until then, we keep counting beans using Excel, while dreaming of QuickBooks.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

My Fall from Grace to Watch TV Online

Over the years, I've been trying my best to recover from TV addiction, and by the end of 2009, it's been limited to watching Lost, Supernatural (my wife's colleague turned us on to this by lending us first 4 seasons on DVD, to which we happily traded whatever sleeping hours we had left on any given night), Tivo (Craig Ferguson and Charlie Rose mostly), then the occasional sports (NFL and NBA), then the occasional Netflix "watch instantly" movies.

While that may sound like a grand accomplishment (at least to me), you have to understand that I haven't fully recovered from my addiction.

This was made painfully clear earlier this month when during the same week that I left for Nepal, both Lost and Supernatural started airing new episodes, and I would miss Super Bowl as well. Still, I figured since we have "broadband" (ahem, 512kbps) in Nepal, I'd be able to catch a lot of it on the web. So, my first weekend in Nepal, I go to NBC site to watch Lost - and I get this warning - "You appear to be accessing from outside of United States, f&#( off!". Same with Supernatural. (Superbowl I didn't even attempt to because it was 5 am in the morning in Nepal when the game started, and when I talked to my kids on Skype later that morning, my 6-year son very happily let me know who'd won)

I then tried hulu - it basically told me to buzz off for the same reasons when I looked for Lost or Supernatural. Tried Netflix to see if I can watch instantly - they don't allow access from outside the US either. Hence came my fall from grace - I searched for bittorrent feeds for the shows, and whoala, I had all 3 episodes of Lost and Supernatural downloaded overnight, and the next night around 10 pm, I was all content to start my marathon session of watching all missed Lost episodes, and Supernatural the next night, and I became complete again.

Anyone know if there's a way to access my Tivo'd shows online? I installed the Tivo Desktop thing (even the paid version), but haven't found any easy obvious way to access my transferred shows over the web.

Friday, February 19, 2010

'Water' by Steven Solomon: A View From the Melting Himalayan Glaciers

Pulitzer Prize winning author Kai Bird who lives in Nepal writes in The Huffington Post about Steven Solomon's book "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization" and how water problems add to Nepal's current energy crisis. It is interesting to note that Kai is dealing with the loadshedding problem with diesel generator and inverter-batteries. Also, he doesn't mention his views about solar or any other renewable energy in his writeup, because we feel that renewable energy is crucial to addressing this issue. So, I wrote this response to Kai's article:

Kai - thanks for pointing out this critical issue in Nepal

I'm curious why you haven't explored solar PV as an alternative (full disclosure: I work for a solar PV company in Nepal) beacause using diesel and "inverter-batteries" actually add to the water crisis.

Diesel genset spews out pollutants that cause environmental damage, which then accelerates the melting of Himalayan glaciers, which as you've pointed out is the direct cause of Nepal's hydropower plants generating less electricity.

"Inverter-batteries" also make matter worse because they don't actually add any new energy. Instead, they inefficiently store Nepali utility company's already scarce electricity into batteries to use later as backup during "load-shedding", but with 70% loss-factor. That's why Nepali government is considering a ban on inverters (see http://ghampower.com/?p=426)

Now I'm biased on solar. I left my job in San Francisco to come back to my native Nepal and make solar PV systems available at diesel-generator prices, because decreasing costs of PV are now at a point where developing countries can consider it as an alternative to diesel.

I'd love to welcome you to visit http://www.ghampower.com and our offices in Kathmandu. We are confident solar can help produce a good part of your current energy needs, at costs comparable to your diesel generator and inverter-batteries, but minus the damage to water and the environment.

Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Cost of Doing Business in Nepal

When I came back to Nepal to launch our solar venture Gham Power, I had no illusions in my mind that the process was going to be smooth. After all, I was born and raised here, finished high school from here, and have been visiting frequently enough to know that the way business is done in Nepal is very different from what one would expect say in the US.

However, it’s the little things that surprise you, and also drive this point home.

Last week, our staff found out that there was no straightforward way to connect the solar panels to the rest of the wiring. This, of course, was very concerning, since the solar panels *are* the source of electricity, and if you can’t connect them to the rest of the system, there is no power whatsoever.

This problem was because the cables coming out of the panels needed a special type of connector, which is commonly available probably everywhere else in the world, but alas, not in Nepal. We talked to several other solar installer in Kathmandu, and everyone complained about the same thing – “yeah, those *&#%ing cables, can’t find them here, so we just cut them to bare wire and connect it from there”

Little did they know (or maybe pretended not to) that if you cut the cables on the panel, the solar panel warranty becomes void.

So, I did some research, and found a company in China who sells this type of cable. After a couple of emails back and forth, their rep says - “our entire staff is on leave for 8 days for Chinese New Year’s, so order by Thursday, or else you will have to wait for 8 days.” The total order came to be about $170, so instead of doing something elaborate like a TT (Tele Transfer, or “wire”), LC (Letter of Credit), or Bank Draft, I asked the rep if they took a credit card. Answer came back saying – “we don’t have a POS machine, so can’t do credit card, you must send a TT.”

This is Wednesday afternoon. These guys go on leave on Friday.

So, to prepare the TT, I had the rep email me an invoice with all the details spelled out. Our bank only accepts printed invoice, and their office is all the way across the town (30-minute drive) so we had to print the invoice and get to them. That was the end of Wednesday. Our bank says this will get done in the “first hour” Thursday.

Thursday we go to bank. We need someone with signing authority as well as the company seal that needs to be stamped on several papers that get signed to prepare the TT. By the time everything is said and done, it is only late Thursday when I can send a scanned copy of the TT document to the rep in China. Fortunately he hasn’t left for vacation, so he ends up sending the shipment first thing Friday morning.

I thought that was the happy ending, but we had one more crazy act remaining.

Normally when something gets sent via UPS, Fedex, or DHL, I’m used to expecting a package shipped to my door. I expected the same in this case as well – but express shipping in Nepal means the carrier brings your shipment to the airport and then calls you to clear customs.

Now, in midst of running a business, I really don’t have the time to go to the airport to custom clear a $170 shipment of $%&*ing cables, so we send our shipper instead. He spent the entire day (“the customs’ computer system was down, that’s why it took long”), but came to our office in the evening with a few boxes of cable.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m really glad we finally have our cables and that we can hook our solar panels without voiding their warranty. But can’t there be an easier way to get this transaction done?

I understand Nepal has all these protective measures to control the flow of foreign currency going out of the country, but maybe there’s a way to set a dollar-limit per transaction and then a limit for the quarter or the year on how much stuff a firm can order without having to go through all these shenanigans. One can only hope.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gham Power Inaugurated!

Yesterday was a big day at Gham Power

First, the ad in Kantipur has our phones ringing off the hook. Even though the staff was prepared for the call volume, at times it got overwhelming. If you had to wait long to get connected, sorry about that - we will do a better job in responding quickly to your calls. In the meanwhile, also consider contacting us by email at contact@ghampower.com, or just drop by our showroom in Gairidhara

Second, although it was an unusually wet rainy winter day in Kathmandu (everyone at office took it as an auspicious "sagun" sign) - many friends and family showed up for our inauguration event. Their support has been amazing and inspiring, we feel truly blessed.

Right about the time we had everyone show up for the function, the lights went out and we were all in the dark. Obviously, giggles and jokes started flying around - "man, these guys can't even power up their office, what are we to expect?"

We'd just finished electrical wiring, so Shrawan Dai and Kebal Dai started troubleshooting, while Moon and I were sheepishly trying to humor our guests.

Turns out a big water tanker had parked outside to supply water to the building, and they hooked up their big fat huge water pump's electrical plug directly to our electrical sockets, blowing up our inverter's fuse. Anyhow, about 10 or so very long minutes later, we had our lights (and breath) back, and the show went on..

Then, the highlight of the evening was to see all the Gham Power executives' moms cut the inauguration ribbon

Truly amazing!

Monday, February 01, 2010

True Calling

My, my.. it was September 2009 when I last posted a blog entry. Well, we can blame twitter and facebook for that a little bit, but what I realized is that blog posts are effective when you can write from your true voice, and let's say I spent 2009 finding my true voice (and glad to report that it's been found ;)

This blog used to be called "business intelligence adventures" because that was my sole profession when I started this blog back in 2005. Since then, a lot's happened - our company Loyalty Matrix got acquired by Responsys where I spent about 2 years (part of the acquisition deal). Then in 2009, we started a new company OpenI - building on the open source business intelligence project we'd started in 2005, and also to scale the partnership we'd developed with Codemandu, our off-shore partner in Kathmandu, Nepal. It's been great to be back in start-up mode again, and the progress at OpenI is very satisfying and rewarding.

However, life is full of strange but powerful co-incidences.

During my 2 years between Loyalty Matrix acquisition and starting OpenI, I started becoming more fascinated with the clean energy industry, and wondered how I could get in. Perhaps part of it was my own mortality trying to find a way into my profession - I wanted my work to contribute towards more serious issues our world faces today.

Then in February 2009, a funny thing happened:

I was on a short trip to Kathmandu to kick-off a project. Right around then, Nepal was hit by its worst energy crisis, and the government-run power company (Nepal Electrical Authority, NEA) had issued a 16-hour daily blackout ("load shedding"). Needless to say, our software development staff was severely impacted. They bought hordes of batteries and inverters, but when you only have 8 hours of electricity per day, that too in two 4-hour slots, it's hard to adequately charge your battery bank. So we looked for alternatives, and the suggestion was to buy a diesel generator.

Not only the clean energy freak in me cringed at this, but the noise, fumes, etc. would be too much of an irritant to have within an office full of sofware developers. Now, I'd seen a lot of homes and businesses in the San Francisco bay area switching to solar power - so we explored if solar would be an option. Turns out there were about 40 solar companies in Nepal - but none of them could provide us with a solution.

First off, they all focused on rural electrification (which is a noble cause, also helped by government subsidies), and the types of systems they offered were just for basic lighting. We were told "solar can't power up heavy equipments like computer servers" :)

So -- an idea was born. Can we build an organization that can provide solar electricity as a viable backup option for urban homes and businesses in Nepal who need more than just basic lights?

A year after - I am happy to report that we just launched our solar energy company in Nepal - Gham Power - that just does that.

Of course, just like many other entrepreneurial adventures, this involved a lot of crazy things. I attened a Clean Energy certificate program at UC-Berkeley to learn more about solar technology and the financial structures to make it feasible. My wonderful friends Mike McCarthy and his dad Tom McCarthy introduced us to Solar Power Inc, a great solar company (public) out of Roseville, CA - who agreed to become a partner and help us bring one of the best solar technology to Nepal. Friends and family pitched in like never before -- both in the US as well as in Nepal -- to make this idea a reality. We had interesting adventures with the Nepali government, shipping companies, banks, vendors (topics for other posts). We put together a truly kick-ass executive team to run the company in Nepal. It's been a truly amazing process.

And to ensure our work with OpenI doesn't take a back seat to this - we got more help into the company so it continues to excel in its independent course, as evidenced by the new and exciting projects we've had the opportunity to participate recently.

Of course, we have a lot of work ahead of us. I'll probably also go nuts travelling back and forth between San Francisco and Kathmandu. I can't thank my wife and kids enough to be so greatly understanding to let me pursue this (I know I'm stretching the limits of their generosity and kindness). I feel truly blessed.

Being a technology geek, one of the hardest thing for me was to accept that it's okay to pursue what you are passionate about even if you don't have much experience or if that wasn't your area of training in school. Also, being an entrepreneur is about creating and growing companies, not necessarily being involved in running the company. I had severe doubts about what will happen to OpenI (and my personal career as a Business Intelligence software guy) if I went after my solar energy dream, but it turns out, they don't need to be conflicting.

One of the hardest lessons is to figure out how you can focus on your core strengths, and then bring in other smart people as business partners to do things which are not necessariy your core strengths. They probably teach this from day one of Entrepreneurship 101, but it's amazing how easily we can fall into the trap of not applying this to the businesses we build.

So, I am changing the blog title to "Adventures in Entrepreneurship" and will continue to share my experiences (more frequently). I'd also love to hear from other entrepreneurs out there about their experiences (similar and different). At the moment, I am just happy to have found a true voice to communicate, and look forward to sharing new adventures.