A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of eating what were without question the best idlis that i have ever had. This was at a small stall in Vijaywada going under the name of Shree Ganesh Idlis. This place is a little shack on a small road in a desultory residential colony, and is basic enough not to have any sign that displays its name. The idlis were divine, the upma even more so, but they had run out of dosas, which is what they were really famous for. Like many other stalls of this kind, there were clear codes to be followed- they were open only for breakfast- once they run out of batter, they shut shop for the day and Idlis that become cold were not served to customers. They had been in operation for thirty years, were used to receiving guests from all over the world, but they couldn’t be bothered to add a bench for people to sit down.
All over India, there are these wonderful places that serve absolutely brilliant food and they all have one thing in common- they know when to stop. Most of these places have no branches, little by way of marketing and almost every single day, they run out of food to serve.
For anyone with a management degree or even the slightest exposure to the world of business, such behavior seems to be nothing short of extraordinary. Why wouldn’t the owner of a successful food stall aspire to be the owner of a restaurant, perhaps even a chain of restaurants? Why would he not make the most basic attempt to market himself, create a brand in a more conscious way, maybe advertise a little? Given that venture capital is so easily available today, why not monetize the value of the business that lies locked up otherwise?
In fact, the dominant ethos of business today, is not only mandatory to mop up all value that is embedded in any venture, but if possible one is encouraged to suck up future earnings in the name of valuations. The digital world is testimony to the appetite business has for earning today what a business might one day hope to earn over several years, if not a lifetime. So many financial instruments of the day collapse future potential into present profit.
The abiding idea that drives the world of business is that of scale. Success is replicated, scaled up, leveraged. The very idea of replication is that of dead multiplication, of things breeding and coming into being without having to come alive in any sense of the word. Scale comes from granting universality of access but taking away the grainy specificity of a particular experience. In doing so, ideas become products, that deliver uniformity in a way that is easy to consume. This has always been true, but has become much more so today.
In a world of this kind, the idea that there are currencies of other kinds, that there could conceivably be room for people not to extract value but to let it lie unattended, fallow would appear to hopelessly dated. But for many ventures like Ganesh Idli, value takes on many forms- the appreciation of customers who hunt down this place and come from far and wide, the pride of maintaining quality, the feeling of successfully carrying on a legacy, and the cussed insistence of doing the precisely right thing, simply because that’s how it should be done.
The quality of greatness, rather than that of serviceable sufficiency, comes from an ability to leave something on the table. Not every ounce of value is squeezed from a transaction; the price in this case bears no resemblance whatsoever to the value delivered. In this world, a product or experience cannot be fully described by what it costs- labels like high-end or premium get exposed for their poverty.
The difference is in the starting point- today we live in a world defined by the consumer- we begin with what we want to consume and work backwards, by stuffing things with the ingredients of success. This is as true of food as it is of management theory; we want to first find out what makes people consume more of some food or what are the 7 signs of effective leaders and then go ahead and recreate those conditions to the best of our ability.
The world of Ganesh Idli and its ilk, on the other hand, begins with the creator and caters first to his needs and is constrained by the limits of his imagination as well as greed. The product is an expression of the creator’s beliefs and abilities, and not a precis of consumer desires. It does both more and less, than what is deemed ideal and creates its own ethos of consumption. By foregoing the value it could extract from the transaction, it rescues us from the act of consumption, by making us connoisseurs, rather than mere consumers.
The world built around people who create as against people who consume is fortunately, not only a thing of nostalgia. One of the great advantages of the internet is that it in purest form has little regard for scale. Interesting ideas generate their own currencies and as a result, we are seeing an outbreak of creation- not only those that seek multi-billion dollar valuations, but those that put their passion out on display for the world to appreciate. Small fashion labels, sites for food lovers, archivists of traditional forms of music and dance, collectors of knowledge about traditions and customs of specific communities, the internet is teeming with those that create because they want to and not because there is a market waiting for their efforts.
The opportunity of finding meaning in acts of creation is available much more freely today. The more we are to develop currencies other than money, the richer the fruits of affluence are likely to be.
First published by Times of India
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