Keen in effect allows experts to rent out their brains over the Internet, charging by the minute. Keen then calls both the user and the speaker over the ordinary telephone network. Once the call is over, the user is billed and is also invited to give the speaker a numerical rating, which appears on the website and helps distinguish real experts from charlatans.
According to Karl Jacob, the firm's boss, Keen has been successful—it is one of the 20 most popular Internet merchants, and has more than 2. Keen has just launched its service in Britain, where a MORI poll found that nine out of ten people would rather talk to another person when searching for expert advice than scour the Internet. Even in the disembodied world of the web, there is a lot to be said for the human touch. WHY does India not have more innovative home-grown companies?
After all, Indian engineers and scientists form the backbone of Silicon Valley's workforce, and they continue to pour into companies across the world whenever visas can be wheedled out of governments. And Indian firms such as Wipro and Infosys have made billions of dollars in the past few years by getting their highly skilled programmers to do the IT drudgery of the world's top companies.
But will India's own companies ever venture out of the back office and start developing intellectual property of their own? To do this, they need to reverse the brain drain into foreign outfits or offshore-services firms. To some degree, that now seems possible. Watson research centre, he was courted by many international companies. But he opted instead to join a local software start-up called Tejas Networks. The firm has been able to poach engineers not only from the Indian labs of Cisco and Lucent, but from as far away as Bell Labs in New Jersey.
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Project managers at foreign firms' research labs are now frequently lured by local ventures. Even Texas Instruments, which has had facilities in Bangalore since , has felt the pinch of this start-up bug: some half a dozen of its top Indian engineers recently left to strike out on their own. Last December, Purnendu Chatterjee, head of an investment fund backed by George Soros, set up a company called Chembiotek to conduct life-sciences research near Calcutta. For instance, its 30 scientists are investigating gene therapy with a view to developing a cure for diabetes.
The facility plans to hire 80 more senior chemists and biochemists within the next two years. In the long term, the hope is that Indian firms and individuals who have made their fortunes abroad, or by doing contract work for foreigners, will plough money back in the form of venture capital.
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This is already happening. Once that money is put to work, Indian businesses may see another first: a shortage of manpower. According to a recent survey by India's National Association of Software and Service Companies, demand for IT professionals is expected to rise from , last year to , by If the present venture-capital boom continues, many of their graduates will have a shot at setting up their own home-grown firms. The rest will no doubt find something to do at Cisco.
I don't know many companies in the world that could do that. Other versions of Mr Chambers's lament can be heard up and down Silicon Valley these days, and in most other parts of America too.
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Almost daily, some totem of the new economy admits to a thoroughly old-fashioned sense of bewilderment. Yet not so long ago, companies such as these thought that they had a better feel for the state of demand than ever before. They had fancy electronic links with their suppliers and boasted of the new flexibility that came with building to order, not for stock. Even so, managing in a downturn appears to be tougher than most of them expected. What has gone wrong? Part of the problem is the sheer ferocity of the downturn, a mirror image of the over-inflation of last year's bubble.
The sheer momentum created by this would have made even a gentle slowdown difficult. In fact, both profit warnings and stockmarket declines are far more severe than in previous downturns. Companies may still wonder whether they face a short bounce or a long slump. Shareholders are less hesitant. Faced with unforgiving investors, companies feel obliged to accompany every announcement of bad news with plans to cut jobs see table.
But they hedge their bets: many of the , job cuts announced in the first quarter may, in fact, merely be cuts in unfilled positions, according to Steve Patchel of Watson Wyatt, a human-resources consultancy. There are still , positions for which companies cannot find applicants with the right skills.
The news of job cuts affects confidence, however. And better information may, ironically, compress the corporate response. While better information may be compressing the response, it has not been good enough to predict the behaviour of buyers. And the supply chain, although leaner than it was in previous recessions see chart , still has lots of inertia.
At Flextronics, a giant contract manufacturer that makes hardware for high-tech firms, an emphasis on curbing costs means that materials may travel half-way round the world and back before a product is finished. That takes time. Some memory chips take 13 weeks to make, says Stacie Kilgore, a supply-chain analyst at Forrester Research. Nor is it just in high-tech businesses that suppliers have been caught with too much inventory. In the car industry, for example, demand has dropped faster than companies expected.
Worse, the fall comes after a boom that—unusually—combined soaring sales with falling prices and heavy discounting. Uncomfortable though that position may be, the rise in the ratio of inventories to sales has so far been modest, compared with the wild swings of the s and s. That gives some hope that the overhang in inventories may be easier to deal with than it used to be.
Nonetheless, managing the recession will still be difficult for executives who have long since forgotten what the previous one felt like. In particular, they need to be careful about losing good staff.
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There may be a pause in the war for talent, but there is a lesson from continental Europe's recent experience with slow growth, says Roland Berger, head of a Munich-based consultancy. Companies that use the best of their surplus employees creatively are best placed for recovery.
He points to the way that Siemens, a German engineering concern, benefited in the second half of the s from investments in innovation in the first half. Some American companies have had similar experiences. For example, Dixie-Narco, a subsidiary of Maytag that makes vending machines, hit a crisis when Coca-Cola, one of its largest customers, suddenly slashed orders.
The company weathered the storm without layoffs, partly by reassigning redundant production workers to find ways to cut costs, improve quality and streamline production. As a result, says Anand Sharma of TBM Consulting, the company drew ahead of competitors that had made swingeing staff cuts.
In fact, observes Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School, author of a new book on the history of branding, recessions act as filters, creating opportunities for deft managers. The most recent recession, of , also provides examples of success born of adversity. Starbucks, a coffee chain, was founded in the early s but spurted to its successful flotation in by applying the clear customer focus that a recession requires. Southwest Airlines, notes Ms Koehn, benefited from the reduction in competition that recession brings: the collapse of Midwest Airlines in gave it the chance to move into Chicago's Midway Airport, while its low-cost business model was perfect when travellers were strapped for cash.
The moral is that companies that take advantage of the downturn, rather than merely muddling through, will be best placed to accelerate when the good times roll once more. ALREADY locked in a courtroom battle over ownership of Gucci, France's most controversial entrepreneur now faces another, potentially more damaging, legal tussle. Mr Pinault, who controls one of France's biggest retailing empires, has argued that the lawsuit, brought by insurance regulators in California, is groundless.
Even if he wins, he may be forced into some embarrassing admissions. Mr Pinault told the insurance regulators in that he controlled these companies, but he has informed stockmarket regulators in America and France that he does not. If he now admits to beneficial ownership, he could be required to open up these companies' accounting records. The lawsuit arose out of Mr Pinault's role in the takeover of Executive Life, a California insurance company.
This firm went bust in , when the market value of its junk-bond portfolio collapsed. The bank made a cash offer for the junk-bond portfolio and arranged for a new insurance company, Aurora, to take over Executive Life's insurance contracts.
Documentary evidence seen by The Economist strongly suggests that Mr Pinault had knowledge of the consortium's fronting role. If he did not believe that the bank would have control over Aurora, it is hard to see why he would sign such an agreement. Then there is the registered letter that Mr Pinault sent to a senior executive at the bank on March 31st It is clear from this that Mr Pinault believed that the agreed deal for him to buy Aurora was in jeopardy and that he had a right to financial recompense. A clear inference is that Mr Pinault suspected that there was something untoward about the transaction.