November 14, 2019

The Same, But Different

I’ve been to India once before, when Mariquita and I came here on holiday in 2006. We did a lot of the main tourist things – the Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, a tiger safari, Goa. And we spent a little bit of time with our expat friends Anuja and Bobby in Bangalore. At Return Path, we never had any business in India, though, so this week’s trip to see LRN’s Mumbai office was my first ever work trip to India. It has been a great week getting to meet my new colleagues in our largest office on the other side of the world – about 60 meetings with nearly 200 people by the end of tomorrow. And that’s the lead-in to the theme of my visit: The Same, But Different. I mean that in a few ways.

First, our own office and operation is The Same, But Different. LRN and Return Path have very different products, but there is so much in common among SaaS businesses that everything felt very, very familiar. Learning our products and processes feels a lot like learning a new language, but a close-in one – like crossing over from French to Italian or Spanish. I am catching myself regularly saying, either out loud or just to myself, things like “Oh, XYZ is what I am used to calling PDQ” or “Person A has the same job that Person Z had.” I remember once in high school, my French teacher told me that the mark of having really internalized a new language is when you start *thinking* in that new language instead of translating in your head between languages. I’m clearly not there yet with LRN, but I’m getting close.

Probably the most different aspect of the experience was seeing “the factory” – where LRN’s primary offering, online education courses, are designed and produced. When I worked at MovieFone, the factory was a giant data entry room in midtown Manhattan where people were literally keying in movie showtimes that were faxed in by theater owners (yes, that was a long time ago). At Return Path, the factory was much more invisible since most of the product was data in one form or other coming through automated data feeds. Here, the factory is actually a complex series of processes and tools with dozens of highly creative people who spend all day creating beautiful and intuitive instructional design. Every company has its factory, but moving from the world of data to the world of content is a big change.

Although a small detail, subtleties in language and names are The Same, But Different, too. George Bernard Shaw once described the US and the UK as something like “two countries separated by a common language,” and that’s even more true with the US and India. Although I tried hard, and although I am used to being in meetings with 5 people named Jeremy, 4 named Jen, and 6 named Matt, I will admit that I struggled a little bit with learning unfamiliar names in large quantities like Manish and Monesh. I’ll get there over time.

Finally, although I can’t claim to have spent much time in Mumbai this week other than at my hotel or at our office, my time here reminded me a lot of visits to Brazil and China, and to a lesser extent Russia (In particular, our office here at LRN reminds me a lot of our Return Path office in Sao Paulo, Brazil in many, many ways). I guess there’s a reason that these four countries are bucketed together as “BRIC” by many. Major cities within rapidly developing economies share many things and have a very similar feel to each other. But while some things are the same, there are distinct features of each country. For example, crowded streets and somewhat chaotic traffic patterns are common to all these countries, but the actual cars, local taxi styles, and road signs let you know you’re in a different place.

I look forward to many more trips to India in the future…next one in February!