I have just finished reading Supermarketwala by Damodar Mall. It is an interesting book on India’s fast-growing modern retail sector by a retail venture CEO, and has a lot of insights for anyone working in India’s retail / service industry. Still what I found most interesting was a chapter on how D’Mart, India’s most profitable grocery / supermarket chain, and its founder Radha Kishan Damani (or RK Damani as he is better known, look at modern self-service retail.

“One of Damani’s biggest success sutras”, says the book, “is prioritizing with a vengeance. If there are ten principles or acts needed to run the business, I would pick the two or three that mattered most and then drive them to be a market leader in those areas. I am fine if in the other seven areas I am considered below average.”

What did RK Damani (who is also a well-known investor incidentally) and D’Mart prioritize? They understood that if they were able to get the customer to save, she would overlook all other flaws – she would live with slightly longer checkout times, retail staff who may not score the highest on service standards etc. He thus designed the store to save more for the customer across everything she buys – he halved the vendor payment cycle to get them to give him bigger discounts, and then passed them on to the customer, creating a virtuous circle, and spinning this circle faster.

Still, this article is not about RK Damani, nor about retail strategy. Rather, it is about how similar I found this philosophy to that of Paul Buchheit, the U.S. software engineer. Buchheit is now a Partner at Silicon Valley accelerator YCombinator, and previously was employee #23 at Google, responsible for Gmail and also the “Don’t be evil” motto.

In an old blog post of Buchheit’s titled “If your product is great, it doesn’t have to be good”, Buchheit talks about product design and our “more features = better” mindset. Nothing could be more wrong, he says.

Instead the secret of product design is to “Pick three key attributes or features, get those things very, very right, and then forget about everything else. Those three attributes define the fundamental essence and value of the product — the rest is noise. By focusing on only a few core features in the first version, you are forced to find the true essence and value of the product. If your product needs “everything” in order to be good, then it’s probably not very innovative (though it might be a nice upgrade to an existing product). Put another way, if your product is great, it doesn’t need to be good.”

Bucheit cites two examples of

  • The original iPod : “no wireless, no ability to edit playlists which other mp3 players had. However, the iPod was terrific looking, small enough to fit in your pocket, had enough storage to hold many hours of music and very easy to integrate with your mac”
  • The original Gmail: “was fast, stored 1GB (when 4MB was the norm), had an innovative interface based on conversations and search. All other features including address book, rich text composer were minimal or absent.”

It is interesting how two really sharp minds have arrived at a similar philosophy of focusing on fewer features, but make them really really stand out vs competition. This is despite operating in very distinct areas – one in India, in self-service retail, the other in Silicon Valley software product development.