Ujwal Arkalgud (CEO, Motivbase)

Motivbase’s CEO Ujwal Arkalgud is an Author, Entrepreneur and Cultural Anthropologist who joins us to relate some consumer trends he’s seeing at the moment and offer his take on how companies might use this time as an opportunity to innovate.

[expand title=”Podcast Transcript”]

[intro music] 0:00
impact of COVID-19 we all knew this was going to be a tough time and we need to wrap our minds around a painful truth.

[intro music] 0:09
We’re in the early stages of what is going to become a series of cascading crises.

[intro music] 0:19
This is the way it’s been getting back to extraordinary the successful country and economy that we’ve had, that we built over so many generations

Qasim Virjee 0:37
however long it takes welcome back to a new normal start well series, focusing on entrepreneurs and innovators living across Canada in post pandemic realities. For this the fourth episode, I sat down with Boutwell Arkell, good to talk about how his company motive base has been dealing with clients through the last few weeks of difficulty and uncertainty, as well as some trends that they’re spotting through data.

Ujwal Arkalgud 1:05
I’ll start with a I’ll start with a funny anecdote, I was on a on a call with senior execs at a major food company. And the food company is very excited right now, because there’s their canned business, which was pretty flat, has shot through the roof, right? And they’re getting all this short term data that says, oh, yeah, you know, people have lost faith, in fresh produce fresh food, everybody’s scared. And so their mindset is, this is going to carry forward, it may not be as bad. But this is the trend that’s going to shape our future. So we need to reinvigorate our cannabusiness. Right. And, and, you know, we’re studying culture. And in our focuses, let’s look beyond the obvious things that people are talking about right now. Because when human beings are constrained against their will, they’re going to say stuff that is not in line with their own values, their own beliefs. And so when we look at it through a cultural lens, we actually see the opposite. People are developing new knowledge about, for example, the value of health, in particular the value of nutrition, people are developing new knowledge, like mainstream audiences who did not know anything about immune health are now suddenly learning about immune health, right there learn that their diet is, for example, deficient in B 12, or in vitamin D, or C, they’re learning have the value of simple things like oranges and citrus fruits in their diet. So it’s actually the opposite. They’re behaving in a way that helps them survive right now. But the actual focus is on the opposite, which is, once we come out of this, what do I need to do to be better prepared for the future to have my family be better prepared for the future? And to change my habits for the better, right, it’s going to be a complete 180. But the the shifts we’re seeing is actually counterintuitive. It’s the opposite of what people are talking about right now. And, you know, what I was trying to help them understand is that really what you had, the way you have to think about this is the new knowledge creates in the marketplace, this kind of cultural bomb that this this pandemic is, it creates new knowledge in the marketplace. And the real question is how that new knowledge transfers into new behavior, right? So it’s a food, for example, it’s the new knowledge of healthfulness, or about immune health and the role of nutrition in it, or the role of gut health in it. In the case of finance, for example, it’s new knowledge about the role of saving, and it’s really interesting, like we’re seeing younger consumers who are lucky enough to have their jobs right now. Get a renewed focus on saving a because of the realization of what this could be. And the fact that, you know, people believe that this might not be the last one in our lifetimes. And the second one being, that suddenly they find themselves with a handful of cash because their expenses have gone down. They’ve, you know, their travel plans are canceled. They’re, you know, all their expensive, discretionary expenses are gone right and no more nice dinners out and all that stuff. No more nightclubs. No more nightclubs. No more daycare costs, like all the stuff that is expensive, is suddenly disappeared. And so people are finding themselves with an extra two $3,000 a month. Those of you know those people who are fortunate enough to have a continued income. And so it’s reinvigorating a knowledge base about saving and the value of saving and what they could do with it. That’s an interesting thing that’s happening in finance, again counterintuitive, everybody’s so focused on the fact that the 15%, unemployment will create a drop in disposable income people are forgetting about the other side of the coin, the 75 85% that have their jobs, who have spent less for four months, five months, maybe eight months, who knows how long suddenly have a different idea of what to do?

Qasim Virjee 5:24
Do you think here in Canada, because of this, like, we’ve had this kind of looming question of transfer of wealth, because of baby boomers retiring and pass right on their money? Do you think this like, you know, because older generation are being a little bit scared about health issues now. And they may have family members that are younger, that are either furloughed or looking at like now, you know, wondering about their financial future? Are we gonna see a massive transfer of wealth? Do you think because of this?

Ujwal Arkalgud 5:55
I think so too. I mean, definitely, to a certain extent, I think the issue is more about, you know, how do I, if I can afford to give my kid a boost? How do I do that, but we’re also seeing the flip side of it, which is a renewed interest, especially in populations that have parents that are reliant on them. So parents, for example, like a lot of conversations are about kids suddenly realizing hang on a minute, my parents are on a fixed income. In Canada, at least the health insurance question isn’t there, right away? It is, right? It’s

Qasim Virjee 6:35
not, it’s not an expense that people have to run an expense

Ujwal Arkalgud 6:37
that people have to worry about. So that’s a big deal. But you still see discussions about fixed income, you see discussions about people feeling like, wow, I have dependents, which is not just my children, but also my parents who, you know, if they do fall sick and need my help, either A, my income is down or, you know, be I can’t even go help them. And, and I can’t afford to hire help for them or what have you. So there’s, there’s definitely a renewed anxiety about that. And I think that’s another area where we think, you know, post pandemic, there will be a renewed interest in, in saving for a multitude of reasons. One is this realization that, you know, I need to think a little bit more about the future, I can’t live paycheck to paycheck. And the second thing being, you know, those people expect, I think this is especially true for immigrants who may have, you know, dependent parents who were there, they, they may have brought over to Canada, and so on, so forth. And we definitely see a skew there. Where there’s a greater concern. The other one that I think is so related to your business. You know, like, there’s so much narrative right now about how people won’t go back to work, right? Oh, are people just gonna want to work from home?

Qasim Virjee 8:00
Yeah, in the mainstream media, and in, in like this, this narrative in? Yeah, in like, kind of major newspapers is a reportage of people, maybe trying to report from home and kind of saying, Oh, I’m still a reporter, I could still do this without, you know, hitting my beat. And then there’s the people on the tech side saying, Wow, video conferencing blowing up, maybe this is something.

Ujwal Arkalgud 8:23
Yeah, and again, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s the same example as food. It’s counterintuitive. We’re actually seeing the opposite. People are saying, I’m frustrated as hell, I can’t work from home, I can’t see four walls all the time, I need to interact with human beings. I need to feel inspired, I need to be out and about, you know, my, I can’t rely on inspiration being from watching YouTube videos, or TED talks, or, you know, I don’t know, Master Class videos, I have to interact with human beings. And, you know, as much as the the mainstream media is talking about how I think recently, there was a report that they surveyed people, and they said, they think 30% less people will come back to work as in physically, right. And again, I just I don’t believe it. It’s the culturally it’s the opposite. There’s a renewed realization of the value of personal relationships of the value

Qasim Virjee 9:31
Oh, well, you seem to disappear a little bit. Can you hear me? I can’t hear or see you for a second here. Let’s see. Let’s see if you come back

Ujwal Arkalgud 9:56
we lost each other.

Qasim Virjee 9:57
I think we’re back right. Yeah, we’re back. Okay, yeah, that was weird because we were just, you know, throwing stones on the future of video conferencing, and then it all kind of died.

Ujwal Arkalgud 10:08
Yeah, I know. Yeah, I mean, I was just, I mean, ironically, worse zoom users. But zoom has been has been difficult. Meanwhile, all my clients have switched to Microsoft Teams. And it’s been awesome. So Oh, really? Yeah, it’s been amazing using it. I mean, it’s their accounts, but still, it’s been like super smooth and very anti Microsoft. Yeah, I was just gonna say again, culturally, we’re not seeing that culturally. I think the part where I, you lost me was I was just saying that. Will people demand more flexibility? Yes. But does it mean people don’t want to come into work? No. I think there’s a renewed interest in the in the value of professional and personal relationships.

Qasim Virjee 11:00
I agree, man. And it’s something that I’ve been hearing, as I’ve been staying in touch with a lot of our members and alumni that have either kind of like left before this COVID, Bonanza, or during the last few weeks, and, and a lot of people kind of like, have taken a bit longer maybe than us as operators of space to figure out kind of what the return to work looks like. And even what the remote working picture looks like. Yeah, personally, of course, coming from open source. I’ve been working on remote teams since you know, for over 15 years. So I’ve, for many years, battled with the issues of what it feels like mentally, emotionally to work from home, all the nuances to do with the difficulties of maintaining a lifestyle and a routine at home. And the problems of connecting with people, when you don’t want to look at them, you know, and you don’t want to hear them, but you want to still communicate through body language, and all these things. So. But all that to say that yeah, I mean, I was I was pretty early on, I wasn’t afraid that this would impact our business in the long run. In fact, I thought the opposite. I think that you’re right, from what I see in the one for people to not only return to work to be together, but people are, I see it, of course, downtown Toronto, I’m seeing it every day, we see it out of the window here on King Street, just looking at the lineups at Shoppers Drug Mart across the road. The restrictions people feel is a common upon them, because of societal expectations mandated by not just healthcare officials, but politicians who normally would have no impact on people’s day to day decisions. And I find this personally very interesting, that society is taking its cues in Canada and here in downtown Toronto, from the very people that normally they wouldn’t particularly listen to or would shun from their minds. And, and anyway, as that kind of new narrative in people’s lives, is is causing them to accept what doesn’t feel like reality. There’s a friction there. And I think it’s there’s all these lifestyle issues that are coming up to do with, you know, things like I mentioned, to the remote work and people obviously getting furloughed and trying to deal with unemployment and cash flow issues and family issues. But I think that’s all compounded by politicians and the the kind of like leadership in the country and the province of the city, not particularly taking responsibility for people’s lifestyle and for expressing the issues to people raising stage of it on a national level, to have Canadians question, not just what a new normal looks like, but what’s an ideal lifestyle improvement that people want for themselves and how will they commit to it and be able to afford it through this transition. So definitely, we’re working on some things, both in the healthcare industry to look at the future of telemedicine and how it can be like developing a co working model for telemedicine here on campus right now. And we have doctors doing telemedicine calls here to try and use this downtime to use the space for a different function, documented case, study it and publish it through St. Michael’s Hospital and the health network here in Toronto and stuff. So we’ll be doing some like we’ll have some new purposes on campus after this. But at the same time, some new products that will hopefully you know make it more affordable and more easy to commune in safe ways and that’s going to be a whole it’s hard to make sense of what that for me anyway, what the transition to a safe proximity measure is for people. I think it’s doubtful that six feet apart, people will continue their lives much longer.

Ujwal Arkalgud 15:01
Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I mean, you know, there there, whatever the changes that do come about, I think the interesting thing is that everything opens the door for something new. I’ll give you an example one of our clients in the US, an insurance provider, looked at this as an opportunity to create and launch a new, flexible insurance plan, without going into too much detail about it. Really, the purpose of it is the realization that maybe people will look at the relationship with their cars a little bit differently. So we want to give them the greater flexibility to potentially turn insurance on and off with some restrictions, of course, but it has been met with encrypt with an incredible response, they’ve had people switch their insurance from competitors during this time, a to get some short term savings, but be also because they see this as connecting with the value systems of the consumer. So great example where yeah, you know, they might make a little bit less money than they would per customer. But they gained so much more competitively as a result of it. But that’s just a result of, you know, really smart thinking and realizing that instead of, you know, kind of sitting and waiting for the new world to emerge, they’re taking some risks and some chances now, to figure it out. I mean, it’s never perfect, but I remember the I remember watching an interview from the boss of the guy who’s to run Formula One racing back in the day, Bernie Ecclestone. And I remember, once he said, the difference between me and other organizations is that in our organization, I sort of work as a dictator. So there are some positives and negatives. But the positive is that I make decisions quickly. And seven out of the 10 decisions I make are good. The remaining three are bad. At other organizations where it’s deeply democratic, they only make in the time I make 10 decisions, they make one decision. And it’s usually the wrong one. Right. And it’s it always comes back to that, because we can see that now, where a lot of companies are just struggling to just make any decisions. They’re sitting and waiting, and it’s the wrong thing to do right now. Right. And I

Qasim Virjee 17:31
think that goes back to this kind of like new way of working, distributed teams rely on a lot of interconnectedness, interpersonal skills, trust systems. And without those being in place before going into this kind of new, you know, video conferencing, the means of interacting. You’re seeing that you’re seeing an inability to, I think, move forward to work together. And the wait and see is permeating corporate culture, you know, people want to be comfortable at their desk before they can think clearly or something. Yeah. So it’s really interesting. And I think it’s something that I’ve been kind of mentoring a few early stage companies through this period, trying to remind them of the fact that their agility is reliant on not needing physical infrastructure and proximity to continue working. And if mental space is afforded by, you know, isolation or can be assuming everyone has having healthy lives, and still getting out and walking and getting fresh air. Innovation could actually be accelerated through this period.

Ujwal Arkalgud 18:45
Yeah. Yeah, for sure. And you know, even for our business, it’s, we’re not sitting around. I mean, we have been lucky in the sense that our business has always been. I mean, our work is completely online, we study people online, everything we do is online. We do, you know, we do miss seeing each other’s faces from time to time. But we’ve been lucky in the sense that it’s not been a big cultural change for us as an organization. But we are seeing our clients struggle right now with the both the distraction and the fear for making any decisions. And our job really has become, especially in the last couple of weeks, to push people a little bit out of their comfort zone so that they can so they can start to make some calls, make some decisions, right? Doesn’t matter if they’re wrong. Just make some decisions. Just don’t hold back because otherwise you’re going to have there’s always somebody who will eat your lunch, right? That’s, that’s the world we live in. If we don’t, if we don’t go grab it, somebody else is going to eat it.

Qasim Virjee 20:00
So do you find that? Or have you found that on a sales cycle perspective, though, people are a little hesitant to make decisions right now, perhaps existing customers about new campaigns and acting on data when they feel like there’s uncertainty? Have you seen new customers come to you looking for the power of data to drive their decisions?

Ujwal Arkalgud 20:21
Yeah, I mean, I mean, again, I so far, so good. I feel super fortunate. But But yeah, I mean, a lot of people that we had spoken to in the past that, you know, don’t necessarily have a ingrained digital mindset, have now come to us and said, Okay, you know, maybe you were right, maybe we should have been working with you. So it’s definitely brought some people that have been a lot more traditional in, in their research outlook. But now they can’t do their focus groups, and they can’t be out and about doing their shop along. So they’re, they’re coming to us. So it’s definitely brought some some people. But the people who have really benefited have been the company’s the clients of ours that already had a very strong digital practice. And I and I said digital practice, in a sense that, you know, they didn’t look at online research as online research, they just looked at it as research, right. And those companies are the ones that are really benefiting right now. Because their senior leadership already is attuned to thinking this way. And so they’re not having to educate them in this time to say, hey, here’s this new way to look at the world. Those are the ones that are really benefiting. But, but again, I mean, we’re definitely fortunate that we’re in a position where it’s, it’s actually bringing some new customers to the fold and creating greater awareness for the value of internet mediated research

Qasim Virjee 21:52
is anything you know, through this period, or otherwise, looking forward through the remainder of 2020? For motive base? Is anything changing to do with how you’re approaching relating value to customers, your product base, your offering in general?

Ujwal Arkalgud 22:08
Yeah. We are actually right in the throes of a massive innovation cycle right now, just one thing that we’re predicting for our own business and for our industry is a much greater openness and awareness for interacting with research outcomes, just digitally. You know, the traditional narrative has been, even though you’re doing research, digitally, deliver it to me, over a phone call, come visit me, you know, let’s do the song and dance, let’s present in front of 20 people in the room, we think that’s there’s going to be a shift in that with the realization that it’s not necessary. And then the second openness for clients to actually interact with our reports, online, engage with us online. And so we’re going through a big innovation cycle right now to bring more of the delivery process, the research processes anywhere online for us. But to bring more of the delivery process, the client touch points, a lot of that to also bring that online, to enable more of that seamlessly, and to use the flow language to enable greater flow while the client is in our technology, leveraging it, and so on. So, yeah, it’s definitely changing some of the investments. I mean, it was this was something that was already part of our pipeline. We just accelerated it just given what’s going on.

Qasim Virjee 23:43
Yeah, no, it makes sense, especially as things I would assume, internationally. You know, people are reacting to this situation, experiencing it. Yeah. All over the world in the same way. Your hopefully your client base will increasingly become more global, and you’ll find people around the world to work with. Who won’t be able to jump on airplanes for a little while. Still, anyway,

Ujwal Arkalgud 24:06
yeah, yeah, for sure. And as somebody with a two and a half year old, that definitely makes me happy because I have to say like not not traveling aid. My health is in better shape than it’s ever been. Just walking to finding time for yoga, all that stuff. Yeah. And then just not eating out. It’s It’s amazing. What an impact it has. But yeah, but I’m still enjoying my collective arts.

Qasim Virjee 24:34
Beer, though. It’s been fun hanging out with with the kid a. Yeah, it’s been amazing. I’ve been spending more time with Ava. She’s like, just turned two and running around like crazy and talking so much and just having so much interaction time has been a blessing for sure.

Ujwal Arkalgud 24:53
Yeah, it’s definitely the best. I feel like it’s the best age where they say the most hilarious things and Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, this morning, my my daughter said, perhaps I will have oatmeal. I was like, perhaps you’re like fancy. She may have heard one of us speak that with some awesome sponges.

Qasim Virjee 25:19
Nice man. Well, it’s good to hear that you guys are doing well. And you’re still kind of doing stuff and and observing some interesting, interesting trends along the way. What’s the picture for the next little while in terms of content publishing? Are you going to be rolling out some, some insights regularly for people who are not customers to stay tuned to?

Ujwal Arkalgud 25:40
Yeah, we’re, we’re doing I mean, we’ve done now three webinars series, and we’re gonna keep doing that month over month, we’re gonna keep updating that the response has been phenomenal, like, the last round, it was so overbooked that we didn’t even realize, you know, our webinar service kicks out people after 100 attendees. So it’s been it’s been a lot. So you know, we’ve had very positive response. And we’re gonna try to keep doing that, at least for the short term. Because I think I think for us as anthropologists, at least it feels like, at least from the feedback we’ve been getting, it’s a lot of the stuff where we’ve been talking about people have been, people have used the word, it’s very refreshing to see your insights, because it’s not about toilet paper and canned food. And so I think that’s our goal to try and look to the future and look through the lens of new knowledge creation, what that does to people’s behavior, rather than just worry about, you know, what, the

Qasim Virjee 26:45
people immediately. Yeah, yeah. Nice. Well, we’ll, we’ll put some of those webinar links into this post that I’ll turn of us together. Try and pass people to it. And also I’ll introduce you if it helps to our friends at event Moby Do you know that company? They’re a local company? No, they, they’ve kind of, for a long time had like an event ticketing and then event scheduling suite of software for physical events. And they’ve taken this time to accelerate development on their digital event platform. So prime for webinars and stuff like that, and I’m sure they’ll screw on on on the platform, or at least give you access to take a look at it and see if it would work for you guys in the future.

Ujwal Arkalgud 27:33
Cool. Yeah. I would love to take a look at that. Awesome. Yeah, man. Let’s let’s be in touch and I hope you know, this lands you in a really innovative space. I’m sure it will. I mean, knowing you and your history, I’m sure it will one way or another. But yeah, wish you all the best and let’s keep in touch.

Qasim Virjee 27:53
Thanks, man. For sure. Hope to see you on campus sometime soon.

Ujwal Arkalgud 27:56
Yeah, for sure. Talk to you soon. All right.