It must have been a couple of decades ago that Mrs R and I agreed that, assuming we were still on speaking terms, we would celebrate our 40th anniversary with a trip to India. Having reached this milestone of mutual tolerance, we pitched up at BA’s check-in area at Heathrow in good spirits. We weren’t even unduly fazed when we were rejected by the automatic check-in machine. A helpful chap pointed us to the desk where we joined a short queue of similarly rejected travellers. ‘Passports and visas, please.’
At this point it may be helpful to know a little about the Indian visa application process. It involves a longwinded online application that includes details of your spouse extending to questions about their immediate family. At the end of the process it says you have applied for a Double Visa. I duly handed over our passports and double visa. ‘where’s the other visa?’ ‘No, no – we only need one – you see, it’s a double visa’ ‘Yes sir, that means you can go to India twice –your wife needs her own visa.’
I felt I’d been caught by a low punch from nowhere. It took no more than a moment to appreciate that I’d not only cocked-up – this was quite possibly a life-changing cock-up. I was overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. Sensing now was not the time to add to my evident distress, Mrs R was a star. ‘Don’t worry, if we can’t get it sorted then we can go somewhere else for three weeks.’ It helped to know we might yet make 41 years, but I still felt terrible.
BA rallied around and offered to put us on the following day’s flight, giving us 24 hours to resolve the visa issue. The Indian government website says online visa applications take 72 hours but mine had come back in around 14 – we were in with a chance. I opened my laptop, sat on the floor of the departure area and started to plough through the application. One section asks whether you have booked accommodation in India. For my application I had ticked ‘yes’ which opened a long series of supplementary questions about our hotels. In my slightly leery state, I was focused solely on getting the application off as quickly as possible – I ticked ‘no’.
That night my nagging sense of foreboding developed into a full-blown psychosis. I knew it had been a mistake to tick ‘no’. As the long night wore on, I was started into wakefulness every five minutes by the thought of what had become the inevitable outcome – that the memsahib’s application would be rejected because she had no accommodation – and the panic of wondering how I would explain that I had cocked-up not once, but twice.
My holiday disruption was the outcome of unintentionally looking at something a different way. In business, taking a different view of a problem, challenging accepted truths, lies at the heart of some of our most successful businesses. We’ve been lucky enough to be selected to work with Cambridge University’s Judge Business School on their programme for high growth businesses. We spent last week looking at just such a disruptive company – Zara - which grew from a tiny Spanish company to one of the world’s largest retail groups. Time and again they confronted the axioms of the fashion business; that new lines have to be ordered one or even two seasons in advance; that retail prices need to be high enough and volumes great enough to cover the costs of the 50% or more that will never be sold; that regular sales of heavily discounted slow-movers are needed to free up space for new lines; that costs must be minimised – further creating a focus on volumes to generate economies of scale.
Zara ignored all these rules. It moved the focus away from throwing more and more stock at customers in the hope that something – anything – would be bought, to concentrate on reacting quickly to people’s changing tastes, having fewer, more targeted, lines. They were pioneers in data analysis. They reduced the lead time for new garments from 24 months to three weeks; they ordered smaller runs and paid more for the privilege; they shifted garments between outlets, further increasing logistics costs; they concentrated on high quality design at low prices. The result was a virtuous circle. Slashing the amount of stock that wasn’t sold at its full retail price meant there was little cross-subsidy to pay for all that unsold stock, which meant the retail price could be lower – but because the designs were good and bang on trend they found they could charge a premium over their mass-market opponents – they moved from competing on price to value. Sales became a thing of the past.
The fashion industry was a long way from my mind the next morning as we sat together on the sofa at our daughter’s South London house. I waited until noon before logging in to the visa site. ‘Application in progress’ Great, it was being worked on. I logged in every ten minutes to be greeted by the same status until around 1.30 when it changed to ‘Awaiting Payment’. Awaiting Payment?! Hang on – I paid them a millisecond after the application was sent, I even had a receipt saying as much. I called India. In fact, I called India a lot. I spent the next hour calling India with each call following a similar pattern – select option 3, then option 2 then hold until someone in Delhi picked up the phone AND PUT IT DOWN AGAIN!
Now I was starting to panic. We had around an hour to get the visa or risk losing our flight. At the point when I thought there was no way forward, an email popped up in the corner of my screen ‘Status regarding e-Visa application id :I004V2256B19’. Mrs R was sitting beside me. I knew what it was going to say. Did I tell her before I opened the email or take the coward’s route and open it, feigning surprise when the inevitable rejection was confirmed? Naturally, I took the latter option and read:
We appreciate your interest in visiting India. Your Application has been successfully received with the following details...
Yay! We’d lost the first day of our holiday, but our marriage was intact!