How to Build a Global Tech Business from India?

I just off from a talk I gave to Wharton Students and Alumni at IIM Bangalore. The talk was organized by Prof. Kartik Hosanagar who focuses on the internet space at Wharton. Building a tech business out of India has its own share of frustrations, challenges and advantages and having beent through the journey, I would not mind sharing the same with other fellow entrepreneurs who are embarking on one.

Here’s the slides from the talk. They don’t say too much (for that you’d have to listen!) but I would be happy to answer questions!

 

Ideas for new mobile operators

I was going through Rajesh Jain’s blog post where he has penned downs some ideas that the new crop of mobile operators could use, both to differentiate themselves at launch, as well as establish themselves, and get a large number of subscribers. Rajesh has himself given some excellent suggestions like:

  1. Focus on Data-hungry customers with a flat Rs. 99 per month plan
  2. Use a more open and participative VAS platform to entice users
  3. Open the User Profile to Third-party services

I’ve been thinking myself on how the new crop of operators (the Swan Telecom, Unitech-Telenor, Shyam Systema etc.) would market themselves, and would they take a niche or undercut prices and go for the masses. Well, Shyam has already launched as MTS (Shyam has chosen to use its JV partner’s branding straight away, so as to clear the way for a possible sale in the future I believe), and chosen to go after the masses, giving out a truckload of minutes free for lifetime prepaid. Too see a list of telecom companies in India, refer to Wikipedia.

The way I would like to approach this is to see what the shortcomings of the market currently are, and how they can be fixed, and I would probably enumerate them as these:

  1. Undercut prices further for the bottom of the pyramid – I think the prices at the lower end of the spectrum can go down further, and that’s because even though we are lowest cost mobile services country in the world, the distribution infrastructure has been commoditized (buying and selling prepaid credits, separate tower companies, billing systems etc.), and the lowest rung of customers that are added today, would not be as heavy users and will not occupy as much spectrum per capita. Since, currently mobile companies are more or less valued based on the number of subscribers, there will be a mad rush to acquire customers, and undercutting is the simplest way to do it. [This is already the strategy that MTS is using]
  2. More value for the middle tier – I think some of the mobile operators are going to figure out “one size fits all” is not possible, and there are lots of opportunities in segmenting and targeting. I personally see very unique plans applicable for companies giving out phones to their sales people, incoming plans for companies, family plans, lover plans (which already exist), college plans, children’s plans, election plans (?) etc. with a good number of VAS services that are bundled in for that target segment. Of course, this would require better content and VAS services, and hence more rev share for VAS players.
  3. Fanatical Support for the top tier – I think one place where the current operators are lacking is servicing the top tier really well. These are the high value consumers that perhaps constitute well over 40% of the market. In some cases like Corporate Connections, they do get enhanced support, but the large swathe of India still has many high intensity users, from SMEs, businessmen, lawyers, dealmakers etc. and some of the new operators could target these and probably charge them an extra Rs. 200 per month for extensive support and personalized services. For instance, I have an Airtel connection and my GPRS just refuses to work when I am on roaming, and I have probably spent more than 40 hours trying to find a resolution but in vain. I wouldn’t mind paying some money to get this issue resolved.
  4. Better Roaming (Domestic & International) – One place where most operators are lacking is good support and costs for roaming, both National and International. They cost a lot, they are painful because you can’t figure out how much you are going to be charged, and if it stops working when on roaming, you are dead in the middle of the desert. I would foresee prices in this area going down quickly, because customers of point (3) are typically also heavy users of point (4). However, this would require an India wide network, and a long distance backbone before this can be attemped, and I think Tata Docomo is very well suited for this.
  5. 3G and all the frills – This will be another turf fight, but I think its extremely raw now, and difficult to figure out how its going to pan out.

With all the new entrants, the media will be big winners, since they are going to advertise like mad – good news for newspapers, outdoor companies, and TV channels.

What do you think? How is the entry of the new players going to play out and what would you like them to do?

The Common Man Bowls every Political Party

 

The Common Man Bowls all Political Parties in India

The Common Man Bowls all Political Parties in India

Found this brilliant piece of work by Neelabh on the the Times of India masthead today, and deservedly so. It shows the way elections in India are a completely unpredictable affair — no amount of opinion polls and exit interviews can help. Every constituency is unique, every booth different, every election machine throws up surprises. Every seat is hotly contested, my booth had around 8 candidates. There is a mad scramble for votes, hook and crook both have their own role to play.

And the election results are always a suprise especially in national politics. Voters in India are confused about what is good at the national level, whats good at the state level — and many times your choice vary quite a bit based on the scale of the elections, and the candidate in your constituency. Besides, I am not sure if many people actually know the difference between the parties apart from the symbols. It’s a game of partnerships, with powerful sects, groups, communities with mass appeal, and if you pull the right leader, you pull all the followers with them. 

At the end, it really is like the big fat bowling ball that is quite unpredictable, try as you might to place it. The pins, kings and men, can roll with equal probability, and the pins that stay behind become the kingmakers the next time. Horses are traded, donkeys get promoted to ministers, blatant foxes smile behind the curtains of power, a new set of people make money in the next 5 years, policies be damned!

Yes, elections in India are quite an entertainment, quite like the game of bowling!

Indian Politics ki “Jai Ho”

Can Indian Politicians ever stay away from capitalizing on anything that remotely smells of success? From India Shining (and subsequently whining) to Chak De Congress, Indian Politicians have always been lapping anything popular and successful in order to boost their political fortunes, in the hope that ordinary citizens will vote in elections the same way as they buy soaps (by watching commercials) and unfortunately many do!

This time around, Congress has bought the exclusive electoral publicity rights to the inspiring and lively Jai Ho song from Slumdog Millionaire for a whopping Rs. 1 crore from T-Series, and to prevent their arch rival BJP from using the song to their advantage. It’s a bitter rivalry brewing out there – Congress firmly believing that people will get duped into believing 5 years of hodge-podge rule has had a similar effect on India – a slumdog turning into a millionaire, and sing Jai Ho on railway platforms after Congress’ deafening victory in the political circus. Of course, the effect on India can not be predicted, but all the slumdog politicians will surely turn into millionaires overnight. Narendra Modi, BJP’s own bête noire, has pitched in with a new gem:

The credit for Slumdog getting Oscar awards should go to India’s ruling Congress party because without years of the Congress rule there would not have been slums in India

Not that the BJP is far behind in the circus. From going back to the Ayodhya Ram Temple chant to woo voters, to advertizements all over the internet for the only “stalwart in Indian Politics” – LK Advani, the BJP has been trying to do an Obama in India. According to “some” (mine) estimates, LK Advani has single-handedly managed to help the Indian online advertizing industry to survive in these tough times, since wherever I go on the net, his pic follows me like a pug.

It’s only going to be an interesting elections to watch – my personal prediction is a hung parliament (which I can bet my money on) and re-elections very soon. Last time around, the hand used the sickle to weed out the lotus, until it really seemed to falter midway, and the cycle had to carry it to the finishing line. This time, however, the elephant is marching to other states, trampling hands and lotuses, flowers, and sickles. It will be an interesting and worrysome experience to watch this elections. (link)

Jai Ho!

[Found a blog with lots of elections09 coverage]

Why Politicians make for bad Policy Makers?

I was reading this piece in Businessworld, and found a very succinct reason why politicians, who are so successful at stirring up local emotions, falter when they win the elections and enter the bigger stage (near the end of the article): [link]

Politicians grow up in stagnant little wells of local politics, where they learn to play with parochial prejudices. The prejudices are shackles in the larger roles politicians end up in.

Made a lot of sense to me!

Sometimes, some politicians are smart enough to figure out that in order to build up grassroots base they need to stir up emotions — and they do it just to win the elections, even though they know full well that its just a means to an end. What’s happening in Mumbai (marathi maanoos) and what happened in Gujarat (post Godhra) earlier, and often keeps happening in Bangalore (Kannada Rajyabhasha) are obvious examples of these.

I am also so thankful that our prime minister is a non-political person. At least he doesn’t do things for a political win — however, I wish he had some more politicial dexterity to handle his party, his coalition-partners, and the opposition better.

Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

image Just finished reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Amazon, Wikipedia) written by Mohsin Hamid. The book is about the story of Changez, who grows up in Lahore, goes to the United States to obtain his bachelors from Princeton (mirroring the life of the author quite closely thus far), gets a job in one of the top financial consultancy firms Underwood Samson (the author worked in McKinsey), falls in love with a girl who still loves her dead boyfriend, and finally returns to Pakistan following emotional turmoil in the aftermath of 9/11. The book is written as a conversation that the protagonist has with an American tourist, and is quite brief. In fact, Hamid had remarked on it’s brevity:

I’d rather people read my book twice than only half-way through.

I took a while reading it since I had misplaced my copy and finally located it in my luggage. The book is a very easy read — no high flying philosophy, or cross references to Greek literature, but is quite alluring. There are so many things you identify with and you see such people around you. Changez, after passing out of Princeton thinks that the world is his oyster. He is uneasy adjusting with his high-flying lifestyle. The work (as a foreigner in one of the most respected firms in NY), the competition at the workplace, holidays, finding in unrequited love with a girl, the emotional turmoil at the contrast between his own life in a castle and his family’s in a moat, and finally giving it all up to return to a life where rewards are less monetary and more spiritual, the heightened sense of everything that is right about your country, the smell of the soil, the flower market, the food and even the beggars on the streets to regain a connection with his country all give you a sense of deja vu, a feeling that this is for real, I have seen this person somewhere.

What is also endearing is Hamid’s style. The pity remarks he makes while describing the contrasts between his country and the US. Of the heightened security in the airports he says:

Seen in this fashion I was struck by how traditional your empire appeared. Armed sentries manned the check post at which I sought entry; being of a suspect race I was quarantined and subjected to additional inspection; once admitted I hired a charioteer who belonged to a serf class lacking the requisite permissions to abide legally and forced therefore to accept work at lower pay; I myself was a form of indentured servant whose right to remain was dependent upon the continued benevolence of my employer.

His descriptions of life back in Pakistan is also unique, his observing the foreigner leering at girls and noting that girls milling in the streets joyfully is such an uncommon sight that it is hard not to notice. Small things that make the book a very enjoyable read.

I was particularly struck by the sense of turmoil Changez had, and I thought it was a little exaggerated, and his response artificial. Confronted with a motherland at war and a girlfriend who commits suicide, his work slacks and he is soon fired. He goes back to his motherland, becomes a lecturer and the nucleus of anti-American protests among students. However, with his knowledge of the States, he might have been well positioned to not only know its limitations but its goodness as well, and if that little bit had been brought in as well, the book might have a different flavour and perhaps a different ending.

More reviews: Akhil Tandulwadikar

How does the Elephant March without Trampling Others?

The quality of good cinema is that its leaves you thinking. If that is the yardstick, documentaries would almost always be classified as good cinema, because the very reason they are made is to leave the viewer pensive. Sometimes, films like An Inconvenient Truth, or Michael Moore’s many movies, become popular, are seen by the multitude, and manage to affect society. However, sadly, in the vast majority of cases, documentaries hardly get to be seen by enough people that they will shape public opinion.

Thanks to Pedestrian Pictures, I saw two such documentaries — In Search of Gandhi and Freedom…!, and I have been pondering over them since I got back.

In Search of Gandhi (2007) is a film not about history, its about the contemporary India which lives on the trail of the Dandi March. The filmmaker visited various cities and villages en route to see how much people think about and remember Gandhi — and he finds that it is awfully little. Ellis Bridge in Ahmedabad, which was where Gandhi gave a famous speech about equity, is home to a slum, and the government threatens to use its muscle to clean up their homes and build a garden. In most places, people have no qualms in saying that Gandhi’s principles will not work in today’s India, because you have to resort to the unscrupulous and the immoral to get your job done. Perhaps the most shocking was the xenophobic diatribe which a 80 year old Gandhi follower unleashes — his opinions of the Muslim community is that they are like a dog’s tail which can not be straightened. Unfortunately, he is a well respected person of the society there. The tale is the same with youngsters and the emotions in both communities run high post-Godhra and Modi’s ascent to power. Statues of Gandhi lie dismembered, disrespected as Modi’s huge hoardings proclaim a period of wealth and development. In fact, in Surat, Gandhi keeps watch with grave determination over a bunch of people who have congregated in the name of ‘Mahatma Gandhi Laughing Club’. Elsewhere, people have shown little respect while cutting trees to clear off forests, livelihoods, societies, in their hurry to build castlesque shopping malls. The economy is booming, and the booming noise threatens to forever dampen the few noises that remain. (I had written an earlier piece about Mahadevbhai, a play I saw on Gandhi’s assistant, and some posts on India)

Freedom…! was a slightly older film (2002) concentrating on how our 9% Y-O-Y growth is affecting people we don’t think about, sometimes even consciously ignore. Floods in the Kosi river, cutting of Mangrove trees in Gujarat, destruction of forests in Orissa, are shown as case studies of how in some cases people rise up, complain, and ask for their rights. In many cases, the leaders were brutally tortured by the police (Colonel Salve in Kutch — I could not find a link, if somebody can, please let me know and I will put it up), in some cases murdered by perhaps the big-pocketed businesses they were fighting against (Chattisgarh Mukti Morcha’s Niyogi murdered in 1991). However their legacies have lived on, and the remaining unheard voices of fishermen and farmers are trying to make themselves heard, justifying the martyrdom of their leaders.

All this after having seen Hazaron Khwahishein Aisi last night. The story of Siddharth, Vikram and Geeta is a must watch. An extremely strong hat-ke story, incredible performances, and an ending that leaves you pinching your conscience. In fact, the ending is available at Youtube:

And where does all this leaves us? The reason for making these documentaries is to make people think. What is the right model for development? Rampant capitalism which most people are now purporting, can do irreparable harm to our country, its natural surroundings, culture, and even unity. At the same time, the juggernaut of growth and development will roll on, it is not something that can be stopped. The people who have tasted success will not stop at anything, and I am not even sure if they should, because this growth and development is giving India its rightful place in the world — with world leaders knocking at our doorstep ever so often. However, how can we channelize this hunger, and ambition, so that the growth does not come at the expense of the many that have not had the good fortune of being able to get the same level of training, education and opportunities. How does the elephant march forward without trampling his own soldiers?

I wonder.

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