Dec 09

NYT on slow pace of innovation in India

Vikas Bajaj has a story on NYT about India’s slow pace of innovation.  Nothing new and nothing most of you all didnt know already. Even the ubiquitous Sujai Karampuri gets a mention as is normally the case on stories based on this theme (no offense to Sujai – I love his blog and admire how outspoken he is).

This topic – call it ‘lack of innovation in India’ or ‘why no product companies in India’ or ‘where are Indian startups’ – has been touched upon umpteen times by media, bloggers (yes – I’m guilty too) and startup conferences and panels.

So, there’s absolutely no contest that there’s no or very little innovation happening in the Indian tech scene. I think we should move beyond the obvious and try to focus more on how to resolve the issue.

For starters, I’d like to point to a recent post by Fred Wilson who captured the essence of building a startup ecosystem quite well. By far, its one of the best and most lucid pieces I’ve seen on startup ecosystems. I’d say we’re still early in the first decade and have a long way to go yet.

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Entrepreneurship36 comments

Nov 09

Notes from Nasscom Product Conclave 2009

Overall Learnings

  1. There is no problem, i.e., (1) there are not enough good problems that startups are working on (2) there seems to be no shortage of funds, platforms and ecosystem partners willing to help startups, there are not enough good startups for them to support. The ecosystem is hungry for successes.
  2. It was a good *startup* conference and not as a *product* conference – talks about bootstrapping, mentors, jobs for dummies, writing a B-plan, etc. were out of place.
    • We saw delegates from Sun Microsystems, Intuit and many other big companies. These guys would not benefit from such sessions when they were expecting a product-oriented conference.
    • Conferences are really really hard to make.
  3. Product Management skills are the need of the hour, NOT talks about talks about opportunities in X sector, and so on. When there is no culture of knowing how to execute, rest of the topics are moot points. We will explain this with an example below.
  4. What can be done better next time? More emphasis on product management, practical sessions such as case study on using Google Adwords to do market research, it was briefly mentioned in Naaem Zafar’s presentation, but why weren’t topics like these explored more? And also, people like @gauravnomics should be invited next time for marketing sessions. And so on.

Bottom-line: If you are considering to start a full-time startup, then please, please, build your product management skills than your powerpoint skills.

Now, on to the notes from some of the interesting sessions that we have attended.

Learnings from the Sessions

1. Guy Kawasaki said “Don’t worry, be crappy. Get it good enough, then take the shot and start selling. Don’t ship crap but ship ‘revolutionary new crap’. It’s not about the first version, it is about getting it out there and fixing according to what customers say. Beta programs are BS because no one will give proper feedback. As a rule, all betas go well. People will give real feedback only when they put their money on the line.”

The rest of what he talked about was irrelevant to the context of the conference – about products from India – see Sameer’s question: Why Kawasaki at a Product Conclave? for more.

2. Workshop on marketing and branding strategies for product organizations. The session was moderated by Peter Yorke and the panel had the CEO of Brandcomm, Sridhar Ramanujam, MD of Inventus Cap, Samir Kumar, CEO of Stelae Technologies Aruna Schwarz & Professor. Venkateswaran from SDM Mysore.

  • Product is the language in the company. Brand is the language in the mind of the customer. Creating a value proposition is all important to make a product successful.
  • When a brand is being created, the path is very similar to what Gandhi had professed so many years ago. First other companies ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you & finally they respect you. Any product/brand will go through all these phases.
  • Starbucks is all about consumer experience. That is where all the concentration should be.
  • Products are mostly identical. It is of utmost importance to provide and deliver value.
  • Product is just a minimum criteria and the value proposition has to be driven by the right marketing mechanisms.
  • Technology is one of the unique industries that create a need instead of satisfying a need. You have to be more in touch with market and consumer behavior to drive success through marketing as product development is only a basic condition that is satisfied.
  • The most interesting story had been by Stelae. Her company was started by 2 non tech, purely business people even though they were providing a tech solution to publishing companies in France. They did have a customer when they started on it. But, they didn’t hire a CTO until 2 years into the process. This should be an eyeopener to many people in the tech community. Titles are not important. If the roles are satisfied, ignore the titles and move on & create products and do customer development.
  • CEO is the overall image of the company. For 5-8 years, there will be no other brand image for the company. CEO will have to meet customers. The way CEO answers the phone might also become crucial to whether you make or break in the industry. Be professional in all your interactions.
  • The key message is that “Brand is You”
  • The VCs dont want to hear about any cool tech products, or any other kind of cool lingo. They want to see that there is a balance towards customer development. The problem is similar if there are only sales folks and no tech folks. Take care of balance.
  • DO NOT create a marketing plan based on any textbook definitions. There have been biz plans with totally irrelevant target spending like on magazines etc.. when the product really requires traction online. The spending has to be very very targeted. Keep in mind that the really important thing is ROI and not doing something for the sake of satisfying criterion. Avoid misdirected spending.
  • It has to be all about customer development & customer centricity.
  • Have you asked yourself how the price premium is being justified for the product? What is the most unique proposition?

See Minimum Viable Product by Eric Ries and Customer Development process by Steve Blank for a succinct description of the same.

3. Krishna & Arjuna sessions – the value of a mentor/mentee relationship, and how startups should look for advisors

  • Krishnas are valuable when they are “been there done that” people
  • Arjunas can’t know everything, mentors can guide and tell you what you never expected
  • 2-3 advisors in a mix of areas is a good choice
  • Look for balance of ideas and execution, balance of advice and rolodex of contacts
  • Examine your own SWOT analysis and find people who can shore you up
  • Advisors look for humility learnability, trust relationship, and their own relevance to the mentee
  • Watch out for time constraints of advisors
  • Communicate right things at the right time – they need to know enough precise context to advise you so that the 3-4 hours you spend with them is productive
    • A person who has been advising 3-4 companies say that they come to him only when they are in trouble and not give ongoing updates which shows their immaturity
  • Can have a 2-3 year contractual obligation / timeline for advisors
  • Avoid expectation mismatch, have structuring of relationship
  • Distinguish between CEO coach / mentors vs. Advisors vs. Consultants – what are you really looking for?
    • Mentors / CEO Coaches are for long-term
  • Compensation is the last thing in mind for a real mentor, but it is a gesture of goodwill. Equity-based vesting over the years is the best and simplest option.
  • Only when we walk a few steps together, you really know the person
    • Do due diligence
    • Be patient (think long-term)
    • How do you structure an exit?

4. The panel session on telecom products led by Rajesh Jain was one of the best in the conference. The topic was broad, meaning not much depth but Rajesh Jain really did it well. He asked really pointed questions, guiding other panelists, keeping it sharp & on schedule. It was so interesting that midway I forgot to update my notes on the talk & got totally engrossed in the talk. The following points are all from my mind, so apologies in advance if something is misquoted.

  • The panel had one member from each stack of the telecom product space. Vishy from Bell Labs was representing the most basic infrastructure. Sangeet from Comviva was in the space of applications and layer above the basic infrastructure. Manoj Dawane of Mauj Telecom was representing the VAS and consumer space from the telco perspective. Rajesh Jain represented the consumer from a overall perspective at the level of apps independent of the network.
  • In the next couple of months/years, there will be an explosion of virtual operators in India. Virgin mobile is one of the virtual operators in India. As far as we know, they use the network of Tatas to provide their services. This will hopefully lead to better margins & free apps on mobiles.
  • Hopefully the perennial “1 year away” 3G will be introduced in a couple of months.
  • Overall, the telecom space in India is one of the most competitive space. In most countries, the margin is around 20% whereas in Indian market, it is less than 8-10%, putting pressure on the whole ecosystem to show ROI and profits.
  • The main reason for the low margins is that the operators want to reach users at all segments and also control the revenue sharing. There have been some issues in measuring traffic for revenue sharing. The operator is all powerful.
  • First up, the bell labs member spoke about the innovations at the most basic level.
  • 1. Village Net – They are coming up with better antennae technology and hardware to increase range of wifi routers to 20km with no reduction in bandwidth, it is really difficult.
  • 2. Mango application – mobile audio video on the go. GPRS is currently not cost-effective and people don’t know what to do with GPRS. The network cant support multiple media downloads etc. with the current infrastructure. You should be able to go into coffee day, browse or download for a couple of minutes, pay in micropayments and get out of coffeeday. This kind of technology is being realised by bell labs
  • 3. Micropayments… This was more like a teaser.
  • Second, the comviva member…
  • Basically, this is the space which supports doing ringtone downloads, infra for VAS support, payment systems of telcos, everything other than basic infrastructure and non consumer end of VAS. This is a huge space in terms of products but very few companies. For example, comviva is in 40 different product spaces. I dont even know the extent of opportunity in this space. This is a good space to think about new services. Map services etc… have to be realised at this level. Another example is the top up technology supported by this layer of infrastructure.
  • Indian ecosystem is really really innovative due to the competition and the market. This has led companies to innovate in India and then move on to other emerging markets. It is preferred that you enter the Indian market even though the margins are less and only afterwords diversify. The reason is that the the product will be suited to the consumer market as the company knows the consumer in and out.
  • The future will be mobile financial services, mobile internet and mobile cloud.
  • Because of the constraints in terms of processing and multiple platforms on each phone, there is a huge need for cloud computing for processing information, helping create a mobile cloud & pipes. This seems to be really appealing space to think of innovative products. Are the telecom departments in engg colleges listening?!
  • Thirdly, the mauj member…
  • Manoj has had a very interesting life in telecom. He was in telecom when incoming calls were priced at 16 rupees!! ie 1994. He has seen the innovations in the mobile space starting from prepaid cards. He was one of the people who approached Hindustan Unilever distributors to take care of prepaid markets. They went to Italy & some other country to learn how it works and had to implement. Can you imagine the journey form there to easy recharge of today?
  • Manoj has been in places like UP which is 6 times the UK in population but a huge challenge to innovate and drive revenue. How can a prepaid card of around 10 be sold and above that, ask them to have ringtones and message beeps? They had to develop a infrastructure to make it based on daily revenue. That is vas, instead of being one time huge money, they made it per day. This was good for telco as well as the customer.
  • Rajesh Jain mainly spoke about his ideas to appstore. How that will probably be the time when we can assume that regular users will have access to all kinds of applications.

Some more really good observations form this session:

  • Learnings – The learnings in product development can be divided into 3 distinct sections. 1. Customer acquisition is really important. 2. Cashflows have to be handled carefully and effectively. 3. Execution – organization and management. It is all in the promise of delivery and execution.
  • English – This was one of the questions. A startup is doing voice based VAS which is teaching english on the phone. I think it is a really good thing that the company is doing. They have been facing operator pressure but I am sure that with the help the telecom ecosystem, we might finally see some kind of education being imparted on the mobile phone. The day might not be far when the mobile phone will overtake the radio as the means to disseminate information in a more personalised manner. One day, there might be info about health, childcare, classes, agriculture and anything else that you can think of… the name of the person who asked this question was Mitul Limbani.
  • Persona – “am I the customer” is WRONG! “I am building for the customer” is RIGHT! especially for enterprise customers. Basically, you have create a persona of a customer to keep the company and product in the right direction.

5. Writing a B-plan Naeem
This was a good session by Naeem, mostly self-explanatory from his slides and from this description. The reason the session was so good was because Naeem was candid and to-the-point, busting so many common myths.

6. Building global consumer businesses out of India.
This was another really good session. We could hear all the stories of the people who created Indian brands for the global market. The companies chosen were also really good. Infosoft CTO Pallav had the most inspiring story. Ganesh of Tutorvista told us about his journey from BPO till tutorvista. Amit Ranjan shared his stories of the creation of slideshare. Narendra of Intel Asia spoke about how managing Asia pacific software products for India was challenging and interesting over the last 10 years. I will briefly tell each of their stories.

  • Pallav – He started off without even knowing that PO means purchase online/order?! He is on the path to creating 6 new products after more than 6-8 products in the market. His dad takes care of all the finance part of it. He had to rely heavily on word of mouth, opensourcing code, writing code for free or for some mindspace in the user. It is the perfect rags to riches story of the coding world.
  • Ganesh started off working with the BPO. Most investors when he approached them told him that the concept was too complicated and will be really difficult to maintain quality across especially if you expect a teacher who is not tech savvy to wake up at 3am and then teach an american kid when ganesh himself doesnt really know what american education is all about. The opportunity was that for really heavy personal tutoring, the rates were like $30-40 per hour against $100 per month of tutorvista. There are around 1000 teachers and 500 hours of teaching everyday today. (dont remember number exactly). The marketing in local media in silicon valley to Indian gujjus etc.. was unsuccessful. They found out that online ads were the best thing to attract and retain customers. They have adwords on more than 4000? words. It is a really interesting to see the challenges overcome by Ganesh. It seems such a simple idea but so difficult to execute! Every other person who knows skype would have thought of this idea but there are real challenges in executing it and keeping quality.
  • Amit of slideshare was also very interesting. Amit was working for pepsi. His sister was a psychology prof in berkeley. Amit was bored of creating presentations everyday and decided to do something on his own. (oh! the irony! :) They modelled a lot of their site on the ideas of youtube, like embedded links etc.. One of the sequoia presentations has had more than a million views! The team is distribute 2:5 (us:india). They have around 23 people in all. It is really interesting to see an indian company based out of here be a global brand.
  • Narendra – shared the challenges and the post mortem of what has happened in the last 10 years in APAC, especially India from a product perspective. Intel was/is interested in software domain as they see software to drive the sales of hardware. Narendra has been following APAC for a long time. The ecosystem is slowly opening up in India and slowly more product companies are coming up like subex etc…? There were a lot of jargons in his speech. It was good but since I dont remember any anecdotes, you will have to read his part elsewhere.

To end it up, let’s take the case of an actual product that we saw in the stalls section of the conclave. The product was called YoPedia (see walkthrough). Great concept of changing the focus of the user from “which software do I use?” to “what task do I want to do?” It delivers the long-forgotten promise of WinFS, especially allowing to store and categorize links, URLs, files, in a seamless way. It has many additional features, such as picking a few of them and emailing them, making new Word documents just 1-2 clicks away, and so on.

The downside? It *still* is not easy to use. This is exactly where product management would come into the picture. For example, anybody who is looking to simplifying the concept of a filesystem would assume that one single way of categorization would have been enough. But YoPedia actually had 6-7 ways of categorizing – category, topic, tags, color, workspace, etc. This means that it replaced the headache of folders with the headache of multiple ways of categorization! Excellent idea, great potential, but suffers from only tech people working on it. Not easy for a beginner, even though that is the USP. The product is still in alpha phase, and will be released as beta in the coming months, and we hope that it will eventually become the simple, easy-to-use, and must-have product that it can be.

It felt gratifying to see one product in the conclave that was interesting, which is both sad and ironic. Here’s hoping to really seeing more products from India!

This event report was brought to you by Swaroop C H and Srikanth Thunga, who thank StartupDunia for the opportunity to attend the event.

P.S. See http://blog.nasscom.in/emerge/category/nasscom-product-conclave-2009/ for more coverage of the event.

Entrepreneurship / Events31 comments

Oct 09

Dynamic pricing for movie theater tickets

In most of the consumer markets, pricing is guided by a supply – demand fit. Price a product too high and there’ll be less demand, price it too low and you’ll miss out on potential profits (of course, there are lots of exceptions to this too). Pricing is therefore more of finding that fit as opposed to a perfect science.

Last weekend, I went to watch ‘Wake up Sid’ at a nearby theater. For a Saturday night show, the theater was reasonably crowded and I would have expected it to be more crowded. On my drive home, I started wondering – why is it that theaters follow a fixed price model ? For instance, lets say a ticket costs Rs 250/-. You pay the same price no matter if you watch the movie first day first show or 3 weeks later (assuming its still running). The only price variations theaters offer (in the US) are for students, senior citizens and matinee shows. That just doesnt make sense.

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Entrepreneurship18 comments

Sep 09

Entrepreneurship Awareness Drive by IIT Kharagpur

The E-Cell @ IIT KGP is organizing an ‘Entrepreneurship Awareness Drive’ to promote entrepreneurship and encourage students across the country to embrace entrepreneurship. They will organize an Entrepreneurship Awareness Camp in 10 cities over a span of 10 days across various college campuses. Some of the campuses they intend to cover as part of this drive include Punjab Engineering college, Anna University, Delhi college of Engineering, BITS Mesra etc. Times Private Treaties and the Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) have collaborated with the ECell on this effort.

You can find additional details on their website.

Entrepreneurship / Events4 comments

Sep 09

The obsession of Indians with the MBA degree

Over the last couple of days, I was getting some updates about friends-family in India, while talking to my mom. During conversation, my mom mentioned about two recent graduates, who’s campus placements (in IT companies) were deferred due to the uncertain economy. And so, they were considering pursuing – applying for an MBA in the meanwhile.

And for some reason, that topic lingered on in my mind – bothering me. Why would two recent graduates consider an MBA as a ‘way out’ ? How much did they even know about what MBA is about ? After all, by the time you graduate with a bachleors degree, you hardly have any insight into real world, leave aside an MBA. Who counseled them into an MBA program ?

It didnt take long for me to figure out that no one else is to blame for this distorted notion but our society. A B.E + MBA combo is seen as the holy grail for Indian technical professionals. BE + MBA candidates are not only paid highly – they are valued highly by the society, professionally and even from the matrimonial perspective. Not to mention the extent to which the media has glamorized the MBA degree – touting the crore plus salaries and the direct placements abroad. Now that I revisit some of the conversations i’ve had with my peers, several of whom have graduated from top-tier MBA schools in India & abroad, it seems that the common motivation to do an MBA seems to be for one of the following three reasons:

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Entrepreneurship63 comments

Sep 09

Startup Idea – Group buying discount

Here’s a potential startup idea with a solid business model.

Provide a Groupon clone for major Indian cities.  The concept of Groupon is simple. Each day, you provide a new discount / deal to customers from local retailers. The catch is that the discount is only valid if a certain threshold of customers buy the deal. So, essentially, its group buying power, but becomes active only when the number of buyers reaches a certain tipping point. To illustrate with an example, say you negotiate a deal with a Bangalore restaurant – if you bring 25 customers, how much of a discount will the restaurant provide. Say, the restaurant agrees to provide a 20% discount if you guarantee 25 new customers. So, you announce the deal on your site and the deal becomes active only if at least 25 customers buy the deal. If less than 25 customers sign up for the deal, the deal isnt valid and all the restaurant gets is free publicity / marketing via your website.

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Entrepreneurship63 comments

Sep 09

You say lack of angel funding, I say lack of startups

“Lack of angel funding” is an issue brought up so many times while addressing entrepreneurship in India that I’ve seriously started getting nauseated at the very mention of it.

Its just become common place to cite lack of angel funding as one of the main reasons for lack of startups in India. To a certain extent, I agree – angel funding needs to be more easily accessible and there are a lot of genuine startups that could benefit from angel funding being more readily available.

However, an equal amount of blame also lies in the fact that most of the ‘so called’ startups are simply not fundable. We lack motivated, passionate entrepreneurs pursuing high quality ideas and startups. Hate me if you want, but someone had to say it and so I just did. Like it or not, but thats a fact. As someone who gets several pitches for reviews on a daily basis, I cant help but use one word to describe some of the startups – appalling. Day in – day out I witness how folks develop a new mashup or some inane idea, which at best could pass of as a hobby or a side project. Or even a college level project. But in no way, could they be called a startup.

Over time, the number of such ‘startups’ has increased. I cant help but wonder why / how people tend to get the distorted notion that their side projects could qualify as a startup ? Are we doing something fundamentally wrong from a perspective of fostering entrepreneurship that folks get the notion that their side project is a startup ?  Seriously, not everything goes. Having a lousy website with 10 users does not qualify as being an entrepreneur.

If I find some of these pitches not worthy of even giving a 2nd glance at, why – how do you expect angels / VC’s to fund these ideas with real money ?

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Entrepreneurship39 comments

Jun 09

Quarterlife crisis

This may seem somewhat off-topic to some of you, but I get lots of emails from users who are confused about their career, unhappy with their jobs and unsure of what’s next in their professional life.

This post on a so-called ‘quarter-life crisis’ sums it up so well. Although written in the context of the western society / lifestyle — lots of bits an pieces could apply to the indian context as well.

It was too good not to share with all of you.

Entrepreneurship5 comments

Jun 09

The art – science – voodoo of community building

Building (read- coding and designing) a website or a social network is the easy part.  How you build a loyal, active community of users is the hard bit.

Here’s an interesting post that provides an awesome example – definitely worth a read.

EntrepreneurshipNo comments

Jun 09

India not the ideal place for online, mobile entrepreneurs

In an insightful post, Deap Ubhi, co-founder and CEO of Burrp, says that India is not yet ready for online or mobile entrepreneurship.

this is where india diverges a bit from many other countries that are currently cultivating some great startup ideas. why is india different? my theory is simply this: the delta (or difference) between what many consider to be india’s market size and its addressable market size is vast.

the mobile market in india is closing in on just below half a billion. that’s almost twice the entire population of the united states. how many of those mobile subscribers are on prepaid plans? how many of them are below the poverty line? how many of them are unemployed? qualitatively, how many of them are just struggling to get a 4th grade education, can’t afford medicine for their illnesses, and frankly, don’t give a shit about anything except making sure their mobile allows them to talk to their circle

The post definitely gives us some food for thought. Deap has had the experience of running Burrp for about 3+ years now and it’d be foolish to dismiss his opinion as lame.

I had touched upon a similar topic way back in 2007 — even though India’s potential seems huge (1 Billion), actual figures are pretty dismal.

Entrepreneurship20 comments