I spoke on April 14 at Columbia’s India Business Conference. My topic was “Transforming India.” Here is the audio of the 15-minute talk I gave:
Last year, I announced the winners of the contest and published their entries on the blog. This is what I wrote in the preamble:
I am more than convinced that India needs big ideas and dramatic transformation going ahead, and it is our generation that has to help in that process. We have to pick one of the two national parties, and participate in the system. The 2014 elections will come at a critical time for India’s future. We have three years of groundwork that can be done in creating awareness and driving action in the chosen areas of our specialisation to bring good ideas to life.
This week’s links:
- Marc Andreessen Interview: from Wired. “Technology has been just a slice of the economy. We’ve been making the building blocks to get us to today, when technology is poised to remake the whole economy.”
- The Creative Monopoly: by David Brooks. “Instead of being slightly better than everybody else in a crowded and established field, it’s often more valuable to create a new market and totally dominate it. The profit margins are much bigger, and the value to society is often bigger, too.”
- The third industrial revolution: from The Economist. “The digitisation of manufacturing will transform the way goods are made—and change the politics of jobs too.”
- Chinese lessons for India: by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha in Mint. “The data shows that the difference between growth rates in the two countries converge towards the end of every decade, but then something happens that allows China to accelerate relative to India all over again.”
- McKinsey’s 2001 India report: Still very much relevant. A set of key initiatives to remove hurdles for growth. Also see Mint’s 2009 National Agenda series. We need to wake up to reforms NOW!
The overall DEMO experience was very good. Two days of packed presentations and lots to think about. The startup ecosystem in the US is throbbing. The billion-dollar Instagram acquisition by Facebook will add more fodder.
India needs a few such big deals to make the whole ecosystem come alive. There are many companies being started, but with early stage investment still not that easy to come by, it does become difficult for companies to breakout from the pack. There will be some stupid ideas, there will be failures. But that is part of the learning and growing up process. Out of these ideas will emerge some big winners.
I am sure it will happen. But we also need to work on putting many other elements of the ecosystem in place – the connecting to academia, incubators, DEMO-like events, mentoring, and so on. In DEMO this year, there are quite a few companies from outside the US (Israel, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea), but not one from India. (There was one Bangalore-based company that had relocated to the US.) Hopefully, it will be different a year from now.
The DEMO Winners (“DEMO Gods”) were TourWrist (panaromic photos), ZBoard (battery-powered skateboards), Voxeet (high-quality conference calling), VisApp (home design visualizer tool) and Jumala (DIY3D Game creation). Details are at Venturebeat. Here is what it had to say on two of the winners:
Virtual panorama photography app TourWrist gave the DEMO audience a sneak peek of two new features due out in May. First are PanoSpots, which link multiple panoramas together Google Street View-style, and give them more depth by linking to photos, videos, brands, audio, websites, and Facebook profiles. The real fun demonstration was of the trippy planar acceleration controls, which will allow you to physically step forward or back while holding up an iOS device to move between panoramas, go through doors, and check out other linked panoramas or information.
Voxeet is a startup attempting to bring radical transformation to the infuriating space of conference calling. The company focuses first on crystal-clear conversations, where you always understand perfectly who is talking and what’s being said. It accomplishes this through an app — for Windows PCs and Android phones, for now, but later for iOS devices and Mac PCs. The app provides greater clarity through sophisticated audio processing and also lets you manage your call and the people in it through an attractive visual interface.
The 70-odd companies were put into 5 buckets – mobile, enterprise, cloud, media and social, and consumer. It was quite a thrilling experience to sit through and listen to so many new ideas in one go. Some ideas caught my attention. A few others had me thinking no way could that be a company! It was a bag packed with surprises at every turn.
What I was struck was with the diversity of the ideas. Some seemed way too futuristic, some seemed to hark back to the late 1990s with a “social” or “cloud” word thrown in there. At first, I would question the logic. But then, I figured that this is now innovation works. The good and bad mix together, and things move forward. It is hard to pick winners, but I am sure some will become big in the months to come. Instagram’s billion-dollar acquisition by Facebook was a recurring theme – and perhaps an aspirational dream for many.
In addition, DEMO had about 10 90-second pitches from their startup weekend and another competition. These were young kids barely out of college being given an opportunity to quickly talk about their idea. It was a wonderful platform for them, and perhaps, some of them will be back in a year with 6-minute pitches.
The format of the conference is very interesting. Companies are given 6 minutes to do their pitch. Given, as we are, to long-winded presentations, 6 minutes probably sounds too little, and almost impossible! I remember having done a pitch at PC Forum for Novatium about 6 years ago. I was given 2 minutes, and it took an extraordinary amount of preparation to get it right.
After having listened to more than 70 6-minute pitches, I can say that the time is absolutely right! If it is planned, 6 minutes is a lot of time to get across the concept and a product demonstration. It is enough to create intrigue in the audience – or they could just as well ignore it and move on the new one.
DEMO also had some 1:1 conversations with industry experts (15 minutes), which gave a more high-level perspective on the key verticals. After every bunch of company presentations, there was a “Sage Panel” consisting primarily of VCs who would quick dissect the pitches they heard, providing a sort-of instant feedback to the companies.
Every once in a while, I like attending a tech conference to get a flavor of what’s coming. Typically, I prefer the US because I find the conferences much better organised and much more at the heart of innovation of new ideas. I had attended Government 2.0 about 18 months ago, and before that it was Web 2.0 over 3 years ago. So, this time around, since I was going to be in New York for my talk at Columbia University, I looked around for tech conferences and sure enough, I found DEMO was there the following week in Santa Clara. And so, I signed up.
Until a few years ago, DEMO was pretty much the only place where startups could launch themselves in front of an inviting audience. Now, such opportunities have proliferated – with TechCruch, Y Combinator and some others offering similar platforms. For me, since it was the only choice, I figured that it would be a good way to get a glimpse into what’s coming in the near future.
New tehcnologies and ideas have always fascinated me. But of late, as I have gotten more deeply immersed into Netcore, some of that scanning and experimenting has taken a back seat. In the tech world, you almost have to reboot yourself every few years. And so, here I was at DEMO!
India needs big ideas if we are to create a rich, developed nation in the next 20-30 years. We are not getting these at the national level. In the political skirmishes between the various parties and their leaders, what has been left behind is an agenda of transformation.
In every sector of India’s economy, there is a need for big, bold and imaginative ideas to fast-track economic growth and development. We cannot have another generation hobbled by illiteracy, malnourishment, poverty and a limited education.
For the most part, we in Middle India have stayed away from the discourse of policy-making, leaving it to the so-called experts, politicians and bureaucrats. It cannot stay that way – for the future that is impacted is ours and that of our children. We need to participate in the process if we are to contribute towards changing the course of India’s future.
Over the course of the next couple weeks or so, we will take 10-odd areas where India needs big ideas, and open it up to contributions by all. Each weekday, I will outline one area and put forth a brief backgrounder on the need for change. You can then put forth your ideas on what needs to be done.
This week’s links:
- A New Paradigm for Startups Needed: from The Atlantic. “Where are the people thinking big? What I see is people filling ever-smaller niches in this “ecosystem” or that “ecosystem.”
- Rebuilding RIM: by Michael Mace. Good ideas for any turnaround. “We can’t predict what will happen to RIM, but we can talk about what the company needs to do to survive. If nothing else it’s an interesting case study for anyone who needs to turn around a tech company.”
- The Intention Economy: a free chapter from Doc Searls’ new book. “Once customers’ expressions of intent become abundant and clear, the range of economic interplay between supply and demand will widen, and its sum will increase. The result we will call the Intention Economy.”
- The USA’s Spy Centre: from Wired. “Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks.” India’s government too must be thinking along similar lines.
- India’s economic reforms: from The Economist. “…Rather than waste time celebrating his work of two decades ago, everyone pushed on with far more urgent business: trying to get India’s prime minister to understand that, without a second round of economic reforms, and soon, India’s economic prospects will look far grimmer in the next few years than they have recently.”
The time I like best with you is our vacation time. Last year, we went to Binsar and Bali in summer, and then Munnar in December. Vacations are when we get long stretches of time together, and it is increasingly interesting to have conversations with you. You are always full of questions – like it has always been.
Your mom remains the fulcrum of your life. Her one look, her one word, her silence – everything can change you in an instant. You are both so similar in many ways. There is a street smartness in both of you, and my favourite moments are when you both lock horns. You can anticipate her reactions, and so can she. This is “real-world chess” for me! So far, she always manages to stay ahead. But I think its going to get to draws soon!
I am the necessary “third person” – the one you both can gang up on for some entertainment every so often. You don’t like me travelling, but I cannot avoid that. We do our bit of learning together – reading the library book you get from school every Monday, some mental maths (“algebra”, as I tell you), and the occasional Q&A. My only peeve with you is that you are as disorganized with things around the house – not surprisingly, just like your mom!
Happy Birthday, Abhishek, and have yet another fun-filled year. Life is all about enjoying every moment, and I wish I could learn that from you.
Over the past year, you have undoubtedly become a lot more boisterous and aggressive than you were a year ago. You are even willing to stretch an argument with your mom. It is great fun to watch that. Like just the other day, when your mother and I had to go to Pune, you didn’t want to come. You made no bones about announcing to her and me, “I will have one day of peace.” That ‘peace’ for you meant unlimited TV and computer, of course! But it was quite a statement, and unthinkable a year ago. It was said in half jest of course. But it goes to show your growing independence.
An incident I remember is when you were hit by a friend who threw a hard ball at you while you were playing at home. It hit you. You realized it was an accident. When asked what happened, you said nothing much, perhaps knowing your friend may get a talking to if you said what happened. Friends do mean a lot to you.
The past year, you had four of your milk teeth extracted and a wire put to ensure proper teeth growth. You also ended up with five stitches and a scar on your forehead when the swing hit you in school.
You are becoming better at Chess. We have taken you to two local competitions over the past few months. In the first one, you got 2.5/4 points, and in the second, 3 out of 4. You should have won the first game which ended in a stalemate! I play with you at home occasionally, trying to ensure you are not hasty and don’t make silly mistakes.
Your mom meets you when you come home. It is time for a quick snack, and your buses and cars. For half hour or so, you are lost in your own world of vehicles that you take through your imaginary world. After that, it is play time with your cousin Maya who live next door. On some days, there are classes – like drawing, music and chess. You also spend time in the building playground with the other kids. Dinner time with TV (mostly Doraemon and Chota Bheem) is around 7 pm. I normally come home around 7:15 pm, so we get some time to read or play before you need to go to sleep.
Weekends are different, of course. Bicycling is something you really like in the mornings, which you do with your cousin Siddharth. Some weekends we go to Santa Cruz to Bhavana’s parents, and there you have more play time with your cousin, Hriday.
Some weekends you have to do charts for your school projects. That is hard work! You need to do writing, and then understand the concept so you can explain in class. These projects are a good way for you to learn new things. Some of the topics over the past year were on festivals, the universe, photosynthesis and homes.
The centrepiece of your current life is ClubPenguin. You spend a few hours a week (with your cousins) on this virtual world. Something about this has captured your imagination, and you just love playing. This is quite a change from a year ago, when beyblades and CricketAttax cards were the centre of your life!
Your world revolves around your school for the most part. You get up around 6 am, though now increasingly, I have to wake you up around 6:25 am, since you insist on sleeping a little late at night (around 8:30 pm). We do our little reading or some play, and then it is time for your bath and breakfast so you can go the temple en route to being picked up by your school bus at 7:35 am. School starts at 8 am.
You are in first standard, and will get to the second grade in your IGCSE school in July after the vacation. Your class has 20 kids and 2 teachers. It is a fun place for you, and given that there is almost no homework, you have plenty of free time in your life. You come back from school around 3:30 pm.
You have made some great friends in school. For many in your class, you are “BablooBhai.” I have no idea how that nickname came to you, but it does conjure up an interesting personality!
The school also has events every few months – sports day, annual day, project day, and so on. So, there is always something to look forward to. Twice a year, your mummy and I get to visit, see your work and meet with your teachers.
On April 19, you will turn 7. I will not be there for your birthday since I will be away in the US on a business trip. You were quite disappointed that I will be missing your birthday. I said I will wish you via Skype, and we can celebrate it in your own small way once I am back. Anyways, you are not the birthday party kind!
These letters to you have acquired a life of their own. I have been writing one every year since you were born. I write these more for me than for you. (You are now starting to read, so maybe you will read this.) It helps me, for the half hour that I take to write this, think about you at a level other than a day. Memories fade, and even now, it is hard to remember how things were a year ago.
When you grow older, perhaps some of these letters will kindle memories of a wonderful, carefree childhood. Or, when I grow older, I will read these letters and relive your childhood. At this point, the latter seems more likely!
I wrote this letter to Abhishek last year. Here is how it began:
This Tuesday on April 19, you will be six. I have used every one of your birthdays to write a letter to you capturing key transitions in your life and my own impressions watching you grow.
Now that you are older and can understand much more, I told you about my letter and asked what I should write about your likes. Here is your list from a couple weeks ago: beyblades, 3D puzzles/models, Angry Birds on the iPad, taking photos on my Nokia E71, mobiles, skylines, Juju biya (the thin yellow blanket that you sleep with), Govinda pizza, doing aarti at home every night and Mummy’s thapthap (light patting so you can fall asleep).
It didn’t take much time for you to rattle that off. If I had asked you the same question at the start of the year, there would probably have been no more than an item or two common. And I guess I can say the same for how things will be a year from now – or even a few months from now. That’s how fast your world changes.
This week’s links:
- The computing trend that will change everything: from Technology Review. “Computing isn’t just getting cheaper. It’s becoming more energy efficient. That means a world populated by ubiquitous sensors and streams of nanodata.”
- Tim O’Reilly Interview: from Forbes. “The guy with the most data wins.”
- If-then and antiquities of the future: by John Battelle, thinking about the framework for his next book. “If I could just figure out a way to report on that future, to apply the tools of journalism to the story of the future we’re creating, I’d come up with a book worth reading.”
- The crowd-funding opportunity: from Mint. “In these markets, any individual can propose an idea that requires funding, and interested others can contribute funds to support the idea.”
- The two views on Narendra Modi: from Washington Post. “His prominence represents a yearning among certain sections of the middle classes for a strong, decisive leader, a desire to emulate China’s economic successes and impatience, too, with liberal ideas of human rights and social justice.”
So, will it happen? That is the big question.
I am optimistic that in the next year, operators in India will realise that they have to take their destiny in their own hands. Today, all controls seem to be in the hands of the government. Random changes in policies, the 2G spectrum auction overhang, the 3G roaming issue, Reliance’s 4G launch coming up, more spectrum auctions – there seems to be no shortage of issues which are seemingly beyond the grasp of the operator.
This is where they have got it wrong. Instead of crying wolf on what the government does or doesn’t do, they need to focus on the consumer and innovation. They need to change their mindset to enabling the ecosystem for next-gen data services by creating an i-mode in India.
I believe one of the operators will do this – not because it believes in it, but because it is not left with any choice. And that will force others to follow suit, and open the floodgates for developers and content providers. For long, India’s mobile data market has fallen short of expectations. Apple has shown what is possible by relegating the operator to exactly what it fears – a dumb pipe. The combination of fear and helplessness is a potent combination for change!
The opportunity for the data services revenue is large. India’s top 200 million subscribers have the ability to pay on average Rs 250 ($5) for various services. This can create new revenue of $1 billion a month, or $12 billion a year. These kinds of revenues can transform operator’s balance sheets and create India’s really useful and big digital companies.
Consider the way the landscape for data is changing. Social, Video, Gaming and Languages can drive big adoption in mobile data across the country. But to make this happen, the right incentives need to be created across the value chain. Internet companies have limited opportunities to make money from advertising because of the small spends (less than $300 million) and with the bulk of the money being sucked away by the international majors like Google, Yahoo and Facebook.
Getting consumers to pay small amounts of money for various services and virtual goods can be the real game-changing opportunity. Mobile operators are the only ones who can enable this new world, and in doing so, change their financial fortunes.
To create an i-mode an India, Indian mobile operators need to do three things.
First, they need to create an open publishing platform for value-added services. Any content or service provider should be able to offer a service in minutes. Just like anyone can create a website in minutes on today’s Web, so also should a person be able to create a mobile data service quickly. This will mean following open standards and eliminating internal controls on what type of service needs to be offered.
Second, the publishing platform needs to be integrated with the billing capability of the operator. It should be possible to charge small amounts of money to consumers for the newly created data services. It is almost impossible to bypass the operator to collect small amounts of money from consumers. Operators have the ability, cash balance and payment relationships to make this possible.
Finally, operators need to change the revenue share mindset, and start paying 70-80% of the share they get post-taxes from the government. Typically, operators get 85% today, with 15% paid out to the government for spectrum and other charges. Of that 85%, they should only retain 20-30%. (Today, they retain anywhere from 50-80%.) This will create the necessary incentive for developers to start creating and promoting their own services.
Taken together, these three initiatives can completely open up the mobile data services ecosystem in India.