When Bangalore became the epicenter of Tom Friedman’s flat world, the sleepy garden city was thrust with a new title– India’s Silicon Valley. While the South Indian city is a technology services driven linear growth environment, the real Silicon Valley is a non linear growth environment with many blockbuster startups to its credit. Slowly, but surely, Bangalore is changing. But there are critical differences between the two cultures. Sreekumar Vijaykumar, the CEO of Tradebriefs who just got back from a brief stint in the Silicon Valley (as part of geeks on a plane) has observed some differences between the real Silicon Valley and Bangalore. In a Quick Q&A with NextBigWhat, he talks about three things that need to change in India before it can churn out quality startups in large numbers.
1. The culture of giving forward
In the Valley, there is a community of entrepreneurs who have done it, made money or are on to their next venture. Given the right platform, they are happy to give back to the community. They share insights and have a great open mindset. Its important someone plays that role.
2. Respect for subject matter expert
There is huge respect for a subject matter expert in the Valley. For instance, someone who understands email in and out would not get the same kind of respect in India that you’d get there. Its important for the Indian startup ecosystem to start respecting subject matter experts. They are not necessarily the CEOs of the company or the heads but they are good at what they do. That’s key in getting good solid companies out of India. On the macro front, you might have heard how the hustler-hacker-designer combination works for startups. In India, there are hustlers but not enough hackers and designers. The right way to put it would be that there are hackers and designers but they don’t have the kind of access and exposure in India. Trust networks of people who know each other very well has to happen. Breaking into that community in India is very difficult unless you are a celebrity. That’s the bigger reason we don’t find enough of them or respect them.
3. Relationship between investor and entrepreneur
There is probably a supply demand issue, entrepreneurs seem indebted to the investors in India where as it should be an equal relationship. The entrepreneur knows best. When I hear conversations about investors wanting to replace chief executive officer or the entrepreneur, I feel that its not a healthy sign.
That’s a biggie – but not shocking in light of Groupon’s downward spiral and a bunch of controversies around the business model and IPO.
But every cloud has a silver lining – and in this case, Andrew’s very public, candid letter addressed to all employees at Groupon provided not only a peek into what changes might be afoot there (“have the courage to start with the customer”) but also raises a couple of great points.
“I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey”
Yes – failure is very much part of an entrepreneur’s journey, and there is absolutely no shame in it. We salute Andrew for embracing this publicly. Different skills, mindsets and thus people take organizations and businesses through their various phases, and just because you did great leading one phase of the business does not automatically qualify you for the others.
“My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers.”
Data is very very important. But, as we’ve said in the past, don’t let it completely ride your intuition. Those “gut feel” decisions do have a lot going on in the backend and you have to back yourself – many great ideas have been borne of such decisions. And especially when there is no, or not enough data, not making a judgement call is just not – well – entrepreneurial.
After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why… you haven’t been paying attention. From controversial metrics in our S1 to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that’s hovering around one quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves. As CEO, I am accountable.
You are doing amazing things at Groupon, and you deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I’m getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance. The board is aligned behind the strategy we’ve shared over the last few months, and I’ve never seen you working together more effectively as a global company – it’s time to give Groupon a relief valve from the public noise.
For those who are concerned about me, please don’t be – I love Groupon, and I’m terribly proud of what we’ve created. I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. If Groupon was Battletoads, it would be like I made it all the way to the Terra Tubes without dying on my first ever play through. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to take the company this far with all of you. I’ll now take some time to decompress (FYI I’m looking for a good fat camp to lose my Groupon 40, if anyone has a suggestion), and then maybe I’ll figure out how to channel this experience into something productive.
If there’s one piece of wisdom that this simple pilgrim would like to impart upon you: have the courage to start with the customer. My biggest regrets are the moments that I let a lack of data override my intuition on what’s best for our customers. This leadership change gives you some breathing room to break bad habits and deliver sustainable customer happiness – don’t waste the opportunity!
I will miss you terribly.
We all owe Andrew one for this letter. All the best with whatever you do next, dude!
Startups are about passionate pursuits. Yet, not all passions are around making dollops of money – in fact many may never do that but yet seek to make a difference.
NammaCycle (“Our Cycle”, in Kannada) – a public bicycle sharing programme in Bangalore – surely fits that category. Its trying to integrate cycling into the public transport infrastructure thread in Bangalore, and from early signs, succeeding in pockets, at least.
Many, including those in public spaces, the government and just plain altruistic folks have come together and enabled this program. But one guy’s passion in making sure NammaCycle happened – after years of effort – shines through. We caught up with Murali H.R. – a cyclist himself – to know more about this and try and understand another of those drives that makes this crazy world actually work. Murali is a Creative Consultant. He now trains corporate sector folks in Business Process Management and Web Technologies. He loves travelling on cycle and playing carnatic flute. He also volunteers with the Ride A Cycle Foundation.
Namma Cycle is a pretty unique and socially relevant effort and you’ve been driving for a long time. How did this get started?
Murali : I just got pulled into the craze of cycling after riding in the France. I felt deeply that we need to do seriously to bring back the cycle culture as I experienced Moksha in France while i cycled 70 Kms in just 5 hours. This is impossible in india due to bad roads! Once I got back, I met a couple of others and we all felt that we needed to engage with doing research on cycles and cycling, and making them popular.
What success has this programme seen thus far?
Murali : Namma Cycle has 3 bike stations right now, a 100+ regular users, and has completed over 4000 trips covering 6000! In the process, it prevented a tonne of CO2 emissions because 300 liters of petrol were not used, saving about 25,000 rupees. Its seen a usage growth over 5x over the first 6 months of its launch, and is viable with the sponsorships and since we make street vendors part of the network. In itself, bike sharing itself is not financially viable since the aim is to promote a new, clean mode of transport and after the monthly subscription, the first half hour for every trip is not charged, and its a nominal charge – 5/- to 10/- per hour after that.
Obviously, a slow process. What have the challenges been? How’s technology helping?
Murali : Technology is certainly the backbone! We have taken the route of an Android app to take care of logistics, finance and the rental operations. The app itself – “ECBike” – is free and open source. You can check the availability of cycles live at each of the bike stations at http://app.nammacycle.in/registermember/checkcycleavailabilityrealtime. Gubbi Labs implemented the apps for us, and we’ve have a lot of support from CISTUP, IISC for running the system.
Why are you doing this? Whats the bigger picture?
Murali : To make cycling a mode of public transport in all Tier 2 – Tier 3 cities. [ Team NextBigWhat : Try as we might, the answer did not move to a more personal level at all – the motivation does seem to be the reward in itself!]
What has the experience been like? Learnings?
Murali : This is a big project with many stakeholders. Getting an idea like this implemented on the ground is extremely difficult – unlike software systems here it is entirely operations management – you need to finalize the operations and the process of collecting revenue, collecting the cycle, managing the stock etc.
Thankfully, at every stage we did receive a lot of support from various people and agencies.
Managing the team is bit difficult as they all come from a very different background (all school drop outs ) and do not necessarily have great work discipline. For example today the mechanic came in the morning and suddenly left because the operations manager scolded him.
Because it is a low paid job smart people do not come to work with us .Yet we have managed to build a team and keep them motivated to do the job. We got a nice T shirt designed and gave all of them a new T shirt!
Advice/tips to folks looking to “do something more meaningful”
[Team NextBigWhat : Murali, being a perfect example of a “Doer”, proffered no gyaan in this direction! :) But we think the whole effort – that’s taken a good couple of years of hard work and battling cynicism, interfacing with a dozen different groups and agencies, exploring and getting funding options sorted out and finally signing on a team to execute all of this – this should provide enough clues given the non-profit nature and high social impact of the project. Its success was, and still is not a given, and needs as much perseverance as any startup would. Hats off, Murali and the whole NammaCycle team!]
The 2013 Budget is around the corner. On February 28, Finance Minister P Chidambaram will have to strike a fine balance between populist measures and fiscal prudence ahead of the 16th Lok Sabha elections likely to be held late this year or early 2014. As the Government fights to keep growth from plummeting to the dreadful Hindu Growth Rate, it will have to make sure that taxes and policies do not scare foreign investors away.
Entrepreneurs, who play a key role in any country wishing to keep its growth intact, are often ignored in the scramble to mop up more taxes and appeasing the vote bank. A comprehensive entrepreneurship policy is needed. To bring back global risk capital, policy uncertainty on taxes need to end. India needs to open up channels and incentives to bring back its top talent from foreign countries like the US and UK. A regulatory and tax environment favorable to entrepreneurship needs to evolve.
We’re sure there’s many more ideas, and needs in various verticals, markets and at various levels of entrepreneurship. To build a perspective around the expectations of the Indian entrepreneur and the startup ecosystem, we invite you to participate in a short survey and share your insights, needs and recommendations. We’d love to hear from you – entrepreneurs, finance professionals, angel investor, limited partners, buyers and consumers- of your wish list for the 2013 budget.
Every week, we profile an interesting entrepreneur or a person who is up to something interesting in our DOERs section. This weeks DOER is Harsh Snehanshu, who earlier co founded a startup while studying at the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) and then went on to write a fictionalised account of the experience in his book: “Because Shit Happened: What Not to do in a Start-Up.” Through his book, he talks about conviction and having fun being an entrepreneur. After the startup, Harsh went on a long trip. He’s trucked in rural India, went to the villages of Kashmir, and heard so many stories of tribals, Tibetans in exile, Naxals and is now on a quest to become a better writer. He has already written four books!
Here’s more about him:
1. Give us a brief background of yours. How/What/When/Where.
I’m Harsh Snehanshu, the author of the recently released novel, “Because Shit Happened: What NOT to do in a start-up”, which happens to be my fourth book. I’m an IIT Delhi graduate and a former internet entrepreneur. My previous three books have been a humorous trilogy, tracing the comic life of a nerd.
2. What has been your family reaction to your books/entrepreneurship career?
My family has been quite supportive in all my endeavours. I hail from Patna, and though parents out there are not very progressive, I am fortunate that my parents are extremely foresighted, understanding and supportive when it comes to my unconventional dreams. Yes, it required me to throw some light on what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do that, but once they could see my passion, they were more or less convinced.
3. You have traveled a lot over the last few months. Share a few interesting anecdotes?
Yes, when I came out of entrepreneurship, after spending almost two years working 16 hours a day, I wanted to take a vacation. I started travelling and realized that it’s something I really like. I worked on a book concept around my travels, about how a young man who takes the path of road, finds out the true India. And one of the India’s prominent travel websites, IXIGO.com sponsored my trip.
I had plenty of interesting experiences – such as that of meeting aghori babas in Varanasi who wanted to induct me into their practice to that of hitchhiking on a truck in Orissa, where the first thing the truck wala said to me was “It’s not safe taking lifts from truck. Though we are nice people, not everyone is nice,” which amused me a lot. I lived with local people across India, went to the villages of Kashmir, interacted with people around, met Kashmiri Pundits, even went to Ladakh on an Enfield, witnessed India’s raw beauty and heard so many stories of tribals, Tibetans in exile, Naxals and more.
4. Some of the major learnings over the last few years? Of not taking up campus placements/doing random stuff?
I feel that campus placements are quite hyped. It makes you feel that there’s no life beyond campus placements. When I didn’t take that up, I realized I had so much time, so many people to meet and network with, so many interests to explore and I started pursuing them – learnt swimming, travelled, started composing songs, reading avidly and writing more prolifically. Though with my earlier books, I’m earning one third of what my batchmates are earning from their regular jobs, it’s more than sustainable for me. The new book only adds to that. The good thing is that I am extremely happy with my life as I’m pursuing exactly what I want to do. I know that I really want to do writing forever, so I’m never short of ideas/work – I mean to say that I have around 16 novel plots in mind and 10 travel books concepts right now in my head, which could easily fill my next 20 years at least.
5. Future plans?
Right now, after travel, I realized that I need to learn a lot more to become a better writer, to be able to see the world from many different perspectives – such as socio-economic, anthropological, political, historical etc, rather than just a storyteller’s perspective which I currently possess. I had heard about the Young India Fellowship programme and its courses seemed to be perfectly suited for me in my pursuit to become a better writer. Fortunately, I have been selected for this year’s programme and the following one year from June 2013-14, it would be an academic journey for me. After that, I would write and travel again, unless life opens up different avenues.
6. How is life shaping post books? A mn $$ bet ? :)
Money, though important, is a secondary thing for me. It’s the satisfaction of knowing that my work is being read and liked by people across India that’s fuelling my journey. My readers have been a great source of motivation for me in all my pursuits. We are like one small family. My fourth book is a brutally honest and heartfelt book, and yes, I have high hopes from it.
Every week we pick one of the many people around us who are up to something good and try to bring out some of the interesting aspects of the person. The DOER of this week is Lokesh Chauhan, one of the Co-Founders of PlusTxt, a great texting app that supports Indian languages.
Lokesh was never in love with the idea of working for a corporate. “The formal attire, the cabin and the idea of a timetable sounded mundane and uninspiring to me,” he says. The idea of being bogged down by a hierarchy and tending to a schedule was not in tune with his free spirited approach to life. At his first job in Webaroo, he realised that its where he belonged: “A place where we worked at our own pace and schedule.”
The deliverable mattered not your sitting at office adhering to a time table. “The culture of startup was such that I instantly fell in love with it,” he says.
So far, he has worked at three startups. To our question about the not so great salaries in the startup world, he had one thing to say
Take the chances while you are young. Your ability to learn is higher when you are working for a startup as you get to don many hats. You get recognition for your good work and you are criticized about your mistakes much sooner in a startup environment.
The buzz of startup drives you to put more efforts than in a regular corporate job making you realize your own limits and pushing hard to get better with each day. Money matters but the experience and knowledge that comes along with a startup equips you for higher dividends at later part of life.
What does he think about ESOPS?
ESOPs are like a lottery ticket. You cannot make your plans on basis of ESOPs. They are a good driving factor but your priorities should be learning and growing as an individual and team contributor. You should not base your monitory expectations on it as ESOPs can be of zero worth if things don’t turn out well for the startup. Never be afraid of the worst outcome but always be ready for it.
‘Engineering’ vs ‘Coding’ – how would he define them?
Engineering – Creating a solution for a hard to define problem. Requires imaginative thought process.
Coding – Implementing a solution. Requires following the guidelines.
His weapons of choice? DJango/Python for development. Vim is his favorite editor and Eclipse for everything else.
Now that he works for an app startup, we took a peek at his phone’s home screen to see what it looks like. Being a communication and news junkie, its filled with reading and communication apps.
What does he think of the Indian product eco system? Indian product startups need more help as compared to valley because of lack of early adopters Indian angels and investors need to start believing more in them because waiting in line for a trend to start will never allow the startups to grow at the right time and pace as required, he says.
What has age got to do with entrepreneurship? Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn’t.
A study by US based Founders Institute discovers that older founders with more work experience tend to fare better than their younger, more inexperienced counterparts.
An interesting finding is that startups’ success isn’t so directly correlated to founder’s IQ. But before we jump into the finding (which is ofcourse debatable), go through this slideshow, which nicely depicts startup DNA and the formula behind successful startups in Silicon Valley.
Coming back to the age factor, do read : Entrepreneurship – Whats Age got to do with it?. There are enough examples of early executors and late bloomers to take side both ways, but what’s important (and the only thing that matters) is for a person to be enterprising enough to seek knowledge/experience beyond the boundary of a frog’s well.
That is, real world experience matters more than what you learn at a E(ngineering) or B(usiness) school.