How do we create a Product Startup Ecosystem in India?
“India does not understand product creation and surely is generations behind technology creation. Product creation is a process. There is reason India has not created any in 64 years of freedom.” These are some comments that I got from the One Laptop Per Child Team (@digitalfutur & @olpcindia) in reaction to the recently showcased Tablet computer to be made available to students in India for less than Rs 2000. Here is my interaction with the OLPC lovers on Twitter, please read it bottom up.
DataWind, which has more than 20 years of electronics manufacturing background, is producing the Tablet, while the Government of India initiated and subsidized the project. There has been a very passionate discussion for and against such an endeavor, the merits or faults of the Tablet device and the involvement of Government of India in initiating or promoting new technology. This post is not about that, there are valid concerns about the use of Tablets in an under-invested education sector in India, and I will address those in a later post. What I want to talk about is the general perception that India can’t create or doesn’t have the vision or necessary skills to create global products. Now, I understand that “India” is a broad generalization, it comprises of the Government, NGOs, Large Companies, Startups, Individuals etc. and some of whom have created products that are recognized or respected globally. So let’s just focus on technology products and further on the likes of well-known products like Google (Search, Gmail), Amazon (EC2, Kindle), Facebook, Microsoft (Windows, Office), Twitter, Apple (iPod, iPhone, iPad), Yahoo.com, Salesforce.com etc.
So what does it take to create products?
I have come across a lot of promising startups and technologies in India, some of them with huge global potential. Every other day I meet founders that are really passionate about their ideas and are trying hard to break it out. Silicon Valley in US is primarily accredited with helping create an ecosystem that lead to such an explosion of new technology and products over the last few decades. So the question is how can we build a similar environment, a Product Startup Hub in Bangalore. I recently read an interesting post by Paul Graham, a veteran Entrepreneur and VC, on why startup hubs like Silicon Valley work really well. I will also attempt to summarize the views of other valley veterans like Steve Blank, Mark Suster together with wisdom from one of the greatest product creators the world has ever seen, Steve Jobs.
Creating new products is a very risky business. There is no requirements document, no customers and there is no proven business model. It’s just a few guys with a crazy idea trying to work their way through the issues. They need support not only from family and friends but also from general society. In India, other than a few communities that are very business-oriented, risk taking is actually discouraged. I understand people may not be financially in a position to take such risks and startups are not for everyone. However, the mindset has to change so that people accept, support and appreciate risk-taking and are willing to put their skin in the game by supporting their near and dear that plan to join startups as co-founders or early employees.
Startups need an ecosystem where founders and early employees run into their counterparts and exchange ideas, discuss issues etc. These chance meetings can sometimes be crucial for a startup’s success as they might open up new possibilities in product, customers or VC funding. In India, there are a few events where startups pitch ideas to get feedback. However, I feel that the responses to these “pitches” tend to oscillate in extremes, either there are a lot of naysayers trying to poke holes wherever possible or people are completely hands off not saying anything. I think brutal honesty is needed when an idea is being pitched but we need put it out constructively and collaboratively try to help the startup. At the same time the founders need not be defensive or dogmatic about their idea and should keep an open mind. Ultimately, I think that successful entrepreneurs are the best guides and more mentorship would build a “pay-it-forward” culture, which has been the cornerstone of the successes at Silicon Valley.
Time and again I have heard that other than a few exceptions most startups go through a lot of pivots or failures in the early phases. Apple is not known for “Apple I” or “Lisa” or “Newton” which were product failures but is known for Apple II, Macintosh and iPhone which have been spectacular successes. As a society we need to start accepting failures regardless of how brilliant the idea or founder might have been and encourage continuous innovation especially from those who tried but didn’t make it the first time. Startups should realize that you don’t need to have a holy grail of an idea to launch, just start with something however ridiculous it might seem. Do make mistakes, come out with limited first versions or unoriginal ideas while you keep upping your game, learn, improve and move forward. Samuel Beckett had the right attitude: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
What do you think is missing, and how can we move forward as a Startup Hub? Oh, and do let everyone and the likes of @digitalfutur know of globally renowned products being created in India, I think it’s important for the community to know of them and feel inspired. Lets get excited and make things!