World-Class Product Software from India?

The recently concluded NASSCOM Product Conclave pictured the product software community in a state of transition from an “underground movement” to the mainstream. The Zinnov survey added to the excitement of the community that finally product is happening in India. According to the survey, there are 3402 software product companies in India at present. And 1000 more expected by 2015. The product software rode on the sides of the services sector, which created a wave through the two decades.

Services: Template + Vision

If we look at how the outsourcing-led services sector blossomed to the extent of becoming world class, it could be attributed to a few biggies who had the guts and gumption to take on the world. Sharad Sharma, chair of NASSCOM Product Forum, said during a press meet at NASSCOM Product Conclave that TCS  provided a template and others followed it. I should add all who followed did it exceptionally well, that TCS is counted just among the biggies. It was Infosys which brought different discourse into the corporate India. For the first time, employees became millionaires and held shares of the company they worked for. And the visionary leaders in services such as the iconic N.R. Narayana Murthy, Azim Premji of Wipro, and an army of leaders in Cognizant, not to leave out S. Ramdorai of TCS, scripted a compelling success story. The Global Delivery Model was perfected and it delivered the results, spurring the growth of a sector that now employs lakhs of employees. And this resulted in the MNCs such as IBM to think of setting up their own centres in India. The services sector has come a rather delightful circle and remains the cornerstone of post-liberalization India, changing the perception of India in the eyes of the world. The ecosystem that created it worked very well.

Products: Emotion and Passion

Now let’s turn the focus to products. Consider Nokia for instance. How was Nokia able to become a world-class company out of Finland? What ecosystem drove it? Was it helped by the ecosystem or it came on its own to create an ecosystem? Apart from building a product that found an emotional connect in people, it did other things as normally as others did like tapping the infrastructure available and developing products that customers liked. One big point to understand is Nokia scaled well on demand. The success of Nokia is emotional connect + scale.

If we looked at how Apple, Microsoft, or Google were built, it’s altogether a different story. Apple had a Steve Jobs (need we say more) and Steve Wozniak. Microsoft had Bill Gates, and Google had Larry Page and Sergey Brin. What’s the big deal? Looking at a bit deeply, it was the personal passion of these entrepreneurs who first did not think of developing a world-class product but concentrated on working maniacally on their passion. Once they found that the products they developed will be walloped by millions, they build companies. What sort of ecosystem provided for the growth of these companies? The answer is straightforward: the celebrated Silicon Valley ecosystem, unique technology ecosystem that defies convention and wisdom—convention-defying because it celebrates failure and wisdom-defying because there are investors who bet on an idea, just hype-filled talk, if you will. The success of product companies in the US is passion + an exceptional ecosystem.

Indian Product Software

The trajectory is different in Indian software product scene. Product companies are created by people who had tasted small success with products in the US that they want to replicate their success in India, executives in services who want to shift to products, and those crazy freshers who model themselves on the lines of Steve Jobs. Remember, Bill Gates or Larry Page+Sergey Brin are not role models like Steve Jobs. There are people in the ecosystem who believe that opportunities are huge and product entrepreneurs will make it big. Sharad Sharma is optimistic to the extent of thinking that empty glasses don’t exist. He thinks the glass is overflowing. M.R. Rangaswamy, co-host of NASSCOM Product Conclave this year and founder of Sandhill Ventures, feels the revolution has just begun.

What are product entrepreneurs building? I would give one good example. Druvaa. They are building backup for laptops and disaster recovery for corporates. There are a few players in the world doing it and Druvaa has the guts to take them on and backed by investors, they are taking on the world. The greatest advantage of having an investor like Sequoia is that they would tell you how opportunities can be developed because they have worked with several world-class companies. Another good example is OrangeScape. They are building a platform on top of which applications can be built using Google App Engine. They are cracking markets that Google itself is unable to tap and Google has roped them in as a Technology Partner. These are needs-driven innovations. And they are working very well.

Several of the product companies that come to pitch in all the major product events are developing software to address the needs in health care, education, ERP, and many other domains. They remain small and yet to think of big scale. Based on this, Rajan Anandan, MD of Google, says that India will have several niche players in products. This seems to be true for the moment.

Vinod Khosla gave the most outstanding keynote in last year’s Product Conclave. Irreverent in form and defying wisdom, he made a relevant hypothesis—no growth or event has been predicted convincingly by experts. And any trajectory of growth has happened on a tipping point of an event. So defy the experts and don’t believe in voluminous surveys that predict market trends was what he meant to say. So if we take two companies that have achieved enormous world reach, Vinod Khosla seems to be right. When Bill Gates popularized Windows software, did any expert predict its mammoth reach? Did anyone (other than Ram Shriram) think Google will succeed?

It’s always a bet. Look at retail. India is a very huge market. Why did not a Walmart emerge out of India? Because retailers did not think of that scale and reach. Plus that crucial innovation element was missing. Although some retailers have reached pan-India scale, they are unable to take it outside Indian markets to other markets. I would think Tata Nano is a bold experiment, irrespective of its success. Like Deep Nishar said, any innovation is not an overnight development. I think at least Tata Nano has created a thinking of a possibility. If someone builds on its flaws, that experiment might succeed where Tata Nano failed.

Building a world-class product is not constrained by geography (Nokia from Finland), nonexisting market of a global scale (Apple, Microsoft, Google when they started), and whatever experts or studies predict.

It’s that one product that can create an emotional appeal, be relevant, and satisfy the needs of millions of users. It is a fond hope that all these coalesce from an Indian founder, Indian company, and an Indian ecosystem. It’s not thousands but that one product that will change the world. We are hopeful.

Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy

Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy

Chief Evangelist of YourStory.com and Founder of VirtualPaper. Editor-turned-author. Believes entrepreneurship is a slightly convoluted state of mind daring to dream the impossible. While not editing books, finds joy in talking [to people], writing, and thinking about what makes entrepreneurs what they are. Has a special attraction towards product tech