Vision India 2020: India needs an entrepreneur's magic touch

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In this series, Sramana Mitra shares chapters from her book Vision India 2020, written to inspire entrepreneurs by sharing 45 interesting ideas for start-up companies with the potential to become billion-dollar enterprises either by focusing on the massive market opportunity in India, or by leveraging India as a development center catering to global customers. These articles are written as business fiction, as if we’re in 2020, reflecting back on building these businesses over the previous decade. We hope to spark ideas for building successful start-ups of your own. Feel free take any of these ideas, develop them, morph them, and if you need help, you can reach out to Sramana and the 1M/1M team.

Image credits: shutterstock.com

Very early in my life I knew where I wanted to go. The details may have been blurry, but the direction was clear by 16 years of age: I wanted to be an entrepreneur; I wanted to study computer science in America; and finally, I wanted to write.

These were not necessarily well thought through choices, but rather instincts, born of the circumstances that surrounded and made up my particular life. Nothing esoteric, simply that my father was an entrepreneur, there was a multi-generational history of studying abroad – in England or America – and a slightly older cousin whom I looked up to had suggested that computer science was where our generation’s most exciting opportunities awaited.

And so, in 1989, I left India with two dream-stuffed suitcases for college in western Massachusetts. This was long before the wave of information technology swept over India, dotting business parks across once ox-plowed fields. My Swiss Air flight roared over old Bombay, where stray cows and rickshaw traffic shrank from view.

When I arrived at Smith College in the fall of 1989, I had already made a few choices. I had chosen to attend a small liberal arts college instead of a larger engineering school like one of the IITs, Carnegie Mellon, or MIT. I did apply to MIT for undergrad, but with naïve honesty I told the man who interviewed me in Calcutta that my skills did not end with math and science. I was also a trained classical dancer, an avid watercolor painter, having studied with the renowned artist Sri Ramananda Bandopadhyay, and, heresy of heresies, that I wanted to continue indulging both my left and right brain. MIT rejected me.

Of course, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. At Smith, I was free to indulge my natural instincts. I worked hard at computer science and economics, my two majors, programming till three in the morning, but I also managed to regularly choreograph and perform, write, take seminars in poetry and literature.

In 1992, the Smith CS department received a grant to purchase a transputer – one of the early parallel computing systems. The machine sat at the corner of the lab looking formidable and mysterious, but also rather lonely. Soon though, we were inseparable. I was the only student working on it, and I learned to dismantle it, understand it, and write programs taking advantage of its concurrency. That year, my advisor and I came up with The Inebriated Router Algorithm, a randomized routing algorithm for transporting traffic in multiprocessor interconnects. The resulting paper was accepted at the annual Transputer User Group meeting, and the week before my graduation in May 1993, we flew to Vancouver to present it at the conference.

This research, more than anything else, paved my way back to MIT – and back, I thought, to the office of acclaimed computer architecture professor, Anant Agarwal. But Anant remained elusive – rarely found on campus, he was deep in the throes of his first startup, Virtual Machine Works. So, I sought out a friendly senior graduate student in his group, John “Kubi” Kubiatowicz, as my mentor. I came into the Alewife project towards the end, with much of the system already designed. Kubi was its chief architect. He patiently answered all my questions as I tried to make sense of the vast number of design decisions and algorithms already arrived at. I quickly realized that at MIT, there would be minimum direct coaching, and a lot of following my nose, figuring things out. Sink or swim was the general idea, and I was not the sinking kind. Within a year I wrote the performance evaluation system for the Alewife multiprocessor and handed in my master’s thesis based on that work. Meanwhile, I got to know Anant better under unexpected circumstances. In January 1994, the Indian VLSI conference was in Calcutta, and Anant was one of the keynote speakers. I attended the conference with him, and one evening, I showed him around town in my 1972 Fiat. Zigzagging between bumper-to-bumper traffic, I explained to Anant my entrepreneurial aspirations. Anant, nervous about the traffic, resonated, encouraging me to keep going.

From 1994 to 2000, I founded and ran three companies – DAIS, Intarka, and Uuma. Each leveraged the Internet in unique ways, and through each I learned the essentials of the Silicon Valley venture business: building products and teams, raising money, marketing and selling vision, ideas, solutions, and companies.

But as the technology industry melted down around me, I felt the need for a broader perspective than what startup CEO jobs typically allowed. The need to focus on an increasingly narrow niche is critical to the success of a fledgling venture, yet my own personal desire at that point was promiscuity, not focus. I wanted to be a consultant rather than a proprietor. In this capacity I led turnarounds, positioning and repositioning exercises, and strategic planning efforts. My clients ranged from zero-stage startups all the way to the $10 billion SAP and the $45 billion Best Buy. All told: 15-plus years as a Silicon Valley insider, stewarding ventures big and small, newborn and matured through the vast innovation ecosystem.

In 2005, my journalist friend Om Malik baited me to start a blog. “Just do it,” he said. “You’re so opinionated anyway. Just write what you think. Just be you!”

When I sat down to write, words tumbled forth without effort – piling themselves up for me to sift through, cut, chop, arrange, and finally hand over to my quickly amassing audience. The blogosphere was calling. And when, in the fall of 2007, the technology editor of Forbes.com, Elisabeth Corcoran, invited me to write a weekly column, it went from calling me, to calling me home.

Soon after, in February, I wrote a controversial column titled, “The Coming Death of Indian Outsourcing.” India, I said, for all its glory, remained the world’s back office. Its tech industry little more than a “services” industry, where the customers did the thinking. India executed. India, I wrote, had not learned to invent technology products of its own. Barring a few exceptions, the glut of venture capital chasing India found it difficult to be deployed. There was way too much money, and way too few deals.

I stood by this thesis then, and I stand by it today. Tech-sector VCs are now diverting capital to retail, real estate, hotels, and other non-tech sectors. India’s $30 billion IT/ITES services industry, meanwhile, is slowly and surely losing its competitive advantage. Most of the four million people that the industry employs have now “arrived.” They have breezed through the milestones that their fathers had to toil all their lives to reach. A phone. A watch. A TV. A car. A house. For the golden goose is still laying large, warm eggs, enough to feed the four million and their families, servants, chauffeurs, and cooks. Meanwhile, the workforce is getting comfortable in their cubicle chairs, just as the turkey gets comfortable before Thanksgiving.

Of course, this is a sensitive issue that called forth a deluge of hate mail. But not hate mail alone. I also received calls from many CEOs from the Indian outsourcing industry congratulating me for having the guts to point out, albeit in scathing words, that the outsourcing industry is in troubled water.

True, India has positioned itself as a software superpower on the shoulders of outsourcing. But is that all that we will ever achieve? With the right guidance, I am resolute that the Indian youth have the potential to build their nation’s next phase of development – systematic development rather than the haphazard, helter-skelter development we have thus far seen.

Development, for India, of course, will not be limited to the technology sector. Driving from Calcutta to Kharagpur, I experienced intimately the toll of one of India’s many unforgiving bottlenecked roadways. A highway cut to one lane because of a bridge that has stood derelict for three years. Outside Jaipur, where a thick mass of trucks constrict the flow of traffic, the scene is unchanged. And when I do finally persevere, make it home, find my bed, the noise pollution keeps sleep distant. I toss and turn in bed, listening through the walls to my family members’ coughing unrest due to the environmental disaster we have created.

These same trucks that clog my journey to Jaipur are caught up in similar jams up and down the length and breadth of India. They wheeze to a halt trying to deliver goods to train stations to be transported across the heartland of India, or to ports so ships can sail.

And the people? Dripping in sweat, hanging from fuming buses, packed like sardines in trains they trudge on. Living in postage-stamp-sized slum rooms amidst squalor, crime, and health hazards, the majority of twenty-first-century India’s citizens live a life far below “superpower” standards.

India needs clean water. India needs energy. India needs roads, ports, and bridges. But India also needs to look back as it strides forward.

In the name of development, India has managed to destroy much of its architectural heritage. Real estate entrepreneurs have mercilessly destroyed British-era jewels along with much of the traditional Indian heritage buildings. Such, I understand, is the destiny of developing nations. The same routine destruction runs from Kashmir to Kanyakumari. It runs in Mexico, in China. It runs in Brazil, and in Romania. Darjeeling, the erstwhile queen of the Himalayas, once enchanted with pine-lined walks strung from house to house, today flashes neon signs to welcome tourists. In the heart of the Himalayas, the picturesque villages are upgraded from utmost poverty and poetry to mediocrity. Their sun-bleached Buddhist prayer flags that flap in the mountain wind no longer whisper their blessings. This is the era of cement, of development for development’s sake.

But what of beauty? Of preservation? Paris preserved. Kyoto. San Francisco. Will India fail to preserve? Will India fail to showcase the magic and the mystique of its past? Between consulting and writing, over the last decade, I have interacted with thousands of entrepreneurs and innovators, encountering hundreds of business case studies, and from that rich crop I have harvested ideas to answer these issues.

George Will once said, “Not only do ideas have consequences, but only ideas have large and lasting consequences.”

Vision India 2020 is my notebook of ideas on entrepreneurship in India. Set in 2020, this futuristic retrospective looks back on the building of a set of particular entrepreneurial ventures, gleaned from the many opportunities I see. Much, much in these ventures need yet be fleshed out. But if you start thinking about a venture in your own area of interest with the framework offered in one of these essays, I believe you will find directives – strategy, business models, references, comparables – that will guide you forward.

Whether in film or healthcare, education or rural development, I have dreamed freely, taking bold, ambitious measures to address impending crises such as water, energy, and the environment.

As you read this series, take with you that boldness. And afterwards, as your own ideas gestate, use my process of visioning – of imagining a manifestation, in as real of terms as possible, of the company that you will build, the change you will bring about.

It is a powerful experience to project far into the future – your future, based on your ideas, your dreams. But as you dream, be sure to work out the details requisite to your venture’s success. I have envisioned details as granular as logos and colors, not to mention margins and pricing. It is within such details that billions of dollars of GDP await – quietly, unregistered by the greater public, waiting for an entrepreneur’s magic touch. For in my model of development, it is the entrepreneurs, and the entrepreneurs alone, who wield the most potent weapons of mass reconstruction.

To build markets; to build nations; to build worlds.

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