When it comes to India, I'm humble. I realise that I don't have the capacity to comprehend the diversity, dynamics and originality that every person, town, village and business has. And I never will have it.
My love story with India started in 2004. My first visit was to Bengaluru. I was working for a startup and visited Infosys and Wipro as partners. What struck me weren’t the great people I met, the large-scale projects being developed for the biggest enterprises around the globe, or the feeling in the air that innovation was coming and that these people would launch their own startups. What struck me was the spirit. The same spirit with which I grew up in my homeland— there are no dead ends.
Working for software companies and doing business internationally has taught me that every place has its own culture, resulting in dead ends such as 'it can’t be done,' 'we can’t make it on time,' 'it doesn’t make sense,' 'the idea is not good, so we need to let it go,' and 'there’s no budget.'
However, in terms of ideas, in India it's the same as driving—you never get to a dead end. Traffic always flows even if you need to wait for a couple of hours in a traffic jam. I don’t think a saw dead-end road sign in India. Or maybe I missed it. There is always an option, a solution or something else that can be done in a situation. This spirit exists outside of the government, telecoms and large corporations. People who haven't experienced the entrepreneurs and IT industry of India don’t seem to know it. It's the same in my homeland—for better or worse, there are no dead-ends. I guess some of it relates to the fact that I grew up in a similar environment: plenty of free time spent walking around the fields with my friends and the freedom to go wherever and do whatever I wanted.
Something in me pulled me back to India again. In 2012, I founded Zoostr with two partners. I wanted to build the ultimate application for micro-businesses—completing any operation in three clicks, either on the phone or on the web, from creating professional price quotations to marketing a business, with the means and platforms currently available. While running Zoostr, I spent entire days with small business owners and entrepreneurs, watching, listening and feeling what it was all about. It was the same as in 2004, but I was flying at higher altitudes now. There was nothing stopping teenagers, students, employees of corporations or anyone, from starting a new business and running it in parallel to their existing jobs, or supporting their relatives in a new venture. No dead-ends—there was no technological, time or money constraint that would stop them.
Facebook and India
I really hope to work again in India. A lot has been written about the turmoil of Facebook in India with Internet.org and Free Basics. I believe Facebook’s intentions were good. It is a legitimate idea to monetise in the future through users, but I think we’re missing the point here. The issue is not with the phone cost nor with the data plan. Facebook has great assets that could boost those currently not online. I don’t want to argue for or against net neutrality or the benefits of connecting people to the Internet. I’d like to share my thoughts on what Facebook’s direction should be, based on what it currently has and what could make a difference.
One book that changed my approach as a product manager is Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere (Govindarajan & Trimble, 2012 Harvard Business Review Press). In a nutshell, bringing products to new markets is not about changing the feature-set and pricing; it’s about creating products and business models from scratch by experiencing new markets and understanding the available product assets. Before reading the book, and in a formal way after reading the book, I practised reverse innovation in any product I designed, no matter which market it was addressed to. When looking at Facebook and India, I generally apply reverse innovation. Optimally, one would spend about six months practising reverse innovation with the target audience before making any conclusion.
It is clear that what I have done before is somewhat different from Internet.org in terms of audience, technology skills and purchasing power. But I’ve learnt to admire the entrepreneurial spirit in many of the people I met, the importance of education and the drive to make things happen.
My perception of this market may be different from that of others. I am writing from my own subjective and somewhat remote view. I know that those who worked with large corporations, IT outsourcing firms and the government in India could have different views and experiences than mine.
Great assets at hand
Facebook has many technological assets directly connected with what Internet.org could have been: from Facebook Lite to knowing users’ profiles and changing interests. I’ll try to tackle some of the things Facebook could do in India, relating each to different audiences of Internet.org.
The first time I saw a screen capture of Free Basics (at the time it was called Internet.org), I thought to myself, 'Oh no! It looks like my.yahoo!'
I remember the first time I read about my.yahoo. I thought it was great and I quickly configured my my.yahoo page with the stock quotes I wanted to track, the business and world news I was looking for, news about companies I was interested in and weather forecasts for places I wanted to visit. But I never used it.
Is this the best Facebook could create—a 15-year-old concept? Even the colours and options are the same. Where is all the amazing technology running on Facebook servers? Where are the users’ engagement algorithms? Where’s the content/user matching? Why is the social platform not deeply integrated into Free Basics? It looked like someone has read only the 'Mistakes' chapter of Reverse Innovation.
Let’s look at a simplified example. Say, I click on a picture of a huge tractor so that I can show it to my kid. Why not suggest related educational content about how large machines function (and do it free of charge) throughout the coming weeks? Facebook knows my profile, my interests and what makes me engaged and social. Use it for a good purpose. The potential for context-based education is limitless: learning English, interacting with others like myself, improving health and the use of technology. We are all seeking to constantly educate ourselves on what interests us, our work and what we would like to do next.
Social demand-supply fulfillment
Many times it seems that everyone’s a small business owner: farmers selling their produce, multigenerational family artisans, micro-businesses, young entrepreneurs teaching English and enterprise employees setting up a business for their brother or sister in parallel to their day job.
The potential and challenges are huge. How to connect suppliers and buyers? How to empower them for growth and to find the best partners?
This is where Facebook comes into the picture. Let’s say that weather changes are faster this year and a farmer cultivates his produce earlier. Facebook knows the farmer’s location. Facebook also knows nearby wholesalers and manufacturers whom the farmer doesn’t know. Facebook could identify this year’s activity by the farmer’s behaviour, trying to contact customers and posting about the supply. In this case, Facebook could inform potential customers and make the connection to the farmer. The technology is there: from user’s interests, location and status, to news feeds and messaging. I believe these 'ad campaigns' should be provided for free, while Facebook could monetise (in the future or even today) from enterprise-paid campaigns (for example, promoting a new phone or tools for the business).
Facebook could be great for casual labour and employers. In rural areas, over 50 percent of workers are self-employed while over 35 percent work as casual labour. Casual labour includes temporary work, ranging from seasonal work to daily employment. Self-employment demand-supply fulfillment fits perfectly in Facebook by connecting employers and workers by location, skills and previous joint work. It could be used to rate employers by workers as well as the other way around. It empowers workers to choose the best temporary, seasonal or day job and employer before taking a job.
A few years ago I was travelling around the world. We were driving on an unpaved road for hundreds of kilometres, passing small villages. After driving for five hours, we noticed that a few kilometres ahead a truck was parked in the middle of the road and two men were lying on the ground, hiding from the sun. We stopped and asked them if everything was fine, and if they needed a ride, food or water. They said that a specific part had broken in their engine and they were waiting for delivery of that part from the city. It would take about two days, and until then they would wait in the truck. They were able to do all of this by using their mobile phones.
Now, let’s say that they’ve posted a picture of the broken part. Every mechanic, by profession or by experience, in the area would have seen their post with a map and directions to their location. In the straightforward scenario, the mechanic would take a part from his truck and negotiate a price online. If an agreement was reached, he would supply that part and order a new one for the parked truck. In the open-source scenario, the mechanic would search for parts drawings and manufacturing instructions made open source by other mechanics around the world using the available raw materials. Then she would close the deal and manufacture and deliver the part.
There are lots of other open-source scenarios empowering us to build machines, build houses, generate energy and create toys. Making it social, language-independent, searchable, context-based, usable over a mobile device and rich with examples is a perfect match for Facebook.
Everyone’s a business owner
One of the many domains in which India was ahead of the world was the diversity of each person’s activities. We are catching up and now it’s common to have additional occupations on top of our day jobs, such as mentoring, silent partnership, community activity and side jobs.
Many of those I have met would be happy to invest their time in helping my business free of charge, provide paid consultation, invest and become partners in a venture, and more. Sometimes they would do it in addition to their full-time activities.
How does this fit into Facebook? Same as supply-demand fulfillment and open sourcing: empower every person, in any State, in any location to become an independent professional. Let them get information and skills on what they’d like to do. Connect them with suppliers and customers near them or remotely. Suggest relevant content, suggest partnering with people who have the same inspirations and location, and suggest potential customers with community-based communications.
Another fascinating book on the changing culture, and somewhat on entrepreneurial spirit and getting online is India Calling: An Intimate Portrait of a Nation's Remaking, written by Anand Giridharadas (St. Martin's Griffin 2012)
Multi-layered supply chain
The wholesale chain may include up to 10 levels of wholesalers. This could be from local, regional, State and country-wide, and again to local before retail distribution. Some would be informal businesses as described above, with the same needs and opportunities. All of this chain would be empowered and boosted by Facebook's social supply-demand fulfillment.
Combined business and pleasure
While establishing a go-to market plan for Zoostr, I wanted to create an online strategy. Back in 2012 (ages ago), I was told that people won’t buy software online and that they must see a person in order to build trust and to believe that a real person would be supporting them when needed. Micro-business owners told me that online advertisement wouldn't work, as they don’t look for such on the Internet.
Then I asked them what they were doing with the Internet. Most of them said they were using Facebook late at night to keep in touch with family, college friends and past colleagues from the time when they were working for a firm. They also said that they used it for news.
So I started experimenting. I created pay-per-click campaigns on Facebook and Google AdWords for a dummy application for small businesses. The results were more than promising. After I launched Zoostr, Facebook became the main user acquisition platform, both paid and organic. Product analytics provided another observation: small business owners mix business and pleasure. At 2 AM, while they are using Facebook to socialise with friends and family, they also issue invoices to a customer. This is where we nailed it—we’ll convert them at the same time.
The conclusion is that for a self-employed person, business and pleasure happen all the time at the same time. Let them use Facebook for personal use and empower them to do business, as everyone’s a business owner.
If I were working for Facebook, I would spend six months in India, living, working, eating and entertaining with the potential users of Internet.org. I would travel from one town to another, from one village to another, watching and listening. Only after that would I start thinking about the product.
Facebook is best positioned to empower new users in India with what it has today. Mobile connectivity as well as data connectivity is spreading. Mobile device prices are dropping, while data connectivity pricing is very low. Facebook Lite is a lightweight application not requiring a powerful smartphone, not consuming the battery and maintaining low data utilisation. It could spread rapidly as users see the benefits and get their friends, family and partners to join.
Facebook should make the connections and suggestions for educational content, bringing supply and demand together with messaging and media sharing.
What is missing on the technology side? Probably the ability to operate the Facebook app while there is no data connectivity. Basic operations without images and videos could be provided with USSD-based messaging with no need for data. One other thing could be the ability to work offline. For example, to write a post and add an image so that it will be posted only when a data connection is reestablished.
One more thing, probably the most important one—display newsfeed content from the entire Internet and not only from Facebook. This is to boost education and supply-demand fulfillment, as discussed above. Instead of providing a walled garden, as with current Free Basics, turn the model upside-down and motivate users to choose Facebook as their default browser on the Internet. It will become the launchpad of every user on every device. They’ll be excited about spending time and staying on Facebook. There's less of a need to search with Google while getting notified about what they like and need when on Facebook. Facebook would be another app on the phone, probably the most used. That’s the current differentiator of the Facebook push model versus the Google pull model, taken to the next level and starting in India.
Monetisation will come naturally through enterprises and medium businesses advertising to new users, as currently practised elsewhere on Facebook.
Facebook may already be going in that direction. Being a user of the Facebook advertising platform, I know that it’s a great company. Someone knew what I needed and added that every month to the product, increasing my conversion rates and reducing the CPC. They figured out what I needed most, and I wasn’t aware of it until using the new features.