It has been close to a year since I’ve visited Bengaluru. It has been more than three years since I moved to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, and it has been more than five years since I started writing about startups for YourStory. In the grander scheme of things, this timeframe is no more than a blip but on the instant delivery startup scale, this is exactly the time frame when this new wave of tech startups rose and fell (and is now stabilising) in India.
As the bus moved from Domlur to Koramangala, the hoardings are blaring out to drivers and passengers to eat fresh and order in food from fresh menus. We’re also being told that an app can make our house joyful. All this takes my mind back to 2011 when YourStory conducted E-Sparks, an event to throw light on e-commerce companies. Imagine a time when e-commerce companies needed light to be thrown on them. And that too in Bengaluru! Imagine Bhavish Aggarwal of Ola on stage trying to explain why people would want to hail a taxi or auto by using an app.
Things have changed. And things have not changed. The urban Indian now does use an app to call for a taxi but if you look at India as a whole, hardly anything has moved. We face the same gargantuan problems we faced five years ago. We have tonnes of education apps/websites that claim to be disrupting education but essentially only the tools are being made. Education will be disrupted when the content changes, when methods of delivery change (not technologically), essentially when all of us change to look at education more holistically. And this can be extended to many other sectors.
Coming back to E-Sparks, this was a time when the startup buzz was picking up, a strong community was developing (not necessarily working together) and the mood was very buoyant. The air wafted over to the investor community globally and everything tech was funded in the next three years. Add a hyphen and 'tech' after the sector in which your company lies, and investors will come knocking down your door. All this technology business and how massively it is changing the world sounded very exciting; I was taken by storm and blew the startup trumpet. One of course is critical, given that it had been just over a decade since the big dot com bust and there were a few warning signs from veterans but many of us felt it was different; especially because of the mobile and Internet penetration. But now, in retrospect, is all this changing anything within us as humans?
Not really. These are just incremental steps mankind has taken over centuries; the technology leap is just another step. Earlier, battles were fought with swords and armours, now we have wars with more dangerous bombs and artificial intelligence. The issues remain the same. Currently, we have banks, and since fintech is the big thing we’re all talking about, it proclaims that it’ll replace physical banks in a few years. And it will. But has it really changed anything? No, it has only changed the mode of how things are done. And it is not that big a deal. It is great and needed, but the problem comes in when entrepreneurs are made out to be oracles who’ll take away the pains of the world by identifying the problems and figuring out a solution. And this is what was happening by around 2014. By then, I was looking at the startup space with amusement and the level reached its peak when I wrote about Rahul Yadav.
There was some solid work happening under the hood and entrepreneurs were working away from the spotlight to build some real businesses as well, but the noise was just too much to take. Self-entitled young entrepreneurs, bizarre investments and a heavy sense of meaninglessness drove me away from writing about startups. One can appreciate when an entrepreneur walks up and shares what she or he does, but when one starts to ‘demand’ coverage, you can tell that things have gone overboard. In my inconsequential view, VCs were meant to fund something the government ideally wouldn’t because it a giant leap ahead, but VCs started playing too safe and the whole game became uninteresting. It was time to go from partially to completely offline.
The time and space gave room for a lot of self-reflection, which, over time, let curiosity manifest in various forms. We experimented with natural dyeing (and dying), which led to a small product line in clothing, and the urge to involve the body in some activity led us to try and build our own mud house. We tried out a cob room whose walls fell (and in the process also helped to break many walls within us) but gave us an entry in the field of vernacular architecture and how to build sustainable ecosystems.
Meanwhile, back in Bengaluru, a lot of the euphoria was petering out and cries of ‘winter is coming’ began. Focus came back to revenues and basic business principles. All the high valuations started getting a mark down and a big reality check was in order. And to an extent, startups have become the new corporate, because even after joining a startup, one gets flexible hours and all the perks but the essential question remains the same- am I able to squeeze out the juice of life from what I am doing?
And this is probably how the world moves in cycles. We all need something new, something exciting that brings some of us together and keep us moving. Entrepreneurs have technology, NGOs have causes, and each one of us has something or the other. Before the current excitement of the startups and Digital India, there was another tech wave of excitement in the West. The hippies had their movement of togetherness in the 1960s right after the industrial revolution hit its peak. In the last two centuries, things have started centralising and because of information spreading far and wider in lesser time, the scale of such movements has become larger. In the older times, things were more decentralised and probably waves of such excitement came in at larger time intervals. For instance, the wheel might have excited a set of people in one place and that technological leap might have taken a lot of time to spread throughout the world.
The key probably lies in looking at these patterns in a detached manner and then living your life. This what what happened when I got the time and space to sit and think and look at the world after removing the ‘me’. Now whatever I write flows from this understanding. And this piece has come out in print only when someone recently handed me a note that read ‘A bird does not sing a song because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song’.