There’s something in the air in Bangalore. Maybe it’s the particles of pollution which give the city one of the worst air quality indices in the world. Maybe it’s the dust and dirt from all the construction projects, as every block seems to have either a tear down or a build up underway. Maybe it’s something else though, a spirit of high tech innovation and entrepreneurship previously unbeknownst to the Indian subcontinent.
If you can navigate the pulse-pounding traffic, step over the perennially unfinished sidewalks and haggle enough to not get ripped off by rickshaw drivers, the city provides a multitude of optimistic people and exciting coworking spaces where everything oozes with the palpable energy of possibility.
During my time in Bangalore I spent time with a pair of early-stage investors and the CEO of a venture-backed startup, eager to gain a deeper understanding about what’s driving this growth.
Over lunch in the thriving Koramangala neighborhood, Abhishek Gupta, Soaib Grewal, and Rahul Gupta took me on a whirlwind tour of the past, present and future of India’s technology industry. As members of the Times Internet’s digital arm, they are responsible for turning one of India’s largest media companies into an innovative business ready to compete in the mobile age.
THE STREAMING ERA
Abhishek thinks that to understand the how and why of India’s current technology boom, one must understand that Jio, one of the major telecom providers, recently began offering a cellular plan consisting of 1GB of data per day for less than $6 a month. Competitors soon followed suit; the abundance of cheap plans and the prevalence of affordable Android phones combined to create a mobile data revolution in India.
The big winners of this tectonic shift in consumer access to the internet have been Google and Facebook. Armed with more data than they know what to do with, users spend long portions of the day watching videos in their newsfeed and on Youtube. Throughout my trip here, most shopkeepers pause videos as soon as a customer steps in the door and plenty of taxi drivers stream music videos while sitting in traffic. In fact, India now uses more data per day than the United States and China combined, according to NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant.
However, not all apps and services translate well across different hemispheres, creating market opportunities that Indian startups are well-positioned to exploit for a few reasons.
First, the unique Indian culture makes it difficult to perform so-called “internet arbitrage”, stealing the experience of established products and pivoting them to another market.
Second, unlike Americans and Europeans who use the mobile phone in conjunction with a desktop or laptop computer, most Indians leapfrogged straight to mobile. Especially among middle-income users, the phone is the primary or only computing device and must contain full functionality for any service.
Third, the Indian populace can be extremely fragmented. There are 22 official local languages, and hundreds more unrecognized. Moreover, norms, prices, and psychology of consumers can vary widely across the country. Only a deep understanding of user behavior can drive widespread adoption.
One example of a startup that has emerged from the chaos here is Byju’s. Led by a hard-driving sales team, a strong personal brand from the CEO, and excellent positioning in the Indian education market, the company was valued at over a billion dollars in their most recent round of funding. Their flagship learning app features videos of the most popular Indian teachers breaking down subjects for the extremely fragmented standardized testing field and general lessons for kids in grades 4 through 12.
As hundreds of millions more Indians come online over the next decade, Byju’s and many other startups plan to be there to capture more value from the expanding market.
NEW GENERATION, NEW VALUES
For a long time, Indian culture has valued stability over risk. With the vast majority of residents living at or below the poverty line, parents pushed their children to get into the best schools and seek the best paying jobs, regardless of their personal interests. The cultural value of having a stable job at a reputable firm was worth far more than the risk of starting a business and failing.
But within the last decade, the spirit of entrepreneurship has begun to blossom in India. Having startup experience, even if the company ultimately fails, is finally a badge of honor to be worn instead of a failure that might bring shame to your entire extended family.
This new wave of leaders is deeply committed to making great products and often has subject matter expertise, but India’s school system leaves something to be desired in crafting future CEOs. According to Soaib, many engineers here lack the public speaking and storytelling experience to lure international investors and build admirable brands; meanwhile, many parents still want their children to just study IT and consider any other subjects superfluous.
On the streets of Bangalore’s most happening neighborhoods, every other building seems to house a coworking space. It’s in one of these neighborhoods which perfectly blend modernity with construction projects and exposed wiring that I met Ranjeet Pratap Singh, the CEO of Pratilipi. With vibrant eyes and a train of thought that moves faster than most of his own country’s railways, Ranjeet embodies a new wave of leaders and makers in Bangalore.
With the exception of his analogies, which all involve cricket, everything Prateep tells me about the ethos of his job and company could easily be swapped out for an entrepreneur in San Francisco or Amsterdam. As the CEO, it’s his job to say no, to keep an obsessive focus on the customer, to make sure data analysis is ingrained at every level of the organization, and to ask why a lot. Pratilipi is a story sharing platform, where authors can write poems, short-stories or personal narratives in any of 8 languages and connect with readers in their native tongue.
Most impressively, Prateep eschews the standard Indian hiring process. After working at Vodafone and Citibank, where only graduates of certain schools are even considered, Prateep cares much more about someone’s problem-solving skills than their diplomas. By looking at where people are from and what they have accomplished, he thinks he can much better deduce their future trajectory.
The most shocking fact that Prateep drops on me is that in this evaluation process he interviews dozens of Indians returning to their home country after time working abroad in the US or UK. Due to a combination of personal and cultural factors many Indians chose to return home after growing both personally and professionally while abroad, which reduces the brain drain of top local talent.
Between expatriates returning with international experience and top schools which rival the best engineering programs available in the Western world, the Indian technology industry is moving far beyond the menial labor and data entry that once characterized outsourcing work. Indian startups now service global markets, compete with top Silicon Valley firms like Uber for market share, and recruit talent from Google and Microsoft.
Indeed, if this tech community can work creatively to solve problems facing its own population, the next startup unicorn may be growing in Bangalore already.