It’s hard hard for me to imagine that, despite all the writing (and tweeting) that I’ve done over the past year, I haven’t updated this blog in nearly a year! I guess there are many reasons, but instead of dwelling on them, I figured the time was right to get back in the swing of things. First, a quick housekeeping notice, I’ve moved off of my own instance of wordpress and onto WordPress.com. There may be some broken links or missing pages, but I’ll try to get those back up asap.
The last time I posted here I linked to a great photo collage on India, so why not kickstart this weblog with another inspirational link about the subcontinent?
The video below is an animation that was done by Arjun Rihan as his graduate school thesis at the University of Southern California. I first met Arjun several years ago, as he was contemplating a career change (he was at Oracle at the time, if I remember correctly). He followed his passion, and as the clip below demonstrates, became a creator, and a first rate story teller. Arjun recently put Topi up on YouTube, and you can read about the process to the final product on his weblog. He now works at Pixar:
Navi Radjou has an interesting post on how Microsoft approaches it’s global R&D over at the Harvard Business blog, excerpt:
Microsoft Reinvents Its Global R&D Model – Navi Radjou – HarvardBusiness.org
What impressed me most about TEM is its staff members’ multidisciplinary backgrounds. In addition to computer scientists and engineers, TEM also includes experts in the areas of ethnography, sociology, political science, and development economics, all of which help Microsoft understand the social context of technology in emerging markets like India. For instance, we met with Aishwarya Ratan, an associate researcher trained as a development economist, who is exploring the delivery of financial services to poor and low-literate clients using mobile technologies. Another researcher, Nimmi Rangaswamy, who has a background in social anthropology, is conducting ethnographic research in urban slums to identify the socio-economic needs of micro-entrepreneurs there — many of which can be addressed with technology.
By leveraging its multidisciplinary talent, TEM has developed some amazing solutions designed for emerging and underserved markets, both in rural and urban environments. For example, it has developed the MultiPoint mouse, which allows a single computer to be shared by multiple children in developing nations. My personal favourite is Digital Green (which I nicknamed “American Idol for Farmers”), a Web 2.0 initiative which tapes progressive farmers to disseminate their best practices across agricultural communities. Digital Green just won the 2008 Stockholm Challenge Award in the Culture category.
Undoubtedly Microsoft is pioneering the R&D 2.0 model that I discussed in my last post — an organizational model that relies on anthropologists and development economists to first decipher the socio-cultural needs of users in emerging markets like India and then use these deep insights to develop appropriate technology solutions. And it’s telling that Microsoft picked India as the epicentre of its global R&D transformation.
I don’t think Microsoft is alone in taking this approach in India or elsewhere, but it is notable that Microsoft recognizes that technological advancement alone will not lead to greater success in the future – particularly in emerging markets.
For all the buzz that Tata’s release of the Nano received last year, the long term impact of the company’s new venture may be even greater. The sprawling Tata empire, loosely held together by Ratan Tata, recently announced a plan to build affordable housing for India’s burgeoning middle class. Here’s an excerpt from BusinessWeek:
Tata, the Indian company that made worldwide headlines with its $2,000 Nano car, now plans to build 1,000 tiny apartments outside Mumbai that will sell for $7,800 to $13,400 each. The company plans to roll out low-cost projects outside other major cities.
Tata’s housing division is targeting a segment of the market that was largely overlooked during the housing boom. India’s builders were concentrating on building shiny new high rises and mansions on golf courses. Builders were after profits, but they were also trying to justify their fast-accelerating land costs, especially in and around Mumbai (formerly known as Bombay) and other major cities.
As a Cornell trained architect, Ratan Tata clearly understands the value of creating spaces that foster a sense of being and community. Like the Nano, the Shubh Griha community probably won’t attract the well connected, wealthy Indian, rather it is meant to serve as another building block for the rising Indian middle class. This is the real growth market in India, this is the market that will truly shape the India of tomorrow. Ratan Tata gets it.
I’ve been clearing out my ‘read later’ queue today, and came across another excellent post by ReadWriteWeb. This one is on a rural banking innovation Called Cashnxt. If I remember correctly, the majority of Indians do not have a bank account today (I remember a figure of 70%). While there are many factors that have kept banking largely an urban activity in India, one critical component is the huge overhead of building, manning and maintaining a massive network of branches across the rural plains. Cashnxt addresses this dilemma with an ingenious use of mobile phone technology:
As a customer, if you and a vendor are a member of the Cashnxt network, you can conduct transactions using your mobile phones. The merchant dials CashNxt’s IVR number, enters their PIN and transaction amount, and then hears a high pitch sound on their mobile phone. The customer does the same – calls the IVR number, enters their PIN and hears a high pitch sound. The two phones are then brought together, held close enough for CashNxt to encrypt and decrypt the sounds. The transaction is then confirmed via SMS.
So, for those of you who haven’t been to India recently, one of the oddities of rural development is that mobile phone technology has often reached villages faster than other modern advancements.
Indian start-ups that dreamed of creating the next SAP or Oracle faced massive hurdles on the sales and marketing front. Sure, they could invest five times more in R&D with the same budget. But the reality was that R&D was a tiny portion of the budget. The big money went into sales and marketing. The R&D budget arbitrage was not enough to move the needle.
This is totally and utterly different today. We have written about the SaaS opportunity many times. This opportunity is totally location-agnostic. But it is also totally price- and cost- sensitive, and R&D is the biggest cost. Success stories such as 37 signals, Automattic, and Zoho did not win by hiring an enterprise sales force or buying advertising. They “let the software do the talking.”
This is not just an opportunity for a few big winners. This is an opportunity for thousands of small companies to go after niche markets. The interesting thing about niche markets today is that they are inherently global and can be a lot bigger than people think. These small niche start-ups won’t make headlines and probably won’t get VC financing. But they won’t need VC financing. What is fascinating about SaaS globally is how few start-ups have been VC financed. Most have gotten to profitability on tiny seed rounds or even with revenue financing from clients.
As this portion of the post highlights, there are two important pieces of the puzzle that will enable Indian developers to thrive, a focus on building excellent software (DimDim being a good example) and the rise of SaaS and cloud computing delivery models. Excellent software, along with a strong social media strategy, enables a natural sales process, and cloud computing allows development and delivery of software on a global scale. Rather than focusing in on the struggling IT conglomerates, India’s near term innovation future may well rely on a group of agile cloud-based companies.
Pragati, an online and electronic journal, is by far the most thoughtful collection of analysis on India that I’ve come across in a long time. Back in graduate school I once had a professor tell me that the best political and economic analysis was done in journals that had distinguished contributions, not distinguished contributors. While some of the writers for Pragati are the later, the quality of their contributions remains at a high level. I choose to get Pragati in my email as a PDF (subscribe here), and then make sure I have a copy with me on my iPhone to read when I’m out and about.
Anyway, the latest edition just ‘hit the stands’, and it has an excellent interview with Nandan Nilekani, vice-chairman of Infosys. The interview is focused around Nilenkani’s new book Imagining India – Ideas for a new century which is scheduled to ship in the U.S. in March 2009. Here’s a link to the online edition of the interview:
Your book is about ideas, and you have quoted a number of people and their ideas. If you were to pick one to focus the governance agenda of the coming central government, what would it be.
The most important idea and the central theme that I start off in my opening chapter is the change in our view of the population. For a long time, in part due to international pressure, we treated our population as a burden and something that needed to be controlled. But today, we’ve finally realised that people are our biggest strength, our assets and not liabilities, that human capital is what makes you tick. The moment you think of our people as human capital then automatically the challenge becomes how do we make sure they are healthy, educated, have roads to go to work and school, have lights to study at night, have jobs and can become entrepreneurs. The fundamental shift in the way we think about population is the central theme of my book and everything I talk about is how do we leverage and exploit that human capital, and what are the obstacles that you see in doing that.
This will be on the top of my book list for 2009…hopefully the publisher gets it issued for the Amazon Kindle.
Mark Fidelman recently published an article at Seeking Alpha that does a pretty thorough job in analyzing one of India’s biggest challenges, the innovation gap.
India produces some of the brightest minds in technology, science and medicine yet has not demonstrated any truly large scale and breakthrough innovations in those fields. The giant India corporations of Reliance, Tata (TTM), Wipro (WIT), and Infosys (INFY) have huge revenues but produce very little innovative intellectual property [IIP]. Yet, India has critical “Country Development” issues that can only be addressed through the immediate and creative application of technology, which in turn requires massive technology innovations in a variety of fields.
It’s a lengthy piece, but worth reading.
UPDATE: In keeping with the general theme, Ramesh Menon recently published another worthwhile article – this one on the talent crunch in India. You can read that here. Linked via Atanu Dey’s post which also brings up a lot of valid points.
Note: This post was originally scheduled for October 2007.
One of the nice things about business travel in the US is finding a certain level of consistency in places to stay. Yes, the Courtyards and Hampton Inns are not the most exciting places to stay, but you generally know what you are going to get when you stay there. The same can’t be said, however, of the business traveler class of hotels in India until recently. Enter Ginger. One of the many enterprises of the Tata Group, the Ginger hotel chain has begun to spring up throughout India. I spent the night in a Ginger hotel in Pune this past October. It was a nice experience.
Designed for Business Travelers
Right from the modest entrance, equipped with luggage carts and an ATM machine, the Ginger chain of hotels is designed to be lean and efficient. You can check in the traditional way at the desk, or you have the option to use a self service kiosk – a nice touch. The kiosk also prints out local weather forecasts and other items as well. Also, unlike many places in India there is adequate parking and security. The rooms are very clean and equipped with small HDTVs, Air conditioning, and a nice sized desk to work from. The entire hotel is wifi internet enabled, with free wifi – they chose not to charge like many of the American hotels do. Adjacent to the lobby is a small in-house restaurant called ‘The Square Meal’. I didn’t get to sample any food there, but it looked adequate for a quick bite to eat. All this for a one night stay in the Rs.1600-1800 range ($40-$45). Not Bad!
Despite the attractive price point, and the quality of amenities, I’ve been told that the hotel chain has yet to catch on with the traveling businessman in India. It could be that they’ve developed a solution for a market that hasn’t arrived yet. Generally, if you have a travel related job in India, you are on two ends of the scale. There are those who are bouncing throughout India with a nice travel budget and only stay at ‘five star’ hotels. These tend to be the private businessmen, MNC employees, or government jobholders. The other end of the scale are the road salesmen, the laboring class travelers who tend to rely on the guest houses near train stations or the like. Ginger, however, is for the middle manager, someone who is traveling for work but is on a strict budget. I think that this group hasn’t yet arrived in India on a large enough scale to matter. The Tatas tend to see trends far ahead of many, so I hope their foray into business travel is given enough time to succeed.