Will the Next WhatsApp be Made in India?

It was well over a decade ago when Alisha Chenai crooned her catchy number “Made in India.” She was of course referring to a tryst with the opposite sex, but would it be too romantic of a notion for us to extend her lyrical hook to our nation’s ability to build the next big consumer-facing technology product? Can and will the next WhatsApp come out of India? Two very different questions.

Between the difference of the two operatives (“can” and “will) lies the chasm created by today’s reality vs. our individually subjective opinions of tomorrow’s reality, specifically within the context of the ingredients that are needed to create a frothy startup environment. Think of the Bay Area as the most perfect startup petri dish we have in the world, having systematically and consistently provided the perfect environment to foment entrepreneurs and dreamers. Using that as our widely acceptable benchmark, let’s try to identify some of the core ingredients that exist in our startup utopia and compare those to what Indian technology entrepreneurs have to work with.

STIGMAS

When an entrepreneur considers embarking on a journey to solve a problem (or address a market need, if you will), she will not make that decision alone. Whether starting in San Francisco or in Bangalore, she will seek the guidance, feedback, reactions and ultimately advice of her friends, professional peers, school mates, and most importantly her family. And the conversation, in all its hyperbole, simply boils down to one single issue: the (perceived) opportunity costs of a startup vs. a salaried stable job. More often than not, it’s the biggest issue I’ve had to combat in India as a startup founder. Whether I’m mentoring other would-be startups or trying to hire a rock star into my own, the familial pushback they receive is not insignificant. In essence, the matriarch/patriarch still has very material decision making power in the career path their young choose. More than once I’ve visited the homes of would-be entrepreneurs to speak to his or her parents, and to educate them about the spectrum of risk that exists at different stages of a startup; the bone-dry truth about chances of success and why taking entrepreneurial risks actually has many measurable benefits, such as continual hyper-education (yes, you should actually get smarter when working for a startup), and the increased ability to market oneself (you should be able to command a higher pay package having been a battle-tested).

That type of grass-roots education and evangelism to an entrepreneur’s family and friends seems to be a non-issue in the Bay Area. Most Bay Area startup professionals and entrepreneurs are transplants from other parts of the United States, and have long since left the nest. That is certainly a large part of the entrepreneurial freedom that exists here; but the default attitude in the Bay Area from an entrepreneur’s family is one of encouragement and positivity as opposed to an immediate discussion of perceived opportunity costs. In India, positioning oneself as a salaried MNC employee could have positive ripple effects in other parts of your life; better prospects for marriage, elevated social strata, and better future job opportunities (in other MNCs, of course).

Talent and Thought Partnership

Here's an area where I actually believe the inequity gap is closing rapidly, thanks to the second-to-none engineering institutions India has been cultivating for the past 60 years. I can't overstate how critical it has been in my journey personally to have the brightest minds and thought partners early on in the startup's life. Call them co-founders if you will, but being able to tap into an available and growing pool of engineering-driven thought partners is priceless. These are the same people that will help establish the direction of the company, no matter how many times that direction changes. They possess a combination of sheer IQ horsepower, deductive reasoning, humility, intellect, stubbornness, and humor. They are an essential ingredient to the eventual success of any startup, and coveting such partners is something that I believe has gotten relatively easier in India over the past 10 years (operative word: "relatively"). When starting burrp!, @helloanand was my partner in crime, but the first three people we brought into the fold were @avlesh (now CEO and founder of WebEngage), @Abhyrama (single-handedly rebuilt FreeCharge from the ground up) and @santoshn (founder of MoneySights). Of course, we were later joined by a host of truly extraordinary people, but the point here is that India provides founders with very compelling thought partners and leaders to help them achieve success, and it can no longer be an excuse for stagnation or lack of growth.

Product Design Thinking

This is bound to be debated hotly, and it is right to be. Startups like Housing.com, Zomato, FreeCharge, Jaypore, Gaana and Toppr are certainly helping us reframe the debate (and before them, burrp! and Cleartrip deserve honorable mentions). But the question is are these examples demonstrative of a tectonic shift towards a more holistic and global understanding of product design or are they simply the anomalies? And perhaps a topic for another post, but what exactly is "good" product design? We have far too many fake product managers in India, whose solution to every problem they tackle is "a redesign." Far too few dig into the core metrics that drive product adoption and usage; even fewer will pull/push the oftentimes nuanced and unsexy levers that can actually drive significant uptake in their product. Yet there is still something to be said about cleanliness, aesthetics, usability and copy (yes, copy). OLX and Quikr are India's most prolific P2P classifieds platforms. Naukri is one of India's most prolific jobs platforms. MakeMyTrip still may be the largest OTA. And users continue to complain about laboring through these platforms to accomplish the most core use cases. So does India experience a significant enough deficit here to the point of it being a real disadvantage vs. the Bay Area? I believe today it does. But I also believe that this won't be the case for long. Founders everywhere will tell you that finding good product design is not a India problem or a China problem; it's a global problem; but everything is relative. When someone says that in the Bay Area, their baselines are already higher than what the baseline might be in India. Having that said, the newer breed of startup founders in India are acutely aware of product design as a competitive advantage, and as some of these companies begin to scale, they will be nurturing the next generation of founders (today's engineers, PMs and product designers will become tomorrow's startup founders). That is the ecosystem at work.

Global Outlook

To build the next WhatsApp, as a founder you have to look at the world's digital and mobile citizenry as your ultimate addressable market. Think of some of the world's most ubiquitous consumer-facing applications (even if they got there by fluke): WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest; some of them may have defined their TAM more narrowly early on to help them hone in on their product design philosophy as well as their early adopter/customer acquisition strategy (i.e. Pinterest for the aesthetically aware stay-at-home mom), but these applications ultimately became mass-adopted by users of all walks of life. Thus far, there is some nascent evidence that founders in India are developing a more global outlook (i.e. Zomato), but almost as an after-thought. It doesn't appear to be part of their initial DNA, but rather an avenue of growth (and better valuations and exit potential) that they explore once they have achieved some significant milestones domestically. I have yet to meet the founder who deeply believes she's working on something that could be the next Instagram or Twitter or WhatsApp or Skype or Dropbox or Slack or Yik Yak or SnapChat or Secret, if even with the slimmest of chances. Unless you're one of the Samwer brothers, you can't orchestrate a globally dominant application; most of the companies listed above stumbled into greatness by staying focused on their fervent early adopters and iterating faster than their competitors. But I have to think that they all believed their product could just as easily be used by college-going girls in Mumbai as it could by Stanford kids in Palo Alto. It's the outlook and attitude that matters.

In Summary

I strongly believe that it's only a matter of time (our lifetime/generation) before a very smart group of founders in India come together and stumble upon the next massively adopted global consumer facing application; it will exit at 10s of billions of dollars and will usher in a new frontier for the startup ecosystem in India, one that will hopefully put it on the path to being viewed in the same light as the Bay Area.

Disclaimer: I have vested financial interests in Housing.com, Jaypore and FreeCharge. I was the founder of burrp!, which, once upon a brighter time, competed with Zomato.