News Column

WhatsApp with our billion dollar dream

February 24, 2014

Bhattacharya, Suparna Goswami

"Bangalore: Russian scientists numbered 20,000 in the US a decade ago, and Russian software engineers were responsible for 30% of Microsoft products then, according to the National Science Foundation, US.

In fact, Russians and those from the former USSR, who left the adversities of their home countries and migrated to the US, have a reputation for being the best programmers on the Wall Street.

Fast forward to 2014, when Ukraine-born Jan Koum's platform WhatsApp got acquired by American Facebook for $19 billion, coinciding with the protests and riots in Ukraine.

So are people from the former USSR brainier, with an ability to take risks compared to our homegrown geeks?

Not really, say experts. Yes, certain communities like the Jews (and Jan Koum is one), Japanese and Russians are traditionally known to be extremely persevering, specially in the face of hardship, given their dark histories.

But in today's globalised era, there flays no space for such generalisations, says experts.

Now it's a mix of education, attitude, capability, hand-holding support, access to funding and the overall ecosystem that determines whether a budding platform can grow to become a household name globally, or fizzle out in the early stage.

No doubt, India produces immense engineering talent every year. Estimates by the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) state that the number of students graduating annually from engineering colleges is around 1.5 million.

And in the last few years, being an entrepreneur has suddenly become cool. With big cities like Bangalore producing close to 1, 000 startups every year, the scope for creating a platform that can go on to have billion dollar valuation is immense.

But that's about it. There is still a long way before we could see a Facebook or Twitter, or WhatsApp or Snapchat emerging out of India, say experts.

It's the attitude

India might produce over a million engineers every year, but most have an eye only on bagging a well-paying job and settling down. "Most lack the innate ability to take risks. This is a barrier to innovation," says Shekhar Sanyal, director and country head, Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) India, a professional society for engineers.

Indians are mostly conditioned to move into the traditional path of college, job and marriage. "Though we are seeing startups now, there is still not enough risk-taking ability amongst our talent. Till there is an attitudinal change, nothing much can be expected," says Sanyal.

Think big

To generate ripples globally, innovators should think big. The idea should address the needs of a boundary-less audience across age groups. A classic case is that of BlackBerry's BBM versus WhatsApp. "Though BBM is a much better technology, WhatsApp did better since it is accessible to all and sundry," says Sriram Kannan, founder of Nivaata Systems, which started Verayu, the solution that works without a GPS device and lets you track locations.

Like the US, which built Google and Facebook, China created platforms like Alibaba and Baidu that operate in their own language, and have become big.

"Like China, India has the advantage of a large population base, which means big user base, and its own languages. Maybe solutions that allow consumers to communicate in any Indian language can become a hit," says Mohandas Pai, chairman, Manipal Global Education.

Engineering +social sciences

After the attitude and thinking has been corrected; there needs correction in the course curriculum in institutes.

Great brains might bring out great products, but if there is no marketing prowess, the great solution can pass out of sight.

"Simply bringing out a great engineering product is not the end. Much more is required in terms of understanding customer needs, marketing the product. This sort of knowledge our engineers don't have," says Pai..

Sanyal says courses on consumer behaviour, ethics, consumer psychology are necessary alongside technical subjects to give a well-rounded approach to budding innovators. "But such courses are not a part of the curriculum currently."

According to Pai, the US, which has become the home ground for great tech solutions, has a culture of marketing. "Kids there know how to connect with consumers and sell. That's why Facebook succeeded. That's why Google succeeded. Engineers should create a business that can connect with consumers," says Pai.

Right economy, ecosystem

At $ 15 trillion, the US economy is way ahead of India's that stands at about $ 2 trillion. And a large economy means lots of money, a huge market that can produce huge impact, says Pai.

The silver lining is that the Indian economy would grow five times by 2035. A bigger economy doesn't guarantee successful startups or innovations.

"The ecosystem here is not mature," says Kannan from Nivaata Systems.

Though efforts are being made by associations like Nasscom, Microsoft Accelerator, etc. to beef up the ecosystem by providing infrastructure, access to technology, mentoring and funding for early stage innovators, a lot still remains to be done.

Getting a place to operate from, to getting low-cost infrastructure and technology, to getting funding is a big headache for most entrepreneurs, says Sijo Kuruvilla, CEO, Startup Village. "Hence, several ideas fail to take off in the early stages and collapse before they can even see success. For a country the size of ours, more channels are needed to provide hand-holding support for innovators."

And if all these metrics are in place, an idea can go on to garner a large user base, thereby making it attractive for the likes of Twitter and Facebook to consider a buyout.

Looking beyond Silicon Valley:  10 top startup friendly cities in the world

Tel Aviv, Israel

Despite political strife and unrest, Israel has become home to the highest density of tech startups in the world, which have mushroomed up in Tel Aviv. In 2009, 63 Israeli companies were listed on the NASDAQ - more than Europe, India, China, Korea and Japan taken together.

Los Angeles, USA

In recent years, the startup ecosystem in Los Angeles  has flourished considerably and has a healthy funnel of startups moving through the lifecycle. LA is beginning to realise its potential to be an alternative to the Silicon Valley. LA startups are as data oriented as their Silicon Valley counterparts, and more receptive to new technology.

Seattle, USA

Best known for being the headquarters of Microsoft, Seattle has a strong history of tech and 41% of Seattle entrepreneurs have once worked in the Silicon Valley. Many startups in Seattle eventually end up being acquired by tech giants

New York City, USA

New York has emerged as a serious alternative to Silicon Valley when it comes to consumer-focused startups and those concentrating on advertising, media, e-commerce and fashion. It is the global capital for women tech entrepreneurs - 18% of the entrepreneurs here are women

Boston, USA

Boston is one of the traditional hubs for startups and continues to grow. There is a higher probability of Boston entrepreneurs being serial entrepreneurs, especially in markets where they have prior experience. Boston's ecosystem is balanced and its strength lies in areas like e-commerce, SaaS, gaming, and biotech.

London, UK

Produces the highest number of startups in Europe. Entrepreneurs in London are more cautious and risk averse than their Silicon Valley counterparts.

Toronto, Canada

Toronto is the largest startup ecosystem in Canada and one of the largest in the world, even though it creates 85% less startups than Silicon Valley

Vancouver, Canada

Startups here receive 80% less funding than their Silicon Valley counterparts. As a result, they employ less people per startup. Vancouver acts as a magnet for local Canadian talent

Chicago, USA

The average age of entrepreneurs is 37 years here, making them one of the oldest. One fifth of them once worked in Silicon Valley. The lower cost of living there makes it an attractive proposition for founding a startup. According to, a new startup is founded in Chicago every 48 hours.

Paris, France

France's stringent education system has resulted in about 96% of Parisian entrepreneurs holding at least a Masters degree. However, due to lack of venture capital, they are likely to be dependent on incubators for investment. Unlike in Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs here are three times more motivated to create clones of successful startups for their own local environment.""Will India ever see a FaceBook/Twitter/Skype/WhatsApp?

Platforms to support budding business ideas""Microsoft runs its Accelerator programme for tech startups in Bangalore. The four-month programme is expected to provide technology entrepreneurs with a platform to showcase their ideas before industry veterans, venture capitalists and angel investors. Apart from access to Microsoft technology and mentors, startups get to go through a rigorous and structured programme where they can get hands on expertise in areas like technology architecture, product roadmap, design, business model development. Microsoft hosts two batches a year, from July-November and January-May.

IT industry body Nasscom runs its 10,000 startup programme, that has been devised to scale up existing startup communities and entrepreneurial capability in India. Started in March 2013, this programme has two streams. While one stream focuses on providing opportunities to convert ideas into prototypes and share preliminary industry feedback, the other would focus on functional areas like product development, go-to-market strategy, talent acquisition and industry connects. Nasscom aims to incubate, support and help fund 10,000 tech startups over the next decade in India.

The NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning (NRCEL) at IIM Bangalore is another place supporting startups. They aim to take ideas to implementation through a structured mentoring programme that helps entrepreneurs create successful business entities out of excellent ideas. It is a centre for seeding, nurturing and promoting entrepreneurship, by helping entrepreneurs channelise their talent towards transforming their ideas into successful companies.

In Kochi, the Startup Village, started by student entrepreneurs hopes to give a platform to upcoming startups, as well as people who do not even have a structured business idea in place. It helps individuals create and structure a business plan, besides providing technology, infrastructure, mentoring, office space and access to funds.


Credit:Priyanka Golikerii & Suparna Goswami Bhattacharya

For more stories covering the world of technology, please see HispanicBusiness' Tech Channel

Source: DNA : Daily News & Analysis (India)

Story Tools