Make a Google in India. Sure, but who will cut the first cheque?

 

Reading Mohandas Pai’s and Sharad Sharma’s commentary in The Economic Times yesterday, the first thought that came to my mind was aspiring for a global product company from India is almost our birthright but who will write the first cheque.

 

The two eminent Bangaloreans speak of Google and other global brands. Stanford professor David Cheriton wrote the first cheque for Google. And not just cut a cheque, but convinced his former student and fellow entrepreneur Andy Bechtolsheim to cut one too. I can’t think of a single academic in India, not just in computer science but in any other discipline, who has shown such faith in starting up. Or, as they say in life sciences, provide the pipeline to start-ups.

 

Another software giant, Oracle Corp., started out as a US government, CIA, project. “Oracle wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for government contracts,” said Mike Wilson author of the book The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison. The US federal government accounted for a gigantic 23 percent of Oracle’s licensing revenue in 2003, which amounted to $2.3 billion.

 

The spurt was of course in the aftermath of 9/11 attacks on America but if I can stretch the analogy to India and think of public procurements in times of emergencies – epidemics or terror attacks — the purchase order never reaches the companies even though they may have invested to develop the products. (In vaccines, Indian companies have ended up slapping a case on the government.)

Not just information technology, a raft of early blue-blooded biotechnology startups which are now behemoths, Genentech and Amgen, were started when scientists in late 70s and early 80s paired up with venture capitalists, Herbert Boyer-Robert Swanson and Winston Salser-William Bowes respectively.

 

Pai and Sharma give great analogies while talking of the need for a change in mindset. An instance comes to mind: an IT product startup I met recently said they’d met a few VCs who’ve acknowledged that their technology is next-gen but advised to get 10 customers before investors could even look at them. If a product company can survive long enough to acquire 10 customers, then probably it can manage to run its own race. In fact, it might even be better off going for a strategic investment and avoid venture capital altogether.

 

I am sure some companies are already doing it. A medical technology startup that I discovered and tracked down in Mysore seven years ago did exactly this. In later years VCs were chasing Skanray but it chose to take money from Strides Arcolab founder Arun Kumar instead. (Arun Kumar has a unique business model – invest, build, scale and sell.)

 

As for a new mindset for tech adoption, the less said the better.

 

I know of another technology product startup which was pitching its product to a large Bangalore-based pharmaceutical company. After much persistence, the CIO gave in and called for a meeting. On the day of the meeting he said, “Oh, the startup…Well, will five minutes be good enough? I don’t think you can do any value-add on the world’s largest ERP implemented by the world’s largest services company. Let’s see if you can last beyond five minutes”.

 

The pharma company’s entire team spent 90 minutes with that startup on that day. The CIO’s beaming face was somber after that. Perhaps he was wondering if he had the guts to displease the biggies. Would he lose his job? Relate this to more than a two-decade old story: IBM acquired software for 50,000 USD and gave it to Microsoft to develop an operating system which they would ship with every manufactured PC for next 6 years. Why do Indian companies have to wait for a technology to first succeed in the US or Europe?

 

In keeping with Incredible India’s incorrigible sloganeering, ‘Make in India’ is a good slogan to have. A lot of multinationals have come forward to either inaugurate or announce their old work-in-progress manufacturing projects to suit the slogan. When the annual report card gets made, it’d serve us well if the slogan managers count the number of Indian technology product start-ups who actually began selling to Indian customers.

 

 

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  1. The next Google will probably come out of London or any other European city rather than India. E-commerce companies in India can copy, burn cash, and acquire scale and valuation but it’ll be a while, before a cool product company comes out of here. Though I’d love to be proven wrong and I think I still have 25 yrs to go, Inshallah!

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