Microsoft/FaceBook/Google from India?

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What is the favorite pastime of Indian blogosphere? Especially on weekends, when news inflow is relatively slow?

I think it won’t be an overstatement if I say that on weekends, most of us write posts discussing potential of having a Microsoft/Google/Facebook from India. This is a national obsession. I see this being discussed on blogs , email lists etc. I hear IT professional chatting about it over the drinks [while updating their resume@Naukri] and students dreaming of starting Facebook Killer in college campuses [while preparing for GATE/CAT/GRE/and Infy’s campus Interview on the sideline].
Usually the discussion starts form exploring the market potential, and ends with blaming the ecosystem, bitching about VCs, discusing how folks prefer a boring job at IT service firm but won’t take a lesser-paying job at a startup.
More often than not discussion concludes by saying “India IT industry has yet to go a long way before we have our homegrown Microsoft/Google/Facebook” .

I always resisted joining this brigade, partly because I was somewhat tired of this debate & partly because I was afraid that stating them will ruffle sentiments of some people .But not today! – my hope for [potential] validation of my theory has won over fear of any possible disagreement . So here is my grand theory on Why we don’t have such hot startups in India and why we won’t be able to see them in near future [I will be more than happy to be proven wrong on the second assertion.]

To begin with I would like to say that I absolutely agree with the finding of my fellow bloggers who credited aforementioned factors as the reason – these factor do play a part but I don’t think these are the root cause . I think the basic premise for enquiry is flawed.
We think of it as a failure of Indian Industry and our VC ecosystem, but I think its failure of our society. These are two very different things.

The critical question here is not that “Why our industry can’t produce “Microsoft/Google / Facebook”? rather a far more important question is :
Why our society fails to produce Bill Gates /Larry-Sergy/Zuckerberg?

Why ?

Here is my take:

#1 Lack of Forward Thinking at Early Age

Let me start with few example from my own experience . When I was in college we didn’t have sufficient number of computers in the lab. Till my third year, Student-to-system ratio was 1:4 and each group used to get approx 6 hrs-a-week of system time, which made it less than 2 hours/week for each student.

But that’s only part of the story , our lab used to shut down at 6’o’clock as administrative staff need to go home by that time. When student volunteered to take responsibility and wanted to have the Lab stay open overnight,our management said it’s against the protocol.

There were 20 computers which used to be idle in CAD Lab of Civil Engg Deptt , but comp sc guys were not allowed to touch them because those machines were not bought from Comp Dep’t budget . Dean of Univ , approved the purchase of CNC Machine but declined to grant fund for Oracle license on the ground that how can you spend few lakhs on some CDs?. His primary concern was that it will be hard for him to tell that to the minister [He was neither lying nor joking!] – all of this happened between 1996-2001, in the middle of the dotcom boom!

Contrast this with Bill Gate’s Life. He founded Microsoft in 1975. All of us know the story after that. But most of us don’t pay attention to the event which preceded it. When he was in eighth grade , Mother’s club of his school donated a significant amount of money to buy computer time for kids.
Gates and his buddies were not satisfied with that little time of computers so in summers they started working at big computer companies to test their system in exchange for computer time. Think of it – mothers buying computer time for kids in early seventies , big corporations allowing teenagers to fool around with their system.
What does that shows ? I think this shows sign of a society which bets on kids at a very early age, a society which allows kids to contribute early .

Bill gates was not an isolated case.

  • Steve Wozniak’s father gave him an electronics hobby kit at a very early age and allow him to fool around with it.
  • In his school days Larry Page invented ink-jet printer out of Lego bricks.
  • While he was still in school Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com started a Summer camp called Dream.

I am sure for every Larry , Bill ,Steve,Jeff there were many who are unknown and many who are not so well known. My question is – When was the last time you heard such initiative in India ? Ankit Fadia comes to mind. but that’s one case .

I had a friend named Raja Brij Bhushan Choudhary , he invented an optical path tracer which won him an award at IT BHU TechFest. Can you think of what advice he got from his proffesor & classmates ? Don’t put so much of your time in these hobby project ..make sure your academic don’t suffer “ .

Another guy named Manmohan singh was a civil Engg student , he designed Kota’s first multiplex theater.Our professor failed him in Lab exam because they thought he hasn’t attended enough lab sessions. I am from a Tier B Engg College still I know two guys who I think had a lot of potential . AFAIK both of them are doing fine now but i doubt that they will be able to do what they were capable of.

#2 Our Aversion toward extremism

We, as a society enshrine moderation. No one likes to take a firm stand and people feel offended when you advocate your believe passionately. I feel this uneasiness every time I advocate the merit of Wikipedia and ask people to contribute to it. Folks around us expect us to dilute every assertion with “It depends” and avoid confrontation. But confrontation and friction is required for excellence.
We need to teach ourself that confrontation is not insubordination. Single minded obsessive focus on one thing is a must for creating something which is out of the world. But sadly no one I know wants to work with a leader who is extremely obsessed about his work . Every one want “space”. To add to this problem we have a booming job market where most of the IT service companies tells they create world-class-world-changing-product while working 9-to-5 . These companies and the people who work for them look at startup as Slave shop . There is a difference between stretching yourself and slavery – but if you avoid extremism of every kind, than that difference is not visible. And hey! there is no such fun as Hard Work when you are enjoying what you do .

Look at Steve Jobs , one thing which we can learn from him is his intolerance toward anything which is less then perfect. I am sure it makes life hell for the people who work for him . but who among us would not give his life to work on something like MacBook Air and iPhone. His extremism brings out the best in you.

#3 Our Approach Toward Money

Most of us in India start working very late. I took my first assignment at the age of 22. Till then, my understanding of Money and how to manage money was practically zero. Most of us start earning at 22 and by the age of 28 we think we are past our prime. Not a good way to lead your life.
Contrast this with life of kids in US. He does a summer job while in school, on weekend no one will be surprised to see a kid from an american family doing odd jobs like mowing lawn or helping in painting the fence to earn few extra dollars. If you are working at the age of 13 no one looks down on them, and unlike India it doesn’t mean that your parents are not able to support you .

This exposure to importance of money at early age is very helpful when you want to start your own thing .

We in India try to shield our kids from thinking about money practically . We teach them to save but we forget to tell them SAVE for What ? Discussing about money is most difficult discussion any HR person would tell you that how hard it is for Indian to negotiate their salary package . Not a good trait if you want to be an entrepreneur, one should be comfortable discussing about money and negotiating about it. It’s a must but most of us lack this skill.

#4 Our Approach Toward Exploration

My Friends keep telling me that I travel a lot. “A Lot ” here is 3 trips a year of 4 days each. I haven’t seen half of India. How much you travel is not important for me its how you travel which I am interested in. An Indian family will go for a three days trip, will stay in a 3 star hotel and will carry a bullock cart full of luggage.
What’s there in those BIG Bags? I don’t know. Come think of it for once – its three days, you are in your own country, you know the language – what can possibly go wrong?
Funniest thing is that I have seen people trying to get back to hotel by 8:30PM because it’s getting “late”. What are we scared of? Don’t you know that more people die in home than while traveling.

Actually, we are somewhat averse to explore new things . We are overly cautious . We avoid risk . Example of travel is just a metaphor to convey a point.This type of thinking ultimately leads to a very conservative approach to everything . Not a desirable trait in prospective entrepreneur. Entrepreneur takes managed, calculated risk- he has to explore new frontier .

Contrast this with tourists coming to India – they stay here for months with less luggage. Mostly they move around without any inhibition or fear and perhaps they enjoy it more. They travel around the country on shoestring budget. In some cases, working while traveling. Funny thing is that only case I know where someone had a bad time exploring India is of Steve Jobs. He was robbed. It hasn’t harmed him much apparently . 🙂

#5 Lack of Role Models

This is something of a chicken-egg problem. Indian media does a very bad job of making hero out of our leaders. There aren’t many good corporate story teller who make a businessman looks like larger than life. There is no shortage of great business leaders in our country but our business leaders rarely reveal their personal side. Most of the time, what we hear is “Press Release”. If vision is the fuel which drives the entrepreneur, then inspiration is the fossil which create that fuel .

Its amazing to see how little we know about torch bearer of India Inc –

  • Do you know that Ratan Tata is a Life Long Bachelor?
  • Do you know that SunilBharti Mittal was rejected for Maruti Dealership on the ground of lack of Financial resources to run the business?.
  • Do you know That Subhash Chandra of Zee had a good argument a Hong Kong based Satellite operator when they rejected him.
  • Do you know that Mukesh Ambani created world’s biggest petro refinery in shortest time?
  • Do you know the journey of Uday Kotak?
  • Do you know about Anil Ambani’s grit and determination when he lost some 25 KG of weight in few months?
  • Do you know the epic battle of Nusli Wadia with his father who wanted to sell Bombay Dying?
  • Do you know about struggle of Dhirubhai Ambani ?
  • Do you know that Vijjay Mallaya failed in approx 10 business? Do you know about Anu Aga ? Do you know about Gulu Mirchandani ?

They all are heroes in their own sense. It will be a good thing if more of these folks can come out and share their story . I am not asking for a Gossip culture like that of Valleywag but wouldn’t it be a good thing to have someone like Bob Cringley doing a Series on Rise of Indian IT Industry –something on the line of Accidental Empires .

Epilogue

I know skeptic among us will say “You are just shifting the blame.” Or “Don’t complain. If you are capable you would have made your own road ” and other rhetoric like that.
Thank You guys for your insight. So I am not complaining , I am not saying that a genius need handholding and spoon feeding from society . All I am saying is that a little facilitation and supportive environment can make creator out of a lot of people who would otherwise be lost in oblivion.

After all What is an unattained dream ? Imagination or murdered realties.
Pic credit: 1, 2

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