Technological Prescience & Building Great Indian Products

Date:   Saturday , June 05, 2010

There was a curious moment on my trip to India this year when I realized that the majority of the country utilizes a component of the GSM cellphone protocol from 1985 - the ability to send short text messages - in a manner that’s completely different from what I was used to in the Western world. SMS is ridiculously ingrained in almost every aspect of Indian society now, starting from friends and family using it to communicate cheaply to event and train ticketing and even marketing products to a distinct clientele. While this in itself is not surprising in a country like India with its sharply segmented market and quickly-adapting but value-conscious consumers, what’s truly curious is the fact that SMS has only recently seen rapid growth in the West, with the teenage crowd enthusiastically sending messages to match up with the way the rest of the world has been using the format for years now. The kind of SMS marketing campaigns that India has been running successfully for years have only recently started to take hold in the mobile culture of the West. What’s happening here?
The ‘great indian number trick’ always applies when you’re talking about India, a country that has a population of over a billion; even a small fraction of the market is still quite a lot of people when compared to most other countries. At the same time, what works for the rest of the world more often than not fails miserably in India, as many big multinationals have discovered to their dismay (for instance Kelloggs’ and Coca-Cola’s marketing problems) over the last decade. With this kind of market conditions, adoption of new technology is truly not a linear process, and while in retrospect a piece of technology may seem a perfect fit, it doesn’t appear so during its infancy in the Indian market. Again taking SMS as an example, missteps, sudden growth spurts, and many failed ideas have converged to bring forth a standard, recognizable format that provides opportunities for both personal and economic growth for the majority of Indian consumers and businesses. The companies that were shrewd enough to see the immediate advantages of the then-new format a few years back were the ones that are now reaping big, big dividends.

Let’s take for example SMSGupshup. They run an SMS-based social networking service that (among other features) lets people subscribe to topics of their interest using their cellphones; whenever new content is posted about a topic all subscribers are notified immediately on their phone. They understand that their segment of the Indian market consists of people who require information quickly, effortlessly, at dirt cheap rates, and using technology that they are comfortable with and understands their cellphones. At this point SMSGupshup’s network consists of 26 million users, and is growing with $12 million in funding quite recently. This is pure innovation tailored to a particular market, and hopefully showing other Indian startups the way things should be done in India.

Building Products for India Using New Technology

So, if you’re an Indian software or hardware entrepreneur looking to build products for the current and future Indian market, what should you be concerned about? First, drop all thoughts of global expansion for the moment. Your product needs testing and growth on Indian soil before it will ever be ready for a global launch. Remember, there’s always more money to be made at the bottom of the pyramid than at the top. Apart from financial issues, after speaking with many Indian Web entrepreneurs, you realize that once your vision is in place and your market has been defined more often than not your problems are related to people rather than process. At the same time, solid technological and procedural foundations need to be established to ensure quality and to truly cement a product into place in a market like India’s. Let’s talk about both at this point.

Technology-wise, open source and open standards trump all in the long run. In a country like India, it’s almost impossible to have useful closed systems, and your software and overall architecture should reflect that. Open source software lets you leverage the years of work that quality developers have already put towards developing a stable piece of software, along with the freedom to modify whenever necessary to fit your product’s vision. Working with open standards ensures seamless integration with other products and services later on in your product’s pipeline - no developer likes software that doesn’t play nice.

Feature-wise, your intuition and years of experience living in India should give you an innate and pronounced edge when it comes to building out products that your country’s citizens want. Being aware of your own self and noticing behavior and usage patterns of various technologies among your friends, coworkers, and family will bring forth new ideas for product improvement. Take heed of these ideas and run them ruthlessly through the wringer for flaws and imperfections, then shine it up, build, and release. Remember, the Indian market eats up technologies that solve real problems. For instance, just look at the Indian Railways reservations website; it may be slow at 8 AM, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t using it, and it’s miles ahead of the system that existed before.

Vital to your dream of launching a successful product in India is your ability to cheaply and rapidly iterate the product. If you take more than a week to release a new version of software, you’re doing it wrong. You and the rest of the Indian market as consumers expect quality as a birthright, and rightfully so.
They will tell you if your product is no good, and you’d be wise to listen, then rinse and repeat. If your shop doesn’t have the capability of quickly delivering the right high-quality product at the right time, you’re sunk. Use the new rapid development languages and frameworks that are readily available, leverage the computing clouds to scale out to millions of users, and interface with existing websites to market your product cheaply - all is fair in the products game, especially when you’re playing for such high stakes.

From my conversations with Indian startup CEOs and techies in general, the main problem with entrepreneurship in India is not the lack of vision, it’s the lack of people to execute it. This is a topic that comes up surprisingly often, and there’s a different approach to this that might help. Don’t hire by skill, hire by smartness. Smart people learn quick, adapt quick, and are usually passionate about working on something they like. Just make sure that your product is interesting enough to hold their attention, and you’ll be off to a great start.

The Road Ahead

We’re now fast approaching a point where India is catching up to technological changes in the Western world a lot quicker than before. This means that opportunities will arise soon for leveraging new technology in ways that make sense for the Indian consumer; ways that more often than not don’t apply in other countries. Sharp, clear-eyed entrepreneurs with vision are few and far in between, but if you know that you’re one of them, and are willing to put in the effort, there are new businesses to run and platforms to develop. Build products for the India that exists now as well as the one that will exist a few years from now and you’ll definitely reap the rewards.

The author Director of R&D/Architect, Intridea. He can be reached at