Sunday, 20 January 2008

On the state of Indian entrepreneurship

A couple of weeks back I wrote this piece for The Mint newspaper on the state of Indian entrepreneurship.

It has been 17 years since I quit my marketing job in a well known MNC to embrace the topsy turvy world of entrepreneurship. At that time it was rare for a somewhat educated young Indian to pursue a career that did not offer the security of an assured monthly pay check. Those of us who decided to take the road less travelled were considered oddballs by people of my parents’ generation: “Arre Sanju itni acchi naukri mein tha, IIM ke baad ye sab karne ki kya zaroorat thi”, was the question my parents would often be asked.

The contrast with the early 1990s is visibly stark now. Just a month back, Hitesh and I spoke at the Tie Entrepreneurial Summit in Delhi attended by more than 1,600 people—many of them start up entrepreneurs and an equal number aspiring to be entrepreneurs. Every month at our company we get dozens of requests for mentoring, funding, partnerships and alliances from young entrepreneurial companies. The start up scene in India is buzzing.

Today, when I meet parents of young entrepreneurs they don’t hesitate to tell me--and it’s with a tinge of pride--that their child is doing a start up with a couple of his friends from business school: “aajkal start up ka bahut trend chal raha hai, you know.” It is now socially acceptable, perhaps even respectable, to be a struggling entrepreneur.

In 2008 we can expect this trend to continue unless there is a global meltdown like the one in the year 2000.

There are a number of other, related changes that have also taken place. Organisations such as Tie have created a platform where start up and wannabe entrepreneurs can network, learn and receive mentoring from successful entrepreneurs, investors, consultants and domain experts.

An entire entrepreneurial eco system has sprung up.

Venture capital is now available. Of course not everyone has the good fortune to get funding—but at least it is available for most good teams and good ideas. Two decades ago there was only one real VC firm in India—TDICI which went on to become ICICI Venture. It was very early days—we had never actually met anyone who had received venture capital (we just read the odd article about it in business magazines), we did not understand it and did not know how to go about getting it—and therefore never even considered it as a source of funding. We struggled for months to get an OD limit of Rs30,000 from Bank of India—and we got it mainly because the manager was a nice guy who felt sorry for us—by all banking norms we did not deserve it. Finally we raised VC 10 years after I had become an entrepreneur.

A very recent trend is the emergence of Indian investors into VC funds. Up until now VC firms would raise money overseas and invest in Indian companies. Now wealthy Indians are investing both as angels and also into VC funds. I expect this trend too to gather momentum in 2008.

As a consequence of all these changes a new class of entrepreneurs has emerged in India—well educated, first generation and with experience in the best in class companies. It is these entrepreneurs and the companies they build that will be one of the major engines of growth for the Indian economy in the decades to come.

Today, almost every business school in India has an entrepreneurship cell and actively promotes it as a viable career option for its students. Twenty years ago entrepreneurship was a fringe movement at business schools. It is now mainstream. However, even as more fresh business school graduates are likely to become entrepreneurs in 2008, it will be tough for most to get funding since investors value experience, domain expertise and a proven track record.

To them and to others who want to become entrepreneurs, I would like to say that today there are role models for young entrepreneurs to emulate and to get inspiration from—right here in India and not in Silicon Valley. When you are starting out you are hopeful about the future but you are also afraid of the uncertainties. And rest assured as an entrepreneur you will face adversity and your commitment will be tested.

We struggled for 13 years before we could call ourselves somewhat successful. At times like this it is good to talk to people who have been through the entrepreneurial journey a few years before you. This kind of emotional support can keep you going when times are tough—for the greatest success factor for most entrepreneurs is persistence, not brilliance. Keep at it long enough and sooner or later you will get lucky, is what I say.

2008 is just a beginning.

Monday, 14 January 2008

The HoneyBee Network

I recently wrote a piece for The Financial Express in the "I Admire" section.

It is about a remarkable person and a remarkable organisation.

Monday, 7 January 2008

On sledging, racism, animal references and double standards

It took a New Year Resolution and injustice on the cricket field to get me to post to my blog.

Enough has been said about the umpiring and the Aussie attitude in the test series.

The important thing is that the rules should be the same for both the sides and they should be made explicit before the game starts.

So if Virender Sehwag is suspended in South Africa for appealing for a taking a catch which wasn’t then should Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke be. Or are the rules different for different sides.

If most sledging is OK but some terms are deemed racist therefore some forms of sledging are not acceptable while others are - then let the ICC publish the rule book of sledging - what sledging is OK and what is not, with illustrated examples, a dictionary etc. "Sledging for Dummies" or "Sledging - a Users Manual" are two possible titles for the tome.

For instance - it is apparently OK for Glenn McGrath to ask a West Indies batsman what a certain part of Brian Lara’s anatomy feels like because it is a non racial macho Aussie thing to say – basically gutter level personal abuse is OK in the gentleman’s game but not anything to do with race. We in India need to be educated in the tradecraft - we are but beginners in the subject.

Or should action be taken against all forms of abuse.

For the record let me state that calling someone a monkey does not have racist connotations in India – in fact a monkey is a revered animal here and one of the major Indian Gods is the monkey God Hanuman. However that is no defense since calling a person of African descent a monkey does have racist overtones and carries with it offensive historical baggage relating to the way people of African origin were regarded by their white colonial masters whose descendants today are railing against racism, and who resisted breaking off cricketing ties with a South Africa under Apartheid till they had no choice, (the very foundation of the colonial age was built on a notion of race superiority - ask the Tasmaninian Aborignes), and therefore this should not be done – but maybe many in India do not understand the sensitivity of the matter. Is there a cultural gap here.

The joke doing the rounds in India is that when an Australian child learns to say the word “Mother” for the first time the parents say “Two cheers. Junior has learnt half a word”. For the Australian team to complain about sledging and occupy the moral high ground on this issue is a bit thick.

I guess they were getting a taste of their own medicine in the World Cup 20-20 and in India and were perhaps suffering from some not inconsiderable indigestion as a consequence.

Harbhajan made a mistake if (and only if) he referred to Andrew Symonds as a monkey. Wrong choice of animal mate - you should have used a reference to some other noteworthy mammal to respond to Symonds’ abuse - swine or dog come to mind as possible candidates - they are pure insults and carry with them no racist overhead. For good measure add on “non-monkey”. After all you cannot possibly be called racist if you say someone is not a monkey. “You mother*%$#ing, snivelling, lilly-livered, non-monkey, son of a swine” logically ought be acceptable sledging in the ICC and Australian lexicon.

This error by Harbhajan (if he indeed called Symonds a monkey) gave the Aussies a handle to turn the tables on the Indians by raising the racism issue. The Indians need to learn from this and refine their sledging strategy. It needs to be more nuanced and must take into consideration the subtler shades of meaning of various insulting and abusive terms and what they mean in different cultural contexts - someone in the Indian camp needs to think this through. India needs a specialist sledging coach (anyone for Gregg Chappell for this position - after all he is Australian and should be good at it).

But be happy India - in colonial times it took the word of ten Indians to overturn the testimony of one white man. Today you need to have two white witnesses to overturn the testimony of one Indian.

The world is indeed getting more and more flat. Indians have been accepted as honorary whites - capable of racism against people of African origin, which was earlier the preseve of whites only.

Feels a bit odd though - white people accusing Indians of racism.

But have we heard the last of this.

We have a situation where a white match referee (from a country that till very recently practised the worst form of racism as state policy) takes the word of two white witnesses (who are not neutral) over that of one Indian witness (who is not neutral) and without any independent witness or corroborating evidence (no video, no audio, nothing heard by the umpires – can’t blame the umpires though they seem to be deaf as adders and blind as bats and just in case this is a racist slur I voluntarily ban myself from selection for the Indian team for the foreseeable future) bans an Indian player (who the white Australian captain finds himself incapable of playing and so will benefit from this ban, and it was this Australian captain who insisted that the racism charge be laid at Harbhajan’s doorstep).

Hmm. Food for thought perhaps