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Playing against 5 Aces December 6, 2007

Posted by bernardlunn in Globalization, India, start-ups.
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NOTE: THIS WAS WRITTEN IN 1997
I wrote this article 10 years ago, having spent a lot of time in India at that time. I have written the “10 years later perspective” and posted that to Read Write Web.

American software companies dominate the competitive landscape. Americans have no genetic advantage over Indians, a fact that is proven again and again by Indian immigrants to America. No, the advantage is environmental not genetic. America is a much, much easier environment within which to create great software companies. American companies start life with 5 major advantages – their 5 Aces:

1. A large domestic market
2. Access to intellectual capital
3. Reliable, low cost telecommunications
4. A culture that rewards innovation and risk taking
5. A well developed venture capital industry

If you were playing poker, that would be like having 5 Aces. Yes, I know you cannot have 5 Aces but, American companies have so many advantages that it almost seems like cheating. Stacked up against all those Aces, India has only one good card to play, an abundant supply of well-trained software engineers at reasonable rates. Sorry guys, America has the better hand.

So should Indian companies give up the dream of creating killer apps and just stick to Y2K and other low value work? Well let’s look at some of those Aces in more detail first:

A large domestic market.
America has a vast domestic market that serves as an ideal springboard for global ambitions. Unfortunately India’s domestic market does not serve the same purpose.

There are many brave companies creating software products for the Indian market. They are the unsung heroes of the business. Usually they have tiny revenues and therefore they never appear in the usual roll call of Indian software champions. Yet what they are doing is far harder than shipping a bunch of engineers off to USA, which is still the primary activity of TCS, Infosys et al

Let’s face it, India is a tough market. Indian buyers assume that foreign products must be better. In fact Indian software gets much more respect internationally than it receives at home. The local vendor typically only gets a look in at the low end of the market, where price is the main consideration. For example, a lot of Indian companies are going after the “low end ERP market” because the giants such as SAP are not interested in this segment, at least yet. Will any of these domestic companies make it into the big time before SAP and other global players decide that the low-end market is worth tapping? This is a tough game that has been called “picking up peanuts in front of a steamroller”.

This lack of respect works both ways. The big Indian software companies contrast the wealth of opportunities in USA and Europe with the slim pickings in the domestic market. They naturally put their best people on international projects, treating the domestic market as a training ground at best. This is a vicious circle. Indian industry, which is facing its own struggle to become world class, is not keen to be treated as second best.

Access to intellectual capital
Intellectual capital is the reason why a healthy domestic market is so important. Intellectual capital is much more important than revenues. You can have a world class software company that has no revenues from India. You cannot have a world class company without world class intellectual capital.

Intellectual Capital usually comes from customers. Think about how most new software products get built. The process usually starts with a visionary customer who wants to make a major impact on their business by using new technology. Looking around the market they see no off-the-shelf product that meets their visionary demands. So they tie up with some bright software guys. The visionary customer is more concerned with innovation than size and understands that innovation usually comes from small companies with no vested stake in the old way of doing things. So small, innovative software companies get their first break.

Look at virtually any software company and this is the pattern you will see. Bill Gates, received his first break through a contract from IBM to deliver DOS. Other giants such as SAP and BAAN follow a similar pattern.

When people in India talk about intellectual capital and the Indian software industry, they tend to focus on technology. They point out that most technological innovations come from the USA and that this puts India at a major disadvantage. In fact, this is only a minor issue. The latest version of Visual Basic or whatever is available in India at much the same time as it is launched in America. Through the Internet you can research all the latest technologies and download what you need.

No, the intellectual capital gap relates to industry. You need customers that are innovators and world leaders in the area of Supply Chain Management or Derivatives Trading or Electronic Commerce and these are hard to find in India.

There is one industry where India has innovators and world leaders (or nearly) and that is software. Maybe that visionary customer is in your own back yard. There is a huge population of software engineers in India that is always looking for innovative ways of doing their job more productively. Maybe the Indian “killer app” will be a new software productivity tool?

Reliable, low cost telecommunications
When Bill Gates was being wooed by the high and mighty in Delhi, he was often asked, “what should the Government do to ensure that India becomes the next software superpower?”

Rather than respond with a whole laundry list of initiatives, his answer was very succinct: “make the telephones work”.

Telephones are the single greatest tool used by the software industry. Telephones provide the means to reach your market, to transfer software to your customers and to access all that intellectual capital on the Internet.

Coming from Europe and America I took reliable, affordable telephones for granted. When I started calling on Indian companies I became all too familiar with a young lady telling me that “all lines on this route are busy. Please call back after some time”.

If you have always lived in India your reaction is probably a fatalistic “so what…that’s life…keep on trying”. Well I was selling rather than buying and so I did keep on trying. What if I was buying? What if my next calls were to companies in Israel and Russia where I got through the first time? Would I have persisted in trying to buy from India? Probably not.

A culture that rewards innovation and risk taking
There was a story in Fortune magasine recently where the big consulting firms, prestigious names like McKinsey, Anderson, Booz Allen, were complaining that they were having a hard time attracting the pick of the MBA crop. Why? Because the best and brightest wanted to work in tiny start-ups in Silicon Valley where they can make a difference.

I doubt that the consulting firms face the same problem in India. The best and brightest would flock to the status and safety of the big firms rather than face the uncertainty of a garage start-up. Without the best and brightest, Indian software will not hit the big time.

The difference is a culture in the USA that rewards innovation and risk taking. There are so many role models for the budding entrepreneur to emulate. Indeed high tech entrepreneurs in America receive almost as much attention as the Indian cricket team!

The role models are available in India and some of them, such as Shiv Nadar and Narayana Murthi, receive a lot of press attention. It is increasingly clear that software is one of the industries where India can become world class and this will help to attract the best and brightest.

America has a very healthy attitude to risk and failure. Start-ups are risky by nature. A lot will fail. Does a young engineer in America, leaving a failed start-up find doors closed and people and looking at him in a funny way? Not usually. Indeed most people would assume that the person has learnt some valuable lessons and will succeed next time. Magazines are full of people who tried numerous ventures before hitting on the successful formula.

A well developed venture capital industry
Venture Capitalists in Silicon Valley vie for the opportunity to tell their story to first year students at Stanford University. They hope that the bright kid with dreams will come to them first. Can you imagine this happening at an IIT?

Actually, yes I can imagine that! Venture Capitalists are thirsty for new ideas and don’t care where they come from. There is plenty of Venture Capital right here in India looking to invest in software ventures. OK, there are not as many as in the USA, but how many do you need? You only need one to fund your venture.

The talk about a lack of Venture Capital in India is misguided. Talk to some of the Venture Capital firms operating in India and you get a rather different story. “Indian software companies do not understand Venture Capital. We have plenty of money to invest. What we lack are good business plans promoted by credible and seasoned management teams.”

You need to understand the Venture Capitalists and talk to them in their language, but that is the subject of another article. If you have the right idea and the right management team, you will get funding.

So should you continue to play when your competitors have 5 Aces? Maybe it would be more sensible to stick to bodyshopping.

“Insanely great products”, as Steve Jobs calls them, are not created by sensible people. They are created by obsessed individuals, who forge ahead when everybody is telling them that they are crazy. There are entrepreneurs in India today who can turn those 5 Aces to their advantage and add the Indian advantage of abundant low cost talent.

There are great software companies that grew up outside of America. Look at SAP from Germany, BAAN from Holland, Business Objects from France and Checkpoint from Israel.

These companies treat America as their home market. They raise capital in America, have most of their customers in America and bring in American management talent to help them to better understand this key market. In other words they make those 5 Aces work for them and not against them. You had better take those 5 Aces and make them your own and do it quickly, because American companies are taking the one Indian Ace, your talent. Most of the major US software companies are setting up 100% owned subsidiaries in India in order to tap Indian engineering talent. That Ace no longer belongs exclusively to Indian companies.

If you think that the situation looks tough from India, look at Israel. Israel is tiny compared to India and does not share India’s English language advantage. Yet Israel received over $800 million in high tech Venture Capital from the USA last year, more than any other country and far more than India.

So, yes it is possible to create killer apps outside America. It is possible to create them right here in India. Do you have the ideas and the drive to make this happen? Do you know where you want to go but lack a road map? The Dataquest “In search of India’s Killer App” series of articles will give you a road map.

In our next edition, Bernard Lunn will describe the financing options for entrepreneurs, helping you to have fruitful discussions with Venture Capitalists and Angel Investors.

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