Geeks on a Plane India 2013: Big Opportunities, Optimistic Investors, and a Government that’s Finally Waking Up

Gateway of IndiaThis post originally appeared on the 500 Startups blog

Geeks on a Plane is a 10-12 day trip to various parts of the world with 20-25 “Geeks” (entrepreneurs, techies, designers, angels, VCs, mentors). The trips are planned and run by 500 Startups and have been going on for a few years now. The first Geeks on a Plan (GOAP) to India was in December 2011. That’s when I first met Dave, Paul, Christen, George, Anu, Samir, and a bunch of other really awesome geeks. Fast forward 14 months and I got a chance to be a “geek” on the February 2013 GOAP India trip.

GOAP India 2013 also had some really awesome people on the trip as well as hosts across India. Here are some of the things that I learned from these people during our visit to Bangalore, Mumbai and Delhi with Geeks on a Plane.

India: A Land of Contradictions

The poor are all over India. It’s still one of the poorest countries in the world. However, the rich are obscenely rich. Driving a $200,000 car is no big deal in a city like Mumbai. On your way to a swanky hotel where you’ll pay $900 for a single malt, you may drive by open sewage, dirt piled up on the side of the road for impending construction, barking stray dogs in packs, etc. However, you will also pass by massive skyscrapers, gorgeous temples, educational institutes galore, and many people hustling to make a buck. You can feel the buzz in the air and the excitement of young people who see multiple opportunities all around them.

I didn’t witness these contradictions being any more pronounced than they have in the past. Instead, I saw young people that are hopeful and welcoming of bright future for their country, their families, and themselves. As risk averse as their parents are, more and more people are willing to take significant risks to enact change and get rich while trying. For example, at Startup Weekend Bangalore, we saw many ideas pitched, of which, two of which stood out in my mind.

  • Ghati, to enable safe and clear passage of ambulances.
  • Garbage-busters, which uses mobile phones to alert civil authorities of garbage that hasn’t been cleared.

Two years ago, very few people would have considered quitting their jobs to pursue ideas that will make life better for people while at the same time, having a real chance at making money. Instead, most of them wanted to build the “Twitter of India” or the “Facebook of India”. More and more Indians are cognizant of the problems surrounding them in their daily lives and they are taking the first steps at solving them.

Great Raw Entrepreneurial and Tech Talent

Flipkart
There’s no question that India is full of geeks with great raw entrepreneurial and tech talent. Look at the number of Indian engineers in the Valley, doctors and Wall Street quants that flourished in the US. In India, having their chidren go into the “IT” industry has been the hope of many middle class Indian parents since the 90’s. That usually meant working at Infosys, Wipro, TCS, HCL, etc. Then came along PWC, E&Y, Accenture, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Dell, Microsoft, Google, etc. Today we have Facebook and LinkedIn as well as hundreds of other great US tech product companies. Most tech entrepreneurs in India prior to 2005 built their fabulous businesses selling services to companies big and small around the world. These successful tech entrepreneurs built businesses to be envied and made India the outsourcing capital of the world.

What they didn’t do was build an ecosystem that fostered entrepreneurship or creative thinking.

ZipDial

All that started changing sometime in 2010. Some amazing companies have been built in the last few years by incredible people (some of the companies go back to 2006/2007) – Druvaa, Slideshare, FusionCharts, InterviewStreet, ZipDial, Flipkart, SnapDeal, InMobi, Innoz, ZoHo, Freshdesk, Wigify and Komli Media.

Some of these companies have exited. Some are incredibly cash rich. Some are growing like a weed and continue to raise larger amounts of growth capital.

Beyond some of the marquee names above, quite a few amazing founders are building great companies. A few are InVenture, WebEngage, UberLabs (gazeMetrix), Ketto, InstaMojo, ChargeBee, and Practo.

Founders’ Communication & Confidence Need to Improve

Rajat, Kavin, Aloke at 91 Springboard
Most first time founders in India still lack confidence and it shows in their pitch and their communication style. Paul has mentioned this before in his Observations on India and he also talks about gaining confidence. I continue to see this being a problem and a tremendous opportunity for founders. The founders that can communicate the most effectively, will have a much better chance at selling to their customers, their investors, and prospective co-founders, employees, mentors/advisors and importantly, in India, to their families. The good news is that in the last 7 years I’ve been here, I’ve seen pitches and communication styles get better. Although the ecosystem is still nascent, it’s maturing and giving young entrepreneurs the shot in the arm they need.

Investors are Optimistic

The Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE)
Investors across India that I met during GOAP continue to remain bullish on the long-term opportunity. Ecommerce, education, travel, personal finance, Universal ID (UID), family tech, rural tech and, of course, tech built in India for a global market are some of the broader themes that investors expressed significant interest in. Sorry folks, “social media” just wasn’t at the top of anyone’s list.

However, as bullish as investors are, most of them still aren’t very founder friendly. Some of the deal terms being offered are still quite onerous. Doing an investment in tranches is another favorite past time of Indian investors. Most founders still complain of angels behaving like series A VCs and VCs behaving more like private equity shops.

The bright side is that a few founders I met with and spoke with during GOAP, mentioned two VCs by name who work more like startup founders than VCs. They make decisions quickly. They present terms that are fair. They tell founders when and how much they should raise to minimize dilution. They make themselves available by not hanging out in their ivory towers. You might say that two VC firms in a country of 1.2+ billion people is statistically insignificant. However, if you said that, you would be wrong. It’s quite significant. VCs running their funds like real startup founders is a massive mindshift and their success will only inspire more to do the same (or lose deal flow).

Investors are also Cautious

Geeks on a Plane at the BSE
During some of the investor events at GOAP, I spoke to investors about things that concerned them. Investors are a little bearish about the short-term. Macro-economic conditions, the lack of exits, corruption in the government, the bureaucracy, rising costs all play an important part in dampening the spirits of investors. However, these also present considerable opportunities for daring entrepreneurs. Investors realize this and continue to hunt for deal where they can deploy funds in India.

The Indian Government is Finally Waking Up

During our trip, the Indian Government announced its budget. Though, not a big deal in most western countries, in India, the budget makes or breaks economic sentiment for the year. No one was terribly excited or distraught over this year’s budget. However, there were a few things added that raised the hopes of startups and early stage investors.

  • Preferential tax treatment for angels when investing together or “pooling” their capital and registering with the government.
  • Corporations are required to spend 2% of their income on CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) investments or donations. Incubators at government or recognized universities qualify for claiming the 2% spend.
  • Startups can potentially find some liquidity by listing on the SME exchange. The BSE (Bombay Stock Exchange) runs one and had 11 companies listed as of December 2012.

A much more detailed analysis of the budget and some opinions can be found on VCCircle.

For more information on Geeks on a Plane and when they are heading to your region, check out the website and also some of the videos from GOAP South America Summer 2011, GOAP Asia 2011 and GOAP India 2011.


Geeks on a Plane India 2013

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