How To Not Fail In Indian Internet: A Proposal

Abinash Tripathy lays it out, in pretty good detail, the litany of things that are wrong with the great Indian media companies in how they are going to blow it with the opportunities in the online domain. I have added my two bits in the comments there and I have written quite a bit on the subject here and elsewhere, so I won't add to the chorus that is already cooking up a hit record there now.

Over the past couple of months I realized that there is too much energy and effort that is spent on the wrong aspects in our industry. On one side we have what I lovingly call the 'carnival of the clueless' who either churn out products or help others churn out products that have no sustainable long-term value, while on the other we have the parade of the naysayers, which I've often been a part of.

That status-quo needs to change. Why? Because of the simple reason that the Indian digital opportunity does exist. Telecom has already demonstrated that. What needs to change is the 'how' aspect of how we unlock it. As mentioned earlier, the two aspects where a lot of energy is spent in our industry won't bring about that change.

So, how can we go about it?

  1. Be constructive: There is just way too much of criticism and hype in the industry. Companies love to talk up their products and the other end of the spectrum loves to talk it down. Between the two points, we are making little progress in going forward. All we are do is to argue endlessly and do little more than that.
  2. Less talk, more action: The ecosystem is full of people just talking about how the various aspects of starting up than actually doing any starting up. Most of the industry events have people who have done well on the one side and the wannabes who are agape, intellectually and orally, at being in such close proximity to the former. There is little enablement that happens at these events. You come, group-hug and leave.
  3. Share, reach out, teach: Making a venture work in India requires you to tackle a multitude of things that you would not probably have to deal with otherwise. There is a lot of learning out there which can help others starting out, locked away in companies. We really don't have a culture of sharing knowledge or information. We'd rather kick down a brother than help him out. Competitive edge is not always about holding back information.
  4. Reduce cognitive dissonance: A lot of products launched through the 2006-2008 period in online in India has little rationale or practical use case. Truckloads of money has gone down the drain launching these products that have little backing them other than the 'strong belief' of the managements and VCs that it will do well. We have to stop doing this. 90% of doing a business is pure common sense — of how much you make back on every dollar you put into a venture.

    Can we please stop the guesswork and make reasonable assumptions made on what is known in numbers than go with the mutual suck-up games played in board rooms as the only rationale?

  5. Kill the inbreeding of ideas: There are a million good ideas out there in the non-online world that are begging for an online solution in India. We can't seem to think beyond the five pet themes (and their variants) in our industry at any given point in time.
  6. Honest measurement and instrumentation: Let us stop the inflation of numbers across the board. The industry lies through its teeth, starting from user engagement to inventory figures by the sales teams. This does get your balance sheet to look great in the shorter term, but it harms companies and the industry as a whole in the long run. We already see this in action where every study mentions numbers that will double or triple in the coming years, but, internally, every product hits a glass ceiling at sooner than later.

Of course, I do have an agenda in doing this and I will be quite upfront about it. After being somewhat of a free agent in the past year, I'm about to kick things up a notch with what is being attempted with Frontiernxt. I do believe that we can unlock the potential in the Indian digital space without burning a crore in SEM budgets every month. I do believe that the unlocking won't happen with a massive frontal assault on the news pages and psyche of the nation. We need to build bottom-up, in a federated manner. We need to have an eye on the marco aspect, while understanding and working closely at the micro level. And most importantly, none of us can do this alone. It is a big opportunity that requires buy-ins from various players.

The good news is that in terms of capital requirements, the Indian online opportunity still has a pretty low entry level. Most of what is done on in.com, can be replicated at a fraction of the cost now (well, spare the domain name and the expensive music licensing that does little more than bleed cash). Most of any other leading internet property in India has done can be replicated on the cheap. But, cost of replication has never been an issue. It is cost of adoption and the quality of adoption that has been the key on the internet. And the even greater news is that worthwhile adoption is not something that money can buy, which is exactly why none of the existing players have cracked it so far. You can't make things work on the internet by throwing more money at it.

But, I digress.

For modest sums, we can build smaller products that focus more on engaging 10 new good users in a day than 10,000 hit-and-run users. For this to be possible, you need genuinely good content or(and) genuinely good services. What we often to forget is that the medium (the internet) is just a conduit or tool to meet other ends and there are numerous such ends that need to be met out there. Just “being online” does not construe a business model.

What we need to do is to slowly turn the ecosystem around to allow for these ends to be enabled online. This does require thinking, measurement and products that are different from what we have seen till date. It probably won't be glamourous as the online we know of now, but it is something that I am going to bet really heavily on.