Indian E-com Industry: Time To Lead The World

3 Feb, 2012

As I see more and more 'clones' in terms of ideas of what has worked in the USA in the e-commerce world, I am left wondering whether as a nation we are so 'scared' and still living with a subjugated mindset that we have more or less condemned ourselves to 'being followers' of the West for the rest of our lives.

The funny part is that whenever I question an entrepreneur on this, the standard reply that I get is "but this is what gets funded!" Wow, so are you building a company to get funded or to change the world? Call me a hopeless romantic or someone who is divorced from 'reality' but for me, the best thing about being an entrepreneur is that you get a shot at achieving the impossible. I mean which other profession can give you that luxury and if you are denying yourself that, then for me you are taking the whole 'joy' out of being a starter.

As one observes the last 200 years of the industrial world, the thing which stares one in the face is how we completely missed the 'innovation' bus in the 1800-1950 era. When the rest of the world was moving ahead with the steam engine, steel production, the automobile, the light bulb, the aircraft and I can go on and on, we were in the shackles of a colonial ruler who had not only captured our lands but also our minds (and that was the scary part).

From 1950-2011, we went through our own trials and tribulations on building our country and economy. As with most 'new' ventures, we had some successes and some failures. I don't want to spend too much time into listing these as they have been well-documented and I have nothing new to add.

This piece of mine is more on the period of 2012-2052.

It is well established that the originality of any idea is directly proportional to the size of the market. You simply can't have a small market and hope to produce great entrepreneurs, and there is no doubt that our country was so small as a marketplace that even if some people had the courage to be original, they couldn't support their venture as the consumer class was too small to sustain.

This is what is changing with the Internet and, more specifically, e-commerce.

We have an Internet population of 100 million (give or take some numbers here and there) and a consumer class of over 300 million, which is about the size of the USA. I agree that our consumers' 'spending power' is smaller than those in the USA but then, our costs of doing business are also much lesser and probably in the same proportion. I mean we can get a business going at Rs 500,000 or $10,000.

This gives our entrepreneurs huge leverage as they can experiment by keeping the downsides small and as the Internet population grows and the 'access' mediums move to mobile phones and Tablets, which are far more ubiquitous than the PC, the consumer is going to start 'living' on the Internet. These are, again, all well-documented facts but the killer app for me is the fact that soon we will have the largest population of English-speaking people on the Internet (you can do your maths based on any of the latest reports on Internet penetration and arrive at that timeframe) and this is exciting as it gives us the first opportunity to 'lead' an industry.

Never before in the last 200 years, have we had this situation. Our markets were always so much smaller than the West that entrepreneurs could only copy as the gap was too wide and new ideas don't come in isolation but as reactions to the environment (Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson).

I feel the Internet gives us that leapfrog which the USA got when the steam engine was discovered and America started getting 'built' in the late 1800s. I am still struck by a single sentence which Mr Andrew Carnegie wrote in one of the letters which he sent to his friend back in Scotland (from the book Giants of Enterprise by Richard Tedlow) before he became the business legend that we all know him for. He wrote, "Everything around me is moving," as he saw the railways lines being built in Pittsburgh. There could be no better description of India at the moment.

The question before all of us is: Are our minds moving fast enough to capture this opportunity? My take is that we need to look at our marketplace and consumer behaviour, and develop our own models for the Internet. This time around, we have the market at our doorstep and no excuses for the lack of originality. It is time we lead the world in this space and if we don't, it will only be for the lack of courage and that, indeed, will be a pity!

(Gautam Sinha founded TVA Infotech in 2000, a company in the IT recruiting space. TVA was acquired by Allegis Group Inc, the largest staffing company in the USA, in March 2008. He currently runs a seed fund called "My First Cheque" which provides mentorship and investment to startups in initial years.)