Expect a Microsoft, Google or facebook out of India? Won’t happen unless we THINK BIG!

When VCs from the US flooded into India about 5 to 10 years ago, they were expecting to invest and make happen, a number of Microsofts, Google and facebooks!

They ended up buying shares of existing public companies and became more of Private Equity investors rather than VCs who could put in a 1$ in 100 companies and have 5 block-busters like facebook or Google that returned $100 each! That’s the nature of Venture Capital – taking risks on 20 companies so that one becomes facebook or Google or Microsoft and makes up for all the losses in those 19 other companies.

This is as much an indictment of Indian start-ups not being bold enough as much as VCs turning into Private Equity investors. They did not find enough companies that were bold enough or thinking big enough!

First, some disclaimers! If you are building an Indian version of a successful US company or targeting a unique vertical in India with your SaaS or Cloud solution or trying different Consumer plays, all success to you! You can still be very successful and thrive!

This is not an indictment of the Software Services business! It helped enormous numbers of Indians stabilize and improve their lives and others that depend upon them, building a huge economy around them. But we need to move to the next stage. The thinking needs to be different this time. When the first services companies like Infosys, Tata Burroughs and Tata Consultancy Services started, you needed lots of  money to buy mainframes and minicomputers. Today, it does not take the same amount of resources to get started in the software business. The only thing that will make a difference now are Innovative Ideas!

This article is for people who wonder what it takes to build a global blockbuster like facebook and Google!

That has to do with NOT THINKING BIG ENOUGH! It does not mean just doing products for the Global Market or going for a huge blockbuster IPOs! That may come later. It has everything to do with going after BIG problems. Big What-Ifs! Big Experiments, Big Thinking!

This has to do with our general instinct to jump too quickly into “how do I make money” and risk aversion and the inability to postpone these questions and address some fundamental problems and find innovative solutions for them, not thinking about immediate payoffs!

Opportunities are everywhere if ONLY we stop being followers and start being leaders! In Consumer oriented startup companies, everybody is still dealing with information – work and social in many different platforms – smart phones, laptops, desktops. They are trapped in multiple formats that are incompatible with each other and causing endless frustration. Documents, status updates, photographs, videos, spreadsheets, presentations, databases are all still in many repositories leading us to waste enormous amounts of time just shuffling all of this!

On the enterprise side, Cyber Security is still a large, large problem! Nuclear facilities, Utilities, Government systems of every kind are subject to Cyber Terrorism more than ever before!

Companies are moving rapidly to the cloud; cloud security is even more scary than internal systems that can be cutoff from external access if someone suspects break-ins. Credit card information and online banking have only led to even less secure places to handle money.

Two days ago Amazon Web Services in Virginia ground to a halt because a monitoring system developed a memory leak and brought many, many companies’ servers to a grinding halt for hours!

Backups and Disaster Recovery are still problems that many enterprises have not found good solutions for yet, globally! There are technologies like Cassandra databases that can have three or four copies of the database automatically synched and updated. No need for backups – they are already backed up in real-time in multiple locations. You can almost build indestructible computing if you wanted to, if you choose cloud resources in multiple geographic locations, even across continents. The video streaming service NetFlix already does this with databases synched up across the Atlantic between US and European Data centers of Amazon!

Companies are just getting into collecting lots of Big Data – social media mentions of their companies, products, detailed information about what every visitor to their websites and online presences did when they are there and wondering how to use all of this information with customer and order information they already have in traditional database systems.

All of these are BIG PROBLEMS begging for BIG THINKING!

When Thinking Big, pick any of these above or other problems, they could lead to the next Microsoft, Google and facebook! It requires an obsession with ONE of those problems and a relentless drive to solve that, first.

When you solve big problems, you don’t need to worry about sales, investors and global blockbuster status. They will come as surely as night after day and high tide after low tide.

We have a tendency to equate technical knowledge, prowess and hacking with success. In software services they are important. But not elsewhere in the software business!

They are important tools but not your mission when it comes to building fast growing, large companies. You need to address problems and create innovative solutions that have clearly identifiable benefits. The benefits are the only things users care about. They do not care about Java or Python or Oracle or MySQL. They have a problem; do you have a solution?

The thing that is holding us back is our own thinking! Getting out of that box is the first step towards THINKING BIG! Thinking big takes the same amount of effort as thinking small but the payoffs are disproportional.

Think little goals and expect little achievements. Think big goals and win big success – David Joseph Schwartz.

Product companies will constantly change business plans, product ideas, and offerings to meet the ever-changing market opportunities, Piyush Singh, CIO, Great American Insurance Co.

Piyush Singh is the Chief Information Office (CIO) and Senior Vice President at the Great American Insurance Company—a property and casualty insurance company, and Vice President of it’s parent company, American Financial Group [NYSE:AFG]. Under his direction and vision, Great American’s IT department has transitioned from supporting a legacy IT environment to become a trusted player in the company’s business success—offering agility and adaptability to align with the executive vision. In this interview, Mr. Singh shares his observations on innovation in Indian software companies, product development, and how large IT companies could accelerate the pace of product innovation. 

Piyush, you have been watching the Indian software industry over a period of time. What are some of the changes you see now especially in the context of the software product industry in India?

The Indian software Industry is the envy of many countries around the world, and numerous governments and business associations have been trying to emulate its model. It has made a significant difference in elevating the professional services job market and provided the necessary fillip to the country’s infrastructure—transforming sleepy suburbs into high-tech cities with world-class facilities. The Indian software Industry contributes $67B to the economy in direct revenue, but delivers a bigger economic impact (probably tenfold) when you think of all the tertiary employment it generates and the indirect revenues created.

Yet, this phenomenal growth has been a result of labor pricing arbitrage, and many of the large companies that lead the software services are today challenged by lack of innovation and intellectual property (IP). Yes, outsourcing and large services contracts are definitely attractive but unsustainable in the long-term. Sustainable growth and maintaining unique value propositions demand significant investment in IP—and this needs to be more than just systematizing processes. I do not see IT services companies investing in actual development of product portfolios that might address vertical markets or provide horizontal solutions. Typically, I see global services brands create deliberate pools of internal innovation that harnesses the knowledge of its workforce or buy IP-based companies to provide them the necessary scale for reach and investment. So far, I’ve seen neither processes here, but am hopeful that this will change.

Culturally, do you think Indians (and this is very broad considering our diversity) are risk takers and willing to start out businesses? Or are they averse to taking risks?

I don’t think so, and there are numerous examples of our appetite for risk—numerous Indians in the Silicon Valley have taken their start-ups all the way to public offerings. What I have noticed is, we tend to invest in real estate—really investing for the long haul.

Today, I find ourselves increasingly accepting entrepreneurship and its risks, even as senior executives leave large corporations to do something more meaningful, and different. But these new companies will need significant capital and gestation periods before they begin to show results. This is in contrast to the services industry growth that sets an average 20-30% growth every year—leaving start-ups struggling to showcase such growth. The risks and returns are completely different in a product company—Oracle, SAP, Microsoft, Apple are all shining examples of IP-led revenue-generators. Their valuation and market sizes are incredibly spectacular. But they didn’t grow into such successes overnight.

Product companies will constantly change business plans, product ideas, and offerings to meet the ever-changing market opportunities. These evolutions take time, effort, and capital—ask any Silicon Valley venture capitalist.

On the other hand, if you read the balance sheets of many of the services firms, they have idle cash, and great market reach. It will be a win-win for all if they use the cash to fund or accelerate the incubation of products that they can take back to their markets.

What is your take on emerging companies in the product space? We see, for example, many of them are developing apps and very few seem to be venturing into the enterprise or B2B space. Do you agree?

I agree completely. In the insurance space, for example, of all the companies out of India I’ve worked with, only a few have made any real IP investments—MajescoMastek, PlanetSoft (acquired by Ebix), L&T Infotech, and Mphasis. But if you see the revenue portfolio of the top 200 services firms out of India, the financial services industry is a leader in driving investments. And only a handful companies have made any IP-led investments. Strange, don’t you think?

What’s interesting is that it’s not that India doesn’t have the talent: every large US-based company (Microsoft, HP, Cisco, IBM) have a lot of product development out of India. The capabilities and talent definitely exists—we need the larger Indian companies to show the way.  They should make use of the talent that exists in their own setups, sponsor ideation, build incubators and make a directional investment in product development. They should stand up to explain their actions and the promise it holds. Analysts might not like the idea initially as it does not fit in their current forecasting models  but as they realize the potential and see results over time, they will warm up to the concept and probably push for higher investment. I would argue that Indian companies do bring in a lot of process expertise in any project that they manage, so  they can definitely build processes that would seek ideation and lead to valuable IP.

What’s your view on innovation in the Corporate environments?

Innovation has become a necessity for existence. As Robert Murdoch, Chairman and CEO of News Corp aptly said, “The world is changing very fast.  Big will not beat small anymore.  It will be the fast beating the slow.”  Innovation is being taken out of R&D labs and becoming the fabric of the entire company and an integral part of the culture at all levels. If it’s not happening, it can hurt them. Look at what’s happened to Kodak—they invented the digital camera concept but now the only value left is in the patents which they filed.    Blackberry (RIM) is facing a similar situation – in May of 2008, of the corporate companies surveyed 82% of them were looking at buying RIM based Blackberry’s.  Their lack of innovation in the world of user experience design has left them in a situation no one wants their company to be.

Do you think a major contributing factor in the last couple of years has been contributed by bandwidth availability, relatively easier capital and technology disruptions from areas like cloud computing? Have these leveled the playing field?

Well, these not only level the playing field but also give you an opportunity to differentiate your offering. For example, cloud computing levels the playing field, making it a lot easier for people to invest in or explore new products as long as you provide open integration points,a level of flexibility and a blueprint for future innovation. Commoditization brings prices down but forces you to decide on the USP that would help your company stand out.  You need to balance commodity with strong uniqueness so you can leverage both benefits. People who are going to be nimble and fast, and people who respond to these paradigm shifts are going to emerge the winner.  The key lies in how quickly you react to market forces and how adaptable you are. Any country that can produce a model of constant adaptability becomes a much more stronger player in the long haul.

Five years ago a typical software strategy didn’t take into account elements like user experience design, predictable analytics/big data, mobility and enterprise social networking. If you’re a ten-year old product company or a large services firm, it’s a little tougher to make a shift to embrace these elements. If you’re a smaller company though, and you’re nimble and watching these trends closely you can adapt to them quickly. It depends on how leading edge you are, because people are always talking in the context of ‘now.’ Mobility has been on the forefront since early 2008—but companies are still exploring mobile apps. Big data has been there for 3 plus years—but how many people are truly exploiting the value of this data? Enterprise social networking helps companies capitalize on people, collaboration and sharing better. It provides individuals more command and control—if the person at the lowest level comes up with a bright idea, everybody knows who to give credit to!

So you Piyush – if you had to give some advise to product companies or people who are venturing into the software product element India, what would you say?

  • Identify a domain where you see that there is market opportunity and don’t look at what is currently being offered as a solution.  Try to look 3 years ahead and try to build it around the emerging model of doing business—it’s about how you’re going to do business tomorrow, not how people work today.
  • You’ve got to balance domain expertise with people from outside so that you can think differently. You can’t have people who think the same way all the time. You need to understand how to incorporate User Experience Design—making people react and say “It is obvious.” Product companies have the advantage of disrupting the existing ways and changing the model—that’s what DELL did with PCs, Amazon with the book store, and Netflix changed movie watching at home.
  • You should be willing to find a charter partner who can help you to bring about change and  break the current paradigm.  Once you have this, you’re on the path to building a product that will succeed.
  • Don’t just be happy with what you have and what you build. You really have to be dissatisfied with the present and galvanize resources into action. This requires a fundamental shift in the group mindset, how we operate and how the company is structured. We need to learn from the old Chinese saying ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ – not just the management ranks!
  • Don’t make random calls and hope that there will be sales. Learn the market, understand the potential buyer fully and then target with laser focus. Do not take a shot gun approach and hope that it succeeds.

Which 5 product companies or fields are you interested in meeting?

I would rather choose three fields that are of interest for me:

  • Companies that are working in the insurance sector – what are they doing and what’s innovative
  • Companies involved in infrastructure–what are you doing to improve the end user experience/reliability and availability in the modern complex world
  • Companies that are involved in new and novel concepts that challenges any business model. I want to be challenged to look outside my standard thinking model.

If you are keen to meet with Piyush at NPC. Do drop in a mail to us at [email protected] and we will get back to you.

Entering the Product Space – Shoaib Ahmed, Tally Solutions(Part 2 of 3)

You can read the Part 1 of the 3 series interview here.

Shoaib Ahmed, President of Tally Solutions, began his career as a retail
software developer in the early 90s. Formerly the Founder-Director of Vedha
Automations Pvt.Ltd, Mr. Ahmed was responsible for developing Shoper, a
market-leading retail business solution — and the first of its kind in India to
bring in barcoding to the retail space. The company was acquired by Tally
Solutions in 2005, where Shoper merged with the Tally platform to offer a
complete enterprise retail software suite. In the second of a three-part series,
Mr. Ahmed talks about product development in the B2B space and reaching out
to customers.

Why do you think we are seeing businesses that start off as a product
company become service entities?

This is where I see the need for educating customers: why should you buy our product,
what can you expect from our product and what shouldn’t you expect from our product?
More importantly, will the product solve your key issue and will it do it well? Unfortunately,
who is educating the customer about these aspects? It may be a service provider who is
interested in the service revenue only. So there’s a disconnect — there’s nobody who is
evangelizing the product and being a product champion in the small and medium business
space.

What do you feel about having ‘pilot’ customers who can obtain the
product with an attractive offer like a reduced price?

I don’t think this is the right way of doing things. When you’re reaching out to customers,
it’s important to solve some of their key issues. To do this, you need information about a
particular profile of customers so very clear about who your customer is and what your
customer looks like to you. Now, if you want to get a large enough slice of the market
make sure you have experience with a complete set of customers — you cannot pilot
a semi-experience. You need to be able to engage with him and get your value from
him over the proposition you are making. This means measuring not only the product’s
effectiveness, but also measuring the quality of the sales pitch and that the service
capability and the service quality promise is being fulfilled.

You may decide in the first six months to choose a smaller customer set to target but
you’ll be measuring to see if all elements of your complete product experience are being
monitored for effectiveness or reviewed. This gives you an idea of scalability, since you
can then adopt an attractive pricing strategy with confidence. It can be an incremental
process, but unlike a pilot, you’re not only reaching out to a few customers and shaping
your product around them. With a pilot, the danger could be that the pilot customers are
early adopters who will view evangelizing you product amongst their peers as letting go of
a competitive advantage.

Do you think it’s a myth that it’s easier to develop B2C products rather
than B2B?

I think the success of Tally disproves this. Out of a potential 80 lakh businesses, nearly
40-45 lakh own computers. A large group use Tally for their business — nearly 90%
of the market. So, the constant need for us to deliver a value is critical and it’s also
important to keep communicating this value. If I as a business owner don’t see a value
in paying you for a product or service then I don’t, but increasingly in the connected
world a businessman understands that he can grow his business manifold by leveraging
technology. The information system now has to support him because he is in a connected
world so the game is changing.

In the B2C area, let’s look at the average individual : he has a higher disposal income and
is more exposed to technology. A lot of his day-to-day activities are done using technology
(like banking and filing returns). When he’s engaging with the rest of the world, he’s going
to expect a similar experience. This may act as a driving force for businesses to match
that : for example, can an individual get his doctor’s appointment online? If there is no
supporting eco-system for the the tool that the customer has, then even the greatest
online tool available to this customer can’t drive enough value. In my mind its critical that
business-to-business product development is on the system and the efficiencies have a
direct economic impact. For example, the average time for payment reconciliation in the
small business space is an average eight days. From a digital perspective, it should be
instantaneous. Just imagine the impact and velocity of commerce!

Interview Cont’d

Fullerton India – Revolutionizing India

At a time when “Cloud” was still a buzz word and “Platform as a Service” as a category didn’t exist, Fullerton India was looking  for the next generation computing technology to help them build business applications faster, cheaper, better.  Fullerton India stumbled across OrangeScape Platform (formerly known as DimensionN). They realized that the conventional approach to build a whole host of of application in the “White Space” area will be heavily time consuming taking anywhere between 30 to 90 days for an application.

And, added to that complexity, these applications change every other week and change management becomes a huge challenge. OrangeScape helped Fulllerton to fill this gap by providing a platform approach not only to build these new applications, workflows as per their business process but also to frequently upgrade them as the business need changes. Listen to Pramod!

Mr. Pramod Krishnamurthy who as EVP – Technology (2005 – 2010) at Fullerton India Credit Corporation Ltd. (FIC) talks about his discovery of OrangeScape and how he adopted our platform which ultimately resulted in their IT team building business apps faster than they would have done in the traditional mode.

Pramod shares more on this success story over a video here and ends with a message to his peers on cloud adoption and working along with emerging companies. Pramod is currently CTO at Birla Sun Life Insurance.

Watch the Video on the Organgescape blog

Get Your Story Straight

What do top technology companies have in common? Think about SalesForceIBM,VMwareWorkdayAppleRiverbed, Cisco.  What separates market leaders and category creators from the rest of the pack?

They tell powerful stories.

Stories matter. We see it over and over again. Companies that capitalize on an inflection point and grab a leadership position always have a thought-provoking point of view that resonates with buyers. Customers buy into the story before they buy the solution. 

And a story is more than a slogan or a catchy tagline. It’s offering a different perspective, not just pushing a product. It’s a crisp, clear way of communicating how a company or a product will solve a big, hairy problem for customers. It comes from putting the customer’s needs and requirements first, not the technology or the company’s agenda.

Look at Cisco. The company wasn’t founded to sell routers and switches. It started when a husband and wife wanted to email each other from different offices at Stanford and they couldn’t. So they created the multi-protocol router and solved the problem. And they knew others wanted the same problem solved. They didn’t launch a product—they solved a problem and created a powerful story and different point-of-view. And they instilled a customer-first, problem-solving culture at Cisco. You know the rest of that story.

Need other examples? Look at game-changing CEOs Marc BenioffLarry EllisonSteve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos. They disrupted markets and catapulted their companies into legendary status with conversations that re-framed the problem for buyers. They articulated their company’s value in simple, concise positioning stories and a narrative that offers a new perspective to buyers.

So if a great story is the key to success, why doesn’t every technology company have one? The reason is simple.

All too often, the responsibility for positioning is taken on by tech CEOs or product managers who are in love with their technology.  And technology moves to the forefront of the story. WRONG. Buyers don’t care what’s cool about your technology or your IP. They care what it does for them.

The most effective storylines carve out a distinct corner of the room—and box competitors in as having a solution for “yesterday’s problem” or “the right idea, but the wrong approach.”

What makes a good storyline? The most effective positioning stories MUST answer three questions for the target buyer:

#1: Why your company or product, NOW?

Tell them in clear, human terms what problem your product solves and why it’s important to solve it TODAY. Is this an old problem that has gotten worse? A new problem caused by fast-changing market dynamics? Will your buyer lose his job if he doesn’t solve this problem? Strong positioning stories empathize with the buyer’s situation and create a sense of urgency about solving a critical problem.

#2: Why is your solution different?

Once the buyer agrees with your point of view, the next question on their mind is “who else can solve this problem?” or “can my existing technology vendor take care of this for me?” Great stories lay down the logic for a new approach to solving the problem. This requires talking about your secret sauce, IP, or game-changing differentiators  in terms of business requirements. You can avoid the tedious “feature-checklist” war by articulating the need for a different approach. Different, not better, always wins.

#3: How will this improve my life six months from now?

Paint your buyer a picture of how much better their life will be with an investment in your solution. Your life is “hell” right now (big problem); here is the unique approach (our secret sauce) for solving this problem; here is what your life will soon look like.

All market leaders and category disruptors have a compelling and distinct point of view. If you want to join them, start by getting your story straight.

The Product Business is Like the Movie Business

I read the cover story in Forbes on the success of Dropbox, which is set to do about $240 million in sales in 2011, with only 70 employees. As Forbes points out, that is about 3x the revenue per employee of Google, which is no slouch in the revenue per employee department itself. First, congratulations, Dropbox! This is the type of breathtaking number that makes the ordinarily successful companies like, well, Zoho, to wonder “What are we doing wrong?”

In our 15 year history in Zoho Corporation – which is bigger than the Zoho product suite itself – we have shipped over 70 products, of which we would say about 30 have been successful in the sense of being nicely profitable. Yet, even with that group of 30 products, we have seen the 10x effect: a set of two products that have taken approximately the same amount of effort to build, by similarly situated teams, yet one of them does 10x the sales of the other, with both of them being profitable. Of course the 10-bagger is much more profitable but the key point is that both of them could be counted as successful in the sense of being profitable. We have even seen 100x difference for approximately the same effort, but in our case, that is the difference between doing only $100K a year in sales vs $10 million a year, and I would not count that as 100x because the $100K product either grows up or we would eventually discontinue it because it is not profitable.

Dropbox is a logical extension of this phenomenon, where a product does 100x the sales, without taking much more by way of engineering effort than a profitable 1x product. And then the grand daddy of them all – Google search, which in its heyday reached $1 billion in sales, on not much more than the effort of a single engineering team – the headcount gets added later to diversify the company but the original search was a small team. I believe there has only been one Google search so far, so the ordinarily successful (ahem!) shouldn’t feel too bad.

Y Combinator, which has funded over 300 companies so far, is a perfect illustration. All these teams are similarly situated, with similar founder profiles and they all get similar initial funding, and they spend similar initial effort. If we consider only the universe of profitable YC companies, my guess is that so far there is only one 100-bagger i.e Dropbox, in the YC portfolio. Based on Zoho experience, I would estimate YC has about ten 10-baggers, and about fifty one-baggers (i.e just about profitable).

Welcome to the product business, which looks very much like the movie business!

Enterprise Applications – Thousands of app “snacks” instead of “full meal” applications?

Today was the second time I am hearing that the future of applications in enterprises are thousands of small apps instead a hundred or two applications!

I was listening to the CTO of Computer Associates who forecasts the future of applications in enterprises as stringing together lots of small apps that do something very well rather than developing something from scratch fully!

Here is the article that covers his talk that is provocatively labelled “Video Killed the Radio Star and Cloud Computing Will Kill the Programming Star”

Donald Ferguson, CTO of Computer Associates makes the very interesting point that you can STITCH together bigger applications with small focused apps together to do something larger in an enterprise.

Very true! Here is the website I created for our local networking group Healthcare Innovation Programs – Kentucky which is a networking group to educate each other about innovations happening here in Kentucky.

I put this together in 30 minutes! THIRTY MINUTES! Ten years ago this would be a three month project with hacking HTML by hand!

About a year ago I put together another website for another networking group usingNing that took me three hours to figure out and set up!

Here is the second article that argues for enterprises using thousands of small apps rather than developing large apps! – On Deploying Tablets in the Enterprise


The discussion panel in this article also makes the same point – “Don’t turn tablets into PCs,” Todd Barr said, meaning that IT departments shouldn’t try to manage them as closely. Since apps are cheap, organizations should encourage experimentation and individual work styles.

Seems like that’s where things are headed – small apps stitched together to do something bigger!

It’s happening in mHealth already – Withings Body Scale enters into partnership with BodyMedia FIT Armband.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. – Mother Teresa.