Do we have the DNA to build great products in India?

For the last two decades I have followed global products and success stories, and a question constantly in front of me is why India has very few globally comparable products and even fewer category leaders?

Despite India’s vast engineering resources, budding design talent, and our hustle mentality, we have not been able to create a stream of successful global products. Our startups, even after massive rounds of funding, have been unable to scale beyond our borders and establish a global footprint. Our founders have been often accused of just copy-pasting successful ideas from the west, and we have rarely developed products that global tech giants keenly wanted to acquire!

These observations bring up the next set of questions in my mind. Do we have a fundamental problem of the absence of a solid product culture and a mindset? Has our very strength — an abundance of engineering talent — become a crippling weakness? We are great at writing code to replicate or adapt something, but are we mediocre at creatively problem-solving to develop something from scratch?

Let me try to dive deep and answer these questions through a lens of an artistpreneur and product thinker.

What is an artistpreneur? What is a product thinking mindset?

We have all experienced great products — WhatsApp, Twitter, Airbnb, to name a few — that have pushed the boundaries of design, technology, communication and social behavior, and simplified the interplay of all of these for users. People behind these products possess a rare combination of entrepreneurial and artistic thinking. We call these people ‘artistpreneurs’ (artist + entrepreneur) since they apply creative thinking to solve hard problems and in the process create value for everyone. We need precisely such people in India, who can solve problems in a way that works well in our context.

An artistpreneur understands that building great products is very difficult because it goes beyond what all one can logically conceive. It requires a critical observation of the drivers of human behavior, passion for tinkering and fixing things, and an ability to weave a story and delight users with good technology and design. Successful artistpreneurs are able to weave all of these skills to build great products. They do so by constantly nurturing and developing a mindset which allows them to think through each step of developing a product very creatively. We call this a product thinking mindset.

How can one develop a product thinking mindset?

Product thinking mindset is based on the following 5 key tenets, which anyone can master with deliberate practice:

  1. Founder gut-feel & insight into a real pain point or opportunity.
  2. Willingness to push the boundaries of existing solutions.
  3. Ability to articulate and design a viable experience.
  4. Ability to experiment with focus & speed.
  5. Staying connected to the customer.

Building a great product is often a function of founder gut-feel that gets translated into successful products. Founder gut-feel comes from a real pain point or opportunity that the founder faced or saw close at hand. Ability to critically observe how users solve or work around a pain point helps refine the gut-feel.

Once a pain point is identified, the founder quickly reviews the current market solutions, rips them apart and identifies the solution that would disrupt the current equilibrium. This is where the founder is not afraid of pushing the boundaries of existing solutions.

When the idea or a solution concept first gets conceived in a founder’s mind, depending upon the resources & skills available, he/she articulates and design a “Minimum Viable Product / Prototype (MVP)”. Typically, this is a very fast short cycle, which happens over a few weeks to a month to get something out there.

This is not a stage where founders let their creativity be hampered by business models and the “how will you make money out of this” kind of questions. If Jack Dorsey or Jan Kuoum would have tried to solve this question at MVP stage, the world wouldn’t have likely seen Twitter or WhatsApp the way it exists”

There are many factors crucial to making a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) successful, such as timing, environment, ability to reach out to early adopters, etc. Even if all of these are taken care of, but the founders aren’t willing to experiment with speed and focus, then the MVP may not graduate beyond this stage. During MVP stage, founders relentlessly monitor the proposed solutions and experiments, observe the usage, record the hits & the misses, recognize more latent pain points & opportunities, and go back to rapid iterations. Founders know that identifying the right pain-point and market generally takes many iterations and benefit from their passion for tinkering.

Only a handful of those founders, who graduate from MVP stage and launch useful products, go on to become great founders, the ones we all want to emulate. They do so by not only embracing the above-mentioned four behaviours but also by developing an acute customer-centric focus. These founders learn to put customers at the forefront of everything they do, every single day. When they repeat the entire process over and over and apply design thinking on the top of that, they facilitate the birth and growth of great products.

Why is a DNA of product thinking so important?

While we can argue that product thinking mindset improves the odds of succeeding for founders at launching great products, they also depend on access to a mature support environment. Armed with a product thinking mindset the artistpreneur founders have to work, grind and leverage their support environment and ecosystem to bring to life their visions of change. Thus the birth and growth of these products of change are also nurtured by a good product thinking environment.

This DNA combination of product thinking mindset + a product thinking environment paves the way for a whole ecosystem to thrive on innovation and mutual, complementary successes. Pinterest brought card design into the popular imagination, Twitter brought hashtags into the mainstream, Gmail got AJAX into the limelight — the list is long and it is predominantly a list of products driving technology, design and process innovations, upon which other great products were built.

We have seen good product thinking and success from Indian companies like Zoho, BrowserStack, Freshdesk, VWO, Kayako, FusionCharts, Postman, Appointy, InMobi, HelpShift, Indix, Rategain, Zenoti, WebEngage, SimpliLearn and SignEasy, among some others. These are products which have been successful in establishing a global market footprint. We also have examples like Myntra, Bookmyshow, Paytm, Cleartrip, Zomato, UrbanLadder, Swiggy, etc which clearly articulated their product value with an appropriate user experience that was globally comparable while focusing on the local market. We can perhaps think of a few more such successes. However, such successes are mostly isolated and have not yet given way to a sustainable product thinking ecosystem since the critical learning and complementary successes from the struggle and rise of the few are yet to trickle down to all the participants of the ecosystem, whether small or big!

We need our product environment to grow more mature. We need to nurture and support founders, allowing them to solve hard problems like their successful predecessors, and help create a critical mass for building a vibrant and evolving product ecosystem.

What is holding us from developing a strong product thinking ecosystem?

We all know for a fact that a vibrant and mature ecosystem — like Silicon Valley — generally offers an inherent competitive advantage to all its participants for their very participation. There are many important factors that help an ecosystem flourish and evolve to such a stage; some of these factors are the regulatory framework, government support, availability of talent & financial resources, norms & culture, a presence of many successful participants, etc. While we cannot always or directly control these factors, we can certainly control how we think and behave. We have identified the following idiosyncrasies and biases that potentially prevent us (India) from building a very strong product thinking ecosystem. The list is not exhaustive and we try to cover each of these ideas in brief:


Jugaad mentality: Jugaad refers to any smart improvisation, typically developed with a lack of sufficient resources. While it sounds extremely smart, which in many cases it is, it has generally come to manifest itself as a philosophy of solutions that are quick fixes and only get one as far. The long-term disadvantage of blindly following this philosophy is that we as founders or customers are always seeking to solve just our current pain point. Therefore, we end up building solutions rather than products that require one to address fundamental issues. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that our lack of patience to understand real problems and obsession with short-term wins only add to Jugaad mentality eventually reducing our odds of long-term success as a product nation.


Code first, solve later: Einstein once said “If I had only one hour to save the world, I would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem, and only five minutes finding the solution. And, like I hinted in the first section of this article, we fear that our abundance of engineering talent is perhaps resulting into our obsession with coding, way before we have fully comprehended the nature of the problem we are attempting to solve. This often results in us developing a solution for a problem that didn’t really exist or existed for a very few people or us having a misplaced belief that more features mean better odds of success! Eventually, we end up developing products that generally lack product-market fit and then witnessing extremely slow growth or painful death of products that once appeared promising.


Mistaking funding for success: This is one of the classic myths! Many of us like to believe that a start-up getting funded is the only hallmark of success. Such is the importance we place in getting funded that many founders start companies solely with the intent of raising funds or getting sold (and thus thinking they will make quick fortunes)! Since raising funds is a very consuming process, it has a serious consequence of founders not devoting enough time to their start-ups to validate or solve the real problem, which is often hard, or founders having a very short term vision since they are looking for a quick exit. Unfortunately, for many who do get funded, the feeling of having arrived results in losing focus from the real problem for which they got funded and them becoming complacent and wasteful with the abundance of cash. The reality is that getting funded only improves the odds of success and doesn’t guarantee anything. And a founder, who is on a mission to make it great, knows that funding only means another (important) validation that comes with an intense pressure to solve the real problem sooner than he or she thought!


Built for scale -vs- hiring for scale: Great products generally solve problems with algorithms of scale and efficiency, which result in noticeable economic gains from growth. Products not built for scale do just the opposite; they become difficult to run and manage, and more expensive as a result of growth. Some founders solve for such problems during the growth stage by simply employing manpower into the problem solution to compensate for building a coherent product solution. While this approach to augmenting the product with human intelligence may be ok in the initial stages of validation, there is a natural tendency in the rapid growth stages to continue to add more people with every phase of growth. This strategy soon becomes unmanageable or extremely expensive, and the same, fundamental problems still persist, which could have been better solved by applying technology or automation. This strategy also restricts growth in global markets where such human intelligence is not available or expensive. Great founders must know when to build for scale -vs- hire for scale!

How can you help in building a Product Nation?

We have just begun to think about the fundamental problems that are afflicting our country from becoming a vibrant, successful product nation. To take this thinking to execution, we are contemplating various ideas such as product hackathons, interactive in-depth sessions on specific topics, and developing a (mentor) network of founders & product-leaders. However, we know that our ideas alone may not be sufficient to promote product thinking and build a vibrant product ecosystem since these problems are hard as well as huge.

We are sure that you — as readers or participants of the ecosystem — would also have many interesting ideas. We urge you share those ideas and also suggest some interventions that you would like us to pursue. And, if you feel passionate about doing something about this, we should talk.

Stay tuned as we continue to dive deeper on this and establish a program model to develop more product thinkers.

I would like to acknowledge Chintan Mehta, Tarun Babbar & Titash Neogi who have helped me in putting this piece together and have contributed immensely in shaping my thoughts. Also a big shout-out to Aditi Dilip, for all the design and art help.

I would also like to acknowledge various people with whom I have had a conversation around this topic — Pallav Nadhani(FusionCharts), Girish Mathrubootham(Freshdesk), Suresh Sambandam(KiSSFlow), Paras Chopra(Wingify), Ritesh Arora(BrowserStack), Shashank ND(Practo), Sridhar Ranganathan(Credibase), Varun Shoor(Kayako), Amit Somani(Prime Venture Partners), Ram Narayanan(ex-eBay), Sunil Patro(SignEasy), Amit Ranjan(Ex-Slideshare), Praveen Jadhav(Servify), Nischal Shetty(CrowdFire), Tathagat Varma, Mrityunjay Kumar(Zenoti), Rushabh Mehta(ERPNext), Seema Joshi(Serv’d), BG(HelpShift), Vishwesh(Microsoft), Anand Jain(CleverTap), Rushabh Mehta(ERPnext), Niraj Ranjan Rout(Hiver), Krish Subramanian(Chargebee), Avlesh Singh(WebEngage), Sudheer Koneru(Zenoti), Amarpreet Kalkat(Frrole), Sharad Sharma(iSPIRT), Thiyagarajan M(iSPIRT), Nikhil Kulkarni(Flipkart), Indus Khaitan(Sirion Labs), Sampad Swain(Instamojo), Shekhar Kirani(Accel), Sharique Hasan(Stanford), Ashish Gupta(HelionVC), Nagesh Srinivasan(Cleartrip), Ahimanikya Satapathy(DocEngage), Ankit Oberoi(AdPushup), etc There are many more I might have missed here….these are just few names that i could pull together.

This piece has taken me over 4 weeks and probably one of the pieces for which I got lot of inputs. If you would like to read the draft with detailed comments, do let me know 🙂

Special thanks to BG from HelpShift who triggered this thought for me and for Seema Joshi from Serv’d who helped me put my initial thoughts together.

The Need for Product Thinking and Successes

“The role of a product manager is to discover a product that is valuable, usable and feasible.” – Marty Cagan, Partner, Silicon Valley Product Group

In a few simple words, this quote capture the essence of what this article is all about.

At a recent conference with several venture capitalists, product managers and executives from both corporates and upcoming start-ups, one of the VCs in the room asked, “212 Indian start-ups did not survive 2016. Investments plunged by 44.3%. VCs have started reviewing their investments closely and are being stingier when it comes to spreading their money too thin. How will you convince us and other stakeholders about your product and ensure that it succeeds?”

The answer lies within the approach to product management. Think about it! The lack of an efficient approach to product management is the root cause of start-up failure. Through a systematic approach, you can detect early enough what projects are likely to succeed in the long-term, and invest your time and money more wisely – as compared to investing in several short-term experimentative projects. This is the strategy employed by successful product companies, and if you look closely, a pattern tends to emerge in the practices employed by the best product managers, and these are:

  • Inside-Out Thinking Is a Big NO-NO
  • Building Long-term Sustainable Vision, Innovation & Roadmap
  • Evidence Or Insight-Based Decision-Making
  • Let’s deep-dive into these practices:
  • Inside-Out Thinking Is a Big NO-NO

Our existing products are a success -> The executives who built these products have an intuition that the new product is the next big thing -> Therefore, customers will definitely like our new product

This the basis of Inside-out thinking where the wrong reasons are used to decide which products should be invested in and developed. Some of the common inside-out situations are intuition that a product will work, pressure from CEOs, the assumption that customers don’t know what they want, the feeling that the product will definitely sell and so on.

It’s a clear violation of what we call the First Law of Product: Customer decide what products they like, not companies.

The best product managers employ customer-informed decision making and see these situations as warning signs when it comes to making product decisions.

Building Long-term Sustainable Vision, Innovation & Roadmap

A great product roadmap is a Product Managers’ secret weapon. Product road-mapping works best when you start with a long-term vision and strategy, prioritize the product itself over the features, and manage ideas smartly.

Not having a long-term visions and strategy is the fastest route to product management failure. All great roadmaps start with a vision and a strategy to achieve that vision, which keeps the various teams invested in the same shared success of the product.

Next is prioritization. One needs to prioritize the product over features. One that’s done, certain features need to be prioritized over others. It’s not that features aren’t important but that they are often secondary to the reason a customer or user buys a product.

Lastly, being able to say “No” is extremely crucial to developing a successful product. The best product managers are excellent at managing new ideas that come from the various stakeholders involved. There is no shortage of new and innovative ideas, and the best product managers know whether these ideas roll up to their product strategy or not. They consider all ideas, rank them against the product strategy, make a decision to employ them or not, and keep everyone informed about the “why” in their decision-making process.

Evidence or Insight-Based Decision-Making

A key component that successful product managers use to drive the product team forward with insights. This is critical because they help validate that the team is pursuing the right course of action. With real-world user data, customer feedback, and metrics on the product, one already has an excellent source of business intelligence to make the best decisions for the product. When asked why you’ve selected one direction over another for the next iteration of the product, your ability to present a compelling explanation backed by real data will go a long way toward earning everyone’s buy-in.

Key Takeaways

  • Every product organization will save significant money by investing at the right time for the right product initiative
  • End-to-end vision, planning and execution processes will differentiate product companies in the market place
  • A systematic approach to product road mapping and management drastically reduces the risk of product failure
  • Gathering valuable intelligence and insights from various stakeholders, customers and the market will go a long way in defining the success of your product.
  • The harsh reality of 2016 might just be the wake-up call that the start-up world needed, and our prediction is that 2017 is going to be a great year for Indian start-ups!

Guest Post by Mr. R.N. Prasad, Consultant at Manipal Global Academy of Information Technology (MGAIT). 

He comes with over 35 years of Enterprise IT experience. He has served various IT giants like Wipro, Satyam, IBM, INNOSOFT and Infosys in leadership positions. In his last corporate engagement, Mr. Prasad was the AVP, Education and Research at Infosys, and was heading the Business Intelligence and Analytics Practice. His other areas of focus and expertise include IT Product Development Management, and IT Strategy Consulting. Mr. Prasad is a Harvard Certified “Teaching for Understanding” practitioner and a Franklin Covey Gold Certified 4DX Coach.

India to transform into a software product nation

The Finance Minister’s recognition of software products as a distinctive category which can propel India forward as a product nation could well mark a new era in India’s industrial development.

At the time of independence, we had very limited industrial capabilities. But, in the last 67 years, we have built a strong foundation across industries ranging from tractors to telecommunications, and dairy to drugs. Yet, we fall short of getting global recognition because we lack enough widely visible products and brands.

And, software products could well be the arena to change this image. We have companies that have shown they have what it takes to be global leaders – InMobi challenges Google in mobile advertising, and Fusion Charts is a preferred source for visualization tools. India’s software services industry has helped develop a huge talent pool that can write the most complex software.

In addition, today’s youngsters have the aspiration, ambition and confidence to build sophisticated and powerful products.

Sales and distribution is no longer a problem because the internet allows you to serve a global market. The missing link to creating the next Facebook or Google from India is a supportive ecosystem that promotes rapid growth.

Identification of software products as a category distinctive from services should help us overcome some of the barriers to creation of this ecosystem.

Multiple levels of taxation, difficulties in availing R&D tax credits, and barriers to venture capital investment are some of the issues that can be sorted out now that the potential of software products has been recognized.

The significance of software products goes well beyond their potential contribution to Brand India.

Well-designed software products that combine the special needs of Indian customers with the right technology have the potential to transform the productivity of India’s large MSMEs (Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) sector across industries.

Just one such product, Tally, has made accounting easy for millions of Indian enterprises.

Software products can provide platforms for improvement in government functioning and effectiveness whether it be the issue of birth certificates or facilitating financial inclusion. They can help provide better healthcare and education.

The most sophisticated defence and aerospace products have software at their heart, so software product capabilities could in the long run help our security and defence as well.

Success in software products could help promote product thinking in other industries as well. The advantage of focusing on software products first is that unlike many other product categories (like drugs or semiconductors), the upfront investments are much more manageable, and we already have the talent base and skills to get going.

Why is product thinking crucial? Because it makes possible the capture of value within our country. According to one estimate, Apple earns $368 out of every $560 iPhone. In contrast, Foxcon’s margin on every iPhone that it manufactures for Apple is less than $15. We need to change from “India Inside” to “India: Product Nation” so that we can appropriate a significant part of the value created by our talented designers, engineers and scientists.

The Vajpayee government is often given credit for removing the barriers to the growth of the software services industry through policy changes it made in the late 1990s. If the Modi government takes today’s announcement to its logical conclusion, it could be on to something much bigger – positioning India for success in the trillion dollar software product industry.

100,000+product start-ups, employment for 3.5 million technical people and more than $500 billion in market value are some of the results we can expect in the next ten years. But the biggest prize would be the spillover effects of unleashing India as a product nation.

Cross Post from BusinessToday

Government recognizes the Software Product Industry

The fact that the Finance Minister specifically underscored the Software Product Industry (SPI) in his maiden budget speech is testimony enough of the Government’s resolve to make significant and dramatic changes to achieve rapid economic development. Here are two reasons why we believe the Government is moving in the right direction.

One. Empowering the masses. There is no reason why software products cannot make an impact across various sectors in the economy including agriculture, education and healthcare among others. Software products can provide platforms for improvement in government functioning and effectiveness whether it be the issue of birth certificates or facilitating financial inclusion. They can help provide better healthcare and education. The most sophisticated defence and aerospace products have software at their heart, so software product capabilities could in the long run help our security and defence as well. 

Two. Promote Product Thinking. Success in software products could help promote product thinking in other industries as well. A healthy Software Product industry is also pivotal to developing our Defense, Aerospace and Electronics industries. It is also necessary for creation as well as maintenance of strategic technologies that are critical to national security. The advantage of focusing on software products first is that unlike many other product categories (like drugs or semiconductors), the upfront investments are much more manageable, and we already have the talent base and skills to get going. But why is product thinking crucial? Because it makes possible the capture of value within our country. According to one estimate, Apple earns $368 out of every $560 iPhone. In contrast, Foxconn’s margin on every iPhone that it manufactures for Apple is less than $15. We need to change from “India Inside” to “India: Product Nation” so that we can appropriate a significant part of the value created by our talented designers, engineers and scientists.

Image Credit: Economist

Keep in mind that India is already a global player in Software Products and has the potential to be one of the global leaders in this important industry. Companies like Tally, Zoho, InMobi and QuickHeal have created market leadership in their own segments. In recent years, hundreds of well-qualified technical people are leaving IT Services and joining the software product startup ecosystem. About 15-20% of new engineering graduates from marquee colleges are now electing to be part of Software Product companies. Software Products is the next wave. With a little effort, India can emerge as one of the dominant players in several categories of the global Software Product industry.

Fortunately, the Government recognizes this potential. In the budget speech, Mr. Jaitley clearly said: “There is an imminent need to further bridge the divide between digital “haves” and “have-nots”. For this it is proposed to launch a pan India programme “Digital India”. This would ensure Broad band connectivity at village level, improved access to services through IT enabled platforms, greater transparency in Government processes and increased indigenous production of IT hardware and software for exports and improved domestic availability. Special focus would be on supporting software product start-ups”.

The new Government has clearly taken a step in the right direction. The Software Product industry waits with bated breath.