India’s new Software Products Policy marks a Watershed Moment in its Economic History – Can the nation make it count?

India is on the glide path of emerging as one of the economic powerhouses of the world – its economy is ranked sixth in size globally (and slated to climb to second by 2030); it has the fastest growing annual GDP growth rate amongst (major) countries; the country ranked in the world’s top 10 destinations for FDI in 2017-18. With a population of 1.3 billion and a large middle class of ~300 million+, it is one of the most attractive markets globally. Specifically in the digital economy – India has a huge $ 167 billion-sized IT industry; it boasts of a 55% market share in global IT services & outsourcing; 1140 global corporations run their tech R&D centres in India. In the tech startup space, India has attracted Private Equity (PE) & Venture Capital (VC) investments of $33 billion in 2018, and it has over a dozen unicorns (startups with over $1 billion valuations).

These data-points are truly impressive and would make any country proud, but they belie one of the glaring historical paradoxes of the Indian economic story – the sheer absence of world-beating products from India. Ask Indians to name three truly world class, globally loved Indian products or brands – chances are they’ll struggle to name even one. Check out the Global Innovation Index 2018 from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – India doesn’t figure in the top 50 countries. Or the Interbrand 2018 Top 100 Global Brands Ranking – there’s no Indian name on that list. Leave aside brick & mortar industries, the Indian IT & Digital sector doesn’t fare any better on this count. IT services, which forms its lion’s share comprises largely of low end, commoditized services or cost arbitrage based outsourcing contracts. Most of the new age tech unicorns in India are based on ideas and business models that are copied from foreign innovators (with some local tweaks) – their outsized valuations are a result of them being the gatekeepers to the large Indian market, rather than from having created path-breaking products from first principles. So the overall trend is that India has a large domestic market, and it is a big supplier of technical brain power on the world stage, but when it comes to building innovative products, we come to a total cropper. This is best reflected in the Infosys Co-Founder, Narayan Murthy’s candid quote – “There has not been a single invention from India in the last 60 years that became a household name globally, nor any idea that led to the earth-shaking invention to delight global citizens”.

The launch of the National Software Products Policy (#NSPS):

It is in this light that the recently rolled out National Software Products Policy (#NSPS) by the Ministry of Electronics & IT (MeitY), Government of India marks a watershed moment. For the very first time, India has officially recognised the fact that software products (as a category) are distinct from software services and need separate treatment. So dominated was the Indian tech sector by outsourcing & IT services, that “products” never got the attention they deserve – as a result, that industry never blossomed and was relegated to a tertiary role. Remember that quote – “What can’t be measured, can’t be improved; And what can’t be defined, can’t be measured”. The software policy is in many ways a recognition of this gaping chasm and marks the state’s stated intent to correct the same by defining, measuring and improving the product ecosystem. Its rollout is the culmination of a long period of public discussions and deliberations where the government engaged with industry stakeholders, Indian companies, multinationals, startups, trade bodies etc to forge it out.

#NSPS will bring into focus the needs of the software product industry and become a catalyst in the formulation of projects, initiatives, policy measures etc aimed at Indian product companies. One of its starting points is the creation of a national products registry that’s based on a schematic classification system. Other early initiatives that will help in operationalizing the policy – setting up of a Software Products Mission at MeitY, dedicated incubators & accelerators for product startups, development of product-focused industrial clusters, preferential procurement by the government from product companies, programs for upskilling and talent development etc.

The Indian IT / Software Industry Landscape:

To understand the product ecosystem, one needs to explore the $ 167 billion-sized Indian IT / Software sector into its constituent buckets. The broad operative segments that emerge are –

1) IT Services & ITES: This is by far the largest bucket and dominates everything else. Think large, mid & small sized services companies throughout the country servicing both domestic & foreign markets. e.g. TCS, Infosys, Mindtree, IBM, Accenture, GE etc
2) Multinationals / Global Development Centers: These are foreign software companies serving Indian markets and/or using India as a global R&D development centre. e.g. Microsoft, Google, Netapps, McAfee, etc
3) Domestic Product Companies: This is a relatively small segment of Indian software product companies selling in domestic or overseas markets e.g. Quickheal, Tally etc.
4) Startups – E-commerce / Transactional services: This is the large, fast-growing segment of startups into direct (or aggregated) transactional businesses like e-commerce, local commerce, grocery shopping, food delivery, ride sharing, travel etc. e.g. BigBasket, Flipkart, Amazon, Grofers, Milkbasket, Swiggy, Dunzo, Uber, Ola, Yulu, Ixigo, MMT etc. You could also include the payment & fintech companies in this bucket – e.g. Paytm, Mobikwik, PhonePe, PolicyBazaar, Bankbazaar etc. This segment has absorbed the maximum PE & VC investments and is poised to become bigger with time.
5) Product Startups – Enterprise / CoreTech / Hardware: This is comprised of companies like InMobi, Zoho, Wingify, Freshdesk, Chargebee, Capillary, electric vehicle startups, drone startups etc. They could be serving Indian or foreign B2B markets.
6) Product Startups – Consumer Internet: This segment is composed of media/news companies, content companies, social & professional networking, entertainment, gaming etc. e.g. Dailyhunt, Inshorts, Sharechat, Gaana, Spotify, YouTube, video/photo sharing apps, Dream11 etc.

(N.B. Off course, this segmentation schema is not water-tight and there could be other ways to slice and/or label it)

Why India lags behind in Software Products?

The global software products industry has a size of $ 413 billion, and it is dominated by US & European companies. India’s share in that pie is minuscule – it is a net importer of $ 7 billion worth software products (India exports software products worth $ 2.3 billion, while it imports $ 10 billion)“Software is eating the world” – entire industry segments are being re-imagined and transformed using the latest developments in cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data, machine learning etc. In this scenario, it is worth understanding why India seems to have missed the software products bus. The reasons are multifarious, cutting across cultural, economic, market, behavioural and societal factors –

a) The cultural aversion to Risk, Ambiguity & Failure: Indian society has traditionally valued conformity and prepares people not to fail. Our family and educational environments are geared for teaching us to eschew risk-taking and avoid ambiguity. But building products is all about managing risk and failure. When you take a product to market from scratch, you take on multiple types of risk – market risk, execution risk, product risk. For many people in India, this is in stark contrast to their social/attitudinal skills and expectancies they have built up over a lifetime.

b) “Arbitrage” offers the Path of Least Resistance: If you pour water down a heap of freshly dug mud, it will find the path of least resistance and flow along it. Human behaviour is similar – it is conditioned to look for the path of least resistance. And “arbitrage” offers that least resistance path in the IT industry – be it cost arbitrage, labour arbitrage, geographical arbitrage, concept arbitrage et al. The IT services industry leverages the cost arbitrage model via cheaper labour costs. Many of the transactional e-commerce startups in India have used geographical arbitrage to their advantage – once a successful product or model is created in another market, they bring it to India to capitalize on a local first mover advantage, build a large valuation and become the gatekeeper to the market before the (original) foreign innovators arrive in India many years later! But arbitrage means, that while you are taking on market & execution risk, you are not assuming the product risk. These dynamics played out at scale over the years has meant it is easier for a wannabe entrepreneur in India to go the arbitrage way and quickly build out a business using a readymade template than go down the software products path, which has a much longer gestation & higher risks associated with it.

IMHO, this “arbitrage” factor represents the single biggest reason why India has seen a virtual explosion in e-commerce startups, at the expense of product startups. Look around the startup ecosystem and you’ll see all kinds of transactional businesses involving activities like buying, selling, trading etc. Why… this almost reminds of that famous 17th-century quote by Napolean when he described Britain as a “nation of shopkeepers”🙂

c) Tech isn’t enough – you need design, marketing skills: To build great software products, you not only need strong technical abilities but also good design, marketing & branding skills to carve out a compelling product offering. Ask any startup in India – one of their most common problems is the inability to hire good designers and UX professionals. This puts Indian companies at a comparative disadvantage – even if they have the engineers to build the technology, their inability to translate that technology into an appealing user experience often means the difference between success and failure.

d) Lack of “patient” venture capital: This is a complaint you hear often from Indian product startups – the lack of venture capital that’s willing to be patient over the longer gestation cycles software products demand. While there is some truth to it, the more likely explanation is that software product companies present a “chicken & egg problem” for Indian startup investors. Investors are driven by financial returns – if they see returns from product companies, they’ll bet their monies on them. It just so happens, that Indian investors haven’t yet seen venture sized returns from software product companies. Hopefully, this dynamics will even out as the ecosystem grows.

e) Inadequate Domestic Market Potential:
 Many software products are monetized via subscription models, where the market’s ability (and propensity) to explicitly pay for the service is critical for success. Sometimes (SAAS/enterprise) companies try their model in India, only to discover there just aren’t enough paying customers. These startups may then be left with no choice but to either target foreign markets, or in extreme cases just move abroad for business continuity. Thus it has become imperative for the Indian domestic market to grow in size and scale to ensure the viability of product startups.

Platform companies from India are a non-starter: One aspect that needs calling out specifically is the sheer absence of any platform companies from India. Platforms are the next evolutionary step for scaled software product companies – if you get to the stage, where other industry stakeholders start building on top of the plumbing you’ve provided (thereby becoming totally dependent on you), that’s an immensely powerful position to be in e.g. AWS, Android, iOS etc. This factor assumes even greater importance given upcoming trends in AI, machine learning, deep learning, automation, robotics – the companies which emerge as platform providers may offer strategic advantages to the country of their origin. As depicted by the graphic below, India is as yet a non-starter on this count. This is deeply worrying – imagine a scenario 10-15 yrs out, when Indian software companies start dominating the domestic markets and also are a force to reckon with globally, but it’s all built on intellectual property (IP) & platforms created & owned by foreign companies!!

Some Suggested Action Areas for the National Software Policy:

MeitY in consultation with industry stakeholders is likely to create an implementation roadmap for #NSPS. Here are some specific action points I’d like to call out for inclusion in that roadmap:

Domestic Market Development: As explained earlier, the Indian domestic market needs curated development to reach a potential that makes product startups viable without having to depend on overseas markets. This calls for a series of steps, such as policy support from sectoral regulators, funding support via special go-to-market focused venture capital funds etc. The government could also help by announcing a preferential procurement policy from domestic software product companies. The Government e Marketplace (GeM) can help in institutionalizing these procurement norms.

Creating Early Awareness (Catch ‘em young): Fed by constant news in media about IT services, ITES, BPOs, outsourcing etc the average person in India is likely to be aware of IT services, but not necessarily software products. Many people may have friends and family members who work at TCS, Infosys, Wipro, IBM etc, but the same can’t be said about product companies. Given this scenario, it is important to create early awareness about products in schools, colleges, universities across metros, Tier 1, Tier 2 & 3 towns. Some of the world’s biggest product innovators like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs started writing software before they had reached high school – so if we can catch people young, we actually get a much longer runway to get them initiated into the product ecosystem. If they learn about products after they’ve started working in the industry, or when planning a mid-career shift from services to products, it might be quite late.

Reducing entry barriers for starting Software Product Companies: As shared earlier, one of the big problems in the Indian software product space is that there just aren’t enough entrepreneurs starting up product businesses. E-commerce & transactional services actually absorb (or suck in) a lot of entrepreneurial talent by virtue of having lower barriers to entry. To make a serious dent in products, you need a much larger number of product companies started off the ground. This can happen only by systematically bringing down the entry barriers – driving awareness, providing funding support, providing market development support etc. Advocacy and evangelism by software product industry role models also can help develop confidence and conviction in people to think products instead of services or e-commerce.

Building domestic Software Product Companies atop public goods: Silicon Valley has shown how you can build successful commercial applications on top of public goods (e.g. Uber built on top of GPS, Google maps & mobiles). In a similar way, public goods in India like IndiaStack, or HealthStack can be the base (or the plumbing) over which commercial applications get built for mass scalability. The good news is this trend has already been kickstarted, though its still early days.

This blog was first published at

Software Exports – GST makes it difficult to do business

The GST was welcomed by all as a revolutionary measure. We had covered one earlier topic, “How GST will work for software exporters”. There have been many changes in last few weeks before GST was launched in the IGST law.

Please note that “GST law” treats Software as “Service”. Hence, there may be a mention on “Software” and “Services” in mixed manner in the write-up. This write-up is just focusing on problems and issues created for exporters by the GST process. On details of process there are many blogs on internet.

After launch of GST since 1st July 2017, we came across many questions and concerns on how GST on Exports. I have been trying to write a piece on how the process works for Software exports under GST. However, the policy and process for export of “Services” was not at all clear. I have myself struggled through,  and it has taken more than 6 weeks to understand the process, raise exports invoices and multiple documentations required.

GST has turned out to be nightmare, especially for Small and medium Software exporters and will continue to do so, unless corrective measures are taken up.

Let us look into how process required to be complied, caused problems.

Exporting Software under IGST law

IGST law on one hand treats exports as “Zero-rated” supplies and on the other hand treats exports as “inter-state” trade instead of “International trade”. These two corollaries of GST law are inherently paradoxical.

Being Zero-rated there is no tax or duty on export. However, being Inter-state trade (rather than being international trade) it requires payment of IGST under IGST law.

If one delves deep in to this application of IGST on exports, it clearly comes from concern of tax policy makers on “Goods”, moving in a container and a compliance assuring good reach port of export and gets exported finally. That this does not apply to services has not been thought over by the GST law makers. (the assumption may be services will adjust in due course of time)

Hence, as per IGST law an exporter is required to either

  1. Pay IGST 18% on Software export and get it refunded

Or Export without IGST by

  1. Filing a Bond if the exports in previous year were less than rupees one crore.
  2. Filing a LUT if the exports in previous year were more than rupees one crore.

Filing a Bond requires submitting a Bank Guarantee to GST department up to 15% of the amount of duty applicable on estimated exports value in a given (say a year). The jurisdictional office of GST has a discretion to decide bank guarantee amount anywhere from Zero to 15%.

If the office approves zero % (or nil) bank Guarantee, the department asks a set of declarations and data of past year.

Anything that is based on discretion in regulation, also brings in corruption with it. Whereas there is news from many places that jurisdictional GST office are waving bank guarantee clause for Software/IT exports. There is also news that GST department is randomly asking for bank guarantees.

Problems created by IGST law

Locking of working capital

A small software exporter or a startup not having more than 1 crore of “export turnover” in past year will have to opt for either option a) Or b) from above choices i.e. either the exporter has to pay duty and get a refund or has to sign a bond with bank guarantee.

If the bank guarantee is not waved by the jurisdictional officer, the exporter will have to keep the bank guarantee replenished continuously to support regular exports.


In either of the cases the IGST law locks the working Capital of the start-up or small exporter.

The GST law therefore goes against policy of Government of India to promote startups. It also is going to be regressive measure for large number of small IT companies, IT consultants and freelancers.

Discretion causes corruption on ground

Anything that is based on discretion in regulation, also brings in corruption with it. For those who want to file bond, the jurisdictional office of GST has a discretion to decide bank guarantee amount anywhere from Zero to 15%.

Whereas there is news from many places that jurisdictional GST office are waving bank guarantee clause for Software/IT exports. There is also news that GST department is randomly asking for bank guarantees.

GST department’s manual intervention in Exports

Exports before GST were never allowed to report or get clearance from Indirect tax departments. Now, GST department has become a gateway for every exporter of Goods and Services, thus extending mandate from domestic tariff area to international trade also.

What is cause of concern is this intervention of GST department is manual as against the principle of making entire GST system end-to-end digital. This give power in hands of indirect tax officers to monitor exports.

This perhaps is a fundamental error that Government of India have made, against it’s public stance on “Ease of doing business.”

This is a problem for all exporters including those with “export turnover” more than 1 crore and eligible to sign a LUT with GST.

It is more of less like traffic policing the exports on regular basis and heavily increased compliance.

GST has no focus on Software exports

The entire GST law has been written with physical Goods in mind but applied equally to both Goods and Services. Once again Government of India has made a classical mistake. It is an irony that a nation that is known to be power house of Software has not focus of tax authorities on “Software exports”.

The concept of Bank-Guarantee is detrimental to Startup eco-system and SMEs

Startups and SMEs require removal of regulatory barriers for them to grow. GST law has done just the opposite. It requires small exporters and Startups to furnish Bank Guarantees.

GST for supplying to SEZ

SEZs are deemed to be considered outside the customs territory of India. Hence, supplies to SEZ units by exporters in India i.e. DTA will be treated in same manner as exports to clients located outside the country.

Therefore, if a Startup or a Software product company is selling to an SEZ unit, the process will be same as that of exporting.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Government of India has seriously lost focus on “Ease of doing business” agenda, startup policy, SMEs and supporting self-employed professionals while framing GST/IGST laws.

It is recommended that

  1. Government of India should notify a clearly stated policy for Services and Software exports and not mix or generalize with remaining Goods exports.
  2. The GST department should have no or minimum (limited to Digital medium) only in regulating exports of Services and Software
  3. IGST duty and refund mechanism and also Bank-Guarantee or LUT should be done away for Services and Software export. A quarterly and annual reports is enough on digital platform, regulated digitally. In order to bring or include Services exporter under DGFT regulation, IEC can be made mandatory and used to regulate Services trade. IEC is same as PAN now, hence, IEC can be used by all size of exporters.

The SaaS Juggernaut: Advantage India

An Indian software company serving majorly clients in the US or Europe is not an unusual thing anymore. However, if anybody were to guess the location of the India office, a company that counts amongst its clients about 100,000 small businesses globally, they would most probably chose Bangalore or Hyderabad. However, Appointy, which is an advanced web-based scheduling software tool and has around 90,000 salons, spas, and dance and yoga classes as its clients in 100 countries does it out of Bhopal. Similarly Kayako, which sells support software to over 30,000 clients including NASA, Peugeot, Sega found its roots in Jalandhar, which as per their own website is “one of the least likely places to establish a technology start-up”.

The emergence of these companies from relatively smaller towns, highlight India’s comparative advantage in terms of ability to build high quality companies in the domain of Software as a Service (SaaS). The inherent model of the SaaS business does not require proximity to the end user. In the simplest terms, it is a software that can be accessed through a web browser, by paying a subscription, either on a monthly or yearly basis. The software is hosted exclusively by the provider, as opposed to being downloaded upon purchase and subsequently hosted by the client. The customer gains by spending less upfront, not having to maintain hardware and not worrying about upgrades & data security. Driven by such factors, the SaaS model is growing exponentially and the global market for 2015 stood at USD 31 billion (NASSCOM). The growth is expected to continue at CAGR of 18% to reach a market size of USD 72 billion by 2020. Another study by Google and Accel Partners estimates the 2020 market to be USD 132 billion.

The Indian SaaS landscape is expected to evolve even faster. The FY16 market is estimated to be USD 407 million, a 34% growth over FY15. This figure is expected to triple by 2020 growing at a CAGR of 27%, 1.5 times the global growth rate. It is easy to see why India is going to be a hotbed of activity for SaaS companies. The cost of product developers is one of the biggest items in a SaaS company’s P&L Statement. A software developer in India costs 25% of what a similarly skilled one based in the US would cost. India has an estimated 36,000 product managers, 25,000 SaaS engineers and 100,000 other engineers with the skills for building a SaaS product. Another critical factor is the adoption of mobiles as the primary device for accessing data. India being a mobile-first nation is well placed to ride this shift as its young companies are more flexible and can focus on mobile platforms.

Buoyed by these advantages, companies have been sprouting in every segment of the sector. NASSCOM estimates that there are around 150 Indian companies offering SaaS solutions. 40% of these companies have been incorporated after 2010. Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Content Collaboration and Communication (CCC) and Enterprise Resource Planning are the hottest segments accounting for more than half the market in FY16.

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 8.54.06 am


Growth in the domestic market is also expected to be a major boost factor for the Indian companies. A deeper dive into the key underlying sectors which are adopting SaaS brings even more attractive prospects to the fore. Healthcare, E-commerce, BFSI and education sectors have been the most targeted segments by emerging SaaS companies. Each of these sectors is expected to expand at a healthy pace in the near future riding on the overall economy’s consumption led growth. At 7.6%, India’s GDP growth rate for FY16 has been the highest in the last 5 years. Small and Medium sized businesses emerging in these sectors would be much more nimble and receptive of SaaS solutions to avoid upfront large capex on technology.

The investor community, financial and strategic, has also embraced the SaaS opportunity with both hands. A total of USD 650 million was invested in SaaS companies in India till 2014. The funding in 2014 is estimated to be between USD 170 million to USD 200 million. However, the funding skyrocketed in 2015 with USD 450 million in the first half of the year itself. Some of the most active investors who are backing SaaS companies India are as below.

  • Accel Partners (Freshdesk, Hotelogix, Mobstac, Mindtickle, Chargebee, Zettata,)
  • Blume Ventures (Zipdial, Hotelogix, Mettl, FrameBench, WebEngage, Mobstac)
  • Nexus Venture Partners (Druva, Indix, Unmetric, TargetingMantra, Genwi, Helpshift)
  • Norwest Venture Partners (BlueJeans, CRMnext, Act-On, Capillary Technolgies, Attune)
  • Sequoia Capital (Druva, Capillary Technologies, Knowlarity, Practo)

The investors will have their hands full the short to medium term as most of the companies move traverse from Series A to B to C and so on. With companies maturing and cash balances building up, the sector is also expected start throwing up M&A opportunities much faster than any other sector.

The SaaS story hasn’t quite meant curtains for the traditional software licensing business model yet. Currently, SaaS commands only about 9% of the over Indian software market which is estimated to be USD 3.1 billion. However, Indian SaaS companies have already been able to create a market perception of building great products at lower cost. Currently, a large number of Indian SaaS companies would lie in the revenue range of USD 1 to 2 million. However, there are enough cases of rapid scaling up companies (such as Freshdesk, Capillary Technologies and CRMNext) to help us believe that we will soon see companies with multiple billion dollars in revenue emerging from India.


Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 8.57.35 amThis is a guest post by Arvind Yadav, Executive Team Member at Aurum Equity Partners LLP.


Back to the Future: Software Moves as Catalysts for Driving Change

Several events in the software world during 2012 will have a notable impact on the industry for years to come, according to SandHill’s industry observers. Some are striking enough that our panelists think they deserve an award.

What software event that happened in 2012 will have the most impact over the next two to three years?

Lincoln Murphy, founder and managing director, Sixteen Ventures:  From a purely commercial standpoint — software innovation aside — there was one event that should have the attention of everyone from freemium startups to the biggest, entrenched enterprise software vendors: Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer. Microsoft bought Yammer, a four-year-old company, for $1.2 billion not just to expand their market or for their “Cloud DNA,” but because Yammer was, quite simply, beating them in the market. This should make legacy enterprise software and ISV incumbents open their eyes to the reality of cloud startups in their market.

As an industry, enterprise software companies should have learned from sneaking up on CRM vendors — including Microsoft — and taking market share. But it was brushed off as an anomaly. In 2012, 2013, and beyond, cloud-native companies disrupting and displacing entrenched, on-premises software vendors is no longer an anomaly; it’s rapidly becoming the norm.

Yammer, a cloud-native company, was winning deals against Microsoft SharePoint; and Microsoft didn’t see it as (or perhaps admit it was) a threat until it was so late that the option of buying Yammer was only available at a premium. If you’re the incumbent on-premises software company being threatened by cloud-native vendors and FUD doesn’t work anymore, what’s your move?

Kevin Cox, vice president corporate marketing, Actian Corporation: The thin client or mobile device or smartphone established itself as the most consumer-desired platform for software consumption and a dramatic extension of cloud as the new most desired platform of software. This will play out over the next three years as a disruptive reshuffling of middleware, applications and service provider markets.

Guy Smith, chief consultant, Silicon Strategies MarketingThe utter domination of Android for smartphones is a shift that cannot be discounted. Android came from nowhere to market dominance in less than two years, which changed everything. There appears to be no slowing its growth save for market saturation. If Apple releases anything like Apple Maps again, their halo sales will drop and Android will own it all.

Read the complete story at