Bill Gates once told a journalist that everyone should care about developments in India because the world’s largest democracy (of 1.2 billion people) and tenth-largest economy is quickly catching up with us. I recently had the opportunity to see those developments first-hand, and I wholeheartedly agree with Bill’s sentiment. Innovation and technology breakthroughs are not owned by or limited to the United States, and as international markets mature, we’re going to see more and more entrepreneurship and startup activity overseas. Now I don’t mean to imply that the demise of Silicon Valley is imminent, but its influence will be greatly diminished in the future, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
I just returned from a round-the-world trip that included nearly two weeks in India as part of a 500 Startups-sponsored market exploration tour called Geeks on a Plane. The tour stopped through Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi, with meetups for local entrepreneurs, startups, investors and some of the most influential companies in India’s technology ecosystem. While in India, I had the chance to meet several SoftLayer customers — including Zoomin, PowerWeave, and Vidya Mantra — and their insight into the growing technology culture in the region was eye-opening.
One of the most interesting characteristics shared by many of the entrepreneurs I spoke with was that they were building businesses with a “hyper-local” focus: Unique business models that are specifically geared toward serving local communities while leveraging the latest technologies in mobility and e-commerce. This distinction is particularly noteworthy because they didn’t assume that they’d need to succeed in the US market or compete with companies in the US to build their businesses … And they’re absolutely right. The opportunities that exist for hyper-local entrepreneurs in these emerging markets are staggering.
FlipKart is known as “The Amazon of India.” It’s very similar to the online shopping giant most of us know and use regularly, but with some unique regional twists. For example, because credit card and electronic payments in India are not as prevalent or reliable as they are in much of the world, orders are taken via both an online ordering system and through FlipKart call centers. Once processed, a highly developed network of “scooters” delivers about 50 percent of FlipKart’s orders, and the payment is provided at the customer’s door — IN CASH. While that might seem simplistic, each courier has a smartphone that allows them to become a geo-located, connected, data sharing entity. Hundreds of millions of dollars in FlipKart orders are delivered each year with very few issues, despite the fact that most of us can’t even imagine how the company could operate that way in the US.
Another great example of how innovators are using technology to redefine businesses is redBus, India’s largest bus ticketing company. A huge percentage of travel in India is done very inexpensively by bus, and before redBus came on the scene, travelers took their chances by buying tickets through middlemen and ticket brokers, often getting ripped off or becoming victims of double-booking. By centralizing the ticketing process, redBus is able to provide a reliable way to book a seat on any of India’s vast system of buses via phone, online or in person. redBus offers the largest selection of bus seats in the country with over 350 bus operators and a flexible network of boarding points, timing and bus types. It’s an incredibly simple service that meets a clear need for a hyper-local audience by leveraging the technologies being built and improved around the world.
If my two weeks in India taught me one thing, it was that the startups don’t need to conquer international markets … They can strive to service their local communities and interests, and they’ll be just as successful (if not more). Our Catalyst program has just begun its international expansion into India, and the future certainly looks bright. In fact, I’m proud to announce that we’ve already signed up our first Catalyst program member in India with many more to come!
As we continue working with startup communities around the globe, I learn more and more about how the world is changing, and I get a stronger appreciation for the cultural and economic ties that bind us all together.