1 Year of Modi

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narendra-modi-one-year-LIt’s been a year since Narendra Modi was selected as the Prime Minister by his party – the BJP. During the election campaign his slogan was:

Achhe din aane waale hain

Which translates into “good days are coming”. Well it’s been 1 year or 20% of his 5 year term and I would say most people feel the good days still have not arrived.

During the run up to the election, I kept on comparing Modi to Obama in that both countries were betting that a single charismatic speaker could turn around the fortunes of a country. That comparison of Modi vs. Obama did not go down well with most supporters of Modi. They kept on referring to his 13+ years as Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat and turning it into an economic powerhouse. Obama’s campaign slogan was “Hope” and everyone jumped on the bandwagon (me included) but when I look back at what he has achieved it’s pretty disappointing. It’s partisan politics as usual which means nothing is getting done.

Back in India, Modi is facing the same issue with partisan politics and that logjam is stifling the country. Two big bills Modi and the BJP are trying to pass are the Land Acquisition bill and the GST (Goods and Services Tax) bill. Every week that passes without resolution is another delay that the country cannot afford. The reasons for the delay are very much related to money. With the passage of the GST bill, the state governments no longer collect the money directly but get the money from the central government. It’s a bit like working and getting your own paycheck vs working and the money getting deposited into your parents account who in turn give you an allowance. As you can imagine the state governments that are not under the BJP government are not to happy about this and pretty much stopping every piece of legislation.

Of course, when you speak to a BJP party loyalist they will tell you the previous UPA-led government spent the last 10 years trashing the country and that takes time to fix. I do buy that argument. It’s probably like crashing your car and then expecting the repair shop to fix the car in a day.

However, what is frustrating are some of the proposed changes that have been leaked to the press. One such proposed change is that any international trip must be documented in your tax return. Yes, every time you travel you must document every expenditure down to a taxi receipt because they want to know where the money came from. I can only imagine the conversation that ensued when the idea was hatched:

Babu 1: Let’s track everyone’s international travel

Babu 2: Okay, when they book an airline ticket we can ask them for their PAN card number

Babu 1: That means we have to work with all those airlines to add another field to the booking engine, that seems like a long process

Babu 2: Okay, then why don’t we add a line in the ITR (Income Tax Return) form

Babu 1: Done.

Babu 2: Of course that means a lot more paperwork for the taxpayer, but who cares

As expected, the government has still has not decided what they plan on doing about documenting international travel even though tax returns are due at the end of July…so India.

The only people that are celebrating the good days in India are the ones that are benefiting from the VC gravy-train of money – startups, recruiters, Android developers, iOS developers, marketing firms and advertising outlets. Otherwise everyone else is still waiting for the good days to come.

The App Revolution

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Mobile-app-revolution-IndaiAre we in a bubble? Yes we are, planet Earth depends on the atmosphere which is a bubble of gases and protects us from meteorites and warms the Earth’s surface.

Okay, I’m assuming if you are in the technology sector you might be hearing that bubble question every other day. I like everyone else have no idea if we are in a technology bubble and if and when it will pop. When the dot com bubble popped what was left was a lot of broken dreams. In addition, a lot of infrastructure (aka internet plumbing) in the form of underutilized fiber cables, carrier class data switches, etc…

What is a more interesting question is what is being built with all this venture capital (VC) money that is being thrown around these days. If the music stopped today what would we be left with?

1. Two formidable mobile phone platforms – Android and iOS. Android has the market share while iOS has the revenue share. When you look at the first phones from each platform, the delta of awesomeness between an Android phone and an iOS phone was very high in favor of iOS. But, as the years progressed Android really closed the gap and I would say the delta between the two platforms is fairly slim now when you look at mobile phone players like Xiaomi, OnePlus and Yu Televentures from India.

2. Sharing economy. The ability to unlock the value from fixed assets or even people has been inspiring to see. People that are short on cash and have a spare bedroom, can rent that room on Airbnb and generate some revenue (granted this has been happening for years but it was very informal). If you are a hair stylist that only works 3 days a week in a salon, you could potentially “freelance” your skills for a couple days of the week to augment your income.

3. Apps. What can I say, if I hear one more person say “Have, I have this great app idea…” I’m going to puke. All jokes aside, apps have changed the way we interact with technology. Watching a little child use a phone or tablet and move around the interface with ease is something else…that’s what technology is all about. Sitting at a desktop and using a mouse to move something on screen now just seems old school and painful.

In India, the one area that has really benefitted from the flow of VC money has been logistics. Before, logistics was a pain in the ass and getting things from point A to point B was a challenge. But with the rise of new logistics players who can track packages, send an SMS status or allow you to call the delivery agent is great. So if the party stops today, India will also have a much better logistics infrastructure in place.

As Mark Twain says:

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme

A great blog post by venture capitalist Brad Feld talking about the above quote.

India’s Daughter

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bbc-indias-daughter

The BBC’s documentary “India’s Daughter” is about Jyoti Singh (aka Nirbhaya) who was brutally ganged raped by 6 monsters in Delhi in December 2012. The rape galvanized the country and led to several days of protests in Delhi and other cities in India. As usual, a lot of candles were lit but nothing really changed.

This is the first documentary where I had to stop watching for a while because my anger was rising with each passing second. Anger at the culprits, anger at the system, anger at the traditional Indian culture and anger at the defense attorneys. I still for the life of me can’t figure out the logic behind blaming a women for getting raped.

Before the documentary aired in the UK, some of the quotes from the main prisoner who was interviewed, Mukesh Singh, were splashed all over the media. However, while watching the documentary I was more shocked at the words coming from the two defense attorneys. Sadly, their views on women and Indian society is what most people in the outskirts of India think as well. They believe women belong in the home to cook and clean.

Fortunately, Jyoti’s parents were progressive in their thinking and allowed their daughter to go to school and get a job in the medical system. That’s an impressive feat considering that her parents are poor and had to sell some property to pay for her education.

Anyways, go watch the documentary. You can download it from the PirateBay or kickass torrents.

Automotive Disruption Just Around the Corner

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tesla-disruptWhen did the world wake up and take notice of the automotive industry?

5 years ago General Motors (GM) filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and no one seemed to care, today it’s a completely different story. GM recently announced one of their best quarters ever and has about $25 billion in the bank, yes that’s a “B” for billion. Now everyone is talking about the automotive industry, so much so that the press is speculating that Apple is working on an electric vehicle. The current automotive trends people are talking about are highlighted below and some of the companies involved:

– Self-driving cars (Google X)
– Electric cars (Tesla)
– Ride-sharing (Uber)
– 3D printed cars (Local Motors)

I assume the sudden interest in the car is because it’s such a large industry and when you talk about disruption this is one market that needs it. However, let’s rewind a bit.

The automotive age really kicked off with the introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908 as an affordable car for the middle class. It had 4 wheels and an internal combustion engine. You know what the car still 4 wheels and an internal combustion and that’s the problem. Yes, cars from 1908 look very different from the 2014 models but at the heart of the car is still the fossil fuel gulping internal combustion engine.

The automotive industry’s innovation for the past 10 years has been selling vehicles with more and more horsepower. I can’t for the life of me understand why you need a 400+ horsepower SUV to lug people around. I love cars, but when I speak to most normal humans they view their cars as a way to get from point a to point b. The industry really should have spent their R&D budget on engineering cars that would go further on a tank of gas/petrol instead of focusing on how fast it could drain that tank.

Self-driving cars and ride-sharing services like Uber show that people don’t want to drive. If people could afford a driver/chauffeur they would but most can’t and hence these other options are flourishing.

The aura of the electric car has been elevated 100x with Tesla in the game. Previously, electrics cars were ugly looking and something only a tree hugger could love. But, Tesla changed the game and is quickly moving towards its eventual goal of having an electric 4 door car costing around $40,000. In addition, there are many people working on the ultimate technology that would detach the car from the fossil fuel grid…solar power. Fisker Automotive which recently was bought out of bankruptcy by a Chinese company had a solar panel roof on their cars to power the accessories in the car. As solar cell technology gets more efficient it truly will allow the car to cut the cord to the fossil fuel grid.

For me the most innovative area is 3D printing, imagine you get into an accident and you take your car to the bodyshop to get it fixed. Instead of ordering the fender and having it delivered the next day, they print the rear-quarter panel overnight. Back in the day when GM launched Saturn one of the selling points of the car were the dent resistant body panels. The plastic pellets used to create the body panels were sold by GE Plastics (now called SABIC). In a country like India, all body panels should be made out of these plastic pellets since people get their doors dented and dinged almost on a daily basis. 3D printing of body panels is one thing but Local Motors recently unveiled their fully 3D printed vehicle. The implications of the open source project are far and wide, people can take the Local Motors designs and improve upon it. Who would have guessed that open source would hit the automotive industry.

It’s exciting times ahead for the automotive industry, the question is whether the big automotive companies can quickly capture these trends or continue the status quo. It’s the typical innovator’s dilemma, get with the times or get left behind.

Origin Story: shaadi.com

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shaadi_logo

The original logo I created. (yes, that font is Comic Sans!)

After years of answering questions about my role in originally co-founding shaadi.com, I figured it would be easier to pen the origin story of shaadi.com. Hopefully, this will clear up any misconceptions of it’s early days.

The idea for shaadi.com really started on August 9, 1995. That was the day of the Netscape IPO and what would be the beginning of the dot com euphoria. I had just graduated from Indiana University (IU) in May 1995 and was going to start working at Andersen Consulting (now called Accenture) just days after the Netscape IPO.

Netscape going IPO was hugh for me since I had been using Netscape products before they were called Netscape. Initially, the browser was called NCSA Mosaic and all the tech people on the IU campus were using it because it was created up the road at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).  The team at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) included Marc Andreessen who went on to start the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.

Before Mosaic, everything was text based using the Gopher protocol. However, with Mosaic everything appeared graphical and was the start of the internet that we are all familiar with now.

After seeing the Netscape IPO rocket into orbit my brother-in-law, Sandeep Jain, and I kicked around many ideas we felt the internet would transform. The two ideas we kept coming back to: jobs and matrimonial listings. Both of these areas were already large revenue generators for print media and we felt a digital version would be a great business disruptor. In then end, we decided to focus on matrimonials.

So in early 1996, I bought the domain name shaadi.com from the only place you could at the time – Network Solutions. And we were in business…well not exactly. Someone still had to build the website and I was tapped to do it. I didn’t expect a lot of traffic initially so I decided to create the website as a static site, meaning any changes to the site had to be manually coded/changed. I can’t believe I’m about to type this, but I launched version 1 of the website using Microsoft’s FrontPage which had just acquired the software from a company called Vermeer Technologies. 

Version 1 of shaadi.com was officially launched on October 1, 1996 – you can check out an archived copy of it. (If you look closely at the bottom of the page, you’ll see we used keyword stacking to get ranked higher in search engines like AltaVista, Lycos, etc. This was years before Google and their PageRank algorithm which killed that technique to game the search engines.)

Within hours of the launch we started to get traffic and people were actually filling out the form and putting their details online!  I approached many universities around the area and asked for a list of student email addresses and they gave it to me, remember this was back in 1996 when no one seemed to care about privacy protection. I initially targeted the Big Ten universities (located in the midwest region of the US) which had a large Southeast Asian population, those students in turn helped to spread the word virally to the East and West coast universities. (Today it’s called viral user acquisition strategy, back then it was just “getting hits on the site”.)

Two things quickly emerged:
1. having a static website was not viable because a lot of time was spent on manually editing the HTML pages
2. It turned out that individuals did care about privacy protection and wanted some level of privacy

There was no way we could continue operating the website without looking to the future. It was time to create a dynamic website and give people some sort of privacy. The technology stack (as tech people like to call it) consisted of:

– Microsoft’s Internet Information Server (IIS) as the web server
– Active Server Pages (ASP) for the web pages
– Microsoft Access for the database (oddly enough, I still have that original database)

I picked Microsoft because the alternative was Perl and honestly that just seemed too esoteric at the time. Back then, technology was difficult and marketing was easy whereas today it’s the exact opposite. During the summer of 1997, I bought an “ASP for Dummies” book and started to code the dynamic website. By day I was a consultant at Andersen Consulting and at night Sandeep and I were burning the midnight oil to launch version 2 of the website. We also allowed people to use an email alias such as 100405@shaadi.com that would point to their real email address, that was a massive hit and it helped to get more people onto the website.

As luck would have it, I was assigned to the Iridium project based in Scottsdale, Arizona and my roommate was Vijay Shah. Vijay was busy building an e-commerce portal called IndiaPlaza.com. Here were two guys building one of the largest Indian e-commerce portals at the time (Vijay) and one of the largest Indian matrimonial websites (me) all out of an Oakwood rental apartment in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Since traffic was growing exponentially we decided to look at outsourcing the technology stack and focus on other aspects of the business so I met with Ruksun Technologies in Koregaon Park, Pune, India. However, I quickly realized our core strength should be technology and decided we should continue to own the technology stack. (sidenote: Osho setup his ashram in Koregaon Park because of my grandfather who was a loyal follower of Osho. After Osho got kicked out of the US in 1984, my grandfather mentioned Pune might be a good place for Rajneesh to setup his ashram and he did.)

If you ask anyone who was knee-deep in the internet business at this time it was a crazy period. I made the mistake thinking that this period would come again. My thought process was: I graduated from college in ’95, bought a domain name in ’96, did some gorilla marketing in ’97 and ramped up shaadi.com to be the largest matrimonial website in the world by ’99. I thought we could do this again and again for all sorts of verticals – shampoo, rinse and repeat.

In late 1999, I was approached by Siddharth Mehta about purchasing the website. I recently had left Andersen Consulting for Cisco Systems and was drinking the internet kool-aid. Cisco was on a high as well and the stock was going through the roof, I was pretty sure I was going to retire within a couple years with all my stock options (haha!). On March 27, 2000, Cisco hit a high of $80.06 briefly making it the most valuable company in the world.  I decided to sell shaadi.com and Siddharth flew out to Los Angeles to finalize everything, we met at 11111 Santa Monica Boulevard (sidenote: In 2008 Tesla opened their very first showroom just next door). A few weeks later it was official, I changed the contact information on the domain name from myself to Siddharth. We had just sold our baby.

Between when we sold shaadi.com and 2001, the internet economy collapsed and took everything with it down the toilet…including stock options. In 2001, Siddharth sold shaadi.com to it’s current owner – Anupam Mittal. Coincidently, Anupam was running Satyanet and started the matrimonial website Sagaai.com in 1996. Once he bought shaadi.com he rebranded everything under the new domain name and continued to lead it as the largest matrimonial website in the world.

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