A Peek Inside India’s Startup Scene, with Female Founder Shradha Sharma

May 11, 2012

1:00 pm

Something is brewing in India.

“The joke about Bangalore is that if you knock at a door, you’ll meet either a startup or somebody planning to start up,” says Shradha Sharma, founder of Indian tech blog YourStory.in.

YourStory.in is also organizing a series of workshops and competitions called TechSparks, kicking off this month. The 2012 event expanded to cities all around India and culminates in a final battle of the top 30 startups, expected to draw 1,000 attendees to Bangalore.

Leading up to the event, Sharma shared her thoughts about the startup landscape in India – from startups tackling national health and education deficiencies, to conservative investors, to a helpful Hindi concept called jugaad.

Tech Cocktail: Tell me about the startup landscape in India. 

Shradha Sharma: There’s a lot of innovation which is happening on the mobile front, on the cloud front….

India is a country with a lot of languages … we’re the only country where you go to 100 km away and there will be some other language being spoken. So there are companies in the mobile space who are leveraging that and coming up with language-based solutions like Reverie Language Technologies.

Then there are impactful social ventures which are creating social impact. In India, cataract and eye problems, diabetes, and all this is very, very big – in fact every second person in the country has a symptom or develops this. And especially in the poor population, this is very prevalent. So this company, Forus Heath, it’s a global innovation because they’ve created a patented technology where you can early-diagnose and correct this disease and many other diseases. And now they’ve built it in India, scaled it up, and in fact Accel and IDG (mainstream investors) have invested. It’s a social venture which has actually validated that it’s scalable, and now they’re looking at maybe by this year end, next year, they’ll go to Southeast Asia and different parts of the world where these kind of diseases are prevalent.

Third is that in India, technologies which are solving the local problems. So the local people have various kinds – education is a problem, health care is a very big problem. So companies are now very strongly, in a focused manner, looking at solutions….

We’re seeing a lot of things happening in the education space because again, we are a country with huge population. Literacy is not one of our greatest strengths: so there’s a huge urban and rural divide, and there’s a huge divide between different states of India. Some of the companies are looking at, hey, even if you’re the poorest of poor, but you have the cheapest mobile with you, so how can I educate you on mobile? So there are different kinds of apps coming.

Tech Cocktail: What are some of the challenges for Indian startups?

Sharma: In India, if you’re a startup and you have a great, extraordinary idea, and you have the idea documented very well, everything is in order – still it is very difficult to get capital. Here we still have this mindset that unless you can show a market adoption, until you build that traction, you don’t get money easily…. That’s why you’ve not seen a lot of innovation. In India, there are very smart people – these guys work hard, they think ahead, but they don’t have the resources and that becomes a challenge…. Though it is improving; if you see from the last 3 years, comparatively, yes, it’s improved – a lot of angels are coming up, a lot of investors are coming up, there is more belief in the ecosystem, but still that’s the biggest challenge.

[Another challenge is] a very evolved mentoring network – and by evolved I would say if I want to build a product, an app, a social gaming app like Angry Birds today – if I start, I need to have support systems, organizations, facilitators, or some guys whom I can just go and bounce my idea [off]. So that evolved, very structured level of mentoring is still very much missing in India….

If we address that, then at least we can collaborate and start making things and doing things.

Tech Cocktail: What advantages do Indian startups have over US startups? 

Sharma: A clear advantage which I see is the opportunity. Because we have such a huge population, it’s a young population – overall the economy is doing well, the consumption power is immense in the country, people are spending now…. This is a very big playing ground for startups, and with this kind of consuming population, if they create anything that is meaningful that either addresses a pain point or creates an impact, it’s huge because the number which you’re addressing is huge. So even if you price yourself very low and look at a volume, you still have a very big playing ground.

[Laughing] I always believe that a lot of constraint is a lot of advantage, also. All of us have faced so many constraints and challenges in terms of not getting support, in terms of capital and everything. In one way, yes, it’s a challenge, but in another way it can work to our advantage because I think some of the best things come out under constraint – because you know that there is no support, there is no resource coming, so you need to figure it out. There’s a word which we Indians use, it’s a Hindi word: jugaad. Jugaad means that when you don’t have anything, you learn jugaad, which is to collaborate, to get things, to work your way so that people help you – without having any resources or anything.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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