Travelling Abroad 101

This post was also published on HotFridayTalks.com

Who doesn’t like to travel? Our glossy magazines and social media feeds seem to be filled with pictures of people in exotic locales across the world. And let’s not forget the steady diet of Switzerland and Canada in our Bollywood films! But, if you haven’t yet left desi shores to travel outside India – I mean, ever – it can all get a bit intimidating.

No worries, this post might help you master the basics and make the transition a pleasant one…

Visas

First things first! If you are an Indian traveller going abroad, you will find that most places will require a visa, which typically means documentation and visa fees. Some countries also require explicit permission letters from the destination country as a part of the application process, while others involve in-person interviews that may or may not be scheduled in your city of residence. That said, there are also a few countries that are relatively easier to access via simple visa formalities or even visa-on-arrival. So, do some research online (or through your preferred travel agent) to learn what it takes before you zero-in on the destination. Of course, visas get stamped on passports. So make sure you have one that doesn’t expire in the next 6 months.

Getting By

Most popular cities have traffic congestion during peak hours on popular routes – way worse than you can imagine. Thankfully, most popular destinations also have cheap, fast alternatives to help tourists (and locals) get around. These include Rapid Transit systems like the MRT or SkyTrains popular across South East Asia, with many major international airports also connected to the city center through an Airport Express system. Bear in mind that in some cities, it may cost you nearly as much as hailing a cab (for a group of 4), but you’ll save a significant amount of time not being stuck in traffic.

Connectivity

Carry your India SIM for emergency, but ask for a local SIM (destination country) as a prepaid card for your second slot. You can even carry a spare handset if you don’t have a dual-SIM phone. You will find that most travel destinations have very attractive short-term offers for calling, data and messaging on prepaid plans, aimed at visiting tourists. You may need to show your passport to get a connection.


“The world is a book, and those who don’t travel only read one page.”
Augustine of Hippo


Sights & Sounds

When it comes to taking in the sights, tourist-friendly destinations have a lot to offer. Unlike most places in India, you may not save much money by showing up at the venue and buying the ticket there. Online ticket websites and travel desks of popular hotels may charge you the same (original) price, and include free transport to and from your hotel. Ask around to figure out what works better.

Shopping

At most popular malls in tourist-friendly cities, there will often be a designated place/exit/gate where you can queue up for taxis that take you back to your hotel. The queues may be long during peak hours, but are the quickest way to get a cab, unless you have a vehicle on standby.

Lost?

Many hotels I have stayed in across the world have “contact cards” at the reception with the hotel’s contact details, a tiny map and the address printed in the local language and in English. Pick up some copies from the hotel desk, and carry them with you, especially if you are travelling to a city where the locals may not speak/understand English. It will help you re-trace your steps back to the hotel from an unfamiliar location. On that note, it is also a good idea to carry a print of some emergency numbers like the nearest local hospital, the Indian embassy, etc. for those times when unforeseen events happen.

Respect

Last but not the least, remember to conduct yourself in a manner that is appropriate and respectful of local customs. Some countries also prescribe what is appropriate (and not appropriate) to wear for ladies, or inside their temples of worship, or on the palace grounds of the reigning monarch. Other cities have very strict rules about what is permitted through customs or what is allowed (and not allowed) as a part of their traffic regulations. Read a little about what’s ok and what’s not, so you are on the right side of the law. And, don’t forget to set a good impression for your country, when you’re in a foreign land!

Enjoy your travels…

Startup India: Taking Stock

Last month, Mint did a feature on Hits and Misses in the Indian Startup universe. It was a great opportunity to take stock of reality, since most of what we read about in the mainstream media is a function of “survivorship bias”. Here are some interesting statistics from that story…

  • The E-commerce sector alone has raised over $11 billion over the past decade – roughly 75% of the funds that have been raised by Indian start-ups during that period
  • Of the $11 billion, Flipkart Internet Pvt. Ltd has raised more than $4.5 billion, and is now India’s most valuable Internet company at $11.6 billion
  • The top five most-funded start-ups in E-commerce to have shut down had raised $51.1 million in total, which doesn’t include the distress sales of companies such as Letsbuy and SherSingh
  • $3.1 billion (including debt) was raised by Digital Payment startups, making Paytm – now valued at $7 billion – India’s second-most valuable Internet company
  • Of the 192 companies founded in the Cab Hailing category since 2007, 76 have shut shop; Ola is currently valued at $3.5 billion
  • Nearly 310 start-ups in Healthcare, of 2,678 founded since 2007, have shut shop; Practo, 1MG, Portea are the top startups in this segment
  • As many as 2,460 ventures in the Edu-tech / Education space incorporated since 2007; about 224 have shut down
  • Of the 2,420 start-ups founded in Hyperlocal (home services+food tech+delivery) since 2007, 780 have shut shop
  • As many as 514 ventures tried group buying model one way or the other, but at least 221 shut shop

Think about those statistics for a moment; There are plenty of lessons to learn from. Here are some of my personal takeaways…

  1. A healthy dose of funding was available to those who ventured out and attempted to create an organization of value
  2. The best known in each segment typically finds it a bit easier to gain preferred access to investors, markets and customers, simply by virtue of their size and brand salience
  3. Path-breaking, innovative ideas executed well are not the only recipe for success; Addressing a customer gap with great execution at a profitable price point can work wonders too!
  4. Despite significant resources at their disposal, and addressing a real customer need, countless startups did not survive the past decade

For some of you dreaming of launching a startup, posts like these may signify doom and gloom. For others, it will probably provide the inspiration to soldier through.

The fact is, not every venture is meant to succeed and not every startup will fail. “There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly“, said R. Buckminster Fuller. For me, the biggest lesson buried in these statistics is that building a successful organization takes decades, not years. There is simply no shortcut to it.

The IndiaStack Framework

Typically, when we think of government-run initiatives in India, a certain image comes to mind – one that leaves a lot to be desired. But, India is changing. And, changing fast. Yes, most of us know about initiatives like Aadhaar. But, that’s not all there is to it.

A few months ago, I wrote about India’s Digital Divide in a post that covered my visit to some Community Information Resource Centers (CIRCs) that were empanelled with the National Digital Literacy Mission. In it, I captured my experience of interacting with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEFIndia.org), and with the fine folks that work at the grassroot level, ensuring that underprivileged communities in semi-urban and rural India get access to Information Technology and to the essentials skills needed to make it work.

As it turns out, there is lot more where that came from. While leading dailies are busy covering Karan Johar’s adoption on their front pages, the government – yes, the government! – has been quietly working on a digital framework over the past several years, to enable a variety of “digital services” for its citizens.

The “IndiaStack“, as it is now known, is a collection of APIs that “allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise a unique digital Infrastructure to solve problems towards presence-less, paperless, and cashless service delivery”. The seeds were sown way back in 2009 with the creation of UIDAI (Aadhaar), but the form it takes today is a robust, interoperable framework that works across devices and service providers. The IndiaStack APIs include Aadhaar, eSign, eKYC, Digital Locker, Unified Payment Interface and a host of other services ranging from Electronic Toll Collection to Bharat Bill Payment System – all designed to make it easier for the common man to go about their business. It even includes a specification for Electronic Consent that puts the user at the center of the data flow as well as content flow. Imagine, a government initiative doing all this!

The benefits of adopting such a framework are immense for the urban as well as rural masses. To take an example, a large bank can use a combination of Aadhaar + eKYC + eSign + Digital Locker to reduce Customer Onboarding time from days to hours, thereby reducing drop-offs, minimizing branch operation costs and practically eliminating the need for a backoffice. Reliance Jio used such a setup recently to onboard 100 Mn+ customers in less than 3 months, with less than 10 minutes per customer (vs 1 day or more for other telcos), and at a cost of less than Rs. 3 per new customer (vs Rs. 40 or more for other telcos). “Walk Out Working” is the new benchmark for the user journey, and it’s great news for all customers.

The technology is not just for the mass affluent customers in Top 10 metros, though. As more and more service providers build services around these APIs, the unbanked and underserved communities of India will be able to use elements of the IndiaStack to push & pull payments (UPI), share their own data (e.g. prepaid recharge history) with relevant entities, and access lending credit (e.g. a one-day or one-month loan) that was unavailable to them until now.

Aadhaar is not just another identity card – it offers a platform that can verify more than 100 Mn transactions a day, in real-time. UPI is not just a fun way to build a virtual payment address – it can enable push/pull transactions from any stored value account to any other store value account. And, Digital Locker is not just another storage service – it is a full-fledged data exchange platform to offer secure access to users in a multi-provider ecosystem. Finally, many of these tools work across devices, not just on smartphones- making them available to the audiences they were designed for.

If understood correctly, and used efficiently, this digital framework has the power to transform lives at the grassroot level, bringing hundreds of millions of people within the ecosystem, and offering them the tools they need to improve their socio-economic reality. And, the technology is available today, in the form of interoperable, scalable APIs, ready to plug-and-play.

After all, India is more than a tony suburb in Mumbai or a startup hotspot in Koramangala. India does not always speak English or get 24×7 electricity. But, India is eager to learn… hungry to grow. And thankfully, these new tools are a step in the right direction, in making India data-rich and well-connected.

India – Three Countries

A few days ago, Founding Fuel posted a cogent piece by Haresh Chawla on How India’s digital economy can rediscover its mojo. In it, Chawla speaks about the current crisis of confidence surrounding the digital economy and the so-called unicorns. It’s a great piece on the realities of the startup mania, and has a lot to offer to many of us – regardless of the role we play in the ecosystem. What was most intriguing for me, however, was Chawla’s thoughts on how India is not just a huge mass of consumers as many in the western world mistakenly assume. Here’s how he articulates it…

 

India One: Club the top 2-tiers above and you find that the top 15% of Indians, i.e. about 150-180 million, earning an average of Rs 30,000 per month, are the ones who have money left over after buying necessities. These 15% of Indians control over half the spending power of the economy and almost its entire discretionary spending.

India Two: This is the middle 30% or 400-odd million Indians, earning an average of Rs 7,000 a month… They are the ones who “service” the $1 trillion market (yes, read that again) that India One represents… Of course, we report them as internet consumers in our slick presentations on Startup India.

India Three: These are the forgotten 650 million who subsist and don’t have the money to buy two square meals. Their incomes rival that of sub-Saharan Africa… However, they are the ones who form our vote banks and determine the political future of our nation.

 

Think about that for a minute. Yes, as Indians, we all know that there are huge disparities in the wealth that surrounds us. And that is unlikely to change in the short term. But to think of India in terms of “three countries” puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me they were thinking of “building an app” as a path to striking it rich…

Of course, it is a silly notion to think that one app – any app – makes for a healthy and sustainable business model. And I’m sure the marketplace will address such misplaced notions appropriately, for the most of us who venture into this ‘glamorous’ territory completely uninformed about what lies ahead. But there is a larger issue at play, here.

Even if you don’t intend to start an app project on the side, if you’re reading this, you are most likely a part of the ‘India One’ that Chawla writes about, and therefore, in a position of some influence in Society. You are more likely to be involved in making decisions on behalf of your employers related to the products or services you manage. You are more likely to spend your waking hours in the pursuit of making your product or service available to consumers across categories – India Two and Three included.

Do we really understand the customer we seek to satisfy? Do we know what their world looks like? Do we identify with their trials and tribulations? Or do we assume that their lives more or less resemble our own, except for the fact that they don’t watch Star World or converse in the Queen’s English?

Think about India in terms of three different worlds, and you may just have a greater chance of success when it comes to translating your lofty ideas into success on the ground. After all, understanding your customer’s needs and addressing those needs profitably is the very foundation on which any business is built. Is it not?

The Technological Indian

A few days ago, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Prof. Ross Bassett of North Carolina State University on the subject of M.I.T. and the Technological Indian. In that lecture, I discovered some surprising facts about the history of Technology in India and at MIT. Here is a small glimpse…

 

During World War II, about 200,000 soldiers came to India, and circa 1945, saw the establishment of the US Office of War Information at Hornsby Street. This also housed the earliest version of the American Library, which was how information on M.I.T. first became available to Indians!

 

Some of India’s best-known industrialists – Adi Godrej, Ramesh Chauhan, Aditya Birla, etc. are M.I.T. graduates; G.D. Birla also pursued senior members at M.I.T. to seek their help in shaping the vision and setup at BITS Pilani

 

Between 1861 and 2000, more than 1,300 Indians graduated from the M.I.T. campus; The first Indian at M.I.T. was Keshav Malhar Bhat from Pune in 1882, after which no other Indian went for the 20 years that followed

 

Lokmanya Tilak’s English weekly – Mahratta – regularly carried features from western publications, thanks to the advent of steamboats and the printing press; As early as April 1884, the Kesari (published in Marathi) wrote an editorial on the need for an “industrial school” in India to be modeled on the lines of the M.I.T. campus, even though the M.I.T. model was not yet fully demonstrated in the US!

 

Mahatma Gandhi was also associated with several Indian students who went to M.I.T., including penning a recommendation for a few that sought financial aid.

 

The modern computer was also created to a large extent at M.I.T. between 1946 and 1970

 

Finally, TCS, Datamatics, Infosys and other large I.T. giants owe their origins to M.I.T as well, establishing the foundation of the I.T. industry in India!

 

What a fascinating look at Technology through the eyes of a modern historian! Thank you, Prof. Bassett for an enlightening afternoon.