Innovation in India

Yesterday I attended a TIE workshop on Innovation in India.  A stimulating discussion on the challenges we face as an “innovation economy”.  All participants tended to converge on the perspective that “jugaad” is omnipresent – but true innovation is somewhat lacking.  Several interesting reasons were highlighted:

1. Education: Our system focusses on grades and doesn’t foster invention/discovery.  The educational process helps build theoretical knowledge, but doesn’t encourage us to be hands-on people.  The presence of several Ramu’s prevents kids from learning how to do things themselves.  We know “what”, but don’t know “how” – and hence we can’t build a better product.

2. The workplace: Too little diversity and paternalistic organisations – which tends to discourage fresh thinking.  The assumptions are rarely challenged.  Someone also brought up the issue of performance appraisals and how they tend to create a metrics only culture which stifles innovation.

3. Capital: While there is gazzillions of venture capital money available, there is very little seed capital going around.  It’s therefore tough for an entrepreneur to get that 10-50 Lk funding that would help him get to POC level.  However, with a good product and 5-10 marquis customers, the VCs tend to line up.  I call this the problem of “the fat man dying of starvation” – and its common across many parts of the Indian economy.

4. Marketing: Another paradox.  India produces some of the best advertising and has some really smart marketing brains.  But again, there are too few of them going around – and its really tough for smaller entrepreneurs to get the right marketing and sales team in place.  Culturally, we grow up thinking that sales is a second-grade job – for the people who can’t do maths – and that has created its own problems.

5. Knowledge of IP: Creating global products requires a strong understanding of the IP landscape and the ability to protect one’s invention.  Another area where we pay scant attention and allocate inadequate resources.

6. Mentorship: Arguably this is one area where a lot has improved.  Start-ups today have better access to senior industry professionals to guide them in their journey.  But again, not every entrepreneur understands the value of having the right mentors.

So we know what’s wrong.  Do we know how to fix it?  Again, the consensus is that we need a huge change in the overall ecosystem for innovation to flourish in India.  But we can’t wait for that to happen.  In the meantime, here are a few thoughts:

1. Get really focussed on the customer.  Make sure you are addressing a real customer need in a meaningful way.  Spend lots of time with consumers understanding their problem and develop your solution around it.

2. Innovate on the business model – especially the financial part – if you’re looking to address the Indian market.  Develop lower price point solutions, create financing structures, involve other stakeholders – and make the product buy-able for the consumer (even if she can’t afford it).

3. Seek out and build the right team structure.  A smaller slice of a larger pie may be better than a small pie.

4. Be clear about what you’re trying to be.  Are you creating a world beating product, or a cash-cow for a lifestyle business.  Too many people try both.

Personally, I’m pretty interested in the ecosystem question.  Any thoughts?

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