Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a conference of global entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Mumbai — an event called Founders Forum India. Founders Forum is a franchise started by two successful UK-based entrepreneurs, Brent Hoberman and Jonnie Goodwin, to stimulate US-style entrepreneurship in the European region, and now around the world. The event brought together some 250 entrepreneurs and investors for a series of panels, round tables, and a business plan competition. It also featured a showcase of hot new Indian start-ups.
What the event made clear — beyond the striking array of talent in the room assembled by our Indian host, Reliance Group’s Rajesh Sawhney — was a stunningly bright future for all things digital in India. Indeed, practically any statistic you might cite about Digital India suggests that something unusual is going on. And the impact will occur in the next 24 to 36 months, based on the following data and projections:
Let’s start with Internet access. Today, India’s population of Internet users is 80 million, which equals a penetration rate of just seven percent (or 17 percent of the urban population). That is about to change. The government is rolling out what it calls its National Broadband Plan, a $4.5 billion initiative to build a country-wide fiber optic network that will connect an additional 160 million Indians by 2014. An Indian investment bank, Avendus, projects 376 million Indian Net users by 2015.
Part of what’s fueling growth in Net penetration is an explosion in mobility. The Indian government sponsored the introduction of 3G services in 2011 with a $30 billion spectrum auction. Morgan Stanley projects that 3G penetration will reach 22 percent by 2015. Government and the private sector have spent something like $55 billion on related infrastructure. Further, we’ll see a roll-out of 4G wireless services across the country in 2012. While there are nearly 800 million mobile subscribers in India, very few use smart phones; most have feature phones that deliver, at best, premium text-based services. As unit economics enable ever cheaper smart phones (the lowest price in the market is now $65), their penetration will rise.
Fueling this explosion is a fact of national culture: Indians love media. No one aware of the nation’s obsession with “ABC” (Astrology, Bollywood, and Cricket) will be surprised to learn that the average Indian consumes 4.5 hours of media and entertainment a day, while 70 percent of the national population spends money on content, both online and off. Time spent online already comes to 40 minutes per capita per day.
Mobility will drive much of the expansion in Internet usage. One of every four Internet users in the country now accesses the Net using a mobile device. A leapfrog effect will mean that three of every four Net users will do so by 2015. Bye-bye to the clunkier and more costly PC.
One result of this expansion is that e-commerce is rapidly taking off. Granted, only 11 percent of Indian online users are transacting online. As in China several years ago, there’s a reluctance to pay for goods using the Web; most of today’s online transactions are in the travel industry (representing 87 percent of a $6.3 billion e-commerce sector, says Avendus). Still, Amazon lookalike Infibeam is growing sales handily. It’s a reflection of what’s happening in the domestic retail space more broadly. Infibeam’s founder projects growth of the retail economy from $400 billion today to $1 trillion by the end of the decade. Digital will inevitably play a starring role in propelling this growth.
At the same time, there is an abundance of local capital ready to deploy to feed new ventures. Consumer demand for innovative digital services, when executed ably, seems unquenchable; and that demand is stimulating capital flows. For this reason, one entrepreneur observed, “More companies [in India] die of indigestion than of starvation.” According to Mergermarket, the value of investment activity rose from $111 million in 2010 to $829 million in 2011, while the number of deals doubled from 33 to 66. This expansion isn’t just domestic. Indian entrepreneurs are feeling bullish about global markets. One publicly traded company, OnMobile, an operator of premium SMS services, now does business in 52 countries around the world.
Growing confidence among Indian entrepreneurs is related to one other market attribute: Indian consumers are extraordinarily demanding. Many at the conference articulated the idea simply. As they say in Manhattan, the Mumbai crowd averred, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
Yes, there are challenges. There are at least 16 languages spoken throughout the country. There’s the question of how to develop robust legal, regulatory, and financial infrastructure (including payment systems). There’s the problem of sound policing of intellectual property rights. There’s an aversion to subscription-based offerings. And, as ever, there’s something else you cannot ignore: executional risk.
But it was hard for me, from a moderator’s perch, not to feel exhilarated by the dramatic upside for Digital India. The subcontinent seems on the cusp of amazing developments, only beginning with broadband Net access, high-speed mobility, and e-commerce. The idea that India — with its scale, its energy, its consumers — could become a digital laboratory and growth engine for the world struck me as both likely and inspiring.
Given that, is it any wonder many who attended the conference regard India’s digital opportunity in the next few years as greater than China’s?
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