It was a day when the man who rushed to invest a billion dollars in India within a fortnight asked Indian startups to take it easy and not rush it. The Softbank Chief said India is where China was ten years ago, minutes before saying that India got lucky because of the success of China. He added that entrepreneurs should not misunderstand excess funding as getting rich and not having to deliver.
It was a day when a panel full of young CEOs of loss-making unicorns and unicorn aspirants patronised the CEO of the only profitable company on the panel for calling the current Indian scenario a ‘1999-like bubble’. They topped it with platitudes that a bubble is good and that it will separate the men from the boys, thus shutting up the only man on the panel who had been around in 1999.
It was a day when all of India’s celebrated e-commerce unicorns, most re-domiciled to Singapore, thumped their chests about nationalism and India’s unique problems that only Indians could solve. Meanwhile, all of India’s ministers of related departments successfully avoided the issue of FDI in e-commerce being illegal. The Minister of State for Finance swooned over the Flipkart Founder to get him to consider listing in India thus bringing foreign money into local markets. He established his credentials as a VC before publicly speculating Flipkart’s growing valuations, something that its own shareholders have had to shy away from lately. The irony was not lost when Sunday’s headlines of #Startup India were followed by Monday’s headlines of the same Ministry’s Enforcement Department putting all major e-commerce companies under the scanner for FDI violation, a routine event that transpires once every few months.
It was a day when an agenda monopolised by hyper-funded tech startups was followed by the Prime Minister’s speech clarifying that raising billions of dollars should not be the goal, neither should be the focus on IT. Small, local entrepreneurs in education, agriculture, healthcare and handicrafts should strive to be job creators rather than job seekers, apparently by drawing inspiration from re-domiciled e-commerce startups rabidly burning billions while hiring thousands of unsuspecting Indians in an artificial growth story to draw more dumb money.
It was a day when Uber got to tell the story of how they solved the problem of pushing a button to get a ride within minutes anywhere in the world, and Ola got relegated to being local competition that opportunistically took advantage of Uber’s success by discounting rides using foreign money. The Uber CEO clocked the highest welcome applause, second only to the inspiring Prime Minister. However, a key moment of the day was created by a bold entrepreneur asking the Softbank COO when he would stop funding unsustainable discounted models like Ola and Snapdeal. Momentarily dropping his guard, the executive began his answer by pointing out that the Uber CEO had the same question on his mind, like everyone else in the audience who had broken into a thundering applause. He went on to caution the room that 2015 saw inflated valuations and we should expect some mishaps and much consolidation in 2016. I wondered if he was referring to his e-commerce company Snapdeal buying his trainwreck investment Housing.com at an inflated valuation. Or if he meant Softbank-owned Snapdeal merging with Tiger-owned Flipkart or Alibaba-owned PayTM to compete with Amazon. (There, I said it. And yes, let this be the first place you heard about it.)
It was a day when the eloquent Finance Minister repeatedly used the word &8216;unregulate&8217; standing behind a banner of #unobstacle and declared the final nail in the coffin of License Raj, thus hitting a nerve with the energetic entrepreneurs in the room who had waited a lifetime for the government to get out of their way. It was a day when the ministers of various departments fumbled with their words on a packed panel while being held accountable to answer rapid-fire questions from entrepreneurs about actually un-regulating arcane laws. It was a day when the anticipation itself made the 6PM Action Plan a good start even before it was unveiled.
It was a day when I checked the item – &8216;watch Prime Minister Narendra Modi live&8217; &8211; off my bucket list. And what a way to do it, with him talking about my favourite topic in the world: #StartupIndia. He spent the first fifteen minutes of the speech talking about the psyche of the entrepreneur. He hit the nail on the head and was able to relate to me and probably others in the room like no other Indian politician has been able to. There was little about the intent that I could find myself question. It brought back memories from 2000 when I was trying to explain to my future father-in-law how a website that let people post their thoughts and ideas would be valuable to the world, and how it was okay to not know how to make money just yet. It took me back to the days when I felt alone in bearing the burden of my stupidity for leaving a cushy job in the US to return to India and start a company that used technology to create a level playing field for local entrepreneurs of my country. All said, I drew much comfort from the fact that we have entered times when Indian entrepreneurs would be encouraged to start up even at the risk of failing. They would be cheered by their future fathers-in-law for doing something about the ideas they believed in.