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Anand Lunia

22 Feb '18
Let’s talk about Indian startup world's sepoy syndrome
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Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the outspoken and charismatic CEO of Paytm, minced no words in alleging special treatment to WhatsApp for its UPI-linked payments feature. But social media began writing obituaries on Paytm.

It was like past cricket captains rejoicing Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli's loss to South Africa in the test series. Except you won't see them do that.

When India's competition commission recently fined Google for abusing its dominant position, most of the ecosystem kept mum. Nobody would go on record against the Big Daddy. There was ambivalence about Facebook's Free Basics programme for the 'poor' masses of India. Microsoft and Google can charge your credit card without two-factor authentication, a privilege not available to startups in India.

Nobody has questioned why after burning three times the money Flipkart has done over 5 years, Amazon not been able to take over as the e-commerce marketplace leader in India.

The fact remains that Flipkart brought e-commerce to India and Amazon followed 5 years later. The fact that Amazon, or Uber, for all their technical and design superiority continue to discount heavily over competition suggests there are not too many other playbooks for Flipkart, Ola or Paytm to follow.

While the good folks at IndiaStack provided the backbone for seamless payments, it was Paytm that captured the imagination of the masses, cashbacks notwithstanding. If we can't own the success of Flipkart and Paytm as the success of our ecosystem, what is a young entrepreneur supposed to aspire for?

Interestingly, one of Flipkart's founders joined ranks with Paytm on the WhatsApp issue.

The 'sepoy syndrome'- that a white officer can do no wrong and brown people are smitten by anything western and deserve to be ruled-begins with parents wanting their children to get jobs at multinational companies.

The syndrome continues at venture capital firms, which consider Silicon Valley gossip as gospel. Founders are taught to blindly follow everything that Facebook does. And made to believe that no Indian startup can be as good as Google.

The policy-maker, especially the bureaucracy, is the epitome of the 'sepoy syndrome'. Amazon flouted the norms for e-commerce marketplaces for the longest time. Facebook was about to get away with its Free Basics programme. And Google got a gentle rap on its knuckles for breaking monopoly/tax laws. The good folks at National Payments Corporation of India came back with a clarification on the WhatsApp issue but remained silent on many of the allegations.

One founder said that while the 'anti-MNC' plank worked for Ayurveda-based consumer goods company Patanjali, it may not work for Paytm. The success of Patanjali was rooted in making people feel proud of their Indian-ness. So basically, Indian founders are not going to get support but only derision when they fight the inherent bias in our ecosystem.

Incidentally, it was the founders of Flipkart and Paytm who fought tooth and nail against Facebook's Free Basics, which they could have leveraged. But that would have sounded the death knell for the domestic startup ecosystem.

Is Paytm vs WhatsApp a mere Alibaba vs Facebook issue? Nobody called Facebook a sellout or a un-American company when Russian investment group DST led a large funding round in it. So what does our ecosystem want? That our entrepreneurs should raise money from state banks? Why is fundraising from Mauritius-based global funds more nationalistic than raising capital from a Chinese or American company?

The question is what should be the real inspiration for our entrepreneurs? Can we have real discussions around issues that hurt the formation of world-beating companies out of India? Can we celebrate the success of others in our ecosystem, and empathise with their struggles when they face challenges? Or are we just waiting for all Indian companies to struggle so that the hierarchical order in the society is restored?

 

This post was written for Economic Times & appeared in the daily on 19-Feb-2018
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