Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Book of Lists

Startup Asia is a coffee table book. No, not in the sense we understand coffee table books, but it is a book feels like a purposeless chat around the coffee table. What does it say? It says that Asia is the next innovation hub and it should be watched out. What do we mean by Asia? Asia means Vietnam India and China [VIC]. If BRIC-S could be invented as one term for looking at emerging markets, we could do so for other regions as well. So welcome to this world of VIC, an innovation hub.

Startup Asia is written in a curious style mastered by Ruchir Sharma. Sometimes it feels like a series of blogs; sometimes like a rushed travelogue; sometimes if feels like a P3 party; it also appears like a column of Keya Sarkar that assumes that the entire world is interested in a Sari Shop in Santiniketan; it is chatty, directionless and preachy all at the same time.

Obviously there has to be something in the 239 pages in addition to the photographs of investors, enterpreneurs, and innovators. The book rambles, firstly talking about the hotspots of innovation in Asia – China, India and Vietnam. The hotspots are identified by looking at patents filed, anecdotal narrations of new companies that have either innovated or replicated an existing business model – mostly concentrating on the tech space. It puts in more anecdotes about the regulatory environment and markets. If this were a coffee table conversation, you would come back with the impression that you have talked to a person who has very profound insights. Unfortunately having lots of data that you can reel off and a series of anecdotes to “prove” the data provides us lists than insights. Insights come from a theoretical framework of looking at patterns and examining if these patterns add up, whether these patterns could be theorized, whether others can learn the underlying principles. If we ask the question whether we are any wiser after reading this book; what we have learnt about start ups; about Asia; about innovation the answer could at best be vague.

Clearly the author is in a hurry. The number of companies she “studies”, the number of people she “visits” and the number of conclusions she “arrives” at a pace that shows impatience and restlessness. Take this as an example: “Lunchtime! Office manager Raghu Rao has ordered in box lunches of spicy Indian curries, chicken tandoori, saag paneer, basmati rice and nan from the upscale Taj West End hotel for us. We sit around the conference room table and Sethi gives me a brief history of the evolution of India tech entrepreneurship. Between bites, I type as fast as I can on my netbook computer and – something I couldn’t have done in China – tweet some of his more relevant points” [p.63]. It is indeed a lot of work and a quick way of learning lessons in evolution and undertaking research. In this hurry she fails to check some basic facts like “Shaadi, a Sanskrit word of ‘wedding’[p.57]” and “Another innovative cyberspace security startup I encountered at IDG’s Bangalore office is iViz, a spinout in 2006 by Bikash Barai from his alma mater Indian Institute of Techology, in Calcutta”[p.63]. We can agree that the government has been mindlessly setting up IITs and IIMs in places like Jodhpur, Rohtak, Raipur and Kashipur but a new IIT with readymade alumnus in Calcutta?

So what are her strategies for cashing on the innovation boom? It is evident in the titles of the chapters – catch the mobile boom [example: Justdial]; get in on the cleantech boom [Attero, D.light, Reva]; ride the consumer wave [Coffee Day; Kaati Zone]; Outsourcing [Mindtree]; tap in government incubators [Rotimatic, Tencube]; Become the next twitter [Gobi partners, MakeMyTrip, Ushi]; Originate a Discovery [Helion]; We get insights into many start up cases, as she travels and has meetings amidst lunches and tea.

She wraps up the book with two chapters which celebrate going public and listing and going global. That is the ultimate purpose of innovation, that is the mission of a start up. Once on NYSE or NASDAQ the mission is accomplished.

So as we wrap up this review here are some nuggets of “strategy”. Strategies with severe word limits. Take this as an example:

Strategy: Reva
  • Develop patented technologies and reap the benefits of first-mover advantage before the market gets crowded
  • Partner with big multinational with enough presence in the local market to boost distribution
  • If you are a technologist, stay true to your original mission and let others deal with business hassles so you can focus on what you do best

One never knew that there could be a self-help book on start ups. This appears to be one. Ruchir Sharma would be delighted to see that his travelogue style of understanding global economies has been perfected to an art in this micro world of innovative start ups. Her acknowledgements are a delight to read as they provide a guide to the hotels she stayed in and a twitter like review on what it was to stay in those places.

Startup Asia:

Top Strategies for Cashing in on Asia’s Innovation Boom
Rebecca A Fannin
John Wiley and Sons
pp.239. Price Not Specified

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