Greg Bearup checks the latest Indian export
From InMobi’s head office, in the middle of a massive new technology park in Banglore, India, Abhay Singhal looks out on to some of the world’s great commercial houses.
“That one over there is Cisco,” he says, pointing to a gleaming glass structure. “LG is down that road. Samsung is just opposite, as is Wal-Mart and …” Singhal, the company’s co-founder and chief revenue officer, soon runs out of fingers and then gets to his point, which is that all these companies were started elsewhere and they have essentially come to India for their grunt work.
“The core intellectual property is generated in a headquarters overseas and they’ve shifted the low-end work, the maintenance work and the customer support to India,” says Singhal. “IBM has 30,000 employees in India while Cisco has 10,000 … traditionally the West has given us the technology and India has provided the cheap labour.”
But InMobi, a company that designs advertisements and apps for mobile phones – and is attempting to take on Google and Facebook in this space – is at the forefront of an Indian revolution that is turning that old model on its head.
The super-smart men and women in its operation are tapping away at their laptops, sitting in beanbags and bubble chairs, in the brightly coloured office space behind us.
“My global technology gets created in India,” Singhal says. “We believe that Indians can create products that are globally relevant. Our business model is very simple; whenever you are using an app on your phone, to keep that app free there needs to be advertisements to support it – InMobi provides that technology.”
It is a simple concept but the brainpower required is immense.
In 2013 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named InMobi as among the world’s 50 most disruptive companies. It started in 2007 with four friends in Mumbai setting up a Hindi search engine, but changed course with the phenomenal uptake of mobile phone use in India. At its headquarters it now employs more than 500 software engineers and exports its technology to the world. It has 24 offices in 17 countries around the globe, including a team of 30 in Sydney – with offshoots in Melbourne and New Zealand.
Brendan Watmore, InMobi Sydney’s strategic director, says there are significant advantages for Australian firms doing business with India, rather than with our other Asian trading partners, such as Japan or China.
“We just get each other,” Watmore says. “We can take staff straight out of India and put them in the Sydney office and they fit in and are productive straight away.”
Likewise, Australian staff regularly spend time in Bangalore to see what the engineers are creating, which helps them to sell products to Australian advertisers.
“The cultural similarities that we have with India make it easier for Aussies to do business with India,” says Watmore. “This is particularly true in the tech space, where things can get complicated; it really helps dealing with people who speak English and who have that cultural similarity.”
Watmore says there are cultural differences and different ways of working but they are easily overcome with time and understanding.
“We’ve adjusted our operations to make the most of what head office in India could offer,” he says. “We spend a lot of time getting the balance right between what we take from India and what we add at a local level. The core tech and support is all Indian and gives us a huge advantage. We then fine-tune the application of the tech so that it expands the opportunities in the local market.”
That fine-tuning process is enhanced by the personal relationships with the team in Bangalore, he says: “It gives us the extra 15 per cent we need to compete against the big guys.”
Singhal admits that the great advantage that his company has – as indeed all Indian tech companies have – over many of their Asian rivals is that they speak English. And then there’s cricket, and its techies love a beer.
“Australia doesn’t feel like an alien market to me as, say, Japan does,” he says.
There is a fear, I tell him, that many Australian knowledge jobs could be exported to India.
“It may be a fear,” he says, “but look, you can’t stop it, you just have to adjust. It is like trying to stop water from flowing, it will find a way through. You can’t fight the economic benefits.”
India, he says, lost many manufacturing jobs in the garments industry to Bangladesh because its labour was cheaper, it had easy access to raw materials and there were less stringent controls on pollution.
He points out the benefits to the world of a strong Indian tech sector, and says that in the US three out of every five chief technical officers of American tech companies are now Indian. “Three out of every five!” he says. “Now that is just amazing. I bet it is similar in Australia. In the past we as Indians weren’t known to take leadership positions, but that had to change and it is changing really fast.”
Out of its huge base of talent India is now providing leaders for the tech world: Sundar Pichai is chief executive of Google, Satya Nadella is the CEO of Microsoft, Shantanu Narayen is the CEO of Adobe and Rajeev Suri is the president and CEO of Nokia.
“The Chinese and the Japanese have never been able to break into international companies in such a way,” he says.
He says there is a bunch of Indian tech companies such as online retailers Flipkart and Snapdeal, ride-sharing app Ola, and restaurant search and booking app Zomato that are about to take off in a big way.
“They are tech companies that have been focused on Indian problems, but you will see them expand into Southeast Asia and Africa in the next few years, countries where the conditions are similar to India. And then they’ll expand globally.”
He says he is “very bullish” about the tech sector for the next five to 10 years. There are a host of Indian companies that are solving particularly Indian problems. “But essentially those problems are not just Indian problems, they are problems for the world.”
India, he says, started a long way behind much of the world and so has had to skip a few steps to catch up. “We completely skipped the PC revolution and moved straight on to mobile technology, and I think that you are going to find that in a whole lot of other areas such as transportation and healthcare and many other such problems it will do the same.
“I am actually talking about something quite futuristic, like personal drones to solve transportation problems, or tele-medicine to help with healthcare, or app phone tutoring for education. I am amazed to see the changes that technology can bring to a problem like corruption.”
Five or six years ago to get an Indian passport it was almost mandatory to pay a bribe at several points during the process to have a passport issued, Singhal says. Now, the process is handled by a tech company and is incredibly efficient.
“The other day my kid dropped my passport into a bucket of water and it was messed up,” he says. “I was travelling in three days and needed a new one urgently. I applied online and had a new passport within 24 hours without paying anyone a single rupee under the table!”
A very Indian problem solved with Indian technology.