Role re­ver­sal

Greg Bearup checks the lat­est In­dian ex­port

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Story by: GREG BEARUP Greg Bearup is The Aus­tralian’s South Asian cor­re­spon­dent

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.

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