The Gray Hair Speaketh

Advice that is largely Unsolicited..

Can India have it’s own Instagram? A Perspective on the Numbers game..

Like everyone else on social media, I was fascinated and stunned by the story of Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram.  The fact that Instagram had recently launched it’s Android app and which was doing well, and that only about a week ago, Instagram had raised a good $50 mn of funding, made this acquisition look very surprising and sudden!

Be that as it may be, it is an amazing story.

One of the side stories that went around last night was whether India can at all have it’s own Instagram. And this post that I read suggested an emphatic “no”.

I also see the challenge of building an Instagram like idea in India. For various reasons. And I will come to those in a bit.

But one of the most important, relevant and significant reasons is the number story. We need a perspective and a strong drive towards numbers.

Let me share with you three very independent stories, all about “numbers in 24 hours”.

1. The Android app of Instagram clocked 1 million downloads in 24 hours of it’s launch.

2. I met this person whose company sets up Internet kiosks in villages of West Bengal, on a franchising model, and hence, has to create income opportunities for the franchisees, on these kiosks. They have put many paid services on offer. He mentioned that he clocks 20 air tickets in a day – yes, 20 air ticket bookings in 24 hours – via those village kiosks!

3. A personal experience. I spoke at the India Social Summit on April 3. I put up my presentation on slideshare on April 4, and put out exactly one tweet and one Facebook update about this, and in a matter of 24 hours, the presentation got close to 450 views.

Yes, three disparate facts. And a matter of numbers!

I was impressed by all three of these. What it showed me clearly was that:

– we live in a small and connected world

– and hence, we can reach a large, far flung consumer base, for products and services that we can offer

You’d say that these facts are true from the time that the Internet came into being.

True. And I should know. Having been in the space since the time Internet came into India! Since 1997-98.

What impresses me today is the natural, organic viral growth opportunity. And the possibility then, of clocking significant numbers rapidly!

What made the three cases mentioned above, to happen?

1. Instagram was already a hugely popular app, on the iPhone platform. Widely talked about. The Android app was way overdue. It was announced and people had to sign up in advance. With all that pre-release build up, it was not surprising that when they actually released it, Android users were rushing to go and grab it. Quite like the queue you see at an Apple store when they release a new iPhone or an iPad. Yes, it is going to be available the next day too, but one wants to be amongst the earliest ones to get it!

2. The case of the air ticket bookings in the village kiosks is akin to the success of IRCTC for rail bookings. Irrespective of the quality of the website, since it met a dire need, and the alternate way to get that service had a lot more pain, this one was lapped up. What was true of IRCTC for many years was now true for the air ticket purchases in villages!

3. As for my deck on slideshare, I guess it was a series of factors. On April 4 when I uploaded the deck, the event was still on, and many were following it on Twitter. The hashtag #IndiaSocial12 was popular that day. And I tagged my post with the same hashtag. Where other speaker presentations of the event would go up later, post-event, mine was up that day, even as people were following the live proceedings. And it generated interest for people to click and view. And hopefully the content gave it a little organic push, and it hit those 400-odd views that it did.

So in all three cases, there was a reason – be it content or a needed service – which got across to the target audience, and a viral push happened. And numbers followed.

That is the beauty of our times! You could be sitting in any corner of the country, but if you can get this content or service mix right, hit the specific target audience pockets, it CAN fly!

So with that scenario, can India have it’s own Instagram? And if not, what are the challenges?

Note the facts first:

Instagram has run for about two years now. Has almost no serious revenues. Has had a small team of a dozen or so now (for a long time they were even smaller), but they probably work with some outsourced partners too, I reckon. That said, the costs to support are the small team and large servers and bandwidth capacities, mainly.

So first of all, if you have a product of this kind, with a potential upside of this nature, will an Indian VC buy?

I don’t think so. The Indian VC will put his money on the 27th daily deal site and the 45th e-commerce site, because it is the flavor of the day, but rarely if at all, will he bet on a new concept, unproven, something that could potentially be a global winner. So you are stuck if you are dependent on VC financing.

But say, you had inherited wealth or you begged, borrowed or even stole money to support your venture. Where is the next pitfall?

From my experience with startups in India – and I have met several over various interactions at various fora – the one trait that I often see, is that they get excited about the initial numbers and get somewhat complacent.

How often have I heard stories like “we just started few months back, and I have already got 40 orders” or “we get 3-4 email enquiries daily” or things like that. There are ventures that clock up a few thousand subscribers / users and get pumped up. Most of the time, these are free registrations, and so people have not really spent money on the platform. But there is excitement and a feeling of achievement.

While I have nothing against this excitement, the reality is that a few hundred or a few thousands are NOT GETTING YOU ANYWHERE. If you are looking to do a big one, the world is your market potentially, and you need to think in millions of users.

So the two biggest reasons holding us back, from creating our own Instagrams or what have you, are potentially a lack of funding for such business models, and secondly, a tendency to not see the very large picture. For the latter part, obviously there have been the exceptions and which have succeeded big time, like Naukri, Shaadi, BharatMatrimony, Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip, Carwale, Games2Win, IndiaGames and a handful others.

But the typical startup that I encounter at TiE or at some Startup event, is somehow not seeing the big, big picture. And which is where we don’t have our potential Instagrams!

But I hope to see change. As I am the eternal optimist.. next one, hopefully from India. Happening in some lab somewhere in Mumbai or Gurgaon or Bangalore, even as I am posting this.. 🙂

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April 10, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

So impressed by this Korean retail revolution..

So for all the innovation that the retail industry is supposedly doing, as a consumer, how different is the shopping experience at an organized retail outlet, in say, last 5 years?? Or more, if you have also shopped in organized retail, outside India??

I would think the difference, if any, is marginal. At least perception wise.

Sure, there are more options, perhaps some innovation in loyalty programs (marginal again), etc. If anything, there are challenges as you shop. All the time.

Long queues at the checkout counter. Not finding the item you are looking for, as it is tucked into some inner shelf (because of space constraints, among other things), hassled shelves with products here and there, as people have handled them and the staff has not been able to rearrange them.

So yes, it’s pretty much the same-old-same-old. Retailers have not been able to really crack the code and make the shopping experience significantly better for the shoppers.

And then you see this amazing innovation from Korea:

A virtual store that is “real”!!

So sure, we had e-commerce. Where you saw a picture on a computer screen, small in size, not getting the perception of just how big a packing it may be, and then paying by credit card or whatever, and then waiting for the finite time to receive the products.

And it worked to an extent. But did not significantly dent the offline store business.

People, it seems, still wanted to go to the store and shop. And get a feel of the real thing. Pick up the bags and come back. Make it an interesting experience of walking around, window shop, see new things that have come, maybe talk to someone, and then shop. That experience still rocked! Compared to the computer screen one.

But this Korean way gets you the best of both ways.

Visualize this…

Put these LCD screens with full sized product shelves look inside your store. Beautiful back-lit screens with absolutely life-life images. In anything, better looking than the packaging!! Leave ample space for people to walk around. Except without the shopping carts.

Packaged goods are finally bought largely from the packaging, not so much from touch-and-feel.

Use QR code or some other device* to enable shopping.

She walks around, selects what she wants using the QR codes, and then lands up at the check out counter.

If technology of automated assembly is implemented at the back-end (like a warehouse management system that is used in busy warehouses), the customer’s selected order could be ready by the time she comes to the check-out counter, duly packed. She pays and picks up the bags and walks out. Since the entire billing process is eliminated at the check out counter, the queue also moves rapidly.

Seriously path-breaking, what?

And why can’t some retailer make a first move of this kind in India? I think all it requires is to be bold enough?!

Yeah, yeah… you will ask, “what about the non-packaged products like fresh fruits and veggies, or what about those packaged products that customers like to smell (soaps, perfumes, maybe..)?”

Okay, so a small hybrid model can still happen. All of the packaged goods lines, which do not require anything special (which will be what, 80% of the items at least?!) can still be the virtual LCD panel way, and then 1 or 2 aisles can have the rest of the stuff.

It will still have tremendous impact, and will be a “real” innovation, as compared to trivial ones that retailers love to talk about..

Guess someone’s got to make the first move? Looking forward to this..

(* “Some other device”? – how about giving a small hand-held scan unit to a person when he she walks into the store. Unit has it’s unique code, so whatever that shopper scans around, is recorded for HIS ‘virtual shopping cart’; the code does not have to QR or it could be. Alternate simple coding structures could also be adopted. Shopper brings the unit back to check-out counter and picks up his bags!)

April 1, 2012 Posted by | Retail | , , , , , , | 8 Comments