Tech Innovation in Emerging Markets: India

January 31, 2023
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Tech innovation is happening everywhere. Many U.S.-centric technologists may spend much of their time looking to North America for tech evolution, but countries all over the world are full of builders who are creating exciting, innovative new projects.

In this episode, we focus on India. Host Rachael Lewis-Krisky chats with guest Mohan Ram (he/him), DigitalOcean Senior Manager of Regional Marketing in India to explore what tech innovations are brewing across India and why markets like India as so exciting for people in tech.

As the Head of Global Field Marketing at DigitalOcean, Mohan leads the regional expansion and marketing initiatives for the company to drive growth in key and emerging markets

Mohan Ram at BaseConf Mohan joined a panel discussion at BaseConf 2019 in Malaysia. Mohan Ram at TIDE Conference Mohan addressed startups at the 2019 DigitalOcean TIDE conference in Bangalore.
Episode transcript.

[00:00:00] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Welcome to ‘Making Work Work,’ the DigitalOcean Podcast, where we explore everything about work - the tech that makes it possible and the people that make it happen. And of course, that’s never as simple as it sounds. I’m your host, Rachael Lewis-Krisky.

When talking about technology, conversations seem to most often revolve around Silicon Valley, making the place sound like the center of the universe. But countries all over the world are full of builders and innovators who are creating exciting new projects.

So on this episode of ‘Making Work Work,’ we focus on India with the help of Mohan Ram, Senior Manager of Regional Marketing at DigitalOcean. Through personal and professional experiences, he’ll teach us about the unique circumstances that have led to this becoming a promising emerging market. Let’s dive in.

Welcome Mohan. I’m excited to talk to you about industries and markets in India today.

[00:01:23] Mohan Ram: Awesome.

[00:01:23] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Should we get started?

[00:01:25] Mohan Ram: Sounds good.

[00:01:26] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Great. So first I was wondering if you could paint a picture of India’s tech scene for myself and our listeners. What does it look like?

[00:01:33] Mohan Ram: Over the years, we are all familiar with India being the IT back office of the world. A lot of enterprises outsourcing their operations to India. But over time, over the last 10 years or so India has really come up in a lot of conversations as one of the emerging startup ecosystems of the world. In fact, a lot of surveys will rate India as the third largest startup ecosystem after the US and China.

We’re all familiar with India’s population and if you take that and add to it, India’s rigorous sort of like education system. All of that adds up very well for India having a huge population of people in the in the demographics that generally work in tech companies. Being very qualified for a lot of job opportunities.

And over time entrepreneurship has really taken off in India. So we have major hubs like Bangalore where I come from, and there is Delhi and Mumbai. These are major tech hubs where a lot of companies are located.

Then there are, there is something called the STPI, which is the Software Technology Parks of India. There, there is a consortium of software technology parks, which houses a lot of enterprise company headquarters and offices in India. But then there are also tier two and tier three cities where really, we are seeing a lot of action when it comes to startups.

It’s very interesting I think Bangalore specifically because there were already companies like Mphasis and Biocon, these huge very well known companies, even IBM having huge presence. But over time a lot of smaller companies and startup hubs have really taken off even in Bangalore.

[00:03:11] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: And where is this big startup and entrepreneurial culture coming from? Is it younger, more technical generations or folks who’ve branched off from some of these major companies you’ve mentioned.

[00:03:22] Mohan Ram: This spirit of entrepreneurship in India really is a mix of everything. There are people who are graduating out of college and their first job out of college is their first startup. But then there are also professionals who work for tech companies for many years, for a couple of decades, and are now taking the entrepreneurship plunge. So it’s a little bit of a mix of all kinds of people, in the startup scene.

In addition to the changes that we are seeing in society where people are a lot more willing to take a plunge into entrepreneurship, we are also seeing a lot of like government support. For example, the Startup India initiative was started back in 2016 and, they’re really bringing together different sort of startup enabling entities. For example, the Startup India initiative sets up a lot of technology business incubators. We call them Atal Innovation Centers, across the country.

On the one hand we have bigger corporates that are having their own accelerator program. For example, Microsoft runs its own accelerator program in India. Google has their accelerator program. Likewise with IBM. So there are these enterprises that want to also engage with startups, want to encourage entrepreneurship.

And then on the other hand, there are venture capital firms that are, that also have a part to play, that are also in some way taking very creative bets on startups from different sectors, from different cities. Yeah, so all of this in some ways coming together to really make a very powerful story in turning India into a startup hub.

[00:04:51] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: So I want to back up a bit, go back in time. If you will. And I was wondering if you could share where it all began for you.

[00:04:59] Mohan Ram: I come from Bangalore, was born and brought up in Bangalore. So, When I had to pick a major, I had multiple interests. So I could have gone into the medical field, and become a doctor or become a lawyer. I even wrote the law entrance exam. I also wrote engineering because it was one of the popular things. And then I wrote an architecture exam and actually stood first in the state for architecture. But I think when I was trying to make my decision on what I’m gonna major in, I kind of, swayed towards the more safer option of engineering.

Engineering really gives you the sort of like logical thinking, if you will, the rational thinking tools if you will, in terms of how to think through a process, how to structure your decisions, especially while you’re writing your computer programs, right? You need to have a certain input. There is a certain process that happens. There is a certain output, and then you go back and verify whether that was the right thing.

So though it wasn’t a sort of extremely intentional decision, the analytical skills that I picked up during engineering have really served me very well over time.

[00:06:05] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: How has it served you well? Why don’t you tell us what happened next in your career and how you witnessed the shifting landscape in India’s tech scene?

[00:06:13] Mohan Ram: Yeah, I went to engineering I did my computer science engineering degree and then went off to work for NetApp, which is a data storage management company headquartered in the US. So my first job out of college was more in the professional services sector, which is post sales, technical consulting. And then I tried a, bunch of other roles, including channels and sales and really found my groove in sales and marketing. I was managing partnerships in India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh.

And that was around the time when, in 2014, 2015, where really the startup scene in India was really changing and shifting. And I could feel that from what I was seeing, because I was also doing other things like attending startup conferences. And getting a pulse of what was happening, and I wanted to really be a lot more involved.

That’s when I moved from NetApp and went to work for a startup accelerator called Kyron, which couple of years back actually got acquired by Techstars when Techstars wanted to enter the India market. So I worked at Kyron leading their business development and partnerships. And it really gave me a great opportunity to engage with enterprises that want to work with startups.

So Kyron was right in the middle building these innovation programs for huge companies. We set up an innovation center for Lowe’s in India. We set up Target’s accelerator program, and even Limited Brands, which is Victoria’s Secret’s parent company. So we built their accelerator program and we would curate a lot of startups for them to engage with. So really building that corporate startup engagement model.

And then there were also other larger companies that wanted to build intrapreneurship program to encourage internal employees to think more entrepreneurially have their own business plan do a startup if they will while working for a bigger corporate.

So I did that for about a year and it really helped me get my hands dirty in the startup ecosystem. Really build my network with startups, accelerators, VCs.

And that was around the time when DigitalOcean was looking to enter the India market back in 2016. We just launched our data center and I got introduced to DO and that’s how I ended up joining the company. I’ve been with DigitalOcean for about six and a half years. I’ve done various roles here, including rolling out our India go-to market strategy, building our global startup program, which is called Hatch, and then for a brief period I was managing sales in the Asia Pacific region, and very recently I’ve started managing what is called the Regional marketing team to help DO serve our community and our users around the world in different regions while being headquartered out of New York.

[00:08:55] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Throughout our conversation, you’ve mentioned these entrepreneurial programs a few times now. Which one you think about it is pretty fascinating considering how new they are. They’re not even 20 years old with Y Combinator being the first one back in 2005, I believe. Walk me through the kind of role they can play in a startup’s journey.

[00:09:14] Mohan Ram: Accelerator programs really have a way of kind of bringing together high potential individuals who are aspiring to be entrepreneurs, have a business idea, they vaguely know what they want to do, they have a passion for something specifically, but it gives them a lot of tools and processes, connects them with mentors from the right fields for them to have all the tools to really put a business plan together.

I also volunteer as a mentor for Techstars back in Bangalore. I’ve been a part of their cohorts for three years as a mentor speaking to them about sales and marketing and how they should think about go to market strategies. So likewise there are lots of other mentors who come from different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, be it financial modeling, be it hiring, be it unit economics, pricing. All of those things that an aspiring entrepreneur should think about while setting up their business.

And typically because I’ve watched the Techstars program from very close quarters, and DigitalOcean is also a Techstars company, I can probably speak to how Techstars also does it. They have their initial sort of like mentor matching where they bring in hundreds of mentors to specifically match with particular startups. And then they have master classes. They every week they go through refining their pitches what exactly are they building and putting their deck together. What is their total addressable market? What is their what are, what is the funding they require and what is the team they put together? All of those things. I think just helping a founder think through the different things in a much more structured organized fashion, I think that’s a key role that incubators and accelerators play in a founder’s journey.

[00:10:53] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: So it sounds like in India, there have been several forces at work that have all set up the country for the success we’re seeing today.

[00:11:00] Mohan Ram: Yeah, so there’s government support and a lot of the programs that the government has put together. In addition to that, there are accelerators, incubators that are helping support the growth of startups, and also venture capital firms that play a very important role in providing the required funding. All of these kind of come together in making India a real powerful startup hub.

[00:11:23] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Tech can be seen as very Western centric, despite innovation coming from global enterprises. Can you speak to that in a, in a broad sense?

[00:11:31] Mohan Ram: Traditionally technology has been seen as something that’s more western centric. But over time we’ve seen a lot of tech and startup ecosystems come up in the eastern part of the world as well. There, there is, of course, India, but also Southeast Asia has come up as a really emerging market.

There are lots of places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore of course. A lot of enterprise companies have their APAC headquarters, if you will, in Singapore. Singapore in some way was always on the map. But there are also lots and lots of other countries, for example, the Philippines, Vietnam these have really emerged as tech hubs over, over time.

So I think it’s, in some way a level playing field today where great businesses can come out of anywhere.

[00:12:15] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Now that’s a very generous answer, but is there anything that frustrates you about people’s assumptions or misunderstandings about emerging markets such as India?

[00:12:25] Mohan Ram: Yeah. The one thing that kind of grinds my gears a little bit about people’s understanding especially about the India market, and probably this applies to a lot of other countries as well, but India is so large and so diverse. A lot of times there are gross generalizations about what the market is.

Because India really has a lot of contradictions. On the one hand, there is high end technology, the latest and the greatest of technology developments happening. But then there is also a majority of the country that’s below the poverty line and underserved and tier two, tier three cities. Having said that, there’s some excellent startups even coming out of like tier two, tier three cities. So, I think that sort of, and me as somebody who has lived in the country for many decades still I grapple with the idea of India.

And one of the more recent examples that comes to mind is Netflix, where they publicly have published cases of how India has been such a tricky market to crack in. Netflix has been able to break into other markets, but figuring out their user plans in India has been such a tough challenge for them, because it’s also a price sensitive market, but also you need to add value.

So things like that make India a very, very interesting place to be and it’s an interesting challenge. But also I think sometimes especially in the tech and the startup space, we’re all trying to put countries in boxes too quickly. So I think that’s something that always kind of like grinds my gear.

[00:13:54] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: And how do you suggest people break out of this kind of narrow focus and challenge themselves in that regard?

[00:14:00] Mohan Ram: The one way people could educate themselves a little more or learn more about India and some of the exciting stuff that’s happening there. There are lots of startup platforms. If people want to understand in terms of like what’s happening in the startup space there are platforms like YourStory and Inc42 which cover extensively the startup developments that are happening in the country. But also I think just tracking some of the latest news, right? Today, for example, specifically in this startup space India has more than a hundred unicorns. And it’s the country with the third largest number of unicorns after the US and China, and also even folks in the US I think us being the country with the maximum number of Unicon has close to 600 plus unicons.

And statistics show that a lot of unicorns in the US were founded by immigrant founders. A lot of Unicons in the US are also have Indian founders. So, I think when you kind of extrapolate that, I think it’s hard to miss if you keep your eyes and ears open, you see that there’s so much activity happening in so many other parts of the world as well.

[00:15:03] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Right. For women and people with disabilities and LGBTQ plus people – and then of course in India, we have to factor in the caste system too – is there space for success in India for these groups that are often marginalized in many societies.

[00:15:19] Mohan Ram: When we generally talk about entrepreneurship in India, and also consider representation across the board I think, India has done a good job of having a lot of female entrepreneurs, encouraging female entrepreneurship. Some very successful companies. Very recently we had a company called Nykaa that went to IPO. And they were 80 times oversubscribed.

And there are also other comp companies like Biocon with female founders. So there’s a lot of activity even happening from a women entrepreneurship perspective. There are specific programs or accelerator programs and mentorship programs that are for female founders.

Though personally, I don’t think that should be the case. But also I think we’re building equity into the system. So I think some of will need to be there to kind of encourage not traditionally represented sort of communities. And also especially when it comes to founders with disabilities and founders from the LGBTQ community.

I’m seeing a lot of examples, but it’s not the norm and I think over time I hope we will get there. In fact as preparation for this podcast, I was doing some research and that’s how I learned about certain grants that are available only for LGBTQ founders where there are specific grants also for founders who have disabilities, which is fantastic.

But as someone who’s in some way involved in the scene. I, myself did not know about all of this. So I, I really feel there is a gap in terms of the awareness that people could have about all of these resources that’s available. And hopefully that will encourage a lot more people to come out and start their own on startups or have a business and just understanding all the resources that are available to them.

[00:17:04] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Sure sure.

And that calls back to your own advice that we all have to keep our eyes and ears open a little bit. Right?

[00:17:10] Mohan Ram: Absolutely. Yeah.

[00:17:12] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: As India continues to see success for startups in a range of sectors, making it a star, per se, as an emerging market, what is something that you’re skeptical about?

[00:17:23] Mohan Ram: While, on the one hand, I’m very, very excited about all the activity that’s happening in the Indian startup ecosystem. I think one thing that I’m wary of is just founders going after vanity metrics and the influx of a lot of VC money coming into the country.

Fundraising has become a sort of like a sensational activity, right? I think a lot of folks aspire for raising additional rounds of funding even when they don’t probably need the money. So I think there is a little bit of correction that has to happen over time, and we are seeing that happening there, especially with the rising inflation in terms of some of the macro.

Changes that are happening in the second half of 2022, we are seeing valuations falling. We are seeing massive layoffs happening. So some of that behavior is getting corrected over time. And I think it’s survival of the fittest. I think some of the companies that really build their business on healthy foundation will continue to thrive and survive.

[00:18:17] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Mmm. That’s an important word of caution that all startups would be wise to heed. Is there anything that you feel is really important that our listeners walk away understanding about India’s startup, business, and tech scenes.

[00:18:30] Mohan Ram: At DigitalOcean as part of my role, I also kind of look at different regions that are exciting, startup ecosystems and emerging tech hubs. So, India was one of the regions where we really invested a lot initially. And what an exciting startup ecosystem that is in terms of just the amount of entrepreneurship activity that’s happening the funding.

But also the changing tech landscape, if you will. Right. A lot of solid enterprise businesses coming out of India. But also there is a lot of activity around open source that’s happening in India. For example Hacktoberfest, which is an activity we run at or an initiative we run at DigitalOcean sees the maximum amount of participation from Indian developers. That’s also testimony to a lot of in growing interest in the country in some of the latest technologies and open source technologies.

So I’m kind of excited to see, uh, how India is gonna grow. And over the last couple of decades, there had been some sort of like a brain drain that had happened in India, a lot of high potential individuals leaving for greener pastures, pursuing the American dream.

But I think that some of those dynamics are changing. One of the changes we are seeing is a lot of people who have been outside of India are wanting to bring that experience and expertise back to India, contribute to the shift in the ecosystem that’s happening, and either operate as a mentor or do their own startup.

So there’s a lot of interesting things happening, so I’m excited for what lies ahead.

[00:19:59] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Well, thank you so much for teaching myself and everyone listening all about India as an emerging market. Furthermore, I appreciate you sharing your personal story with us Mohan. It was insightful and thanks for joining me.

[00:20:12] Mohan Ram: Great. Thank you.

[00:20:13] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: This is our last episode of season one of ‘Making Work Work,’ and I’ve loved every minute of it. Don’t forget to like and subscribe so that you don’t miss season two in the spring.

Whether you’re a listener or a customer, the work we do wouldn’t be possible without you.

Special thanks to all the people that make my work work, my DigitalOcean colleagues and friends.

Our music is composed by Mirco Altenbach.

[00:20:40] Rae: And on this episode, this end credit song is by DigitalOcean’s Frank Manno, an Engineering Manager of Product Design and UI Engineering.

Our employees are diverse in experiences and talents, so we’re excited to bring you a unique original song from one of our sharks nearly every week. Hang out and listen to the rest.

[00:21:00] Rachael Lewis-Krisky: Check out do.co/makingworkwork for more info. Until next time, I’m Rachael Lewis-Krisky. Keep swimming friends.

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