Why Has India Failed To Produce Tech Giants Like Apple, Google, Facebook, and Twitter?


This question originally appeared on Quora. The answers that follow were provided by users Joydeep Sen Sarma and Aashish Gupta respectively.

Joydeep Sen Sarma, engineer

There are a lot of reasons for this. I will try to do this in decreasing order of intractability (and focus mostly on the environment in India):

1. The Indian education system is hostile to outliers. As an example – a teen who just loves to spends all his time programming (and can’t stand anything else like social sciences/arts/literature) can have a very bright future (assuming he has talent) in the US – and has none in India. The system in India will give him/her poor grades, teachers/parents/friends would destroy him emotionally. Forget about doing well – such a person would do very badly in India – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they end up as a wreck.

Just to back this up – in all my years of interacting with multiple adjacent batches of IITians (and alumni of other Indian schools) – there is but one true outlier that I have seen who ever made it through the system.

To state the point a different way, what we consider top Indian talent (grads from IITs etc. – going to top schools or employers in US) is almost systematically biased (because of how they were chosen) to not be tech geniuses of the types that start large iconic tech companies.

2. The Indian technology market – whether it’s consumer or business – is not leading edge. This makes it very difficult for young local entrepreneurs to make a breakthrough. (After all almost all new tech giants emerge from new markets/technology trends.)

This is no less important than the previous point. By the time entrepreneurs in India latch on to something, they are both playing catch up and – even worse – competing with a lot of other people who have caught on as well. The fact that there’s very little about the Indian market that doesn’t make Western tech products (like Facebook/Apple) portable – doesn’t help.

Starting a B2B tech business in India is the hardest. The market for any leading edge business product is almost entirely in the West.

3. Indian venture capital markets are way behind American counterparts in terms of funding risky, pathbreaking ventures. The differences are apparent in valuation, in early focus on cost/revenues and in (predominantly) funding of copycat concepts from the West.

This point is not fundamental, and these things can change. Examples of breathtaking success can change the risk premium for example.

4. Startup and Engineering Culture in India is nowhere close to that in places like Bay Area:

  • Engineers don’t remain engineers for long. Very soon they become hands off managers and architects. As a result, expert level hands on engineers – particularly those with both depth and breadth – are much harder to find.
  • In my personal experience, intensity at Indian startups is lower. The urgency, the sense of do-or-die, is much lower.
  • The few truly great hands-on experts prefer to stick to top employers like Google/Microsoft etc. and are rarely to be found sticking it out in a startup garage.
  • Equity compensation is often drastically lower in Indian startups (especially for engineers). There seem to be a raft of reasons for this, but regardless, this makes the previous three points pretty logical. It’s a vicious cycle.
  • Mentorship – there’s no Steve Jobs or Peter Thiel here to mentor the local Zuck. The people who made it big in India in tech (on the backs of the consulting industry) are unlikely to be the right mentor for the next Twitter/Facebook/Apple. Less dramatically, the lack of top class engineers who have spent 10+ years programming just means there’s less mentorship for the younger ones [1].

Again this point, overall is not fundamental – these things can all change with time. But these cycles are very hard to break and will take a long long time (if ever) to do so.

Other points – predominantly those related to absence of good governance, poor infrastructure, regulatory hurdles – don’t affect tech businesses as much. But I am sure they affect B&M businesses a lot.

Age is an interesting factor. If young local entrepreneurs have the deck stacked against them, then the ones with potential that remain are the ones that are more experience and education. But as anyone with a kid or two knows – achieving something remarkable (from scratch) after the onset of family life is just an order of magnitude harder.

The silver lining here is that if the reasons are well understood, the solutions can be articulated. What if we have a Super30 program for outstanding young programmers for example? Can we expose such a talent pool to the latest and greatest in technology, including liberal travel to major global tech hubs? What if we can put them in mentor/partnership programs with industry folks who have a solid understanding of the business landscape and with top engineers, both local and abroad. There seems to be potential ways out of where we are, but it won’t just happen by itself.

Aashish Gupta, Founder & CEO Yellowleg.com

Aashish Gupta, Founder & CEO Yellowleg.com

It all starts with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (see below). Wanting to “change the world” is presumably right at the top of that triangle. A human being feels that need only after the needs lower in the triangle are fulfilled.

Now coming to Indian entrepreneurs, given the socio-econonomic backgrounds that the vast majority of our nation comes from, most people get their education and devote their lives to creating a better life for themselves and their families. By the time they feel the need to “change the world” they are probably in their mid-thirties, at least. By contrast, many US entrepreneurs start their journeys sometime during college. That’s a huge headstart – both in terms of amount of time they have to develop their skills and the level of risk they can take at that life-stage.

Even among the few Indians who hail from privileged backgrounds (or work their way into it), the general environment of scarcity dictates that they devote their lives to preserving their wealth and maintaining status quo.

hierarchy of needs

This question originally appeared on Quora. More questions on Startups:

  1. Editor’s note: We heard Vineet Devaiah last year speak on the issue of mentors in India as well.  ↩

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