Monday, November 17, 2008

One Pune, and our decision to startup here

I've talked a lot about Pune and the startup environment here, but I don't think I've ever actually told the full story about why we chose Pune in the first place. So here is the story...

Graphical Summary
For those of you who don't want to read my boring blog, please have a look at 'our trip' Startup: A Mahrati Adventure' below: It shows the different destinations on our journey to Pune, has photos and all the important background infos - in each of the relevant locations where the action happened. Enjoy!

The decision was made: Nick and I, still at Imperial College back then in June 2007, were going to go to some 'cool place that is cheap to live, to learn about web applications and develop our ideas, whilst discovering a new country, culture'.
At first we wanted to lie on the beach in Thailand, on some island and satellite internet, but that idea was soon replaced for going to India. Majorly influential in that decision was my good friend Sid, whom I studied in Zurich with, and an amazing book called Shantaram. Of course, the fact that India is more more IT savvy, a booming world economy and inevitably one of the most important countries of the 21st century kind of played a role as well :-)

Why we chose Pune
Everyone in Europe had heard of this IT hub called Bangalore. Also famous were megacities like Mumbai or Delhi. But where should we actually go to try to startup, without having been to India before at all?

So we talked to people, shortlisted a couple of cities, and made a classical decision analysis (although not in too formal a way). After consciously deciding against any of the megacities, and requiring some sense of IT-savvyness, we were left with Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad.

Next, we decided what it was we were really looking for in a place, and came up with a couple of dimensions: IT-savvyness (they all kinda met), cost of living, a young crowd, ideally with lots of students for us to socialise with, decent climate, the potential to be a creative place, closeness to places of interest (beach, interesting city, etc), reputation of the beauty of girls. I think that was more or less it.

Then we just compared and assigned scores to each of the cities - based on what we could generalise from friends, news, blogs, and other statistics we could find. One blog, I can't find it anymore because the number of blog posts about 'pune', 'startup' and 'silicon valley' have just exploded in the last year, was also very influential, where some guy basically said how, and why, Pune could become Indias silicon valley.

So basically, on the metrics that we cared about, Pune won hands down. I would guess that these are the kind of metrics the 'average young web entrepreneur' would care about.

Arriving in Pune, and overall impression
I've written about my thoughts about Pune as a startup hub many a times before, and have passionately advocated Pune abroad in Europe. Having said that, I would say that it took us about two to three months or so to actually settle in, get in touch with the Startup Community, meet the right people, and get involved. When we came, we knew noone, and didn't even know about the buzzing startup community I so passionately write and care about now. But, thanks to the internet and POCC, we finally 'made it'.

So. Has Pune disappointed us? Not in the least. Would I do it again? Absolutely. Is it 'the place to be'? Time will tell - but I have all reason to be optimistic!

As I keep telling my friends and family at home: One day, in 15 years, i will tell my children that we just got lucky, and ended up in Pune - the right place at the right time!

Monday, November 10, 2008

On pasta in India

Generally, I tend to preach 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do' - or in my case (at the moment): 'When in India do as the Indians do'. This also applies to food, of course - but if you actually live in a place as an expat - or global citizen as I tend to call it - you want to 'Do as your homies do' every now and then.
Now, while I'm not from Italy (I am from Germany and Taiwan), I do like my pasta, so tonight Nick and I decided to have some pasta again at our local 'Italian' (at this point I have to mention that the 'authentic italian cuisine' they offer features 'penne masala' as one of the first items on the menu).
Unfortunately, they can't ever really cook the pasta right: it's ALWAYS too soft. You could drink it through a straw, so this time, I thought I'd explicitly ask them to cook the pasta less soft. Ambitious, I know, because the concept of 'al dente' is not widely known here, but I tried nevertheless.
I was totally intrigued by the fact that one of the managers told me that the pasta is mostly prepared, and it would take them another 2h to make fresh pasta.


I was so intrigued that I came up with my own theory as to why this might be...
Fresh pasta from Italy
I am convinced that they must be getting fresh pasta from Italy - that's why it takes them two hours. A quick napkin calculation, some reasonable assumptions, yielded the following:

  • ~12'000km or 12m meters
    my estimated distance from Pune to somewhere in Italy
  • 4m people at 3meters average inter-body spacing
    since we're talking about India, it is safe to assume that they use lots of manpower to execute, since manpower is cheap. If we assume they form a human chain with a uniformely distributed average body-spacing
  • ~0.4% of the Indian population
    That is how much this epic human pasta supply chain to italy would 'cost' the nation
  • ~5s return
    to pass up the message that new pasta is needed nd subsequently hand down the fresh pasta, from one person to the next
  • -> ~20'000'000 seconds, that's about 5555h or 8months
    from order to delivery
Clearly, something is wrong with my initial calculation, so I should revise my assumptions, and work backwards
  • 2500 times faster
    Since they claim they can do it in 2h instead of 5555h, they must be about 2500 times faster than I initially guesstimated!
  • instead of 5s, they must be operating at ~2ms
    to hand over pasta from one person to the next, since they are around 2500 times faster than initially guesstimaged
  • 3meters / 2ms ~= 1500meters/s ~= Mach5 
    given that the speed of sound is around 340meters/s, the pasta would be moving at approximately Mach5 down the human supply chain
This fact casts serious doubts on the claim that after two hours of waiting, my pasta would actually be al dente. I suspect that it would be rather soft and reduced to jelly after traversing 1/3 of the planet at such speeds.
What about cost?
We know it would take about 0.1% of the Indian population to make this magic happen, but how much would it actually cost?
  • 10Rs/h
    We're not talking rocket science here, and wages are generally low
  • 4m people, 2h => 80m Rs
    For just this one delivery of pasta. This is not adjusted for low occupancy of this human supply chain, so real costs are likely to be much higher!
  • 150Rs
    Is the price they actually sell the pasta at, even after spending 2h on it to make it al dente (or 'not sloppy'). 
  • 533'333 times more efficient
    Since I cannot account for other hidden costs, I have to assume that these guys are actually muuuuch more efficient than I originally thought. Economies of scale, and learning curve effects apply, which would contribute a bit towards them being able to offer the pasta at 150Rs - but still, their operational efficiency far surpasses that of my so-very-efficient home country of GermanY! Respect!
So what do we learn form this? I don't know really, it's just a thought experiment, but two things are clear: 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do'

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Startup Cinema in Pune

Startup Communities

One of the most important aspects for a successful Startup, I think, is a healthy startup community. Having nice office buildings and IT Parks and tax subsidies doesn't seem to work (of course not, duh!). 

It's those random events, chance encounters and unexpected creative discussions (e.g. with fellow entrepreneurs, but also with your mother or grandmother...) that happen casually in a community, I claim, which can lead to those positive freak events which propells startups towards success. 

In pune, this community is nicely organised by the POCC - Pune Open Coffe Club - a great platform for Pune (and beyond) based (mainly IT/Internet) startups to network, exchange information, ask questions and organise meetups.

Startup Cinema
POCC is great, definitly 'made my stay' and is one of the core reasons I like being in Pune, but I find that often the POCC meetups are not casual enough. That's why we decided to initiate 'Startup Cinema' - a casual forum and get-together for pune startups (POCC members basically) to get together, have a casual chat, watch a movie (we have a projector :-) ) , have a beer.

In fact, Startup Cinema is the product of one of those casual encounters, when Freeman, Santosh and I talked about BookEazy and felt there was a need to push 'cool' or 'indie' cinema.

So, yesterday, Thursday Nov, 6th, we kicked off Startup Cinema with 'Pirates of the Silicon Valley' (what else!). A good number of people turned up - though not as many as 'signed up' (next time, please don't sign up if you don't think you're coming, or let us know in advance so that someone else can fill your seat). 

Thanks to some slight delay in setting up the movie, people had some time to chat and get to know each other. Afterwards, I think I called for a tidy up too early, would have been nice to sit, chill and hang around for a bit longer. 

I think next time, I'll leve some time in the beginning to just sit and chat with some music, and a bit more time afterwards before wrapping up. 

Hopefully StartupCinema becomes a regular routine for the community here in Pune, and maybe catches on beyond!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Back in Pune - what has changed, what is the same?

After a long 4 month stay back home in Europe (Berlin, London), away from Pune, I have finally returned to India, via a one week stopover in Singapore.

It's good to get away from time to time
So first of all, I would say that it's good to be back. Frequently changing curtains really helps you appreciate different aspects of different places. It was good to be back in London, with its multi-culture environment, tradition and history that strikes you wherever you go, and of course old friends (and some new ones!). Dito in Berlin, with the history, an amazing recent development of the inner city (sometimes I wish I actually lived there permanently), its greenery and generally amazing, often alternative, creative population.
Pune is different, of course, and being away really helped appreciate the warmth of the people, the beauty of apparent chaos and disorder (having lived in Singapore and Zurich, I can honestly say that happiness is not derived from perfection...), the very decent lifestyle I can afford as an expat here (despite being constantly broke!), and just the interesting stuff that goes on all the time (it has to, there are so many people here, something has to be going on all the time).
In many ways, I think Pune (or many parts of India in general) are quite the opposite to places like Singapore - which is clean, orderly, safe, modern, connected, etc.

Spending time in different places from time to time, and comparing, helps you find what you love about a place, and what you hate about a place.

Being back
Having said that, last week was Dhiwali, the festival of lights, and I swear by my cheap Acer Laptop, nearly everyone was setting off firecrackers 24/7. It was like the two hours after new years eve, but for just under a week. No sleep to be had (unless you are a deep sleeper like myself). But that's just India, something every foreigner or expat either loves or gets used to, or leaves the country (if he has that choice).

So what's changed, what's different?
One thing I noticed was that Pune, having hosted the commonwealth youth games 2008, appears a bit more 'green' and certain parts of the city's infrastructure (roads, lights, etc) seem to have been renewed - properly(ish)! This doesn't usually happen here, from my experience, a new road is built just to be torn open again the week after to put in some underground cable (this country needs managers!!). What remains to be seen is whether this 'green fever' was just a fad to show a nice face for the CWYGs, or is in fact a sustainable effort by the city and its government to sort out this emerging hub (seriously, if anyone in power reads this, do something about pollution - enforce checks for cars, two wheelers and rickshaws, ban open fires of plastics and other chemicals! If a high enough fine is attached to an offence, and incorruptible enforcement is available, it generally works).

Other than that, I haven't noticed too much of a change here in Central Pune (apart from like new houses and developments, but those are always there in a booming city...). People are still around, happy, doing their thing.

Change and startups
So, in a way, the fact that not tooo much has changed (as far as my limited vision could tell), is bad. From a startup point of view, change is good. Change is underway in fact, with several initiatives in the pipeline from the community. A french startup who must have found out about our story (or here for older browsers) have asked me about moving to Pune to bootstrap their startup. That's a change, I would say (though external to Pune)! I would totally love to get in touch with more european or US startups who are interested to come over to Pune to bootstrap their startups! 

Maybe those french guys (if they come, fingers crossed), will be the beginning of something bigger (which I'll certainly try to push). Just imagine how cool it would be to just leave comfy home and head over to Pune, to bootstrap (I've done it, it's amazing!) with a bunch of other like minded young aspiring entrepreneurs from all over the world? Imagine the interactions, the clashes, the creative potential of 5 international startups sharing some huge kibbutz like complex with 5 other Pune startups! We'd chill by the pool (which we'd inevitably be able to afford as a hive), have amazing home cooked food from our chef(s) (which we'd inevitable be able to afford), share resources, bounce off ideas, help each other out, etc! 

Anyone else loving this idea?

Friday, August 8, 2008

What message Pune sends

This is what I wrote in reply to Kunal Mahajan's question on,:

I am putting my money on Pune as Indias startuphub.

When we first decided to just head to India to start work on our startup (we're London based), we were only heard of Bangalore as the next IT hub, and Hyderabad as upcoming. We didn't want to go to a megacity like Delhi or Mumbai, but more of a Tech City. Then one of my best friends from Switzerland, he's Indian, recommended we should have a look at Pune.

After some research, pune met exactly the kind of requirements that we were looking for, or at least, it fared better on a decision analysis than did Bangalore or Hyderabad: It's a college city with lots of young, educated and (as we hoped) creative people, not too large, IT focused, not too expensive (at the time). Another big factor was the fact that we perceived Bangalore and Hyderabad as HURE IT OUTSROURCING CENTERS, cities of modern factories, where modern labourers were robotting away, while Pune, as educational center, appeared to offer a different perspective. My friend also told me that the girls in Pune were very 'interesting', but that is just a side note - but as true geek this didn't play much of a role *wink*.

When we got to Pune, I think one of the first things that struck me was actually the apparent lack of creativity, lack of spirit that we are used to from university towns where students just 'do things', the lack of ambition just for the beauty of it and the seemingly only motivation to do anything - working for some big company with some name, earning bucks.

It took some time for me to understand where a) people were coming from (not everybody has parents that would happily support your little startup adventures if they went wrong) b) the cultural and in large parts traditonal context that young people had to operate from within, and c) that in fact it strongly depends on the kind of circles that we moved within to get these impressions. I was a bit disappointed, and am still, everytime I heard someone ask for what company I work for rather than for what I actually do, but my criticism was challenged by a different world that I later discovered: the startup community in Pune.

Yes, a lot of people in Pune are neither creative nor ambitious or daring. But that's ok, every place in the world has a broad layer of such people. In fact, they are vital for the ecosystem as well. But not every place has a vibrant, connected and active startup community as Pune.

Instead of 'cannot', 'big salary' or 'I don't know why', I suddenly heard 'I think I can, and I will try', 'big opportunity' and 'Because it's cool'. A 180 degree turn from a lot of the students or 'desparate' professionals I've met! What is this newly discovered startup community?

Looking at it now as I write this, I would say that Pune has what is necessary to attract 'the right kind of people', young, creative, adventurous, willing to 'do things' - the stuff that startups are about (in large parts). It certainly worked for us or fellow foreigners trying it out in Pune as well as the countless NRIs or long term expats that come back with a more open mind and lots of experience. That, then, is a positive feedback loop for the composition of the city and the community.

So it's the people of Pune, or the startup community to be more precise, which I think send out a strong message. Of course I would like to play an active part in shaping this still relatively young community, and I think so does everybody else. There is this community sense, where people communicate AND understand each other, go through SIMILAR experiences and face SIMILAR hurdles as entrepreneurs (in IT-outsroucing-India), want to help each OTHER and want to rise TOGETHER, as a community, so that one day we can all say it happened in Pune, and we were there.

So what message does Pune send out? I think it says 'we are Pune, and we have what it takes to be India's silicon valley'.

Best regards ,

Anthony - a foreigner.

Other thoughts: Maybe I am painting a bit of a biased picture, and of course there is still a lot of work to be done. But the composition of Pune is there, the community is there (and growing), and the will and shared spirit seems to be there. Now the change just needs to happen.

I would attribute a great part of this spirit or feeling to the fact that Pune is relatively small, or at least has been. People are closer, and know each other. As such, I see the creation of huge IT parks all over the place OUTSIDE the city/in satellite towns, as a potential dilution to the Pune startup community, which I hope we can somehow fend off.

Of course, one might be able to craft a similar description about other cities line Bangalore, but I would say that the unique composition of colleges and companies are a great edge. Also, at least in the past, the ratio of 'large companies' to 'small companies', I'd guess, is smaller in Pune than in other places - or at least was. If everybody around a young graduate is going to try to work for the next big company that pays stellar salaries, of course, startups would lose the war for talent. As such, the intensifying competition of large companies for good people is another threat to look out for, but one which, I think, can be addressed by a strong and visible startup community.

I don't want to get into politics and policies (at least not in an email thread!)