Quoted in SaaS story by Economic Times

Bharani Vaitheesvaran had a year-end review of India SaaS. The key message in the story: “Indian Software-as-a-Service companies are bracing for slower quarters as a potential recession in US could hurt topline.”

It featured a quote by me: “Mumbai-based Netcore Cloud, a bootstrapped SaaS company, believes the on premise to cloud transition is a business growth driver with a lot more wind in its sails. Founder Rajesh Jain told ET: “India’s SaaS companies have a long period of future growth. 2022-23 will be just seen as a blip. Whether 2023 is worse or better than 2022 is hard to tell – much depends on the extent of slowdown/recession in the US and Europe.””

 

 

Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Me

As 2022 makes way for 2023, it is time to look at the year that was and peer ahead to the year that’s coming.

This is a year that will be remembered for the Russia-Ukraine war. TIME magazine named Zelensky as its Person of the Year. A war that Putin probably thought would be over in days has gone on for most of the year – with no end in sight. This is also a year that saw interest in India rise globally. Whether it is the 1.4 billion people market or the China+1 strategy, India is slowly edging its way to becoming relevant – in part driven by its entrepreneurs. 2022 has been a year of what Adam Tooze has called polycrisis. Inflation, interest rates, energy challenges, geopolitical problems, and constant talk of a coming slowdown and recession in the Western countries have all combined to make this a tough year.

For me, 2022 began with Covid and 5 days of precautionary isolation. I had fever for a day and was fine after that. I also tested positive for Covid in August when I had gone to attend a conference in Goa and they mandated a self-test prior to the start; I would never have known otherwise because I didn’t have any symptoms. I ended up staying in a hotel room for a couple days and then returning to Mumbai. While I did not attend the conference, I did get a lot of me-time! While the spectre of Covid was never too far at the start of the year, the world (except perhaps China) is all done with it. No testing, no masks, no social distancing. After two years, we are back to a normal world. And the best indicator is that India’s bureaucrats no longer insist on the Air Suvidha form for those arriving into India!

After almost two years of work from home starting late March 2020, I am back to the office more days than at home. The good news is that hybrid work is actually good work thanks to a home office which I never had till the pandemic struck. In-person meetings and events are back with a bang, with Zoom filling in as needed to enable conversations which earlier may have not happened or would have been delayed.

Travel too has come back in a big way. I made a total of 13 trips during the year – 5 international and 8 domestic. I travelled to the US twice (once on work in May and then on vacation in June). I attended the Mont Pelerin Society conference in Oslo. I was part of Netcore’s customer events in Vietnam and Doha – both as a “substitute” for colleagues who could not make it! The Doha event was a memorable one: Netcore had organised a global customer conference where we also took our customers for a FIFA World Cup pre-quarter final match between Portugal and Switzerland. It was the first such live sporting event in my life. I am not much of a sports fan; yet, the experience of being at the stadium with 83,000 more people was quite something! It was a good match with 7 goals scored; Portugal winning 6-1. We had taken the hospitality package, so we had some of the best seats in the stadium. The time in Doha also showed how a new Middle Eastern destination to rival Dubai is being built. The local travel consisted of two trips each to Palitana and Bangalore, and then to Delhi, Rajasthan, Goa and Gujarat (Shankeshwar). One of the Bangalore trips was for the Unbxd acquisition, a big highlight of the year for Netcore.

2

Netcore and Martech

For Netcore, this has been a year of continuing growth. We will close FY 23 with over $100 million in revenues (Netcore and Unbxd combined; and factoring in the depreciation of the rupee by 10% against the dollar), despite some slowness in customer spending on martech. While I was hoping to have made progress on the IPO front, that decision has been delayed – I will re-evaluate in early 2023. On the business front, there are many innovations that we are bringing forth, especially around Email 2.0 (AMP) and Loyalty 2.0 (Atomic Rewards). The coming year will have “profits” as the most important driver, and on that front Netcore itself and its products are very well placed. In the presentation I did in Doha, I spoke about how Netcore’s solutions help brands free their ad budgets from the clutches of Big Adtech and cut down on AdWaste which costs the world $200 billion annually.

I did a lot of writing on my new ideas in Martech. Here is a list of the 29 essays I wrote in 2022 in reverse chronological order:

In addition, there were many talks and interviews during the year (newest first):

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Entrepreneurship, India and 2023

A continuing theme for me has been on entrepreneurship. There were many conversations through the year:

I also wrote about India and its possible path to freedom and prosperity:

A new series I started towards the end of the year was on My Life System. I have already published 30 posts – with more to come.

Looking ahead, 2023 should see a lot of action. I want to popularise the new marketing ideas and make it the Year of AMP and Atomic Rewards – two solutions which can together deliver 10X and more in conversion outcomes for marketers. AI (especially Generative AI) will need to become a key component of all we do. Our global expansion in Netcore and Unbxd will continue. The IPO decision will be determined as much by marketing conditions as by our own trajectory.

On the personal front, 2023 will see Abhishek go to the US for his undergrad studies and chart his future life. After 18 years of being with him, Bhavana and I will need to adjust to daily life without him. This is going to perhaps be the biggest change for us.

2023 should also see my book on entrepreneurship getting published. Now that I have a very settled pace of blogging (two posts published daily), I am also hoping to learn some new things. More on these tracks during the year.

For now, let’s welcome 2023. Wish you a very Happy New Year!

Temple Visiting in Rajasthan

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Constants and Change

As far as I can remember, I have been visiting Jain temples in Rajasthan with family members. So it was that in late November, Bhavana, Abhishek and I made a short 3-day visit to Rajasthan. This one was after a gap of 3 years, on account of the pandemic. Rajasthan is the state where my father grew up and did his undergrad. Many years later, he set up a marble factory in Abu Road, and then an edible oil processing unit in Sheoganj. Many of my vacations were spent in these locations, interspersed with visiting temples. Post-marriage, Bhavana and I made annual visits to Rajasthan.

As I wrote in a previous blog post: “For me, God is a force beyond. It is perhaps an alter-ego, a voice within which ensures I stay on the right track. It is an entity that I can turn to when all else fails. Like I did later in 1995 when I had some significant challenges with IndiaWorld. It was perhaps the first time I went to a temple and asked God for help – to prevent yet another devastating failure in my life. The suggestion had come from Bhavana as I sat numb at home – unable to see a way out of the situation I had found myself in. And – call it God, call it luck, whatever – things turned for the better in a way that I could not have foreseen. My relationship with God has been a selfish one. I invoke his intervention when things are not going well. In recent times, I also say a silent Thanks when things go well. It’s a more conversational relationship. It’s perhaps me talking to myself and attributing the inexplicable to a divine intervention.”

I find these trips very helpful for my thinking. A change of surroundings brings in new stimuli; a break from office creates new experiences. It was in 1997 during the drive from Nakoda to Jodhpur that Bhavana and I came up with the idea of Indian names for websites – and this led to us creating Samachar, Khoj, Khel and Bawarchi. Now, 25 years later, I am thinking about Netcore and how we can accelerate our growth. I find sitting in the temples very conducive to deep contemplation.

In times gone by, what I did not enjoy was the road journey. Many of the temples are off the main highways, so we have to travel on the inner roads. Past travels were literally backbreaking. This time was a much better experience. The other problem I had was with the facilities at the dharamshalas where we stayed. What I call “competitive religion” (combined with liberal donations) has led to a vast improvement in the quality of food and stay.

With each temple visit, memories of my past flash by. Some places have not changed much while others have been transformed. What has remained unchanged are the daily rituals that have been taking place for hundreds of years. But before I get to this trip and my experiences and impressions, a journey down memory lane.

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Past Visits – 1

I have compiled excerpts from some of my past writings from my Rajasthan visits in 2004, 2005 and 2009. These are from my previous blog at Emergic.org.

February 2004: “Every year for the past eight years, my wife and I have been making trips to Rajasthan to visit various Jain temples. For a few days, we live in a different world. Driving through the land where my parents were born, I invariably think of a life and world which is so very different from the one I was born and brought up in. Besides heritage, there has been a natural affinity to Rajasthan. It is a state I have visited almost annually for the better part of my life for a variety of reasons: holidays in the 1970s, my father’s factories in the 1980s, temple visits in the late 1990s to now… As we travel through the Land of the Kings (for what is what Rajasthan means), I wonder – how have things changed in a generation, and what to expect in the future?”

February 2004: “The roads of Rajasthan are a mixed bag. They are good, bad and really ugly. Some roads were undivided with just a single lane, which means that every time a vehicle comes from the opposite direction, both have to shift a little to the left and off the road. Even some of the proper roads have bad patches in them. I guess one cannot just blame the state government for this. We in India have still not learnt how to build roads that can endure.” More: “Whether we like it or not, the spark has to be lit by the state government. For long, much of the population has remained in the dark about the world outside. Now, this is no longer the case. Economic prosperity and the desire for a better tomorrow is becoming the driver for the New India. The transformation of the Bharat that we have so far forgotten and left behind needs to build on India’s democratic foundation and its entrepreneurial culture.”

September 2005: “Visiting these and other temples transports one to a different world. It is a world where time has almost stood still. The pooja rituals are performed the same way day after day after day. Every day is just like the previous one. Some days have a lot more devotees, other days a little less. But the temples stand there as they have for centuries, accepting one and all. The Rajasthan visits take me back to my roots to the land where my parents grew up, but one with which I now struggle to make a connection.”

September 2005: “For the last nine years, the Rajasthan trip has been pretty much the only time out that I take off during the year. Most of my travels always combine a little bit of pleasure with a lot of business. It also gives me time to think away from a routine of emails, phone calls and meetings. I still remember my first visit in this series in early 1997. Bhavana had suggested we make the trip to Nakodaji. Those were difficult times for my business. I had reluctantly agreed. It was on that trip as we drove back from Nakodaji to Jodhpur that we thought up all the Indian names which later became our portals khoj (search), khel (cricket), samachar (news), bawarchi (food), dhan (finance), manpasand (favourites). Since then, every year, I have always kept a list of things to ask the Gods for!”

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Past Visits – 2

September 2005: “I always keep a small diary in my pocket and a notebook (the paper variety) with me for making notes. I write down all my thoughts and ideas as they come. Writing helps me think better. As thoughts flit in and out of the mind, I capture them on paper so the mind can move on, uncluttered and not having to worry about remembering the previous thoughts. Vacations are not something I am used to. It takes a day for me to get used to a very different pace of life. Time seems to pass ever so s-l-o-w-l-y. But it is good to experience something different. As I was telling Bhavana towards the end of the trip, I would love to spend a week or so at one of the temples completely cut-off from the world with just a few books and my thoughts for company.”

September 2005: “As I made my way back to Mumbai, I thought once again of Rajasthan’s temples. They withstood invaders and nature. Today, their past is what attracts modern travellers. Do we want India to be known for its past or for its future? That is a choice we have to make.”

October 2009: “I will be going to Rajasthan for a few days. Bhavana and I have been making an annual pilgrimage for more than 12 years. (For various reasons, last year was the only one we missed.) Over a period of 3-4 days, we visit many temples. It is a welcome change from our Mumbai life. This year, Abhishek too will be old enough to start developing his own memories of these visits.”

October 2009: “As I spoke with some of the locals, it became clear that the biggest problem in the future is going to be that of drinking water. With inadequate rains common to many parts of India, the situation has worsened. We should have worked towards solving this problem 10 years ago, but we haven’t done anything. The repercussions will be dire. Two other challenges that are common to much of semi-urban and rural India are the poor equality of education for the young, and the resulting lack of adequate skills for them to get a good first job which could set up a bright future for India to start reaping its ‘demographic dividend.’ We have school and college buildings but little education. Just like there are bridges but no water flowing beneath.”

October 2009: “Rajasthan and its people are part of the other India we like to call ‘Bharat.’ We give it a different name because we want to distance ourselves from it. Traveling through some of the small towns and villages, I could not help but look at the horrific sanitation situation. I should have become immune to it after all these years, but that Bharat is still part of our country – and we cannot give up expecting better so easily. We have been horribly wrong in the 60 years since Independence. Many of us who should be aware of the situation have removed ourselves from the realities of the country and created a happy cocoon around us. We have the resources to bring about a transformation of our nation, but it cannot be done by the class of people who got us there. India needs a revolution by us, its people. We haven’t yet reached that turning point yet, but some of us will reach it soon. And we will decide enough is enough. We will start taking our country back from our rulers. Then, we can start building India right, and claim to be truly an Independent democratic nation.”

4

Temples and History

Back to the present. The Jain temples we visited during our 900-odd kilometre travel over three days late November were the ones at Nakoda ji, Jirawala, Bheru Tarak, Pavapuri and Muchhala Mahavir. Each of the temples has its own unique architecture and backstory, sometimes spanning centuries. Here are some of them.

Nakoda ji: “The ancient name of this Tirth is mentioned as Virampur. Virsen and Nakorsen of the third century of the Vikram era built this temple and His Holiness Jain Acharya Sthulibhadrasuri installed the idol. In course of time, this temple was renovated many times. When Alamshah invaded this place in the year 1280 of the Vikram era (1224 CE), the Jain Sangha kept this idol hidden in a cellar in Kalidrah village for protection. This temple was again renovated in the fifteenth century. 120 idols were brought here from Kalidrah and this beautiful and miraculous idol was installed here as Mulnayak (main idol of the temple) in the year 1429 of the Vikram era (1373 CE). Jain Acharya Kirtiratnasuri installed the idol Bhairav here. Apart from Nakoda Parsvanatha the other Jain temples here are dedicated to Rishabhadeva and Shantinath… The ancient idol of Shri Parshwanath Bhagwan is very attractive and full of magical powers. Shri Bhairavji Maharaj, the adhisthayak dev of this teerth place is magically very powerful and is world famous for amazing miracles.”

Jirawala Mandir: “According to Jain belief, the temple dates back to 2,800 years. Jirawala has been an important Jain centre between 506 CE to 1324 CE and received patronage by multiple Jain acharyas. The iconic idol of Parshvanath, the principal deity of the temple, was found during an excavation. The cow belonging to a Brahmin boy Kadwa used to pour out its milk every day near a cave in Jirawala. Upon hearing about this Brahmin boy, Jain Seth Dhanna Shah dreamt of a Parshvanath idol where the cow went to pour milk. After the search, the idol was found at the same spot and was installed by Acharya Deva Gupta Suri in 894 CE. The temple has an ornate architecture. The temple has a large domical structure as the principal shrine with domical 52 sub-shrine along the axis of the principal shrine. There are a total of 108 idols of Parshvanatha in these shrines each bearing a different name with the central shrine housing the idol of Jirawala Parshvanatha, the principal deity of the temple. There are a total of 60 dhwaja stambha in the temple complex.”

The Jain temple at Muchhala Mahavir was established in the 10th century CE. According to Wikipedia: “According to Jain legends, Rana Raj Singh I of Mewar once visited this temple to offer prayer. He noticed a white hair while putting saffron to the idol. Upon question about the hair, the temple priest replied that the hair was from the moustaches of Lord Mahavira. Following, this Rana insisted to see moustache. The temple priest fasted for three days and pleased with this the protecting deity showed moustache on the face of the idol. When Rana uprooted the moustache, blood oozed out of the spot. Following this Rana became a staunch devotee of the Mahavira and the idol was named Mucchal Mahavir, or the Mahavir who had a moustache. The temple is built in Nagara architecture. The temple is a curvilinear superstructure decorated with multiple turrets and decorated pillars. The entrance of the temple has an intricately carved torana and outside the door of the temple are two large black coloured idols of elephant on each side. The temple is famous for detailed carvings.”

In the temples, even as Bhavana and Abhishek did the pujas, I did the darshan, found myself a chair, and began my thinking and writing. I let the thoughts flow, finding myself in a “flow” that is hard to achieve with the myriad distractions at home and office.

We stayed overnight at our erstwhile factory sites at Abu Road and Sheoganj. (Both have now been transformed into vocational training centres.)

5

Rituals and Economics

Every morning, there is an ‘auction’ (ghee boli) for the first rights to do the various pujas at the temple. This is a way for people to also donate money and the temple to raise funds for its maintenance. While there are large donors who do contribute, the daily auctions ensure that there is money raised daily. The bidding happens in “mann” – where 1 mann is equivalent to five rupees.

As I watched the daily rituals being performed, I realised that I was witnessing a process that has perhaps gone on for centuries. Some of the pujaris working in the temples have been doing so for generations. For those few moments, it is as if  time stood still. The people (devotees) keep changing daily, but the pratha (practice) remains the same. Standing in front of the idols, one gets a sense of the eternity. Kings and commoners have at some point of time stood in the same place.

Nakoda ji is a temple that I have the most memories of among all the ones in Rajasthan. As I sat in the temple, I could almost imagine myself there – 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. With my parents, with other relatives, with Bhavana, and this time with both Bhavana and Abhishek. Everything inside the temple seemed just the same; only the world outside has changed. For the hour that I was inside, it was as if time stood still and multiple decades collapsed into a single moment.

The Jain temples are part of India’s rich civilisational culture. They are a very good example of philanthropy at work. As far as I can tell, there is no government involvement. Trusts manage the temples. Income comes from large donors, daily auctions, and the devotees who contribute smaller amounts in the bhandar. Meals and stays are available at the bhojanshalas and dharamshalas at nominal prices. Imagine a full meal for under Rs 100 and staying in a room for under Rs 500 for a night.

The dharamshalas have improved by leaps and bounds over the years. There was a time when cleanliness was compromised for keeping the prices low. Through the years, this has changed. New construction in most places has added better facilities at higher price points. At places like Nakoda ji, there are options available at various price points. Better roads and temple facilities have also encouraged many more people to travel, bringing in a better connection to one’s roots.

For me, these short visits through the years have always served as a break from the daily hustle-bustle. The perceived proximity to God has, in my life, created its own thinking miracles. With each temple visit and the hours of travel between temples, a certain clarity emerges on the present and future.

6

Roads and Future

There is no doubt that India’s infrastructure is getting better. Travel times have come down, and roads are much better. A journey of about 250 kilometres that took six hours 7-8 years ago took us just under four-and-a-half hours this time. Tolls have been introduced on many roads, and FASTag has reduced wait times. There are still some challenges: many of the state highways make their way through small towns and villages which increase travel times. Cattle randomly squat in the middle of the road, while goats and sheep are herded on the smaller roads. And then there are the speed breakers – don’t we just love them! This is quintessential India: existing simultaneously in multiple decades and perhaps even centuries.

Prosperity still hasn’t touched large swathes of India. Watching some of the women carrying heavy items on their head, seeing youth idling away in the middle of the day, seeing the lack of trucks carrying goods in some of the inside roads, the challenges ahead for India also become apparent. As Tyler Cowen wrote recently: “The real challenge isn’t how to reduce the difference in wealth between the rich and the poor. It’s how to reduce poverty.” Hundreds of millions of Indians have lost futures because of inadequacies in our education and health systems. Governments at all levels still limit economic freedom, a prerequisite for prosperity.

Hopefully, a day will soon come in India where the lottery of birthplace will not determine one’s future. We need ideas like Dhan Vapasi and the Nayi Disha agenda to ensure this happens sooner than later. There are a billion Indians – one-eight of humanity – whose lives are being stunted because of politicians and bureaucrats who do not understand the reasons for poverty and the path to prosperity. This has been Independent India’s bane – for the most part, the colonial mindset of the rulers as masters and the ruled as serfs has continued. India needs new rules – not just a change of rulers – for freeing our billion.

As I wrote recently: “The revolution with the best chance of success is one which can be led by a leader who knows the limitations of what governments can do and has faith in the ability of markets and individuals – and in India’s case, 1.3 billion individuals pursuing their self-interest. Good jobs and upward mobility will be an outcome of the spontaneous order that such a leader’s decisions will unleash. No government official has the knowledge to anticipate or predict the future. All they can do is to create the simple rules that enable mass flourishing. The next-level of decisions – manufacturing or services, domestic consumption or exports-led – will emerge from enterprises and consumers making decisions in a free market. So will creative destruction which will help direct capital to the right opportunities. This is what will solve India’s income problem and put the people on an irreversible path of prosperity.”

The thought that came to me as I sat in one of the temples was this: the religion Indians need is freedom – it is the only one that can unite and not divide, it is the only one that creates futures and not just reveres the past, it is the only one that can make the 21st century an Indian one. And for this, we the people need an enlightenment of our own. We need to understand that our freedom movement is still not done; political independence does not automatically lead to economic freedom. The roads may have improved, but they are still not taking us to the Nayi Disha of irreversible freedom and prosperity.

A Vietnam Visit (Part 4)

Learnings for India

Vietnam’s manufacturing and exports success has been one of the key reasons for its growth. This is where India lags. India has still not been successful in moving people out from low productivity agriculture into manufacturing. I believe there are four reasons which need to be tackled. First, there needs to be a much greater on-ground ease of doing business. Laws, politicians and bureaucrats connive to make doing business hard. Second, there needs to be a strong emphasis on improving education. Under successive governments, education has been politicised and controlled. India needs to free its education sector. Third, India’s policymakers falling in love with tariffs need to realise that a tax on imports is a tax on exports. Finally, there needs to be a focus on encouraging labour-intensive industries to absorb people wanting to move out from villages and agriculture.

What India is missing is quality jobs paying Rs 40-50,000 a month with a promise of upward mobility as a reward for hard work. Today’s India seems stuck between the sub-Rs 20,000 job and the high-end job in IT and specialist functions paying upwards of Rs 100,000 a month. The chasm in the middle needs bridging. This will need a disciplined focus on education, manufacturing, free trade, contracts enforcement (a legal system that works), and removal of restrictions that hinder doing business on-ground. Simply creating more PLI (production-linked incentives) schemes is not the solution to creating hundreds of millions of jobs which ensure that tomorrow’s life will be better than today for aspiring Indians.

The Indian Express explains India’s jobs crisis:

The movement of workforce from agriculture that India has witnessed over the past three decades or more does not qualify as what economists call “structural transformation”. Such transformation would involve the transfer of labour from farming to sectors – particularly manufacturing and modern services – where productivity, value-addition and average incomes are higher.

However, the share of manufacturing (and mining) in total employment has actually fallen along with that of agriculture. The surplus labour pulled out from the farms is being largely absorbed in construction and services. While the services sector does include relatively well-paying industries — such as information technology, business process outsourcing, telecommunications, finance, healthcare, education and public administration — the bulk of the jobs in this case are in petty retailing, small eateries, domestic help, sanitation, security staffing, transport and similar other informal economic activities. This is also evident from the low, if not declining, share of employment in organised enterprises, defined as those engaging 10 or more workers.

Simply put, the structural transformation process in India has been weak and deficient.

India needs to prioritise economic growth. It needs policies which free businesses, people and trade – and get the government out of business. With many countries and continents under economic duress, this is a unique moment in time for India to shed the baggage of the past and reverse policies that have kept people poor. (800 million Indians are still dependent on free food from the government for their survival.) Politically-induced poverty needs to be replaced with freedom-driven prosperity. If the politicians don’t do it, middle-class Indians need to rise and set the agenda. It is their future that is at stake. Can India, learning from countries like Vietnam, set itself on a Nayi Disha? It was these thoughts that were uppermost in my mind as we landed back in Mumbai from Ho Chi Minh City.

A Vietnam Visit (Part 3)

Like China, Vietnam has single-party rule. From Wikipedia: “Vietnam is a unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic, one of the two communist states (the other being Laos) in Southeast Asia. Although Vietnam remains officially committed to socialism as its defining creed, its economic policies have grown increasingly capitalist, with The Economist characterising its leadership as “ardently capitalist communists”. Under the constitution, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) asserts their role in all branches of the country’s politics and society. The president is the elected head of state and the commander-in-chief of the military, serving as the chairman of the Council of Supreme Defence and Security, and holds the second highest office in Vietnam as well as performing executive functions and state appointments and setting policy. The general secretary of the CPV performs numerous key administrative functions, controlling the party’s national organisation. The prime minister is the head of government, presiding over a council of ministers composed of five deputy prime ministers and the heads of 26 ministries and commissions. Only political organisations affiliated with or endorsed by the CPV are permitted to contest elections in Vietnam.”

A 2018 WEF article wrote about Vietnam’s growth: “According to analysts from the World Bank and the think tank Brookings, Viet Nam’s economic rise can be explained by three main factors: “First, it has embraced trade liberalization with gusto. Second, it has complemented external liberalization with domestic reforms through deregulation and lowering the cost of doing business. Finally, Viet Nam has invested heavily in human and physical capital, predominantly through public investments.”

Bloomberg wrote a few months ago about the challenges facing Vietnam:

Vietnam can do a lot better. The government is only aiming for 7% growth this year — meager compared to the double-digit expansions China registered during its export-driven boom in the early 2000s. Even though there have been talks of shifting supply chains, progress in moving mass production of more advanced tech products to Vietnam has been slow.

The bottleneck is poor infrastructure. The nation, shaped as a long and curvy letter “S,” still relies on roads — which can be narrow, congested and bumpy — for three-quarters of freight and 90% of passenger traffic. Meanwhile, not all ports along the coast can be used for the biggest container ships. By comparison, even during Shanghai’s Covid-related lockdown, the nearby Ningbo port was still operating and exporting.

Road modernization, while a national priority, has been slow. A planned North-South Expressway, described as the future transport backbone, has seen long delays, as the government struggles with cost overruns.

… From geopolitics to female labor-force participation, Vietnam’s got everything to its advantage. What’s holding the country back is Hanoi’s policy inertia, and its failure to build up its infrastructure.

As India seeks growth and betterment for its people, what can we learn from Vietnam’s success story?

A Vietnam Visit (Part 2)

Economic Success – 1

The Economist had a story on Vietnam recently:

[The] message—Made in Vietnam—has been emblazoned on ever more products in umpteen languages since the formerly communist economy started opening up and promoting private enterprise in the late 1980s. Since 2000, Vietnam’s gdp has grown faster than that of any Asian country bar China, averaging 6.2% per year. It has lured big foreign firms in droves. What started with apparel makers such as Nike and Adidas seeking low-skilled labour has turned into a boom in electronics—higher-value goods that create better-paid jobs for more highly skilled workers. In 2020 electronics made up 38% of Vietnam’s goods exports, up from 14% of a much smaller pie in 2010.

… Apple’s biggest suppliers, Foxconn and Pegatron, which make Apple Watches, MacBooks and other gadgets, are building big factories in Vietnam and look set to join the ranks of the country’s largest employers. Other big names moving chunks of production from China to Vietnam include Dell and hp (laptops), Google (phones) and Microsoft (game consoles).

All of which could lead to more growth, and make millions of Vietnamese people better off. That in turn could boost the popularity of the Communist Party, which has run the country as a one-party state since the end of the war in 1975. The government wants Vietnam to become rich—with gdp per person exceeding $18,000, up from just $2,800 today—by 2045. It hopes to do this partly by moving from cheap garments to complex electronics that require investment and skilled labour.

… Vietnam has many things working in its favour. Its workforce will remain young and sprightly as China’s ages and shrinks. The country is an enthusiastic member of over a dozen free-trade agreements, giving it easier access to scores of national markets.

… The country of some 100m people also has geographical blessings, such as more than 3,000km of coastline. And it is right on China’s doorstep. Thanks to massive infrastructure spending on things like new roads, its electronics cluster is just a 12-hour drive from Shenzhen, China’s tech capital.

Ruchir Sharma wrote this in Financial Times: “Vietnam [is] a case study in communism that works. As geopolitical tensions increase with China, western businesses are hedging their bets by adopting a “China plus one” strategy — and often the “one” extra sourcing destination is Vietnam. By investing heavily in the infrastructure required of a manufacturing export power, and opening its doors, Vietnam is growing at nearly 7 per cent, the fastest pace in the world.”

The Diplomat provides some history: “In 1986 the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) set out to transform its economy from a centrally planned model to one that utilized market forces to allocate resources. The reforms, known as doi moi, encouraged private industry, recognized private land rights, and abolished collective farming. These changes, along with Vietnam’s military withdrawal from Cambodia in 1989, set the country on a course toward one of the quickest and most impressive periods of economic development in world history. When the VCP first implemented the reforms, Vietnam was one of the poorest countries in the region, with a poverty rate above 70 percent. By 2020, this rate had declined to 5 percent, and over 10 million people have been lifted out of poverty in the 2010s alone. The country’s GDP per capita also increased nearly tenfold from under $300 in the 1980s to $2,800 in 2020.”

A Vietnam Visit (Part 1)

Hashout in HCM

In September, Netcore organised a “Hashout” for our domestic customers in Ho Chi Minh (HCM) City in Vietnam. The “Hashout” is a relationship building event where we take some of our customers and prospects to an international destination, combining conference and local sight-seeing. Previous events (pre-pandemic) have been in places like Bali, Moscow, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Istanbul. This time, Netcore’s marketing team chose Vietnam’s HCM City, which is Vietnam’s largest city with a population of about 10 million. With the start of a direct flight from Mumbai to HCM City, the flying time was down to just five hours – no doubt a key factor in the destination choice. Delhi already had direct flights to HCM City.

A direct flight makes a big difference when one is going for a short visit. The elimination of a hop means less stress about connecting flights, security checks and baggage transfers. It is also less tiring. I have flown the non-stop Air India Mumbai-Newark-Mumbai sectors for the past 15 years – skipping the stopovers in Europe that were the rule since my first flight as a student in 1988. The Mumbai-HCM City sector has flights from VietJet Airlines, a budget airline. (Even the water costs money!) But it does the transportation job well, and that’s what matters. I wonder why Indian’s domestic airlines who have permission to fly abroad haven’t capitalised on this. Indians are forever looking for new places to explore and Vietnam could be a good travel destination.

We landed on a Wednesday morning, with colleagues joining in from other Indian cities also. We stayed at Hotel Grand Saigon, right in the middle of the city. The bus ride from the airport took about half an hour amidst peak hour traffic. What strikes you first is the number of bikes. The first impressions were that of orderly traffic movement in a clean city. We had a mini-conference in the later afternoon on the first day, followed by a couple hours of a city tour and dinner. The second day was a full-day conference. We then went on a cruise in the Saigon river for dinner. The next two days were free format. Some chose to visit Mekong, others picked places to see in HCM. Since Netcore has many customers in Vietnam, I chose to meet some of them. I also saw the “Water Puppet Show”, which reminded me of a puppet show I had seen in Bangkok many years ago. The HCM innovation was the use of water. Saturday (Day 4) afternoon was time for the return journey. By now, everyone knew each other well.

While I had done some reading about Vietnam and its success prior to the visit, I started digging a bit deeper on its complete transformation in the last 50 years after the War. What is behind the economic success of the nation? Are there lessons for India?

Web3 and India: A Wrong Turn (Part 14)

Maria Bustillos:

…The marvels of the internet multiplied, magic that by now seems unremarkable: a map of the world, street by street, in your pocket; instant translations from almost any language; a look-up service for every branch of knowledge; global, near-instantaneous news. Today’s internet is deeply woven into the world’s economies, media, politics, industry and social life, in good ways and bad.

A similar evolution is in the works for crypto. Blockchain, the technology that makes cryptocurrency possible, has the potential to be just as transformative as the internet innovations on which we depend every day, and industries like supply chain management, finance and pharma have already begun to find uses for it.

It’s possible to imagine a future where you might look up the fate of every tax dollar you’ve paid, and government corruption becomes all but impossible; where beautiful and important stories and music, games and art would never disappear from the internet; where, instead of being forced to rely on a big power company, you might buy and sell surplus solar energy from or to your own neighbors, and never face another blackout. Wherever tamper-proof, independent record-keeping is needed, blockchain could keep all the receipts, available and safe, for anyone to see.

Jaspreet Bindra: “While the arc lights focus on Bitcoin and crypto, Blockchain has been at work to solve problems in the less glamorous world of supply chains, financial services, large enterprises and energy. It is being harnessed to untangle complex supply chains by shippers and retailers. Blockchain-based solutions can make remittances less painful and expensive for itinerant workers who must send money home. Blockchain experiments to authenticate educational and other qualifications, making them less cumbersome to store and share, can make education loans more affordable. Blockchain-based energy grids are trying to take cheap energy to underserved areas. Governments are testing the technology for secure identity systems. Tamper and fraud proof transaction records may be enabled. The decentralized nature of blockchains is being harnessed for distributed business models like Helium, ‘a people’s Wi-Fi’ that’s not owned by any telecom firm but collectively shared. Blockchains are striving to reward online art and creativity with NFTs, while powering parallel (if unproven) worlds like the metaverse and laying the base for a ‘creator economy’.”

Marc Andreessen: “I think this is a foundational technology change, a new architecture for building an entirely new generation of computing systems. We have become convinced that Web3/blockchain/crypto is foundational. It’s a big hill. It’s as foundational an architecture shift as the ones from mainframes to PCs, from PCs to web, from web to mobile, or from traditional software to AI. It’s a fundamental shift and building this out is a 25- to 30-year process.”

**

So, to summarise my key points: By coming down hard on everything crypto, India is making a wrong turn. India needs to let its entrepreneurs free to create tomorrow’s world. Yes, there will be some negatives as they are there with many new innovations. But the good will be far greater. India needs to leapfrog with new technologies to remove friction in people’s lives and create prosperity. Web3 is one of those paths. I hope (but I am not optimistic) that we can learn from our past mistakes and create a policy environment which allows Web3 entrepreneurs to flourish – in India. Because flourish they will.

Web3 and India: A Wrong Turn (Part 13)

Quotes – 1

A new world beckons. For every bull, there is a bear. For every one company that succeeds, there will be a hundred others that will fail. I saw it in the early days of the Internet also. Entrepreneurs are optimists, seeing the world through a lens of making things better. The ones who succeed show us a better way to do things; the ones who fail show us how not to do certain things. Web3 will also go through its ups and downs. But the inevitable trajectory is of progress and betterment, and that is why India needs to be a part of the ecosystem.

Here are a few quotes about the promise of Web3 and blockchains:

Chris Dixon:

Disruptive technologies are dismissed as toys because when they are first launched they “undershoot” user needs. The first telephone could only carry voices a mile or two. The leading telco of the time, Western Union, passed on acquiring the phone because they didn’t see how it could possibly be useful to businesses and railroads – their primary customers. What they failed to anticipate was how rapidly telephone technology and infrastructure would improve (technology adoption is usually non-linear due to so-called complementary network effects). The same was true of how mainframe companies viewed the PC (microcomputer), and how modern telecom companies

…This does not mean every product that looks like a toy will turn out to be the next big thing. To distinguish toys that are disruptive from toys that will remain just toys, you need to look at products as processes. Obviously, products get better inasmuch as the designer adds features, but this is a relatively weak force. Much more powerful are external forces: microchips getting cheaper, bandwidth becoming ubiquitous, mobile devices getting smarter, etc. For a product to be disruptive it needs to be designed to ride these changes up the utility curve.

Brian Solis:

The opportunity for innovation lies in what my colleague Henry King and I define as relationship transformation: it’s the “why” of technology, reimagining web3’s trajectory to design concepts, inventions, and businesses around user relationships, those between companies and assets and people, and also between people and communities. With relationship transformation, we can define how we use decentralized and trustless technologies to create new asset classes and productive, collaborative communities and platforms that turn users and consumers into stakeholders and owners.

We can reimagine every industry from finance and insurance to healthcare and education to gaming, media, and music to accounting and legal to politics and governance to royalties and loyalty programs to software and technology to retail, marketplaces, and consumer goods and everything in between.

Therein lies the vast opportunity: we get to create the future. We get to define not only the trajectory that we’re on but an entirely new trajectory altogether. We’re not just striving to avoid web3’s equivalent of Web 1.0’s dot bomb phase, or the ethics failure and data conundrum of Web 2.0 to get us through the hype cycle. We’re striving for an alternate path that gives web3 utility and meaning, one that builds an equitable community and offers a more sustainable impact while giving access, power, autonomy, and portability to users.

David Andolfatto and Fernando M. Martin: “These traditional forms of record-keeping are likely to be challenged by blockchain technology, which provides a very different model of information management and communication. Competitive pressures compel organizations and institutional arrangements to evolve in response to technological advances in data storage and communications. Consider, for example, how the telegraph, telephone, computer and internet have transformed the way people interact and organize themselves. Advances in blockchain technology are likely to generate even more dramatic changes, though what these may be remains highly uncertain.”

Web3 and India: A Wrong Turn (Part 12)

Freedom

There is the other side of the coin also. Skeptics claim that bitcoin is used for money laundering and ransomware. There are many bad uses of cryptocurrencies which offer (to a large extent) anonymity and untraceability. And so, “national interest” and “security” become the reasons why a new regulation is brought in. And rule by rule, a new industry is killed. Can crypto challenge fiat currencies? Perhaps. And maybe there should be competition if one looks at how central banks (especially, the US Fed) have printed trillions of dollars in the past 15 years and debased currencies by creating rampant inflation. Every action has a reaction, and entrepreneurship and technological innovation cannot be stopped. Yes, there will be the wrong uses also, but that is true for almost anything.

The doomsday scenarios forecast by so-called experts find favour with risk-averse policymakers – most of whom have lived in rent-free accommodation all their life, and have little interaction or understanding of the real world. They have no skin in the game. No one is going to hold them accountable for their actions. They do not pay a price for their bad policies. It requires bold and visionary political leadership to rise above the short-sightedness and anti-business sentiment so prevalent in policymakers worldwide.

India has such an opportunity with Web3. It should lead the world by “unlocking Web3.” All it needs is a decade or so of permissionless innovation. Entrepreneurs are the ones who will drive wealth creation and enlarge the pie for all; governments only do redistribution and are mostly engaged in shrinking the pie with their bad policies. Web3 and its ecosystem of gaming, metaverse, DAOs and the likes is uncharted territory. That is why it should be left alone. A commitment needs to be made by government officials that no obstacles will be put in the path of entrepreneurs. For the first time, India has a mix of entrepreneurs, investors and capital who can help build out new industries. What they need is freedom.

Web3 offers India an opportunity to lead. There are many inefficiencies that it can solve. Centralisation has failed in many areas like land records, agricultural marketplaces, education, healthcare, digitisation of kirana stores, and so on. Maybe Web3 and its decentralised approach can work. In a way, ONDC (Open Network for Digital Commerce) is a decentralised initiative – it is Web3-like without the underlying crypto framework.

India has much catching up to do in the world. It needs sustained growth of 10% and higher for a generation to create prosperity. That is not going to happen through government subsidies which tax the rich and distribute via welfare schemes to the poor. India needs its entrepreneurs to solve problems and flourish. This is the realisation that still doesn’t exist in policymakers.

Web3 is a test for India. We missed the Web 1.0 and 2.0 waves that created trillions of dollars in wealth and made lives better. We cannot afford to miss another one. Political leadership is about not just making new policies, but also knowing when to step back. Let’s not send Indian entrepreneurs to foreign shores – like was done by another set of political leaders 50-60 years ago.