AT first glance, it's a low-tech sweat shop. In a central Mumbai office, people shove sheets of paper in envelopes, seal them, and stick on stamps. But appearances can be deceptive. This is home to Multinet Infosys (turnover: Rs25 lakh), promoters of homeindia.com, voted the "Most Useful Indian Website" at India Internet World in September.
An idea like homeindia.com is the sort whose very simplicity makes you blurt out: "I should've thought of that!" The website is the bridge between expatriate Indians who have access to e-mail, and their parents and friends in India who don't. So e-mail-enabled Indians send their letters to homeindia.com, which prints them out in Mumbai and sends them off by snail mail (the contemptuous term for ordinary post in the networked world) to folks back home.
Instead of the two weeks a letter from the US takes to reach its Indian destination, homeindia.com delivers the mail in three to four days: half-an-hour from the US to Mumbai electronically, and the rest inside India. And it's free. Multinet Infosys, brainchild of Sanjay Mehta and Hareesh Tibrewala, receives 800 to 1,000 e-mails a day. Of this, nearly 40 per cent have to be sent to remote towns and villages. "With the number of congratulatory letters we get, sometimes we feel like Mother Teresa," says Mehta.
His is just one of the hundreds of innovative ideas with which young Indian entrepreneurs are hacking into the global matrix called the Internet. And opening up a whole new vista of opportunities. For, on the Net, size does not matter. Someone in his home office in Lucknow has the same probability of getting noticed on the Net as a $30-billion megacorp. When someone in South Africa searches the Net for information on Sachin Tendulkar, he's as likely to hit the fan page you have created on the world's best batsman as something put out by the International Cricket Council. Also, there is no geography as we know it in our three-dimensional lives. There's no difference between an entrepreneur in Chennai and one in New York. Cyber-space, that alternative world created by millions of interconnected computers, is defined by information travelling at the speed of light and not the number of miles separating one computer from another.
An Indian cyber-entrepreneur is thus not restricted like his meatspace cousin by poor roads, inefficient ports or red tape. Current Indian folk hero Sabeer Bhatia was living in Sunnyvale, California, when he created the world's first—and insanely successful—free Net-based e-mail service Hotmail (now sold to Microsoft for a cool $400 million), but the revolutionary part is there's no theoretical reason why it couldn't have been done by someone sitting in Calcutta!
Ask Aditi Software (turnover: Rs 21 crore), set up by former Microsofter Pradeep Singh. Says Aditi's marketing chief Aditya Jha: "Sitting in Bangalore, using the Internet, we have answered over a quarter-of-a-million e-mailed questions on behalf of Microsoft for their developers worldwide."
Last month, Singh's company launched its Net-based software Talisma at Internet World in New York to rave reviews. Talisma, which Aditi Software describes as "the essential electronic customer service tool", steps into the dissatisfaction space left by traditional phone-based customer service.
Talisma manages customer e-mail received by large companies in a manner that every customer query can be answered immediately in a personalised manner. Going by the initial response, Talisma could turn out to be big. "With Talisma, we could easily manage (the customer feedback) process, saving us a great deal of time," says Bill McClain, webmaster, Xerox Corporation. Applauds Chris Muench, industrial software designer, Siemens: "It has everything I need to manage the hundreds of e-mails I receive a day."
If Aditi is at the upper end of the global Net business—software development—homeindia.com is plugging an India-specific need gap. But between these two enterprises lies a huge, untapped plain. Where you are limited only by your ideas.
WHILE the nation celebrated Diwali last month, a group of people in an office in Delhi's lower-middle-class neigh-bourhood of Hari Nagar were furiously punching away at their keyboards. This is Selectronic Equipment, a unique child of this telescoped e-world. Doctors in the US are required by law to keep detailed medical records of all patients, but don't have the time. So they record it all on a dictaphone. The audio files are piped through a leased line to Selectronic, where dozens of headphone-wearing typists bang it out on their computers, using footpedals under their tables to pause, fast-forward or rewind the tapes. The text files are then sent to the US. In the next few months, Selectronic president Veer Sagar will be sending a large part of the data over the Internet, reducing costs substantially.
The targets are tough: come rain or shine—or Diwali night crackers—the transcripts have to be sent within eight hours with minimum 98.5 per cent accuracy. But Selectronic logged Rs 40 crore worth of turnover in its first year. And the potential? The global transcription market is estimated at Rs 90,000 crore. "Once you are willing to go down the value chain," says Sagar, "there is a world of opportunity."
That world will only get bigger as private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) start up. Today, the monopoly ISP is the Videsh Sanchar Nigam, which is struggling to meet demand and provide fail-safe connections. With competition and private enterprise, Net access will get easier. Also, as per the new policy, Net connectivity will be available from Nagaland to Nellore, Surat to Siliguri, at the cost of local phone calls. Plus, in the upcoming winter session of Parliament, the government intends to introduce a bill to update the country's cyber laws, at present absurdly held hostage by the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885.
All this could end up spawning a new breed of young global Indian entrepreneurs, spurred by visions of infinity. With good reason. Radio took 38 years to reach 50 million people. Television took 13 years. The Internet has achieved that in just five years. By 2005, it will have a billion subscribers—India now has just 150,000, but that's expected to go up more than tenfold in two years. Electronic commerce or e-commerce—buying and selling via the Net—in India totalled only around Rs 12 crore in 1997, according to Ravi Sangal, president of market research firm IDC India—but could reach Rs 700 crore by 2001. Says Jha of Aditi: "The Internet offers an endless series of opportunities to be harnessed."
ONE of the first Indians who siezed that moment is Ajit Balakrishnan, chairman of Rediff-on-the-net, among the country's top web services. Balakrishnan, co-promoter of Rediffusion Advertising, discovered the Net in 1994, when he spent a couple of months at Oxford. "In those two months," he recalls, "I surfed the Net for 8-10 hours a day. I could feel its in-built transactional capabilities. To me, the scope and potential was absolutely staggering."
On his return, he excused himself from the daily grind of the agency and concentrated on setting up Rediff-on-the-net: "There were no benchmarks then. My only criterion was that it had to be of world standard from day one." Last year, when CNN declared Rediff-on-the-Net to be one of the world's 50 best news sites, Balakrishnan and his team stood vindicated.
Rediff was the sort of seminal idea that grew on itself. It began as a news site, but has since added on a whole range of services. It now offers its own free e-mail. Net-surfers can set up their homepages here, free of charge. It is also the first Indian site to offer shopping by credit cards. There are over 50,000 music titles and over 130,000 book titles on offer. Hotel reservations, movie tickets and gifts can also be accessed. "By the end of the year, we'll have our search engine (the software that allows the surfer to search for information on the Net) ready as well. Exactly like Yahoo or Infoseek (the world's most popular search engines)," says Balakrishnan.
His plans hardly end there—once globalised, the pendulum swings right back. "The future is to localise the events on the Net for our viewers," he says. "A surfer in Los Angeles wants more local news about the city he lives in, as does the one in Mumbai. What we need to do is set up our infrastructure in at least 30 cities around the world."
Balakrishnan's principal Indian competitor may be IndiaWorld, owned by Ravi Database. Electronics engineer Rajesh Jain, after working for a few years in the US, had come back to India to set up his own business. But his first product—a software which enhanced images digitally—bombed. Back in the US for a couple of months in late 1994, Jain's life changed. "Sitting at a friend's place in Sunnyvale," he recalls, "Sanjay Jain—a friend, no relation—and I decided to start a news and information service, primarily for non-resident Indians (NRIs)."
Up came IndiaWorld, the first website from India. With help (and content) from several Indian periodicals, IndiaWorld was formally launched in March 1995. Recalls Jain: "E-mails were sent out to friends, postings were made in newsgroups, and we anxiously waited for people to start accessing the site. As the e-mails started pouring in, we knew we were on to a winner. One smart thing we had done was to ensure quite a lot of archived content. So when people came in, they already got plenty to see. This way we knew people would come back again."
His plan was to create an all-in-one service for the NRI: news, stock quotes, cartoons, astrology, the works. "The idea was to build an Internet brand," says Jain, "which would give people all they needed at one place." In early 1997, as more and more Indians started getting on to the Net, he decided to create specific non-news sites, targeting the Indian audience too. While India-World would remain the mother brand, popular sections would be carved out with their own identities.
As a result, starting with Khoj, the search engine for Indian sites, the IndiaWorld family now encompasses a total of nine sites—among them Khel (cricket), Samachar (customised news), Dhan (personal finance) and Bawarchi (food). Each site is updated daily, and in most cases, builds on a strong tech component.
IndiaWorld's main target may be the expat Indian. For his local counterpart, the Chandigarh-based Pug-marks InterWeb (turnover: Rs 45 lakh) will offer a region-specific service. It's investing Rs 20 lakh to develop indiacity. com, which will have all the dope you need on 50 cities and towns across India. So, if you want to apply for a phone connection in Madurai, just visit the site and register. If the telecom department doesn't accept online registration, Pugmarks will send it by post. Says Pug-marks managing director Atul Gupta, "The idea is to provide every kind of information to a local customer."
Once up, the site will list all the events in the city, offer free e-mail and provide directories and yellow pages online. "We're not thinking of making lakhs, we are thinking of making millions," states a confi-dent Gupta. That's from an outfit that started with just two people and one computer two-and-a-half years ago.
Talk about India's creaking telecom infrastructure—after all, the Net doesn't work if the phone doesn't—or the fact that Indians won't be able to truly participate in global e-commerce till the rupee's full float, and the Netpreneur remains unfazed. Of course, there are problems, but men who set out to change the world don't whine about them. "Dramatically change people's lives in India through the Net": that's what Jain wants to do. "There are five lakh phone booths in the country," he says. "The attempt is to make as many of them Internet kiosks as possible. Integration of these kiosks with payment procedures is top of my agenda now." Equally important for Jain right now is to have a web browser—the basic software that allows one to retrieve documents on the Net and move from document to document—first in Hindi and then in regional languages. "Technologically, it's no big deal. By 1998-end, we should have the logistics in place for a Hindi browser."
One gets the same sense of the defiant frontiersman in the baby-faced, long-haired Manish Modi. Two years old, his company NetAcross already has a US subsidiary, plans a listing on US stock exchange NASDAQ in the next three to five years, and is growing so fast that he recruits two people every week.
NetAcross (turnover: Rs 1.5 crore) is into intranets—company-wide networks based on browsers, putting corporate information literally at the fingertips of executives. Using NetAcross' intranet solution, a manager can check sales, inventory, attendance, indeed any information or trend at any of the company's offices, and communicate instantaneously with any employee anywhere. The result: slashed response times, all decision-support information available all the time at the touch of a keystroke, higher efficiency, lower costs. Modi hopes to hit a turnover of Rs 100 crore by 2002. "Most of the revenues will be from overseas customers," he says.
Ah, revenues. Rosy visions of the networked future apart, the R-word is the single biggest issue facing the Indian Net player, especially those setting up websites. Sites like Rediff-on-the-net or khel.com have an impressive number of visitors, but the service is free. The premise is that a large number of hits will propel advertising revenues. But the target audience of the big advertisers are not online yet in sufficient numbers. The advertiser is thus hesitant to commit money to online advertising.
Also, since most of the country doesn't even have a phone connection, the large-hit sites are usually targeted at Indians living abroad. But the advertisers they seek are based in India. The alternative is to have subscription-based websites, where access is granted only after you pay a fee. But Indians are still loath to pay to read on their computer screens. The compromise is "micro payments": fees proportional to the information you access. Though in place at sites like indiainformer.com, which offers business and economic data, this concept too has not taken off yet in India. Even Mehta and Tibrewala of Multinet Infosys admit that they subsidise homeindia.com from their other activities, mainly holding Net-related seminars.
But these factors do not daunt the believer. He stands at the edge of an endless prairie of opportunity, with space for all. It promises equality of opportunity, and a whole new world order. A world where the rules are still to be framed and where everyone is still a learner. "When transportation of goods became cheap, fast and reliable over long distances, manufacturing moved out of the US and other developed countries," points out Jha of Aditi Software. "Today, the Internet has made the flow of information cheap, fast and reliable. As a result, a lot of services which depend on 'flow of information' will move out of the US to places like India, where the costs are low and talent easily available."
The world is waiting, the information highway beckons. And the first Indians are stepping off the kerb into the flow. They are the pioneers. They will create the next century.