An Exclusive interview with Mr. Ajit Balakrishnan, Founder, rediff.com
Rediff Founder - KEEP FIGHTING! KEEP INNOVATING!
Mr. Ajit Balakrishnan, graduated from IIM Calcutta in 1971 with two awards, he has been the Chairman, Board of Governors IIM Calcutta for 2 terms (2006-2016). He has also been the Member of Committee that updated Indian IT Act 2008 (personally wrote Section 79 which governs internet platforms), chaired Ministry of Information Technology Working Group on Internet Governance and Proliferation (2005-2008). He has also served as a Member of MHRD’s IIM Review Committee 2008; Chaired MHRD Committee on Online Education, 2010, Chairman Emeritus, Internet and Mobile Association, Member of the 4-man Commerce Ministry Working Group for negotiating India's position on eCommerce Access at WTO and Ministry of IT nominee on the Board of Centre for Development of Advanced Computing Technologies. He is also an author of his recently published book: The Wave Rider. http://www.thewaverider.in/ Let’s see, what Mr. Balakrishnan have to say with an exclusive interview with B’wise.
B'WISE: Your entrepreneurial journey commenced from an advertising agency called Rediffusion to trying your hand in IT as the director with PSI Data System, and finally the Founder of Rediff.com launching it on a Christmas Day of 1995. Tell us something about your journey and some major milestones, you crossed on the way?
I am a son and grandson of medical doctors in Kerala, so, I had little or no knowledge of business when I started out. Someone suggested I take the IIM Entrance test, which surprising to me I ranked at the top. So, I joined IIM Calcutta, enjoyed my study there. On graduation in 1971 I was excited by applying the breakthrough concepts in Market Research etc , so I joined an ad agency, MCM in Bombay in 1971. Soon, after, seeing no action in state-of-the art management science techniques there, I joined two others to found Rediffusion: I was 25 years old then. We had an exciting time, building the business , but when the first PC (personal computer) arrived, I saw a new world appear. I looked up and bought a stake in PSI Data Systems a company in Bangalore founded by Standford Computer Science grads Vinay Deshpande, DR Ravindran and Harindran. There we designed, built and launched the first India-built PC "PSI Action Station", in 1985.I was the Managing Director there but India went through a very bad recession in the mid/late 80's so we had to sell PSI to the French State-owned company Bull. Then again, I saw the internet looming over the horizon, so I founded rediff.com to offer Email and News Services a few years before Facebook and Google. on Christmas Day 1995 in an 800 square feet room in Phiroze Shah Mehta Road, Bombay ( to be near VSNL, at that time the only ISP in India).
B'WISE: If you get a chance to relive your life again as an entrepreneur. What would you do differently?
Some of my friends, including the VCs who sought me out and invested in rediff.com, then and now tell me that I should in 1995, or soon after pivoted and restarted rediff.com in the Silicon Valley and aimed it at the mainstream US market. That would have made us a very big comppany because in India there were hardly any internet users for the next 10 years!
B'WISE: As an entrepreneur, you have witnessed the country's IT landscape change from Computer Saksharta then to Digital India now, Ecommerce then and Ecommerce now! Is this how you envisaged the Digital enablement of India? Your comments please?
Yes, one could see all that coming, but the miniscule buying power of the Indian consumer was always a problem. Even today, 2020, eCommerce companies in India make losses in excess of Rs 10,000 crores a year because unless they subsidize the customer with very low prices, there are no sales!
B'WISE: Digital convergence is a reality with entertainment, news, information, education and many other areas going digital. How would you view the scenario and opportunities in coming years?
The next wave is the digital delivery of Professional Services like Law and Medical Care that will disrupt those industries like Media and Retail have been disrupted.
B'WISE: As an entrepreneur, did you face failure in your business, how did you deal with it?
In an innovation driven approach, 8 out of 10 ideas you try in a month, fail. So, you must learn how to fail cheaply! That is a science!
B'WISE: What are your comments about the e-commerce platforms today? Is this what you had in mind when you launched Rediff? What are the gaps if any?
Current ecommerce works through subsidies ...possible because the players have access to UD capital which has negative interest rates.
B'WISE: E-commerce can be a great enabler for SMEs while at the same time it is said that it can serve a death knell for mom & pop retail. What are your views on this & how can the grassroot industry be strengthened along with the SMEs?
Correct, government policy can prevent this and at the same time spur digitization
B'WISE: Are you working on any digital solutions for SMEs to help make them ready for the new normal?
Many! including policy initiatives!
B'WISE: Do you feel there are still gaps in the Ecosystem for the Complete Digital Enablement of Indian Entrepreneurs? Any advice to the policy makers on how it can be achieved?
Govt appointed me as Chair of the Committee on Employability and Entrepreneurship in the National Education Policy 2020..they liked my report but like all govt committees, implementation has not started yet. Basically, The factors that determine “employability” are in the process of being fundamentally changed with the advent of the Information Age. It is no longer going to be determined by simple English-speaking (and such communication skills) and willingness to patiently perform clerical jobs. The new key to employability will be digital analytical and implementation skills. The basic versions of these will be Vocational (supervise Bots and Robots) and complex versions will require skills like Machine Learning, Cryptography, Network Science and Bioinformatics. Entrepreneurship in India is currently limited by capital being available only to children of business families. The current Venture Capital and Private Equity industry in India is dysfunctional because their primary goal is to get foreign companies back-door entry into the Indian Market. The key to trigger entrepreneurship is to create a vibrant India Angel Investment community by making it possible for Angel Investors to set off a Limited Liability Partnership’s early losses against the investor’s income from other sources. “Getting a job” in India today is 90%+ use of family connections. To make India more egalitarian, a publicly funded and run Internship Platform is needed. A 2 to 6 month Internship will help our young grads find their feet
B'WISE: What is the role of Innovation for an Entrepreneur? your views on inculcating Innovation as a habit among MSMEs.
Innovation ought to be 90% otherwise you are a trader!
B'WISE: Any message you would like to share with our MSMEs ?
Keep fighting! Keep innovating! India will someday be back as leader of the world of ideas like we invented Mathematics, Yoga and a hundred other breakthrough ideas!