[Photo by Kenzie Broad on Unsplash]
There are years that should not exist. 2020 takes one helluva bite of that bitter lemon cake.
No lengthy preamble here: 2020 simply broke the line that joins the past and the future. The Great Reset is creating new winners and losers. And we are getting early glimpses of that—Tesla’s market cap has grown larger than the rest of the global auto industry, Amazon’s adds up to more than all its offline competitors combined. Apple cruises above $2 trillion—unshakeable in its hold over the world’s wealthiest who follow its whims like the proverbial piper.
Digital was in favour before the virus. Now we have a divide—the digital, and the dying.
Some things won’t be there anymore. Like the bank tellers vanished with the advent of the ATM—none of us even remember getting a token number and then waiting to be called to a window to collect and count cash. Now the neighbourhood bank branch itself will vanish, and you wouldn’t notice.
Trendspotting in 2021 is both hard and easy: It’s hard to imagine the second order effects of such deep dislocations, but the first order effects themselves give you so much to think about. I promise not to use the word “unprecedented” except for this once in this piece. Without much ado, let’s dive in.
Forget Push, Here’s Pull: The Shift Below the Crust
Like a supercharged electron, the Indian digital economy jumped orbit. The last decade was a VC-funded struggle to create new habits and build trust with Indian consumers. Now we have a heady confluence of factors that will catapult us to a new trajectory:
1. Internet Consumers to Transactors: Our internet user base grew 2.5X over the last five years to about 700 million today and that drove a big jump in internet content consumption (YouTube for example reported a 5X increase in usage). India is on top of the list of video consumption worldwide with over 5 hours a day on average. However, transactions stayed limited to Tier 1 consumers.
Even after Jio’s disruptive entry in 2016, and the sudden drop in data price and ballooning in mobile broadband base (that added nearly half a billion users in the last five years!), internet content consumption did make a huge leap, but not internet transactions. Startups had to lure consumers with discounts, cash backs, and investors with projections of chimerical future. Now we have depth of a different order—a larger consumer base, more spending per user, and willingness to experiment.
Startups had to lure consumers with discounts. Now we have a larger consumer base, more spending per user, and willingness to experiment
2. Digital drives consumption: Across categories, adoption has passed the expectations of every player. We are now in an inverted universe. Consumers are tracking ahead of firms in digital adoption, they are ready to pay, ready to transact. Pre-Covid, the smartphone was something you used, the device was tethered to you. Now you are tethered to the device. You cannot function without it. Nearly every consumption transaction is preceded by a digital search. Physical will need substitution by digital to the extent possible. “Pre-interactions” will be complete steps. What steps can a customer do on his own? Discounts are no longer the drivers of consumption. The new habit is here to stay.
Frictionless micropayments, auto-debits, pay-later and real-time ‘embedded’ lending will create a new cycle of consumption
3. Payments…duh!: The QR code has arrived. Finally. Indians are ready to whip out their phones and scan our way to our desires. Digital payments are now a habit—and more frequently than not, you are comfortable leaving home without a wallet, as long you have enough juice in your smartphone battery. Digital payments almost quadrupled over the last year and UPI auto-debit features will unleash a micro-payments storm, which will enable the subscription business to take off. The combination of frictionless micropayments, auto-debits, pay-later and real-time “embedded” lending will create a new cycle of consumption.
The push economy is now pull. And that changes everything. Any guesses what might happen when all the three factors I’ve listed above start to converge? Here’s my take:
Entrepreneurs Backed by a Wall of Capital
One of the biggest causes of failure of startups is not the idea, not the market, not the founders, but simply timing. Swimming against the tide tires out many an entrepreneurial dream.
It’s absolutely the best time to be an entrepreneur
The stars are now aligned. If you are starting a digital business today, you are in a markedly better place than you could ever be in the last 10 years. Indian tech-VCs are on a multi-year bull run and have the dry powder to pave the path ahead.
It’s absolutely the best time to be an entrepreneur. You can virtually code a company into existence from your living room and then grow it on Zoom.
And interestingly we are seeing three things that augur well:
1. Several second-time founders who have come back wiser and backed with more capital;
2. Experienced professionals and domains specialists who are seeing the future and are exiting fat-cheque, dead-end jobs, wanting to craft their legacy; and
3. Techies from the US returning to India to start firms with the skills they picked up there.
With a massive smartphone user base, low data costs and a highly fragmented and frictional economy, India is probably the lowest hanging fruit in the world for digital-led disruption. The next few years will see a mushrooming of digital-first businesses and they will infiltrate every sector of the economy.
If you ever planned a startup, 2021 would be the year to start!
The Y2K Moment Is Here, Again
1991 shaped India with a crisis. Eight years later, 1999 shaped it with opportunity. The bodies we shopped out put India on the global technology map. It gave us much needed dollar inflows via remittances, and instilled a new confidence in our diaspora.
Covid-19 is another Y2K opportunity—even larger in size, scale and impact. This time around India can supply the software, in addition to the talent. Virtually every major corporation has compressed their digital transformation roadmap. All five-year plans are now down to “as of yesterday”. This will translate into a massive demand for cloud SaaS (software as a service) products, as well as services. Several SaaS firms from India have already tasted blood with the uptick in global demand and acceptance in the last six months, and most VCs I speak to have increased their allocations to deep-tech and SaaS. One is already seeing the VC-fuelled gold rush in SaaS investments and even the creation of SaaS and deep-tech funds.
Python will be a ticket to a brighter future
Now, we have two advantages:
Cost Advantage: It is still far cheaper to hire an engineer in Bangalore than in the Valley, we’ve seen that our SaaS offerings can become better priced alternatives, and what’s more, they’ll be mobile-first. Zoho, Freshworks, Zenoti and their ilk, all have shown that we can be highly flexible, mobile-friendly and assisted. India finally has the opportunity to be a “product” innovator. If Y2K was about services, this wave is about products, with Indian coders creating cloud apps that serve the globe.
On the digital services front, we can assist customisation and integration, creating a layer for off-shelf cloud software to act like enterprise systems. This offers our IT services majors a new growth opportunity and they are retooling themselves to move from the back-end to full-stack digital integrators.
Numbers Advantage: The world will need millions of coders—and India has the raw material. This is a moment for the industry and government to come together and invest in training and skilling our unemployed graduates enmasse. Python will be a ticket to a brighter future. We can become the outsourced digital team to the world. And we shall no longer stay a country of “useless colleges churning out unemployable graduates”
The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid
For a few years I’ve been saying that India needs multiple internets—in regional languages and designed for the “not so savvy”, first-time smartphone users. (Fact: Over 90% of our online video consumption is non-English.) With Covid-19, the market has arrived before the apps have.
CK Prahalad’s prophetic 2002 work on how the poorest can be served profitably is now coming true. They are now connected and can be served with the same tools and technology as the nerd in Indiranagar.
The smartphone-centered internet will launch from India into Southeast Asia, and Africa and even make its way West
We will witness a flurry of NBU (next billion users) apps—where the primary language is not English, and the primary mode of interaction is not text. Apps that use “visual” interfaces, designed with the smartphone and its sensors in mind (voice activated, location and context aware). That’s how convergence will begin.(p.s. Next billion users—NBU—is Google’s definition of users who are going online for the first time.)
India’s NBU will get into a dream run—the smartphone-centered internet will launch from India into Southeast Asia, and Africa and even make its way West. Besides the cost advantages India offers, we have the maximum complexity and heterogeneity, so apps built here will be ready to work in those markets.
The likes of Khatabook, Pagarbook, Dukaan, will spawn a new universe of easy-to-use, inexpensive, yet versatile apps for small businesses. Shopify will find a new competitor emerging from India, which will be 1/10th the price and will be mobile-friendly and flexible.
Get Ready to Change or Get Ready to Die
There will be two kinds of firms: the ones that get digital and the one that don’t. The latter will die.
The Zerodhas of banking, of insurance, of lending are coming
The combination of the pull-economy and frictionless digital access to millions of Indian consumers has VCs and startups licking their chops. Now is the time to attack the non-tech incumbents in every sector like PSU banking and insurance, and the age-old logistics and distribution chains. The threat from technology businesses has gone nuclear.
The Zerodhas of banking, of insurance, of lending are coming. Arbitrage for simply transferring bits and bytes will go to zero. Digital technology allows services to be priced at marginal costs, and till an incumbent has a margin to spare, a digital upstart will threaten it.
The Tata group is seeing the writing on the wall—and thus, a desperate bid to cobble together a digital consumer ecosystem (more on their super app ambition ahead). Aditya Birla Fashion, after missing the bus with ABOF, its digital ecommerce venture, accepted an equity infusion from Flipkart to get an omni-channel foothold with digital real estate on the platform. On the other hand, Shoppers Stop’s deal with Amazon did not seem to have any impact on the former’s fortunes.
We’ll see even more strange bedfellows. The weaker/smaller banks will become bank-license-for-hire blackboxes for VC-funded fintech startups. The message is clear: cannibalise yourselves before the market does. ICICI Bank gets this. It is the first off the block with Open API banking and welcomes fintech players to the platform.
This theme of value-disruption will play out in the high-priced Indian ed-tech sector too. The NBU apps could rewrite the fate of some edtech unicorns. The “pull” economy has created an incumbent’s curse, by bringing down the cost of reaching and creating audiences.
The Achilles heel will continue to be talent. Great digital talent will get valued in expensive startup equity—you simply can’t hire them
As I have maintained before, the Achilles heel will continue to be talent. Great digital talent will get valued in expensive startup equity—you simply can’t hire them. The best want to be entrepreneurs. This talent crisis will bring companies to their knees. Just compare the HDFC Bank mobile experience with Cred and you’ll see how smooth and seamless the latter is. This is a digital DNA issue, not something you can fix with an annual budget review.
We are delighted to invite you to a learning session with Nandan Nilekani and Haresh Chawla on the trends to watch in 2021. Do join us.
Where: Livestream on Facebook
When: Friday, January 08, 2021, 6.30 pm – 7.15 pm
Register here: http://bit.ly/FFTrendspotting
Destruction of the Middle
Imagine Covid-19 as an earthquake. If your firm’s foundations had cracks, they now stand exposed.
Technology is the great flattener—the bulge in middle management will be exposed and culled
This is true even for management and leadership. Work from home and forced “synchronous” collaboration has been like an X-ray that reveals the actual work output of your colleagues. It has exposed the bureaucracy that inevitably creeps up in firms and is overlooked, much like a buildup of plaque in our arteries. Suddenly, performance is transparent, dashboards are digital and meetings are transactional—the weak links in management teams stand revealed.
Technology is the great flattener—the bulge in middle management will be exposed and culled. Firms will shrink to the point where anyone who is not in direct line with the customer journey or involved in building capacity for the firm will be expendable.
How do you motivate people who are bodiless heads on a Zoom call?
This workplace change has implications on how a firm can thrive as well. How do you motivate people who are bodiless heads on a Zoom call? How do you get familiar with new colleagues or how does a new boss really create a bond with an existing team? How do you infuse culture and belongingness into a new hire?
A month into the lockdown, work from home was a novelty. It soon became tiresome and depressing. The lack of human touch, the warm voices, the chuckles and the non-verbal signals (rolling your eyes when the boss goes on and on) could start to disappear. Work wasn’t designed to be the lonely experience it has become now.
This period will force new formulas (playing housie on Zoom calls is probably at the bottom end of what HR teams need to think about!).
The solutions that will emerge will be hybrid in nature. After all, humans need to touch, feel, hear others to form bonds. The workplace will become a place to “interact”, while the work may shift home.
Organisation culture will take on new meanings—and companies that are in the midst of being born (startups) will find it difficult to find the cohesion, the glue that non-transactional interactions bring. Techies have been using collaborative platforms for ages. But their real work tends to be specific—they stare at a piece of code, not deal with the abstract. Whereas managers have to deal with ambiguity and build trust to generate high performance.
Leaders will have to work harder to drive meaning and purpose and watch out for signs of burnout and frustration. An HR professional’s challenge is how to percolate culture and meaning into jobs via bits and bytes.
The Two-Tier Economy
A shrinking economy doesn’t mean shrinking firms. While Covid-19 shrank markets, market share for the leaders grew. In the heightened uncertainty customers shifted enmasse to the brands they could trust. The big became bigger, and the smarter ones used Covid-19 to consolidate their positions, and to take deep cuts in their operational costs and manpower, making their leadership unassailable.
The market will become binary. At the extreme, either you become the mass supplier with economies of scale and offer deep value or serve a niche with high differentiation. The middling firm will vaporise.
Now we’ll see the worst side-effects of formalisation
Companies will become bigger, and drive efficiencies, leading to more output per employee. Well, that’s good for the companies but bad for the economy since the job market will shrink.
The formalisation of the economy was already underway. It needed to be balanced with a parallel influx of skill redevelopment, to ensure that jobs are created. But now we’ll see the worst side-effects of formalisation. We still have huge skill gaps and an unemployment problem to deal with. Skilled labour will get expensive as there is lack of supply, while unskilled labour will become a burden on the state.
The Kirana Comeback
Small isn’t dead. Instead, in 2020, we’ve seen a revival and morphing of the kirana stores. They managed to adapt and serve the customer. The battle that modern trade has to fight has come from both ends: a revival and digitisation of kirana and the onslaught of online grocers.
The smarter kirana store owners have upgraded their stores, ensuring that their assortments of food are designed to fit the needs of the catchment. They have migrated to online ordering, supported by a combination of WhatsApp and Google Pay, and created better frontage and better designed store layouts. They will gain market share from both modern trade on the back of better assortment and service and the mom-and-pop run kirana stores who don’t upgrade.
Kirana-tech has been a graveyard for many firms. On paper the hyperlocal kirana-serviced ecommerce platform looks very attractive: The kirana store carries the inventory, and services customers, the platform just redirects demand. It’s turned out far tougher on the ground. They refuse to use the technology and getting them to align and adopt is proving to be a monumental task, sending even well-funded, large players back to the drawing board and setting up their own infrastructure.
This tug-of-war will continue and 2021 will be a year when serious experimentation will be needed to make partnerships between the e-commerce firms and kirana stores work.
Super App Heat Up
In September 2020, I wrote a piece titled The Race to Build a ‘Desi’ Super App, where I argued that while China is the birthplace of super apps, India now has the same weather conditions for creation of a super app ecosystem.
2021 will be the year the building blocks are put in place, even as the consolidation drive ratchets up between the aspirants. The attempt is to combine payments with a broad-based ecommerce, throw in a few high-frequency/high-stickiness verticals, online grocery and hyperlocal delivery.
The super app opportunity is primarily being attacked from two ends. On the ecommerce side Amazon, Walmart, Jio and the Tatas are threatening to make a go of it. From the payments side it is Paytm, Phonepe, Google Pay and WhatsApp (which will align with Jio). The Chinese are completely out of this market and that leaves the playing field open.
Clearly the players are moving to stitch up the ecosystems. Jio has acquired Netmeds, Amazon is taking a stake in Apollo Pharmacy, and Dunzo could be an expensive acquisition candidate for any one of them. Meat delivery, another high-frequency use case that surged during Covid-19 and is now a habit, will also be a prime candidate for consolidation.
The winner will be determined as much by how seamlessly it can migrate customers across services and meet expectations, and how regulatory restrictions, especially around foreign ownership, emerge.
The structure and cadence of Society determines the structure and cadence of our lives. At an individual level, the lockdowns shocked us into a new level of awareness about what is important, what’s relevant and what’s not. It has tested our relationship with everything. And changed the way we live, learn, work, entertain and socialise. Of course, shocks are forgotten. But some scars will stay. As will new ways of doing things.
The change in how we live, eat, sleep, socialise and entertain will lead to a change in how we think
For several people, Covid-19 has led to a re-examination of their life and lifestyle. The sudden stall in the blinding rat-race has allowed space to think about their relationship with work and success. With all external sources of validation being muted, one has had to turn inward—to family and relationships. Some folks realised that life is better treated as a trek, and not a race. There is no finish line where you win. Like a trek, it gets over whenever you’ve had your fill of the view.
This recalibration will create massive opportunities as people remake their homes, their lives and how they spend their time.
The change in how we live, eat, sleep, socialise and entertain will lead to a change in how we think.
Here are a few consumer mini-trends that will be worth watching this year:
a. Demand for realty will change. Second homes. Larger homes. Homes with offices. Spending patterns will change. People will spend on personal comfort and experiences. All other spending will be cut to essentials, releasing a lot of money for experiences, family and living.
b. Personal mobility will see major changes. We are at the cusp of the electric vehicle wave. The combination of incentives, battery-tech standardisation, and potential swapability will take it mainstream. Backed by a strong standardisation push by the government to create standards for interchangeable batteries and charging stations, we can become the biggest exporter of electric two-wheelers (including electric assisted bicycles) to the world.
c. Take a look inside your own refrigerator and you’ll find food products that were not there a year ago. After all, how we eat, where we eat, what we eat, who cooks, when they cook and how much time and effort they spend cooking/eating and the attendant packaging has gone through a major upheaval. Hygiene considerations will force a trend and you’ll see mass production of all kinds of modern packaging formats of Indian sweetmeats. Equally, pre-cooked, ready-to-eat and ready-to-cook, as well as frozen foods, will see a new level of adoption and put wings underneath an industry that struggled to survive between ‘cook at home” or “order in”. A category of convenience foods, which essentially cut down cooking to a few simple steps, will become de facto—every home will be filled with them.
- Watch: Setting new foundations for realty
- Read: FF Recommends | Personal mobility
- Read: When the Swiggy generation rediscovers the home kitchen
- Watch: On the menu: The changing attitude towards home cooking
Xi Jinping’s thirst for hegemony has made China a pariah. Albeit a very powerful one. And two internets are emerging: the Chinese one, and the open one. India has the largest user base of the open internet. The emerging digital cold war between the West and China pushes India into sudden relevance, if we play our cards well.
Everyone wants to have what China has, but no one wants to be like China. It is no beacon of hope. India is
Though our market is smaller, we are a mobile-first economy like China and are poised to be the largest non-Chinese internet market in the world after the US. The eventual flow of capital and technology to India can create millions of jobs. (While I don’t endorse WhiteHat Jr, the fact is that teaching your teenager Python may well be the best career-insurance you can gift her.)
The reason China will falter is because it has no “idea” to sell to the world. Here’s the irony: Everyone wants to have what China has, but no one wants to be what China is. It is no beacon of hope. It has the money and the might, not heart. There is no charm in the Chinese way. We do. Our culture, our history, our democratic constitution. We are the melting pot of hope for a better future. We need to preserve, and nurture this idea. The world needs India to win.
However, India needs to use its diplomacy very carefully in this bi-polar world. It can’t afford to become completely antagonistic with the Chinese and align fully with the US. That will paint us into a corner in a few years. So maybe that’s some food for thought for the Twitter war mongers.
- Read: The US-China war for tech supremacy is splitting the world in two
- Read: Should the world be worried about Chinese tech?
- Watch: Masterclass: The World in 2021
Government Regulation on Digital
How will the Western strategics—Google, Facebook, Amazon and others—impact the ecosystem going forward, when compared to the past?
In my conversation with Nandan Nilekani scheduled on January 8, this is a topic that will be worth exploring. The future of India's startup ecosystem (the Unicorns included) hinges on this question, especially in the absence of Chinese capital, the emerging Jio ecosystem, and the natural alignment of Western Big Tech.
Keep a close watch on the tightrope walk between new rules that create red tape and the need to rein in crony capitalism
As industry consolidation takes shape, how will India's startups compete with a “friendly” group of companies like Facebook, Google, Reliance, and Amazon, which are invested in each other's success? (If Amazon, Reliance’s last remaining digital rival of significance, invests in Reliance Retail, India will see a curious case of not just Reliance’s power stretching across sectors, but also of rivals coming together as investors).
It isn’t just the digital ecosystem. Regulation is spreading its tentacles. OTT (over-the-top streaming media services), banking, RBI’s NUE (New umbrella entity guidelines), ride sharing, digital news…slowly, but surely, regulation in India is tightening. India needs to do a tightrope walk between stifling innovation, creating more red tape and the allegations of crony capitalism.
Indian regulators will also need to heed the signals from around the world, as Society comes into conflict with Technology and the power it confers on platforms. I have discussed this in detail in an earlier piece “Making Sense of the New Capitalists”. Every country in the world is grappling with the challenge of restraining Big Tech firms from using a combination of technology and capital to dislocate markets.
The US report on Investigation of Competition in Digital Markets is a must read for anyone who wants to peek at the path regulation is taking. Essentially, it recommends curtailing of digital dominance by testing for cross-subsidisation (example: your Amazon Prime Video access is cross-subsidised by its ecommerce business, while Netflix or Hotstar are standalone ), no self-preferencing (example: Amazon competes with its own suppliers with its brand Solimo and uses its algorithm to crowd suppliers out) and forcing platforms to come up with interoperability (example: you should be able to export your friend list and data from Facebook or WhatsApp onto another platform) and prevent data abuse (Example: using your profile and activity data to serve you ideological or political content).
Ironically, even the omnipotent Communist Party of China is threatened and has started reigning in China’s digital behemoths. Alipay’s IPO was suddenly stalled and now an antitrust investigation has been launched against Alibaba, and that Alibaba may have to overhaul its businesses to address compliance issues.
In a first, regulators are blurring the line between offline and online when it comes to testing market dominance. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is in charge of enforcing antitrust law and consumer protection, stopped P&G from buying a DTC online women’s razor startup. This is just what’s needed—the tests for domination of markets need to become more flexible as digital companies keep redefining their markets and business models. These platforms are creating micro-monopolies at an “individual” level—your data is used as a tool to narrow your choices.
Data privacy raised its head but has died for all practical purposes, as governments backed off in the wake of Covid-19. However, with so many first time users, cybercrime will surge and prompt massive investments in cyber security infrastructure and services.
The flush of Central bank-infused liquidity across the globe has made its way to India’s shores. We are seeing this play out in the public markets (The BSE listed companies hit their record high of $ 2.6 Trillion just yesterday!).
We were deep into a slowdown, pre-Covid. Now, clearly, it isn’t as if Covid-19 magically supercharged our economy. No. What it did was restructure demand in favour of the larger firms, and the flush of liquidity (both domestic and foreign) now has them trading at sky high multiples.
India can become very expensive, but if you are a long-term investor, there is nowhere else to go
On balance, India seems to have weathered the Covid-19 storm reasonably well. In most of the country, life is nearly back to usual. The surge of external liquidity, which in turn is driving lower interest rates, is creating a positive sentiment, even with negligible fiscal stimulus. Remember, just a tiny diversion of capital flows intended for China can create a big surge in India, given our relative share of global flows. Also, Joe Biden’s victory could prompt a cooling off of the Western markets and shift liquidity to emerging markets.
The economy is a function of the sentiment and vice versa. With the uptick in some sectors, we are seeing risk appetite come back and with it, we could sail through mildly hurt, but with much better fundamentals.
Growth is hard to find in the world—the US and Europe are weakening and China is becoming untouchable. The India story stands out. It is expensive to own, but if you are a long-term investor, there is nowhere else to go. Firms with strong balance sheets and access to inexpensive capital will kick off a wave of consolidation. The M&A activity that we will witness in the next five years will be more than in the last 50. It is clear from my conversations with investment bankers that 2021 is going to be a great year for deals.
Quickening the Pace of Market Evolution
In August 2016 I wrote a piece titled How India’s Digital Economy can Rediscover its Mojo. I had talked about how India’s digital opportunity was still nascent and capital was running behind too small a market. How each layer of the Indian economy (1, 2, 3) was distinct and needed unique offerings that would have to wait for the market to achieve digital maturity.
My guess at that time was that at its natural rate, it would have taken us a decade for solutions to percolate and players to fully realise the potential of the market.
But 2020 has forced a compression, we now have a clear addressable and accessible market of 700 million people—they are ready to transact and enjoy the gifts of technology. This changes the landscape for every firm—big, small or just starting out. The opportunity is there to be seized.