Indian internet’s pretenders and wannabes
Okay, the title is a bit harsh, especially when it comes from someone who’s been living off the industry since 2000. More than a harsh indictment of the not-so-rosy state of affairs, the title is more a reflection of the fact that the games we are playing now in the online sphere in India is far from what the actual action is going to look like. But the fact of the matter is that online participation in India is still a niche affair, dominated by the English-speaking, educated crowd and largely exclusive. Thus, the actual potential in the country is still very much locked behind the walls of language and connectivity.
If you look the internet landscape in India, the major draws are ticket booking, email, chat, ebay auctions, porn and matrimony. While all these present decent enough market opportunities, none of them are likely to be significantly big till you manage to overcome the hurdles of access and language. Let us face it, the pot of gold at the end of the tunnel we talk about, a billion-plus population, is mostly not online and even when they finally will, the traffic won’t go to any of the existing players. Which is a major reason why none of the large traditional businesses have not moved online. I could probably buy a fancy soap from an online marketplace in India today, but nobody’s selling a Hamam or Lifebuoy online now, simply because the online market does not exist for it yet.
For that market to develop, somebody has to make a simple, yet crucial, calculation. The valuation/revenue/turnover of an Indiatimes or a Rediff is peanuts compared to the same benchmarks for someone like Hindustan Lever Limited or Reliance. If we can factor in bulk pricing/discounts (assuming that this is rolled out for even 10% of the total population) for computers and access and these companies give away both for free, in exchange for being the conduit for practically owning the digital lives of the customers, I think the economies of scale will work out in such a way that it would end up being profitable before soon.
The key here is to go beyond the regular revenue models of advertising and subscriptions. Throw it out of the window and focus on a much larger game – to own the digital window for most Indians. The investment for such a product is way too huge beyond what any Rediff or Indiatimes can even dare to think of. But if it can be pulled off (yes, I know I am treating real-world problems rather lightly), it will open up a market that is of a size beyond what any of us can imagine.