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India Tech Startups: Seven Things That Blew My Mind

WhatsApp's influence, super-cheap Uber rides and fear of the b-word.

Jason Del Rey
Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

For the last two years, I’ve been fascinated by the rise of the tech industry in India as investors and big American companies like Amazon have poured billions into the country to either support or combat powerful homegrown players such as Flipkart and Ola Cabs. So a little over a week ago, I traveled to India to speak at the India Internet Day conference and to meet with the startups and investors who are building the hottest tech ecosystem outside of the U.S.’s offices in Bangalore, India’s offices in Bangalore, India
Jason DelRey

You’ll hear more from me in the coming weeks as I document my visit. For now, here’s some of the stuff that surprised this first-time visitor to India’s thriving tech scene.

  • WhatsApp is literally everywhere. I knew the Facebook-owned messaging service was big in India, but it’s hard to grasp how large its influence is on everyday life until you spend some time there. It’s the go-to communication method not just for friends and family, but also businesses from local vegetable stands to brick-and-mortar crafts shops that send inventory updates and other messages to customers. Now, startups are trying to strip commercial benefit out of WhatsApp, building new services on top of the messaging service.
  • Everyone is talking about an American investor named Lee Fixel. Fixel, who’s a partner at New York City-based investment firm Tiger Global, comes up in just about any conversation with Indian entrepreneurs and investors these days. And for good reason: Tiger has been investing in India longer than most foreign investors, pumping hundreds of millions into India’s startups, including huge bets on e-commerce darling Flipkart as well as Uber’s giant India-based competitor Ola Cabs. Tiger first raised its profile in Silicon Valley circles by buying stakes in Facebook and LinkedIn before their IPOs.
  • Yes, people are worried about a bubble. Sky-high valuations and huge funding rounds have investors and entrepreneurs alike whispering the b-word.
  • Online shopping is growing fast, but there’s still not much brand loyalty. Amazon, Flipkart and SoftBank-backed Snapdeal are in a fierce battle for customers. But it appears that none of them have yet separated from the pack in a meaningful way. In conversations with dozens of online shoppers, it became clear that product pricing remains the most distinguishing factor.
  • Amazon and Snapdeal are plastering the country with billboards. From airports to highway overpasses, it’s hard to get away from the ad campaigns from these two top shopping sites.
  • Uber Black is a Toyota Corolla and costs $8 for a 66-minute ride. Uber originally launched its most expensive car category in Delhi with the luxury BMW 7 series. But since then, riders say, Uber Black cars have gone downmarket, with options like a Toyota Corolla that scooped me up on one of my days in town. Still, that 18-mile ride, which lasted more than an hour in traffic, was a steal by American standards, costing just $8 all in.
  • Street sellers don’t sell water; they sell phone chargers. A large part of investor interest in Indian tech companies can be traced to a straightforward trend: The rapid growth of the number of smartphone users in the country. This new dependence on smartphones is evident on many city roads, where adults and children alike hawk phone chargers in traffic more often than any other product.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Lee Fixel as the head of Tiger Global. He is a partner.

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