Jolly's Volley: Back to the USA
Yes I am back on vccircle after a little hiatus (to the delight of some, and dismay of many). For those of you who are unaware, I recently relocated to the Bay Area. The reasons were purely personal (aging parents and in-laws are in California and the accidental loss of my younger brother last year), and in no way indicates a lack of interest or excitement about entrepreneurship or investment opportunity in India (political and policy logjam notwithstanding). While I still sit on multiple boards of Indian companies (iYogi, Cleartrip, Attero, Canvera, Seventymm, mChek, and Bharat Light and Power), my modus operandi will be to visit India at least every other month for 8-10 days at a time with my first such visit underway as I write this.
I will continue to look at new investments, although more focused on mid-stage companies as part of an investor syndicate rather than pure early stage. But the first few weeks back in Silicon Valley have been nothing short of enlightening, energizing and entertaining and I thought I would share some compare and contrast reactions both on the personal and professional fronts.
The transition from India was, of course, filled with excitement and unpredictability (and provided enough material for multiple Jolly’s volley). As it turns out we had been building a house in north Bangalore for the previous three years (the rationale was that if we are going to be in India long term, why pay exorbitant rent with a ten month rental deposit which, by the way, is a Bangalore scam). BTW, three months after I left the rental home, I am still trying to recover a decent chunk of the deposit from the landlord. The construction was supposed to take 18 months, but keeping the Indian timeline (x2) in mind, it was finished in 36 months. Ironically, we got the keys to the house exactly 1 month before the family was supposed to relocate to the US. While the kids were disappointed and asked the question “why didn’t we move in sooner”, being a “glass always half full” kind of guy, I mentioned to them that at least we got to enjoy the house for a little while, rather than not at all (and I can’t imagine trying to manage construction while sitting in the US).
But the new house did provide additional complexity in terms of our move. In fact, there were two simultaneous moves – local move of our US furniture etc. from our rental home to the new Bangalore home, and the international move with the 40 foot container headed to the US. In the move, as might be expected, some stuff that was supposed to be shipped to the US stayed in India and vice versa. We also realized that our driver was a kleptomaniac and stole whatever he could get his hands on in the final days and in the confusion of the dual moves (and actually use our car to transport the stolen goods to his home). But rather than deal with the cops and other acquaintances who offered to “take care of him”, I chose instead to give him a nice lecture and told him to never show his face again (which likely had absolutely zero impact).
Back to more important issues…As the plane landed in SFO, my wife actually froze almost to the point of a nervous breakdown,as the thought of the move’s “finality” set in. The fact that, unlike previous four summers, we as a family were not going to return to India,just hit her. Usually, she can’t wait to get off the plane and be off to go through our summer version of the bucket list, but this time was very different. The issues that were cause for anguish (and plenty of jolly’s volleys) – the unpredictability, the chaos, the traffic, the public hygiene, personal space, corruption at all levels, power interruptions like the one that took out equivalent of the size of the US, suddenly seemed not so bad. We pushed ourselves through the airport formalities and were on our way to our other (new) home.
Once we got home, several minor challenges on the personal front emerged – yours truly, for example, had to discover the kitchen after five years. After the long journey, we wanted our Raju and Sanjeela to be waiting at home with hot tea and snacks as we stepped into the home. We clearly missed (and are missing) the domestic staff and outsourced chores. We also miss the friends we have made over the last five years. In those interactions, there was less of an agenda and sense of competition, than there seems to be among the US social circles, who seem to be stuck in the same rat race that they were in years ago.
While the family is now mostly ok with the transition, the six year old misses India more than anyone. There is no cricket or running around on the streets with his friends. And of course, he noticed that fact that there were no people on the streets or the Bob The Builder crew building (and rebuilding) everything in sight. He actually said, “dad, I know why there are no cranes around here. It’s because everything is already built”. Well said son. Here is another interaction. We were at a traffic light along with about twenty cars waiting on both sides of the light and two people crossing the street. My son turns to me and says after some thinking, “dad, that doesn’t seem fair. Why are so many cars waiting, and only two people crossing the road. This would never happen in India. Cars don’t stop in India, but people are great there because even when the cars don’t stop, theystill figure out how to cross the street”. Well said son, I reacted again. He was absolutely correct on all counts.
On the professional side, it’s clear that the last five years have created and ridden one of biggest technology waves in history, especially on the consumer front (interestingly enough while the world seems to have gone through and going through the worst recession since the 30’s). In the first three weeks, I was lucky enough to spend time at Zynga, Facebook, hang out at 500startups with Dave McClure, speak at a Big Data Meetup, visit a couple of other incubators and attend startup showcases various law firms and Stanford. It has been nothing short of a high energy I-V drip. Downtown Palo Alto is buzzing again and having a meeting at Cupa Café was incredible. Cupaa small coffee shop with rickety chairs and tables, but has become “the” hangout for VCs and entrepreneurs. There must have been over a dozen
VC/Entrepreneur meetings going on simultaneously over strong coffee. The first month back has again convinced me why there really cannot be another Silicon Valley. The valley is at a different level altogether compared to Bangalore or any other so-called Silicon Valley counterparts globally. One can argue that the buzz is perhaps reminiscent of the bubble days of the late 90’s/early 2000s, but there is definitely an energy level that I haven’t experienced in a long time. Last week, I had close to 20 one on one meetings with entrepreneurs, several of whom looking to create billion dollar companies. The confluence of tech trends around media convergence, the Apple-led mobile revolution, social everything, Big Data and Cloud, is collectively creating potentially an opportunity of a lifetime for tech entrepreneurs, and therefore, investors. While Silicon Valley is still an incredibly special place that is extremely hard to replicate, I do miss India and its own set of exciting opportunities. I, for one, am looking forward to experiencing both, which puts me perhaps in an enviable position.
As the first few weeks settle in, my thoughts turn to what can be done to bring the same level of enthusiasm, energy and “go big or go home” mentality that is pervasive throughout Silicon Valley. Other countries clearly are also thinking of figuring out how to ingest the drug that is Silicon Valley. I had a chance to meet few tech entrepreneurs from Malaysia (yes, Malaysia) over the past few weeks, who had been sponsored by their government to attend a global innovation boot camp of sorts at Stanford. It was an incredible opportunity for these tech entrepreneurs to experience life in the heart of tech innovation, and think about how they can try and replicate pieces of that in their home country. I met them at the beginning of their immersive experience and then at the end. They seemed completely transformed, and were convinced of one thing – for Malaysia, or any other country for that matter, this had to be a recurring program. They themselves had decided that either they would visit Silicon Valley frequently or would actually seriously consider setting up a small operation there, in order to be relevant on the global technology landscape.
In India, several entrepreneurs have already tasted success and/or failure in Silicon Valley either as part of startups or more established companies and may not feel as compelled as their Malaysian counterparts were about spending time in Silicon Valley. But I think that it is a “must have”, not a “nice to have” for virtually every tech entrepreneur in India to have a similar immersive experience – to figure out what makes the place tick, what drives people, especially young people with any level of technology training to live on pizza and beer (ok, I can see the health nuts coming after me now), crash on their friends couches, and hang out in someone’s garage or bedroom for six months to a year, dream big and just go for it.
While many would argue that India is different and we cannot truly replicate and should not try to replicate Silcon Valley here, I would argue that it has less to do with the physical infrastructure and everything to do with the mindset. Silicon Valley is the ultimate entrepreneurial drug, and you can’t help but get high on first or second hand aroma.
While India seems to be stuck in policy quagmire, inflation and infrastructure issues, unrest in some parts of the country, and musical chairs of the various cabinet positions, the underlying demographic and socio-economic fundamentals are clearly there for entrepreneurs to leverage. With a little bit of SV Juice (I am Trademarking it) from time to time, while it may take some time, India will rise to the expectations and aspirations of entrepreneurs and investors alike. And I am looking forward to bringing that juice to India (and enjoying the best of both worlds).
(Mohanjit Jolly is the Executive Director, Draper Fisher Jurvetson India. Views expressed are strictly personal.)