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All The Moons Have Aligned In The Indian Start-up Ecosystem: Web Summit CEO Paddy Cosgrave
It's not like the US where it's like the Silicon Valley and a bit of New York, that's not the case in India— it's much more dispersed across many different cities
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Paddy Cosgrave is currently considered one of the hottest people in the world of technology, landing the 18th spot in Wired UK’s list this year. The 32 year-old Irishman is best known for co-founding the world’s largest annual tech and startup gala, Web Summit in Dublin, which has been described as the “Davos for Geeks”, and its offshoots in Hong Kong and the US. Cosgrave and his team are now headed to Bengaluru with SURGE 2016.
BW|Businessworld caught up with the man himself to talk about SURGE, the Indian startup scene and what makes a successful startup. (Edited excerpts)
What made you decide that it was the right time to come to India?
It started with an e-mail introducing me to two guys with a startup called Flipkart. Nobody outside of India had heard of Flipkart, at that point it was very small. And Sachin (Bansal) from India came to Ireland and he had recommended Red Bus which was a little more famous at the time. Things have changed a lot in these four years and we have seen that the number of people travelling to our events from India has increased quite dramatically, particularly in 2014 and this year.
So early in the year I put out a tweet saying that we'd like to organise a conference in India and the first person to respond to that was Sachin and the rest is history.
How much interest have Indians being showing in the other conferences?
At Rise, Hong Kong, over 80 startups from India flew in and that made it the country with the largest representation. That made me realise that there wasn't a need to build an Indian conference for the startups, but to build a global conference. So SURGE is not an opportunity for Indians to meet each other from the startup ecosystem and from more established countries, it's an opportunity for the world to meet in India. And obviously for many of the investors coming from the US and elsewhere and many of the CEOs of the tech companies coming—Yes, they are very interested in what is happening right now in India, because it is very very exciting and the energy you are seeing right now didn't exist three or four years ago.
It's a really interesting time and more recently the government in India has taken an interest in the startup ecosystem. So all of the moons are aligning at one time.
You could have come out with another RISE in India. Why create a new brand under SURGE?
When we organise an event it is important for me to create one that has a unique identity. This will happen once a year and I didn't want people to think that if RISE is happening in India and in Hong Kong, I already went to the event in Hong Kong, why would I got to the event in India? You can get around that bias by saying that this event is actually quite different because we are bringing together a slightly different group of people. And this has worked in the US, rather than just calling it Web Summit in America, we called it COLLISON. It is in a different city, has a different identity and a slightly different feeling.
There are a lot of tech and startup conferences happening in India. How do you think SURGE will be different from the tech conferences we have seen in the past?
A lot of the conferences, at least in Europe, were working on a 9 to 5 model, with an hour for networking after. For us, yes the talks go on from 9 to 5, but after 5 to 2 am we build an ecosystem of side events, dinners, drinks, additional meet-ups for different particular industry niches. People experience this 18-hour marathon.
Obviously, we get some really incredible speakers from the founders of Netflix, Twitter, Skype, Dropbox and Tesla. But I believe that there is also another component of attention — right from the length of the line yards, to who to meet, to the queuing system, etc.
You have met quite a few Indian startups by now. What is the differentiation you see in Indian startups compared to other markets?
2011-2014 was an explosion. In a sense, the Indian startup scene was held back all this time, everything else was moving ahead. It was almost like an elastic band and suddenly everything explodes. The first wave of startups everywhere in the world tends to be e-commerce, so you think of Alibaba in China, eBay and Amazon in the US, then the interesting question is what comes next. Are you going to see some interesting hardware startups? Are you going to see mobile communications apps and on-demand apps like Ola?
So I think what is interesting now is the second wave. If you see all the funding over the last 4 years, e-commerce is huge and everything else is a little bit smaller. I don't know if everything else is beginning to grow now. Out of the 52 startups from India which flew to Dublin to attend the Web Summit, not all were e-commerce, so that says something.
And these are coming from everywhere. It's not like the US where it's like the Silicon Valley and a bit of New York, that's not the case in India— it's much more dispersed across many different cities.
Do you think that there is a second wave of startups in India right now?
Yes. You can just see from the diversity of startups that come to Web Summit. The other thing that happens, which is actually happening right now, pretty rapidly, is that this first generation of companies grows up, eBay is a good example, and the founders and the early team start having a little bit of money and they start investing. I think this is what is happening in India right now.
There's an ugly side to this too. Recently there have been layoffs, founders have been held hostage in companies, etc. The whole positivity around the ecosystem seems to have taken a hit somewhere. Do you believe the shakeup has started in India?
If you look at Ireland, it has taken people a while for people to understand the risks and rewards associated with startups. Yes, you could work for a bank and have a secure future, but if you go work for a startup, there's a high risk of failure, but if it becomes successful, there are more rewards in store than the bank job. So it takes some time for the idea to set in.
If you look at what people said with the first wave in the '90s, it was an overestimation, not many people were on the internet. But this time, the difference is the smartphone penetration. So you can't say that what is happening in India is an exact mirror of the world because the desktop computer has been skipped. So that means that there is a whole generation of applications that we haven't seen in Europe and the US, that could spring out of India.
What are the ingredients that make a startup successful?
It’s never just an incredible idea. If you talk to some key people in hubs around the world the most important thing is talent. Its is easy to talk about a single entrepreneur who created a single product, but the truth is its takes a team to raise a startup and a company will not get very far if it's just relying on one or two very smart and driven people. It requires an ever growing team of very smart people.
Talent, education, smart money and a vibrant ecosystem are some of the key ingredients.