Henry Latham, who founded BackTracker, a start-up with staff in both the UK and India, calls for UK-based entrepreneurs to recognise India for its real offer.
The UK knows little about India
‘Watch out for prostitutes working in the hotels over there’, said my grandmother as I departed for the sub-continent. As a product of another era and as someone who has never been within 1,000 kilometres of India, she instructed me to keep my wits about me. Fortunately for me, I had already been abroad enough times to feel confident that survival itself would not be a constant, insurmountable challenge.
When it comes to India, this sort of assertive, singular view is not uncommon. The country is often only viewed through an abstract, Orientalist lens in the West. It is misunderstood by large numbers of people, who pass judgement with very little experience of this vast, diverse land.
When viewed through this lens, and through the eyes (or ears) of someone whose interaction with Indians is limited to a phone call with an operator at a call centre based in India, perhaps the preconceptions might feel justified. My personal experience of trying to outsource digital work in India for my company's Android application was time-consuming, frustrating and largely unsuccessful in the initial stages. Despite the task being precise and well-defined, the long, drawn-out process had put me off working with India.
The problem is that I had seen no credible, effective bridge between the West and India. Technological companies in India often fill large, faceless offices with only partially skilled engineers lacking the qualifications or experience to do their jobs. Imagine a British teenager was employed by a company for being awarded a 'C' in their physics GCSE. Then, they are put through a haphazard crash course in coding. After completing this limited training, would you trust them with maintaining the structure of your company? I know I wouldn't.
Is this the only way of finding technical talent? Well, no. But our collective knowledge often tells us that the only way forward is outsourcing work to mediocre recruitment companies in India. This belief is detrimental to the country's reputation in the technology world and has done the country a real injustice.
UK and Indian strengths complement each other
As a participant in the British Council's Generation UK-India programme, I spent two weeks in India visiting the top incubators, start-ups and technical colleges in the country. I quickly realised that there is an enormous pool of exceptional talent, which represents an opportunity for UK-based start-ups and established businesses.
What we need to do is bridge the knowledge gap that is currently limiting many start-ups based in the UK and India: The UK has strengths in the less tangible aspects of developing and propagating a business, such as branding, marketing and design. Indian technical expertise complements these strengths well, as does the fact that Indians have a different set of cultural references. For example, when working on my backpacking app, I had to be very clear about my purpose and target audiences. They made me think about what a backpacker would want from the app, without taking anything for granted. As they had no experience of the market, I benefited from their detached insights and questions.
If you go to any technological networking event in London, you will find that the vast majority of founders there are looking for a 'technical co-founder' to help them realise their vision. The chances of running a successful technical start-up with founders who have no technical expertise are slim. So, my advice to you is to start your search in India.
Recruit from the right places
Try recruiting straight from top technical colleges. During my time in India, I met 15 promising, highly skilled Android and web developers to recruit during the space of a one-hour networking session at International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) in Bangalore.
The experience of working in India will also dispel and shatter many myths and misconceptions you might hold about the country. Booking a flight here may seem like a big step, but a successful trip will save you thousands of pounds and wasted months searching for that missing key to your company. The contacts you make and insights you will gain will lead you to the conclusion that India is a wise place to start your business, or to ‘start-up’, as entrepreneurs in India say.
Working with India can solve many problems for a start-up
The number of London-based start-ups is much higher than in the rest of the UK, and the city is home to more software developers than anywhere else in the world. Stirling Ackroyd found that there are 3,228 tech firms for every square kilometre within Shoreditch’s EC1V postcode alone. It is therefore no surprise that London’s tech sector is considered to be one of the world’s leading tech hubs.
For young entrepreneurs starting up and sustaining a business in London can present its own challenges. Despite the thriving digital landscape, the combination of long hours, high rent and pressure to 'keep up with the Joneses' can sometimes be difficult to deal with. It’s important not to lose sight of the wider world and fall into the trap of believing that London is the only place to succeed. There is so much else going on outside of London - including in India.
The low cost of living, and the fast-changing start-up scene in India will provide you with the time to learn, develop and hopefully become inspired to start your own company, if you haven't already. In combination with having access to a pool of highly skilled software developers, going to India could be a viable solution, regardless of having a business plan put together at the start or not. Equally, if you are a young entrepreneur in the early stages of your career and are seeking an alternative route that leads you away from the sometimes limiting corporate environment, it is worth considering working in India.
The start-up environment in places like Bangalore or New Delhi can smooth the rocky path you may face ahead as an entrepreneur. Knowing what to do after coming up with an idea is one of the biggest challenges that most start-ups face. Access to mentors and early-stage funding, alongside the knowledge that these things even exist, can help accelerate the progress of Indian start-ups. IndoGenius, which manages the Digital India programme, have really helped me build a network of contacts in India.
Gaining access to further funding and investors reduces the possibility of failure in the early stages. Although the type of investors and mentors to approach will entirely depend on the type of start-up you run, early-stage accelerator programmes are available to everyone, from those interested in entrepreneurship to those with a validated concept such as 10,000 Startups. The technological landscape in India actively encourages and nurtures talent, and by working in an international environment, you will become more attuned to different attitudes and approaches to business.
'The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.'
But what if it damages your career progression? What if you don’t see your friends every weekend? What if it doesn’t work out? As Mark Zuckerberg says, ‘the biggest risk is not taking any risk... In a world that's changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.'
Unpick all these fears and you’ll probably come to the same conclusion. What’s the worst that could happen?
If you are based in the UK and are interested in finding out about similar opportunities in India, register your interest to receive updates on Generation UK-India.
Find out more about the UK-India relationship in our report, India Matters.