My @metaphwoar talk: Why popular Indian culture is like a successful startup

[UPDATED 23rd February 2013 with video below]

Last week I spoke at Metaphwoar, organised by Andy Whitlock, as part of Internet Week Europe. It was an absolute blast.

I’d been to Metaphwoar in 2010 and knew the format: entertain and educate people through metaphors (broadly, that is. As Andy said in his introduction to the evening, nitpickers who pointed out the difference between similes, metaphors and analogies weren’t welcome!), but wasn’t quite sure how my talk would go down with the audience. In the end I think it went off well. Whew!

I decided to compare popular Indian culture to successful startups, in the following ways:

1. They are both all about personality

In India, filmstars are a huge part of modern culture (always have been). Rajnikant is a Tamil film actor who does inexplicable things like stopping bullets mid-air:

….and the audience just laps it up. One of the many websites built for him actually runs without the internet. I tried it and it really doesn’t need a working internet connection to be used!!!

The masses in India also identify themselves with filmstars to the extent that they have fan clubs that wield a lot of power politically. Early in my career, I was working on a development research project that assessed the link between social groups and associations with politics and I had to interview people who ran the most influential social groups in different urban and rural areas in the South. Unsurprisingly a lot of them were filmstar fan clubs. That’s another reason so many filmstars enter politics, they sort of come with a readymade vote bank. Their opinions are so revered that people build temples and worship them in some cases. I’m not kidding. Look at this, this or this.

Similarly, good startups have founders with personality. One of the most well-known examples is the Y-Combinator programme in the US, where founder Paul Graham is widely known to favour startups whose founders’ personalities shine through even if they have ideas that aren’t quite there yet, the logic being that an idea can be changed but you can’t really change someone’s personality that easily. As this article says,

Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.

The philosophy of good startups having strong personalities extends to the whole company as well as the founders. Mailchimp is a service that I think really brings this to life – the monkey’s messages always make me laugh.

2. Both give people their money’s worth

The best example of people admitting they got their money’s worth is after they watch a Bollywood blockbuster. When news crews talk to audiences in India outside theatres after a blockbuster film, more often than not you’ll hear the term ‘paisa vasool’, which essentially means that the audience felt they got their money’s worth. These are typically films with lavish song-and-dance routines that make people feel 100% entertained.

Truly successful startups also give investors and users their money’s worth, whether it’s Facebook or Twitter. Whether it’s Series A or B or further, investors want to see whether a startup is worth investing in: what’s its potential, what kind of audience growth is it looking at, and so on. This is even truer when it comes to users of a startup’s service: you’re not going to get millions of users with an offering that doesn’t add value to their lives. The productivity app Things for the iPhone and iPad costs $9.99 while Things 2 for the Mac costs $50, but people see value in it. Angry Birds was entertaining enough for people to buy enough paid versions of the app to contribute  to 70% of Rovio’s revenue by the end of their 2011-2012 financial year, with 648 million downloads. And then there’s Kickstarter, where people only really back projects if they think the resulting product will be worth it.

3. They step in when the system fails

In India, causes like fighting corruption are taking up the imagination of millions of people – is a site where people report encounters with corrupt government officials, which at a very grassroots level affects people day in and day out.

The Ugly Indian similarly, is another campaign run by citizens where they take pictures of dumps in public areas and take it upon themselves to clean it up.

We all know about the pretty involved debates and discussions that happen in the US around healthcare – and over here in the UK about the NHS as well, for that matter. Startups like Sherpaa in the US, which allow people to get access to qualified doctors round-the-clock by phone or email, save them time and effort because they can’t get that access with government services. Similarly, Mint enables Americans to track their expenses online and identify where their biggest spends are. Ideally you’d think all banks should do this for their customers – some, like Lloyd’s Money Manager, actually do this now – but I’d argue that it’s startups like Mint that made them sit up and take notice.

4. They both understand their audience so they can fit into their lives

The Indian campaign I showed resonated with me a lot: as a high school student in Tamilnadu, I actually taught myself Tamil by reading the titles on local film posters. Doorstep is an NGO in India that achieved stupendous results by using a similar insight to solve a huge social problem. It won a Silver Media Lion at Cannes.

Startups have to similarly understand what need they fulfil in their audience’s lives if they are to be successful. If they don’t, then they pivot. With agile and lean startups, continuous user-testing will show this up. started out as a community for gay people, it’s now an incredibly successful flash sales site for design-lovers. Color started off as a closed photo-sharing community, it’s now a video-sharing site for Facebook users.

5. They know the difference between growing their audience by adding value, and by pandering to the base

In India, in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, there were a lot of pulp fiction magazines in local languages that were incredibly popular. These tales of vampires and sirens, villains and detectives, could get quite lurid – sex always sells. A couple of years ago, a small publishing house in India took it upon themselves to translate some of those short stories into English so they could reach a new generation of audience – like me. And typically you always lose something in translation but I think they did a great job of keeping the cultural sentiment intact and picking exactly the right stories, as one Amazon reviewer of the book said ‘It’s heartening to see that the remarkably prodigious authors of the stories (some of whom have written thousands of tales and novellas) are often capable of superb and sophisticated imagination, refusing to pander to the base…’

Outbrain is a content marketing startups whose plug-in is used by publishers the world over, from CNN and the Guardian to Forbes and Fast Company. What they do is based on what you read, they throw up other articles you might like, but it could include those from other advertisers as well. I recently met them as part of my work at PHD, and one of the things my colleagues and I were concerned about was how they were going to control spammy text marketers. And lo and behold, recently I heard that they’re sacrificing revenue for quality. Which is a no-brainer really if you want to build a company with any integrity.

All in all, a great event and a really fun evening!


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