November 2009 Archive

Chilling in Chile

Ok. Sorry for that lame headline, but wow.

So I’m sitting in Santiago, Chile drinking a Pisco Sour and about to be served a cornucopia of seafood—mussels, prawns, squid, tiny clams, crab and of course Chilean sea bass. I just nodded and said yes to everything the waiter—who it turns out is an aspiring journalist clad in Captain Stubing's uniform-- suggested. I still have no understanding of this wacky 500-to-1 Chilean Peso currency math so my jet lagged addled mind has no clue if I’m getting a bargain or ripped off, but this moment I just don’t care.

Chile is quite literally a breath of fresh air after three weeks in China and three weeks in India. The weather is absolutely breezy and beautiful, exotic birds are chirping, and it’s CLEAN. Amazingly clean. Both the air and the sidewalks. Not a whiff of urine or human feces in the air. Sorry to be graphic, but it’s a shockingly welcome olfactory omission not only having just been in India, but also owning a house in the Mission.

There are two things that may be surprising about the news that I’m sitting in Santiago eating my weight in fish. One: I didn’t really announce I had another trip coming up. Even Michael Arrington asked if I’d be in the office this week-- as I was boarding my flight. It’s partially because I was intending to go from Chile to Brazil, and after all the many death and rape threats, I promised Mr. Lacy and several other over-protective friends I wouldn’t pre-announce any trips to Brazil just to be safe. But that trip is put off—yet again—and I’m just doing Chile and Argentina this month.

The other reason it’s a surprise: I just got home from India on Tuesday. I had just enough time home for a press:here shoot and a friends-and-family laden Thanksgiving before hopping another 20-hour flight.

 I don’t think the body is supposed to fly some 45 hours in one week. I don’t feel sick so much or even jet lagged as I feel like I might be in various states of organ failure. Sneezing, ankles that have morphed into unsightly cankles, a little dizzy and oh—there was the morning of Thanksgiving when I was doing some last-minute shopping and actually had to race out of Whole Foods to throw up on the street. That’s a first for me—ever. And no, I’m not pregnant. I’m just exhausting and living in between vastly different cuisines and time zones. I actually had to be woken up to say goodbye to my Thanksgiving guests Thursday night. I kept my eyes open as long as I could without toothpicks and unknowingly nodded off like some senile old man towards the end.

(News flash: The waiter insisted I didn’t order too much food. He lied. Also, turns out I’m not a fan of abalone. Too fishy! The Pisco Sour is fabulous though. Wow. I'll have to try Peru's, I know. Even the waiter--when pressed--admitted the Pisco was better despite the inter-country Pisco grudge-match. Oh! News flash #2: I mentioned I think I ordered too much food and he raced back and cancelled the next course. “We don’t force people to eat here,” he said with an easy smile. Oh God, I love this country. It's the first time in a while I haven't been relentlessly up-sold.)

I know what you’re wondering: What am I going to find in a country with just 16 million people and a meager $170 billion GDP that can compare to China or India? Two answers: The first is I’m principally here for Endeavor’s International Selection Panel in Patagonia, where the amazing non-profit that advocates high-impact entrepreneurship in the emerging world is doing the final vetting of some 23 candidates throughout South America. Endeavor has been a huge supporter of this book, and I’m a huge supporter of them.

But the second answer is more important: Country size matters, but it isn’t everything. Sure billions of people racing towards a middle class represents growth that can’t be ignored. But it’s not everything. Remember: The country that came closest to replicating the returns and ethos of Silicon Valley isn’t big ol’ India, it’s tiny Israel. And OK, there are a million caveats to that statement that I’m currently hashing through as I try to write 30,000 words of my new book on emerging markets before the end of the year—but it’s still a point to be made.

After all, there’s no reason a fifty-mile stretch between San Francisco and San Jose should have given rise to such a disproportionate number of the world’s high tech giants. If high-growth entrepreneurship made logical sense my job might be a lot easier, but it’d certainly be a lot more boring.

(News flash #3: I don't have a local sim card yet, so I asked my pal the waiter to call the hotel driver. He had told me to allot 15 minutes, but got there in record time. As I tried to chug my last delicous pisco sour, the waiter leaned in and whispered "You can take the glass as a souvenir. Then, when I accidentally WAY over paid the car thanks to jet lag, currency confusion and said pisco sours, he gave me back the excess, insisting "Only 2,000." That's like four dollars if my math is right. God bless this non-fleecing country.)

Memo from the "Fake" India

India-goa-small Note: Errr, I wrote this almost a week ago when I was in Goa. I had horrible wifi issues the rest of my time in India and could never post it, so I'm posting it now. From Chile if you read the above post...better late than never right?

I’m writing this from one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed. It’s a villa at the Taj Exotica in Goa—a sleepy little beach community south of Mumbai. The weather is perfect. We have our own pool on our terrace overlooking the beach. I’m watching the sunset and sipping a cocktail next to my long-suffering husband as leggy white birds hop around on the lawn and bearded black crows fly from palm tree-to-palm tree, seemingly just bitching to one another. (Maybe it’s about the wifi, because that seems to be the only thing that sucks here.)

And yet, rather than blogging about how lucky I am for this two-day respite, I’m thinking about how lucky I am that I don’t think this is India.

I’ve noticed a huge disparity in the impressions of people who vacation in India and those who do business in India. And a further disparity in people who are wealthy and do business in India and those who are middle class and do business in India. Had I come here and spent a week at this resort—or thousands like it—had Ayurvedic massages and laid on the beach being wait on by a smiling Indian staff, I’d no doubt come home and gushed, “Oh, I LOVED India.” Similarly, if I’d flown first class, stayed at the nicest hotels and asked all of my meetings to come to me, I’d say something like, “India is fascinating! Why aren’t more people doing business there?”

As it is—flying more than 20 hours each way in a middle seat in coach, living in five star hotels that barely live up to that billing, and spending more of my three weeks in traffic than in meetings—I can’t sum up my personal experience in India in one verb or adjective.

It is hard to do business here. I can easily see how urban Indian life could grind anyone but the wealthy down over time. Despite the near ubiquity of English-speakers and the similarity in terms of a democratic government, India would be a substantially harder place for me to move to than China or even Rwanda.

But that only represents more opportunity for local entrepreneurs. India isn’t a gold rush right now. A lot of money is pulling out and even a lot of local entrepreneurs and investors are wondering if consumer Web and local IT services will ever take off here. People are simply sick of waiting for this huge 1.2 billion person market to wake up and start consuming and a lot of them are leaving. Several local entrepreneurs have decided to  build companies aimed at Western markets instead.

And guess what? That’s exactly the time anyone with a clue should be doing early-stage investing in Indian companies aimed at the domestic market. It is waking up. It’s not developing the way the US did or China is, but it is developing and it’s nascent enough that only the locals get it.  I’ve spent three weeks in this country witnessing its sometimes horrific fits-and-starts of modernity (let’s just say I’m more familiar with the smell of human feces than I’d like to be) and meeting more than 100 impressive and not-so-impressive Indian entrepreneurs. I have no doubt that the next generation of multi-billion Indian businesses are probably starting up right about now, and someone with a strong stomach (ahem, literally) will win big.

Of Cows, Traffic and Elon Musk

Another cross-post from TechCrunch. This is for all the people who've complained I've been too positive about India. (I swear, there's no pleasing you people. ;) )

BANGALORE, INDIA — It’s almost as if Russian cell phone carrier MTS has bought the naming rights to Bangalore. I half expected my immigration stamp to read “BANGALORE! ™ BROUGHT TO YOU BY MTS.” The carrier recently launched service in the uber-competitive Indian telecom market and has erected billboards every twenty feet or so. I have never seen so much advertising by one company in one space. They all sport an agro looking dude with his face twisted in some rebel-yell while he does inscrutable things with robots and mechanical arms holding different tech gadgets.

Why have these ads made such an impression on me? Because I’ve spent a week sitting in stopped Bangalore traffic looking at them. Ironically one keeps boasting: CONGESTION-FREE MOBILE NETWORK. Sitting still and listening to the honking of cars, mopeds, bikes and rickshaws all around me, it’s an easy guess that, if true, MTS could be the only thing congestion-free in India.

I used to think I knew bad traffic. After all, I moved to Silicon Valley during the famed Internet bubble when Highway 101 slowed to a crawl during peak commute hours. And I’ve spent time in legendarily congested US cities like Los Angeles and New York.

Now that India has one of the world’s best mobile infrastructures, it needs a decent road infrastructure. And a smart entrepreneur needs to come up with a modern fix. But before we talk solutions, let’s dwell more on the problem.

Simply put: All of you Americans—or Londoners for that matter—who Tweet about GE_Trucks_smsitting in traffic have nothing to complain about compared to the emerging world. And in my experience, so far, India’s traffic is the absolute worst. A drive between cities that should take an hour takes four. A commute across a city can routinely take two hours-plus. We’re not talking about rush hour. I’ve quickly learned to allot at least three hours for each meeting—one hour for the meeting and one each for getting there and back.

Even so, despite my best efforts, I’ve been late for nearly every meeting. In Mumbai one meeting scheduled for late morning took six hours out of my day. (Fortunately, the meeting was well worth it.) And in Bangalore my cab driver tried to take a back-alley short cut, when suddenly, our path was blocked by a cow just munching on some roadside grass. He honked and honked and she just looked up and batted her pretty brown eyes at me as if to say, “Oh, you’re not making that meeting on time, hon.”

Indians complain about the poor foresight and urban planning of their government, but it’s not all the government’s fault. The Chinese government is the master of over-building capacity to anticipate growth, and city traffic in China is becoming unbearable as well. It’ll only get worse as an anticipated 30% more cars per year come on the road.

GE_Traffic_smThe problem is the hyper-charged urbanization these countries have experienced. In the West cities grew over centuries allowing city planners to adjust and modernize as industrialization drove higher occupancy. And in the past few decades there’s been a flight out of downtowns to suburbs. Of course that presents its own growing pains—especially in US cities that have experienced massive suburban sprawl like Phoenix and Atlanta. But in the grand scheme of things, the moves have been predictable and manageable, whether individual cities have handled it well or not.

Not so with the rapid urbanization of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. The step up in pay from hundreds to thousands of US dollars a year has been swift and far reaching. In China, agricultural classes have moved en masse to staff huge several-thousand-person factories, and for the Olympics, they moved en masse into hospitality jobs in Beijing’s raft of new hotels, malls and restaurants. This is to say nothing of the increase in government jobs and startups. There is simply no way to make remotely the same wage or have the same access to infrastructure and services outside a city. In some parts of India it’s been more pronounced as hundreds of thousands of sophisticated R&D jobs typically pay more than China’s factory jobs.

Here’s my point: All the existing Western solutions, endless government funds, underground subways and top urban planners will not solve this problem. Because simply put: The world has never seen urbanization so extreme by millions—maybe even billions— of people seeking a better life. We need some innovation here. And I know at least one guy who is thinking about it.

At a conference earlier this year, Elon Musk – the guy who co-founded PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and laughs like a James Bond villaintalked about two new businesses he was mulling.  One was electric, supersonic planes, which I’ve salivated  over since. The other was pre-fabricated freeway overpasses to alleviate traffic by making it go vertical without the costly billion-dollar customized expansion fees.

I have to admit, at the time, I was more excited about the planes. But his freeway idea may be a better business. It would dramatically affect the lives of billions (literally) and create at least millions of revenues in the developing world where quick, cheap options are needed and there is hot-and-heavy government money to pay for it.

Now, clearly Mr. Musk is busy with existing ventures Tesla and SpaceX. So now’s your chance to steal the market out from under him! India and China are waiting.

Fire in the Belly

Up until about 48 hours ago the only time I'd gotten sick reporting this book was in London at the BT Tower. (We called it Scallop-gate. Paul Carr was also a victim.) But, oh, has India finally caught me in its Delhi Belly clutches. Mr. Lacy and I have spent about eight hours in the bed or the bathroom. We're sipping Gatorade now and hopefully on the mend. My stomach no longer feels like it's bleeding so that's a plus.

In news of a more metaphorical, good kind of "fire-in-the-belly" here are the links to a two-part series I wrote for BusinessWeek on the six different entrepreneurs you meet in China. I wrote it a while ago, and sadly, it might be my last BusinessWeek column ever. The new Bloomberg overlords have already canceled far fancier outside columnists like Maria Bartiromo and Jack and Suzy Welch, and my contract is up. I love writing it and have so much loyalty to BusinessWeek so I hope we can figure something out. But no matter what, I'm glad my (maybe) last columns were ones I was proud of. 

Meanwhile, I should have a few more TechCrunch posts on India coming up...once India stops pummeling my digestive system!

Of Slums, Computers and Solutions to the Future of Both

India-slumdogs1-small This story was hard to write. The first version was way too long and too book-y. But frankly, it one of the best things I've written in a few years. So I saved it for the book and struggled to start again.

I'm going to let the story mostly speak for itself. It bears noting: These kids didn't ask me for a cent. I was prepared to give them 100 rupees each for their time and hospitality and my guide told me they wouldn't want it. I didn't believe him and had the money ready. But indeed, they never asked. And considering every single waiter, hotel clerk, bell-boy, driver, abused person tapping on my car window has asked me for money in India, that was possibly the biggest shock of the whole experience. 

DELHI, INDIA–“I’ll take you! I live there!” a small boy with a blue shirt and a perfect toothy grin said as he ran ahead of me. His quiet friend in yellow jogged beside him smiling shyly, his jet-black Elvis curl bobbing on his forehead. The boy in blue stopped a few yards in front of me turned around, beaming and added in Hindi, “I know computers quite well.”

These weren’t middle class kids on the well-trod, parent-driven Indian path to seats at IIT. These were Delhi slum kids, whose families likely live on less than $2 a day. And yet, for the last five years, they’ve spent several hours of their free time every day playing games and learning English, Math and Science on computers.

So how have they bridged the much-agonized-about digital divide without a hand out from a chip company, computer company or wealthy philanthropist? A for-profit Indian company called NIIT.

It started back in 1999 when Sugata Mitra, NIIT’s chief scientist, noticed his kid could learn how to use gadgets like a mobile phone far faster than tech-savvy adults could. At this time, most computer “labs” in Indian schools were one or two computers that were only to be used under the strict supervision of a teacher. The reasoning was computers were expensive and required training and supervision. As a result many kids only got to look at them from afar in the classroom.

Instead Mitra wondered what would happen if he left a computer out in the open for a group of children to discover. So he literally knocked a hole in the office wall to the slum on the other side.  He shoved a computer in the hole and set up a camera on a tree limb to record what happened. A 13-year-old, illiterate kid who’d never seen a computer wandered over tentatively, and soon realized he could move the cursor by moving a finger across the touch pad. Within four hours, a small group of kids had gathered. They had figured out how to open Internet Explorer and were playing a game on Disney’s Web site. “All of us were absolutely shocked watching that,” says Abhishek Gupta who heads the program now. Some expected the kids to break or even try to steal the computer.

A pilot project with the World Bank followed, and 22 of these “Hole in the Wall” kiosks were set up around the country from 2001 to 2005. The organization studied the results closely. The most obvious take-away was that kids left on their own will learn computers. The project also helped develop team-building and social skills—with 200 kids sometimes huddled around one screen. Whether the computers lead to more general academic improvement was less clear, but in many cases it was up measurably, Gupta says.

But interestingly when that partnership was over, NIIT didn’t take the project down the non-profit route. It’s not because the company is adverse to such things—it’s also opening a new high-end university that is run as a non-profit. But there’s a unique attitude in India that believes the way to eradicate poverty is to turn India’s scrappiest, free-market entrepreneurs on the problem, not to increase handouts.

NIIT now sells the kiosks at between $6,000 and $20,000—depending on which model and how many screens—to the government, who puts them mostly in schools in India’s poorest areas. There are 500 stations in India and a handful in 10 different African countries.

Having customers means NIIT has had to compromise on the original vision. For instance, the government requires administrators to keep an eye on the systems. They’re not open when an administrator isn’t there. But running the program as a business has assured its survival and given NIIT the cash flow to pour money into content creation so it doesn’t have to rely on the country’s spotty Internet connections for kids to stay engaged. Gupta says his job isn’t necessarily to be a profit center. Success is running a break-even program that makes a social impact. But that’s still a world away from a donor-funded program.

NIIT isn’t alone. For profit companies have made microfinance loans for years in India. One of the most known is SKS Microfinance. It was run as a non-profit in the early days, but when it was time to scale, decided to turn into a Sequoia Capital-backed startup. “It’s important to realize the poor have been paying three-to-four times more to the local money lender,” says Surendra Jain, a managing director with Sequoia in Bangalore. “There’s nothing wrong with using the same tools to scale the way other companies scale. The question is: In your heart are you doing the right thing?”

Even non-profits I’ve met over the last two weeks run themselves to rely on revenues not donors. An example is LabourNet,  a company that seeks to move India’s huge informal workforce into a formal channel. The company organizes phalanxes of construction crews, drivers, cooks and retail clerks and matches them with the best employers. How does it reach them? Word of mouth and SMS. So far 7,000 workers are in the system.

It was started by Solomon JP. His umbrella non-profit organization, MAYA, has already produced one self-sustaining company that trains poor youth in making high-value furniture. With a grant from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, CHF International, an international NGO addressing urban poverty in India, is providing technical and financial support to help LabourNet become a self-sustaining enterprise. “Being poor isn’t about not having money, it’s a lack of capabilities,” JP says. So LabourNet doesn’t stop at getting poor people a job, it offers access to healthcare benefits, issues ID cards, and helps with bank accounts, literacy, and job training too. The worker pays a small fee, and the employer pays LabourNet a larger one in exchange for matching them up.

It’s hard work. JP has been working with the poor in Bangalore for some 15 years and says it’s like Hotel California. “I don’t recommend this path. I can never leave. I’m trapped!” he says with a weary half-smile. (I’m not sure what percentage of that is a joke.) But he believes he and others can solve the problem through self-sustaining means as long as organizations don’t sacrifice humanity in the name of efficiency.

It’s a dramatic difference from China, where most entrepreneurs are building businesses that are aimed squarely at the top of the pyramid or the burgeoning middle class. But since India is a democracy—and not an authoritarian one—it doesn’t have the same social safety net of other emerging worlds. It’s fitting that it’s trying to use a free-market economy to solve its social ills instead— something American do-gooders could probably learn from. After all, we’ve got our own digital divide.

One final note on NIIT’s Hole in the Wall program: It was allegedly the inspiration for the book “Slumdog Millionaire” which spawned the movie. “Where’s my Oscar?” is a favorite joke of Rajendra Pawar, the chairman and co-founder of NIIT. I asked a lot of people working to eradicate poverty how they felt about the movie, and most said it was neutral-to-positive for India. It doesn’t hurt to show rich Americans how one-third of India’s 1.2 billion-person population lives, even if it was sensationalized. The difference is none of them are banking on a one-time windfall as the answer.

Of India, Gateway Drugs and the Internet

Almost slipped on the cross-posting promise! Here's a post I did yesterday for TechCrunch. At least I think it was yesterday....days are blurring together in India. I was really happy with how this story turned out, but it was a challenge to write. Why? Because Deep Kalra is just really, really likable. I don't just mean that he's a nice guy-- he's a great entrepreneur, took risk where a lot of Indians have not, has built a great business and takes his team on rafting trips!

He studies entrepreneurs not just in the US but around the world, and not in a sycophantic name-dropping way. He wants to learn how to be better. He's one of the most impressive guys I've met in India, in short. And that sucks, because it's hard to capture "endearing" and easy to capture "weird" or "mean" or "quirky."

Paul Carr has become my de facto second set of eyes on TC posts when I'm exhausted and traveling. (What can I say? I like editors. You can take the girl out of old media....) At any rate, his comment was "I really care about this guy and want him to do well!" And anyone who knows (or reads) Paul knows he's kind of a jerk. So perhaps I captured "endearing" after all? I hope so. Enjoy.

GURGAON, INDIA– Back in 1995, Deep Kalra knew that India had burgeoning consumer promise. So he took a risk, quit his safe-but-boring banking job and joined AMF Bowling—an American company that was aiming to bring bowling alleys and billiard halls to India for the first time.

It didn’t quite scratch his entrepreneurial itch: The hobby was ahead of its time for Indians. He managed to open about 200 lanes, most of them in small centers. Worse, Kalra was in that business-man’s-limbo: The venture wasn’t really his own thing, but he had a remote boss back in America who didn’t give him much mentorship or guidance.

So after four years, he headed back into the safe world of banking. And then, in 2000, with some money saved up, he decided to leave again and do things his way. Enamored by the Internet and frustrated by how hard it was to travel in India he opened MakeMyTrip.com. The site—as you might guess from the name—was like any of the online travel brokers started during the dot com bubble, only it was in India.

Of course, that was a pretty crucial difference. That venture too was ahead of its time, but it was his and Kalra stuck it out. After the market crash and September 11, Kalra’s foreign investors reneged on $1 million in funding commitments. Then there was the triple whammy of SARS, which made everyone want to travel in Asia less. He was 31-years-old with a wife and a baby at a time when starting a dot com was insane and in a place where it was downright suicidal. Indeed, many VCs will tell you today that India—where only 50 million people are online and just two million have broadband connections— is still not ready for the consumer Web.

But Kalra and two senior managers bought back their equity in the business and agreed to go without salaries for 18 months. He called a meeting and asked the staff to take 40% paycuts. Twenty-five of them stayed and 17 balked and quit. Kalra decided to focus on selling travel to returning Indian expats rather than locals, but he kept an eye on that sleeping giant of a domestic market.

A year later, MakeMyTrip broke even, in 2003 he reluctantly decided to trust VCs again and in 2004– when Internet adoption in India had finally started to grow and much of the Indians who had the money to travel had credit cards, bank cards or access to money transfers—Kalra came back to his original vision of building the Expedia of India. “There’s a fine line between resilient and stubborn,” he says, sitting in his office in Gurgoan surrounded by globes, maps and maps with mashed-up pictures of many of those employees who stayed. “It worked out, so we can say we were resilient. But at the time I worried I was just being stubborn. But I figured you regret the things you don’t do in life, not the things you do.” When I met him the day before, Kalra easily rattled off details of a bowling supercenter that opened up down the road after his AMF days. You can tell it stings a bit, but if we were sitting here having the same conversation about an online travel company that took off after he gave up, it’d be devastating.

What Kalra didn’t know back in those dark days was that he was about to benefit from a global Internet truism: Online travel is the ecommerce gateway drug. It makes up some 70% of global ecommerce, it was one of the first categories to take off in the United States and one of the only markets big enough to sustain a host of publicly traded Internet competitors. Similarly, Ctrip was one of the first big Internet hits in China.

India—a country with few Internet homeruns—took longer. But Kalra’s company is now making $5 million in US  dollars of profit this year and doing more than $500 million in gross bookings. Revenues are up 88% during the recession and one-out-of-every-twelve domestic flights in India is booked via MakeMyTrip.com. After airline tickets, the second biggest category is railway tickets—the site sells 2,500 of them every day. Kalra is busy interviewing a lot of US-trained management types to augment the team. Don’t look now, but MakeMyTrip could be India’s next dot com IPO. (Like most well-behaved CEOs, Kalra wouldn’t comment on any immediate IPO plans.)

Why does travel take off so fast? For starters, it’s one of the only categories where you buy something that’s delivered over email. Forget costs—in emerging markets shipping to far-flung areas doesn’t always exist. Kalra says etickets may have saved the company. For most, booking online doesn’t require a huge change in the way they buy travel. In pre-Internet days in India and the US most people booked travel through a travel agent who’d pull up inventory in a computer. The Web just cut out the middleman. (And his fees.)

Compare that to online shopping for physical goods, which requires a radical change in behavior. People who’ve only recently gained a disposable income frequently want the experience of shopping, and the ability to feel, examine and try things on. “Malls are still a new thing here,” Kalra says.

And because a ticket or hotel room is a perishable asset, someone who can move those assets can get a nice cut. Kalra has made more money during the recession by getting better rates from anxious suppliers.

Travel won’t be the ecommerce exception forever. India’s rush of a middle class with disposable income is evolving fast. When Kalra was growing up no one went on Honeymoons abroad and now most of the kids in his office do. And hotels were verboten—you visited family and stayed with family. Kalra has a hunch the next local ecommerce hit could be FlipKart, an online book retailer with a whopping 5 million monthly uniques, profitability and a new round of cash from Accel in the bank.

MakeMyTrip still suffers from some local cultural hang-ups. Hotel bookings, for instance, aren’t doing quite as well. People don’t trust unknown brands and only 15% of Indian hotels are known brands. (Personally, I don’t think US sites have cracked the hotel problem either. I only book from local recommendations.) Similarly, people don’t want to book big vacation packages online, so Kalra has opened 20 physical stores to guide people through the process.

And there’s the so-called “last mile” problem. Kalra doesn’t plan on addressing it by opening more stores. Instead, he’s playing with the idea of a business-to-business product, where existing local travel agents would use a slow-connection optimized version of MakeMyTrip to access more inventory than they can now and sell through the site’s existing back-end system. He doesn’t want to cram an efficient online option down the throat of a population that knows its local travel agent and likes to go in and chat with them, have a cup of tea and discuss cricket scores. And clearly one deal with a travel agent is a far more efficient way to reach a whole village.

Kalra is smart. He studies every competitor out there. He’s ripped ideas off lesser-known companies like FareCast.com, corrected me on the pronunciation of China’s up-and-comer Qunar.com (so much for my Mandarin lessons), and can quote Expedia’s customer conversion rates. (They’re 6%, by the way. His are 7%. It’s the most important metric he watches.)

Ahead of his time or no, Kalra is glad he took the risk when he did. He’s not sure he would today even with more money in his savings. He’s also glad he didn’t give up on India’s domestic market, “If I’d been in Silicon Valley I’m convinced we might have reached scale in half the time, but we also probably would have been obliterated by the competition.”

That’s the benefit of slowly emerging markets that’ll eventually have a big payoff—you get time to make mistakes.

Ten Reasons Why My 40-Year-Old Sister Is Awesome

It's my sister's 40th birthday today. (Hopefully that wasn't supposed to be a secret, because it's kinda too late.) So far it's been quite the social media event for me. Geni reminded me (Thanks, Sacks.) and I've enlisted an army of Twitter friends to wish her happy bday. (Please add your wishes!)

I am the youngest of five kids and Mary is my only sister. You can only imagine how annoying I was as a younger sister. No, actually, you can't. I thought everything she did (and wore) was cool (even the Hammer pants). I always "borrowed" stuff without asking in our cramped house and somehow she resisted the urge to kill me. 

Here are ten other reasons she's awesome:

1. She is the rock of our family. She does so much to take care of everyone, while I just selfishly move to California then flit all over the world.

2. She married very well. Mary married her childhood sweetheart Robert, who she started dating when I was in 7th grade. He was probably closer to me growing up than my two oldest brothers who were out of the house by then. Robert is an amazing cook, hilarious, drinks as much wine at family functions as I do, and is a perfect in-law companion to Mr. Lacy. He's also done a lot for my family. It's rare when you can't think of a better person for your sibling to be married to.

3. She has great kids. Ramie and Bob are just awesome. I took care of Ramie two days a week for about six months when she was young, I was in college, my sister was getting her Master's Degree and none of us had any money. I still cherish that time and wish I'd had more of it with Bob. I've always said if we could get it in writing that we'd have kids that awesome, we'd do it tomorrow. (Or when I stop traveling all over the world.)

4. She doesn't take any shit. I mean-- she's more outspoken than I am. Can you imagine? Yeah, don't mess with her.

5. So, my mom taught at the beloved girls school I went to from k-12. We carpooled there everyday for 13 years. It's some of my best memories growing up and cemented an amazing relationship with my mother. Now my sister (who only went there for high school because she liked boys too much) teaches at the same school and my niece goes there. Isn't that awesome?

6. She drove an old blue-and-white Dodge Dart in high school that used to belong to my grandmother. She named it "Velma" after my grandmother. I shared a Toyota hatchback. I was grateful, but it's comparatively lame. :(

7. Mary and Robert make me grilled cheese sandwiches and rotel dip when I visit. Any time day or night!

8. She gives the most thoughtful gifts and is the one sibling who *always* remembers my birthday. I just write lame blog posts from India for her...

9. She was a far bigger romantic than I was growing up, but still, she spent a lot of time mopping up my tears over boys. We even went on a double date with my first boyfriend when I was in 8th grade. How cool is that for a high school sister? (Awkwardly enough, my boyfriend was also in high school. . .so really I guess I was the one out of place.)

10. She's my sister. There is just something about having a sister. Surrounded by two older brothers, she refused to admit my brother two years older than me, Peter, was a boy for a while and insisted on putting barrettes in his hair. She was elated when I was born a girl. She insisted on calling me "Suzy" for a while, which some brain-dead PR people still call me. We do have to stick together, even when one steals the other's Hammer pants.

Adventures in Spas

I always like getting spa treatments in other countries because you never exactly know what they are going to do to you. Extra anxiety points if you don't speak the language because you don't know how to politely tell them to stop.

I went for a facial in India before leaving Delhi to get rid of some of this caked in smog and pollution. Three weeks in China followed by three weeks in India and I'm amazed my skin has held up as well as it has. (I know everyone talks about smog in China, but in my experience pollution is worse in Delhi than Beijing.)

It was going ok. I was in a small room covered by yellow-and-white striped towels that I think my family used to unearth for beach trips. I was ordered to keep my eyes closed as my face was rubbed over and over rhythmically with some kind of mask. It was mostly relaxing. Then the woman got a load of my horribly ungroomed eyebrows.

"You're eyebrows are too long!" she exclaimed.

"Um, yeah I know, I've been traveling," I said. (I also haven't had a haircut in months. Thank God it was in a shower cap.)

"I need to take care of these!" she said.

"Um...ok."

"What do you do?? Tweeze them?"

"No I get them waxed, I've just been gone." (I'm getting more nervous here.)

"Oh, that's a horrible method."

"Well it usually works for--"

"Hold this skin tight!"

"Oh, ok."

Now remember, my eyes are still closed. She proceeds to start doing what feels like hacking away at my face with a straight edge razor. Tears are streaming out of my eyes and my grip keeps loosening on the skin around my eyebrow making it sting more. I was thinking, "How long do I have to endure this and what the hell could she be doing??"

Finally I said, "That really hurts!"

"It's better," she said. She finished with the left brow and I opened my eyes and said "How are you doing that? It's horrible!" I was half expecting to see a chainsaw in her hand. Instead she had a piece of string wrapped around two fingers, and held in her teeth. She smiled. "Indian method. Rips out the whole root."

"Is that razor wire?" I asked. She grabbed my hand and showed me on my arm hair. I'm still not sure how she did it-- but it was like one of those rope tricks kids do. She pulled the string from different angles causing it to wrap around the hair and then -- rip. I was so amazed at the ingenuity I let her do the other brow. They do look pretty good. (Even if they're still sore.) I didn't know anything could be more painful than waxing. American women really shouldn't complain!

Please Don't Make Me Leave this Comfy Bed

When you wake up this exhausted-- it's a problem. I am absolutely beat after five days traveling around Northern India, jolting along Indian roads, riding smelly animals, meeting nearly 100 local entrepreneurs and experiencing some of the best hospitality I've had during the whole book project.

I have a lot in my head I want to write, both for TechCrunch at the book, but there are too many things and they're all yelling. So I'm going to give them another day to settle down. I'd love to give them that day sitting on a massage table somewhere or doing some Yoga. Unfortunately, I've got a pile of meetings today too. Tomorrow, I head to Bangalore.

Here are some pictures from our weekend in Jaipur:

India-filthybastard-small 

India-firedancer-small 

India-ladiesroom-small

India-truckclose-small




About Those Elephant Rides

Yes, Vivek Wadhwa finally found me an elephant to ride. It wasn't as scary as I thought I'd be. Kind of like an amusement park ride that spits all over you. Pictures follow.

India's omnipresent "bling" as applied to an elephant:

India elephant paint small

"You're not going to trample me right, Mr. Elephant?"

India-mynewpet-small 

Leaving the station...

India elephant ride small 

...and Twittering about it

India elephant text small

Sarah Lacy’s entertaining and informative tour of the world’s fastest growing economies undeniably proves what we’ve known at Endeavor for more than a decade: that impressive and inspiring Entrepreneurs can truly come from anywhere! In taking us on a whirlwind journey bursting with frenetic energy – matched only by that of the amazing entrepreneurs she meets – Lacy gives us an important glimpse into the future of the global economy – a place where the craziest, high-impact entrepreneurs from anywhere and everywhere set the pace.
Brilliant. Crazy. Cocky.

New Book

An unforgettable portrait of the emerging world's entrepreneurial dynamos Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky is the story about that top 1% of people who do more to change their worlds through greed and ambition than politicians, NGOs and nonprofits ever can. This new breed of self-starter is taking local turmoil and turning it into opportunities, making millions, creating thousands of jobs and changing the face of modern entrepreneurship at the same time. To tell this story, Lacy spent forty weeks traveling through Asia, South America and Africa hunting down the most impressive up-and-comers the developed world has never heard of....yet.

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Srah Lacy

Sarah Lacy is an award-winning reporter who has covered high-growth entrepreneurship for more than fifteen years. She is the founder, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of PandoDaily.com, the site-of-record for the startup ecosystem. She lives in San Francisco.

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