Truly successful product companies build private value on top of public goods. There would be no Google but for Stanford University, no Cisco but for DARPA, and no RedHat but for the Linux open source project.
WHY WAS A NEED FELT FOR iSPIRT?
We feel that there is a need to explain to the public at large that a vibrant software product industry is vital to India’s future. Unless we do this, the appropriate policy framework will not emerge. Today, very few public intellectuals understand the difference between IT Services and software products. We seek to change this over time.
Within the industry, we feel that we must deepen our conversations about playbooks and product ideas. Unless we do this, we will not be able to sustain the innovation of the last few years. In every successful product ecosystem, people have built on each other’s ideas and playbooks.
Truly successful product companies build private value on top of public goods. There would be no Google but for Stanford University, no Cisco but for DARPA, and no RedHat but for the Linux open-source project. In India, public goods are being created by self-organizing communities that are inspired by the open-source movement. We feel that these initiatives have to multiply to create a strong foundation for the Indian software product industry. We seek to foster an environment where this can happen.
WHAT IS THE ORGANIZATION STRUCTURE OF iSPIRT?
We are a collection of full-time and part-time Fellows. We are supported primarily by grants and contributions from product firms and individuals. We are a non-profit institution.
WILL iSPIRT HELP ENTREPRENEURS GET FUNDING?
One of our policy proposals will be to dramatically increase the early-stage risk capital that is available to the software industry. In addition, we will seek to emulate some of the programs for the Biotech industry that have been created by the Government’s Department of Biotechnology.
WHO ARE THE PROMOTERS BEHIND iSPIRT?
About 30 product companies and individuals came together as part of the Founder Circle to form this think tank. These represent the most active and successful players in the product industry in India.
HOW WILL YOU MAKE AN IMPACT?
We are a new-generation technology think and do tank. Our impact will come not just from policy briefs. It will also come from the Platforms, Market catalysts that we build and the playbooks that we evangelize.
I’M NOT PART OF THE FOUNDER CIRCLE LIST OF DONORS. CAN I BECOME A DONOR NOW?
We would like you to get involved with iSPIRT. Please send us an email at [email protected] and we would add you to the waiting list. Meanwhile do get involved as a Fellow, Maven, Saarthi or Voyager.
WHY A THINK-TANK AND NOT A TRADE BODY?
As a Think Tank, we are able to take a long view and establish a strong intellectual foundation for effective policymaking, the creation of the right market catalysts and distinctive industry culture. A trade body tends to devolve into a short-term lobby group.
HOW DO YOU PLAN TO TACKLE ENTREPRENEURS OUT OF COLLEGE?
We currently don’t have any special program for entrepreneurs out of college. We will work with all product entrepreneurs.
WHEN WERE FINANCIAL INCLUSION AND HEALTH INCLUSION ADDED TO ISPIRT?
Our Innovate for Bharat efforts (where financial inclusion and health inclusion belong) have been part of iSPIRT mission from the beginning as is evident from these data points
- One of our five beliefs since the inception of iSPIRT is that Technology is a leverage point for changing systems… and can “bring about positive social change by leapfrogging to the next generation.”
- So, naturally, on the day of iSPIRT launch in Feb 2013, we described “Our Gameplan” on the website as follows… “we start with smart demand-side evangelization… Then we will make a concerted effort to build the supply-side ecosystem… Finally, we will use our policy advocacy efforts to drive mandates and naming/shaming league tables to push Technology Resistors into action.”
- Our very first brochure, produced on 24th Feb 2013, is called ‘Rewriting the Script of the Nation’. In the section called ‘Software Products will Transform India at Large’, highlights the statement that “As the revolution unfolds, it has the potential to make the Informal Sector the new engine of economic growth”!
- In fact, our Platform/Policy and Playbook volunteer teams have existed from the beginning of the volunteer model in 2009. The first attempt to combine them under one roof was in 2011-12 (with Laldora Foundation). iSPIRT is the second attempt to bring them under one roof. Therefore Policy/Platforms isn’t an afterthought at iSPIRT.
- Our very first internal dashboard (aired at the 5th Fellows meeting) talked of lending.
- Our 2015 Policy Home Tour video talks of payment revolution – “going cashless for 5m small businesses in India” and UPI. See here and here.
iSPIRT has always been about using technology to solve India’s hard problems. Without this India cannot become a Product Nation. Our goal of creating a product industry with $500B valuation is also unchanged. This requires a 50X growth in the industry over the next few years. So bold moves are needed. We make these moves in the context of our beliefs. These (our five beliefs) have held ground for many years (and many online links including annual letter and blog posts show that). Around these beliefs, the specifics of internal decision-making, organising volunteers and cross-leveraging initiatives works like any other startup and evolves over time.
HOW MANY ISPIRT VOLUNTEERS ARE PAID?
Most of our volunteers are part-time. Only a few go full-time as volunteers-in-residence and they typically do so for a period of 18-24 months. We pay them a modest Living Wage that is capped at their previous salary or Rs 36L whichever is lower. For seasoned people, this Living Wage is often 20-30% of their market salary. Our volunteers are mission-based. They are seeking to make an impact on the ecosystem and, by virtue of stepping outside their comfort zone, grow as a person. In fact, some of the volunteers-in-residence don’t even accept the entire Living Wage that they are entitled to. We will break out the volunteer numbers in our upcoming Annual Letter. The iSPIRT website has a list of all volunteers, along with the specific programs that they contribute to.
WHO ARE ISPIRT DONORS AND HOW MUCH INFLUENCE DO THEY HAVE ON ISPIRT WORK?
We have four types of donors: Founder Circle donors, Product Circle donors, Financial Inclusion donors and Fellowship donors. All donors are listed on the website which is updated quarterly. Our view on donations is clear as stated in this Aug 2014 blog post and in our 2017 Annual Letter:
“We also pay particular attention to the possibility of mission capture by donors. To maintain donor diversity, we invite only those companies to be donors that have visibly demonstrated their zeal in championing the mission of ISPIRT. We ensure that we have a broad base of donors and that no one company is a dominant donor and exclude categories of donors – VCs, MNCs and Service Companies – where future mission conflict can happen. To stay independent of Government, we don’t take any money from the Government.”
HOW DOES ISPIRT HANDLE CONFLICTS?
Our policy on both volunteer ethics and donor influence is unambiguous.
- Since we have different types of volunteers with differing roles, they each have different codes of conduct. Our Curators must disclose their interests during the shortlisting exercise. Our Mavens can’t take any advisory equity in startups they help through iSPIRT. Our Policy Sherpas can not invest in startups that benefit from the specific policy advocacy efforts that they champion.
- We also pay particular attention to the possibility of mission capture by donors. To maintain donor diversity, we invite only those companies to be donors that have visibly demonstrated their zeal in championing the mission of ISPIRT. We ensure that we have a broad base of donors and no one company is a dominant donor and exclude categories of donors – VCs, MNCs and Service Companies – where future mission conflict can happen. To stay independent of Government, we don’t take any money from the Government.
We set a very high bar. If you have any specific concerns, please write to us at [email protected]
A COMMON COMPLAINT FROM MANY FINTECH FOUNDERS IS THAT GETTING ACCESS TO INDIA STACK APIS IS DIFFICULT. WHY IS ISPIRT RESTRICTING ACCESS TO THESE APIS?
India is gradually shifting from a world of few closed proprietary systems to an ecosystem of a vibrant set of Open API-based public goods.
This transition is a work in progress.
Most of the Open API endpoint providers – Banks as Payment Service Providers (PSPs), GSTN Suvidha Providers (GSPs), Aadhaar Service Providers & User Agencies (ASAs/AUAs), E-Sign Service Providers (ESPs), etc. – have no prior history of running developer programs.
On the other side of the equation, unfortunately, most of our technology entrepreneurs are not (yet) savvy about using platforms either. Compared to their Silicon Valley brethren, they are relatively new to strategizing for the platform economy and building what is essentially a new class of systems.
These teething troubles will ease over time. There are reasons to be optimistic:
- There is competition amongst the Open API endpoints providers. There are 4 PSPs offering APIs, 34 GSPs, 35+ ASAs and 200+ ASAs, and 8 ESPs. Their numbers are growing. The good ones will scale, and the rest will be left behind. We are considering publishing league tables to drive better behaviour.
- As iSPIRT, we are helping any Open API endpoint provider who seeks help to up their game. We want them to provide a seamless, paperless onboarding experience to developers.
- The smart entrepreneurs and VCs are no long adopting a wait-and-see attitude. There is a stark improvement in a year. We can see the difference between the UPI sandbox launch in Feb 2016 and the DEPA/EDC rollout in Aug 2017.
- We are doing (free) Early Solution Reviews (ESRs) with any player who wants to be a winning implementation. We have done over a dozen such ESRs in first seven months of 2017.
iSPIRT is working hard to accelerate this transition to an ecosystem of Open APIs. As many commentators have noted India is trying to accomplish in 10 years what took US 40 years. While iSPIRT helps many participants, it is important to understand that we have no role in deciding who gets what access to these APIs.
DIGITAL COLONIZATION – HOW DOES INDIA STACK PREVENT IT, CONSIDERING MICROSOFT, ORACLE, FACEBOOK, AND GOOGLE ARE USING INDIA STACK TO WIN MARKET SHARE BY USING THEIR SCALE/MONEY/NETWORK EFFECTS?
There are two parts to preventing digital colonization. One is to make sure that India owns the underlying platforms for identity, signature, payments, data sharing, tax collection, etc. On this front, India is undoubtedly making good progress – unlike the US where many of these platforms are privately owned.
The second part is to have Indian players win the game of innovating for India. There is a whole section on this in our 2017 Annual Letter (see page 8). At iSPIRT, we believe that this is a battle of ecosystems. This is how we frame the challenge:
“India Stack will be bringing 100mn families having an annual household income of $3,300-$7,400 into the formal sector over the next few years. Since both the India Stack and the Indian market are open access, this opportunity is drawing in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, as it should. Essentially, this intensifies the competition between Indian and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as both are already wrestling with each other in the mid-market SaaS space in the US. This collision is, in fact, a battle of ecosystems. If we don’t strengthen the Indian ecosystem, our Indian entrepreneur will not win this clash.”
At iSPIRT, we are very focused on addressing this second part of preventing digital colonization. We describe our efforts in detail in the 2017 Annual Letter so we won’t repeat them here. This work of strengthening the Indian Entrepreneur is very important to us as we state in our 2017 Annual Letter:
“Our work is important for another reason too. Despite having a billion consumers, India failed to create network equipment or mobile handset industry over the last ten years. Similarly, despite having the second-largest Internet user base, our consumer Internet industry seems to be capitulating. Without resorting to protectionism, we need to break this jinx for our product entrepreneurs.”
To reiterate, we favour a level playing field and not a protectionist position. We would rather strengthen the Indian Entrepreneur than throw a roadblock to competition.
We are cautiously optimistic about the future. We are seeing our efforts in market making, ecosystem building and mindset shaping yield tangible results.