‘We are expecting too much from the Indian startup ecosystem, and too fast’

Pankaj Mishra October 26, 2016 12 min

From “a little boy growing up in the Himalayas dreaming of the Star Trek computer” to being the head of Google Search in the company’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, Amit Singhal has walked a long, upwardly mobile path in his “dream journey” of a life.

The New York Times in this 2007 article called Singhal the “master of what Google calls its ‘ranking algorithm’ — the formulas that decide which Web pages best answer each user’s question.”

Singhal, who joined Google in 2000, stepped down from his position as senior vice-president for search in February this year to spend more time with his family and to give back to society through the Singhal Foundation. His first initiative is Project Hope, which strives to provide a “great education to the most-deserving underprivileged children in the country,” arming them with the power to fulfill their dreams.

Singhal recently joined the board of mobile payment and commerce company, Paytm. He’s also on the board of tech-enabled fitness solutions startup GOQii.

FactorDaily’s Pankaj Mishra caught up with the man who shaped Google Search as we know it today for a chat on how search has transformed our lives and will transform our future; why Google Search beats all other engines hands down; and how it’s just a matter of time before the Indian startup ecosystem starts earning its investors money. He also shares a slice of his personal life, telling how he never looks back at failure and why he has great belief in the transformative power of education.

Q. How do you think internet search has changed our lives?

A. I was very fortunate to have worked on Google Search for so many years, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have always believed that search’s job in our lives is to reduce the time it takes to deal with day-to-day affairs, and that’s exactly what it has done. In earlier times, if you needed to access something as simple as your income tax file, you would have to go to the tax office, stand in a queue, talk to a babu, and an hour later, if you were lucky, you would have the form (to apply for the file). Thanks to the web and modern technology, you can now access income tax files using search and print out a PDF in half a minute.

That’s just one example of how search has made our lives easier.

“Search eliminated breaks in thinking forever. Now, when you think about something and want some information, you can get it instantly. This lets your thinking progress uninterrupted”

Before the time of online search, to get information on any topic, you would have to visit a library and do research. I remember when I was going to Minnesota in the US, I wanted to know what the weather was like there to figure out what kind of clothing I would require, and there was no other way for me to do that other than hitting a library and referring to an encyclopedia. Even though my task was very simple, there was this break in the process — from thinking that I wanted to find out about the weather to reaching the library — that broke my thread of thinking. Search eliminated these breaks forever. Now, when you think about something and want some information, you can get it instantly. This lets your thinking progress uninterrupted.

Q. How has search evolved? What does the future look like to you?

A. With the mobile era, search has gone to the next logical step. Previously, you had to be at a desktop (which may not always be at hand) to search and that too would cause a break in the thinking thread. Nowadays, people are on the go all the time and it helps to have search available on mobiles. Anytime that your thoughts are stuck because you lack some mundane information, Google is there to give you the answers. This aids the thinking process.

In fact, these days, the information you need appears on your mobile screen without you even having to ask Google what you want to know — without having to voice or type in queries.

As devices make further progress, I see new paradigms emerging in which search will be even further integrated into our lives, our thought processes. This will be very device dependent, though, and I am not betting on any device. The mobile phone is today’s rendition of how we interact with the world, but this rendition will change and various new devices will emerge. Search will enable us to think faster and faster, ultimately increasing human potential. And that, in my view, is the future.

Q. Why do you think Google Search outlived many other search engines that came and went? Will it live forever?

A. As you probably know, Google has always been supremely focused on user experience — what users want from the engine and the speed at which they get that information is critical for Google. This is what made Google a far better search engine than any other. I think other engines just didn’t focus on users the same way.

Google is a great company; I have no doubt Google Search will be here for a long time to come.

The evolution of search: From the library to the desktop and then to mobile

Q. You worked closely with the founders of Google. How was the experience?

A. They are amazing people, and the one thing I learned from both of them (Larry Page and Sergey Brin) is that you not only have to build a good team but also have to learn to trust them. I was part of such a team. This lesson is invaluable for every leader — from Abraham Lincoln’s “team of rivals” to modern-day boardrooms or executive teams, it’s a critical learning. It’s what defines the difference between great companies and good companies.

Q. Have you faced any failures in your life and career? How did you cope with them?

A. There are setbacks in every individual’s life and have been in mine too. I wanted to become a professor, but I didn’t make it to any interviews. Had MIT or Stanford made an offer to me after my PhD at Cornell University, I probably would have been a professor at one of those institutes today.

“It’s one’s resilience that defines one’s success. Failure is inevitable, but resilience helps one turn it around and propels one towards the future”  

I did feel then that I didn’t quite get what I wanted despite having all the skills and capabilities required for the job; that happens to many people, every day.

But, harping on your failures will never get you anywhere. It’s one’s resilience that defines one’s success. Failure is inevitable, but resilience helps one turn it around and propels one towards the future. One must learn from one’s setbacks and use the learning to change their approach in life — this is what brings resilience. I always say one should never look back. And that’s what I have practised all my life.

Q. Any particular setback in your life that you still reflect on?

A. I never look back or think how things would have been if I were to have become an MIT professor. I never look back at the time when people were founding internet companies in the US and I wasn’t.

All these great internet companies were founded in the 1996-1997 period. I was an immigrant in the US with a child then. I was neither a citizen nor did I have a Green Card. I could not afford the luxury of founding a company. I don’t call it a failure. It’s a chance thing that happens to everyone.

Q. You have watched India’s technology and startup ecosystem from the outside for well over two decades. What do you think has really happened here?

A. I have been watching the development of the tech and startup ecosystem in India now for 30 years, since I was a computer scientist in 1986 in Roorkee. The past three decades have been distinctly different from each other. The first decade, roughy from 1986 to 1996, was still the time of a closed economy for India with no opportunities for people like us. I used to make just Rs 3,000-4,000 a month working for TCS (Tata Consultancy Services).

Then, in the period from 1996 to 2006, the economy started transforming. There was a lot more awareness of the West and of western companies. When I was pursuing my graduation in 1985-86 (he finished his BE in computer science from IIT Roorkee in 1989), I wouldn’t see an IBM signboard on any building; they were all of Indian technology companies like HCL, Wipro and TCS. There was no notion of a technology-based economy outside of (software) outsourcing. This distinctly changed in this decade. The change registered in people’s minds around 2010.

And, in the last 5-10 years, the tech and startup sector has taken off like a rocket. What is happening here (in India) is incredibly exciting.

“In India, the startup ecosystem is creating a lot of value. Mark my words, the companies that are here will make huge money from India; it’s just a matter of time”  

We know that a decade in the history of a country is as minuscule as an atom. So, you can imagine where the future is headed from here. To me, it looks incredibly bright, but with a lot of challenges.

Q. There was a lot of talk about India’s startup boom. And now there’s talk of the bust (well, kind of) — how dumb money killed startups, the suspect quality of entrepreneurs. What do you make of entrepreneurship in the country today?

A. Look, all ecosystems have to go through learning. Given that the Indian entrepreneurship ecosystem in the sense of the modern software economy is barely 10 years old, we are expecting too much from it, too fast.

Don’t forget that the Valley (Silicon Valley) has been around for more than 40 years. So, the ecosystem there has had a lot of time to learn.

Singhal feels he’s fortunate to be able to facilitate the education of some children in India through his initiative Project Hope

In India, the startup ecosystem is creating a lot of value and venture capitalists (VCs) will learn what works and what doesn’t. We shouldn’t be worrying about who’s making money and who’s not. That’s the wrong way to look at it.

The ecosystem will eventually churn out more money than what came in. But, that will take a much larger time-frame than 10 years. We should look at the early money as tuition fees for the learning the system is imbibing. This will be the base of far more nimble companies, entrepreneurs and VCs.

Q. Despite massive userbases — bigger than the US in some cases — India’s internet economy is yet to become a big revenue base for the likes of Google and Facebook. Why do you think is that?

A. India is definitely a country with huge potential. But, it will take some time for the internet economy to start generating revenue here because the GDP of the country today is around $1,400-$1,500 per capita. If you look at China, the number is close to $7,000.

Up to a certain level of wealth, you are forced to look at sustenance and survival. I think countries take a sharp turn upwards when the GDP crosses about $3,000 per capita. And, I think India will hit that number in some time to come.

Mark my words, when that happens, the companies that are here will make huge money from India; it’s just a matter of time.

Q. What does wealth mean to you?

A. That’s a very deep question. I can tell you at a personal level, as someone who has been incredibly fortunate in making a career for myself in the West, that wealth and money go a long way in improving one’s quality of life. Wealth in the context of a country means that its people have enough access to education and health to feel secure in it.

“Education can be transformative. I feel that education is way up there, neck and neck with healthcare, in what a country’s wealth should provide its citizens”  

I’m very fortunate that today I am being able to facilitate the education of some children in our country through Project Hope (the Singhal Foundation’s first project which has started in Jodhpur and aims to provide access to high quality education to talented children who don’t have the necessary resources) and helping them shape their future.

Education can be transformative. It can completely change a family over a few generations, as it has done mine. My great-grandfather used to repair cycle flats and punctures by the roadside under a shelter made of four bamboo sticks because he couldn’t afford a shop. My grandfather got a chance to pursue his BA in English and he became a high school teacher. He started inching towards financial security, but didn’t have it in entirety. My father became an engineer, and with that our family achieved a desirable level of financial security. And here I am, sitting in front of you because my dad could send me to great schools — I could do all that I did and make a life as I studied at Cornell.

This is why I feel that education is way up there, neck and neck with healthcare, in what a country’s wealth should provide its citizens. If Indians get the opportunity to get proper education and become entrepreneurs, they can change the country and even the world.


Disclosure: FactorDaily is owned by SourceCode Media, which counts Accel Partners, Blume Ventures and Vijay Shekhar Sharma among its investors. Accel Partners is an early investor in Flipkart. Vijay Shekhar Sharma is the founder of Paytm. None of FactorDaily’s investors have any influence on its reporting about India’s technology and startup ecosystem.