India's Advantage is in Starting Out Late Says This 70-year Padma Shri

India has so many problems and so many problems mean so many opportunities.

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The 70-year old Padma Shri, Kiran Karnik, is a doer who has donned many hats.

Entrepreneur India

From Indian Space Research Organisation soon after it was set up in 1969 to NASSCOM and Satyam Computers when both were in trouble, Karnik has built a reputation of being one of the most trustworthy executives of his times.

His diverse portfolio of work stands out also owing to his involvement with government bodies including the Confederation of Indian Industry and Prasar Bharti.

For Karnik, technology has become the underwrite platform and the real challenge for India is to leverage it.

“Can you make roads cheaper, better, quicker - that’s something technology can do. The government’s job is not to promote one sector or the other, because they don’t what’s going to happen tomorrow. Best is to give the facilitating environment, which is just the ease of doing things,” Karnik said.

Karnik believes the government must ensure entrepreneurs can get into business easily, run the business easily and if it doesn’t work out get out of the business easily and get them something else.

“An enabling environment is the best that the government can do. Leave the choice of technology or which sectors or what priorities to the market. There are some social needs; that’s the job government can do.”

India’s Problems Its Strength

In an interview with Entrepreneur, Karnik calls a spade a spade.

He says we are not really good at doing things efficiently and the government is not great at managing things on a large scale. So the idea that we should emulate what the Chinese did 20 years ago by creating large special economic zones is not a great one.

“Our genius is in innovating. We are diverse, we are different, we all keep thinking individually. Today, the world is placing more value on innovation than efficiency. 30 years back, efficiency mattered. If we focus on innovation, we might have special unique advantages globally,” Karnik says.

In the country, Karnik feels the advantage is that India has so many problems and so many problems means so many opportunities; new solutions, new technologies.

“We also have an advantage in starting out late in the development process. We don’t have to go through the same lineage that US, UK or China has had to go through. We can leapfrog; we can quickly move towards something new. It means we are not stuck with legacy infrastructure, old ideas or old equipment. But we need to be able to be agile,” Karnik says.

His experience says governments are not agile, they are slow, they have high inertia and those are certain disadvantages. But when you want to be agile, you need small quick things to move. Therefore, it’s appropriate with that point of view to focus on startups, entrepreneurs for whom agility is everything.

“Speed, agility is something that a young company does best.  As long as India has an atmosphere like that, I think the country has a winning thing going.”

Indians are entrepreneurial people. Capitalise on that.

Unfortunately, there are too many entrepreneurs who start up something, create excitement, take someone’s money and burn it up in no time in a wasteful manner believes Karnik who thinks that’s not entrepreneurship and it’s not business sense at all. It’s not only bad for the whole ecosystem.

“If you are a startup, behave like a startup. Money should be handled as carefully as you can. You can’t afford from day one to have 5-star fancy offices, fly around in business class; that’s not what a startup is about. Apart from being wasteful about money, it creates a culture which is not very positive. When you have tight resource constraint, you optimize your organization as well as your product,” Karnik says.  

He says there is a little temptation in entrepreneurs to have someone funding them for two years; they make hay while the sun shines. “In my opinion, that’s very counterproductive,” Karnik says.

Aashika Jain

Written By

Entrepreneur Staff

Journalist in the making since 2006! My fastest fingers have worked for India's business news channel CNBC-TV18, global news wire Thomson Reuters, the digital arm of India’s biggest newspaper The Economic Times and Entrepreneur India as the Digital Head.