Meet Gaurav Bhatnagar, serial entrepreneur. As a fresh graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology, or IIT, Delhi, in 2001, he jumped at the chance to work at software giant Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond. The entrepreneurship bug bit him, and he returned to India in 2004. He launched Tekriti, a software consulting company, in 2005, Travel Boutique Online in 2006, and Mediology Software, a digital media solutions company, in 2009. (Read: India's coolest start-ups )
"I never thought of starting a company in the US," says Bhatnagar. His reasoning: the economy was growing faster in India, and so were the opportunities for start-ups. Today, many Indians who went to the US for higher studies or work are returning to become entrepreneurs. "In the 1970s and 1980s, our best doctors and engineers went to the US … for the incomparable advantages of dollar salaries, lifestyle and challenging jobs," says Pradeep Gupta, founder of Cybermedia, a media company. "Now these things are comparable."
The US-based Kauffman Foundation, which researches and promotes entrepreneurship, found in a recent study that tens of thousands of Indian and Chinese skilled workers return home from the US each year. China's Ministry of Education estimates that 108,000 Chinese returned after getting an overseas education in 2009 - up 56 per cent from 2008.
Failure is not the stigma it used to be. Indians now understand that risktaking is what entrepreneurship is all about: Som Mittal
"The likes of N.R. Narayana Murthy started the entrepreneurship wave in the country, and we are now seeing Entrepreneurship 2.0," says Som Mittal, President, National Association of Software and Service Companies, or NASSCOM. "In India, the mentorship and financing ecosystem is better than it was a decade ago," he says.
Silicon Valley remains the hottest place for technology start-ups. Indians Karthik Manimaran and Jyotibasu Chandrabasu, started a company called Resu.me there recently, which they position as a rival to LinkedIn. "It's tough to add an innovative product in the US, a mature market," says Chandrabasu. "But in India, people are just beginning to get savvier." The duo plans to set up an India office this year, and is considering moving back, too.
"The cost of starting a business in India is a fraction of that in the US," says Himanshu Agarwal, founder of Aspiring Minds, a company that offers recruiters personality assessment solutions. He worked at California-based Network Appliance for four years before returning to start his company in 2007. "India is a great place to build a world-class product cheaply, and then reach out globally," says Bhatnagar, whose travel company now has a Dubai office, and plans more in Africa.
Simple business ideas are more likely to work here than in the US. So, for example, while Americans take ambulances and trained paramedics for granted, only six per cent of Indians have access to such services. This prompted Shaffi Mather, Manish Sacheti, Ravi Krishna, Naresh Jain and Shweta Mangal - who all returned to India from the US - to start Ziqitza Healthcare in Mumbai in 2005. "The fleet has grown to 566 ambulances in Punjab, Rajasthan, Bihar, Mumbai and Kerala," says Mangal.
Another example: in 2007, online ticketing was a decade old in the US, but Indians had to queue up for tickets. Neetu Bhatia, who worked with Bank of Montreal and Lehman Brothers in the US, came to India to start ITKTS Interactive Technologies, an online ticketing company that sells sports and entertainment tickets via its website, KyaZoonga.com. "India is a billiondollar market," she says.
Five years ago, start-ups struggled harder than they do now. IIT Delhi graduate Varun Khurana, who also worked at Network Appliance, and Lomesh Dutta, who got a Master's degree from the University of New Mexico, returned in 2006 to start Wirkle, a mobile phone applications company, with a friend, Sunil Goyal. Their basement office in Delhi often got flooded when it rained. "There was no broadband," says Goyal. "We got a connection somehow. Things are better now."
When Wirkle started, India's mobile applications market was bigger, and growing faster, than America's. "Apple's iPhone changed the game," says Goyal. Now most of Wirkle's revenues come from the US. Attitudes here have changed, too. In the US, failure is acceptable. "People leave Google for a start-up," says Dutta. "Here, when we hired our first engineer, we had to convince his father that he had a future with us." Says NASSCOM's Mittal: "People now understand that risk-taking and failure are what entrepreneurship is about."
The US has awoken to the potential loss: immigrants have started more than half of Silicon Valley's tech companies, and contribute more than a quarter of its global patents. Last year, US Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar proposed the Startup Visa Bill, which would grant permanent resident status to immigrants who raise an initial investment of at least $20,000, and create at least three jobs in two years. But few return because of visa issues. The Kauffman Foundation report, which surveyed 153 Indians, says the main reasons were career opportunities, family and quality of life. Most were middle-level executives with deep domain experience. For India, it means more expertise and jobs.