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Interview English (India)

There are no success stories: Vivek Rai on startups in India

In his documentary, Vivek Rai deconstructs the ways in which startups are lauded as leading the big business success in our country and across the world. 

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Cut Copy Paste: An Indian Startup Story, a documentary by Vivek Rai, reveals the reality behind the buoyant startup stories that regularly flood mainstream media.

Creating a gold rush of sorts with people vying to become the 'next big thing', startups have captured the imagination of the people and everyone with even a half-baked idea aspires to launch his or her own.

Rai’s film indicates that not only is success illusory, but that the road towards developing one’s startup is riddled with hardships and consequences that are being systematically ignored.

The documentary takes a hard look at the circulation of the startup dream and how far removed it is from reality. In doing so, he looks at small businesses that create profits, innovate and are in touch with the needs of their consumers, as opposed to startups that mostly do a 'cut-copy-paste' job of creating businesses that only ape the West and are often removed from the ground realities of our country.

The film is intensely personal as the person who takes us through these twists and turns of setting up a startup, its heady success, and the crushing failure of dreams is the filmmaker's brother, Abhishek Rai.

Vivek and Abhishek Rai spoke to Cinestaan.com at the 14th Habitat Film Festival in New Delhi, where Cut Copy Paste: An Indian Startup Story was screened, about the startup scenario in the country and its consequences. Excerpts:

Usually when we talk of startups, we hear about the big success stories and the champions who dropped out of school or college and went on to make millions. Your film tells us the other side, one that is not discussed much. What propelled you to tell this story?

Vivek Rai: I was always working as part of a startup with a technology background. My brother [Abhishek] was running a marketing strategy company and doing pretty well. Around 2007, the start-up wind came and took everyone by surprise, so he also felt he should initiate his own startup and have his own product. The Steve Jobs product versus services hype was there and he also started to develop a product.

Abhishek Rai: Online communities were big and I was already building online communities for brands, so I thought why not? When you talk of startups you talk about exponential growth. The route to that is to build a product that a lot of people use and then the money comes with that. I was doing it and he has been watching me throughout. I did not take up the funding money which is one of the ways you grow. Last year, all the top five startups in India together made a loss of more than a billion dollars!

In fact, you give those hard-hitting facts because, amidst the euphoria, we aren’t really talking about these huge losses.

VR: That is what inspired me because people talk about the success of startups all the time and then the Modi government started Startup India, further extending the idea that this is the way to go. A lot of my friends were dropping out of secure jobs and chasing some crazy idea and copying an idea for a startup. They were all failing within a span of two years and finding it hard to get back to their jobs. And no one is talking about these difficulties because people had this notion that it’s easy money.

The human face behind the startups is explored vividly in your film as you bring their struggle to life. This undercuts that slightly romanticized notion of this startup life and perceptions of people who initiate them.

AR: It’s like the idea of the government job in the 1970s. if you got a good government job, you were successful. In the 1990s, if you were in Infosys, it was a huge thing. So in our country, the elites have always defined success. So these days, if you have a startup, you are very successful and all that the West does, we just copy it.

The common thread between the ones that are successful and the ones that are not, like mine, as I failed, is that we are copying an idea from the West and not looking at what do we really want to do here [in India]. Alipay’s copy is Paytm, Amazon’s is Flipkart, AirBnB’s is Oyo, Zomato is also a copy, I can go on. So I think this is a common flaw we have had in this country.

In the context of your film, it’s very easy to talk about success stories, but in the film we trace your rise and fall and you very candidly share the moment where you thought you would make it big and also share the utter disappointment when that doesn’t happen. How difficult was that for you?

VR: He was nice to share his story of failure. There are no success stories. The OYO story is not a success story, neither is Flipkart or Snapdeal. People are not ready to admit the failure of their ventures. He was bootstrapped. He didn’t get money from someone which he doesn’t have to return, like OYO or Paytm or others. But actually the ideas that you celebrate in Steve Jobs or Elon Musk have been abandoned by people. Most of them are in ecommerce.

AR: The only success that is seen as business success in India is access to capital. So you are a big industrialist, you run out of money, then you go to the bank which recapitalizes you. The venture capitalists are doing the same thing. I read today that Paytm has hypothecated everything, all their assets, to ICICI to get working capital. Just a few months ago they got some $300 million just to keep running the cashbacks. So their only way of growing is that if you use [the service] I give you some money. For every rupee I earn, I waste five rupees.

VR: He told his failure story. Other people were not ready to. That’s when I decided they were not telling the truth so I will not go to them.

There is still the projection of being successful despite failing…

VR: It’s still there. So we decided we will go to the smaller organizations in Delhi. Most of the ones featured in the film have now failed because that was two years ago. That is the truth and it was predicted. They were fighting and have not stopped. They are very intelligent people and are tweaking it and coming back to the business in some other form, but they aren’t stuck with debt like OYO and the others. And they were willing to share their failure stories, where they went wrong, where is the system wrong. That’s when I decided that rather than going to the startups, I will go to them.

I see this as a very important film, especially as young people are starry-eyed about startups and their idea, which they believe will be the 'next big thing'. Where all do you plan to take your film?

VR: Apart from festivals, I really want to take it to universities. We also want to take it to co-working spaces where small startups are present.

AR: Ideally, we would like to take it to the IITs [Indian Institutes of Technology] and the universities, like Ashoka, Amity and Jindal, and also the IIMs [Indian Institutes of Management] and schools like Pathways etc, where this whole narrative is being built and even parents are mesmerized by startups. Someone has to tell them, because that feedback loop is missing.

VR: Maybe some digital platforms will also help as so many people are glued to Amazon these days. It would be good for them to know this side.

Cut Copy Paste: An Indian Startup Story was screened at the 14th Habitat Film Festival at New Delhi's India Habitat Centre on 21 May 2019. 

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Habitat Film Festival