The Amazon of India is not Flipkart; Why should It be?

In a piece in Quartz, titled, The Amazon of India is not Flipkart—its Amazon, which was fairly well discussed in social media, online commentator and venture capitalist, Mahesh Murthy, returns to his familiar territory: criticizing Flipkart.

With a provocative headline like that and a very engaging style of writing — he is surely one of the few people in Indian Internet business who knows the subject and knows how to write—it is no wonder that the article has become such a hit on social media.

But then, appreciating someone’s writing style is one thing; accepting the arguments is another. There are still some old fashioned people out there, who still look for “uncool” facts and “cold” logic?

The question here is: beyond the rhetoric, how valid are the arguments?

The author argues that analysts may be club BRIC countries together to conclude that they will have their own Internet brands and they may be largely right, but India certainly is an exception. Here is what he says.

Perhaps it’s the BRIC curse. Many analysts have traditionally put forth the idea that Brazil, Russia, India and China will have their own equivalents of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and eBay and hence those are the firms one should fund and look out for in each country. It almost holds true, too: the Google of Russia is Yandex, and of China is Baidu. The Facebook of Russia is VKontakte and that of China is RenRen. The Amazon of Russia is Ozon and its Chinese equivalent is Jingdong or JD. And the Twitter of China is Weibo while its eBay is Alibaba.

The analogy falls apart in India. The Google of India is Google, with a 95%+ share of the market. The Facebook of India is Facebook. The Twitter of India is Twitter. The eBay of India is eBay. And hey, there’s reason to believe that the Amazon of India could well be Amazon, too. India, with its English-speaking Internet base and open-to-business government is probably more part of the US-UK internet brand ambit—the vast majority of Quora’s users, for instance, are from India. While China and Russia are almost on different dot-com planets.

Winning in India will probably mean you have to evade the paths where the large US players are, and build new ones. As JustDial and RedBus have shown. (Disclosure: I used to be an investor in RedBus.) It’s commonly known that Amazon turned down an offer to buy Flipkart a couple of years ago, and decided to go its own way.

No matter how engaging read it is, there are some fundamental flaws with the line of argumentation. Here is why

  1. BRICS is not just China, Russia. While South Africa is omitted (the original GS term was BRIC anyway; wasn’t it?), Brazil is not referred to show that India is so unique. Why? Just in case you wonder, here are the facts: Google has more than 95% share in both these markets; as in India.
  2. When Google and FB started, Indians, whose primary language on computers is English had no problem in using them, overwhelmingly started using them. So, no one really thought of creating a local product. It is not that there were five big Indian names and these companies came and killed them.
  3. On the other hand, by the time Amazon started in India, Flipkart was already a big brand name.
  4. And finally, the fact. Ebay, the only brand above to have an offline component of business and hence requires more to succeed than Indians’ comfort level with English, entered India by acquiring Bazee, an Indian company, modeled exactly on Ebay
  5. Also, what is conveniently ignored is that India’s top travel site (Travelocity of India, if you like) is not Travelocity, but Makemytrip; top job site in India is not Monster, but Naukri.
  6. And finally, this is a subjective argument, though, there is no reason to believe that Flipkart has done any less innovations than say Redbus (disclosure: I or no one among my friends and family has any interest in either of the companies). But then, that is a separate topic, for another day.

The point I am making is not that Flipkart will win against Amazon or the other way around. Let them compete and let the best guy win. That will be in the interest of consumers.

But let us not get carried away by “selective” facts.



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