Book Review – Flight Of The Unicorns: Lessons From India’s Startup Bubble

Published September 2, 2017 by vishalvkale

Startups are the in-thing in India, indeed – in the world nowadays; thus, when I spotted a book on the Startups in India and lessons to be drawn from them, I not just picked it up immediately, but also placed it at the head of all other to-read books; I normally have a stack of 4-5 new books which I routinely pick up on my surfing and touring. This book was of so current & important and so relevant a topic, that it moved to the top of the pile on the strength of its premise alone – being titled “Flight Of The Unicorns: Lessons From India’s Startup Bubble.”
Som Paul

The book is a look at the start-up scenario in India, divided into two parts : Rise and Fall of the Startup Ecosystem, and Trends and New Rules of the Game being the second section. The first section is way too short, concluding in all of 54 pages, around 25% of the book; this is too short a space and time devotion to this rather vital aspect, as it tries to cover too wide a scope in short, summary format. There are advantages to this approach as well; it creates a great overall picture, suitably buttressed by real examples and anecdotes from RedBus, Snapdeal, Flipkart, IndiaPlaza and many more.
The book sets the trend of the book early on – Going Global – with the very next chapter, with anecdotes on Sulekha, Justdial etc, and very correctly analyzing the trend of a success in one industry / nascent industry by a startup leading to hotting up of competition from the international players, and how the digital world is a global space. It is here that the first problem emerges in the book – it implies startups as being synonymous with cutting edge-technology & internet / cyber-space, ignoring the scope for other industries where digital and technology is not the be all and end all.
In the next 24 pages, it winds up the initial section, moving on to section two; while this is in keeping with the objective of the book as stated in the introduction / foreword, it is nearly diametrically opposite to the title, which implies a study of how we went wrong and why as the primary focus. Here, my humble submission to the author – how many people read the introduction and the foreword? Precious few do; thus, the intent of your work will, or rather, might, create mild dissonance in the reader.
To be fair, the book has, in this short but exceedingly sharp analysis, summarized most of the problems ailing startups in India {This includes; inefficient operations; overestimate market size; Tier-2/3 city issues; scalability issues; compensations; systemic inefficiencies; process issues; shoddy Busines Plans} … an achievement of some note, and shows the research and effort that has gone into the book. I hate to give it a comparatively low rating – but am forced to rate it only 3 or 3.5 stars – it certainly deserves more. The reasons will become apparent as we go ahead in this review.
Domestic Vs Global : It does make a few errors, though : for one – identifying Domestic Market focus as an error. With the deeper pockets of established companies of the Developed World, it is of primary importance that you home market be well penetrated and you be well-established in it. Going global with inadequate resources, or taking high funding just to go global without first having a strong brand internally does not make sense to my mind. As we saw in my review of The Google StoryReviewed Here– the dynamics abroad are very, very different, with deep university / research / incubation, talent, opportunity and funding support being readily available.
The Second Section  starts off with a nice revisit to the fundamentals, and tries to arrive at a set of principles of what make a good startup, and how to go about it. This is a first effort – subsequent research will of course break new ground – but the model presented is worth a look and does make a lot of sense. The best part is that it doesn’t stick to the superficial – but goes deeper, looking into specific process areas for focus, which is very welcome. Then it moves into completely unrelated territory, with a rather too detailed look into the Indian realities, background, SME Sector and its pitfalls, and so on.
The last part of the second section look into 3 example areas where Startups can add value – Education, Healthcare and Financial Inclusion. While the areas identified are excellent – the presented arguments are not as perceptive as in the paragraph above, with its look at deep fundamentals of how to set up a successful process-oriented, lean, fit startup that has a viable business model. This part comes across as merely a telling of anecdotes – sure, anecdotes that have deep learning; but anecdotes all the same.
The book then concludes with a section – a rather detailed and long lecture on the upcoming technologies and developments, keeping to its assumption of technology being the sole main plank for a startup. The problem in that is too many people have focused too much on technology – it is the application of the technology that matters, the business model, the market- present and future trends;  the processes; the GTM strategy. Technology by itself is just an enabler – and while we do need to keep updated, or risk obsolescence {Kores, Nokia} – by itself, it is nothing.

Any number of examples from business exist when technologies have failed to succeed in the market without the attendant factors being present in the ecosystem. What was required was a detailed look at the startup scenario – not basis Anecdotes – but detailed case studies. This is present – the problem is the anecdotal and friendly narrative style, that lessens the impact of the book. The points are all there; the research and the brainwork is clearly evident – as is the expertise of the author. The presentation, though, I am sorry to state, leaves a lot to be desired for. That said – all in all, this is a must read for anyone who is a startup entrepreneur, or a student of the Indian Startup scenario, or manager in startups in India or indeed, the world. a

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