Start-up India can become a reality. But for that, government needs to update policy
The sun may set last in California, but start-ups are first to rise on this Californian coast,” began Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an address to Silicon Valley on September 26. PM Modi, in his first-of-its-kind visit to Silicon Valley last weekend, discussed the burst of innovation in India and continued collaboration with the United States. Indian start-ups received more than $3.5 billion in venture funding in the first six months of this year alone. India is now the largest tech incubator in Asia, the third-biggest in the world, and it’s on track to become the global leader. There has been tremendous progress and we have much to celebrate. The question Indian entrepreneurs must propose in return is: “How can India become a place where start-ups rise to the same greatness as in Silicon Valley? Indian entrepreneurs have built our country into a strong contender for the next tech hub, in spite of regulatory hurdles. The results of a recent survey on cross-border deals demonstrate the urgent need for India’s government to update policy. The American Bar Association recently asked 300 US- and India-based attorneys about, among other things, doing business in Southeast Asia. Many respondents said they were hesitant to engage with Indian companies, citing several regulatory problems inherent to the region. Sixty-five per cent of those surveyed reported it is difficult to work with Indian companies. Only 40 per cent said the same of working with Chinese companies. US start-ups were considered the least difficult to work with, at 30 per cent. If these obstacles were to be removed, one could only imagine India quickly growing into the superpower it has always wanted to be, bringing jobs and economic resources to a country at a crossroad. Modi’s strong focus on “Start-up India” is very encouraging to those of us hoping for an international playing field that gives Indian start-ups a fair chance. In order for Start-up India to succeed, the government must rework the system to make it a more efficient and pro-business meritocracy. Start-ups are responsible for two-thirds of the jobs in the US. The same can be true of India with the implementation of streamlined policies addressing the entire life-cycle of a start-up (creation, growth and shutdown). If unleashed, Indian start-ups will employ a majority of the 10 lakh youth that join the workforce every month. Start-ups will employ the next generation. To truly move the needle on the Start-up India vision, the government needs to do at least the following. First, decide the rules. Regulators must stop procrastinating on making difficult decisions. Investors don’t want to hedge bets on a country lacking reliable rules. A tax treaty with the US is another policy that demands attention. Currently, most venture capital investments into India’s technology product industry are being routed through Mauritius or Singapore because of their favourable capital gains exemptions in the event of an investor exiting. It is to India’s advantage to allow investors from Silicon Valley to work with Indian companies directly, without Mauritius as a middleman. A zero capital gains regime will substantially increase flows even from individual angel investors. In any case, around 80 per cent of start-ups fail, leading to no capital gains taxes. There is no revenue loss for the government here, even while it will earn personal income and other taxes from employees of these start-ups until they fail. Second, make the rules simple. Tax laws should not only be certain, they should also be simple. The government must ensure consistent application of clear tax rules. Enough of officials chasing larger tax notices! On Sunday, I was able to attend a breakfast with senior government advisors leading the Start-up India initiative. The meeting was extremely collaborative and they solicited detailed feedback on how to make Start-up India a reality. It was encouraging to see the bureaucrats with a sense of purpose, as they laid out their objective to have positive policies that nurture a start-up throughout its business life-cycle: One, simplify company creation; two, introduce a bankruptcy law; and three, streamline issues around exits and liquidity. We also discussed in some detail how to streamline exits in terms of M&A and IPO. There is now a direct line of communication between the policymakers in government and TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs, an organisation fostering entrepreneurship) in Silicon Valley. The Indian government will benefit from working with TiE and investors, who together bring deep institutional knowledge of creating and scaling start-ups. TiE’s Billion Dollar initiative, meanwhile, has united top legal minds, investors, entrepreneurs, think-tanks like iSPIRT (Indian Software Product Industry Round Table) and trade bodies like Nasscom (National Association of Software and Services Companies) to consolidate key policy recommendations. The next step for this group is to include other voices and provide a single body of unbiased feedback. The plan set forward by Modi’s team is a major leap forward and reflects the prime minister’s view that start-ups are “the engines of progress”. India is home to some of the world’s most brilliant technical minds, most innovative start-ups and a growing collective of venture firms. If China can create large success stories like Alibaba, why can’t India create the next Google? Modi embodies the traits of an effective and empathetic CEO of 1.25 billion people. He has hired and appointed amazing talent to carry out his vision. As an investor, my bet is that Modi will “scale up” India to great success. The writer is director of Inventus Capital Partners, a US-India venture capital firm.