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The role of sub-culture in innovation in India
November 25,2016

Of all the potted plants, legal or otherwise, the one poised for a remarkable growth story is marijuana. Sniffing out value in businesses related to this plant are investors with a strong nose for opportunity.

“Sub-cultures push the envelope on thinking about how society might develop. The ones that interest investors are those with the potential to indicate where the world could go next.” Sandeep Murthy

Marijuana’s gradual rise in the corporate hierarchy of the plant kingdom was used as an illustrative example by Sandeep Murthy, partner, Lightbox. Murthy was participating in a panel discussion on the role of sub-culture in innovation in India. It is a topic he warms up to, given that sub-cultures drive the products that emerge out of tech startups.

“Sub-cultures push the envelope on thinking about how society might develop. The ones that interest investors are those with the potential to indicate where the world could go next,” he said.

The starting point of many subcultures, according to Murthy, begins with fighting a bias. “The sub-culture is able to resonate with people who are disenfranchised and are looking for something new. It then grows and evolves. In doing so, it touches the chords of some in the mainstream, who feel they can grab certain aspects of it. It builds a bigger base, mutating from its original form, and takes on a different view,” he says.

People care about being connected, expressing themselves and about individuality. Every one of these aspects has come from sub-cultures at various points in time, which turned main stream.

This is where investors come in. While there is no singular way of assessing culture, they are always on the lookout for a sub-culture that has the potential to drive the main narrative. When Lightbox invested in Cleartrip in 2005, a lot of people came up to Murthy and said he was crazy putting money in a company going to sell tickets online. People didn’t need it. “It’s become mainstream now,” he explains.

Murthy believes that people care about being connected, expressing themselves and about individuality. Every one of these aspects has come from sub-cultures at various points in time, which turned main stream. For instance, the business of Snapchat where people send pictures that disappear after five seconds. “You say it’s ridiculous based on your bias and belief in how people should interact,” Murthy points out. “Then it evolves, develops and goes to different groups of people who find different uses for it. You find it’s not limited to that message of engagement or that reason for use. There is actually a broader application for it.” Rap, Hip Hop and EDM — even wearing hoodies and informal office environments — are some other sub-cultures, which Murthy believes have become mainstream.

While there is no singular way of assessing culture, they are always on the lookout for a sub-culture that has the potential to drive the main narrative.

Similarly Murthy views the legalisation of marijuana in the US as compelling. “You find a lot of marijuana-related companies becoming investable. And you find funds developing around it, based on markets where they can say that these companies provide businesses driven out of marijuana. It will be interesting to watch how a highly sidelined and prohibited sub-culture has worked its way to the mainstream in the US,” he says.

Closer home, Murthy sees a change in the approach to dating as a more open and accepted pre-matrimony platform. “It’s emerging and I am hopeful that it will continue to grow,” he predicts. The change in the way people view ownership or in other words, shared economy will also find broader acceptance in the future, he adds.

Of course, there is always a time and place for ideas to develop and emerge. For instance, mobile gaming. A lot of investors assumed that gaming-related businesses would take off in India as in the other Asian markets. But for a variety of reasons, it has not. Murthy says, “India has its own social dynamics. You don’t have many situations where kids are at home alone. So, there’s no need to play a game in a corner, or at a cyber cafe as a way to kill time.” Sometimes, the timing itself could be wrong. As a spotter of sub-culture, Murthy recalls having started a digital music company with a friend in 1999. “We were trying to be Spotify. And that (experience) taught me that some sub-culture ideas may just be early for their time and may find a foothold at a later point. We were 12 years too early. I had to let it go, unfortunately, and watch it happen later. But it was nice to know that we were on the right track,” he says.


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