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Digital evolution and how it differs across America, China, and India

Building successful businesses requires the development of deep moats. A moat could be access to a scarce resource, patent ownership, or a strong brand. One approach to building a moat is to focus on your underlying core assets and capabilities, and continuously invest in them. From these matured assets, adjacent businesses can be launched at a fraction of the cost. These adjacent businesses could drive incremental revenue or serve as a loss leader to protect the core business. This is called the ecosystem play, with which companies scale and develop moats.

An example of a company building its moat leveraging the ecosystem play is Amazon. Amazon started in 1994 as an online bookshop. In the last 25 years that followed, it has extended into a marketplace open for other sellers; it provides web services, logistics, marketing, and payment services to enterprises; it develops, streams, and sells videos, games, music, and private label products; and it has lately expanded to finance.

From Amazon’s example, we see how ecosystems can disrupt not only their sectors, but broad swaths of the economy. Ecosystem thinking is becoming more prominent in faster-growing companies across the globe, even those outside of the US.

China’s digital evolution and the emergence of super apps
In China, companies took inspiration from their US counterparts and took an ecosystem approach, where they focused on core capabilities and built adjacencies. However, what distinguished them was the wide adoption of mobile-first digital platforms led by payments. This mobile-first aggregation of multiple services, like social networking, gaming, and commerce around payments led to the emergence of super apps.

The transition to digital payments in China was pioneered by Alibaba and Tencent. Alibaba integrated Alipay in 2003 to scale their e-commerce business. Tencent, on the other hand, integrated Tenpay in 2005 to support QQ, their messaging and gaming app. The move away from cash to digital payments led to the emergence of super apps.

The super app construct emerged in early 2011 through the success of WeChat and Alipay. First released in 2011 by Tencent, WeChat started as a messaging application that expanded first to payments and subsequently to e-commerce, food delivery, ride-hailing, and travel. With multiple services in its ecosystem, WeChat today is among the world’s largest standalone mobile apps with 1.2B+ monthly active users. WeChat is the default option for social networking and payments in China, with users sending over 45 billion messages a day and USD 400 billion being transacted on the platform in 2021. Through WeChat’s example, we see how a super app starts off with finding product-market fit in a core offering, and later expands to an ecosystem of offerings.

India’s digital evolution and the rise of public-private partnerships (PPP)
The key reasons why the Chinese app economy took off were cheap bandwidth, and the fact that there was a smartphone in nearly every pocket. Telecom companies, such as China Mobile and China Telecom, were a big enabler in China’s emergence to the forefront of digital. India’s internet story began with core digital innovation in the telecom sector, and telcos in India have led with an ecosystem play.

In 2016, new entrant Reliance Jio offered free telecom services for a year, followed by another year of subsidized prices. During this period, the telecom industry witnessed a 30-percent drop in industry revenue and severe consolidation (10 players in 2016 down to four players in 2019). Consequently, the cost of data dropped by 95 percent, which led to every Indian having ubiquitous and cheap access to internet. This catapulted verticals, such as e-commerce, payments, food delivery, and OTT content to take off in India. The telcos owned the infrastructure like network towers and internet fiber, but in addition, Indian telcos invested in adjacencies to develop moats and protect the core business. Bharti Airtel, one of the largest telcos in India, has built IoT, cloud, security, CPaaS, data centers, financial services, and entertainment as adjacent businesses.

With telcos enabling internet access and smartphone penetration increasing, the Indian payments ecosystem underwent a paradigm shift. Today, 40 percent of all payments (USD 3 trillion) are digital. The concept of a unified payments interface (UPI) has supercharged India’s transition to non-cash payments by facilitating direct payments linked to a bank account. UPI is a public-private partnership (PPP) where the National Payments Corporation of India (NPCI) led with an interoperable platform. Fintechs, banks, and telcos have adopted this platform and have further driven UPI growth through QR code placements at merchant points-of-sale (POS). This successful PPP has enabled India to leapfrog China and the US when it comes to mobile payments.

UPI is not the only successful PPP in India’s digital ecosystem. Like UPI in payments, Aadhaar is a success story in authentication services. UIDAI through Aadhaar has transformed identity services, where your identity can be digitally authenticated through two-factor authentication or biometric IDs. Aadhaar-led authentication is being used by various private institutions like banks and telcos. The latest public private partnership (PPP) being attempted is ONDC (Open Network for Digital Commerce). Through ONDC, buyers, sellers, and service providers are coming together so that every single merchant, small and large, can participate in fair commerce. It will be interesting to see how this PPP changes the face of e-commerce in India.

As we look to the future, digital transformation is no longer a choice for an enterprise anywhere in the world; it is a necessity. And beyond digital transformation, it is becoming critical for enterprises to have a digital mindset that allows them to craft ecosystem strategies to protect and grow their core business. A lack of such moats will lead to disruption and eventually competition taking away share. Additionally, legacy thought processes around competition need to change. We are in a world of co-opetition, where we compete and partner at the same time. The PPP framework seen in India is a great example. With technology cycles changing fast and with new trends like AI and blockchain gaining momentum, the urgency to develop a digital mindset all over the world is more intense than ever.

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