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The Indian startup ecosystem, one of the most vibrant in the world, has had a sobering experience during the covid-19 pandemic. While some startups have been pushed to the brink of closure, many have pivoted and a few have actually gained from the ongoing crisis. Global giants like Facebook see a big opportunity for startups to capitalise on the new normal. In an interview, as part of Mint’s Pivot or Perish series, Ajit Mohan, vice-president and managing director, Facebook India spoke about the company’s plans for India’s startup community. Edited excerpts:

How has the pandemic affected India's startup ecosystem?

The covid-19 pandemic isn’t just a public health emergency but it’s also an economic crisis that has particularly impacted small businesses across the country. Many have closed down, some are operating with a reduced workforce, and several others are experiencing significantly lower sales. At the same time, from kirana stores to local service providers and pharmacies, small businesses rose to the occasion and fulfilled people’s needs. The scale and size of small businesses also makes them extremely agile. Several of them have already adapted to the new consumer journeys by moving online. Facebook is deeply committed to the recovery of the small businesses and the economy, and we’re working closely not just with the SMBs but also with the entire ecosystem to help them resurrect from this crisis.

What kind of opportunities did the crisis create that startups couldn't capitalise on before?

The acceleration of the digital medium has created new opportunities for small businesses across verticals. Our recent consumer behaviour study with the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) states that digitally influenced purchases have increased by up to 15% for categories such as apparel, mobile phones, and consumer packaged goods (CPG), all of which have deep offline networks. The report also points out that the digital acceleration we’re witnessing is here to stay. For example, 90% of consumers who have purchased apparel online during the lockdown have stated their intent to continue with this behaviour. We see this trend manifesting across our family of apps.

Has the dependence on digital advertising and social media increased since startups are also cash-strapped due to the pandemic?

From communicating with friends and family and navigating information around the disease, to connecting with services such as banking and education, and engaging with entertainment and influencers, we have moved our lives online in an unprecedented manner. These shifts are structural and are likely to stay beyond covi. The pandemic has shown us that Facebook’s family of apps are playing an even more critical role in the lives of people, and for the first time ever, there are now more than 3 billion people actively using Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or Messenger each month globally.

Since Facebook has shown interest in India's startup space, what should be the focus areas for the country?

I do think the next few years will be about models that arise out of India, and that are built on the experience of the Indian consumer. The real power of digital infrastructure will get unleashed when startups and small businesses come online. In many ways they're already on WhatsApp but we need to help them connect the dots. It is how we can make it easy to shop from within WhatsApp. Our goal with the investment in Jio is to enable new opportunities for businesses of all sizes, especially for small businesses across India. The first example of the collaboration would be to help millions of kirana owners digitize their product catalogue and use WhatsApp to connect with their customers.

What are the challenges for Indian startups, especially those in the tech space?

Starting out is difficult for small businesses in India. Without adequate support many young businesses perish before they can take flight. There is also a huge skilling gap in the start-up sector. That’s why we’ve invested in creating industry-leading skilling programs for businesses at every stage of the life cycle, and we’ve strengthened the online delivery of these to ensure continuous upskilling even in these times. For instance, we recently took Boost with Facebook, our flagship program for skilling small businesses, online and saw 4X the number of registrations we see for on-ground events.

Women entrepreneurs in India also face significant challenges in starting out as well as in sustaining their business. We want to make it easier for women entrepreneurs to succeed. This is a big focus area for us.

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