My First Trip To India (and Dubai)

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of traveling to India (and Dubai) with my old friend Mohanjit Jolly, co-founder of the Iron Pillar Fund. In partnership with Iron Pillar and Sequoia India, I spoke at a number of events to spread the gospel of blitzscaling, as well as taking a brief detour to see the Taj Mahal. Now that I’m (mostly) recovered from the jet lag of being 13.5 hours ahead of the Pacific Time Zone, I wanted to share some of my thoughts and photos from the trip.

Mohanjit and I met up at the San Francisco airport. Because we were traveling on Emirates, the airline provided a black car service to pick me up at home and take me to the airport, a much appreciated benefit. Once on board the plane, we settled in for the 15-hour flight to Dubai.

While sitting in a metal tube for 15 hours is never going to be that fun, Emirates A380s feature an onboard bar/lounge that the flight attendants set up once the plane gets to cruising altitude. The flight attendants even have instant film cameras to take photographs of the passengers. Here is a picture of Mohanjit and I toasting our journey:

I’m not as young as I used to be. Thanks to daily exercise (and my napping habit) I generally feel pretty good (major injuries nonwithstanding). But one place where my age definitely shows up is on long airplane flights.

When I was in my 20s, each flight was an opportunity to concentrate on my work. One cross-country flight, for example, I wrote a 10,000 word ebook. But these days, while I worked for a couple of hours, I spent a lot of the flight watching television. This trip, I focused on watching Season 2 of Succession. Over the past few years of globe-trotting, I’ve noticed a pattern in the kinds of shows I watch on airplane flights–I seem to specialize in watching award-winning HBO shows about horrible human beings behaving badly in darkly humorous ways. Now that I’ve finished Silicon Valley and Veep, Succession was a logical successor. My only worry is that drinking in so much cynicism and selfishness might affect my actual personality. Anyone for a quick game of “boar on the floor?”

(P.S. The most mindblowing thing about Succession was when I realized that Tom Wambsgans was played by none other than Mr. Darcy himself! Hard to look at the character the same way afterwards.)

We landed in Dubai, where the airport, as is customary, puts our American airports to shame. Throughout my journeys, I’m constantly struck by how obsolete our infrastructure has become.

Dubai had some similarities to Doha, but its own unique feel. While I had heard Dubai described as being like Las Vegas, I stayed in the financial district (at the Taj hotel) and it felt much more business-like than I expected.

My room was very comfortable, and did in fact include a view of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building:

Dubai feels like it’s about 5-10 years further along in its buildout than Doha, and was filled with global brands wherever I turned. After a busy day of meetings, we left in the morning for the four hour flight to Bangalore.

As it turns out, I went from Taj to Taj; we stayed at the Taj West End in Bangalore, which is a beautiful and historic complex. The next day, we spent the day on press interviews, then were driven over to an event venue for a happy hour, fireside chat, and cocktail reception:

Bangalore is the Silicon Valley of India; the dominant technology cluster. Aside from the traffic (which apparently is the worst in the world), I felt very much at home. As would happen many more times over my trip, I was enormously impressed with the entrepreneurs I met, including folks like Kunal Shah, who were as impressive in thoughtfulness as in achievement.

The very next morning, we were off to Delhi, the capital. As was customary, the Delhi airport put our American airports to shame:

A couple of notable things from the picture. First, Mohanjit took this picture of me and his partner, Anand Prasanna. Anand is seemingly tireless, only taking breaks from constant hustle to hit the weight room (25kg dumbbells a must!). Second, the airport billboards reflect an all-out war between handset makers. Every single ad seemed to be either for Apple, Samsung, Vivo, or Oppo. Third, I managed to pack all my clothes and supplies for the trip in a single backpack, with a secondary bag to carry a few signed copies of Blitzscaling to present to dignitaries. I may very well have to write a separate blog post about my obsession with only traveling with a backpack. Never check bags!

We stayed at the Andaz Delhi, a beautifully appointed Modernist hotel. One of the interesting touches was a reminder of India’s past–an old Ambassador automobile, the model which dominated India for decades:

That photo was taken after our second Blitzscaling event, which was an on-stage conversation with Sequoia India’s Mohit Bhatnagar and Zomato’s Gaurav Gupta. Gaurav was a late addition, after I had suggested about 48 hours prior that it would be awesome to have an entrepreneur on stage with us, who could discuss blitzscaling first hand. Funny enough, Gaurav’s wife had just given him a copy of the book that week, so he had to accelerate his plans to read it! It was a great conversation with great turnout:

This brought us to the weekend, and Mohanjit made good on a promise to me by taking me to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. After a four hour drive to Agra, we checked into the Tajview Agra, which did indeed offer a view of the Taj Mahal from my window.

That first day, we visited the Agra Fort, which was the main residence of the Mughal Emperors. Emperor Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal as a monument to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, was later overthrown by his son, who put him under house arrest in the Agra Fort, where he could look out from his suite and see his beloved monument:

And here’s proof that you can see the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort:

After viewing the fort, we visited the Peshawri restaurant for dinner; its sister restaurant in Mumbai has been named the #2 fine dining restaurant in the country. The dinner was fantastic, though the Indian custom of hospitality ended up causing me some distress. The servers kept putting more food on my plate, and I felt it would be impolite to refuse. As a result, I fell into a meat coma after returning to the hotel, and turned in early.

The next morning, we got up bright and early to beat the crowds and visit the Taj Mahal before breakfast. The morning mists actually added to the fairy tale atmosphere of this incredible monument, as you can see from the photos below:

After a good breakfast, we headed back to Delhi, where we spent the night in yet another stunning hotel, the Radisson Blu Plaza. I had a light dinner (much needed after my meat coma) at Neung Roi, which apparently is the best Thai restaurant in India (and came in #4 out of 12,639 restaurants in Delhi according to TripAdvisor).

The next morning, we were off to our final stop on our India tour, Mumbai. This time, we stayed at the St. Regis Mumbai, which was somehow even more palatial than any of our previous hotels. The room itself came with 24-hour butler service (which I never called) and incredible views of the Mumbai skyline.

That night, we held a dinner with some of India’s most prolific angel investors. It was a great way to end my stay in India.

From there, Mohanjit and I flew back to Dubai, and then to San Francisco. After finishing Season 2 of Succession, I also watched the Academy Award-winning Parasite, as well as Midway (I thought the choice to focus on the pilots of the U.S.S. Enterprise was a good way to make a massive battle relatable) and Darkest Hour (just an excuse for Gary Oldman to bite off some of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches, but since those speeches are amazing, Oldman won an Oscar for his role).

Looking back on the trip, I have a number of thoughts about the experience and India. First, it’s hard to overstate just how populous the country is. As Mohanjit pointed out, it has 4x the population of the United States, crammed into 1/3rd the area. People are everywhere. This also alters the equation between labor and capital. Because labor is so inexpensive, it is used far more often, and as a replacement for capital. During our trip to Agra, Mohanjit simply hired a driver for two days to take us around. The instant we got to any of the sights, we were inundated with guides who wanted to be hired. Who needs apps when people are available on demand?

Second, it’s remarkable how much the world has become flat. When we stopped in a rest stop on the road to Agra, it was filled with middle-class families on a weekend outing. The rest stop served Indian snack foods like parathas (bread), but also offered a refrigerator case full of Starbucks iced coffees. The effect was even more pronounced in the major cities, where luxury malls are indistinguishable from Beverly Hills.

Third, there is still remarkable amounts of economic equality. On this trip, I got to live like a 1 Percenter–private drivers, luxury hotels, a butler on demand–and I have to admit, I liked it. But Mohanjit was also careful to point out how slums and luxury high-rises exist side-by-side. From the window of my suite at the St. Regis, which had an attached luxury shopping mall, I could see slums right across the street. If you look at the right hand side of the photo, you can see the distinctive blue of the plastic tarpaulins that serve as makeshift roofs:

This experience was repeated throughout India, and was especially noticeable in Agra, a “Tier 2” or “Tier 3” city. The evidence of poverty was everywhere, including run-down residence on main roads, and stray dogs (and cows) everywhere. But despite all this grinding poverty, even the poor residents I saw seemed better off than on the streets of San Francisco. I didn’t see the kind of troubled street homelessness that is so common in California. Ironically, the presence of the slums made it easier to be poor in India than in America (though Mohanjit noted that in the major cities, even the slums had become less affordable).

Fourth, India is another great illustration of loose versus tight cultures. India is a classic loose culture, where the rules were made to be bent, if not broken. This looseness is exemplified by the concept of “Jugaad” which refers to the Indian practice of MacGyvering up solutions. This is positives and negatives. For example, the streets of Agra were covered with litter. Even stores and residences were little better, even though it would seem that the vast number of people idly sitting around could have easily cleaned up the mess in a few minutes. My theory is that entrepreneurs tend to come from loose cultures, but that the best environment for scaling startups come from tight (or at least tighter) cultures. It’s not surprising that California is considered crazy by the rest of the United States; this provides an enclave of loose culture within the legal infrastructure of a tighter culture.

I’m truly grateful to Mohanjit and Iron Pillar for inviting me on this trip and introducing me to such a vibrant, overwhelming, fascinating environment and culture. I’ll be looking forward to my next visit.

Press coverage of the trip:

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