Thursday, February 9, 2012

Intuit: Innovating for India

Started in 1983 by Scott Cook, Intuit is a legendary software company with marquee products like Turbotax and Quickbooks. Almost 30 years after its founding, Intuit retains the vision to be a “Premier Innovative Growth Company.” But what I like about Intuit is that they are as concerned about how and why they grow as about growth itself.

Intuit has been around in India for some time. Its Money Manager product available online through is a user-friendly product to manage personal finances. But Intuit India is now grappling with some tougher problems as it reaches out to underserved and more challenging markets. Fasal and txtweb are two products that signify this approach.


As we all know, agriculture is very important to the Indian economy with 60-70% of India’s population living on farms and our growing need for food. But the typical farmer feels undervalued, stuck and consigned to his fate as he struggles against market forces. Farmers get only 40% of the retail price of the products they sell. And, there is lots of volatility in the market. Farmers often end up under-selling their produce due to lack of appropriate information about demand and prices. Farmers’ income can improve dramatically if they get a better price for their crop – that’s the problem that Fasal tries to solve.

Most Indian farmers sell their produce to intermediaries/agents who work in large mandis (Indian wholesale markets). These agents bring farmers and buyers together. Fasal gives farmers real-time prices of crops in different markets through sms. Each farmer gets an SMS customized for his particular crop, location and land holding. Early results show 90% of the farmers benefit, and 15-20% have a greater price realization as a result. Fasal currently covers 600,000 farmers in Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The target is to reach 1 million farmers by mid-2012. Farmers are currently registering at the rate of 20,000 new registrations/ week so the target is within reach. Fasal will also be extended to 2 more states this year.

While a possible final goal is the creation of a transaction platform, the current revenue/monetization model is based on advertising. For example, a fertilizer or pesticide company can reach specific customers (remember the sms messages are targeted to crop and location!). P&G, a leading tractor company and Godrej are some of the companies that have used Fasal for targeted advertising. At the technological core of Fasal are complex “matching algorithms” that link farmers to potential buyers/agents.

Txt Web

90% of Indian mobile users do not have internet access. Nor does half the world’s population. 90% of handsets in India are not smart phones. How do you empower these people to get information comparable to people who have internet access?

Txt Web enables this – it enables (limited) internet access and access to other information through the sms. For example, if you sms <@wikipedia malaria> to 92433 42000, you will get the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on malaria. You can dig deeper as well – all the hyperlinks in that paragraph are numbered in the text you receive, and if you text back the appropriate number you get information on that particular hyperlink.

SMS <@cricket> and you get the latest cricket score.

Txtweb now has many user-developed apps created primarily by students, and now increasingly by start-ups. Many engineering colleges use txtweb in their campus placement processes. Txtweb has 1.5 million users in 1 year. The cost to Intuit is the cost of the messages + the cost of maintaining the platform. Efforts are on to monetize this application.

How Intuit runs the Innovation Process

Intuit India uses the same innovation processes that have made Intuit a successful software company in Silicon Valley.

In spite of Intuit’s age and size (it’s now a $4 Billion company), it continues to espouse the values of a startup. All employees have 10% unstructured time and products like Fasal have come out of employee-generated ideas.

Intuit wants big impact from its innovations. Their goals include:

1. Everyone at Intuit to utilize their unstructured time to innovate with impact.

2. Intuit India to deliver 1-2 impactful innovations that enter the business unit pipeline.

Innovation at Intuit has to meet the following criteria:

It should solve a “big unmet need” (customer-driven innovation) that Intuit can solve well (technology-driven advantage) in a way that offers Intuit a durable competitive advantage (based on Data4Design principles; it shouldn’t be something that a few engineers in a garage can do!). Fasal clearly meets these criteria: for farmers, market information is a huge need; Intuit has developed patented algorithms that help the matching of farmers and agents/buyers; and Intuit India is strongly immersed in the lives of farmers.

The D4D Principles

• Deep customer empathy

• Go Broad to Go narrow

• Rapid Experiments with Customers

Intuit is well known for its “Follow me home” approach that uses deep qualitative insights based on immersion with users. Intuit reports that one starts seeing patterns in “Follow me home” after about 20-25 customers/users. They use “5 Whys” to drill down deep and overcome any changes in behavior due to observation by Intuit.

How does Intuit incentivize employees for innovation?

• Unstructured time

• Big rewards for outstanding innovations – one employee got a $1m reward recently for a particularly impactful innovation

• Intuit founder Scott Cook chooses 5 – 7 outstanding ideas from among employees every year. People who proposed these ideas get 3 – 6 months to work on their own or other projects.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Rishi. Very informative.

    1. It will be interesting to see how something like Txt Web can be monetised. Advertisers would otherwise be interested in reaching this huge underserved market, but given the non-rich nature of a basic phone interface, this could be a challenge. At the moment, I can only think of mobile networks making money through the SMSs...any thoughts on this?

  2. Fascinating indeed, many thx.

    Following is an excerpt from This Will Make You Smarter, John Brockman 2012. It explains why human progress is a function of networked knowledge and the business models that result.

    -brett jackson

    ..."Achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon. It is by putting brains together through the division of labor—through trade and specialization—that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species.

    Human achievement is based on collective intelligence—the nodes in the human neural network are people themselves. By each doing one thing and getting good at it, then sharing and combining the results through exchange, people become capable of doing things they do not even understand.

    Brockman, John (2012-01-17). Excerpt from This Will Make You Smarter: Daniel Kahneman and More (Kindle Locations 181-183). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

  3. Great post Sir> Very useful and inspiring info.

  4. Rishi, Happened to run into your blog. Looking forward to reading it regularly.

  5. Thank you for this blog. It is useful and full of valuable information.

  6. We had studied the ethnography of Harda Mandi during our Anthropology course at YIF. I could totally relate to the innovation carried out by Fasal..We learnt how competition by chaupals inspired the farmers to quickly change to a more tech savvy (sms) mode of selling..I believe innovation at the grass-roots in the answer to most of India's woes..