Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 3*

This is actually Tom's Restaurant, NYC. Famous...

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Watching the numbers, one dish at a time

Ramani, my neighbor is himself a first generation entrepreneur. Though formally trained as a chemical engineer he has built a successful electrical business, initially in trading and subsequently in panel manufacturing. An active member of the morning walking group at the local park, he has roped me in as well to bundle up even on cold Bangalore mornings to put in our six or so rounds. The talk inevitably turns to our businesses and the challenges we face and many a days we lose count of both the rounds we’ve made and time that hurries by. I met Girish (name changed) at one of these morning walks.

A diminutive man, who’s rapid walking pace merely hints at the energy packed in him, Girish came to Bangalore less than 20 years ago. Hoping to be the first person to make it to college in his family, he started on his pre-university course. His father and numerous younger brothers meanwhile were attempting to make a go of the family farm in their village. However, the family soon faced mounting debts and struggled to make ends meet. Girish abandoned his college dreams and returned to take care of the family farm. After several years of being a farmer, Girish found himself running very hard to stay in the same place. The little money they managed to eke out of farming went wholly to service the interest costs of the family’s debt. The principal they owed was untouched. Girish made the bold decision to head back to the city, and figure a way to make his fortune there.

Through a family friend, he got his first job, in a darshini – a fast-food restaurant. Paying a princely sum of Rs. 700 a month, the job required him to stand by the kitchen door, and note down every menu item that left the kitchen through out the day. At the close of business, his numbers had to be reconciled with the receipts at the cash counter. The very first month, the (absentee) owners of the restaurant saw so much savings, that they gave Girish a more than 25% raise to Rs. 900. Within six months Girish became the manager of the darshini, with yet another pay raise. The bulk of Girish’s monthly income was sent home to retire the family’s debt. Through family friends, a marriage proposal came and Girish soon was a married man.

A couple of years of running a restaurant 7 days a week, awakened him to the potential of the business. He approached the owners, who’d pretty much ceded the day-to-day operations of the business to him, with a proposal to expand their single outlet to a chain of fast-food restaurants and a small equity stake for himself. The owners were conservative and a little aghast that this 20-something wanted equity in the business and turned him down. Whilst disappointed, Girish did not give up on his dream and decided to strike out on his own. His father-in-law was prepared to provide him some seed money to get started. So Girish, in his own words, “I sought the permission and blessing of my employers” to set up his own restaurant and never looked back.

When I met Girish on that morning walk, he was handing out laddoos from Tirupathi. His son had just been admitted to engineering school and he wanted to share the good news with his walking friends. His first food outlet had grown into a chain of five restaurants. Starting with his second restaurant, he had taken a (different) partner for each new restaurant – these partners being nephews and other young relatives of his father-in-law who were getting started with their lives. Making them his partners, Girish had groomed a whole new set of entrepreneurs. This was his way to repay his father-in-law’s initial support and faith bestowed in him. He had not only paid off the family debt, but personally paid for the restoration of the village’s dilapidated temple – the prasad from which he was sharing with the Tirupathi laddoos.

Ramani, my friend, piped in as Girish completed his story, “Sri’s a food aficionado. He’s been talking about maybe starting a restaurant.” “You’ve got to watch the numbers, at two places – when you procure your supplies and at the billing counter. That’s all there’s to running a successful restaurant. Happy to talk to you anytime,” was Girish’s immediate response.

Girish’s entrepreneurial story, if seen in a movie or a TV show would seem too good to be true. It might even be dismissed as typical Bollywood fare (without the gyrating damsels, alas). Yet it is, I suspect, representative of a large number of unheralded Indian entrepreneurs.

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2 thoughts on “Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 3*

    • Thanks Sagar. Not only is it inspiring, in many ways this gentleman reminded me of my Dad's own story of coming to the city at 16, soon after his father's death, with just Rs. 3 in his pocket, . And we know that one ended well. The park I walk in most mornings, is a treasure trove of such entrepreneurial success stories, one which all of us in the (new) tech sector would do well to listen/hear.

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