The Entrepreneur Life

Tag: India (Page 1 of 2)

Why I Tell Indian Entrepreneurs “Stop reading TechCrunch!”

Every time I hear an entrepreneur in India tell me “It’s Angel List meets GitHub” I try not to grimace. Given the ardor of youth and the desire to get their elevator pitches easily understood, I can certainly understand young entrepreneurs pitching in such a manner.

TechCrunch (Alexa score 369) is more popular than, India’s #2 biz paper (837) or (640) and (802) – two popular Indian startup destinations. At one level just as the BBC (112), Huffington Post (264) and New York Times (305) are popular in India, it’s not a big surprise that TechCrunch given its brand and Silicon Valley pedigree is followed closely and devoured by the tech startup community in India. However the fact that something is understandable doesn’t make it healthy (as with my Doritos-eating habit).

Silicon Valley, even within the context of the United State is in many ways unique – and unlike anything in India. From the time Fredrick Terman first began molding young minds at Stanford, more than three-quarters of a century has passed before Instagram, Twitter and Facebook appeared on the scene. And before them came the first generation Internet folks – the networking and computing folks before them and the granddaddy semiconductor firms before them, who were themselves preceded by the likes of Hewlett-Packard and Litton. So nearly five distinct generations of companies and innovation preceded this current crop.

Alas, ​young Indian founders approach TechCrunch without any of this context. For most of them, 2005 when I sold my first tech startup, is practically the dark ages and 1999 another geological era altogether.

As an angel and mentor when I encounter entrepreneurs, I find that TechCrunch plays an inordinate role today in their thought process. This is true particularly with startups dealing with bits rather than atoms.

Many of their assumptions are not grounded in the reality of today’s India – may not even in today’s America.

All they see is that a startup to sell tampons online raised $250K with just an idea on a napkin. Or Pinterest raised whatever astronomical amount of money without any real monetization strategy and Fred Wilson invested in Zemanta (who’d by then acquired a million downloads) even whilst acknowledging that none of them were clear how they’d make money.

The reality of the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem is that we are yet to see more than one turn or “generation” of tech entrepreneurs. A large amount of money is following very few quality deals. The VCs are acting as PE players would elsewhere. Angel groups are acting like VCs would. Everyone’s looking for revenue, customers, and traction (all of which are good), but not quite the high risk/high reward perspective of early stage funders. To be fair to the funding community in India, the supply side problem of deal quality is compounded by the fact that there have been very few exits, and their LPs may be looking for medium risk/medium returns.

The needs of the Indian market and Indian consumers are quite distinct. Enterprises in India do have needs similar to those of companies elsewhere – databases, analytical tools, HR software, CRM systems – but their behavior and culture often are different. Consumers, on the other hand, can and do have very different needs. So when we talk about “building the Amazon or Zappos of India,” and unimaginatively try reproducing something done elsewhere, it serves no one well.

The good news is that oodles of young entrepreneurs are starting companies each day in India. Now if only they paid a whole lot more attention to what their customers are saying and what problems those customers face than what TechCrunch is reporting from the Valley, I’d like to think, we’d see a whole lot more innovation and business building amongst Indian entrepreneurs.

Marketing Your Services – Lessons from a Journey to Bhimavaram

Vijayawada Junction

Recently I had to travel to Bhimavaram in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. Of course I had to look it up on Google Maps to figure out where it was. It’s about a 120km north northeast of Vijayawada. As my  daughter had to be there at 9am on a Saturday morning and had forgotten to tell me but five days before, I had to scramble to make the arrangements. Now that I’m back in Bangalore I realize somewhat belatedly how everything we needed was handled almost a 100% online.

The Economist in its latest issue talks of Indian technology firms and where they may be headed. While I didn’t agree with everything they asserted, my own experience of making it to Bhimavaram and back resonates very well with their core premise that technology, the web and mobile have already changed Indian businesses irrevocably. Here’s what I found and learned.

Google – of course this is where it began – with Google Maps figuring out where Bhimavaram was and the nearest airport – Vijayawada in this case. Cleartrip was my next stop to check out airline tickets. Once I found Jet Konnect had the best connections checked out their website as well and bought the tickets there directly. Usually when travelling to a new city, I’d call friends, to see if they had any recommendations for hotels. Given I was travelling with my daughter, I checked TripAdvisor for reviews and everyone seemed to suggest the Taj Gateway awas the way to go. So off I went to TajHotels website. Then I had the bright idea to check hotels right next to them – as in centrally located by not as expensive.  I decided to check out Stayzilla who’s ads I’d seen in Bangalore – and they got me a good deal at the Taj Gateway. Then off it was to find a rental car. I called the Taj up and asked them to refer a cab company. Once again I felt the cab rates were quite high and so a quick Google search revealed a service called that fit the bill – they could get you a cab (including rates, ratings, the works) in practically any city – most importantly in Vijayawada in this instance. However, I couldn’t figure out a few things re quoted price online, so I called them on their toll free number. They said they’d get back to me and never did. So in the meantime I kept searching and here’s where Google Local came in real handy. Several cab companies in Vijayawada had excellent reviews ratings on Google and I reached out to one of them over the phone after checking out rates on their website (which I’m finding hard locate just now). So here we were four days before our travel, with flight tickets, hotel bookings, local taxi rental all done over a couple of hours online and on the phone – to a city we’d never been to, whose language we did not speak and with some measure of perceived safety for my teen traveller.

Lessons learned

  • Online reviews matter – the hotel we ended up staying in had good reviews on TripAdvisor. The cab we used had good reviews on Google local. These were instances of a local supplier beating out a larger national “professional” supplier. Social and community word-of-mouth is getting better, even it’s not from someone personally known to us.
  • Websites matter – Even after locating the cab company via a review, the fact that their website had clear rates, reviews and contact info is what tipped us over. Good websites matter – and Stayzilla I had to look up in my mail trial as I couldn’t recall their names – and in the formers’ case I couldn’t figure out the pricing and latter’s case I had to resort to the phone to resolve issues.
  • Customer service matters – said they’d get back to me and they never did. They had a beautiful website – clean and while my use case was not a clear fit to their standard offerings, phone calls were not returned. Similarly Stayzilla called me back to say that the Taj Gateway room was no longer available – that they’d put me in an another hotel on the same street. To give full credit to them, they constantly followed up but were caught scrambling. The place they finally got me I passed on due to poor reviews on Trip Adivsor. Jet Konnect won over ClearTrip as it was easier to cancel or make changes with them.

This was the first time that I travelled to a new city – let alone a Tier 2/3 town – without seeking direct personal inputs from friends or family and did so at short notice and had a uniformly pleasant experience – despite not speaking a word of Telugu in this instance and carrying minimal cash. Whether web and broadband penetration is where we’d like it to be or not, for businesses the web and mobile have changed how they do business forever.

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Do you know more about your TV than about your doctor?”

Image“Are you a doctor?”

I am never sure how best to answer this question. My first, unvoiced response is a curt “no.” But I then settle for a more ambiguous, “No, I am not a medical doctor.”

In India, where politicians insist on being addressed as Dr. A or B, usually having been bestowed an honorary degree — deserved or not — by admiring vice-chancellors, it was not uncommon a generation ago to see folks append a BE or MA (English) as my grandfather did, after their name.

I have always assumed that this is a left-over from when the Brits ruled us — of having to wear one’s qualification on one’s name, if not on one’s sleeve exactly. Guess saying you are a summa cum laude from Harvard in your bio is not that different.

While a PhD does stand for Doctor of Philosophy (in my case, in materials science and engineering), I have always been uncomfortable being addressed as Dr. Srikrishna — somewhat misleading and a bit pompous, I felt. If I had any momentary doubts it was quickly cured after my travel agent booked me on a couple of flights as Dr. Srikrishna and I had to explain to the crew that I was not a medical doctor when they called upon me to attend to a unwell fellow flyer. Talk about truth in advertising!

Yet, I am asked this question each time I take someone to the hospital. For the record, I must admit that on more than one occasion, the word “assertive” has been used in conjunction with my public behavior.

For those of you who have not been in the emergency room of a major hospital in India, assertive is not necessarily bad, in fact it may be a necessary condition to get proper and timely care. Sure, emergency rooms (or as we insist on calling them in India, “casualty wards”) are filled with emergencies, small and large, but even when they are having the occasional slow night, doctors appear to work on a need-to-know basis.

More importantly, your need to know seems to be directly related to your social standing in the doctor’s eyes. Granted, the internet and Google have made every patient “an expert,” complicating an overworked doctor’s job.

For those of us who’d like to believe that class and other atavistic divisions are a thing of the past, experiencing an information triage in a seemingly uncaring doctor’s hands is the clearest indication of how class as a social arbiter not merely lives but thrives.

“You did what?” was the first reaction of my wife’s best friend when I recounted the story of the birth of my second child. The scene was the birthing room in a small nursing home that my wife’s obstetrician ran in South Bangalore.

The room had unfortunately been painted all too recently and the fumes were not helping matters, as the midwife encouraged my wife to push. The good wife was gritting her teeth and the doctor waltzed in to declare that she might give my wife a shot to move labor along.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

The question popped out of my mouth even as I gritted my teeth wondering where my wife got the power to squeeze my hand so. The doctor, to her credit, didn’t freeze in shock – nor did she ask me “And in which college did you get your medical degree?”

Instead she briefly tried to explain to my wife and me why she thought it was a good idea. The mid-wife and orderly were as bug-eyed as my wife’s best friend was upon hearing about my “questioning the doctor” and at that in the middle of child birth. Luckily our second child had other ideas and chose that very moment to put in her appearance without waiting for further inducement, chemical or otherwise.

I’ve found that this doctor, like many others, was prepared to listen and willing to explain her thought process, and therefore treatment options, patiently to me. But the very same doctors make snap judgments, often unfavorable in nature, about their patients’ educational and financial status — based on whether they spoke English, how they were attired (in western or traditional garb), how old they were. And they routinely choose to play God with little or no explanation.

As a scientist and engineer, I set out to test this hypothesis by appearing only in traditional white dhoti, speaking only in Tamil or Hindi, and my relatives and friends cooperated by having a variety of medical challenges with great regularity. Concussion from a fall for a 12-year old; appendicitis for a nine-year-old; dengue-like viral fever; clavicle fracture in an 80-year old; uterine fibroids for middle-aged cousin; possible tail bone compression soccer injury; all topped off with prostrate surgery and a urinary tract infection. The local nursing home, regular hospital and super-specialty hospitals – government- and private-owned — all figured in this multi-year experiment.

Repeatedly, whether it was an in-law having hip replacement done (“old”), a parent having a parathyroid surgery(“traditional”) or a chauffeur’s child being treated for inhaling toxic fumes (“blue-collar, uneducated”), the doctors’ explanation of the problem, prognosis and its treatment was governed by their perceptions of the patient.

So these folks and I as their “traditional” attendant got, at best, a sketchy overview. When my wife or I, dressed in our best, demanded in English that we be educated about the issues and choices, we were given the low down, usually starting with the “Are you a doctor?” question.

A close friend was a cardiac care nurse in California and I have heard my share of horror stories of how doctors talked down at and treated nurses shabbily. It almost seems an occupational hazard. So this doesn’t seem to be a problem uniquely confined to Indian doctors.

However patients, who are the paying customers, and especially those who require a detailed explanation of their situation and choices, seem to get the short end of the stick if they don’t speak the right language, wear the right clothes or otherwise belong to the “right” group even as doctors are making life-or-limb decisions on their behalf.

It’s disheartening when we are able to get more information and options about a 30,000-rupee flat screen LCD television from a high school-educated salesman than from a physician about to perform a procedure that not only costs more but needs to last a life time.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online on Jul 9, 2010

Are We Celebrating India’s 10,000 Entrepreneurs

“What does Anand Mahindra winning the entrepreneur of the year award mean?”

I hadn’t realized the same question had also been lurking in my mind until my friend raised it. Before I could really wrap my arms around the issue, he continued.

“Does it make sense, that in a nation of a billion folks, and likely a million plus businesses, that the leader – even one as successful as Anand Mahindra – of a 65-year-old company wins the entrepreneur-of-the-year award?” he asked. “You would think they would be able to find a smaller, up and coming company.”

And this came from an ardent admirer of Anand Mahindra. It set me thinking – never a good thing on a Monday morning.

Mr. Mahindra has many firsts and successes to his credit, be it his magna cum laude from Harvard, his growing the family business into a global powerhouse in tractors or his leadership of corporate India whether at Davos or on twitter (@anandmahindra).

A little further digging into (yep, I Googled) the entrepreneur of the year award revealed that previous winners included Kumar Mangalam Birla and Ratan Tata, both leaders of multi-billion dollar businesses founded by their grandfathers.

To be fair, the judging criteria of this particular award included global impact and leadership in addition to the standard business metrics. Past winners also included first-generation entrepreneurs N.R. Narayana Murthy of Infosys and Sunil Bharti Mittal of Bharti Airtel. Yet some others stuck in my craw.

It was around this time, that I got a call inviting me to speak at an entrepreneurial event called “Unpluggd” (no, it did not involve any acoustic guitars). Unpluggd was billed as a different event, namely one featuring only practicing entrepreneurs sharing their experience with an audience of entrepreneurs.

I am glad that I let myself be persuaded to speak at the event. I learned more from the other speakers and the more than 200 attendees – most of whom were practicing entrepreneurs – than they likely got from anything I said.

The first and foremost takeaway for me was that entrepreneurship, not merely of the tech variety but of every kind imaginable, is thriving in India. And entrepreneurs are getting started at ever-younger ages. A majority of the attendees were under 30 (Yes, I asked).

It was the audience that made this event electric for me. A fair number of the attendees came from engineering backgrounds, though some graphic designers and finance folks were also present. Most were already running a business full time with a couple having even scaled to more than $1 million in revenues. If there was an area that could have been improved, it was that less than 15% of the attendees were women. Then again that’s probably higher than the percentage of women CXOs in the BSE 500.

The speakers included folks running businesses ranging from corporate hospitals, online bookstores, mobile phone apps, bus-line ticketing and even a restaurateur. All of them were first-time entrepreneurs that spanned the funding spectrum – from completely bootstrapped, through angel-funded all the way to venture capital-funded. Most of the other speakers were yet to hit forty (I was a notable exception) or even thirty-five. The stories – and dare I say wisdom – that some of these folks shared with total candor and very little jargon was refreshing. And this was just one Saturday in Bangalore.

With Open Coffee Clubs, Saturday Startups and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) events, there are signs of an entrepreneurial revolution brewing in India. And these are just the visible urban, mostly technical or professional group of startups. At the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN), we’re helping thousands of students start businesses each year (full disclosure: I work at NEN), many of them in India’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities.

Meanwhile in Ajmer, Rajasthan, in Panruti, Tamil Nadu, in Shillong, Meghalaya, in Wardha, Maharashtra and many such places, young people are pursuing their entrepreneurial dreams. The story of these yet-to-become Karsanbhai Patels and Sunil Bharti Mittals, their experiences and journeys need to be heard, shared and re-told.

The mainstream media is far too busy celebrating the already arrived, regardless of how late they got there. As a mentor remarked, we should quit looking into the entrepreneurial rear-view mirror and look forward to the road ahead.

All too often we hear that only Bollywood and cricket sells in India.  But there are other sports and stars – be it our chess champions, our women boxers, snooker kings or trap shooters, not to mention our hockey and football teams. It’s also important to recognize that there are a million entrepreneurs struggling and thriving, not only the billion-dollar barons who seem to hog the printing ink.

Nasscom’s product conclave and several other nascent entrepreneur forums are a small step in the right direction. India needs its own version of the Inc. 1000 to recognize, encourage and celebrate its toiling entrepreneurial masses. We could call it the “India 10,000.*”

I am sure Mr. Mahindra would agree with me.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Wall Street Journal in May 2010.

Two years on, after I first wrote this article, NASSCOM launched their 10,000 startups program in March, 2013. NextBigWhat, organizers of Unpluggd have themselves partnered with NASSCOM.

Dedicated startup sites, including, NextBigWhat and startup-focused weekly coverage have arrived at all major business papers, including, Economic Times, Hindu Businessline, and Mint.

3 Steps to Improve Our Hiring Situation

now hiring drug free workplace (new berlin wis...“Can you please talk to my father? I had just finished explaining the offer of a full-time job we were extending to one of our contract engineers.

“Your father? Why?” I asked.

“That way I can honestly tell my friends, who want me to take another job, that my father insisted that I take this one.”

Despite the decade long boom, mini-busts and other bumps along the way, the Indian information technology job market and prospective employee behavior has remained as consistent and confounding as ever.

The recession helped managers find better candidates given the overall market slowdown. Now, the challenge of candidates who’ve accepted your offer actually showing up is likely to reappear. It almost seems as though we have a cultural inability to handle the simple matter of accepting a job or quitting one in a forthright manner.

A hundred years ago the nationalist poet Subramanya Bharati wrote of domestic help and the stories they’d make up for absenteeism: “It was the 12th day since my grandmother’s death” and “there was a scorpion in the rice bowl and it bit me with its teeth” were two of the more outrageous – some say creative – excuses.

Present day job seekers (and changers) have dwarfed Bharati’s imagination with their far greater range of reasons for quitting or not joining after negotiating — often hard — for a better deal.

“I want to work only on communication systems” (or Java or some other flavor of the month.) This from a boy who can barely spell his name. Or, “I plan to go to business or graduate school.” Those are among the most common (and rarely truthful) reasons I’ve heard.

Two of my perennial favorites, even when not true, resonate since they build on the cultural reality of the family’s still influential role in a candidate’s career decision.

“My (future) father-in-law wants to me to work for a multinational corporation” or
“My father wants me to join the family business.”

Of course, none of this can hold up a candle to the candidate who just plain disappears. Emails are not responded to, phone calls are not returned and old-fashioned registered mails are returned undelivered.

Talking with folks who work for us and with peers elsewhere helped identify a number of reasons for this behavior.

“I felt they’d pressure me and I wouldn’t be able to say no.”
Or, “I didn’t want to lie, which is why I didn’t return the calls.”
Or, “I had another offer and was just shopping.”
Or, “I was too embarrassed.”

A surprisingly large number of reasons seem to be about a prospective employer not losing face or potential dire consequences with their present employer. Which makes me wonder about our hiring practices!

As a reader of a previous column suggested, rather than merely wring our hands, here are three things I feel each of us can do to change this.

  • Talk about it with the folks you interview, with your employees and hiring managers in your company and with your peers in other companies. While all of us have moaned about it to others, moaning is not talking. Talking about it makes it easier for all to admit we have a problem and to begin discussing ways to solve it: through greater visibility for hiring managers and HR folks and greater comfort for prospective candidates or resigning staff.
    Having a simple script that emphasizes the need for honest and full disclosure and committing to your part of it, as an employer, is a great place to start.
  • Rope in colleges & recruiters The sooner we catch ’em the better. Sharing expectations and observed behavior with colleges and headhunters helps bring on board folks who have a stake in the outcome. They can influence the candidates a lot sooner. Much like interviewing or presentation skills, how to handle an offer or to decline one can be discussed with — if not taught to — job candidates who, all too often, rely on their peer group. In the Indian context, I’d extend it to building bridges with the families of your employees in a sensitive and non-patronizing manner.
  • Don’t contribute to it How often have you pressured a prospective employee to come on board right away? To buy out their notice period or even to renege on their commitments to a current employer or prospective alternate employers? Quit doing that and we’d have taken a small step towards a better – OK maybe not better — but more predictable and professional staffing scenario.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal as My Father-in-Law Wants Me to Work for a MNC & Other Fables online.

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Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 5

Koothu - Chennai Sangamam

Image by Ravages via Flickr

Entrepreneurship 2.0

What should all of us who care about entrepreneurship and helping it thrive in the Indian milieu do? There are three simple steps I believe we can take.

  • Story telling Collect and disseminate stories of entrepreneurial success at every forum and opportunity. Blog about it, write it up in a newspaper, share it at meetings. Just as the story of Dhirubhai or Karsenbhai inspires, stories such as Girish’s or Balan’s can ignite others to follow them. We need more stories of success, small and big, to make entrepreneurial success a realizable dream for more Indians. Every time we read a story of someone who’s made it big, we better find and tell stories of five others who have made it small. Demand that our newspapers and magazines celebrate the little guy as much as they do the big guy.
  • Encourage During and just after the Kargil war, there was a spurt of public appreciation for soldiers and the men (and women) in uniform. Even today when I travel in the USA, I see strangers walk up to soldiers in uniform, in airports or shopping malls, and thank them for doing their job. When was the last time we did that with any entrepreneur or business owner? The gentleman who runs the tyre shop with its six employees may well be tomorrow’s Kishore Biyani with the right breaks. Ask how their business is doing, listen to their story and appreciate them openly and explicitly.
  • Educate Each of us has skills that if we share with entrepreneurs will help them get ahead. It could be teaching them how to raise capital, hire senior staff, make better presentations, manage their cash flow or land major accounts. This education is best accomplished by doing. “Show – not tell!” as good writing coaches say. We can do this even by creating forums for bringing entrepreneurs together. Just by sharing each others experiences they can learn from one another and most importantly gain the insight that they are not alone.

Now as three of us embark on our latest entrepreneurial journey at Zebu, we are once again those little guys starting out (though not in a garage but in a small house). I know we could certainly use all the encouragement, education and story telling to stay the course.

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Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 4

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 24:  A 'Drive Thru, Ope...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife


Rubber meets the road

In early 2004, in its fifth year, our first startup broke even. I recall us making plans to finally buy decent ergonomic chairs for our committed and long-suffering employees. The demands of growth and the challenges of cash flow made sure we never got those new chairs. Yet with more clients, more visitors and greater travel by our staff, we ended up hiring a car and driver on a monthly basis. The same people who’d send us a cab for the airport trips now sent a car and driver who’d be at our disposal all the time, for a flat monthly fee.

Balan* was the driver and in my first trip to the airport I learnt that he owned the car we were in, and he was a sub-contractor to our regular rental car supplier. Over the next two car rides, I picked up his story – high school drop out, set out driving an auto (that he’d rent on a daily basis), then worked as a driver in a company, before saving enough money to buy his first Indica. Now he owned two cars, drove one himself and had another driver on his payroll. He sub-contracted for a number of folks who had small fleets and one day hoped to build up his own fleet.

Last week I got a call from Balan. He was calling to introduce his nephew, who’d just graduated from college. Balan’s fleet has grown from the two Indicas to two eight cars now. Despite the recession his business had thrived and he’s effusive in expressing his gratitude for us giving him a leg up with our steady business. At a time when even basic services such as barber shops and restaurants were seeing customers cut back on their spending, that fact his business had grown is testament to his drive and what Ram Charan terms “business acumen.”

The town and the gown

Once we sold our first startup in early 2006, I have had the time and opportunity to consult for friends and several clients to help with their businesses. These have all been college-educated, entrepreneurs – ranging from manufacturing (electrical gear), distribution (music to mobile phones in Class B towns), software products to training services. In many instances, Prasad the barber, Girish the restaurateur and Balan the fleet owner, have a far clearer sense of where their businesses stood, who their clients were and where they made their margins. And these were the folks without the college (or even high school) degrees. Yet both groups of entrepreneurs are successful and struggling with common questions – from the strategic, “How do I grow my business?” “Should I grow my business?” “How do I raise capital?” “Should I take on debt or do I dilute equity?” – to the tactical decision making on hiring, pricing, marketing and promotion.

Academicians who study entrepreneurship make the distinction between voluntary (those who make a choice) entrepreneurs and those that fall into entrepreneurship, without a choice. Most entrepreneurs that get formal funding or the media mostly talks about belong to the former voluntary group while folks who go into their family businesses or traders and micro-entrepreneurs fall into the latter, involuntary group.

Yet both these groups have far more in common, particularly when it comes to problems they face and mistakes they make. Much like parenting, most entrepreneurship involves learning on the job. While reading up about parenting (particularly in my case about adolescent behavior) will help, it only takes us so far. Grand-parents (for people) and consultants (for businesses) help speed up the learning and avoid the most egregious mistakes, but nothing can replace the learning that experience brings. Yet the journey to achieve such experience need not be as stressful and lonely as it sometimes seems.


Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 3*

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

Image via Wikipedia

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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Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 2*

Lessons from a close shave
In 1996, when I first returned to India, Ramani, my neighbor and friend, took me to the local barber. Harking back to the barber shops of my childhood, it was two barber chairs in a room the size of large shower stall. Prasad (all names changed to protect the privacy of individuals) the owner of the barber shop seemed barely in his twenties and full of life and great enthusiasm for the task at hand. He greeted my friend in Kannada, even as he cropped a customer’s hair, acknowledged me with a quick nod and kept a close eye on the other barber. My positive impressions of that first day were not only borne out but grew stronger, as over the years Prasad bought out the neighboring space and expanded his barber shop. Now renamed as Classic Hair Saloon (CHS), he added head massages first, then facials and subsequently full body massages, in an expanded back room.

Three years after my first visit to the CHS, several friends and I embarked on our own first startup, Impulsesoft. I relocated overseas as we set out to grow our business and in my frequent trips to India, I’d always make it a point to bring my hair cutting business to Prasad and the CHS. The half hour or thereabouts I’d spend on a padded chair having a luxurious shave or an oil-soaked head massage proved to be my own personal MBA class.

In 2000, our chosen market (Bluetooth technology) sputtered in the downturn and well funded competitors threatened to swamp us. Yet as I saw Prasad thrive in a market with nary an entry barrier, hiring more seats and hands, I learned the criticality of customer focus and personalized service. Subsequently when we set out to raise money, capital had dried up as the market seemed stillborn or delayed in 2002. Again the lessons of repeat customers, word-of-mouth referrals and growing existing customers by up-selling (cut to shave; a shave to coloring; to head massage) were apparent in Prasad’s growing business. And whenever we despaired that hiring, training, retaining and motivating software engineers was hard, Prasad’s challenges in ensuring service quality, even as he brought on more barbers, often with few other formal skills, made our own look small.

Even as I write this, the CHS has held its own against newer competitors (including a fancy upscale national chain and another barber shop that sprang up in the neighborhood) and has continued to grow. Prasad has demonstrated bootstrapping success, growth through hard times and sustained product and service innovation. He has built a strong and passionate customer base and seen good financial returns. In other words his business is an immense success by most measures, even though it has yet to figure in any mainstream story or have its own case study.

Entrepreneurship in India – Rules for Spectators – Part 1*

man_in_fence“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” is a riddle philosophers have posed to question reality and its relationship to observation. Much of the entrepreneurship in India is like trees falling (or growing) silently in an unobserved forest. The media rarely notices it and the public is hardly aware that its happening. Does this mean it is not happening?

The casual reader of the business pages could be forgiven if they reckoned that entrepreneurship in India happened only with technology or more recently Internet startups, often venture funded. Coverage outside the technology domain focuses on the hyper-successful and all to often on personalities. The stories of Dhirubhai Ambani, and his humble start in Aden, Karsenbhai Patel’s Nirma taking on the entrenched multinationals and more recently Kishore Biyani and his Future Group’s rise in retail have captivated the media and readers’ imaginations.

In many ways, the recent appointment of Infosys founder, Nandan Nilekani, as the Chairman of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) marked a milestone in Indian entrepreneurship. In his own words [Infosys] “… was not a family-owned company. It was not a multinational. It was not a state-owned company. …It’s become a metaphor. If they can come from nowhere and create a world-class organization, then anyone can do it.” The grant of a Cabinet level post to someone who has cut his teeth as an entrepreneur and a professional manager is the most visible sign of mainstream acceptance of entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship in new light

However as we have learnt, having a woman prime minister or now a woman president, symbolic as it is, does not automatically solve all the issues plaguing Indian women. So too this recent interest and boosterism for all things entrepreneurial, while welcome, is merely a start. Even today, traders who likely constitute the lion’s share of Indian entrepreneurs are referred to in pejorative terms. Unlike the titans of technology or rajahs of retail, whom we read about on page 3, all of us encounter traders on a daily basis, but rarely recognize them as entrepreneurs. So there is much each of us as individuals, organizations and as a nation can do to encourage, nourish and grow the flame of entrepreneurship. This article is a small step in that direction.

Ram Charan, author and renowned management consultant, frequently points to his family’s shoe shop and to street vendors in India and elsewhere, and the lessons businesses can draw from them. Without romanticizing either the giant multi-billion dollar corporations he consults for, or the fruit seller on the street, he is able to highlight the commonalities that underpin businesses. It is such a balanced view of entrepreneurship – whether small or large, tech or non-tech, urban or rural – that we all need to develop to build an ever stronger ecosystem that will foster Indian entrepreneurship and innovation. The two books, “Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish,” published by the IIM Ahmedabad and “Inspiring Women to Start Innovative Enterprises” by the NSRCEL at IIM Bangalore, are a great start. Whilst still about college-educated entrepreneurs, both books highlight a wide variety of entrepreneurs across various stages of the business cycle. Without focusing solely on the large or “successful” but by including several still-at-an-early-stage businesses, they are a step in the right direction.

In this article I will share a few common but untold stories of entrepreneurial journey, along with my own experience as a first generation entrepreneur. Drawing on these and others’ experiences, I will stake a position on how we can influence the perception, coverage and the course of entrepreneurship in our own communities.

*The fine folks at Indira Institute of Management approached me to write an article for their quarterly magazine Tapasya. This article first appeared in the Summer 2009 issue of Tapasya.

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