"Navigating India: $ 18 trillion opportunity" | WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO SUCCEED IN INDIA?
I was speaking to an audience of start-up entrepreneurs, investors, and wannabe entrepreneurs at an incubator in Delhi, when a young American lady at the back of the room asked the panel a question, ‘What does it take to succeed in India?’ Well, I’m paraphrasing. She spoke briefly about the difficulties and surprises she faced on a daily basis, and really wanted to know what she was missing.
I gave her two or three broad pointers, and then reminded her of the American maxim, ‘If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere except India.’ This was greeted with peals of laughter from the audience, who were in on the inside joke. Nevertheless, the question stayed with me over the next few days and I examined it at various levels. What did ‘making it in India’ really mean, and what would it take or did it take to ‘make it’.
To the Make in India campaign, ‘making it in India’ means manufacturing. To a young, restless population, ‘making it in India’ is achieving a better life for themselves than their parents could.
To companies, multinational and Indian, it is about realizing returns from the ‘India story’. And to the government, ‘making it in India’ is about providing opportunities to primary school kids and private citizens alike to realize their fullest potential. But whether you’re an aspiring actor, entrepreneur or philanthropist, you need to ‘get’ India before you can make it here. Understanding the wheels within wheels that move business in India, is essential to succeeding and saving you a huge amount of infuriation and distress.
India remains one of those countries where the government and social networks are a huge factor in determining your success and ease of operations. These operations range from obtaining licences for manufacturing or distribution, to getting your kids that school admission, or registration at the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO).
Big government affects only the very large corporations in the West, and if you’re in the new economy (increasingly defined by having Silicon Valley roots or investors); but in India even the smallest businesses have to deal with a soul-crushing amount of bureaucracy. Reading this book, you will constantly see the direct and indirect role and influence of government in most aspects of business and life in India. However, the book is not a step-by-step guide on procedural compliance.
Coming back to the question the young American entrepreneur asked me — ‘What does it take to make it in India?’ — this still remains an impossibly broad question, and like most questions about India, even the most contradictory answers would be true.
I’m not sure if one book can answer the question conclusively, but I will try. The book will hopefully explain or steer you clear of some stereotypes. If you decide to not buy this book (and aren’t Indian), please take this advice to heart—stop subjecting your captive Indian audience to the ABC formula: laboured conversations on Astrology, Bollywood and Cricket. And please stop doing the head-bob, it is not endearing until you’ve lived here long enough to have acquired it with a stomach that is resilient to Delhi-belly.
When I first conceived the book through deliberations with Kapish Mehra and Ritu Vajpeyi-Mohan at Rupa Publications, the audience in mind was essentially non-Indian. However, in the early days of writing, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to teach a full semester at one of India’s finest commerce colleges—Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC).
As we discussed Indian and Harvard case studies, as well as new laws around corporate governance and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), it gave me some uncanny déjà vu moments — the tone and quality of questions were often what foreign business persons or journalists would ask me. So, these young Indian graduands were smart and enthusiastic, but still somewhat unaware of the realpolitik of business in India. I imagine this phenomenon can be attributed to two factors.
One, that every generation has one profession which is the most sought after. In my father’s time, young Indian graduates badly wanted to join the Civil Services. In his father’s time, the armed forces were the profession of choice; for kids graduating university now, its business. Business could mean entrepreneurship—so starting the next Flipkart and taking on Amazon; or founding the next Oyo rooms, and taking on Airbnb. The other opportunity of ‘business’ participation is working for a respected corporation and making to the top of the pile.
Further, most of India’s young graduates do not come from mercantile backgrounds, nor from families that run businesses, or have a tradition of working for MNCs; they are often not from the mercantile castes (which could impart some tacit knowledge). Their parents are farmers, tradesmen, civil servants, doctors and so on. Two, we tend to still teach mostly foreign written and foreign context theories and cases in our commercial education (high school up). Having said that, it is possible that well-informed readers might pick up the book and disagree with some of the points I make. Here, it is pertinent to repeat the old adage about India, where everything you say about the country and its opposite are both equally true.
This is because India genuinely is the most heterogeneous country in the world—we are a very complex country; if sitting with an investor or potential future partner, you have to be open to say that India is not a country for beginners, and that it is a very difficult country to operate in.
This book is neither meant to be a prescriptive ‘self-help’ book on India, simply because there is hardly ever the ‘one’ solution to any problem. Nor is it an exhaustive treatise of the multiple topics covered by the book. Indeed, several volumes could be written on any single subject that has been attempted to be unravelled here.
I am equally aware that some readers might have enjoyed more of an India flavour and expansion of topics not covered herein. The toughest job I have had, has been to ‘contain the sprawl’, as Ruchir Sharma warned me. So the simple rule we used was thus: anything unrelated to business, no matter how fascinating, must be omitted from the book.
Therefore, here’s my humble attempt at narrating, documenting and observing some very intriguing stories and trends, and seeing where the ‘discussion’ takes us.
If you do read the book, you’ll hopefully have a good read, and form an understanding and opinion on how to address the many challenges India is sure to throw your way. And more importantly, form your own views on how India might mature in the years to come. This is a critical skill, as everything in India is long-term. And having braved heartburn and infuriation, you need to consider if it is worthwhile for you (which, it usually is).
Spoiler alert—the book discusses an inordinate amount of horror stories across sectors. This isn’t because I’m particularly despondent about the country of my birth and business (I’m unreasonably sanguine, actually). It is because I find extreme examples (especially tragedies) the most instructive of devices.
As a European Ambassador to India once told me, ‘You’re assured one or two surprises every day.’