As I am finishing up my visit to India, I cannot help but wonder why I chose to make a living in USA, and not here. As I stepped out the air conditioned room I was sitting in at my parents’ apartment to drive to a restaurant with my dad for lunch today afternoon – the answer became clear. It is the heat and humidity, the pollution, lack of effective governance, inability of people to stand in a line, the terrible traffic and the lack of large number of dog shows. It definitely is not about money any more – wherever I turn, I can see an opportunity to make a successful for-profit business.
Since I had some time on my hand, I walked around trying to gather some primary intelligence on what the potential opportunities are in India.
Any one who has been to India knows that Indians have a craze for mobile phones. I always thought that bandwidth is a big problem here.Guess I was wrong. I did not have a single dropped call here. I am typing this on a tablet using Wifi at my parents’ house in Trivandrum, while also streaming CNN on my PC . Speed is not the same as what I get in USA, but not bad at all.
My dad, who can use a computer – but usually stays away from it, has two. My mom has one. The guy who sells vegetables in the local market has three, the butcher has a belt around his waist that holds 4, plus the one he has connected to his ear via a blue tooth, the 9 year old daughter of our neighbor here has an iPhone and so on. I am also (proudly?) convinced that my dad and his uncle can out-SMS most kids I know in USA. All business is done on mobile – usually via SMS. My mom can book a table for dinner, call a cab, ask for home delivery, get a prescription refill – all by SMS – and apparently so can everyone else I have met here in these last couple of weeks.
So I decided to ask a few of these vendors on how they manage this traffic of incoming calls and text messages. Apparently they are at their wit’s end on managing this. Most small vendors have paid assistants who answer the calls and text messages, and keep a tab on a piece of paper or an old diary and send back confirmation. The more advanced ones use a excel sheet.
In a given day, they lose about 20% of their orders (some as high as 50% on high volume days) due to clerical errors. I know many of these people from the time I was a toddler, since I grew up here. And they know I do some work with computers. Several of them asked me if I can write them something on a computer to help them do their business better. They did not press this issue since they all had a line of customers waiting behind me in most cases to do actual business. The only mobility scenario I found here that has a good degree of sophistication is mobile banking, and it is widely used.
This led me to the issue of how pervasive are computers and internet connections in this segment. Although everyone in this “Very Small Business” category had one or more mobile phones – usually a smart phone, none of them had a computer at work. Most of them said they have one at home that their kids use, and that they pay for broadband access. Sure enough they have no idea what their kids do with their PCs. So whatever solution these folks need – has to be done via a mobile device.
I would have died of shock if I found an Apple Store in Trivandrum – and I did not. However, I had a near shock experience when I found that there is a Samsung showroom exclusively for smartphones and tablets. I swung by the store, and it is pretty big and nice and carries everything that one would expect in similar stores in other countries.
Next up in my agenda was to move up the chain and talk to people who run bigger businesses – like builders, architects, automobile workshops, car dealerships , law firms etc. Again, most of them are folks I know from before, and/or known to my parents.
Their big problem is managing their financials, payroll and compliance without extreme trouble. On the high end, they have software – either commercially purchased, or built in-house. They have in-house IT staff and an army of accountants to keep the business running and compliant. In the lower end – they have all bought a computer or two, and some accounting software, and an internet connection. But no one seems to use it well. Many of the smaller shops have not switched on the computer in years.
There is no POS integration to begin with, even in some of the bigger shops. And even in shops that say they use computers well – I could see the industrial strength printer working non-stop generating the big multi-column reports. None of the business owners knew with any accuracy on their working capital, or gross profit. Apparently they need to talk to their auditor’s staff periodically to see how the business is doing financially. There is zero workflow that is automated. Workflow essentially is a bunch of people running around with print outs of emails, or shouting over cubicles.
There is apparently an e-governance initiative under way in the government. They are now keeping electronic copies of everything – but of course, they also print everything in triplicate and file the hardcopies just in case a disaster happens. It does not help that the laws have not kept up with computer advances – so some of this hard copy fascination is just a response to legal requirements. Traffic tickets etc are still dispensed by hand, and I have not seen any officer on the street using a smart phone or something for work. Everyone has a personal phone – usually very advanced ones. May be government can save some money by encouraging BYOD here.
I had to renew my passport here, and walked into the local office. Before I left USA, I had uploaded all the required documents into their site. The passport services is at least partially outsourced here. The lady from TCS who handled my case at first window took one look at her screen and said – ” Your file is no good. You have left many of the mandatory fields empty” . I honestly did not know what to say. I decided against asking her why her system saved my application if it had missing mandatory fields . Next up, she said “I see you have uploaded all the documents. Unfortunately, I cannot download any of them in our system. So you can just give me photocopies”. I felt smug that I had already anticipated this will happen. Eventually she handed me off from Window A to Window B. I physically took some paper work from A to B. Person at B told me I also needed to include my marriage certificate. I had it handy, but he would not take it – I have to restart at A . Ok, so I did that. Eventually I was handed over to B and then C . At C, the lady double checked everything that B did, and that was it – in 3 hrs, I was out of there. I would love to meet the person or team that designed the process and the wonderful software, and get a copy of my paperwork autographed.
The last area I tried to understand was how sales force of these companies use IT, if at all. Field sales for these medium size companies have company issued phones, and in some cases smart phones. Some of them also have laptops. They file field reports either on paper, or in a word document that is emailed. Some one in back office then files it in appropriate folders etc. For things like price and availability , they use the company phone to check with their friends or with back office. T&E is all done with paper, and needs manual signatures for approvals.
In each of the above cases, there are existing solutions – usually in cloud as SaaS, and most of them have a mobile interface of some sort. Yet, I saw very little awareness – instead the smart people who run these businesses have just adapted their business model to overcome the lack of technical advances. I asked them if this was due to a limitation on their part to spend money. The answer was eye opening. Every one including the butcher with the belt full of mobile phones to the builder of big high rises is willing to spend money on getting a solution that will help their business. They are only too aware of what they are losing out.
I asked them if the local IT companies have ever approached them offering solutions. Overwhelmingly, the answer has been an emphatic NO. Additionally, the perception I got was that the local companies – even smaller ones – only care about winning work from abroad and executing in India, as opposed to winning work locally. I don’t know if this is because of their cost structures or for some other reason.
At least with these people I spoke with – there is some awareness of social media but near zero awareness for social business. Some of them use Facebook to keep in touch with their children who live abroad. Only one person knew what twitter was. On the bright side, I showed some of them what to do with FB and twitter and some of these folks seemed to like it.
Finally, I did a gut check with some colleagues in Bangalore, and some old classmates from Trivandrum – apparently the IT companies in India do play heavily in domestic market, but focus almost solely on large enterprises in India. From a couple of weeks of asking around, I am firmly convinced that cloud and mobility are both potentially big plays in India for the very small to medium sized firms. At a minimum, I would urge my friends at software vendors all over the world to check out the market first hand . Seeing is believing.
Slightly off topic – I had to spend some time at a hospital here in Trivandrum this week, where my aunt was admitted. Absolutely the best doctors were in charge of the treatment for sure – and the staff followed absolutely the worst process ever engineered. Plenty of administrative “paper based” mistakes were made in the few hours I was there, and I almost had to pinch myself to check if I was in 2012 or 1712. This does not really need mobility or cloud to solve – just good old client server will do. Or even a better paper based approach – I just cannot imagine life and death issues being handled through the current pathetic process.