I left Silicon Valley to start up in India. Here are my lessons learned the hard way

By  for TechinAsia

I had a cushy job in the US for over a decade. I was working in the Silicon Valley, helping startups as well as Fortune 500 companies roll out products. Having excessive exposure to startup networking events, success stories at conferences, and free booze at VC funded happy hours in Silicon Valley can turn your brain into mush. I was no exception.

And then one fine day, I just wound up everything and came back to India. My visa status in the US did not permit me to vent my entrepreneurial urges and India was beckoning me with open arms.

With great enthusiasm and pride, I put in my personal money to start a company in India and joined the ranks of the third largest startup entrepreneur group in the world. With a government that has come up with slogans like Digital India and Make In India, I was expecting nothing less than the prime minister himself welcoming me with his bearish hug at the airport.

Then the reality hit me like a slap from hell.

Everything in triplicate

India functions in a different realm far removed from what westerners might consider common sense. The sooner you accept it the better are your chances of running a business in India. My experience in starting a company in India made me realize the value of a printer and the photocopy machine.

Everybody wants your Government issued identity card, tax card, your utility bill for the last 3-months even if you just landed in the country and live in a hotel. Oh, did I mention the fetish with demanding three self-attested copies of every document? If had known this before, I would have invested my money to set up a store with a heavy-duty printer and photocopy machine.

Every startup should get carbon credits in India

The Indian government’s master plan for saving all of us from global warming is to forcibly stop us from using electricity. Brace yourself for either arbitrary power cuts or planned blackouts depending on where you live.

If you are on a tight product roll-out plan, your plan is no good if it doesn’t budget for a 15% power cut timeout for your engineering team. I am planning to pitch an investment round just to pay for the diesel generator and the diesel of course. Until that time, I wish my startup could get some carbon credits that I can eventually trade in for a diesel generator.

Tomorrow never comes

India is a place where time stands still literally and figuratively. All the jokes you hear about the “Indian Standard Time” is true and I have seen it firsthand.

The very first meeting I had with a prospective hire in India was at a coffee shop at 10 am in the morning. I thought I should give enough allowance for the candidate to make it to the coffee shop considering the crazy traffic. I turned up at the coffee shop at 9:45 am sharp hoping to settle in with a hot cup of coffee.

On reaching the coffee shop, I found that the shutters were down and the padlock was firmly in place with not a soul to be seen anywhere near the shop. The coffee shop did have a website and it said the store opens at 9:30 am. Mind you, this was no mom and pop shop and belonged to one of the largest coffee chains in India.

The security guard at the building told me they usually open the shop at 10:30 am. That’s not all, after waiting outside for 45 minutes, the candidate who I was supposed to meet was “almost there”.

On further questioning, I realized he was 15 kilometers away. Moral of the story, just make sure you have a laptop with mobile internet and a spare battery for the laptop and for your phone. This will give you the option to work on other things while you wait for your planned meetings to get started.

Son, why don’t you get a real job?

Startups in India, like everywhere else, are lionized. The media here feeds us a constant diet of how this person became a hero from being a zero and how so and so made their millions.

However, the reality of not having a steady income and the significant sacrifices one has to make on the personal front is not something Indian parents and the extended families appreciate.

Every time I speak to my parents, the conversation gravitates towards me explaining why I am not foolish in pursuing my startup dreams and why one has to make sacrifices in order to be successful.

Valuable lessons learned the hard way

Starting a company in India is not for the faint-hearted. It requires nerves of steel and skin made of heavy armor. My experience as a startup entrepreneur in India has taught me these lessons.

1.      The most exciting news on local TV in the US (and other western nations) is probably a squirrel biting a kid at a local park. India is a different animal. Life is unpredictable and anything can happen. Be ready to roll with the punches.

2.      Slogans like Digital India and Startup India are just slogans. Governments and financial institutions still have stifling and archaic procedures in the matters of business approvals and financial transactions. Get yourself an experienced attorney, chartered accountant, and a company secretary.

3.      Embracing failure and appreciating risk takers has not yet sunk in here with the older generation of Indians. Families expect you to bring in the moolah and hold on a to a “comfortable” 9 to 5 job. I am hoping this attitude will change eventually.

4.      De-risking your hiring, engineering, marketing, and every task you are responsible for should be the norm if you are running a startup in India. This imposes additional costs that you should budget for upfront.

In summary, India remains a land of opportunities with a caveat. Starting up a business in India requires extraordinary determination and perseverance. Your ability to think on the feet and juggle multiple challenges at the same time will come in handy as you navigate India’s unique economic, cultural and social fabric.

First appeared at TechinAsia