We still want to believe that the consumer is King

An Indian summer: As first weeks go, my first week here has been exceptionally interesting. I am enjoying the fact that the systems here are geared towards a personalized experience. This is not to say that in the past the experience was missing. I also cannot ignore the fact that Indian bureaucracy is legendary. Getting anything done involved filling forms and travelling from desk to desk.

Re-integrating: Within the past week, I have purchased and setup various financial products, got connected with the world, assisted in the purchase of computing hardware and re-integrated myself into the day to day activities here. My bank even provides me with a personal relationship manager. Not that a personal relationship manager is anything new. For example, my father has a personal relationship with every staff member at his old time private bank. The only difference is, no one ever bothered to label that relationship, while the larger multi-national banks have.

I can hardly rival my experience re-integrating here with my experience in the US. I remember the US systems were quick and reliable. For example, the toughest part was getting to the bank branch. Opening the account was easy. As a student I could not afford a car, and if you don’t own a car then your dead in the water as far as getting around is concerned. If you hired a cab or took a bus, the time and money spent were unusually disproportionate to the distance you wanted to go. In contrast, getting around an Indian city is cheap, that is not what you have to concern yourself with. Instead, you really ought to worry about getting conned when you get on that bus or an auto-rickshaw.

The AirTel network: Back in the States, I was on a wireless service contract with a large US GSM provider. The contract had about 4 months left over on it. I never anticipated moving to India so soon when I purchased the contract. Needless to say the provider billed me an early termination fee (BIG $$) when I reneged on the contract and left me with a GSM/GPRS Nokia phone.

On the second day back here, I got ready to get reconnected with an Indian mobile number. My father suggested I could go down to the AirTel customer service store where I could purchase a no obligation, relatively cheap, pre-paid SIM card for the AirTel GSM/GPRS network and at the same time activate it. All I had to do was carry my proof of residence and a passport sized photograph. Within an hours time, an AirTel representative helped me get the right forms, buy the card, submit the documents and I was on the network with my original GSM phone. Cool! Had I decided to go with the post-paid solution, my contract would still have no obligation. Freedom!

Indian (un)reliability: The other experience was with a broadband provider in my area – Iqara. I called up their local office to schedule a connection (no 1-800 here). The person who answered the phone connected me to the individual who was responsible for a new connection. I actually had a real name and an extension number of one person who was responsible for my new connections. Within the next two hours I handed over money for a new connection to a representative (who drove down to my place) and I was promised a new connection before the end of the week.

I will not fail to mention that Iqara never delivered on their promise. I don’t have the money or the broadband connection, but I have receipts, a name and a number and I am going to call that person on Monday. Until then I have to imbibe the intensity with which my friends chase down service providers over the phone. Perhaps in the process I will also learn a little Marathi 🙂 a popular local language that can open many doors. Which reminds me, I had once upon a time promised myself I would learn Spanish.

Problems of the people: Pune wants to become the first wi-fi enabled city. M.G. road and the University of Pune are already there. That promise could be a life saver for individuals who are stuck in a routine Pune traffic jam. If you ever wanted to cover the 10 kilometer stretch between my house and the University of Pune, carry a laptop with a wireless radio. In a few months from now, you can spend the 30 minutes your stuck there e-mailing all your friends not to drive down that same road.

If you think about it, Pune really does have a chance of making its ambitions come true ;). In the past, other urban planners (e.g. San Francisco) usually provide mass transit first and then aim for wi-fi. Pune on the other hand can skip the entire mass transit mess and go on to providing wi-fi. In fact, I imagine that in the near future Pune-ites will simply stop commuting and work from home over free internet.

The Google Story: I am reading an insightful book by David Vise on the quickest, largest, hottest Internet, Media and technology success of our time: Google. Google succeeded in its early days because of great feedback and support from friends, well-wishers and other users of Google beta. They were first users of the system and reported with intensity on how well Google (beta) solved their own problems with searching the Internet. Larry and Sergey kept up with them because they felt the feedback was very important. No doubt, many others also had a hand in its success in their own different ways. Professors helped make connections with Sand Hill Road, Google hired key employees from their network and a friend provided the garage space when they decided to move out of Stanford. I accept as a fundamental truth, that people make technology companies.

I am confident from what I know of Pune that any startup here can make the same connections. Not only are there enough smart consumers who will let you know what they want, people here are very social and will go out of their way to assist you. For my own startup, I promise to sincerely imbibe the Google philosophy – solve the problem really well first. Keep the feedback loop short. I don’t plan on making razor sharp deadlines that will decide when the product will ship. Instead, I believe the fun and learning in a startup’s journey will come from inviting and absorbing honest feedback.

Life is very different: And so is the market. My friend calls it the “Touch Factor”. It is these two words that decide the degree of success of any business model here. It has always been here.

Related Stories: Potential and Impact of Basic Public Services – Shrikant.