Part 1 – Story of an Indian SMB / Merchant

 

Santosh Meena is a proud first-generation Indian merchant / SMB from TetryTolly Basti in Namkum, a suburb of Ranchi. His wife loves watching serials on a particular TV channel. Hence, the name of his shop: Star Plus Store. It is just one of the thirty thousand stores which dot the city of Ranchi.

 

From the day the store opened almost 20 years ago, the first order of business in the morning has remained unchanged for Santosh: a quick pooja to the Lord Ganesha. Next, almost involuntarily and out of habit, begins the ‘counting’ or ‘checking’, as many refer to the act of taking stock of inventory. Theft and pilferage are not uncommon during the night.

 

There are many such rituals Santosh performs during the day, which are intrinsic to running a store. These rituals, with minor variance, are commonplace for shopowners in every nook and cranny of India’s close to 20,000 pin codes. On the surface, not much has changed for the millions of such merchants in the country, with one notable exception:

They are aware of several new ads that keep popping up whenever they are passing the idle hours during the day watching music videos, cricket or using the calculator on the phone. These ads talk about how a new app can help them  solve their problems related to book-keeping, managing inventory etc.  Santosh had never actually considered these tasks as ‘problems’ but he was curious to learn more about these apps.

 

The problem was that after watching these ads, there was no one Santosh could turn to for getting a proper understanding about these products. Some of his shopowner friends had seen similar ads and one of them, Biren, had even downloaded a bookkeeping app. But Biren’s explanation of how the app worked did not help. If anything, it confused the others even more.

 

Every day, Santosh continues to open his shop in the morning and closes it in the evening at the end of business. During the day, he fills the idle hours entertaining himself on his phone. The two biggest business ‘use-cases’ of his phone are as a calculator and for taking a few orders from regular customers via phone calls. Clearly, the era of smartphones and cheap internet has not made a significant dent in his universe, yet.

 

Nowadays, whenever Santosh sees an ad for a new business app on his phone, his natural instinct takes over and he closes the ad as soon as he can. Better to spend his time elsewhere than try to decipher some complex app that nobody knows about.

 

 

 

Part 2 – Story of an Indian Founder

 

 

Matthew has the ideal profile of an entrepreneur that any investor could wish for. He grew up in a business household, went to the Ivy League schools and then came back with a wealth of knowledge and experience with the desire to start his own Company.

 

With the digitization of the economy triggered and supported by the new government in India, Matthew saw this as the perfect opportunity to quit his job in Houston and make his way back home to Hyderabad. He already had the idea for a product for the huge and growing Indian SMB / merchant market. All that was needed was a good team and a decent MVP. And so EZPay was started in November 2018.

 

Two years and several iterations later, Matthew was both happy and worried. His joy came from EZPay’s celebrated and successful launch last month which was well covered by several of the online and offline news portals. The Company even started getting good traction on social media platforms. It was what any startup’s CEO could hope for. It seemed like EZPay was very much on-course.

 

In such a near perfect world, Matthew’s cause of worry was something which two of his investors mentioned at the recent board meeting: while EZPay now had the product, they needed the users to validate the product’s potential. A near harmless and on the face of it, a very obvious kind of a statement. But the more Matthew thought about it, the more loaded the gun looked.

 

Getting users for a product was often harder than building the product itself. Every tech company knew this part of the story. And EZPay had blown most of their cash trying to get the product near perfect. What was left was not enough: neither for online advertising nor for building operations capabilities from the ground-up. The first option was too costly and the other was both costly and time-consuming. 

 

It wasn’t as if Matthew had never considered this eventuality. He had always supposed that they would have the product in place with some users and that would be enough to carry them through to the next round of investment. However, some questions raised during the recent board meeting were those that were not even on his radar. After some enthusiastic but brief congratulations, all that the investors seemed to care about were users. They wanted the Company to shift its focus overnight!

 

Matthew reached out to a few founder friends and all the feedback he received had the same underlying theme: investors are forever looking forward and he had to level up, fast. There was no alternative. None. Several companies continued to turn turtle because they were not able to move gears swiftly enough post launching the product. And investors hated losing money. 

 

So he and his team hired a few marketing executives who went from one SMB to another promoting the app in two cities, Hyderabad and Indore. After two months, the team realized that there were too many challenges showing up from this seemingly simple activity. Many users turned out to be fake, the app revealed some embarrassing issues which needed urgent fixing and the costs of maintaining an in-house marketing team was draining the bank accounts at an alarming rate.

 

Today morning, as Matthew drove to the EZPay office in Hyderabad, India, all he could think about was a reasonable way to get his product to the Indian SMB / Merchant. The key challenges being reasonable and real.

 

At roughly about the same time, faraway in the TetryTolly Basti in Namkum, Bharat, Santosh was concluding his prayers to the Lord Ganesha and getting ready to start his morning ‘counting’. While he wasn’t the complaining type, Santosh wondered if there was a way which could make the task of maintaining inventory a bit easier. 

 

According to Google maps, the distance between the geolocations of Matthew and Santosh was about 1300 kilometres. But the problem wasn’t simply a matter of geographical separation. Their worlds in some way, were parallel worlds. Destined to converge, but only at Infinity. 

 

Utsav Bhattacharjee

Co-Founder, Pick My Work