Over the past three years I have made two dozen trips to India. I have wandered the streets of big cities, visited consumers in their homes, spent time in rural villages, sat in conference rooms in the headquarters of multi-billion dollar companies and met with the founders of tiny start-ups.
The entrepreneurial energy in India is immense, as are its infrastructure limitations. Those two factors are in fact interrelated. It’s hard to survive in modern India without being an entrepreneur. And that is why despite mounting reasons to be concerned about its problems — corruption, inflation, blackouts affecting hundreds of millions of people — I believe in the country’s long term potential.
A recent trip summed up the promise and peril of modern India. I landed in Mumbai at around 10:30 Monday morning. It was monsoon season, and the rain was intense. Travel in Mumbai is erratic on clear days, but the rain meant a typical 40 minute journey took close to three hours (traffic’s unpredictability is the main reason I don’t schedule more than one meeting a day in Mumbai).
The purpose of my visit was a full-day client workshop the next day. Even though the client’s office was a few minutes away from the hotel, we left at 8:00, an hour before the start of meeting. As one of my team members quipped, “You are never on time in India. You are either very early or late.” We arrived at 8:10. The client’s office was in an attractive, newly constructed building. A client representative escorted us to the meeting location, on the 10th floor.
Then the fun began…
It turned out the elevator only went up to the ninth floor. A friendly guard on the ninth floor said we had to go down to the eighth floor and take a different elevator to the 10th floor. Since it was only one level, we decided it would be easier to take the stairs. After going up about 20 stairs, we encountered a door. We pushed. The door was locked. Good news! There was a security guard on the other side of the door. Bad news! He wouldn’t open the door (we couldn’t figure out why). So we trudged back down to the 9th floor.
We then learned that we actually had to go to the elevator bank on the other side of the building. So we walked through the building’s central part, found the other elevator bank, went down to the 8th floor, and then up to the 10th floor.
It wasn’t a big deal, and it only took about 15 minutes, but it served as a telling metaphor about modern India. There are beautiful buildings, functioning elevators, and plenty of people, but things often don’t quite work the way they should.
The elevator incident threw our team a bit. But then came the meeting itself. It featured a small team of energetic leaders with audacious dreams about substantially growing their business unit. The challenges facing companies in India didn’t faze this group. If anything, it made them more committed to finding creative ways to drive innovation and growth.
India’s infrastructure issues need to get fixed. I’ve never personally had a problem with corruption, but obviously there are real issues that must be addressed there too. But despite these challenges, the leaders in some of India’s best companies are truly world class. And the entrepreneurial spirit is as strong as you’ll see anywhere in the world.
That spirit is displayed by the leadership team of Village Laundry Service, a business our venture investment and incubation arm started in 2008 (I remain on the Board of Directors after we brought in a full-time professional leadership team and attracted outside investment). If Murphy ever wrote a textbook, VLS would surely deserve a chapter. We’ve suffered fires, workers disappearing, water and electricity cutting out, and countless other trials.
Yet, CEO Sushil Mungekar and his team persevere. Sushil has shifted the business model from small kiosks at which consumers drop off and pick up laundry to centralized stores offering convenient pickup and delivery. Consumers love the convenience of this concept. A pilot store is on a glide path to break even by the end of this year, setting the business up for rapid expansion in 2013 and beyond (if you want to see my view of the business, skip ahead in the feature that appeared on CNBC’s local affiliate in India to about 13:25).
This spirit of “Jugaad”— of finding creative ways to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles — is the reason that, despite traffic snarls, power losses, and irrational elevators, India marches on. And it is why I still continue to believe.