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The Bharat Rough Book manifesto

With the advent of Jan Dhan Yojana and Aadhaar and mobile phones, hundreds of millions of Indian citizens, who hitherto lived their lives in offline anonymity at the mercy of local agents, are now coming online. Photo: ReutersPremium
With the advent of Jan Dhan Yojana and Aadhaar and mobile phones, hundreds of millions of Indian citizens, who hitherto lived their lives in offline anonymity at the mercy of local agents, are now coming online. Photo: Reuters

The Indian Internet is being birthed as we speak. And India's entrepreneurs must answer that call, serving aspirations of Indians with business models that are uniquely Indian

We all had a “rough book" when we were in school. For most people I know, it was their favourite notebook. It didn’t have to be bound, the edges were frayed, and it was probably the only notebook where the pages were filled in from the back. It was the notebook of idle thoughts, punctuated by bursts of inspiration. Doodles, scraps of unrequited love letters, and tic-tac-toe. It was 192 pages of personality. Everyone’s subject notebooks had the same notes, but every rough book was unique. And that’s what made them beautiful. In my rough book these days, I find myself doodling about businesses that should exist but for some unfathomable reason, don’t.

Businesses built for Bharat.

You know, that part of India that rarely speaks English but desperately wants to, still saves assiduously for the next trip to Jog Falls or Tirupati or Vaishno Devi, and loves its gobi manchurian to be served right next to its dal tadka and masala dosa.

The Bharat that is traditional with a modern outlook and wants a sarkari naukri (government job) for their decent boy from a reputable family. The one that says mutual funds sahi hoga (are alright) but only invests in land and gold. The one that has a Sharada calendar hung slightly askew on a rusty nail, diligently tracking the next Ashtami or Nagarapanchami.

In other words, the Bharat that you and I grew up in. The one we still call home once we’re done with our angrezi (English) day.

My day job as a venture capital investor means I’m enveloped by the constant drum beat of a news-cycle obsessed with fundraises.

Needless to say, the loudest drums are reserved for the largest funding rounds, usually raised by what we call X of Y businesses. Flipkart was pitched as the Amazon of India, Ola as the Uber of India, Oyo as the Airbnb of India, Paytm as the AliPay of India, and on and on, ad infinitum.

And while it’s lovely to buy phones online, get a ride on your smartphone, and talk about the India consumption story, these businesses are, for the most part, relevant only to the richest 70 million people in the country. In fact, the Bharat we speak of, is usually the seller on the marketplace, or the driver behind the wheel of your next Uber/Ola ride.

The India that features on the Power Point presentations of these fundraises, and the Bharat that exists on the street just opposite that boardroom window, are two very different countries.

And since I find myself gravitating towards the latter, I must answer a key question first: What is my thesis?

In other words, what do I and the firm I work for, Aspada Investments, want to invest in? And why?

Five hundred million Indians earn between Rs2 lakh and 10 lakh a year at the household level. And this money isn’t a lot when it’s split five ways across all the members of the household. We want to invest in this Bharat because that’s where most of India truly lives.

My time in the industry has left me with an overwhelming impression that most of us are trying to be Americans. We’ve taken venture capital —an American financial innovation— and applied it without any tweaks to a very Indian market. This has led to weird outcomes.

We chase after business models that have worked elsewhere because we often lack the courage to back our own convictions.

We choose to forget who we are and what we want as a people because most of those needs and desires are articulated in a language that isn’t English.

And when our conceptions of success don’t correspond to the reality of our country, we end up looking down upon our own people.

And so, we don’t put our money where our pride should be. Our rich culture of sharing, our many languages, our frugality and VFM (value for money) mentality, our local (like really local) foods, our clothes, our gods, our superstitions, our jawans (soldiers) and our kisans (farmers). These are all areas that we fail to build for, simply because it’s seen as too hard. And I believe that both venture capitalists and entrepreneurs are to blame for this.

I think, though, that things are about to change. With the advent of the JAM-age (Jan-Dhan Yojana, the government’s financial inclusion drive; Aadhaar, the unique ID that is at the centre of several government initiatives; and mobile phones, which are ubiquitous), hundreds of millions of Bharatiya nagriks (Indian citizens) who hitherto lived their lives in offline anonymity at the mercy of local agents, are now coming online.

It is now possible to deliver services to them efficiently, and at low cost through WhatsApp and Facebook. They can now make their “sachet" (Rs10 or less) purchases online. The Indian Internet is being birthed as we speak. And India’s entrepreneurs must answer that call, serving aspirations, needs, and desires that are unique to India’s people, with business models that are uniquely Indian. Cheap and best, sasta aur tikau. It’s who we are, and what we need.

I’ve spent the last couple of years maniacally studying the behaviour of these 500 million Indians that form the middle of India’s income pyramid—these folks who’re the farmers, grocers, electricians, plumbers, waiters, drivers, nurses, and soldiers of Bharat. And boy, do they have a story to tell. Most of us haven’t heard them yet because we’re too busy fawning over the next Unicorn or gossiping over the next Unicorpse. Not anymore.

My humble contribution to addressing this, will be a stream of ideas borne out of an obsession with Bharat—a mix of both offline and online businesses that need to be built. So that’s the plan, and we begin next week.

My next column will be about Bharat’s most abiding passion—god.

Welcome to the Bharat Rough Book.

Sahil Kini is a principal with Aspada Investment Advisors. This column will run every week.

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