New Delhi: It is around 1pm and the streets of Sector 44 Gurugram are starting to get busy. Those who haven’t already ordered food from the countless online food platforms that have sprung up over the past two years, trickle down from their offices to pick up a neatly packed thali of organic food from a cart run by a home chef. Others queue up at a food truck parked around the corner, while some simply gorge on unhealthy omelets with a freshly brewed cup of tea.

There is one thing common with the vendors who have set up small mobile carts in this area—they have all been stung by the entrepreneurship craze and take pride in calling themselves “food start-ups". After all, they are bang in the middle of the start-up action in the fast-growing Millennium City, Gurugram. This nondescript area houses 20-odd start-ups, including three unicorns—ShopClues, Zomato and Policybazaar. Other emerging start-ups include Limeroad, Delhivery, Cashify and Rivigo.

Gurgaon (or, as they now call it, Gurugram, though you will rarely find a resident using the new name) is a young city full of skyscrapers, swanky glass buildings, countless restaurants/pubs/breweries and young migrants. It is also a city where you cannot drive a mile without spotting pigs and buffaloes snorting away or simply lazing on the sides of busy roads. (The pigs’ menace had become so acute that the authorities have recently taken action.) To be fair, it wasn’t very long ago when they inhabited the major part of the city of Gurgaon, whose roots lie in farming. Today, the city and the culture are increasingly changing—thanks to multinationals (MNCs), traditionally, and start-ups, increasingly.

The city—about 700 sq. km in area—is virtually divided into two parts, with the national highway no.8 playing the equator. If you live or work in new Gurgaon, there is a 60% chance that you either work for a start-up, run your own start-up, are planning to quit your cushy job to join a start-up, are an investor in a start-up or wake up every morning contemplating, “Should I start something of my own?"

While Bengaluru might be the Silicon Valley of India, Gurgaon is not far behind. Rather, given the sprawl of the city and the fact that it is still developing with strong construction activity underway, Gurgaon’s infrastructure is far more resilient than that of Bengaluru. The city, which has over 1.5 million people, saw as many as 800 start-ups set up shop in 2015 and about 500 in 2016, according to data research firm Tracxn. This number was a mere 70 in 2010. It is currently estimated to be over 1,500.

About six of 13 unicorns (start-ups valued at a billion dollars and over) are located in the Delhi-NCR (National Capital Region). These include online food delivery firm Zomato, online marketplace ShopClues, Policybazaar, Paytm, Hike and former unicorn Snapdeal. The city also houses the corporate offices of global start-ups or large technology firms such as Uber, Facebook, Google, Airbnb. And Gurgaon continues to attract the attention of several other global brands and MNCs. As a result, the city creates 12,000-15,000 start-up jobs every year. This number has been growing at 20-30% year-on-year for the last five years, according to Basil Advisors, a headhunting and recruitment firm for start-ups. At present, start-up jobs account for 20% of the overall jobs in the city.

The early days

A city that is believed to have been named after Guru Dronacharya, the famous teacher of the Pandavas in the Mahabharata, had its first big transition from an agricultural society to a BPO (Business processing outsourcing) hub in the late 90s. Thanks to real estate giants like DLF and Unitech, property prices soared. Swiftly the farms, mostly barren due to unreliable monsoons, were converted into high-rise residential complexes or corporate offices. The proximity of the city to the political power of Delhi and the international airport serving the capital made it convenient for multinationals to set up their local corporate headquarters here.

While Genpact and Convergys created countless job opportunities and drew young graduates to Gurgaon aspiring to work in call centres, it is the emergence of start-ups that has brought higher quality and diverse jobs to the city. “Gurgaon 10 years back was a city of PGs (paying guests), with young kids either in college or employed in call centres. And then there were people who had retired and collected their life savings," said Albinder Dhindsa, co-founder of online grocery delivery service Grofers , who moved to the city nearly a decade back to become part of Zomato. Back then Zomato was a small start-up called Foodiebay, which was digitizing restaurant menus. After nearly three years at Zomato, Dhindsa launched his own venture in 2014.

By 2010, the start-up culture was picking up in the country and entrepreneurs from all spheres of life were looking to test their ideas and products in markets that were open to experiments and had the willingness to spend. Bengaluru was the IT capital and hence the obvious choice for a lot of technology companies to set up operations. Moreover, for a lot of consumer-based start-ups Gurgaon was a great place to test before launching or expanding to bigger audiences.

The city has the largest (and growing) young population in India, the highest number of nuclear families and, most importantly, one of the highest per capita incomes per family. That’s why Gurgaon has become the obvious test marketing hub for several start-ups as well as brands, local or global. “Gurgaon has a young working population and the quality of this urban population is higher than what one sees in other markets. People are upwardly mobile, educated, well-travelled," said Pankaj Renjhen, managing director, retail services, at real estate firm JLL.

By 2014, the start-up scene was hot and people across the country were ready to experiment. Gurgaon was increasingly becoming a hub for MNCs and several corporate offices were coming up every day (the trend continues), resulting in affluent working populations migrating to the city. It also attracted talent from other countries, which led to the emergence of residential colonies of Japanese, Koreans and Chinese.

As corporate houses started to flock the city and executives from across the globe relocated with their families, start-up entrepreneurs spotted the immense opportunity in targeting these young, well-travelled individuals as potential customers. Several consumer internet companies like Grofers, ShopClues, Milkbasket, PepperTap were born in Gurgaon. “Gurgaon is a much more homogenous and contained market unlike Delhi, which is vastly diverse," said Dhindsa.

Nearly five-seven years back when the second wave of start-ups hit the country, Gurgaon, too, started to see its fair share of action.

“Back then, the reaction to doing a start-up was different," recalls Radhika Aggarwal, co-founder of online marketplace ShopClues. “The city had no internet talent pool. One had to hire from colleges or different sectors or you had to move people from other cities. But with so many start-ups around, the talent pool has broadened and it is easy to fill vacancies," she adds.

Aggarwal moved to India from the US in 2011 with her husband to start ShopClues. For her, Gurgaon had several advantages over Bengaluru, which at that point was the hub of start-up activity. “The infrastructure is several times better. Also, it is a smaller place and hence has higher density of start-ups. It is difficult to escape the start-up vibe in this city," she said. “Back then even convincing a landlord to rent office space was a challenge. They would have so many questions about what the company did, what online commerce was and if we were a BPO. But today, the city pretty much thrives on start-ups."

The highways, metro rail connectivity and an improving infrastructure make the city attractive for global firms as well as young entrepreneurs. Interestingly, Gurgaon is one city that has seen corporate houses and start-ups grow side by side. The two have clearly shored up each other’s growth.

The work culture

Gurgaon’s culture is not just restricted to its eating joints, nightlife and shopping malls. With several content and social media start-ups that have come up in the city, entrepreneurs and executives take an active part in cycling, trekking and meditation groups or in general meet-ups where entrepreneurs or small business owners seek help from each other. The increased dominance of start-ups also attracted investors to the city. There are also several angel investors as well as incubators helping and encouraging even more start-ups.

“There is a mini mafia of second generation investors as well as high net worth individuals (HNIs), who have turned into angel investors," said Rohan Malhotra, founder of Investopad. Early stage investor-cum-incubator Investopad received 800-900 start-up applications in 2017. The environment remains equally robust this year, according to Malhotra. “Until very recently, Gurgaon pretty much had no culture, but slowly the shift is happening. Initiatives taken by corporate houses as well as start-ups are changing the scenario," said Ashish Taneja, founder of GrowX Ventures, an early stage start-up fund operating out of Gurgaon. Taneja is also a resident of Nirvana Country, an area often referred to as the founder and investor belt.

The increased start-up activity also has paved the way for several co-working spaces to set up shop in the city. These are economical and offer convenience, flexibility and speed to start-ups in the early days. Global co-working start-up WeWork, for instance, charges an average of 16,000 per month per seat from individuals. “Companies operating out of our spaces can grow 30% faster because they don’t have to worry about basic infrastructure at the start," said Karan Virvani, director, WeWork.

There are other co-working spaces, like Monkey Business on Golf Course Road, that target working parents. The space has cabins and desks to sit and work from, while children can play and be looked after by professionals. One of the many advantages of living in a young city like Gurgaon is the promise of a high-quality lifestyle it brings along. The diverse, well-educated population has helped create a cluster of good schools in the city.

Working from shared office spaces is a recent trend. The heated discussions turn into fun conversations over beer as soon as the clock strikes six. Not only are these places economical and a great business model for their owners to make money, they are great networking areas for start-ups and individuals.

Sitting inside these swanky and cool working spaces, one tends to forget the unplanned, polluted concrete jungle that Gurgaon has now turned into.

Move away from the posh condos and the corporate hubs of Gurgaon, and you quickly come face to face with the city’s ugly twin. This part of the town struggles for basic amenities—roads, regular supply of water, a sewage system and uninterrupted electricity. There are unorganized houses, poorly maintained housing societies and public spaces. “The city has immense potential but someone—whether politicians, corporate houses or start-ups—needs to take ownership and leadership to make sure that the infrastructure continues to grow with the city," said Vishwas Udgirkar, partner, Deloitte India.

Food and wine for thought

If the first things you notice about Gurgaon are its tall glass buildings, the second would be the liquor shops. And the third is countless restaurants offering soulful food. One thing the city with its diverse population offers is endless food options. Gurgaon alone has over 4,500 restaurants, with options varying from fine-dine restaurants to pocket-friendly takeaway joints to roadside dhabas to the new-age food trucks. And the numbers keep growing by the day. According to data provided by online food discovery and ordering platform Zomato, the city has witnessed a threefold jump in the number of restaurants in the last five years.

Gurgaon was among the first cities in NCR to have bars that brewed their own beers. While Bengaluru was the trend setter, today there are an equal number, if not more, microbreweries here. The millennial workforce heads straight to these funky bars after work. This is thanks to DLF, which built a culture of cafes and bars right next to corporate complexes like Cyber Hub and One Horizon Center. “From an earlier 10-15 quality F&B spots in Gurugram, CyberHub alone currently has around 85 options for F&B and entertainment. They appeal to the millennial, the office employees and also families living in Gurgaon," said Pushpa Bector, executive vice-president and head at DLF Shopping Malls.

Even as the Gurgaon tops the charts among beer consuming cities, the cocktail culture is on the rise. So, while the concept of speakeasies dates back to the early 1920s, when in some parts of the world drinking was prohibited, these hidden drinking holes are not too far from the usual pubs and breweries. And out of the 200-plus nightlife/drinking joints that Gurgaon has on offer; there are quite a lot of “speakeasies" in the city.

So, for those night owls or “batmans", as the locals call them, there are these hidden gems that offer age-old classic cocktails and some really innovative ones. And it’s not just the stunning cocktails that draw the crowd, these bars are known for some great live music, including jazz and rock, tattooed bar staff and dimly-lit, small yet expensive pubs. One such bar is Cocktails and Dreams, situated far away from Gurgaon’s happening and definitive places. It is frequented by start-up entrepreneurs. The owner, Yangdup Lama, who is also the bartender, is well known in Gurgaon, as he runs one of the many bartending and cocktail institutes that the city houses.

In today’s heady start-up world of Gurgaon, every day is a weekend and every hour is a happy hour.

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