If you're looking for one billion new customers, consider South Asia. Such countries as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have long been overlooked by U.S. entrepreneurs. Besides having huge populations themselves, these countries also have substantial, and often extremely affluent, expatriate bases around the world (for example, South Asians in the United States have the highest median income of any U.S. minority)-an affluence that trickles back to the expats' countries of origin.
Those more than 1 million expatriates living in the United States are already familiar with Western products, and are a key to breaking into the South Asian market. By marketing to this group, you'll likely reach indigenous countries at the same time. "If someone in a particular ethnic or national group finds out about you, 20 of their friends will as well," says Pakistan-born Umair Khan, 30, who has started a series of companies, the latest of which is Clickmarks.com, a multilanguage Web portal; or, as he describes it, "MyYahoo! on steroids."
You don't even have to tailor products specifically to another culture. U.S. trends are usually hot in South Asia, too. Khan notes "an incredible Western influence" in South Asia, as the youth in Pakistan or India are actually more likely to be early adopters of U.S. fads and trends (like clothing and music) than their expatriate counterparts.
The easiest way to reach South Asians at home and abroad is through the Net. "Look for one of the portal sites that deals with such populations, then go in and strike a deal."
Khan also points out that "people [in South Asia] want a more customized experience. See to what extent you can [tailor] your product to the market. Offer text in their languages, or form a partnership with a company that's already doing business in South Asia."
Don't expect South Asian customers to surf the Web on their home computers, however. In these regions, traditional wire-based telecommunications are still notoriously slow (modem speeds usually peak at about 28.8Kbps), unreliable and often nonexistent. "Most people only have PCs in the office," says Khan. "You don't see multiple computers in one household."
What you do see, instead, is multiple cell phones-because, while it might take months to have a regular phone line installed, South Asians can obtain cell phones in one day. "Everybody in . . . any major city has a cell phone."
Consequently, e-minded entrepreneurs might want to forgo content-heavy, graphic-intensive sites; instead, just make sure your Net-savvy South Asian customers can access your site, and your products.
Finally, Khan recommends you develop an understanding of the South Asian community's customs and priorities. "Find out where everyone congregates for special occasions, and target your marketing dollars around those events and locations. That's low-hanging fruit many U.S. entrepreneurs miss."
Moira Allen is a freelance writer in Mountain View, California, and the editor of Global Writers' Ink, an electronic newsletter for international writers.