“So you work in IIT BHU?”, asked a man in the lift. I said yes, and three other faces in the lift lit up with admiration for me. BHU plus IIT is a respectable combination in Varanasi after all. “What do you do there? You are so young”, asked a woman, clearly not able to picture me as a professor there. “There’s an incubation centre in IIT BHU, I work for a startup there”, with this the faces remain non-plussed, waiting for more. The third question made me realise, that Varanasi is still not acquainted with the word startup, it was, “So are you a permanent employee or are you on ad-hoc basis?”
Such instances kept happening and then I resorted to say “running a business”, when anyone asked me what I do for a living. Even that remained a mystery for people, “A girl? Running a business?”.
People not understanding the concept of startups is the least of all the challenges in a small town. There are bigger problems than people not understanding what do we do, or for that matter why do we do it? But this lack of understanding is the core reason for one of our main challenges, i.e., lack of aspiration. People are skeptical of long-term returns. It isn’t that small towns lack skills or talent. The real issue is to make them work hard for something that has no instant returns. A startup, either in big cities or in small town, takes time to generate revenue. It takes time to get in shape and make sense. Making people believe that their efforts would bring a huge change is like making a kid understand that how a seedling would grow into a tree. Kids do not understand, they have to wait and watch to believe. So, even if we manage to hire skilled team members, we are never sure if they would remain with us, or would migrate to bigger cities.
The one thing that amazes me about Metros is the availability of mentoring and guidance for the startups. Attending startup meets has undoubtedly been a boon for us, and has helped us a lot in networking and creating a buzz about our startup. But it takes a lot more effort to remain in the zone. The situation reminds me of the difference between a day scholar and a distant learner in any university. The day scholar has easier access to faculty members than a distant learner. The distant learner can of course approach the Professors to get his doubts cleared, but it would involve costs of travelling, fooding, lodging, etc. We happen to meet the same fate. For instance, getting a feedback on the business model. We know who can be approached for the purpose, we have all the means to reach them (e-mails, Whatsapp, twitter, phone calls what not). But reaching out doesn’t ensure responses. Au contraire, had we been living in a metro, making our voices heard, or getting people to give feedback on our efforts, would have been much easier.
A Better Infrastructure, designed for start-ups can certainly make life easier. Office space with reasonable rent, proper Internet access, electricity, isone of the challenges that a startup from any small town is suffering from, for sure. These things do not even considered under the bracket of challenge for Metros. For instance, a co-working space with decent infrastructure can save not only money, but also time and energy. Lack of such a facility, forces a start-up to create their own space, leading to high operational costs, early on. Internet, with poor connectivity, alone costs around 10k monthly for a team of 3 to 4 people. These are the very basic infrastructural costs that one has to incur in order to run a startup in an environment where the efforts and hard-work are can certainly be put to better use.
It’s hard to establish B2B relations, when you’re a budding identity from a tier-2 or tier-3 city. Firstly, your existence is doubted. After passing that test you it’s difficult to influence people with your dedication and commitment. Once all these are proven with flying colours, the big brands cannot collaborate with you, as they’re not sure if working with petty names would be good for the brand identity or not. It’s something like this, you need money to make more money; similarly you need to be a big brand in order to collaborate with the big names.
This is the story of big brands. The collaborations with the local businesses is totally out of consideration. They would only show interest, if there’s something for them in return. If the returns are not promising or drool-worthy enough, they won’t waste any time in understanding the greater good. Due to lack of aspirations, there’s no feeling for working to improve the eco-system overall.
Networking is a big issue overall. We need to connect to people to learn, to make people aware of what we do, how we do it, and why we’re doing it. This calling out helps in getting insights from people who are more experienced than us. Writing cold e-mails, tweeting, sending messages on LinkedIn helps, but aren’t enough. People are very polite in saying that they don’t have time to write e-mail for you. The impact of one-on-one meeting cannot be underestimated. Meeting in person helps in gaining confidence of an individual. If not direct, then indirect connections might lead to something. Then again, the question remains, how to get them to meet you in person, when you don’t have any reference to give.
These are the challenges that make the startups from small town different from those of metros. It’s not that people in metros are not facing anything difficult. It’s just that they are in a much more advantageous position than us. Even Malcolm Gladwell mentions this fact in his book Outliers, “Success is the result of what sociologists like to call accumulative advantage”.
All said and done, it is the challenge that makes it worth chasing. Entrepreneur literally means risk-bearers. The road taken is difficult and promises never ending problems, but who said that it is chosen because of the ease and peace involved into it. Having guts to run a startup in a small town with all the above mentioned (toned down) challenges alone is sufficient to signify the nerve involved. It is difficult, but it would give immense hope to the society once it starts rolling.