Top 5 Fun (not really) Facts About Doing Business in India Where nothing is straightforward and everything is in abundance
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Think about this - Mumbai (600 km²) is smaller than Tbilisi (700 km²).
How many people do you think live there?
Yes, more people live in one neighborhood of Mumbai than in the whole of Georgia. It's crazy!
I've made the trip to India enough times to see it upend its old clichés. Yes, it's still a kaleidoscope of colors, spices, and a dance of chaos and charm, but those who stop at that are missing the point.
It's not about the outsourced call centers anymore, nor about the dance numbers of Bollywood. Today, India is much more than that. It's an emerging superpower with more than 60 MILLION small businesses and 100 THOUSAND startups.
That's 18 small businesses per Georgian and 1 startup for every extended family.
But doing business in India, that's an experience unto itself. There are nuances, quirks, and facts that are so foreign and strange to us, that I'm still trying to get my head around them.
So, here I'll be sharing 5 fun facts about doing business in India that I've been slowly gathering throughout the last one and a half years.
Most of them aren't really fun, and some of them are just painful.
1: It's a relationship-based market
Ever try hugging a cactus? Neither have I. But trying to establish a business in India without developing relationships might feel something like that.
Let me paint a picture for you.
India is like a humongous village (with a 1.5 BILLION population). Here, business isn't just about money changing hands. No, no! It's about chai (yeah, chai). Chai with anyone you want to do business with. Everything starts with a personal relationship.
In the world of B2B? Double that.
The thing is, while we in the West (yes we are a part of the West for Indians) are used to self-serve and low human-contact services, people in India expect it for almost everything. It doesn't matter if you're selling software with a $10 monthly subscription or a car worth $50,000 – people expect you to talk to them, earn their trust, do a demo for them, and then help them onboard.
This is extremely tricky when your product is low-priced. We at Kernel are struggling with this behavioral pattern in this market. It's painful, but well, that's just how it is.
2: Nothing is ever straightforward
Now, in many Western cultures, things are pretty black and white. If someone says "yes", it means yes. If someone says "no", it's a no. But in India? Urgggh.
Here's a tip: Don't expect straightforward answers. "Maybe", "I'll see", or even a silent, thoughtful look might mean a gentle no. Or yes. Or maybe. Yep, the unspoken "no" is an art form here.
It's like deciphering Morse code, but instead of dots and dashes, you're trying to figure out nods and silences.
You see when they talk, it isn't just about words. Nah, that'd be way too easy! It's also about gestures, expressions, and about ten different types of head movements.
For an outsider, it's super confusing.
For example – and this is a real story – when we were first entering the Indian, market we met with a consultant. So, there we are, telling him about Kernel and all, thinking what a great job we were doing with the presentation, and what's the guy doing? He's shaking his head. The whole time. We were so confused about what he didn't like. We even asked him a couple of times if anything was wrong but that only made things even more confusing.
Turned out – he was just expressing appreciation and understanding.
The trick is to understand that every tilt of the head, every prolonged gaze, and every soft hum holds meaning.
They're not consciously doing it. It's embedded in their collective unconscious and nobody except foreigners even notice it.
3: Hierarchy here, there, everywhere
India has always had a "social order". It's like a multi-story building – every floor has its purpose, and you gotta know which floor you're on. From families to businesses, everyone knows their place.
In the realm of business, if you think you're chatting with the boss-man (or boss-lady), double-check. People like to act like they're the decision-makers but, in reality, you might just be talking to their assistant's assistant.
Status is a big thing here. You can literally tell someone's relative status based on their walking manner and body language in general.
Simply put, high-class people try to look as big as possible, and lower-class people - as small as possible. The way they move their hands while talking to their manner of sitting, everything points to a certain social class.
But not just that, there are other cues, like if you arrive at a meeting with a bicycle helmet in hand, you immediately lose one or two points of status. Or maybe your phone has a cracked screen or a worn case, or maybe you're just wearing a shitty-looking watch.
Still, most of all, status is about how other people treat you. If you treat an Indian person with respect and admiration, you will notice how their body language changes to more power gestures.
So, whatever you do, remember that it's a dance of respect; a play of power.
4: Marketing is all about sensory overload
Marketing in India is...
It feels "scammy". It's loud, it's in your face, and it's LITERALLY all over the place!
It makes sense though, considering that people here have chronic sensory overload. All these smells, noises, tastes, and visual stimuli are just overwhelming.
Still, if you think about it, on a grander scale, this is nothing new.
With all its new-found mantra - "market WITH people, not AT them", the West was right here not too long ago, engaging in the same short-term, manipulative advertising.
BUT India has something the West never had - VOLUME. The sheer volume of noise in this country is something we had not experienced before.
Honestly, if you're doing marketing in India, you'd better have some top-notch growth hacks up your sleeve, and I don't even know what these are (yet).
But I do know that without some massive spotlight shining down at you right from heaven, you'll just be lost in all this noise.
5: Haggling is a national sport
If haggling was an Olympic sport, India would dominate without breaking a sweat. In most parts of the world, the price tag is the end of the conversation. In India, it's the beginning of a riveting tete-a-tete, full of dramatic pauses, feigned disinterest, and sometimes, a theatrical walk away.
You see, the omnipresent salespeople aren't just in shops or markets. They're at train stations, on street corners, and even in historical sites.
Oh and also, many of the cab drivers in the central parts of the city have some kind of referral system with the local shops.
Picture this - I'm walking on Commercial Street in Bangalore.
Out of nowhere, a guy appears holding an ornate bottle. He claims it's a rare perfume made from Himalayan flowers, available just for today because, apparently, Mercury is in retrograde or something.
I decline, saying I don't want to buy anything, but he says: "Let me try to sell, sir. Trying is free, no harm in it." And he suddenly puts some of the perfume on my wrist.
Okay, it smells good - it's floral, mystical, exactly how he described.
Now, the dance begins. He starts at a ludicrous price. I counter, slicing the price in half. He feigns heartbreak, and tells me tales of his hardships. We go back and forth. Ultimately, I walked away paying a quarter of the initial price, both of us pleased with our performance.
Turns out I still got ripped off.
I once asked a well-off Indian guy why he haggled over $3 worth of something. He said that haggling is a muscle you constantly need to exercise, and he's right.
A couple of bonus facts
I'm going to leave you with a couple of minor facts about India that I find fascinating:
- India is a country of radical opposites - You have no idea how the poor of India live and you have no idea how the rich enjoy their lives. None of those extremes exist in Georgia.
- Globally, one in five people below 25 is from India. 47% of Indians, about 650 million, are below the age of 25.
- Imagine shopping at Deserter's Bazaar in Tbilisi and paying for bananas with a QR code or helping beggars with the same.
- Once considered a luxury, the internet and smartphones are now as vital as, say, chai in India. The country boasts around 700+ million internet users in 2023 and just under 800 million smartphone users.
- As of today, India is home to 108 unicorns with a total valuation of $340.80 bln. In 2021, it produced 43 unicorns- that's one every nine days.
- India, with a population of 1.4 billion people, now has 3% of its population living in extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Clock.