Category Archives: Entrepreneurs

A Returning Indian Entrepreneur Reflects – Part 3

Kashyap Deorah

It’s been 7 years since I wrote the first piece about moving back to India, and 5 years since the second piece after settling into the move. A few life changing events have happened since then. I sold Chaupaati to Future Group in India in 2010, we had our boy Kanav in 2012, I sold Chalo to OpenTable in the US in 2013, and subsequently moved from Powai to Berkeley in 2014 to integrate the acquisition as Shruti took on a fellowship at the Public Policy School of UC Berkeley.

As 2014 winds down, Shruti has finished her fellowship and I have concluded my gig at the acquiring company. Shruti remains committed to influencing policies towards cleaner energy and environment, and I remain committed to building world class tech companies out of India. Other than that, we are sufficiently confused about what we call home now and have decided to take 4 months off to travel the world and figure it out. Quoting my recent tweet – “India > Morocco > Spain > Chile > New Zealand > Australia > Hawaii > US (6 continents, 5 islands, 4 months, 3 people, 2 hemispheres, 1 life)”.

Encouragement and feedback from the Indian diaspora, friends, and colleagues have inspired me to write part three. Here is a short recap of my first two pieces to jog your memory. The first one contrasted life in the U.S. & India with regard to other people’s influence over our daily lives (opt-in v opt-out), relationships within the household (2C2 v 4C2), business environments (Sequoia v Banyan tree) and the diversity in social group (nationality v professional). The second one contrasted the two cultures with regard to socio-economic priorities (aspiration v experience), consumption patterns (survival v progress), impact of structure (chaos v order) and the experience with elements (man v nature). I am writing part three at a time when there is adequate clarity about the confusion before there is confusion about the clarity. So go ahead and have fun once more at my expense.

The “6-hour flight” test
Couple v Couple Dozen

An American colleague pointed out to me that a 6-hour flight from San Francisco to any place outside the U.S. would only take you as far as Mexico or Canada. Europe is an entire mainland and ocean away, and Asia Pacific needs you to cross the largest ocean of the world. Latin America and the Caribbean are out of bounds too. That got me thinking. .. Picking Delhi as the base, a 6-hour flight out would cover 26 countries, including China, Russia, 7 SAARC countries, 7 East Asian countries, 8 Middle Eastern countries and 2 African island countries. The list would be larger by another dozen countries if there were more non-stop flights or if they were an hour or two longer.

The contrast is starker if you consider the world’s population covered in the circle within the radius of a 6-hour flight. New Delhi would cover half the world’s population within a 6-hour flight radius while San Francisco would cover one-fifteenth. No wonder Americans seem a bit disconnected from the rest of the world.

“US is a time machine for India”… NOT
Same v Different

Between 2003-2006, major Sand Hill Road VCs set up shop in India to invest in tech startups. Their thesis was that what worked in the US could be replicated & adapted for the Indian market. A decade, a correction, and some long fund cycles later, the asset value looks promising on paper but the realized value has been a disappointment. In layman’s terms, the business of investing in Indian tech startups has not returned money after a decade. The depth of an IPO environment is a good yardstick of market maturity. You can count the number of Indian tech IPO’s on the fingers of one hand. In fact, no tech company that started after 2003 has gone IPO. As a sliver of hope, four companies that started in 2006 or later have raised money at a valuation over a billion dollars, and their best bet for an IPO is in financial markets abroad, as their company structures already reflect. It has not been all smooth sailing for them either as the Indian government flip-flops between leaving you alone and trying to come after you.

After being part of consumer businesses in both markets with millions of users in each, I have learnt a few things. First, the economics in India work in favor of solving problems through people rather than machines, while the opposite is true in the U.S. Second, the Indian consumer’s tolerance for pain to avoid spending is in sharp contrast to the US consumer’s propensity to pay for control & convenience. Third, for consumer tech businesses at scale, revenues per customer are a fifth in India as a direct result of purchasing power parity but unit costs are only half due to smaller or no gap in real estate, tech talent, or fuel costs. For these reasons, India will not evolve like the U.S. for any foreseeable period of time.

The Indian entrepreneur’s dilemma
Returns v Impact

When my Indian company was bought by the leading group in the $400B retail market of India, their market cap was about a billion dollars. A few years later, when my U.S. company was bought by the leader in a $50B niche in the hospitality market of US, their market cap was well over a billion dollars but with far lesser volatility. Despite being similar sized acquisitions, my Indian company was a full-fledged business with profitability and scale at the time of exit, while my U.S. company exited thrice as fast after building a product that had yet to be launched. An IPO environment in a larger market with predictable policies seems to outweigh the depth of latent market opportunity.

Immigrants are cursed for life because of their inability to reconcile their life in the place where they grew up and have parents with the new life created in the comforts of the developed world where they made money and had children. Indian entrepreneurs get a double whammy for trying to reconcile the gratification of solving the more fundamental problems of India with the lucrativeness of solving the more incremental problems of the developed world. I first tried to build a business for the U.S. market while being in India and right out of college 15 years ago. We have come a long way since then in our ability to succeed with that model, my last company being a validation of that, and I would bet that the next 15 years will see some pleasant surprises.

The Formative Years
Entitlement v Perspective

As we think of our next chapter in life, we find our perspective being driven by the fact that we are parents. We must deliberate the choice of where Kanav’s formative years should be.

Neuroscience shows that life experiences in the past continuously result in formation of brain patterns that determine how future events occur to us, resulting in the thought processes that determine our actions and decisions. Patterns formed between the ages of 3 and 16 (roughly) become the OS of our brain. This OS is stuck with us for life, and does not really alter unless the computer crashes due to a major life event and you need a recovery disk boot-up. Patterns due to experiences in rest of adult life are only apps on top of the OS and do not alter our core personality. 90% of critical brain development of a human happens by the age of 5. As a parent now, I need to be deliberate about how my child spends the formative years of life, especially 3 to 5.

Another daunting fact is that the life expectancy of an American is nearly 79 years, 20% more than an Indian. It is no surprise that my friends in U.S. look and feel younger than friends of the same age in India. At the same time, due to experiences with lack of structure and diverse identities while growing up, my Indian friends are far more adaptive to multiple divergent perspectives than my American friends are.

On the one hand, you obviously want a long and healthy life for your children. On the other hand, an upbringing in India, balanced with access to diverse perspectives globally, would make them more grounded. When they enter adulthood they might be more thankful for the privileges of the developed world and have more empathy for points of view of the rest.

Shruti works in a field where policies are made in the U.S. and applied to India. I work in a field where products are made in India and applied to the U.S. Kanav is at an age where our choice of what we do next and where we do it from would shape the rest of his life in a meaningful way.

With great choice comes great confusion. Shruti, Kanav and I are about to begin a once-in-a-lifetime journey together to figure all this out. The travel involves a fortnight in US and India each, but most of it in neutral third countries with just the three of us. No bias of the place we are in, positive or negative. It is time to fall in love all over again, with each other and with the planet. The serendipitous timing of our career breaks and the liability-free age of our son gives us the opportunity to invest in some soul-searching while globe-trotting. The answer to what’s next for each of us will present itself. I feel like Truman Burbank.

Follow me on Twitter / Flickr to find out where it leads.


Reduce, Re-use, Recycle … Your Wardrobe?

Quick show of hands – How many of you have lovely Indian saris and outfits moldering in your closet, worn once and never to be worn again? Or worse, those lehngas that your aunt sent that don’t fit you, or the sari received as a gift at a wedding that just isn’t your style?

I do, and Dina Patel of Didi’s Wardrobe is betting you do too.

After 10 years in the finance world, putting in 100 hours a week, Patel was ready to try something different. Noticing how didis wardrobe 1she always ended up exchanging clothes with her friends when she needed party outfits, and how many of her own clothes were worn so infrequently, she set up Didi’s Wardrobe, a place for buyers and sellers of gently used clothes to come together.

“I looked at the rental concept first,” says Patel, “but there are just so many players in that area.” (see Borrow it Bindass). “Plus, they have a significant inventory investment, and I wasn’t ready to do that based on my market research.”

Didi’s sellers operate in two ways. For the enterprising ones who want to use Didi’s as a consignment store, Patel offers an easy way to get the clothing details up on the site. She does expect the seller to be good with measurements and to put up pictures of the clothes offered. Also, to protect the buyer, payment is not made to the seller till confirmation of receipt of goods is received from the buyer. For this kind of seller, Didi’s Wardrobe keeps 18% of the sale proceeds.

For the more typical seller, who has a bunch of clothes but can’t be bothered to sort them out, Didi’s Wardrobe has a much more convenient option. Just bundle up the  clothes and ship them and DW will sort them, measure them, put a price on them, and display them effectively on the site. In this case, DW keeps 50% of the sale price.

“Customers are quite happy with this option and the prices we set on their clothes,” reports Patel. And buyers can clearly see if the clothes are from DW’s inventory or directly from the seller. Best of all, the clothes are rated on their condition.

Based in the Midwest, Patel has been setting up drop-off days in the area this summer, and says she has met with tremendous response from sellers who have, on occasion, brought garbage bags full of clothes to the location.

Supply doesn’t seem to be a problem, but how comfortable are people wearing used clothes?

Indian Saree 1155aNot surprisingly, 50% of DW’s buyers are non-Indian. I guess DW is a great way to try out Indian clothes at a low entry price. “But I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the profile of my Indian clients,” says Patel. They’ve been fairly high net worth customers, and DW has been able to meet their discerning standards.

I tried DW’s system a couple of months ago and purchased an olive silk sari with a blouse that claimed to be my size. I received my purchase in short order, and found the sari as lovely as it looked in the picture. I did have to make adjustments to the blouse, but a local seamstress was able to do that with no trouble and I ended up with a printed silk sari and blouse for $60, which, frankly, I thought was a steal.

DW has been growing slowly and some of it has been by design. “I was very concerned about getting the mechanics of it right,” says Patel, and her site has been growing organically, with minimal marketing. And she has resisted efforts to make it a mall kind of experience, where many sellers of new clothes can congregate.  “Our aim is to be environment friendly, and selling new clothes defeats that purpose. The idea is to reuse clothes and recycle our wardrobes,” says Patel.

Didi’s Wardrobe has been getting good traction over this summer and quite a few repeat buys. “The biggest challenge is to overcome inertia,” says Patel. “We all have beautiful clothes in our closet that we would be happy to sell, but it is making the effort to send us the stuff that daunts people.” Still, the drop-off days have been very successful and Patel plans to expand the area covered for the drop-offs.

Other expansion plans include a bridal section. “We haven’t really pushed this segment, but we are growing slowly,” says Patel.

Go check out Didi’s Wardrobe to help you prune your closet. And if you are looking for pretty outfits you don’t have to pay a fortune for, Didi’s Wardrobe is a great place to find those bargains. Best of all, you’ll end up spending less, having more, and knowing that your lovely clothes will be cherished and worn by people who appreciate them as much as you once did.

Handmade books in a digital age

sushmita“You went to school too?” “You were little once?” “You told a lie?” When we become parents, we reflexively continue the grand oral tradition of storytelling, often dredging up memories of our own childhood to illustrate a point or demonstrate a moral.

Sushmita Mazumdar takes these nostalgic journeys one step further – by crafting tangible, physical reminders of our experiences in the form of lovely handcrafted books that are a throwback to a pre-industrial age, when words were painstakingly written and treasured all the more, before Gutenberg revolutionized the medium and made possible the mass market distribution of print.

When Sushmita arrived in the US several years ago, she found herself in the familiar dilemma of not having a visa to work. She enrolled as a docent at the Smithsonian and received training in Asian art history. “I became comfortable communicating stories from different cultures to an American audience,” she recalls.

Sushmita quit her job when she became a parent, and exercised her narrative skills in story-time sessions with her children. “I started writing stories about my childhood and with my background as a graphic designer it was a natural progression to turn them into little books,” says Sushmita.

Once Sushmita has come up with the story, she works on a format. Then she designs the pages, picks up paper and other materials, puts the words and artwork together and assembles the pages into a book.

kairis“I made my first few books and showed them to my friends, who loved the idea. At my children’s school, I started conducting workshops to help kids come up with their own creations,” says Sushmita. Children learn about the Chinese method of books on scrolls and the Arabic tradition of writing from left to right. She also conducts workshops in museums and libraries.

Her son Arijit, now 7, is often her muse. “How come you drink tea when all the other moms drink coffee?” he once asked her. From that query came “Cha o’clock”, one of Sushmita’s newest books.

Each book is a work of art and a labor of love. Sushmita now gets commissions from all over the country to make keepsake books, helping to keep memories intact. Each commission begins with a long consultation, as she and the client come to an agreement on the vision behind the book.

homeworkOne client suggested miniature books. The result was  “Homework” , a book in the form of tiny flashcards that fit into a matchbox! For the recent presidential inauguration, Sushmita designed books in the shape of amulets, based on the concept of prayer wheels from Ladakh. The owners of the amulet would put in their dreams and aspirations in the amulets, which are small enough to be worn.

“I encourage everyone to make a book, even if it is just one book for your child,” says the craftsman. “As immigrants we have such a diversity of stories to tell about our different cultures. I remember my child’ surprise when she asked, ‘You went out in a storm to get mangoes even though you were told not to?’”

Sushmita Mazumdar will be visiting the Bay Area in the last week of June to conduct a fund raising workshop for the India Literacy Project. Parent and child teams will design and create their own books, with proceeds going to mothers and children in India. Keep checking this site for details on the upcoming event.

To create your own keepsake go to

Show Me The Curry!

As any cook worth her/his salt will tell you, the best way to learn a new dish is to watch someone else make it in front of you. That is the simple idea that is the basis of Show Me the Curry, a cooking blog that is rich with videos of recipes both simple and exotic, with a bent towards Indian cuisine.

Show Me the Curry is the brainchild of Hetal Jannu and Anuja Balasubramanian, neighbors in the suburban Dallas town of Frisco,TX. As kids grew up and out into school, the friends decided to embark on a venture that allowed them to use their time productively while not missing out on a single moment of “mommy time.” Both loved to cook and a cooking video blog seemed like a perfect fit. Keenly desirous of keeping what is (literally) a home-grown business professional, the friends decided to post two videos a week faithfully, with a few extra ones during festivals and special occasions.

“Even I’m embarrassed to watch our early videos,” says Anuja with a laugh. The two taught themselves the basics of video production and editing and kept improving on the bi-weekly videos, while the website was designed with a lot of help from Hetal’s techie husband.

In an industry with very few entry barriers, Show Me the Curry distinguishes itself by the professionalism of its videos and the foolproof nature of its recipes. One friend gushed, “I made Gobhi Manchurian for the first time with the help of their video and it turned out perfectly.” Their recipes also have tips for the inexperienced cook. “I learnt all my cooking through trial and error,” says Anuja , “so I figured out cooking secrets and  shortcuts the hard way. Why should anybody have to reinvent the wheel?” For instance, the website features a perfect way to make chapatti dough ahead of time and freeze. Anuja is a self-taught cook and Hetal, who grew in the US, brings a unique perspective to Indian cuisine.

Not all recipes are Indian, though the bulk of them are make to suit the Indian palate. “As cooks, we tend to get stuck on our comfort zone,” says Anuja. “Hopefully these videos will encourage people to experiment with at least cuisines outside their region in India, if not western ones.”

SMTC also has a DVD out that helps cooks to put together a party menu stress-free. In addition, an affiliate program with Amazon allows novice cooks to get some of the hardware associated with cooking.

Show Me the Curry has been around for less than two years but it is already putting the two friends on the path to financial freedom. It is a free site but its popularity makes it an attractive proposition for advertisers. “We have close to 5000 subscribers between YouTube, SMTC and the community,” says Hetal. SMTC gets about 10,000 video views per day on YouTube and 20,000 on the website. It is a great example of a successful blog that is neither technology-related nor politically inspired.

Credit for the success must also go to SMTC’s marketing efforts. The videos are available of YouTube and SMTC is up on Twitter, FaceBook, Orkut and other social networking sites as well on mobile phones. The friends also decided to start a SMTC community where viewers could put up their own recipes. “And if one of them is really good, we make a video of it ourselves, with credit to the original poster,” says Anuja.

The website has been featured in many of the local media affiliates and on USA Today. “We want to become a household name one day,” says Hetal.

Here is a video on how to make perfect Ras Malai, one that is the favorite of the founders:

H/T to Madhavi Cheruvu for the article idea.

Sitaare TV – A local alternative to Showbiz India

By Vidya Pradhan

For those of us without satellite TV and needing a Bollywood fix on weekends, our only choices have been Showbiz India, anchored by the enterprising Reshma Dordi and to a certain extent, Namaste America, which covers weekly India news and entertainment.

Now a local mother-daughter team has put together a show called Sitaare( star) TV, that airs on Comcast and the Ohlone's network. The show, anchored by Kavita Arora and produced by her mom Poonam Bajaj, puts together Bollywood songs woven around a theme. Last Saturday, I enjoyed watching old Rishi Kapoor songs like "Ek Hasina Thi" and scenes from Bobby. Continue reading

Making dough from dough – Shasta Foods

By Vidya Pradhan  

The typical Silicon Valley success story has to do with chips, b(y)tes, outsourcing and lots and lots of dough. Well, so does our story, though not in the way you might think. It all started when the bottom fell out of the hardware market in the early part of this century. Mani Krishnan, who had been making a comfortable living exporting computers, printers and peripherals to India, suddenly found himself in the unfamiliar territory of having to hound his Indian distributors for collections.

Having made a resolve never to work for anyone else ever again, Mani was scouting around for ideas for a new business when a friend commented on the lack of good South Indian coffee in the Bay Area Indian stores. A tie-up with 777, a Chennai based company selling various Indian processed foods led to the seeds of a new business, now importing goods into the US instead of the other way around. Mani’s fragrant godown in Mountain View now stocks pickles, sambar powder, puliyogare paste and of course many different brands of ‘kapi’ but the secret to the success of his fledgling company is – batter!

Continue reading