We often compare India with China, especially when it comes to online markets.
Both countries have a lot of similarities. They have a huge set of diverse populations that are culturally, linguistically, geographically, and socially varied. Their primary language is not English.
But, there are some glaring differences between the two countries, too. And we should learn from them.
In my most recent visit to China, I met over 15 companies (large and small) in the IT and digital technology space. Their respective founders or their representatives presented their growth and plans to over 25 CEOs from Indian companies.
Here are my key takeaways from the trip:
Learn globally. Implement locally.
China has a large captive market to cater to. About 30% of the Chinese founders I met were educated in the US. They actively learnt from the American growth factors and returned home to solve local problems.
These companies grew by developing China-specific solutions, not global ones. They clearly understand that one size does not fit all.
India, like China, has a large captive market to solve, too.
But, as globalisation set in, we began to heavily borrow our solutions and approaches from the West. Solutions for India are often imitations of what may have worked in the US.
The founders and the teams developing solutions in the digital world are English-educated and savvy. They have got themselves distanced from the large majority of Indian consumers in a way that it is hard to connect with them. It is time to rethink our approaches with a local leaning.
Like these Chinese founders, many ambitious Indians focusing on entrepreneurship travel to the US for higher education. But most do not come back to India. Why?
The answer is simple: Infrastructure.
Infrastructure is a nurturing foundation
The Chinese founders did not find it difficult to return home to solve local problems.
In China, they already have a comfortable infrastructure to begin with. The Chinese government took a leaf out of the American growth and focused on infrastructure. It worked for America. It worked for Taiwan. Now, it works for China in its entirety.
As a result of this, the Chinese lifestyle improved, and the Chinese businesses operated smoothly. The people who returned to China to set up their own businesses didnt find it difficult to live or make a living.
India is rapidly on its way to building a better infrastructure. But, we still have miles to cover. Literally.
Basic infrastructure like electricity, telecom (includes high speed data) and roads are yet to reach the smaller towns and villages that are not connected by the highways. This will continue to pose a challenge to all digital access and physical deliveries.
Not only that. When the basic needs are not addressed, it is hard to make a living. India may be fast becoming a start-up hub. But, it is still difficult to set up a business in India and make ends meet.
This lack of infrastructure poses another great threat to succeed as a business in India, which is:
There are significant gaps in the understanding of our user base
Every Chinese founder I met spoke about India being their largest and fastest growing market outside China. In fact, in some cases, they ended up educating us more than we knew about the Indian market.
I met some Chinese companies who have succeeded in entering the Indian market, studying, iterating, and surpassing existing Indian solutions.
Their respect for consumers and customers is very high.
In India, we understand and acknowledge the size of the Indian market and its potential as a challenging problem to be solved, which brings us to the obvious question:
Why havent we been able to accomplish what Chinese already have in our own country?
Because, we undermine our own Indian consumers. Consistently.
This takes away our ability to understand them better. We do not have enough respect for our Indian consumers. This is the reason why the Chinese were able to tell us more about our own markets.
Culturally, a non-English user is undermined and is expected to work his way through with the help of an English-educated friend or agent. And this has unfortunately wormed its way into our business as well.
Lack of local-language content is a grave threat to our economy
Not respecting English ignorance is not the fault of the people.
In India, English is directly linked to knowledge. Access to higher education in India is available only in English, which poses two serious problems.
Primarily, this creates a general differentiation, an unwritten apartheid. Secondly, a large number of capable geniuses who are not English-savvy will never have easy access to knowledge and the latest developments in any field.
Because the content is not in their language.
This means that most people in India will never make something great because of this English firewall. Some who may dare attempt it would still be ridiculed if they are not conversant in the English language.
Entrepreneurship becomes an elitist notion. And we are not an elitist nation.
The Chinese and many other developed countries do not have this problem because education and knowledge is available in their local languages.
Online education businesses are growing with the growing digital world. Making knowledge accessible in local languages is a highly potent solution, for businesses as well as our nation.
Underestimating and shunning the Indian consumers will not help us understand them or win them over. Rather than addressing this problem, we have adopted an easy way out, which wont help us in the long run. And that is,
We buy our way in. Unabashedly.
India is a cost-sensitive market, and we have taken undue advantage of this. A real business creates value by solving a problem. A problem is solved only when a barrier is removed or convenience is created. There is a cost that one pays to buy such solution/convenience.
Many Indian businesses in the digital medium have tried to buy consumers.
This is a disrespect to their needs or willingness to buy convenience. It shifts the business focus to luring through subsidies, and in the process, doing more of it. In the long run, consumer expectations in this medium are altered forever.
The Chinese and most other companies elsewhere rarely have the luxury of VC funding.
They set up businesses on loans and have the obligation to repay through revenue. So, their focus is entirely on creating value and keeping costs and pay-outs realistic.
Though there are some VC funds available now in China and some of the large successful internet companies are investing, they have already got accustomed into making real business by creating value.
Now that we know what our problems are, the next question is how do solve them?
Localisation is key
It was a major resonance with all the companies and teams I met in China. Localisation is not understood as translation alone. After all, language was not the biggest problem the Chinese had faced. But, localisation to them was about presenting the solution in a local way.
Localisation is understanding the needs and behaviour of a user in a new geography or culture and presenting a local solution, in their language.
It was common knowledge among the Chinese that minority users adapt to the expected behaviour of the majority.
In India, a large number of brick and mortar businesses serving local needs understand the need for localisation very well.
When the Marwaris and other business communities migrate to set up a new business in a new geography, they quickly learn the local language and culture and serve to the exact needs and behaviour of the local buyers.
The online businesses in India can learn a thing or two from these local business owners. The technology and digital world in India is largely indifferent to local needs. We want the savvy and better-educated minorities to be served well and the rest to adapt. This heavily undermines the majority users.
A local-language user often blames himself for his limited ability use a digital system. Some actually put in the hard work of learning the new system but many others give up. It ought to be the other way around.
A system designed for the large majority of local users that most other English users can work their way around is more appropriate.
This might appear overboard, but there are clear success stories with this approach. Take the Chinese and our local businesses for instance.
Learning from the physical businesses, understanding users ground up, hiring local creative minds and developing for India are key to solving this problem of digital exclusion of local-language users.