Moving Together: Big Lessons from Small Business-Community Ecosystems

What inspires people? To overcome their circumstances, their inhibitions, their challenges, their detractors and even themselves? And how do they do it?

And what is entrepreneurship? Or business for that matter? What is the best way to learn how to run and grow your business?  

Well, I learned a few approaches – 18 to be precise – on Saturday, 11th August, 2018 at The Lifestyle Portal’s (TLP) 1st Entrepreneur Meet-up in Mumbai. For starters, there were 23 people at the Meet-up, and they had 23 different businesses. Eighteen of the participants spoke on a given topic (How Challenges helped them) – unaware that they were being judged on presentation, concept and business model. 

So what, one might wonder. It’s just another event for ‘entrepreneurs’.

True, but there was a difference. These are all small, even tiny businesses … well, all except one (but that’s for another day). Businesses like Harshali Sawant’s stall in her college canteen. Harshali is a college student who attended TLP Founder Tanya’s talk on entrepreneurship at her college last week and decided to come for the Meet-up. She started her journey with a friend a little over a year ago when they put a ‘Apna Dosa’ stall in their college with a variety of offerings including a Szechwan Dosa. Currently, they have the food stall in the canteen and they manage to make a little bit of profit every day. Harshali is clear that she wants to be an entrepreneur and she’s trying to learn in every way she can. “This forum is a great support and learning opportunity for me and others like me. I am very young compared to everyone here and I am learning so much from everybody’s journey,” Harshali said during one of the coffee breaks.

So what, after all everyone is into mentoring and coaching and advising start-ups and businesses. 

True, but there was a difference. The age range was between 20 and 70 – as a Keynote Speaker, I should have prepared better. None of the examples in my presentation were of people older than 40 years. And, most of the participants in this Meet-up knew each other: they are already a community – this wasn’t a random entrepreneur event – many are neighbours, some have become close friends, and quite a few are doing business with each other. And these are real stories, not Excel sheet and Word document business plans that have a lot of investor money behind them. Some started with as little as Rs. 10,000 (that’s 150 USD) or less.

Participants at the TLP 1st Entrepreneurs Meetup In Mumbai go through an exercise

And the stories are compelling. Like the story of Sunita Mundra, the Founder of Muskan Collection, a small (but established) business of Indian and Indo-Western women’s clothing. Listening to her, I realised that Muskan has already gone through all the stages of identifying market, zooming in on the correct target audience (customer-profile), planning and taking risks, and mitigating the risks in a typical manufacturing-to-sale cycle (e.g.: too much inventory, too less customers) – Sunita and her small team has already been through it all.

Like the story of Gaurang Chandrana, the CEO of Abhisti and Wellzee. Gaurang’s personal journey itself was inspiration enough given the hard-knock struggles he went through, but it was his willingness to change that was the key learning outcome for me. After spending more than two years doing the rounds pitching his business, he had an epiphany 90 days ago, and decided to change his entire approach and communication around how he presented his business. The result is that he raised some seed capital from multiple investors in recent months. That required him to abandon some of his long-held beliefs and he did, which takes great courage.

Like the story of Paayel Agarwaal, Founder of The Food Devotee, a business concept that Paayel is evolving around her vegan lifestyle. And it is not a hobby or an evangelisation, she has a clear concept articulated, services that she is already delivering, and vegan products that she already manufactures.   And the journey of Rashmi Bagri, an Experiential Corporate Trainer, who is trying to figure out how to expand the horizons of her training firm. 

Keynote Speaker, Avishek Ganguly Of Calls Incorporated provided insights into Talent Acquisition strategies for small businesses.

Now how does one judge such a diverse group? That was something I hadn’t factored in when agreeing to judge the event – neither had the other judge, Avishek Ganguly (Founder Calls Incorporated). So we sat down and spent a good bit of time, debating and eventually coming up with some clear parameters for evaluating on a 1-4 Scale, and also how to address in case of ties. Eventually, Aparna Garg won for Best Presenter, Anushree Chatterjee Patni for Most Innovative Concept, and Salloni Malkani took Most Promising Entrepreneur.

And they hadn’t really come to listen to experienced ‘business’ or ‘corporate’ people – although they were happy to listen and appreciate what we had to say. They had come to listen to each other’s experiences and to support each other and to make the event a success because it was organised by one among them, and to help strengthen the platform that The Lifestyle Portal has created and developed for all of them.

And that for me was the big reminder and learning anew: a community has to be real for it to work. In today’s age, digital communities are mushrooming all around but do they stand with each other in real-world problems? I don’t know. But I do know from growing up with a large community of friends and family, that real human connections do stand with each other – they don’t abandon you in times of need, they see you through it, even if it is just by standing with you and being in your lives and doing nothing other than having chai with you as per usual. And the TLP Entrepreneur Meet reaffirmed that: this is a real community of people who are standing with each other so that all of them can succeed and have a support system for their work.

I call it a reminder because this was one of the reasons why RedstoneSummerhill had taken on TLP as a consulting engagement in the first place. RedstoneSummerhill was established in 2013 with a vision to invest time, knowledge and tiny amounts of money (that’s all we can afford) in individuals who have an overwhelming need or drive to make a business out of what at first glance seem like ‘non-business’ businesses or hobbies or additional vocations. And as part of that vision, we had engaged with artists, and engineers with diverse operational experiences and managed to launch a couple of start-ups.

Then towards the third quarter of 2016, TLP Founder Tanya had reached out for advise and guidance on how to grow TLP into a viable and remunerative business. Like many others in the TLP community, she was going through a transition phase, and was trying to focus her energies on rebuilding the 5-year-old TLP into something meaningful for the entrepreneurs TLP wrote about, and for her family’s future. After the initial study, my consulting firm, RedstoneSummerhill took on TLP – my main curiosity was to find out how the emerging small businesses-community eco-system would pan out. Frankly, I couldn’t see how these nano-micro businesses could grow because many of them seemed to be existing on an informal ‘barter of services’ mode – that’s why I call it a ‘Small Businesses-Community’. But after consultation with my Financial Advisory team, we assessed that potential returns in the long-term should outweigh any short-term risks.

In the two years since, TLP has grown in a planned manner. Two new revenue streams; 40% revenue growth, (although short of targets), client list is growing at a steady pace. Has the business guidance helped? Yes definitely, by giving shape and direction, but the ideas are still the same and there has been no dilution of purpose – which is why the biggest gain has been in the strengthening of the TLP community.  

Will TLP grow big enough for RedstoneSummerhill to make any returns? Mayyyybe. And that is a huge improvement from “We don’t see how, but let’s see how it goes.” Meanwhile, we are ourselves in discussion to add a couple of consultants to our team because the nano-micro businesses ecosystem seems like a surer bet than technology startups, mainly because this little sector needs the experience that consultants bring, and consultants and small, seed capital investors can learn a big lesson by engaging in some barter-style deals themselves, by deferring their income/fees to when small businesses start making significant growth – what my team calls ‘value-based investing’. But very few corporates are doing that. And so, these businesses are teaching themselves and they are much better at it than we are. Like Apoorva Mairal (Founder of The Sweet Store) and Paayel (just two examples of business owners who are also teaching others what they do so that others can grow their talents into their own home-business to begin with). One of the real finds for me was Advocate Nishant Makasare (he came in literally half an hour before the end of the Meet, recounted his journey in a 2-minute capsule, and kind of blew me away – but that’s for a very different post).

It’s a tough road, and requires immense patience. But the hit ratio is likely to be better because these little businesses are all run by people who want to make it on their own steam, most come from middle-class backgrounds, and as such their prudence is to not lose money (whether theirs or their investors’), yet they are willing to take risks and therefore they find really innovative ways to work with others.  (21 of the 24 business owners I met at the TLP Meet-up were women who wanted to build something for themselves and contribute meaningfully to their families and society at large). From where I am sitting, this is a movement of movements that is happening all across India right now and there are media, information, digital, skill-based, knowledge-based small businesses that are rising together, very slowly, but surely, and they are moving ahead because they are moving together.

These businesses are going to succeed because they contribute to society at the very grass roots. They will add 2, 5, may 10, 20 jobs in their lifetime but they will also drive their partner eco-system (on an average, each such nano-business seems to have a minimum of 5-6 enabling partners) that in turn benefits another 2, 5, 10 people and so on.  

Yes, this is very much worth any risk that I would perceive.

Kanchan Shine’s Low-income Schools Education Project

I have known Kanchan Shine for more than a decade now. An Instructional Designer, business-owner, Education Consultant, Mother, Wife, Friend, Mentor to many, Kanchan has been in the Learning Industry for more than a decade.

Recently, she embarked on a significant journey, to put together a project  to use technology-enabled solution to help children from low-income backgrounds to learn English. After adequate research, she has designed a solution and is now taken off to do a test pilot in a municipal school in Mumbai. She’s done the initial funding herself, and is now reaching out to raise funds to support the three-month long pilot.

You can learn more about the project and contribute to it at: KanchineShineProject.


Old Lessons on a New Dawn

I started working in the early 1990s, and unlike many of my peers, I never took the path of steady, secure jobs and a career because it was never an option for me. This was because I had always been restless. Steady meant static, secure meant fear, and career meant loss of freedom due to conformance. By this time, I had enough data from within my family, family-friends and their family-circles to conclude that I had to find my own path. Please note I use the term family-circle – in today’s parlance this would be network. Most (more than Pareto’s 80%) of the people I knew of were in careers. Of the remaining, 15% were self-employed, craftspersons or business people, and a minuscule percentage (5%) were artists, of which less than half (so overall let’s say 2%) were making a living only of art (the others did art and held day jobs.

Stepping out of college – I went to a “professional” college for hotel management, the benefits of which education was a cornerstone of my entire life) – I stepped right into the living room of my family’s one-bedroom apartment in Mumbai and I stayed put there in front of the TV, contemplating life (MTV and Star Sports were very instructive). Keeping me company was Dmess, my friend and classmate from hotel management, and the four months that we spent watching TV were for all purposes the only four months we have spent doing nothing (from an outsider’s perspective) in the past 25 years.

In the subsequent two years, I travelled to (some times working, sometimes looking for work, always staying a few months) Bengaluru, Mumbai, Nashik, Delhi, Shimla, Chandigarh, Delhi, and back to Mumbai travelling by train and bus over Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh. This was 1992-94 and it was a difficult time in some ways, globalisation had started in India, there were political changes underfoot, terrorism made its first attacks, there was turmoil and churn in the job markets, but what I discovered was that life goes on. Throughout the parts of India I travelled to, hungry multitudes continued to toil every day come rain or shine, restless youth continued to stumble into their purpose in life, seasoned veterans provided assurance, stability and became the loud voice of caution against reckless abandon, teachers taught, students learned, fathers and mothers toiled and worried about their children, the children played wherever they could find space, criminals did what they always did, politicians argued on how to come to power, government tried to keep it all together and shepherd the nation, opposition raised performance issues against the government insisting they had alternatives … and meanwhile, the sky was blue, grey, purple, red, yellow with seasons as it aways had been; the wind traveled at its own pace, the rains came and went as they pleased, the mountains stood tall, the rivers flowed and ebbed, the animal kingdom continued its progress as per Darwin’s theory, the plant kingdom waged its lonely war against a shrinking area of existence. I learned that life was happening all the time, everywhere – this learning was important and I had to evolve a mechanism eventually to keep reminding myself that my problems and I are just a tiny part of a whole, enabling me to find solutions in the broader experience of the world. 

Since May 1992, I have been out of job, out of money, out of support, out of favour in jobs, cornered, up-the-wall, down-the-creek (literally), up-the-mountain-with-no-way-to-climb-down, several times, but I have never been alone because in those two years, I learned to walk with myself. And I learned that when you learn to walk with yourself, you get closer to God, and you learn not to argue about the form or shape of God with others, but just to talk to God, the God that resides within you, guiding you. And I learnt that when you find God, you find people walking with you, people from all walks of life.

Seemed like a good lesson to revisit in a new year.