Last month, I spent 10 days in India, about half of which in my parents’ home state of Gujarat and the remaining half in Bombay — India’s version of New York City. I spent time in small rural villages and I also spent time around businesses that made me feel like I had never left the States. I had visited most of India before, this was my fifth trip to the motherland, but this time I had a unique experience.
An Entrepreneurial Lens
Over the last three years, my life has revolved completely around entrepreneurs and my own entrepreneurial experiences, so this time, everywhere I looked, I saw business models, market opportunities, and India’s unique flavor of entrepreneurship.
It’s what my friend Arik Abel calls Entrepreneurial Tourism – intentionally using your travels to inform your entrepreneurial journey. It’s a perspective from which entrepreneurs all over the world, and particularly in places like the Triangle, can stand to benefit.
At its core, entrepreneurial tourism is about what happens when a first world entrepreneur observes an entrepreneur in a developing country building a solution that allows others to review and rate the sanitation of, for example, public toilets.
Yes. Yelp for public toilets. And if that sounds silly to you, let me be the first to tell you, it’s an excellent idea that I would have happily paid for.
Everyday I’m Hustlin’
India doesn’t have the ubiquitous Wal-Marts and Targets we’re accustomed to in the U.S. Instead, the typical India street is jam packed with micro-garages that serve as spaces for retail businesses. You have to buy everything a la carte and, most of the time, directly from the shop owner. Most anything you need in your day-to-day can be bought from a local enterprising entrepreneur—the baker, the pharmacist, the produce guy, and the street food vendor (my favorite). They’re all hustling because competition is literally everywhere and, while most margins are thin, there are occasionally westerners like myself that they can dupe to make an extra rupee or two.
It’s the kind of hustle that drives a restaurant owner to run across the street to get eggs for the one vegetarian in the party, so as not to lose the entire party to a competing restaurant. It’s the kind of hustle that creates salespeople that proclaim, “This will be the sweetest apple you’ve ever tasted.” It’s the kind of startup hustle that entrepreneurs in the States live by every day, except it’s on every street corner. And that critical mass creates for a unique environment.
A Lot is Shitty and You Can Still Be Happy
Around the same time, I read Zack Mansfield’s article exalting the sunny side of startup life Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy and I nodded my head in agreement with every sentence. I’ve always been an optimist, and my entrepreneurial experience absolutely validates his article’s applicability to startup life.
Just a few hours later, I was walking through the streets of Bombay, surrounded by slums. If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you’ll get the picture. If you haven’t, take my word for it – it’s a terrible way to live.
But even in those conditions, I found that people had hope – the kind of hope spurred by an instinctive entrepreneurial drive to survive. I did a double take as I walked by a man and a woman sitting in piles of old, stinky trash. Yes, they were literally sitting surrounded by trash. For a second, I wondered why they would do that. And then I saw that they had a separate pile to the side – of recyclable plastic, glass, and bottle caps. I can only presume they were going to exchange those recyclables in exchange for their day’s worth of money to buy food and survive.
They’d found a way to find a manageable way to live in a horrible situation. Their day-to-day is a long way from the awesome world Zack described, but they’re finding a way to satisfy their basic needs.
As we deal with our first world problems—unemployment, the ups and downs of startup life, etc., it’s important to remember there’s a silver lining in every shitty situation, and you may be able to make something useful of it if you’re willing to get your hands dirty and seek that solution out.