Learnings from building a startup in India
Edit : Changed the startup’s name to “ShopConnect” and removing graphics containing the original name for the sake of privacy.
It all started in 2016, when we were taking a walk around the local stores in Connaught Place (New Delhi) during the time of the rapidly changing mobile internet scene in India. I was meeting my college friend after long who had some thoughts about starting a new business. Over some discussions, we conceptualised the idea and started designing a business case around it. We named it ShopConnect.
Why did we want to build ShopConnect?
E-commerce has been booming in India since 2010. Consumers are getting comfortable buying online, paying online, and receiving items at their door. But in India, it’s been difficult to recreate the offline experience of buying a product. There are no big brand stores here, and the economy relies on small mom-and-pop stores. Furthermore, consumers in Tier II and Tier III cities trust in-person local retailers. When neighbourhood retailers can provide lower prices than the ones online, people prefer to buy from the local store.
We felt that if we could bring that offline shopping experience online just a little bit, we could generate more business in Tier II and Tier III cities. We started with large appliances, because they are periodic, milestone buys that warrant an offline experience to try out the product. The easiest way is to see the washing machine or fridge or flatscreen TV in-person and make the purchase.
We also noticed that offline stores nearby can end up having lower pricing. Both in terms of transportation cost and time for delivery. Having the store nearby also makes it more comfortable to get repair and warranty check-ups done. There’s a big win in buying from offline stores in the area, and we wanted to capitalise on this opportunity.
What was the product?
ShopConnect is an app that helps you connect to all appliance stores near you.
How does it work?
- As a ShopConnect app user, find the appliance you are interested in buying.
- Within 24 hours, you’ll get special prices for that appliance from the local places around you. The local suppliers are made aware of the online prices through our seller app. They bid against each other to sell you the best price.
- The best product price and availability in neighboring stores are sent to your ShopConnect app. Source all the information you need about the appliance before you enter these stores.
- Check out the product in-person by visiting the stores around you.
- Buy the item (in store or on the app) and it will get sent to your doorstep from the local supplier. It’s fast, it enables the in-person experience, and it’s from a trusted retailer!
4 things I did to build this
#1 — Researched the market & the customer
I spoke to consumers in Delhi, Agra, Bangalore, and Coimbatore (Tier 2 city in Tamil Nadu) who buy appliances. City people buy a lot of appliances whenever they move. In India, homes are rarely fitted with appliances and it’s up to the resident to buy everything.
Tier II and Tier III cities in India make up a large portion of the country’s population and there’s a huge market for appliance purchase in these areas. With e-commerce being relatively new to these cities in the last 1–2 years, an appliance purchase still feels a little tricky to make online. I learned that if prices are relatively the same online and offline, people prefer to buy in person.
When I looked the competitive landscape of online-to-offline transactions, I noticed that a lot of e-commerce companies in India were starting to take this approach — namely Flipkart, Snapdeal, and Google.
#2 — User research with merchants
I visited local merchants in Delhi, Agra, Bangalore, and Coimbatore (Tier 2 city in Tamil Nadu). I wanted to understand how they feel about being appliance sellers online on e-commerce websites.
The results were startling. They were angry and upset at having to sell online. They join e-commerce portals because there’s no choice but to compete with others online. Returns are painful and often items are broken when returned. Customer satisfaction and interaction isn’t personable and reviews entirely drive their credibility. They know the benefits of online exposure and digital advertising, but have some qualms about it and don’t know how to capitalize on it entirely.
However, when we spoke about having customers enter the store and see their products, their eyes lit up. They know that a sale matters, but getting people in the door is equally important. Once a person enters the store and sees the product, their in-store marketing can kick in and the sale becomes easier.
I especially liked the logo of ShopConnect for several reasons (EDIT: Removed original logo for privacy). One, it had the word “sale” in it. This is a big hook because people will see the word “sale” and want to visit. Two, we made the logo entirely in black and white, which is cheap to print and reproduce and stick on local stores. It also looked classy. Three, the word “EDIT: Removed original name” sounded western and the Indian population has an attraction towards foreign brands. One fascinating example is a line of clothing brands with Western names — Raymond, Peter England, Allen Solly — which are Indian-made but employ Western names to increase consumer trust and loyalty.
We also created a series of social media posts with witty humor that shows how offline purchasing can be better than online purchasing. Take a look at a few posts below!
#4 — Built the product MVP. Design + prototyping + iOS apps.
I designed the customer-facing and merchant-facing apps. I created the UI for both of them. As part of user testing the customer app, we brought the app to our close friends and family. Since my colleague and I were from small towns in India (Tier II cities), our relatives were a perfect fit to our customer demographic.
I built the first functional version of the merchant app on iOS. We optimized the app to run on 2G and Edge data, since they are the prominent signal speeds in Tier II and Tier III cities. On the backend, our system was designed to just push the delta, or the difference in system status, to the app. We significantly reduced the payloads sent to the app by building the backend this way. Our app was also much faster and responsive in low network speeds.
The Merchant App
The ShopConnect app for Consumers
After four months of working full time on ShopConnect with my colleague, I decided to part ways. We had differences in how we envisioned the business of the product going forward. I soon realised I needed to be in a different mind space which would be better for the startup and my own self.
Nonetheless, I owe a lot to my colleague for taking this journey with me. I learned a lot along the way. Now when I reflect back on the summer of 2016, I can think of several lessons that I took away from the experience.
Lessons I learned — the hard way
If entering a business partnership, agree to business terms on paper. And sign on that dotted line. Otherwise, when things are in your head and are not put on paper, the past can be changed or misinterpreted. That said, no amount of paperwork can build trust in the partnership; that’s a work-in-progress of its own.
1. Know when to stop optimising.
Ship first and then make it better. Define on paper what is considered as a complete MVP for you. Rush hard to finish this. Do not take more than 3 months to get a functional version out after you’ve locked down on the features.
2. Going full-time doesn’t necessarily increase productivity.
Don’t change a productive schedule (even if it’s part-time) unless things are breaking. If you don’t do it when you are busy, you won’t do it when you are free.
3. Learn how to prioritise and plan your own work .
Earlier I would do what’s assigned to me at work (and I’d do it well). But when you are building your own vision, you need to have a goal and think and plan twice as hard. I could have planned my own schedule better. I have learnt, and now since a year I strictly follow weekly planning.
4. Learn to work in loneliness
When everyone else is off to work at 9am, being alone and working on your code can be challenging. You are going against social norms of a full-time job. Make peace with this, because it will catch up to you as FOMO.
5. Passion is short-lived, hard work wins
Talent is overrated, never forget to work hard.
(I am not associated with the ShopConnect product anymore. Much of my design work has also been modified in the final product.)
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