International Trade

Doing business with India: 8 mistakes

5 min read

08 January 2013

India is a two-speed nation, so incoming UK businesses must take time to develop their understanding, says a leading UK-India expert

Increasingly I meet business people who have been to India at least once – with their backpacks – back in the eighties and nineties. Gone is the generation that grew up in India on military cantonments who complimented me on my command of English. What a relief!

With this generational change, is there also a greater commercial awareness? Have we moved on from the business skills of the East India Company?

Here is my take on the mistakes that UK companies make when wanting to enter Indian markets. The notes are based on a sanity check with Dr Uday Phadke who works actively in this area as chair of AcceleratorIndia.

  1. UK companies seem to be waking up to the size of the Indian market opportunity but still really look at India as an outsource destination. That is yesterday’s story.
  2. Those who do “get it” do not as yet understand that getting into the Indian market requires a different approach – it is not just about finding a distributor, a warehouse and negotiating around exclusive or non-exclusive deals. Market entry needs to be more sophisticated.
  3. Boards are impatient for results and need to show deals but they do not allocate sufficient resource to first understand the market deeply, construct the value proposition and build relationships. Indian customers need a compelling story – just like any other – but their needs are different and they work both rapidly with decisions and slowly with actions – so one needs to learn fast/slow behaviours!
  4. Fear of IP theft – well this may well be true – but India has different social and ethical needs in the sense that monopolistic prices by multinationals is no more tolerated in India than it is by the EU Commission or by UK taxpayers. The mistake is not about IP strategy as much as it is about speed of action.
  5. Perhaps the most common mistakes are “I know a man….” ; “My accountant told me….”. India is a country in which relationships are  important but they need to be with people who deeply understand how to construct the value proposition for your business, how to develop the business model that will appeal to your board and to your customers.
  6. Another favourite is the one about going on a ministerial delegation! I think one makes connections that have more value in the home market than in the proposed destination! They are no substitute for truly understanding and investing in the marketplace.
  7. UK companies still obsess over the US and will overspend on getting regulatory approvals. Many firms have died on the shores of the US – but still the firms persist. Looking west originally was to find a route to the east – there are easier routes now!
  8. Possibly the most unfathomable aspect of India is that there are at least two Indias – the old India – slow, corrupt, colourful and much written about by prize-winning Indian authors. Then there is the modern entrepreneurial India – professional, demanding, worldly and able to “adjust” with the old. These are the movers and shakers who are affecting the lives of millions. They are not to be confused with the opaque group of billionaires who look modern but are part of the old India.

My recommendation would be to truly understand the market potential for your products and services in India. It is a large market. Take deep dives.

Find a champion who will lead the charge and will understand the fast/slow approach you need. You will certainly need to allocate budget and ensure that the partners you find in your “go to India” strategy are not only those you can get on with but are also those who have a real understanding of the markets, customers and value chains.

You will need some level of expertise to refine your value proposition and perhaps re-craft your business model.

For some companies the choices are between a mediocre existence – in mature and declining markets – or jumping to growth markets. If you need to do the latter – prepare for the jump!

Shai Vyakarnam is director of the Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning at Cambridge Judge Business School. 

Nominations are open for the 2013 Asian Women of Achievement awards, hosted by Real Business and Pinky Lilani OBE, in association with RBS.