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Street-Smart & Enterprising – Business Lessons I Learned From the Wonderful ‘Walas’ of India

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“Pay-paaaaar!”

Many of us living in India might have woken up to the call of the paperwala early in the morning. This might have been followed in quick succession by the doodhwala, sabjiwala or a myriad of other vendors who’re doing the neighbourhood rounds. In my case, it’s the santrawala who sends me into peals of giggles with his distinctive chant, a tune that’s going to stick with me for life (and surprisingly lends itself to many other fruit).

Behind India’s chaos, there are a bunch of men and women who quietly operate the clockwork, winding up the machinery and keeping things running smoothly. I like to call them the wonderful walas of India. While ‘wala’ really refers to a male vendor, I’d like to include all our bais, akkas, annas, bhaiyas, uncles, chettas, aunties and everyone who makes up the rich community we are part of. The community we interact with so regularly and casually on a daily basis.

At 6 am sharp, a man on a cycle, with two bags tied to the sides of his carrier, comes to a quiet neighbourhood in Hyderabad, where people go for morning walks. Within an hour, his idlis are sold out. In the same housing colony, the relentless summer heat is soothed by the ice-cream wala (a childhood favourite) who doubles up as the bhuttawala in the monsoons.

I believe that street vendors offer a wealth of life lessons – from resilience and determination to being street-smart and enterprising. Some of the best discussions I’ve had is with chatty autowalas or from the local chaiwala. I’ve tried to jot down learnings from my observations and conversations below.

Adaptation

The ice-cream man who becomes the bhutta-man during monsoon

Street vendors are perhaps the most adaptive to the ever-changing market. The couple who ran a chai-stall (also serving snacks in the evening) next to the office where I worked suddenly saw opportunity to bring home-cooked food to offices in the neighbourhood. After running a pilot project for about 2 weeks and confirming that there was a fairly good response, they invested in a larger stall and utensils, and started selling meals at lunchtime. Of course, they continued to sell chai and bondas.

“We’ve got to evolve with the demands of the market,” the uncle said cheerfully. “If this fails, it’s okay, I’ll keep selling chai. But at least I’ll know I tried!”

The neighbourhood dhobi aunty, whose family I’ve watched grow since I was a little kid, has now grown her family business as well. Her son recently bought an auto, an additional source of income to the family business. The street puppy that her kids played with is now a dog with a collar.

Startup 101

In spite of the supermarkets, many of us still prefer to buy fresh produce off the road

When I enrolled for a business course at a university, my accounts professor started with, “Imagine that you’re a chaiwala…” and everything we learnt from that point on was from a chaiwala’s perspective.

Observe any street vendor for a few days and you grasp a whole range of concepts – multitasking, dealing with competition, the importance of location and presentation, keeping up with market trends. Here it’s all about developing trust, loyalty and building one-to-one relationships with customers (how many of us have running credit accounts?) and being able to offer individual customizations. It’s much like how e-commerce websites record your personal preferences, but in the more traditional form, at the human level.

Vendors are also aware of the potential of online marketing channels. “Write me a Facebook review,” says a dosa vendor, as I thank him for a hearty breakfast. With roadside eateries making their way into the online world, they’re trying to keep track of that as well, even without necessarily being connected to the internet! Many of them adapted quickly to digital payments during the cash crisis.

In spite of supermarkets, we all have that weekly ‘sante’ we visit and we know the lady who sells the freshest greens.

Timing is everything

The chai stall that opens before the sun is up and shuts long after the sun is down

Whether we’re retailers or social media content creators, we plan in advance for festivals, events and seasons. We put months into our Christmas campaigns, our Diwali sales, end-of-season clearances.

Vendors seem to spring into action like magic, according to the occasion. Our phool-wala is probably the person most in demand during festivals. He hires an extra person so that he can split up the work – one person to man the stall while another goes and decorate houses. Of course, he has flowers tailored specifically to certain poojas – one month there are lotuses, another month there’s jasmine. Need a gigantic mala of roses by tomorrow? No problem. Need banana trees for a wedding? Can be arranged. Nothing is impossible. You begin to buy in to this alluring ‘ho jayega‘ attitude (though it doesn’t always result in desirable consequences!).

On a busy road in Hyderabad’s Himayatnagar, there’s a shop that transforms itself into just about anything, depending on the month of the year. During Diwali it’s stocked with fireworks, during Sankranthi it’s covered with kites. During Rakshabandhan, rakhis ranging from terracotta to crystal hang from its shelves. I go there just to poke around and always end up buying something I don’t need (aha, the tricks they play on you!).

Of late, Hyderabadi vendors have been serving ‘vegetarian haleem’, bringing another audience into their fold. To cater to those who work late nights, several stalls have sprung up over the city, sometimes with multiple people in the family managing shifts.

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After having moved abroad, I’ve realized that there’s so much strength in this rich, vibrant community that makes up such a huge part of India. The entrepreneurial spirit seems indomitable – it’s almost like a living entity, breathing in all its streets.

A few years ago, I met a guide in Delhi who was taking visitors around Agrasen ki Baoli, jabbering away in impressive German. When I asked him about it, he said,

“Bahut sare log Germany se aathe hain. Toh hamne ye bhasha seekh liya! Guide toh bahut sare hain, kuch alag sa, kuch specialization karna padta hai!” (There are many tourists from Germany. So I learned the language. There are many guides, so you have to do something different, like a specialization).

What’s most heart-warming is the never-say-die attitude. This spirit is what forms the skeleton and soul of India. Perhaps chaiwalas should take to advising big companies on business decisions. You never know how that might turn out!

(Written by Ramya Sriram)

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About the author: Ramya Sriram is a cartoonist and writer. She runs The Tap, where she tells stories visually and verbally.