I am currently on a career break. It is similar to a sabbatical where people take some time off from their jobs to do something totally different, only in my case I had to quit my job to take this. I am planning to write a separate blog post on my thoughts behind this decision. On this one I will take your through the start-up ecosystem of North-East and how the various e-com players fare here.

Being born and brought up in Guwahati (Assam, North-East India), it has been an incredible feeling to see this region transform over the last decade. Thanks to my college and then job I have not had many opportunities in the past few years to spend an extended period of time at home. So this break has been a blessing for me. I have been meeting local entrepreneurs, talking with people of various ages and trying to understand the North-East start-up ecosystem. Here are a few thoughts on the same:

  1. There has never been a better time to start-up here. Similar to the rest of India the region is currently buzzing with start-up vibe and every one is trying to come up with ideas to transform the region. With the Start-up India campaign and a dedicated North East fund the Indian Government is also supporting passionate entrepreneurs. Inspired by the success of mainland Indian start-ups like Flipkart and Snapdeal, recent graduates have started to look beyond the stable middle class Government jobs and strike out on their own.

  2. A lot of events are being conducted with support from the Government and experienced entrepreneurs have started to actively mentor upcoming start-ups. You can check this site for more details: http://nestartups.in/

  3. An entirely new generation is coming online for the first time and shopping from e commerce sites too instead of relying on nearby shopping complexes. India’s North East is quietly becoming one of the fastest-growing markets for online retailers. Almost all the top e-commerce sites deliver to pin codes in the North East (including small towns) and with easy return policies the psychological barrier of buying online is no longer there. The only issue I found while ordering for items from here is the really long delivery time. Logistics is going to be the key here. The e-com player who can decrease delivery time and ensure smoother delivery will win in the long run.

  4. The last time I came home most people had not heard about Ola/Uber. How things have changed since then! You can practically see Ola and Uber everywhere now. People are finding it tough to hire new drivers because every driver in town seemed to have joined Uber/Ola. The rise of on- demand service was inevitable here considering autorickshaws don’t run on meter and charge exorbitant prices. I had to pay 50 Rs once for a 1 km ride. I have not taken an auto since then. Here is a screenshot of the Uber app I took at 9 PM. You can see quite a few cabs being available.

  1. There is a much larger opportunity here for both Ola and Uber (including start-ups like Zoomcar). Normal taxis charge a bomb for rental if you want to go outstation. And with the growth of tourism in the region there will be a much bigger market for these players to crack.

  2. If you are looking for doctors you will be dissapointed to learn that the most well funded Health care apps like Practo have not begun operations here. I could see listings on other applications like Justdial, Lybrate and HealthFrog though. There is an opportunity here for one of them to gain market share quickly and march ahead of their competitors. And when we are talking about the market we are not talking of just one but seven sister states in the north east.

  1. Swiggy and Zomato have not started food delivery yet. Zomato lists quite a few restaurants but without a delivery option. Foodpanda has only 2–3 restaurants to order from. Local players like PicknDel have taken advantage of this and come up with their own offerings. You can see the PicknDel app here which lets you order food in the GS Road area of Guwahati.

  1. Data Consumption behavior of people is changing. Reliance Jio entering the telecommunication space will be remembered as a major watershed movement in the Indian internet story. I was a Jio skeptic earlier. Then I saw how people’s internet behavior changed once they got their Jio sim. Free + Unlimited internet is like cocaine. Once you got hooked to it you will do anything in your capacity to get your daily hit. Don’t believe it? Read this: Indians Spurn Snacks, Shampoo to Load Their Smartphones. All my cousins/friends here are streaming videos/downloading files non stop with their Jio sims. Such is demand that Jio sims are being sold in the black market. Even after the free ride stops I am pretty sure a lot of these people will continue to be heavy data users. It is hard to alter user behavior. During a recent trip to Meghalaya we were getting Jio network in some of the most remote places. Trust me when I say this: Jio is a big deal and it will change internet usage not just in the North East but all over India. Unable to cope up other networks will also be forced to decrease data costs.

  2. I had never heard about Oppo, Vivo before I read about how they displaced Xiaomi from the top in China’s cut throat smart phone market. They are using the same old-school brick-and-mortar stores strategy here in the North East. You can see Oppo billboard ads everywhere.

Affordable smart phones availability -> More users who can suddenly afford them -> More internet usage -> More people who will purchase online and pay for your services.

  1. Not everything is rosy though. Here are some of the challenges faced by start-ups in the North East: a) Lack of talent. Graduates prefer working in one of the metros where job opportunities as well as career growth is much more. It is hard to build a good technical team here and hence most of the start-ups I talked to have got their tech outsourced and we all know how hard it is to build a good online product without an in-house tech team. b) Even if the number of people coming online is increasing steadily the total addressable market (TAM) for most start-ups is still small. So one of the major questions one has to ask is whether to to focus on just the local area or scale across the nation. c) It is very hard for local players to compete with well funded start-ups outside of the region. Imagine being a new fashion e-commerce startup who starts their operation only in the North-East. To compete with Myntra you will need to have either 1. An exclusive catalog and/or 2. Significant lower price and/or 3. Superior logistics which drastically reduce delivery time. 1 and 2 are very difficult to achieve. So you might be better off focusing on the 3rd. But it is still to be seen if people are willing to try an entirely unknown site just because the delivery time is less. d) There is still some issues with insurgency and considering the fact that most people lack a general idea about the region, it is very hard to raise funding or even explain the market potential to outside investors. e) Internet speed/access is still pretty bad. I hope Jio will change it.

There is an enormous potential in the region. I just hope start-ups take advantage of this and create a few products we can all be proud of.

P.S If you are a start-up in the North-East and need help/want to discuss anything feel free to reach out here : Manas Saloi