India Gate, New Delhi. (photo by Chuang Kung-ju)
India’s economy has taken flight in recent years, but its much-coveted 1.3-billion-person market presents mindboggling barriers to entry.
Victor Rackets, the world’s number two manufacturer of badminton equipment, has its Indian offices in Gurgaon, 30 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. We decide to take the Delhi Metro there to see Joe Ko, the company’s managing director in India. When the train arrives at the platform and the doors open, a few young Indian men shout “one, two, three” in unison. We have our first experience of India’s unfathomably large population as we are borne into the carriage by a suddenly surging wave of humanity and find ourselves effectively pinioned by the crowd of commuters.
When later compelled to leave the train for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, we arrange an Uber to continue our trip. Shortly after we climb aboard, our driver halts outside a shabby little building where drivers of business vehicles must line up to pay a tax at what turns out to be a state border. Absent any automation at all, the process is managed entirely by hand, leaving us flabbergasted again by 21st-century India.
When we finally arrive at Victor’s offices and breathlessly relate our experience to Ko, he smiles like a monk in a martial arts novel. Nodding his head slightly, he says, “Don’t worry about it. That’s just the way it is in India.”
Joe Ko: Figuring it out on the fly
Having worked in India for more than three years, Ko is unfazed by its quirks.
Victor used to operate its India business through an agent, but its sales were stagnant. Ko happened to visit India in 2014, a year in which it underwent a major political shift, and found the nation bursting with confidence. After he reported this to Victor’s Taipei head office, the company decided to terminate its relationship with its Indian agent and open its own office there. “India is a good market, and they decided I could handle it myself,” says Ko.
So he set up shop, figuring he’d work things out on the fly. He lived in an Indian building, ate the local food, learned the language, observed how people went about their everyday lives, and immersed himself in the local culture, all to get a grip on the ABCs of investing—taxes, the electricity supply, good spots to set up a factory and hire workers—as they applied to India.
Once Ko had done that, he had to find the right person to work with. He asked the individual who had handled Victor’s business at its former agency to join the branch office, and, with the right person in place, was able to build relationships in the Indian badminton community and market very quickly.
In India, Victor again encountered its biggest competitor, Japan’s Yonex. Facing such a formidable rival, Ko could only talk to local associations while waiting for contracts to come up for renewal. Victor has so far negotiated sponsorship arrangements with three or four local associations and established itself with sporting goods stores in a number of cities and towns.
Ko is building Victor’s India business one step at a time, and is confident that 2017 sales will top Rs100 million. True, his competitor already has annual India sales of at least Rs3 billion, but Ko is proud to point out that if he hadn’t leapt into the fray three years ago, Victor wouldn’t have reached this milestone.
Hugo Wang: Tailoring flavors to local tastes
Hugo Wang’s food store Moon of Taj has a small storefront in the central market district of Lajpat Nagar, South Delhi, that blends Indian style with Taiwanese elements: tucked away inside the store is a gold-colored room with a raised floor, one wall decorated with a painting of peacocks, which Indians regard as auspicious; visitors are greeted with tea served in cups made by Taiwan’s Tai-Hwa Pottery; and the store’s own products are wrapped in eye-catching pink, sapphire blue, and violet packaging.
Hugo Wang established the Moon of Taj brand in India. Born in 1981 to a family that owns a well-known baozi shop in Jinshan on Taiwan’s north coast, he has been around the food processing business since he was a boy. His personal work history is interesting as well, including stints in traditional manufacturing, and electronics, as well as food processing. He began competing with Indians in 2006 while working for a Japanese firm. “I recognized even then that the country would be challenging. But the tremendous business opportunities it offers demand your attention nonetheless.”
Later he entered the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad (IIMA) as its first exchange student from Taiwan. The experience would give him a different impression of India, introduce him to members of its higher social strata, and enable him to build a local network. When Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s government launched its Startup India and Stand-Up India programs in 2016, Wang decided to give the Indian market a try.
Sweet snacks are an essential part of life in India, especially around holidays, so Wang took his experience in food processing and manufacturing to India, and set about designing the logo, packaging, and storefront for his new sweet snacks company. Drawing inspiration from the look of the Taj Mahal in the light of the full moon, he named his brand “Moon of Taj,” introducing Taiwanese cakes to India with the tagline “Taiwan Sweets ‡ Indian Heart.”
How did he interest Indian palates? He started by developing a latte-flavored treat with the kind of butter filling common in Taiwan. Indians loved the flavor, which was already familiar to them.
However, as people have become more interested in healthier eating, Wang has moved towards products containing less fat and sugar, but still delivering flavors that Indians love. His use of high-quality ingredients ensures that his products perfectly balance healthfulness and taste.
Moon of Taj currently serves India’s wedding-banquet market, but it is still innovating. The challenges are great, but Wang plans to continue to diligently pursue the Indian market’s outstanding opportunities.
Cannie Min: A first mover
Cannie Min recalls a time 11 years ago when there was only one private-sector Chinese language school in Delhi, which was Indian-owned. “The only true market is one in which there is no market,” says Min, who decided to take her chances in the “blue ocean” of the Indian market where there were very few other Taiwanese.
In her early years there, she was involved in the import‡export business while also teaching business-oriented Mandarin language classes. Two years in, she knew there was a market for her language venture, but it hadn’t taken off and she had burned through all of her capital.
A friend told her, “You’re already in this deep. Why not try a little longer?” Min thought it over, borrowed some money from her family, and gave herself two more years. During this period, she also founded a travel agency, Companion Travels, with an Indian partner.
It wasn’t until 2012 that Min had her own office and classroom. Before that, she taught all over, carrying her teaching materials with her. She didn’t even buy a suitcase until five years ago—she used to travel with just a backpack.
She downplays the hard times with an “I don’t remember,” and laughs that she had “countermoves” for all of the difficulties associated with starting a business in India. She’s also seen the changes in the country at first hand, noting that when she first arrived, the population skewed towards the top and bottom of the social ladder. A decade later, both the middle class and the consumer market have grown, validating her initial optimistic view of the market’s opportunities.
But even with Taiwan’s rollout of the New Southbound Policy, many Taiwanese businesses have hesitated to move into the huge Indian market, one in which Japanese and Korean businesses have been putting down roots for more than 30 years. Difficult though the market is, Min wonders why an entrepreneur with a good product would let a few hurdles keep them from pursuing opportunities there.
Min began returning to Taiwan in 2014 to share her story and experience with others, and to recruit Taiwanese interested in teaching Chinese in India. In 2016, she established FUCE Consulting to pass on her 11 years of experience in the country. Speaking as a fellow small business operator, Min urges Taiwanese companies not to try to go it alone because the market is just too big. Instead, she advises them to work together to develop production chains there.
An Indian presence is essential
Joe Ko found excitement and the space to advance his career in India, where he hopes his company can achieve a 40% market share by 2020. He says, “That’s something that couldn’t happen in Taiwan. India has the kind of market that salesmen dream about.”
Hugo Wang responded to Prime Minister Modi’s policies by diving into the Indian market, where he can compete head to head with some of the world’s best. He knows his path is a lonely one, but success beckons.
Never satisfied with taking the easy way, Cannie Min chose to leave Taiwan for India. Eleven years later, she has built a profitable business there. Min says, “I think I’m halfway to success.”
The American poet Robert Frost famously wrote: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
The road less traveled by may be lonely and difficult, but it is flanked by vastly different scenery and may well bring you to a turning point in your life, as it has for these three individuals.