Marketing guru Rama Bijapurkar - Advice to startups: strategy is about value and scale, not just competition


Rama Bijapurkar is a renowned thought leader on market strategy and India’s consumer economy, and an insightful commentator on the social and cultural changes that are transforming India. Her bestselling books include We are like that only, Customer in the boardroom and A Never-Before World: Tracking the Evolution of Consumer India (see my book review).

She joins us in this exclusive interview on the importance of customer value, social media and youth, scaling routes for startups, and her forthcoming books.

YS: What is your current field of research in consumer space? 

RB: My work is along two dimensions. One is to bring more customer focus into business strategy instead of the totally supply-sided view that is usually taken. For example, a slow growing competitive (apparently) market could just be so not because of customer apathy but because of supplier ‘herd’ mentality and unwillingness to do things that add more value / appeal to a larger base of consumers. I discuss this at length in my book Customer in the Boardroom.

The second dimension that I am interested in, and my new book is also about, is to provide a more granular, disaggregated people based view of India’s consumer economy for both policy makers and strategists. How Indians earn, save, spend, live, think, what are the big themes or danger signals that represent opportunity for business or need for urgent policy action, and so on.

YS: How much cooperation and collaboration do you see now between academia and industry in researching Indian business?

RB: There is not a whole lot of cooperation in a formal sense between industry and academia. Informally with the alumni networks and the likes there is a lot going on. But we need to develop more formal structures for this.

The reason for not having done so is that it requires very sustained and high calibre interaction from academia and no institution is willing to pay well and give teaching time off and fund the ‘startup’ phase of developing such partnerships.

YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?

RB: Never Before World has been received well. The surprise for me was how useful policy makers found it. It opened my eyes to a new market. I have been saying the things I said in my book for a while now – so the brickbats have been coming! But there have been bouquets too, including some from people whose work I admire greatly.

YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new consumer insights you have come across?

RB: Lots of “Oh Gosh I could have included this” moments! I feel, for example, that among the upper class youth there is a delayed adolescent rebellion coming in the late 20s, after you have been going or gone through the grind, got qualified, ‘proof of concept that I can do well in life’, then they take off for gap years, travel the world, and so on.

Also, Mr. Modi’s and AAP’s campaigns showed me yet again that things we believed about young rich India are not true at all and also that social media users can be very traditional and illiberal too. So it is not a good segmenting variable for so called modernity at all!

YS: How does India getting a new government change some of the premises and trends in your book?

RB: Policy action (‘political leaders’) discourse and supply side market action shape consumers. I think the new government will create a different modern India, ‘global Indian’ mindset if it lasts for 10 years and a different kind of Indian-ness.

If I were to rewrite this book 10 years later, I am sure it would be different. The new government has flagged off a new path. It does not contradict the present at all but it will change our predictions of the future. Let us see after a year if they are firmly on a new path.

YS: What do you see as some key opportunities facing Indian startups today – and challenges? 

RB: There are so many opportunities. The challenge is funding. Every funder wants diamonds in the rough that can be IPO polished in a few years. We need lots more risk taking capital at all levels especially early stage.

YS: How is that China seems to ‘get it’ so well in understanding the price-value tradeoff in its goods?

RB: Even lots of small Indian suppliers understand the trade-off of price and quality very well. But they do not have the money to scale and hence the power to bring price per unit down. China gets scaling up manufacturing right.

YS: What are the typical challenges entrepreneurs face as they scale up their company from product stage to mass stage? 

RB: India is full of pilot tested, market tested, proof-of-concept proven little ideas and small scale experiments. From here to commercialization, there is no money available.

That is a big problem so they muddle along on the product and manufacturing front. People issues and HR is a big challenge as successful entrepreneurs grow; also such people lose interest in the boring nitty-gritty of scaling carefully – it is the drudgery of building a house after the excitement of the design and the foundation. Yet they do not hand it over to someone who finds such work fulfilling and is good at it.

Finally, as entrepreneurs scale that, they get greedy for growth and place large bets on valuation and borrow big and if something unexpected happens they have no cushion to absorb the shock.

YS: What can be done to spur and facilitate the rise of more entrepreneurs from rural India? And for women entrepreneurs?

RB: Money – Money – Money vs / profusion of angel investors.

YS: How should entrepreneurs and SMEs strike that delicate balance between ‘Stick to your vision’ and ‘Adapt to a changed world’?

RB: These are not contradictory at all. Your vision can be to become the most respected XYZ that serves PQR type people and changes people’s lives in ABC ways. That need not change in a changing world. The routes to get there in terms of what products or services are delivered and how, may change dramatically and repeatedly.

But if your strategy is based on adding value to customers and consumers and extracting value from them, and not based on beating or copying some competitor, you can stick to your vision and adapt to a changing world.

However, I often say to companies on whose boards I am, that if your business is working but it wandered off in a different direction from your vision, fortuitously too, change your vision. But for heaven’s sake have both in alignment always. I cover this in my book Customer in the Boardroom: Crafting Customer Based Business Strategy.

YS: Who are some of the entrepreneurs and startups you admire the most in India today? 

RB: I admire Flipkart very much for the courage to design and deliver a hybrid model and burn up money in needed advertising. I admire F.C. Kohli and his startup TCS. I admire Big Bazaar and Kishore Biyani – breaking established rules and winning.

YS: What is your next book going to be about?

RB: Having served on so many boards of all types, the talk of governance is more than the walk. I want to write a book on what I have learnt and understood on this journey. I want to call it Who died and made me the Pope. But before that I want to write a sequel to build on my book Customer in the Boardroom. It is based on the course I teach at IIM Ahmedabad and in my consulting work.

YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring entrepreneurs in our audience?

RB: I want all entrepreneurs to reflect on the key words from two of my most favourite articles. The heart of strategy is not about beating the competitor but about adding value to the customer and avoiding the competitive battle altogether (Kenichi Ohmae: “Getting back to strategy” - HBR). The other is operational effectiveness is not strategy (Michael Porter - HBR).

Finally, I want to say this. If you do not have a straight and clear answer to ‘why buy me and not someone else – how do I add more value to you than anyone else does,’ then stop and think hard. Unless you have a ‘customer perceived value advantage,’ you don’t have the makings of a successful business.



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