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The Potential Of India’s Offline Market

India is a unique economy in many respects. Though Indians conduct cutting-edge and mission-critical research for Fortune 500 corporations, few Indians actually think of building products that compete with them. While the print medium is dying in other parts of the world, leading print publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, Harper’s Bazaar, Technology Review and even celebrity gossip rags People and Hello! magazines have launched print editions specially for the Indian market.

While the rest of the world has seen a boom in online media and social networking, India, which has less than 80 million Internet users in a population of over one billion, has seen meteoric growth in traditional electronic and print media over the decade. As Europe and the US debate the virtues of distributed power and how the electricity grid can be upgraded, India is starting with a clean slate. Large swathes of the country are still far away from grid connectivity or are shrouded in perennial power cuts.

In a nutshell, the rules and principles which would work in markets in the West do not apply directly to India. Over the last few weeks, I came across a few companies that represent the potential of India’s “offline” market.

Large parts of India are still not connected to the electricity grid. Sometimes the connectivity is there, but electricity supply is unreliable and inadequate. Bangalore-based Duron Energy has developed a solar-powered domestic lighting solution for exactly such areas. One of the most popular reasons consumers and families are willing to invest in purchasing Duron’s product is to enable their children to read and study after sunset. Duron is competing with the kerosene oil lamp, and is offering a solution to customers at the bottom of the pyramid who would probably never see electricity in their homes for at least a few years, even though a massive government push for infrastructure investment is already underway.

At IIT Bombay’s Entrepreneurship Summit, there was a company called Five Shells which is developing board games. Yes, board games. Conventional wisdom dictates that board games are dead. After all, we live in the era of Nintendo Wii, PlayStation Portable and Xbox 360. Games these days should be developed exclusively for console systems like the Wii and Xbox, and hand-held devices like the PlayStation Portable, iPod Touch and even the iPhone.

Except that in India, the conventional wisdom doesn’t quite apply that neatly. Most of the consoles and hand-held devices are priced way beyond the reach of the average Indian. It costs a great deal of money to purchase electronic hardware, which can cost tens of thousands of rupees, and supplement that with game title purchases, which start at a few thousand rupees. In short, the spending required is simply beyond the budget of the average family.

Hence, there is clearly a huge market for inexpensive and fun board games priced at a few hundred rupees, assuming a small percentage of Indians enjoys playing board games. Moreover, few companies are designing board games keeping in mind India’s history, culture and consumer tastes.

Why should Indian consumers only have a choice between Risk and Monopoly? Having said that, designing and marketing board games is no mean task. It requires an incisive understanding of consumers tastes and psychology to produce a game that is fun and easy to play. A company like Five Shells would also do well to protect indigenous intellectual property, and should avoid producing cheap knock-offs of game ideas from abroad, focusing on innovation and new ideas instead.

Another company that is innovating in an allegedly dying industry is ReleaseMyAd. Founded by former Microsoft employee and Wharton School graduate Sharad Lunia, ReleaseMyAd allows customers to take out print classified advertisements in newspapers from across the country using the Internet, eliminating the cumbersome process of finding and coordinating with a local agency. Print classifieds have been transformed from a billion dollar business into a million dollar business by the likes of Craigslist, but in India, print still rules.

The death of print has been greatly exaggerated. In India, no website comes close to the reach and readership of a newspaper, and the old-media print classifieds market stands at some $300 million. ReleaseMyAd charges nothing extra to consumers for its service, and is in fact growing the market for print classifieds by providing those who wouldn’t otherwise use print classifieds an easy, seamless and transparent way to do so.

Focusing on technology for the sake of technology can result in missed opportunities. Both entrepreneurs and investors would do well to remember that India is different. Those that build companies addressing this market’s unique and specific needs will be the ones that emerge as big winners.

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