How small town entrepreneurs survive and grow against all odds


Sholinghur is a small town in the Vellore District of Tamil Nadu. It is interesting to note the manner in which three or four entrepreneurs survive in this town, by providing basic survives related to Information Technology. There are challenges galore. This article talks about such challenges with one or two examples of such entrepreneurs.

Introduction

In very small towns like Sholinghur, a Panchayat town in the Vellore District of Tamil Nadu, there are a few entrepreneurs who survive by providing some basic services. Most of them are raw graduates with qualifications such as the Bachelor of Computer Applications ( BCA) and do possess some hardware qualification as well.

The entrepreneurs thrive on personal relationships and do face some problems. Such problems are related to a) Inability of entrepreneurs to match urban skill-sets b) Total lack of soft skills c) Limited markets d) Issues related to limited internet penetration and e) Lack of enlightened customers.

Each of the aforesaid issues are sought to be discussed in some detail in this article.

Inability of entrepreneurs to match urban skill-sets

The entrepreneurs in small towns such as Sholinghur have similar backgrounds. All of them are from Tamil Medium backgrounds and their exposure to the English language is very limited indeed. Their knowledge of the knowledge is so limited. Hence their ability to understand the various requirements of customers is also nowhere near their urban counterparts in the Southern Metro of Chennai, where similar Entrepreneurs are very much updated on current trends and can customize software solutions for specific target groups of customers. Every locality has several entrepreneurs who provide a whole range of services. Even those with rather inadequate knowledge of the English language are street smart and find markets that their busy friends sort of outsource to them. Since the market is huge in the metropolis, the scope for entrepreneurship is indeed very huge.

In total contrast, the entrepreneurs in Sholinghur survive by providing only basic services. Such services include sale of new and used computers and laptops, repairs to these devices, hardware issues of customers at homes and so on. They cultivate good personal relationships and charge anywhere between Rs.150 to Rs.250 for basic hardware services like providing anti-virus software, removing of unwanted files and so on. They also survive by providing services like helping customers to get the new PAN Card, the GST registration made, payment of bills through their computers and so on. For each of these services, they charge the customers some Rs.150 or less. The main problem is that the scope for software services is very limited and these entrepreneurs cannot even make a single presentation to even smaller companies in Chennai, where the scope for software services is so huge. The upwardly mobile English-speaking professionals from prestigious institutions such as the Loyola College for men or the MOP College for women, happily walk away with all contracts, as they are street smart and speak English with an American accent.

Total lack of soft skills

Since they rub shoulders with thousands of their tribe, they never get to become trained in any of the modern soft skills. Their communication and presentation skills is so poor. Mr Satish, one of the entrepreneurs had managed to pick up some English while working in the EDP department of an auto-ancillary company. He could have been confirmed in two years time. However, he would not take home more than fourteen thousand rupees even then. This is when he decided to call it quits and venture out on his own. He pays a rent of Rs.3000 for his outfit, but manages to make a minimum of Rs.18,000/-, after all expenses and GST.

This, he reckons, is far better than the Rs.15,000 he would earn in a hardware job in Chennai. He would be married bachelor, with his family back at Sholinghur. At least here, he is with his family.

He is very much worried that his son, now in the first standard in a local school, would lack the "exposure" so vital and needed to match the smart guys from Chennai, which is just one hundred and ten kilometers away. But the trade-off that he has chosen to make is far better as far as he is concerned. Every other competitor is also in the same boat. The three or four entrepreneurs providing the same range of services are not enemies like in Chennai. They are good friends and share experiences and even business between them. Their problems are very much similar, though.

Limited markets

Sholinghur, with a total population of less than 1.5 lakh, which would even include migrants from the North of India and working in the small scale ancillary units of the huge TVS group company here, would have, at best, only four thousand owners of laptops and computers. The schools do have computers and the local entrepreneurs do some trouble shooting in such schools as well.

However, the market for both hardware and software services is very limited. Sholinghur is the center for some forty villages and the farmers and their families do have issues with change of addresses in ration cards, getting new PAN Cards and so on. The very small traders are also under GST and the entrepreneurs help them as well. This floating population and their needs does help each of the four entrepreneurs to make some five hundred rupees every day. There are days when the income is very less. This normally happens during wedding days when everything else becomes secondary and entire families would be so busy only with the weddings in their families. Sholinghur is home to 74 marriage halls and one can imagine the size of the floating population. However, such population do not need the services of these entrepreneurs at all.

Issues related to limited internet penetration

This is a big issue. The internet connectivity in the small town of Sholinghur is okay but very unreliable. The technology provided by the monopoly BSNL is outdated and the town The hapless customers do not have any choice. This also affects the entrepreneurs who also depend on the same BSNL for their survival. Not only this. The linemen and the higher level staff of the local branch of BSNL are so arrogant and have a typical "take it or leave it" attitude to the kind of service they provide.

Each of the four entrepreneurs are busy trying to bag the annual maintenance contract from smaller companies in neighboring towns like Ranipet and the numerous schools in and around Sholinghur, within a radius of fifteen kilometers. However, in each of the places, the internet penetration is woefully inadequate or even zero. Hence, the scope is limited only to hardware services.

Still, each of the entrepreneurs do make special efforts to talk to each individual customer to get clues on any new customer who has purchased a computer and so on.

Lack of enlightened customers

BSNL is now likely to face competition from the private sector ACT, that is so busy in Chennai. Vellore already is home to this service. Ranipet, just twenty-eight kilometers away, is also serviced by ACT which has already done some market study. When the market opens up, each of the four entrepreneurs want a piece of the action.

When that happens and internet connectivity becomes better, the scope can increase. However, there is still a lack of enlightened customers. The workmen, whose sons do study in some English medium school or the other, are very happy with the kind of learning that they get in their schools. Most of them do not think a computer is needed for their sons or daughters at home. This makes the market rather complicated. Since the sluggish nature of people is a huge problem and there are no enlightened customers, the likes of Mr. Satish are a worried lot. They are now attending spoken English classes in Ranipet, and are ready to become more skilled. They do hope to get some business from Chennai, are are confident that with lower quotes and ACT in place, they can earn a little more. That is, up to Rs.30,000 a month.

ACT is expected to come in less than six months. When this happens, the market will be at least far better, as the internet speeds will increase.

Conclusion

The story of Mr. Satish and each of the other three people providing the basic IT services provides a deep insight into problems of entrepreneurs in smaller towns. Sholinghur is not an exception. It is the rule. There are so many small and emerging towns like Arakkonam and Tiruthani, where the income levels are even less. This is because there is no major industry there. Still, the entrepreneurs do not have much of a choice. The only alternative is to improve standards of English in all schools, including Government schools.

However, this is a big ask. This is one issue that can never be sorted out overnight. Perhaps the English issue is a pan-India issue as well. Every small town is likely to have similar entrepreneurs braving all odds and still surviving to make around twenty thousand rupees after GST. Their simple lives will go on.

This is the real India too. Let us salute the likes of Mr Satish for their guts and patience. After all, their show will go on.


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