Turning “No” into “Yes” in India

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review, see original here.

Every entrepreneur gets to hear “no” a number of times and in many different ways. You haven’t heard them all, though, until you try to set up a company, as I’m doing with partners, in India. You may be a local, a foreigner or you could be returning to your roots, but you will encounter pushback there that’s unique. I’m going to describe the many ways you will hear “no” and importantly, suggest how you can turn it into “yes” by tackling the roots of the problem. You have to understand the basis for resistance in order to change minds, as Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has pointed out.

“Why does India need your technology, again?”
Entrepreneurs, especially those with big ideas, will encounter a lack of understanding in government. Many Indian ministers and their deputies are world-class administrators, but the implications of new technologies and business models escape them at first because they haven’t been exposed to ideas the way businesspeople are. While the government officials we met were all interested in our life sciences business, there was often a lack of understanding about the costs and benefits. We have spent a lot of time describing our venture; providing credible information about its prospects; and getting respected local academics to back our case. One tactic is to get your social networks to organize symposia that expose officials to the idea in a neutral setting. Once you close the understanding gap, policymakers become excited and want to share the idea with colleagues.

“Can you cope with the bureaucracy?”
Many people are wary about the fact that India’s bureaucratic procedures — the large number of clearances to do business, the rigid labor laws, and so on — can slow and even scuttle new ventures, especially those promoted by foreigners. Smart entrepreneurs prepare themselves to tackle the bureaucracy rather than react. We spent a year identifying possible hurdles and obtaining formal and informal clearances to overcome them. You can never anticipate all the hurdles in India, though, so it’s important to accept that they will spring up unexpectedly.

“Will you be able to succeed in India?”
I get this a lot, so I have a quick response handy to ensure investors and suppliers know I’m committed to the project: “I’m here, we’re talking, I have faith in myself, my team, and our idea — and I’m sure this will happen,” I say. People are suspicious of outsiders, so it’s important to signal that you are serious. Suspicion usually originates from the feeling that ideas from outside India are not as powerful as homegrown ones. However, most Indians realize that they need access to Western technologies because of the scale of the problems they face. For instance, with the Indian government spending only 3% of GDP every year on healthcare, policy-makers realize that investments in regenerative medicine and stemcell therapies are critical.

“Can you compete against big business?”
If one of India’s business groups has entered your business or has a key piece of the value chain, it can be a powerful rival or blocker. India’s family businesses have huge resources and market power, so we didn’t make the case that we would beat them. Instead, we investigated why those particular initiatives had failed to grow and why it would be hard for those business groups to ramp up again. In our case, it came down to the fact that the medical infrastructure and engineering technology required would have to be imported; they could not be built in the country.

“Can you really do business in India?”
Many would-be entrepreneurs feel helpless in India because of the country’s competitive intensity, its lack of infrastructure, and its size. I’m often told it’s almost impossible for outsiders to do business in the country, which is obviously not true. We’re prepared for several twists and turns, but I believe every barrier — be it corruption or low productivity — can be overcome. In fact, I keep the bar high because if I treat people as I usually would in the US, I find that they perform at the same high levels.

The key to handling pushback is to understand that questions like the ones above aren’t meant to attack your ideas or you personally, but are the skeptical reactions of people working in the complex, dynamic environment that is India. Identifying the dynamic gives you the chance to overcome their concerns.