There are more than 60 million family-owned local businesses in India, that drive more than 90 percent of retail in the country. They also account for more than 40 percent of local employment. Until recently, these retailers have enjoyed a consistent customer base for generations with little competition. Now, a billion Indians are coming online and there is a new digitally-driven Indian consumer to serve. With competition from new formats from e-commerce to big box stores, local retailers are presented with a new set of challenges that could put many of them out of business and leave a large portion of the population unemployed.
Akanksha Hazari Ericson is using technology to provide a solution. The vast majority of local merchants in India are not digitized in any way. Akanksha’s startup, m.Paani, is empowering them with the tools to survive and thrive. The startup is currently working in India, and eventually plans to expand across other emerging markets. m.Paani was recently part of Google Developers Launchpad Accelerator, a program that supports startups with access to Google technology, mentorship, and network.
From running seven acceleration programs around the world and supporting 341 startup founders, Launchpad has seen firsthand how global entrepreneurs are using technology and innovation to solve the world’s biggest problems. As part of our “Ideas to Reality” spotlight series, we caught up with Akanksha to talk about her journey in starting m.Paani and where she sees the company going over the next few years.
When did you realize your mission to help local retailers?
I got the entrepreneurial bug when I successfully built and grew my first venture at 21. I then decided that my next business would be built in India, contributing to the country’s economic development, and eventually other emerging markets as well. In 2009, I returned to India after completing my masters at Cambridge to work in the intersection of tech and agriculture. I spent a year living in villages across the country, looking at how we can use technology to increase farmers’ incomes. This is when I also fell in love with the local businesses with which I interacted, and realized the critical role they play in our economy. The beginnings of m.Paani were born.
What is the first step you take when you turn your idea into a reality?
Understand and build a relationship with my customer. I moved to Mumbai, a city in which I had never lived and knew no one, with a presentation and a dream. Walking the local markets every day, I signed up and sold our product to our first 50 retailers and a few hundred consumers myself. I strongly believe that if you don’t know your customer directly and can’t sell your vision, solution or service to them at the beginning, then you are in no position to ask anyone else to do so.
Are there Google products you are using and would recommend to other startup founders?
Yes, three core products help us run our business. First, we’re hosted on Google Cloud. Next, we’re using Firebase for event tracking, testing and marketing. We love the flexibility that Firebase gives us to keep being nimble. Finally, we use Google Analytics, which is an absolute must for any business and a pivotal part of each day.
Tell us more about your experience in Launchpad Accelerator.
If you have to learn, you might as well learn from the best. Launchpad has given us great insights, especially in machine learning. The one-to-one mentorship session with Peter Norvig, Google’s machine learning director, was a standout moment for our team. The entire experience was truly enriching and would recommend it to any entrepreneurs.
What advice do you have for future entrepreneurs?
Find a very very big, meaningful problem to solve. Something that has a deeper purpose for you, and makes our world a better place. It is more important than ever now that we all look to solve real problems in the world, from sustainability to economic empowerment. Don’t expect it to be glamorous—at all. Expect it to be unfathomably hard, and expect yourself to be more tenacious and resilient than you have ever been. But trust me, because it is purpose-driven you will stay motivated, and if you stick with it until its solved, you will change the world.
What is the most inspiring part of your work?
Our retailers. These are family businesses built over generations, in some cases. My favorite part of my job is meeting our customers and learning from them. The most meaningful part of any day is hearing and seeing first hand our positive impact on empowering, transforming and growing a local business. This, more than anything else, is what gets me and our whole team up and excited every morning.