India’s engine for women entrepreneurs

From 2015, Meesho has built India’s largest base of women entrepreneurs

In India’s decades-long experiment mixing capitalism with socialism, the government is still seen as the best employer. When the Indian Railways put out a requirement for 90,000 positions to be filled in 2018, nearly 250 million people applied. That’s not because the jobs paid highly but were seen as secure. Entire families would be taken care of by a single wage-earner employed by the Railways. It wasn’t just unemployed candidates who applied. A substantial number of people who worked in private sector jobs also pitched in. They did not want to be left in the lurch if their employer went under, for any reason. Even though India does not have a ‘hire-and-fire’ culture and its not how the country or its laws operate.

But how do you build an appetite for risk right down the line? When people earn a daily wage or run small businesses, they have no investible surplus. They are streetsmart but prone to short-term thinking because the dominant need is survival. The few that manage to scrounge together some capital squander it with poorly conceived and executed ideas. There’s no shortage of failed entrepreneurs, even at the Bottom of the Pyramid! Government policy can create the environment for business ideas to launch but it can’t keep them going.

Building a Shopify on WhatsApp

WhatsApp hosted the first set of shopfronts built by Meesho
Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

Flipkart and Amazon battle it out for the cream of India’s consumers – a figure that has been estimated as anywhere from 30 to 150 million people. That barely covers about 10% of India’s population. Small-time traders and ‘daily’ entrepreneurs had practically no access to the internet or any marketplace designed to accommodate their needs. It was this hazy opportunity that Meesho’s founders, Vidit Atrey and Sanjeev Barnwal explored in 2015. A wave of new audiences had come online with the expansion of Jio, one of India’s largest telecom providers. The price of smartphones and data dropped, opening up new possibilities.

India is also the largest market in the world for WhatsApp – over 400 million users. And when they checked with small traders, they found that WhatsApp was already the preferred mode of business – exchanging photographs of merchandise with their network of associates, family, and friends and promoting sales. There was a point at which they would have to move out of the app – and this is where Meesho saw the first opportunity – to build a shopping experience within WhatsApp for the community. 

Nobody gets it right the first time

Meesho had to change its approach to market several times
Photo by Linus Nylund on Unsplash

That’s the golden rule. Every entrepreneur starts off with an assumption, which quickly runs up against the reality of the market. When Meesho first built the app to encourage traders to sell, it attracted an audience they had never anticipated. Housewives in remote towns took to it enthusiastically, setting up stores to sell products that would typically be available only in local markets. Meesho had to double its efforts and expand the base of suppliers rapidly, much like Uber or Airbnb, who signed up users and providers at the same time to drive growth at scale.

One major challenge early on was onboarding housewives experimenting with entrepreneurship for the first time in their lives. They had no business skills or money to invest. So, Meesho created a process to teach them how to sell and manage their business step by step, on a day by day basis. A rapidly growing community with early adopters speaking in 6 Indian languages took new entrepreneurs under their wing and showed them how it could be done. How they could sell to their existing network on WhatsApp to begin with and expand when their confidence grew. A majority of the sellers on Meesho (70%) continue to be Indian women. And the app has over 10 million downloads. 

A new generation of women entrepreneurs

Meesho’s entrepreneurs at an event

The tactics and selling methods don’t change. They ripple lower down the line as women discover the independence and gratification that comes from earning their own money. They take their first steps in understanding risk when products they have sold are returned. Or they make less money in a particular month. Mentoring others is paid and that brings in additional revenue for highly-rated mentors. Incentives for top sellers are well-chosen. The top 1-100 sellers on Meesho get a branded television set. So, the ones at the next few levels push to improve their ranking.

As they discover how to succeed in their business, the network effect of having women leverage their social chops kick in at the bottom end of the spectrum. Vidit Aatrey says that a large proportion of sellers earn anywhere between Rs.7000- Rs.15000/ ($110-$200) every month. That supplements the earning and more importantly, the spending capacities of families down the line. Building a nation of women entrepreneurs will do more for the country than any handouts. And the long term benefits of teaching financial literacy will create the broadest base of entrepreneurs.

Making the brand invisible

Meesho’s founder on the journey to building the company

Meesho emphasizes that buyers on the platform will not be told that the products are being sourced and delivered by Meesho. One reason is that it protects the interests of existing sellers and expands the platform at a sustainable pace. The other is that it preserves the ‘social selling’ aspect. So every buyer is buying from a trusted seller – someone he or she knows.

It is interesting to see the brand disappear into the background in order to build credibility and trust with its core audience.

Meesho has set up a constant dialogue with its users, bringing them into company town halls to hear what their issues are and resolve them. From a growth perspective, it is one of the hardest things to maintain but the company realizes that any distancing from sellers will lead to dropoffs and disinterest if their interests are not taken care of. And handling a base of 2 million sellers is Meesho’s biggest challenge going forward. 

The brand has the opportunity to transform India’s women. Not by handouts but by teaching them the lessons of entrepreneurship and financial literacy. Dependence is created because people do not have the means to understand how markets work. Even if Meesho’s sellers were to expand slower in the next few years, they will move into a position where they cannot be taken for granted. Most startups focus on the top of the pyramid. solving smaller and smaller problems. This is where Meesho can have more impact than friendly government policies or subsidies. Taking on what mass-market manufacturing and societal norms have controlled. The emergence of women into equality that is true power.

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Author short bio: I head Ideascape, an agency that I started in 2004. I have over 35 years of experience building brands in businesses as diverse as payroll services, software, cycles, HR services, hospitals, hospitality and project management.

We’re a boutique creative agency but we provide the full range of branding services in partnership with several associates in digital marketing, web development, and event management. This blog is a collection of my experiences and my point of view on marketing and advertising

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