Business Culture – An Open Letter to swissnex India


Dear swissnex India,

Let me introduce myself. My first name is Swiss, my middle name is startups and my last name is corporates.

I am writing to you because I am considering expanding my operations to India, and many of my startup and corporate friends that you coached in the past recommended me to contact you.

After some initial research, I identified potential market opportunities and would like to visit the country to have a better idea of the opportunities out there. But I’m not going to lie, I’m a bit apprehensive as I am completely unfamiliar with India – a country that seems just as vibrant and dynamic as it seems to be complex and diverse.

I would like to share with you some feedback that some of my friends who already worked with you gave me about the business culture there. Indeed, I believe it to be a fundamental starting point. I realize that I cannot expect business to be conducted the same way as it in Switzerland, and that both understanding and adaptation are key success factors. These observations are based on their personal experiences while you were coaching them during validation, entrance or immersion tours.

Looking at India as a continent

Before anything else, a bit of context is necessary to better apprehend what is awaiting you over there.

In terms of scale and size, you could easily compare India with Europe. Diversity is an integral part of the country. Multiple languages and dialects, different religions, urban and rural differences, an immense biodiversity, a rich history, multiple invaders over the centuries, a unique social construction: these are just few parameters that contribute to the complexity of this ‘continent’. But most importantly, that contribute to its richness.

India, the oldest civilization on Earth and today’s largest democracy, has been a pioneer of science and education and is today recognized as a reference in the fields of IT, biotechnology and space, among others. Its workforce is extremely qualified, and you will find an overall deeply anchored entrepreneurial mindset.

Fresh start

As a first recommendation, leave your preconceptions about India home! Most Swiss and Europeans naturally base their assumptions on how the media (both Indian and Western) portray the country. You will realize soon enough that it is much more than cows on the street, poor people and beggars, pollution and chaos. Think about it as a fresh start: there is a whole picture that you may have not suspected to exist, that you are about to discover.

In particular, you will find a whole different mindset and lifestyle wherein trust, collectivism, values and respect for the elders prevail over our individualistic society whose planification, efficiency and control are key pillars. It is also important to understand the role of an individual in India within the organization, family and society, which is very different from the more individualistic-oriented society of Switzerland.

Patience is a virtue

If we were to flirt with clichés, some people might say that punctuality is a very Swiss thing. This applies for various daily situations: taking a train, having an appointment at the doctor or for business related activities such as meetings or deliverables. In India, things can take more time as variables specific to the country have a significant influence on time. Take the example of Bangalore: the 12 mio inhabitants city is well known for its heavy traffic issues. It is unpredictable and adds a degree of uncertainty with respect to punctuality.

Business can also take more time because the Indian business environment is more process oriented and vertical than it is in Switzerland: ensure to address directly to decision makers. This might avoid you a potential long journey through the different layers of hierarchy. Building trustworthy relationships are key to conducting businesses and can sometimes prevail over time constraints. This not only applies for businesses but also in daily life.

Most importantly and as the Eagles would sing: take it easy. You will realize soon enough that there is point trying to rush or getting annoyed or angry because you need to localize to succeed as you would expect from foreign partners in Switzerland. You will learn to choose wisely your battles.

Nothing is impossible – just do it

As of today, one could safely make the comparison between India and a startup. It is extremely dynamic and can be – paradoxically to its overall process-oriented mindset – highly flexible and agile. Barriers are rarely built in stone, which makes its market very attractive for entrepreneurs. The “possible” can sometimes be longer than usual to get, but nothing is impossible.

Interpretation of a ‘no’

As most of the Asian countries and cultures, Indians rarely say ‘no’ as it is considered to be sign of disrespect. It is therefore important to learn to spot them. This requires thinking through discussions and negotiations and reshaping the questions you want to ask. Rather than taking a shortcut from point A to B and asking a direct question where you expect a yes or a no, go for an extra mile and turn the discussion in a way that will allow you to understand your counterpart’s situation, intentions and feelings. This will help you spot a “no” from a “we will see” or a “why not”. As already mentioned, building a strong relationship is key. It will help you understand the difference.

Taking hospitality and courtesy to the next stage

 

You will generally be extremely well received for business meetings. This can include snacks, beverages (chai is king) but also chitchat about family for example. While Swiss people might feel questions about family to be intrusive, it is not rare to have Indian counterparts asking you about your partner or your kids. This comes naturally from India’s strong sense of collectivism and people will be genuinely happy to hear about your family or to tell you about theirs. On the other hand, maintain physical distance and do not approach the European kiss greetings: shaking hands will do just fine.

Dr. Who?


Seniority, experience and degrees matter a lot. In a very vertical society, titles, PHDs, MBAs, Master Degrees and co. are valuable and will definitely influence your credibility as a potential partner or investor. This is something to be remembered, for example when you are thinking about the delegation from the company you want to bring in the country and lead the discussions.

 

A few final tips

My friends also sent me a final set of key take-aways and tips that would help me make the best use of my time in India. I thought that you might be curious to know about them, and if you find them relevant and useful, why not post them in some kind of blog/ article to benefit a larger audience?

Anyway, I look forward to hearing back from you for my project to come to India and I am excited for this experience that I already know will be unforgettable.

Warm regards,

Swiss startups corporates.

 

So, as I said…

  • Come with an open mind and look at the bigger picture. Leave your preconceptions back and don’t fall into the trap of generalities.
  • Trust and relationship over time. Emphasize on building strong and trustworthy relationships and give up on your obsessiveness with control and planning. Sometimes you have to give up to win.
  • Respect and curiosity. Immerse in local experiences, be curious and try to gain knowledge about local cultures and traditions. Go deeper than what is on the surface. This will be appreciated.
  • Make your own opinion. Not everybody likes what he/ she sees in India. One sure thing is that the country is impactful and won’t leave you indifferent.
  • Eat as much as you can. Indian food is awesome!