What I learned from visiting hundreds of Indian small businesses

After trudging through the dilapidated streets of Howrah, a suburb of Kolkata, India, for a good 35 minutes in the sweltering summer heat, I finally reached Mr Kapil Goenka’s small plywood store. His oldest son, Hari, immediately offered me a chair and a cup of tea. After exchanging pleasantries, Mr Goenka asked me a question hundreds had asked before: “Why on earth are you, a British Indian, working for an American tech company, visiting me?”

This wasn’t the first time I was asked this question — in fact for the last two years, I had been asked that question over hundreds of times. My job at Google India was to help digitize small businesses — from a small dentist’s clinic to a large plywood trader — none of these businesses had any online presence.

My grandma’s local market in Kolkata

Small businesses are often called the backbone of a country’s economy and that statement couldn’t be more truer for India. There are 51 million small businesses in India — to give you context just how big this number is, there are under under 28 million small businesses in the U.S, 34 million in China and a cool 5.7 million in the U.K. They employ 40% of the Indian workforce and product 40% of the country’s exports — which the Indian economy relies on.

But there’s a huge underlying problem — less than 5% of small businesses in India have an online presence. They are yet to adopt technology for their business and aren’t aware of the potential benefits such as giving them access to new markets, more customers and improving business productivity. My team’s mission was to get 20 million SMBs online and help them unleash their potential.

We did this by helping businesses get a free online listing with Google My Business so they could show up when their customers searched their business or businesses like them on Google Search and Maps.

I led a team spread across 25 different cities across the country, who would walk from market to market, visiting local businesses everyday, helping set up businesses with a simple online presence.

I wanted to share some things I learned from working with Indian small businesses that I think can be applicable across several fields and products.

  1. People are time-strapped (especially small business owners). Make it easy and simple for them to sign up to your product/service

The epitome of this point is a really simple sign up flow that’s easy to understand. With Google My Business in India, most merchants we tried to sign up either didn’t have an email or didn’t remember their details so we also had to create a new email for them as part of the sign up. On average, it took 15 minutes for someone to take a merchant through the sign up flow. That’s 15 minutes of the merchant’s undivided attention, away from running their business. There were several times, when I saw business owners starting to become impatient in seeing how long it took to sign up. Sign up flows need to be as frictionless as possible to have any chance for the user to complete their sign up and ultimately come back again to the product.

2. Give people a reason to come back to your product/service and tell them why

We onboarded thousands of businesses everyday onto Google My Business but noticed that a sliver of them came back to manage their presence after creating their initial listing. The businesses who came back and kept their listing fresh (with things like new photos) and engaged with customer reviews, were the ones with the most popular listings. It’s essential you communicate the value that customers will get by returning to your product/service early and clearly. For example for Google My Business, we could tell businesses helpful daily tips like how many people have searched for their business today and where these people are coming from.

3. Word of mouth will always be the most effective form of marketing

Naturally, people like to talk with each other about their experiences. Every user could easily tell five of their friends, who could tell five of their own friends about your product/service. That’s 25 potential users from a single user. Nowadays, in the western world, most word of mouth marketing happens online, through friends, celebrities and influencers. Small business owners talk a lot to each other and share their experiences, in fact 42% of small businesses said they learn from each other. In India, we saw when we had started signing up a few businesses in one market, word had spread that Google was around and providing this service. The product or service needs to be so good or compelling that users want to speak to their friends about it. For Google My Business, we wanted merchants to be proud of their listing and website so they could tell their friends and customers.

“Wait! So that means billions of people from all over the world can find Bhagwati Plywood & Laminates? All for free?! That’s fantastic! Thank you for coming to visit us.”