We pass them each day, unseeing their faces and ignoring their plight at every traffic light. The idyllic environment of an air-conditioned car escapes the heat, dust and dirt that envelops everyone outside your tinted windows. When their antics do catch your attention you look at them with amusement, disregard and even disdain. You could choose to see them as beggars, ragamuffins and street urchins. You may regard them as a necessary evil and grudgingly accept their role as cleaners. But then like most people, you would have seen only the visible and missed what could be the essence of life itself.
They bear nimble feet, nimble minds and unbounded energy in their scrawny bodies. They may come in different shapes and sizes. The scraggy 10-year-old who sells you cheap black screens to block the sun from your car windows. The gaunt teenager who sells you cheap pirated versions of books and magazines. The little girl who begs with an endearing smile, while she carries an emaciated child who seems perpetually asleep. Look closer and hear more carefully and you will also discover an undeniable master salesman often enough.
I have found great wisdom by listening carefully and observing the antics from this sea of wisdom. They drink the strained relish of life and are full of aphorisms. They know the streets they work, the trends that are changing and the need to adapt more than any management guru. Is it any surprise that we are asked to get streetsmart to negotiate the challenging lanes of life? Today, I want to share a story that goes back 34 years. This street story taught me a simple lesson and showed me the truth behind any product or service. One that was no less profound than the wisdom I discovered in the annals of Seth Godin and Jack Trout. I have found great resonance in applying this street learning in my business strategy and daily life.
The story goes back to 1982. I had gained admission to IIM Ahmedabad and, like everyone else, felt lost at sea in Vastrapur during the first few weeks. The days extended to the small hours of the morning. To make it worse, this pressure was compounded by the sheer tenacity and an overzealous spirit and intellect of many in my peer group. The daily task of reading over 200 pages of case studies, long lectures and tedious assignments was wearing me down. Perhaps, it was my own state of mind, but I found it hard to gain inspiration in the class lectures of the management gurus at IIM-A. In the middle of the first term, I got a small break over a long weekend. So I chose to take the first train to Delhi to meet my high school sweetheart.
It might have been my over excitement to escape Vastrapur, but I reached the Ahmedabad station fairly early that day. As the train pulled in, I sat on my berth and stared out of the window. As always, there were several tradesmen on the platform. A thin boy who seemed no older than 10 drew my attention. He was wearing oversized bermudas and a stained white t-shirt that read 'Hotel California Forever' on the backside. He was selling peanuts and chickpeas popularly known as seengh-chana in India. I was amazed to see how well he seemed to do in his selling. His “conversion rate” seemed to be almost 10% – every tenth person bought peanuts from him. Two older vendors were also carrying similar baskets. However, I could see that the young kid was outselling them. I leaned forward to hear him with unfettered curiosity. How was he selling so effectively? As he came closer I heard him more clearly over the din “Time pass – paanch rupaiya only. Time pass” he announced raucously. He wasn’t selling peanuts. He was selling “time pass”. I was fairly stunned. I was aware that Gujaratis were very enterprising and had a natural flair for business, but this young kid seemed to have mastered what the gurus at IIM-A could not. This was my first invaluable lesson. Never sell a product or service. Sell the emotion or need behind it. The peanut seller knew exactly what he was selling to the bored passengers who were waiting for the train to move. I attended several marketing classes at IIM Ahmedabad after that. None made an impact nor taught me more than the little peanut seller on the station.
Kai po che is the war cry of the Gujarati-speaking community during the kite flying festival of Uttarayan. The streets of India are filled with the cacophony of traffic, horns and hoarse sales calls of tradesmen. They fight multiple battles and survive razor sharp manoeuvres no different than the kite fights of the season. Hear their trade cry again and it echoes, Kai po che! Look beyond and hear closely and you will learn the lesson of life. We walk unseeing the myriads of these streetsmart faceless people. Many are unsung heroes of our city and existence. Many are just survivors. But there is that odd one out there who is wiser and has unraveled the jigsaw of life before us. The next time you stop at a traffic light in your shiny car be blissfully aware that there is a great opportunity to learn from a little guru on the corner of the street. So unroll your window and listen carefully.
Neeraj Batra is the co-founder and chairman of OnCourse Vantage and tweets at @batra_neeraj