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Nine ventures from expat entrepreneurs giving their best shot in the Indian startup boom

You know that India is witnessing a startup boom when a bunch of foreign entrepreneurs and NRIs band together to form an Expat Entrepreneurs Circle.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: May 24, 2015, 11.32 AM IST
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Expats working on new business models.
Expats working on new business models.
You know that India is in the midst of a startup boom when a motley bunch of foreign entrepreneurs (and non-resident Indians) band together to form an Expat Entrepreneurs Circle (EEC) for, amongst other reasons, to lean on each other in their quest to get a business going in an alien country.

EEC was born some three years back in — where else — Bengaluru to provide a platform for exchanging business ideas, access to information and resources, networking opportunities and training from those who’ve met with reasonable success in India’s startup ecosystem.

To be sure, expat entrepreneurs, particularly those who first came to India as tourists and returned to stay in the country for good (or bad), could do with all the handholding they can get. “Bureaucratic red tape and bribery in government offices affect all of us. The worst hit are those from the hotel and restaurant industry who are required to acquire and renew various licences. There are so many unplanned and unofficial expenses which increase the cost of doing business,” says Ema Trinidad, an expat from the Philippines who has lived in Bengaluru for several years, runs a high-end spa and is an active member and cofounder of EEC.

Such challenges are just another day at the office — or on the farm, as you will find out — for the expat startup artistes profiled in the next few pages. They’ve come from all over — the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Australia — and their ventures are diverse. From a Mexican food chain to a French patisserie, from a rent-a-car venture to event transportation solutions, these expat entrepreneurs are giving it their best shot in a land where opportunity beckons everywhere and hope springs eternal.

Nursing a drink with Michelle Bauer

MICHELLE BAUER, 32

SOUTH AFRICAN

VENTURE: Co-founder of Good Juicery, a premium packaged fruit-based beverages company in Pune.

FOUNDED IN: 2013

FUNDING: Privately funded

SCALE: Facility in Pune manufactures around 30,000 cans per month; products distributed at retail outlets across seven cities, besides Pune

VIABILITY: Broken even

Although Michelle Bauer has a background in marketing and advertising, and found a job in Pune after she moved there with her architect husband in the summer of 2011, she didn’t shy away from exploring a business opportunity when she saw one. “My husband had opened an office for his landscape architecture practice here. We quickly recognised that there was a gap in the premium packaged beverage market — especially given the heat, the culture of entertaining at home and the emergence of organised retail chains,” says Bauer.

Armed with her own experience in shopper marketing, she started researching and looking into the possibility of launching a niche beverage. And within two years Bauer launched Good Juicery, which manufactures natural juice drinks, in partnership with friend Julia Madlener, a product developer based in South Africa. The facility in Pune manufactures around 30,000 cans per month and has the capacity to scale up rapidly.

“Our Good Juicery sparkling range contains no preservatives, no artificial flavours or colours and is 40% fruit juice. They are lightly bubbled and make a great pairing with food and a healthier alternative to a soft drink while on the go,” she proudly says. Three flavours — sparkling passion fruit, sparkling pink guava and sparkling apple — are on the shelves and new variants and a new range are in the works.

Establishing a distribution channel has been a big challenge for Bauer and she has to travel a lot across the country to expand it. Good Juicery products are now available at retail outlets across seven cities in India, besides Pune. And she thinks the decision to settle down in Pune has been a very good one. “For an expat, everything you need is in close proximity; it is easy to get out of the city on the weekends and the pace is a bit slower,” she says.

Betting the farm with Roger Langbour

ROGER LANGBOUR, 73

FRENCH

VENTURE: Set up French Farm, an organic farm producing livestock & vegetables in Gurgaon

FOUNDED IN: 1994

FUNDING: Self-funded

SCALE: 3-acre farm produces premium livestock and exotic vegetables for Delhi-NCR. Branded retail outlet in south Delhi soon

VIABILITY: Profitable

Looking for Roger Langbour? Get on to the Dehi-Jaipur leg of National Highway 8, get off it near Manesar, hit a narrow dirt track and head to the French Farm — and if you’re having trouble finding it, just ask locals the way to the ‘buttakh’ (duck) farm.

For over 20 years now, the retired French air force officer whose last assignment was at Delhi’s French embassy, has been raising premium livestock and growing exotic organic vegetables on his three-acre farm for the Delhi-NCR market. “Initially, the top hotels were my largest clientele; but now there are many well-heeled individuals, niche retail outlets and upscale restaurants who source fresh produce directly from my farm,” says Langbour, who is hands-on on the farm, personally overseeing all the work. In a few weeks, French Farm will open its first branded outlet, in south Delhi.

Over the years French Farm, which started with a few poultry products, has expanded its portfolio to specialised items such as Muscovy duck, quail, guinea fowl, pheasants, turkey and premium pork products.

Exotic vegetables including baby carrots, savoy cabbage, fennel, rocket leaves and different kinds of lettuce are also raised at the farm. “Unlike Europe, the Indian government doesn’t provide enough incentives for young people to take up farming. It is essential to provide knowledge and education in this sector for farming to grow in a big way in this country,” says Langbour, who himself went back to France after his stint at the embassy to learn farming techniques before coming back to start his own venture.

Passionate about livestock and farming, Langbour finds it unfortunate that urban Indians don’t take up the activity themselves. “Some years back, I was in talks with a big corporate group to sell a majority stake in my farm. But when I realised that they had no real interest in farming, I didn’t pursue the deal any further,” he says. In peak season, the weekly sales turnover of the farm tots up to `12-15 lakh. “But it’s hard work and I like to personally get involved in all aspects,” says Langbour, who spends only the weekends away at his apartment in Gurgaon. And while he is looking forward to the opening of the farm store, he can’t yet think of expanding beyond NCR because of the lack of resources.

For now, he is happy to be on top of every small detail at French Farm including special feedstock for pigs, hatcheries for turkeys and the olive trees that have recently been planted.

Bien, Gracias Bert Mueller

BERT MUELLER, 26, AMERICAN

VENTURE: Cofounder of California Burrito, a Mexican food chain

FOUNDED IN: 2012

FUNDING: $1 million; self, family friends & angel investors

SCALE: Eight outlets in Bengaluru; expanding into Chennai soon

VIABILITY: Profitable; 6-8 outlets profitable from first month

Burritos, rice bowls, tacos, nachos all in an assembly line format — not in Oaxaca or in Merida but in good old Bengaluru, thanks to the efforts of a 21-year-old student who pined for Mexican food as a student in Jaipur for six weeks during his graduate studies in public policy some five years ago.

After graduating from the College of William and Mary in Virginia in the US in 2010, Bert Mueller made the long trip back to India. He may have had a hard time laying his hands on the carnitas and enchiladas, but what was immensely easier was spotting business prospects.

“It [the lack of Mexican restaurants] sparked the idea of setting up a casual Mexican chain in India. I was also excited by the sheer number of entrepreneurial opportunities here,” says Mueller.

In 2012, Mueller along with two friends from the US, Dharam Khalsa and Gaelan Connell, flagged off California Burrito, a fast-casual (a position between fast food and casual dining) Mexican food chain. It now has eight outlets in Bengaluru and will open soon in Chennai. From huge amount of paperwork required for government clearances to language, Mueller was clearly up against it. But it was the youth and energy of India’s IT capital that kept him going.

“Bengaluru was a big draw because of the presence of a large number of MNCs with young professionals who have been exposed to cosmopolitan lifestyles as well as the startup energy,” says Mueller who doesn’t quite relish the prospect of driving around the city. But he has little choice when he has to move around supplies and stocks to different outlets. That’s when he gets behind the wheel of his Maruti Omni. There were other challenges too, like finding the right people, and training staff “to enable us to prepare food consistently at each outlet. It is also challenging to adapt to the paperwork required to set up everything,” says Mueller.

On the personal front though he finds Bengaluru a wonderful city, it’s tough to build a regular social life as friends keep moving back to their home countries. “I appreciate being able to interact with people from all walks of life and being in the restaurant industry really allows this. From wealthy investors to young people who are in a big city for the first time, I get to interact with many,” says Mueller. Ultimately, the entrepreneur must supply the energy that drives the business forward, he says. At 26, he can keep at it for more than a few years to come.

Fusion in unison with Roberto Nieddu and Cathy Canadian

Roberto Nieddu is Italian and Cathy Canadian, and the twain met one fine day in Jodhpur in the late ’90s. They’ve been living in that city since then and flagged off a clutch of businesses. These include a product design and fusion architecture firm for interiors, both for the Indian and overseas markets; a travel company that specialises in designing trips around Rajasthan; and most recently production of musical programmes by bringing artists from around the world to Rajasthan to perform with local artists.

“Running my own design business out of New York, I visited India between 1987 and 1993 a lot, to source jewellery, vintage furniture and objet d’ arts,” recounts Roberto.

Those frequent visits ended up in a love affair with India, a meeting with Cathy, their marriage and eventually settling down in Jodhpur. “India is a highly inspiring country with its old-world ways and it has been interesting to be here throughout the changes towards modernity,” Roberto says. Cathy, a textile designer, started her own textiles business in Jodhpur before the two started their first joint company Via Jodhpur, selling decorative ironware, later morphing into a furniture design firm.

“From 1993 to 2008 we only designed for the export market. Now we also work in the Indian market with a focus on hotels, restaurants and private homes,” says Roberto. He expresses himself in a creative way in finding ways around challenges in India. “Having to resolve problems and find alternative ways to make things happen results in something very unique. Our life in Jodhpur is exactly that — unique and full of wonderful experiences,” he says. And the biggest advantage, he says, is his small but efficient team.

Another passion that Roberto has is fusion music, which has now translated into the annual Jodhpur Flamenco & Gypsy Festival ( JFGF). “I started to experiment with different music forms and the local Rajasthani music, bringing Flamenco groups to India,” he says. With time there were enough musicians from both Spain and India to sustain the annual festival. “Our aim is to eventually open a cultural centre to help promote and study the origin of the gypsies and trace their heritage back to India,” Roberto says. For now, he is already busy planning next year’s festival.

Kazem Samandari having his cake and eating some too

Perhaps it was inevitable that a Frenchman would start up a French patisserie and boulangerie chain — and, for good measure, have the French embassy as one of its outposts. But when Kazem Samandari and his wife Christine sold their apartment in Paris and moved to Delhi seven years ago, L’Opéra wasn’t as much a gleam in their eye as was their grandson. “We wanted to spend time with our grandson,” recounts Samandari, an electrical engineer who has under his belt over 40 years of professional and entrepreneurial experience in countries from Singapore to Israel to France.

It was only when his son Laurent, fresh out of business school, joined the family in Delhi in 2008 that the idea of setting up a patisserie chain was born. “My son was just back from Paris and missed good French bakery products in Delhi. It took us over two years to put the business plan together and start operations.

Initially, we got a lot of support from the French Embassy and were given access to their kitchen to bake our products,” adds Samandari.

In 2011, L’Opéra opened its first outlet in Khan Market. Today, the chain has nine more outlets at upscale locations in the Capital, including a Parisian style Salon de Thé at the Epicuria food hub at Nehru Place, as well as outlets at the trendy Hauz Khas Village and Select Citywalk and DLF Galleria malls in Gurgaon.

The chain started with 3,000 sq feet for manufacturing in Noida, which has since been trebled. “In the next phase of growth we are in final stages of talks with a hotel in Mumbai, another one in Delhi and a private hospital in the NCR to run L’Opéra outlets in-house for them,” lets on Samandari.

While a French chef was brought in to create the products, keeping in mind Indian tastes and sensibilities, the whole family pitched into the venture with ideas for décor, training and the like. “Though I’ve been part of teams setting up cutting-edge technology ventures in many different geographies, food services was completely new to me. But there was definitely a space in the Indian market for top quality French products, which we were able to fill,” says Samandari.

Zooming in with Greg Moran

GREG MORAN, 29

AMERICAN

VENTURE: Cofounder of self-drive car rental business Zoomcar

FOUNDED IN: 2013

FUNDING: $11 million so far, including $8 million in October 2014 led by Sequioa

SCALE: Fleet of 2,000 cars across 10 cities in next few months

VIABILITY: Already profitable in Bengaluru

When Greg Moran went to business school at the Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California in 2011, many of his classmates were from India. “Our B-school was very popular among Indian students and I had friends from Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. I was fascinated to hear from many of them about the family businesses run by their fathers and the entrepreneurial spirit in India. And that was when I first felt that there were business opportunities in India waiting to be tapped,” says Moran, whose family is from New York. His stint in 2004-05 at a Wall Street investment banking firm that had large infrastructure clients in Hyderabad also attracted him to the India story.

“We [college mate David Back is cofounder of Zoomcar] decided to start a rent-a-car operation in India because of the flexibility of the business model. Car ownership in India is still low and the market for car rentals has huge potential,” says Moran, who is also a champion for sustainable development across the globe. From a small fleet of seven cars in Bengaluru in 2013, Zoomcar now plans to expand its fleet to 2,000 across 10 cities over the next few months. The company has so far raised close to $11 million from investors led by Sequoia Capital.

Bengaluru was chosen as the launching pad for the company because the city is startup friendly. “For any new product or services launch in the Indian market, Bengaluru provides the best market. It’s a city of young professionals and many NRIs, who are early adopters of new concepts,” says Moran.

“My work keeps me too busy to go on vacations in India. But I do enjoy Indian food very much, despite sometimes being wary of the hygiene standards and inconsistent quality,” he says. As for road infrastructure, he is happy to walk to work from his apartment though he rates Delhi roads and Indian highways quite high. Time to begin zooming on them, perhaps.

Tom Ansel's Brit Grit

TOM ANSELL, 29

BRITISH

VENTURE: Founder of Grallo.com, a transport solutions firm

FOUNDED IN: 2013

FUNDING: `1.5 crore via crowd-funding and angel investors

SCALE: Offers transport for events such as weddings, IPL and Jaipur LitFest

VIABILITY: Profitable

If Steve Jobs travelled to India as a teenager in the quest of spiritual enlightenment, Tom Ansell’s passage to India after qualifying as a chartered surveyor with a masters degree from Cass Business School in the UK opened his eyes to the entrepreneurial opportunities in the country. “That business is conducted in English is a big help,” he adds for good measure.

Ansell, who is based in Bengaluru (his sister too lives in the Garden City with her Indian husband), is today a serial entrepreneur, now into his third and fourth startups called Grallo and Whyable, both with bases in India and the UK. While Grallo provides solutions for event transportation, Whyable is a bespoke software development agency.

“For Grallo, the market is largely in India. From weddings to big events such as the IPL [Indian Premier League] matches and the Jaipur Literary Festival, we provide transportation solutions which provide efficiency and value,” explains Ansell. For Whyable, on the other hand, business is largely UK based.

The biggest challenge for him in India has been the lack of a network of friends and business associates. “When you are in your own country, it is easy to ask for advice or see a friend to let you get away from the stresses of running a business,” he says. But the thrill of being an entrepreneur in India keeps him going. “It forces you to get under the skin of a country in a way that you would rarely do whilst on holiday or travelling. I am just beginning to come to grips with all the festivals, what they mean and why they are important,” he adds. Clearly, Ansell is here for the long haul.

Jane Mason's sweet, dark spot

JANE MASON, 35

AUSTRALIAN

VENTURE: Cofounder of Mason & Co, a bean-to-bar organic and natural chocolate maker

FOUNDED IN: 2014

FUNDING: Loans from Auroville, family members SCALE: Production unit in Puducherry; products at retail outlets in five cities

VIABILITY: Profitable

When Jane Mason, a corporate lawyer turned yoga teacher and organic food chef, moved to Puducherry four years ago from Australia and decided to start making chocolate for Indians, people told her she was crazy.

“We were told that dark chocolate does not suit the Indian palate.

But we have been humbled by the amazing response. People seem to be craving healthy and quality produce,” says Mason who set up the outfit with her husband Fabien Bontems who has lived in Auroville, Puducherry for most of his life.

Mason & Co started out of the couple’s home where they spent hours trying different beans and roasts. “We decided to train in chocolate making due to the absolute drought of good quality chocolate in India. When our friends tasted the chocolate they urged us to start selling,” says Mason. That was two years back. Now the chocolates are available in retail outlets across five cities in India.

What sets Mason & Co apart is that besides the products being vegan and organic, the couple also supports sustainable and fair trade practices. From sourcing high quality cacao in India to understanding how the industry works and putting together equipment for the factory, the journey so far has been a tough one. “We had to spend a lot of time on the road visiting farmers and getting samples. We eventually found two farmers who were interested in producing higher quality cacao and we worked with them to improve the way they process the cacao after harvesting, with a focus on quality and flavour,” says Mason. It took over a year for them to get the first batches that they were happy with.

However, Mason finds many positives about running a business in her adopted country too. “There is a lot of opportunity in India, not simply because of the size of the country but also because of the openness and eagerness for new and quality products,” she says.

No jugaad, just gyan by Stefan Mauer

STEFAN MAUER, 33

GERMAN

VENTURE: Cofounder & MD, Ro.Gro, a creative design consultancy

FOUNDED IN: 2013

FUNDING: Started with own money, no investors or angels

SCALE: Offices in Delhi and Berlin

VIABILITY: Broken even within first 12 months

Stefan Mauer is no newbie in India, having worked as a foreign correspondent for German business daily Handelsblatt between 2010 and 2013. So the decision to set up a business consultancy with offices in India and Germany, along with partner Benedikt Grosse-Jaeger, was an easy one for him.

“The interesting thing about our company is that we started in India wanting to tap into the large creative human resources pool and then decided to expand to Germany,” says Mauer. He explains that Ro.Gro is helping break stereotypes about running a business out of India by recruiting talented and creative people here. “Many of the campaigns that we have done for our clients have been about implementation of business solutions in India through a mix of local creativity and German precision. These are not just one-off projects but end-to-end solutions that start with the conceptualisation right up to execution,” he adds. Prominent clients include the German Embassy in India and humanitarian aid organisation Doctors Without Borders.

Mauer’s mantra is to not depend much on jugaad (the local word for innovative fixes, sometimes by bending the rules) even though it was one of the first Hindi words that he picked up. “The Indian bureaucratic system has an in-built flexibility that is sometimes helpful for business people. The German system, on the other hand, though more efficient can sometimes become rigorous and unforgiving,” he says. Mauer finds it comfortable to live in south Delhi’s tony Defence Colony where it’s easy to find European eateries.

“I love Indian food too; in fact that was one of the reasons that I decided to stay back in India after my journalistic stint ended,” he says.

While he considers being young and single an advantage, Mauer is committed to living here and expanding the business for the long haul.

“I like hanging out at the usual expat networks but I’m also making a lot of Indian friends,” he says. Along with bagging a lot of clients, of course.
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