R2I Return to India 2010 – 2012: Prashant’s conclusions

I’m glad that we returned to India (R2I) and have a verdict on the R2I experiment. In the summer of 2012, we are moving to America.

Why R2I didn’t work out – the important stuff

Work

Corporate client visit, KolkataClient way too happy while I work in the background, Delhi

Immediately after returning to India, I started and ran a web design consulting company and helped startups with their product definition, branding and design. One of these was listed as a top 10 startup to watch in India by a major publication. Another one is getting good traction with VCs. We are very proud of them. Starting and running a consulting business in India was challenging on 2 fronts:

Hiring

Finding people with the right skillsets was extremely difficult. We spent 2 hours daily looking for candidates. Mostly, they failed in having usable domain skills. We tried several permutations – hiring from other industries (print, advertising), hiring from universities directly, poaching seniors from competitors. We got a strong team together but at some point I realized that it would be increasingly harder for us to find more talented people. This was the single biggest obstacle to scaling the business and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

Sales

We thoroughly enjoyed working with startups. Selling to and working with large and mid-sized corporates was challenging. But for all the clients, the economics didn’t work out. If you are in a similar industry, you’ll have to find better paying clients to do good work AND make the numbers work. These clients are probably not in India.

Future

I’m in the process of leaving the consulting company that I founded but I’ll continue as an adviser to some of the startup clients. These projects were special and I’d really like for them to succeed. To learn more about my work, please read my long comment at the end of this post.

Friends

Visiting my close friend Ani, KolkataPlaying holi with neighbors in Gurgaon

Building deep friendships takes time. There are some people we hang out with regularly, but 12-24 months may be too short for the depth. Our neighbors have been extremely friendly and helpful. But contrary to our expectations, we don’t see longtime residents with a good circle of friends either. Most peoples’ social life is skewed heavily towards family – not surprisingly given the primacy of that unit in India. Occasionally they meet their school/work friends. Otherwise, there is polite-conversation socializing. I preferred the people of Mumbai (cheap and expensive cars were parked next to each other outside parties) over Delhi or Kolkata (host and guest cars were in the same price range).

Family

If you have lots of family that you are close to in India, R2I may be great. I don’t have close family in India so this wasn’t important to me. Meenal will have a very different take on this.

Home

Driving to Canada in a snow storm, Interstate in Vermont, 2003Celebrating the first African American Presidential victory, Boston, 2008

This may seem odd coming from someone who grew up in India until his late teens and only spent the adult life in America. But such a long time away, along with your entire family, changes you and how you think of your adopted land. America was foreign when I left India but over the years it became home. Local issues affected my daily life and I followed it on the radio and the papers. I developed deep friendships, began to appreciate barbequing and the great outdoors, and visited my mother, sister and Nascar-loving nephew in North Carolina. The New Globalist is homesick, discusses nostalgia and global migration. I felt this nostalgia for my friends in Delhi when I moved to America as a teenager. Now I miss the crisp winter air from my long walks in the snow.

Meenal’s realities were different from mine and she has evolved differently as a result (wait for her article in a couple of weeks). For me, Boston and Massachusetts became home.


Why R2I didn’t work out – the less important stuff

Quality of life

Our R2I apartment had 4 mbps internet, 24 hour electricity and water, and air-conditioning. We bought a beat up car that is even more beat up now. The broken public infrastructure, especially the roads, was a downer but I (grudgingly) learned to live with it like everyone else. I loved visiting Lodhi Garden in the winter months but the outdoors couldn’t become a part of our regular life – something I missed terribly. Eating and drinking are singular pastimes in most cities and you’ll have to work hard to find other activities. All in all, I feel life has more to offer than I’ve experienced in Delhi.

Money, Cost of living

Be aware that local pay is low and cost of living is surprisingly high. We found many people spend far more than my spreadsheet analysis could explain. It may be because inheriting housing and other parts of a lifestyle are fairly common.

Health

Due to the bad air quality of Delhi, Meenal’s developed a mild case of asthma after R2I. Before you call us wimps – respiratory diseases are exceedingly common in Delhi. We are hoping that cleaner air after our move to America somewhat fixes the damage. Outside of that, we’ve been very careful with mosquitos nets, eating only cooked food and drinking bottled water. We’ve had no other health problems.

Timeframe for the R2I experiment

It took us a bit longer than a year to come to our R2I conclusion. Expect to spend between 12-24 months to figure it out yourself. Anything less than a year would have been unreasonable.

Update April 15th

A well written R2I blog with a different perspective: Ulaar.com

Comments

19 local comments so far.
  1. It depends on your personality, how you take it when you move to India. If you are a judgmental and critical person you will always feel frustrated. You will always have the opportunity to crib about something.

    If you have to make the move , it should be both mental and physical. Do your home work ,acknowledge that India had problems and have a plan to work around them,instead of being surprised. I know of people who have left Us and are happy, it all depends on what you are looking for in life.

    - Prashant Patil

    • I agree Prashant. Attitude has a lot to do with settling down: it doesn’t change the reality of daily life, but it does help control our reaction to it better (within reason). For people who get an opportunity to change this reality, many do. If you are interested, do review Snapshot of Global Migration Patterns. These are real votes on how people feel about their circumstances. The magnitude of the exporting and importing geographies are what you’d expect given the life situations in each.

  2. MK,

    Couldn’t agree more with AB, most NRI’s have big ego’s especially so called experts judging work satisfaction in India, if Google amazon and Microsoft can find right candidates, and get their work done (agree may not be cutting edge)… people complaining about web designing makes me laugh … you pay cheap you get cheap resource…
    india has real is real opportunities for innovation and new business models and in any case mediocre talent is same in any country doesn’t matter at the end you will be Ram,sham or Tom, Harry

  3. Ram,

    Sorry to hear that didn’t work out, but welcome back .. As I am also planning to R2I (no work/business etc), I am keen in your input, if you have one. BTW, planning to return after 20 years +

  4. AB,

    Sometimes a superiority complex could make life more difficult than it needs to be. I have often wondered why Aussie atheletes at the Commonwealth games fell mortally ill at the very sight of New Delhi, when the Australian cricket team seems to do fine even in decidedly 2nd/3rd rate Indian towns.

    Perhaps the difference is that the Aussie cricket team knows we own the town when it comes to cricket and hence they dont dare to carry around a giant ego when they are in India.

    Travel the world a little, my friend. There are many countries in the world besides America and India. Drink from a few dirty faucets, sleep on the floor in a few airports and bus stops and railway stations. You may learn about yourself and the world. Like a frog in a well, bottled water drinkers dont ever achieve anything…

  5. Hi Prashant, I came across your blog while researching ‘repat’ Indians. Thanks for writing about your experiences. Your experience in trying to set up a business in India is particularly what leads me to write to you. Interestingly last summer, I came across a web design firm set up by a Dutch national along with his Indian partners in Pune. Frustrated with the skill set or lack thereof in the people that he was hiring, he decided to begin a novel hiring process for the company. He began offering free classes on web design – no strings attached and used that time to gauge the aptitude of students whom he would later hire if they met the standards that he was looking for. I wonder if you would be willing to share your hiring experiences and processes and elaborate more on your experiences as an employer. I am interested in these narratives for an academic study that I intend beginning work on soon. Here is a short write up about my experience at the web design company. Would be happy to speak to you more on email. Thank you. http://more.punetech.com/experience-with-html5css-course-by-ozran-academy

    • Hi Preeti,

      I love Orzan’s idea – it sounds like a great way to find good candidates. We’d started running internal workshops with candidates to see how they performed over 2 days on a real project. We instituted this after realizing that many of the portfolios were inflated and it helped a lot. Very time consuming but we didn’t identify a better way.

      Orzan’s classes probably achieved similar goals in a more novel way. In addition, his classes probably gave him an opportunity to vet many more candidates. Since we were looking for quality and experienced candidates, beginner courses may not have helped (although I’d have been curious to run classes anyway to see if it helped us). Also, we were more in the ‘design’ camp and less on the ‘development’ camp.

      I’ll send you an email and you can reach out to me directly if you have any questions.

  6. SG,

    Hi Prashant, really enjoyed reading your blog and learnt a lot about what to expect with R2I. We have lived in MA, US and now live in the UK with a plan to R2I next year. Fingers crossed that it works out for us after 12 years of being away. We are in our early 30s and hope this is our final move. Best wishes with your move to Boston.

  7. Ashish,

    Your post hits the nail on the head. Brilliant analysis of India which even I can connect with.

  8. Rishi,

    Very common ending to your R2I experience and not surprising one bit. Vast majority of people who can return (Yes citizens and green card holders), end up returning back to the US. India in the end turns out to be just another experiment in life, a place where we went to reconnect an old bond which had actually ceased to exist. The reasons could be one or many but the return rate is astonishingly high and the patterns are too consistent and predictable.

    Anyways I wish you all the best and my sincere thanks for sharing your experiences with all of us. Hope this experience of yours helps others save the time, money and effort of moving to India and back.

  9. Hi Prashant,
    Thanks again for discovering my blog (which led me to your blog). Slight bummer that your move didn’t work out — I’m sure it’s all for the best.

    Before I did my move in 2008, I was under the impression that majority of the moves that did NOT work out were due to “unable to adjust to India *personally*”. As I look at the sample of 10 odd folks whom I know (personally or via blog) who returned, almost all of them returned because their *work* didn’t quite map out. In hind sight, it makes sense of course.

    Good luck re-settling back.
    Vishy

    • Thanks Vishy. I would imagine that for most people, work and social life (including family) matter most. Everything else is gravy. No one leaves Boston for Canada when their candidate doesn’t get elected. No one leaves Delhi or India because that pothole was the last straw. We complain about these ‘gravy’ things but they aren’t decision making factors – just good conversation pieces. I’ve yet to meet someone who says that they are fulfilled at work and very happy with their friends and family but are still moving because of this or that ‘gravy’ reason.

      I’ll be following Ulaar. Great job writing there. If you are ever in Delhi over the next couple of weeks, do let me know.

  10. PK,

    Thanks for sharing your journey.

    Could you elaborate on the domain skills that you found wanting? That appears to be an opportunity wrapped with a bow and delivered to your doorstep – especially since you clearly already have a high risk tolerance and entrepreneurial skill set?

    Cheers … and good luck with the R2A. We’re just getting ready to ship the other way … we’ll likely cross paths over the Atlantic someplace. ;o)

    • Hi PK,
      Besides the consulting roles of sales, client management and internal team management, there are four domain skills you need to deliver a good web project:

      1. Information Architecture (IA)
      2. Branding and Graphic Design (GD)
      3. Content
      4. Front End Development (Dev)

      In large well known design agencies, people usually specialize in one of these and tend to be really good in that domain. But due to this specialization, agency people constantly have an urge to broaden their skillsets into the other domains. You could make a Shakespearean comedy of errors if you allow the wishes to come true: The IA wants to be GD, the Dev wants to be IA, the GD secretly trying Dev so they can go freelance (or openly feeling smug) and the content writer not being appreciated enough.

      Freelancers tend to be generalists wearing all the domain hats but are almost always mediocre (or worse) at all of them. For this loss in quality, freelancers don’t have to depend on anyone else.

      I’ve worked in both these settings (agency and freelance) and prefer the high quality work that comes out of agencies (which is a team effort of 2-4 people). For my design company, we concentrated on quality and looked for people who were strong in at least one domain (knowing more was gravy but not required and not at the cost of quality). That’s where we found a shortage. People tend to be generalists and it was difficult finding strong domain skillsets. That makes some market sense – web design companies work on volume in India (low quality, low cost, lots of volume) and don’t depend on high quality practitioners since their clients are VERY low paying. The really good specialists become disillusioned and try freelancing before moving to London.

      At our biggest, we were 6 people (plus some contractors) – this after lowering quality to comfortable sleeping point and not trying to make money during the growth phase of the company. At some point, I must have realized that this model wouldn’t scale and I wasn’t game for the pure volume business.

      I wish there were gifts wrapped in bows but if anything was going to be that easy! After the world’s longest comment reply, here is Andrew Bird’s One Man Orchestra – talk about wearing many hats well:


      • PK,

        Swoosh! Yep, that was the sound of your post going over my head … I guess life’s a tad bit easier in my corner (finance) … money’s money. ;o)

        Thanks for the blog. I’ve taken some fun tips away in my own R2I planning (logistical as well as ‘state-of-mind’ related).

  11. SK,

    Thanks for the conclusion! It was fun reading about your R2I experience. The important thing is that you gave it a fair shot, and I am sure you have learned a lot from this experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Good luck!

      • Anonymous,

        Prashant,
        Thanks for the post. Amazing. I am one of those Indians that is determined that I will return to India, however World is not such a small place that we can enjoy best of both the Worlds. I have been in India for a very long time, so did in the US. However I do like the vast differences in both countries. So When I retire, I will be in India (to enjoy all the masti) and be in US to enjoy all the Tranqulity). There are many more like me, who do appreciate your blog very much. There are some that do not what side walk is, so dont worry about them, keep writing. Thanks,

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