Startup Lessons from the Busy Streets of India

I recently returned from a trip to India as part of Geeks on a Plane, an event put on by 500 Startups. Should you have a chance to join one of these trips, I highly recommend it. If you need a new perspective or want to expand your business internationally, this is definitely the way to do so. You’ll gain invaluable insights and connections—and, oh, you might even have some fun along the way.

Our trip was pretty packed, meeting with local startups, entrepreneurs, and investors. So we didn’t venture too far from the cities and major hubs. In other words, I didn’t do much of the touristy/inspirational stuff. However, in India, inspiration can often be found right in front of you. In my case, I found some right along the many packed streets as we made our way through the dense traffic each day. These jammed streets reminded me a great deal of the journey we take with startups. Here’s why:

Driving without Lanes

Most of the roads in India don’t really have lanes. Where one lane ends and another begins is, well, up for interpretation. Drivers are forced instead to flow around each other haphazardly resulting in a strange but beautiful ballet of cars, trucks, motorcycles, and yes cows.

Startup Lesson Learned: Make your own lane or when needed push your way into someone else’s. Don’t wait for infrastructure to catch up when you need to reach a new destination.

No Time to TXT

Drivers on busy Indian streets never text while driving. To do so would not only be dangerous, it could also prove deadly. Traffic is so heavy and unpredictable that you absolutely must give the road your full and undivided attention. This is essentially the complete opposite experience one has while driving in Los Angeles, where many drivers continue to send text messages from behind the wheel despite it being illegal. As such, I found India’s lack of drivers’ texting simply glorious.

Startup Lesson Learned: Don’t get distracted. Keep your eyes on where you’re headed, and save the distractions for later. Your TXT message can wait. You’re not missing anything important on Twitter/Facebook. Just remain focused on where you’re going and what you’re building.

When in Doubt, Honk

Every major street in India is flooded with the cacophony of car horns. It’s both intoxicating and overwhelming. If you’ve been to Manhattan, you’ve experienced something similar, but it’s far more intense in India. A cab driver in Mumbai joked with me that his horn provided “lane control” as he honked three times and smiled. Drivers are so tightly packed (literally inches apart) into the streets, the horn essentially signals, “Hey, I’m right here! Don’t hit me!”

Startup Lesson Learned: Make some fucking noise as you move around. And sometimes your team members could probably use a little honk so they know you’re there.

Painted Work Trucks

I couldn’t help but notice most of the work trucks of India were elaborately painted, and some were even adorned with flowers. I’m talking about the trucks that haul cargo, move livestock, and pick up trash. These tasks aren’t the most glamorous, but the trucks were painted as if they were competing in a beauty pageant. As it turns out, these are well-loved trucks because they typically provide the means for the family’s entire livelihood. Their appearance is a matter of pride and deep appreciation for the vehicle.

Startup Lesson Learned: Take some pride in your vehicle, office, desk, startup, appearance and your own livelihood. Even if your startup is not terribly sexy, make it great and something others admire, even if that admiration is coming from their rearview mirror.

Just Believe You Won’t Crash

Through all the twists and turns and while surviving the overflowing intersections and intense traffic, I didn’t witness one single accident. That was the most remarkable thing about the busy streets of India. There are thousands of drivers packed into tight spaces, inches apart, and yet fender benders seem uncommon. The streets, as imperfect as they were, gave no driver a reason to think he or she might crash. Drivers had an unbreakable sense of confidence they would make it through any tight situation.

Startup Lesson Learned: Sometimes you just have to believe you’re going to make it—that your crazy ideas and maneuvers might just actually get you there. Simply believe you’ll escape unscathed, and you might do exactly that.

Sean Percival

Sean helps startups get an unfair advantage in the market. Want to work together? Get in touch.