Building a startup in India: How to ensure employee success

Building a startup in India: How to ensure employee success

Flickr Neha Singh

This is the third in Rupesh Shah's ongoing series about working at a social enterprise in rural India.

Simpa Energy had its biggest month in August when we acquired nearly 1,000 customers for our solar home systems. Despite the formidable day-to-day challenges of building a business in rural India, we are indeed making progress. But while we strive to get better every day, there’s so much more to do to reach our business and impact goals.

There is no silver bullet for succeeding in rural India. We employ the same basic strategies as every business, but the diversity of scenarios here is more extreme than anything I’ve experienced in my 20-year career. I’m hoping by sharing some of these experiences, I’ll give you a sense of the challenges working at the bottom of the pyramid. I’d love to hear your ideas on solving them.

First, a bit of context: Simpa Energy has 200 employees employed across 12 offices in Uttar Pradesh, with education levels ranging from an eighth-grade dropout to master's degrees.Selling Simpa Solar Lighting systems at night

It is tough to find great talent anywhere, but this is particularly true in the areas we work, so when we do find someone we act quickly. But identifying great talent is only part of the challenge. We’ve had potential employees decide not to show up on their first day of work or show up just long enough to get a company phone or computer and then take off, never to be seen again. We’ve even had an employee take a job in his brother’s name to help his brother improve his resume. Nothing surprises us anymore.

It’s with this backdrop that we have developed some key principles to ensure our people, our most critical resource, are successful.

Making the impossible seem possible

Most of our people have not been exposed to much outside their village and in many cases they don’t have even a rudimentary understanding of how a business works or what is expected of them as employees. So if we are about to begin a new campaign or make a change in our product line, we always start by getting groups of employees together and painting a picture of our shared goal so they can visualize it.

For example, we were seeing customers paying for energy in small amounts and having to re-charge their solar home system multiple times in a month. We wanted our employees encourage larger payments. When we first brought up the idea, they said it was impossible — the customers have no money and we would just be wasting our time. So we explained the benefits: customers receive a small discount and the company saves money collecting one payment instead of two. We also showed them examples where this had worked. They started to believe. We ran a campaign in one district and increased payment amounts by 10 percent. This is one way we helped build a culture of possible vs. impossible.


It’s Indian culture to respectfully nod your head to your superior to acknowledge what you’ve heard, but it doesn’t necessarily signify your understanding or your commitment. So we’ve created a process of accountability to ensure our message is accurately communicated. This entails following up with customers after each interaction.

We call the customer after they have made a refundable down payment to make sure they understand the capabilities and price of the product. After a technician installs our product, our call center contacts the customer and asks a series of questions to find out if the installation was done properly and the customer was educated on how to use it. We also have a team of “auditors” spot-check the physical installation as well as the customer experience and provide feedback on both.

These extra steps are costly and time-consuming but absolutely necessary because I have observed business interactions in rural India tend to solve for the most convenient outcome, not always the right one.

Rewards and recognitionA potential Simpa customer fills out our credit application, part of the process in buying a Simpa Solar System.

Every month, all employees get together in a town hall meeting for a company overview, updates, guest speakers and some fun. During the second half of these meetings we give awards to individuals, teams and offices. Winners get their name and accomplishments displayed on the big screen, a photo op with a senior leader and prizes including medals, trophies, plaques, certificates and anything else that they can take home and show off to their friends and family.

Regardless of how we perform as a company, this town hall meeting always takes place. It’s critical to keep our employees motivated because their day-to-day work and living environments are so challenging.

Step-by-step instructions

Because of situations unique to rural India, we’ve had to prepare our employees for the unexpected. For instance, what should they do if they are at a customer’s doorstep ready to install and there’s a fight between several villagers about whether he should get the solar system? Or how about when our solar technician is in a village looking for a customer’s home and can’t find it or reach him by phone and people in the village say he is out of town? These are just two of hundreds of tricky cases we have faced.

Policies and clear instructions take the ambiguity out of situations such as these. We still don’t have policies documented for every situation our employees are likely to face so we are borrowing heavily from micro-finance institutions, for whom robust policies have been essential as they have thousands of employees handling large amounts of cash throughout rural India. Of course this also necessitates training. Simpa has employees spread out over 10 districts, 200 miles apart with terrible roads, so building a training infrastructure is another unexpected, but essential, cost in our model.

I hope this helps others in the social enterprise ecosystem better understand some of the challenges of working in rural India and trying to serve the bottom of the pyramid. When I came to Simpa, I certainly anticipated challenges dealing with weather and infrastructure, but now that I am 18 months in, I see that the people challenges are far more difficult. As leaders it is our No. 1 priority to create an environment where our employees can thrive by understanding their job, having the tools and knowledge to do that job, and a feedback loop in place to continually monitor and improve their performance.