Maharaja Jaisingh – 1688 – 1743 – (photo taken from the murals of the Jaipur museum).
Maharaja Jaisingh was an exceptional king. Amongst many of his great achievements in the 18th century was building of the city of Jaipur, which is still intact, vibrant and fully operational. But he built this city with a purpose. He wanted it to be a great trading center rather than a fort like city which was the prevalent style during those days.
And he hit upon a very novel idea. He thought to turn his subjects into micro entrepreneurs and traders so as to transform his desert kingdom into a wealthy and flourishing one. With this in mind he built small shops within the city with wide roads for transportation of goods. He also wanted to make it aesthetically pleasing. Therefore all buildings were made out of pink colored stones from which the city got its name the ‘Pink City’, where none of the buildings could be built beyond a certain height.
It was a rather exceptional idea to rent out these newly constructed shops in the heart of the city to commoners rather than to noblemen of his courts. He charged them a very small rent in exchange of letting them run their family business from these spaces for commerce. Even after 200 years of their existence the value of the rent has gone up to measly sum of Rs 30/- a month (under $1). The idea was not profiting from the rentals but letting people learn and do business and add wealth and cultural value to the princely state of Jaipur. A casual round of the place shows us the great variety of trades and professions the people were engaged in, most of which continues till this day. Businesses are passed down from one generation to the next. Artisans (read freelancers) flocked to this place from all over India not only to enrich the culture of the place but also put a permanent signature of their unique quality at affordable prices.
This had far fetching repercussions and implications on the development of the nature and structure of Indian businesses, some of which are the following:
1. Created a class of astute and die-hard business families called ‘Marawaris’. They hate to do anything other than business.
2. Augmented the concept of ‘family business’, which is the prevalent style of doing business in India.
3. Promise and trust were the cornerstones of doing business where verbal agreements were equally honored like written agreements.
4. Promoted local crafts that pulled together designers, artisans, businessmen, freelancers, entrepreneurs, job seekers all over India especially from Bengal and Gujarat. The impressions of their fine art work of Bengal and Gujarat seem to be all over the place in Northern India, which even found a prominent place in Muslim and Mugal artifacts. Over time people from Gujarat were also sucked into becoming small and big businessmen but Bengalis stuck to their nomadic freelancer and micro entrepreneur life style. In that way they not only became the second largest community scattered all over India but also the eleventh richest community in the world.
5. Preservation of traditional crafts and professions till date, which the British wanted to obliterate with standardization of their products supported by efficient transportation connecting thousands of villages across India. It is in the desert region of Rajasthan that they miserably failed to push their concept of standardized and cheap products carried through an efficient railways system. This happened because British goods did not suit the local needs or matched the culture of the place. Their products weren’t life centric as the traditional products were.
6. This brings up the unique topic of designing ‘life centric products‘. For instance, in these markets, one would find a blanket that weighs about 100 grams, which can be folded into a very small size. The unique life centric feature of such a blanket is that it is cool on one side and warm on the other. Such an artifact is completely life centric to the nomadic tribes of the region. It is light and small to carry and can be used both in the daytime when temperatures soar and in the night when the mercury dips too low. The brass vessels used for storing water serves as another live example of a life centric product. People in the desert have used brass vessels for storing brackish water to turn them into potable drinking water for centuries. So the traders still sell brass vessels so useful in a place used to having scanty or no rainfall during the whole year. Even today, these traders are busy selling such life centric wares, which as I saw kept evolving over time with changing contexts.
7. The business models that operate are built on three vital principles — a) Robustness b) Resilience c) Natural cycles and rhythms linked to patterns of living. They have cleverly blended the concepts of robustness/reliability with resilience into their products and business models. The products are cheap, aesthetically pleasing and reliable over long periods of time. As opposed to concepts of robustness and reliability these businesses, which have stood the test of time, primarily evolved around the concepts of resilience and patterns of living tied to Nature. The businesses were resilient to stand the test of time since they had the innate ability to detect changes in the likes, dislikes and changing demands of the people and times (a sort of collaborative effort) to quickly adjust and adapt to those changes. It means rather than think in terms of fixed and often larger volumes, scaling up, improved infrastructure etc the businesses were in tune with the patterns of living of the masses that varied with the rhythms and cycles of nature. People needed different artifacts at different times of the year hence the supply was not tuned to a pump out a steady constant volume pushed month after month over the year based on average ‘customer needs’ to minimize operating costs to maximize profits but churned out in variable volumes in collaboration with the customers’ patterns of living to meet variable demands at different times of the year. Hence these family businesses never felt a need to grow beyond the space their small shops provided them for the past 200 years. They persevered in adapting, maintaining and creating wealth within the constraints of their given space. I was indeed fascinated by the remarkable business model that not only obviates the need for constant capital infusion to keep one’s neck above water but also creates unimaginable wealth for the families and others. (See a live success story of such operating model being used as a strategy in competitive environment here)
(A glimpse of the old shops running their family businesses in the Pink City, October 2011)
My visit to the Pink City was more than enlightening. I was rewarded by sudden but deep insights in to the business psyche of the Indians and a possibe model that would serve us in the future.
The new questions that arise in my mind now are:
1. What are we doing to preserve these principles in the present context?
2. Can start ups and new entrepreneurs take a leaf out of these old lessons to model their business?
3. How can we create a platform or network of such budding entrepreneurs and make them thrive and grow over the years just like Maharaj Jaisingh did in his Pink City?
4. What we need to do to move from the business models based on robustness and reliability to a business model that primarily focuses on resilience without sacrificing resilience.
5. How can we bring down the operating, inventory and product costs through design rather than through scale ups, speed of operation and the constant need for capital infusion to increase infrastructure to accommodate growing volumes?
6. All our notions about business models and operating our businesses would change once we adopt the resilience model over robustness model. That would throw up hundreds of new questions to be answered.