Homecoming: What's motivating boomerangs to take a chance
More professionals are giving up promising careers in big cities to start up in their tier-2 hometowns.
An IIT-Bombay and Kellogg School of Management alumnus, Patni has faced such gridlocks almost daily for four years while working in various companies in Mumbai, Delhi and Silicon Valley in the US. In 2012, Patni decided to start his own venture from his hometown — Jaipur. Since then, his commute from work to home has cost him a little over two-and-ahalf minutes.
However, Patni’s decision to relocate to Jaipur was not entirely provoked by traffic woes. It was based on business sense; his company runs a language-learning app called Hello English. “Tier-2 cities are the biggest market for a consumer internet product like ours. Being closer to our customers only helps us keep the product real.” With over 10 million downloads, Hello English is one of the three most downloaded language-learning apps on Android in the world.
“It may sound cliched, but home is where the heart is,” says Patni, whose bold decision to start up from a small town instead of a metro was vindicated when they raised $6.5 million in Series A funding four years ago.
Patni is among a group of people that techies and investors in the West call boomerangs. In American startup parlance, boomerangs are people who leave high-profile jobs in Silicon Valley to start up in a smaller city. India, too, has a growing list of boomerangs now — professionals who choose to start up in their tier-2 hometowns after getting work exposure internationally or in a metro city. In an article in The Business Journals, investor and entrepreneur Tim Schigel writes, “Boomerangs can have that multiplier effect, building companies, creating thousands of jobs and contributing to the economy in ways that aren’t possible with big, established corporations.”
No study has been done to understand this reverse migration to small towns. But most such people have zeroed in on their hometowns, or its vicinity, because of the familiarity and the inherent advantages that come with it. A series of infrastructural developments in tier-2 cities has also made it easier for entrepreneurs to take this leap. “Either they want to stay closer to the family, mostly parents, or they want to raise children in their native cultural environment,” says Guhesh Ramanathan, founder of startup incubator Excubator. “What works in their favour now is the possibility to do business from anywhere in the world thanks to tech and high-speed internet connectivity.” These boomerangs are entering a wide variety of businesses, including consumer goods and B2B services.
Siblings Amit and Anurag Jain took this leap in 2007 when they launched GirnarSoft in their hometown, Jaipur. It is now the parent company of online car portal CarDekho.
Amit, an IIT-Delhi alumnus like his younger brother Anurag, had worked in companies such as TCS and Trilogy in Indian metros and abroad for eight years before he decided to return home for personal reasons.
Boomerangs have even ventured into the premium FMCG space — which has to deal with distribution and other challenges that do not have an online solution. Coimbatore, for example, alone has seen two such ventures in the past five years. One is Srivardhan Sethuram’s Monsoon Harvest, a millet-based snack company, and the other is Pritesh Asher’s Juicy Chemistry, which makes and sells natural cosmetics.
Sethuram, 44, worked in IT companies in the US and Germany for several years. Asher, 36, was on the verge of getting a job and permanent residency in Australia after completing his higher studies there. But over a decade ago, their families asked them to return to their home city. “Most people move back for personal reasons,” says Sethuram, who quit his job at Siemens Power Generation Services in Orlando and came back to Coimbatore in 2008. “It is a good coincidence if moving back home benefits the business.” In his case, he made sure it did.
Sethuram looked for something local to channel his passion for food. After running his father’s industrial vacuum cleaner business for a few years, Sethuram found his answer in millets in 2015. “I knew they grew well in and around Coimbatore. Millets are pestresistant and easier to grow.” So the former techie set out to make contemporary and tasty products out of the coarse grains. “Coimbatore gave us an advantage from a production standpoint due to easier access to raw materials and equipment.”
Today, his company Monsoon Harvest has 12 products and clocks revenue of Rs 3-4 crore annually. He sells through online platforms and 850 retail shops across Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and Delhi.
Juicy Chemistry sells most of its natural cosmetics online. Asher, who started the company with his wife Megha, says they have benefitted a great deal from Coimbatore’s relatively lower rentals and wages. “In any tier-1 city, I would be paying Rs 75-100/sqft for my 8,000 sqft production facility. Here, I pay nothing more than Rs 15-16/sqft. Even starting salaries for talent are almost half of what you would have to pay in a big city,” he says. “Starting up in your hometown helps you reduce many such expenses.”
Juicy Chemistry services over 800 orders a day with an average ticket size of Rs 1,800. The company registered Rs 8 crore in revenue last year and hopes to earn Rs 10-12 crore this financial year.
Both the boomerangs also have spouses who hail from big cities. Sethuram’s wife and the company’s product head, Umeshwari Machani, 39, was born and brought up in Bengaluru. Juicy Chemistry’s cofounder Megha Asher, 35, is a bonafide “south Bombay girl”. But even they seem to be loving the small-city vibe. “The sub-par flight connectivity of a tier-2 city does bother you sometimes,” says Machani. “But you learn to plan your travel accordingly.” Megha, on her part, says she can’t stand Mumbai for more than 2-3 days now. “In Coimbatore, you get time to do things, to have a life, instead of spending most of your life commuting.”
This realisation made Angad Pal Singh Kingra quit as design lead at food-tech company Zomato in Gurgaon and return to his hometown, Chandigarh, to start a design firm. “I saw my parents turning old and being with them became my priority.” Kingra, 33, says he would spend three hours a day on Gurgaon roads every day. “One day I read somewhere that if you have lived in Delhi for eight years, you would have spent one year in a car on the road. That hit me hard.” In 2013, his grandmother died. “That was the last straw. I returned home after that.” Kingra now runs Able in Chandigarh with a bunch of design professionals based in Hyderabad. Able has clients across Delhi, Bengaluru and Silicon Valley. Last year, it made Rs 5-6 crore in revenue.
There will be more reverse exodus, says Ganesh Ramakrishnan, founder of B2B networking platform Growffy. “Life is not worth living in big cities anymore due to traffic and pollution.” Ramakrishnan, 46, spent over a decade working for IT companies in Silicon Valley before relocating to Trichy, Tamil Nadu, in 2011. He thought India was a better place to raise his two daughters. “When we came here, there were no IT parks, no telecom towers and connectivity was zero. Roads were muddy. We had to ask for government intervention to get things off the ground.”
Over the years, he has built a team of 170 people — almost all of them are locals who want to stay closer to their families.
Patni’s CultureAlley office in Jaipur is also made up of people who relocated from Bengaluru, Mumbai or Hyderabad to be closer to their hometowns in the north. Monsoon Harvest and Juicy Chemistry are able to hire local talent from the numerous educational institutions in and around Coimbatore.
However, they face challenges in talent retention. “Youngsters worry about their career road map,” says Growffy’s Ramakrishnan. Sethuram says: “Cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru give them better access to opportunities.” A brand like Juicy Chemistry can get noticed faster in a metro, says Asher, who is contemplating opening an office in Delhi or Mumbai.
Not getting noticed did not deter Vaibhav Domkundwar from relocating to his hometown, Pune, in 2012 after professional and entrepreneurial stints spanning 16 years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Domkundwar, who set up early-stage fund Better Capital in Pune, says he wanted his children to get a taste of Indian culture. “Lot of my VC friends ask how I’m investing while sitting in Pune. They think I must be on a plane all the time.” But video-conferencing has helped him deal with these issues, he says. In the last seven years, his fund has invested in 40-odd startups. “We moved back and were able to create opportunities. But people have had successes and failures in both scenarios,” he says.
CultureAlley’s Patni has seen many return to metros after boomeranging. Take the case of Sridhar Varadaraj, who founded Zago, a health drinks and superfoods company, in hometown Coimbatore in 2013. Two years ago, the 48-year-old entrepreneur moved the operations to Bengaluru because he couldn’t get his R&D team to move to the smaller city. “Marketing and product development were more critical for us than manufacturing. So I had to make the shift.”
For a salaried employee, boomeranging means giving up on the comfort of a monthly pay cheque, and the networking avenues of a big city. But people like Kingra, whose last salary at Zomato was Rs 1,20,000 a month, say they have no regrets. “During my grandfather’s last days,” Kingra adds, “I could read out translated versions of his favourite Urdu novels to him. That meant the world to me.”
Country Roads, Take Me Home
Who are Boomerangs?
Professionals who choose to start up in their tier-2 hometowns after getting work exposure internationally or in a metro city.
Why do they move back?
.. To stay closer to family
.. To raise children in native cultural environment
.. To stay closer to consumers they cater to
What is helping this trend?
.. Better internet connectivity means work can be done from anywhere
.. More infra development & less traffic and pollution in tier-2 cities
What are the hurdles?
.. Talent hiring and retention
.. Poor brand visibility
What do they miss?
.. Networking opportunities that big cities offer