Mumbai always had new stories to tell in every nook and corner. Some of these stories have been epic and historic if you know the likes of Dawood Ibrahim, Dhirubhai Ambani or Sachin Tendulkar. I was no different and aspire to become a story to be told in Summer of 2008. Mumbai gave me a feeling of making an extraordinary out of ordinary. It arises your dreams, gives you wing and there you go flying in the air. But there are men who crash as well. But then your success is always somebody’s failure. I learnt this pretty fair in one of the incident I will always remember.
I had just shifted to Mumbai after finishing my engineering and was preparing for MBA entrance exams. On of the reasons to pursue management education was my aspiration of becoming an entrepreneur and I felt management education will be a good start towards the same. One fine day on my way from MBA Coaching classes sometime in August 2008 in Santa Cruz (Mumbai), I was crossing station from Santa Cruz West to Santa Cruz East on a typically humid Mumbai weather when I smelled lemon in the air and an enthusiastic voice shouting “Nimbu Paani, Lemon Soda” in a repeated barritone. Although the weather not so bad as more parched parts of India, the heat and humidity is ten folds due to the throngs of crowds always in close quarter wherever you go. And to beat the heat, resourceful street vendors set up mobile hand carts to cater to thirst quenchers.
I could smell these Nimbu Paani carts from a long distance. As I come closer to these carts, I see them stacked and decked up with garlands of dried lemons strung up around a colourful typographic sign, a man chopping and squeezing lemons at record speed and a steady crowd of locals and tourists greedily gulping down the sweet nectar from huge beer mugs. A lemon sherbet of sorts, nimbu pani is India’s version of the proverbial lemonade and is distinguished by the addition of salt. In some cases, black salt also know as kaala namak. The body craves that welcome hit of salt or the pungency of black salt after having depleted most of it through sweat.
A Nimbu Paani vendor had a business opportunity but the opportunity was tapped by many and there was hardly any big skill required to prepare the same. All vendors sell the same product mix and no one had real core competency. There was no Core Competency that one can take advantage of and first mover advantage hardly mattered. For a customer, it was difficult to decipher why he may prefer one vendor over another. I became obsessed to know who among the vendors at the station does the maximum business and why and how businesses like these will grow.
High with this new obsession, I made it a point to observer the scene everyday in peak hours. I was not sure if I was going to find anything meaningful out of this whole affair but entrepreneurial madness took over me. I observed that none of the vendors had any specific location advantage or any kind of magic ingredient. All were preparing their drinks with reasonable hygiene. Everybody had same prices and menu for drinks was exactly same. In fact, the typographic signs were almost same for all them. However, I observed that one Vendor, a heavily moustached man in his 50’s had found a way to increase the sales.
In Mumbai everybody is in rush and in order to attract attention, the man used to sing and perform voice modulation to amuse people and attract attention. He used to join lyrics of 3 unrelated songs and sing with amazing enthusiasm. Sometimes, he will use popular bollywood dialogues and insert lemon, water and other food items in them. Sometimes, he will mix bollywood with Cricket or bollywood and politics. Latest movie songs with amusing lyrics was also an interesting addition as I observer him for many days. Other Vendors didn’t try any of these tricks may be because they were too shy or didn’t realise they can make a good business out it. His antics would not have been very attractive if you had to listen him very patiently and for a long time but for most people, it was mostly a 2 minute entertainment which brought a smile on their face and consciously or sub-consciously, many of them stopped at his cart to have a drink.
There are no sales statistics to support how much did he actually profit or analysis of footfall at his cart compared to others. However, for a naked observer on that street, it was evident that he was able to sell more than other vendors. I also thought that his Nimbu Pani might actually taste better than others and this led me to taste the same from other vendors over a week. However, the fact remains that his Nimbu Paani was no special. What was special was his spirit to excel in a typical situation and his entrepreneurial mindset. It is of no doubt that he has hardly been to school and management education was out of place.
This was the time I was deep into entrepreneurship and this story marks an important chapter in my belief that entrepreneurship was not a career option but a way of life. I am not sure if the vendor is still at the station and still doing well enough to be an inspiring story but he has definitely inspired one person who has taken it in his stride.