Delhi's co-working culture offers a bright future for startups

Is Delhi leading the way in co-working? And what’s behind its startup boom? Lauren Razavi finds out how the city’s business scene is innovating.

I arrive in front of a big, black metal door and stare at it blankly for a moment. Tucked between a mobile phone shop and market stalls selling cigarettes is the unlabelled building I’ve been told about. There’s no sign to tell me I’ve found the right place, but that’s far from unusual in India. The doorman flashes me a smile and asks, “Def Col Social?” I nod, and he ushers me in.

Inside there are mismatched chairs and graffiti-style signs over two floors. My warehouse-chic surroundings wouldn’t seem out of place in London or Berlin.

Set in the upmarket Defence Colony neighbourhood, this co-working space is one of two offered by Social in South Delhi. The food and cocktail menus include options such as Elvis Presley French toast and spiced guava mocktails. It’s a far cry from the fold-out chairs and old-school desks in some of Delhi’s other co-operative working hubs.

cafe work desk Facebook Twitter Pinterest The warehouse-chic work areas of Def Col Social. Photograph: Def Col Social Many of Delhi’s growing number of startups pass through this co-working space. “Our members range from recent graduates who are at the drawing board stages of their ideas, to well-established advertising guys who provide consulting services for some of the world’s most interesting brands,” says Riyaaz Amlani, who founded Social in February last year.

“It’s great to see the interesting mix of Indians, expats and travellers. Our expats are everything from development professionals to architects to authors. We appeal to them because we provide ready-made infrastructure and painless access to local talent [for collaboration].”

India has seen significant economic growth in recent years despite global economic difficulties. According to a recent Ernst & Young (EY) report, India’s GDP grew by 7.9% for the 10 year period ending 2012-13.

One factor in the rankings is foreign direct investment, for which India is the third most attractive global destination (after China and the US). One of India’s burgeoning sectors is digital and e-commerce. It grew over 40% from 2009 to 2012, from $3.6bn (£2.3bn) to approximately $10bn (£6.4bn).

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund forecasts India’s GDP to grow by 7.5% in 2015-2016. Keval Doshi, a partner at EY in India, says since the EY 2013-2014 report government reforms have come into effect that have encouraged business growth. “It has become quicker and easier to set up a business in India,” he says.

According to a report by Indian software thinktank iSPIRT (pdf), 20% of the country’s most valuable software companies are now headquartered in Delhi’s national capital region (NCR) metropolitan area (the NCR encompasses New Delhi and urban areas in neighbouring states) This puts it only 7% behind Bangalore, India’s leading city for enterprise and technology.

The NCR area is home to the Indian headquarters of Google, Microsoft, IBM and restaurant search engine Zomato, a homegrown startup.

These developments are contributing to the rise in the number of startups, says Sudeep Singh, director of the Google-partnered online community, Startup Grind India. “Delhi’s startup scene is growing exponentially due to the entrepreneurial ecosystem here and the [government] support [provided to] the NCR.

“Because of the recent spurt in the number of big conglomerates located in the NCR, people [who have worked for those conglomerates] have acquired the expertise and experience to found startups,” Singh explains. “Delhi is poised to become the biggest hub of startup activity after Bangalore.”

Pranav Bhatia, founder of co-working space Stirring Minds, which opened in the centre of Delhi in 2013, agrees. “It used to be Bangalore where the most activity was happening, but Delhi and Bangalore are now about the same in terms of businesses starting up and funding opportunities.” Bhatia describes Stirring Minds as a mix between corporate co-working spaces and cafe-style set-ups. The members are a combination of Indian nationals and expats.

Meanwhile, Anuj Pulstya, co-founder of another Delhi co-working business, 91springboard, says such spaces offer opportunities for entrepreneurs in the city. At 91springboard these opportunities include workshops, hackathons and pitching sessions. All of which, Pulstya says, increase an entrepreneur’s exposure and offer a higher success rate for their venture.

Back at Social, come evening, the co-working space transforms from a workspace to a trendy bar; the quiet tapping of keys gives way to live DJ sets. “They seem to have got it right in terms of combining an office environment with a cafe-bar,” Singh says. “[Co-working spaces] are an important networking tool and a good way to rent office space at a low cost.”

Amlani’s background as an entrepreneur has helped Social host workshops and masterclasses by some of India’s leading entrepreneurs, as well as generate leads with angel investors and venture capitalists for some of his promising workspace members.

Social is home to 200 members across three cities, and almost half of these members are based in Delhi. After launching the city’s first space in Hauz Khas village (HKV) last year, Amlani opened his second Delhi offering in the Defence Colony neighbourhood in March.

coffee bar Facebook Twitter Pinterest After working hours, Def Col Social transforms into a bar. Photograph: Def Col Social Sahil Rathore Rajvansh, who owns art and investment agency Project Art Worm, says co-working has directly contributed to the growth of his business, particularly in the areas of networking and development. “Diverse and unbiased feedback from a wide array of well-travelled, well-educated and fun people is literally a table away from you.”

Another fan of co-working spaces is French expat Sarune Baubaite who runs boutique online travel agency Nomaday Travel, which organises day trips and holidays across India. She has lived in Delhi for four years and has been co-working since May 2015, she finds co-working spaces to be productive environments.

Baubaite has been watching the city’s startup scene develop with interest. “Many local people who were living and studying abroad in places like the UK, the US and Australia are coming back to establish startups here because Delhi is a growing market and has big potential,” she says. “Indian society is becoming less conservative, so it’s a good time to bring new ideas to the market.”She adds that India has a traditionally slow-moving work culture. “Working in India isn’t easy because of the difference in mentality: people here like to delay everything or promise to do something and never do it,” she says. Co-working spaces and collaboration with local workers are useful ways to overcome these cultural differences – especially for expat entrepreneurs.Co-workers in Delhi can offer a local perspective on things, says Baubaite.

With its evolving startup culture, it will be interesting to see if Delhi can begin to compete with Bangalore’s position as India’s city for enterprise. For the moment, the energy of its new generation of entrepreneurs is palpable.

Originally published by The Guardian. Image above courtesy of Def Col Social.

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