Online trading platforms are spawning micro-entrepreneurs in small-town India

Saurabh Sharma February 14, 2017 5 min

A smartphone wedged between his shoulder and his ear, Diwakar Singh, 19, is negotiating the price of a Royal Enfield motorcycle with a customer. No, he’s not a salesperson at some Royal Enfield store in a city. Singh is sitting at his roadside wooden kiosk in Sitapur, a small town in Uttar Pradesh about 90km from state capital Lucknow.

Singh talks to the buyer even as he repairs a motorcycle, spanner in hand, pushing him to raise his offer of Rs 50,000 by another Rs 8,000.

Trading on online classifieds platforms requires little or no investment, but the returns are good enough to make a qualitative difference to these entrepreneurs’ lives  

Thanks to his smartphone and access to online trading platforms like Quikr and Olx, Singh has come a long way from his motorcycle mechanic days of earning Rs 50 a day. He’s now a small-time entrepreneur. Singh and his brother, Sunny, both school dropouts, have developed a thriving side business (they are primarily motorcycle mechanics) selling used bikes online through ads on Quikr and Olx.

These online classifieds platforms are churning out micro-entrepreneurs from India’s remote towns and villages. They facilitate end-to-end transactions with flexible return policies, minimising the worries of the remotely connected buyer and seller. Trading on them requires little or no investment, but the returns are good enough to make a qualitative difference to these entrepreneurs’ lives.

“Online platforms like Quikr, OLX and Locanto have created so many opportunities for people like us,” says Singh, adding, “Hailing from a farming family, we had never imagined that we would get into this business or do so well in it.”

Motorcycle diaries: From mechanic to businessman

Singh is thankful to one of his former customers, who pushed him towards making the entrepreneurial move. “One of our customers at the shop I used to work at told me about the online trading platforms and explained to me how they could be an opportunity to change our lives,” recalls Singh.

Singh’s mentor also gave him a loan of Rs 2,500 to start a business. Singh and Sunny used the money to set up their own shop and started selling vehicles online through people they knew in town, using the local cyber cafe to access the internet.

“Initially, we struggled a lot. We printed pamphlets, gave commissions to brokers and tried various methods to expand sales, but we couldn’t make much money. Our business started growing only after we bought a smartphone and started using mobile apps to sell the bikes,” he says.

Sunny (in picture) and Diwakar only started making profits when they bought a smartphone and started using mobile apps to sell the bikes

“My smartphone has helped me create a business and now helps me expand it every day” — Diwakar Singh, micro-entrepreneur  

Singh and Sunny manage the business together and claim to earn Rs. 30,000-40,000 a month. While Sunny’s job is to source old motorcycles for sale, Singh repairs them, restores them to perfect working condition and sets the price. They then post ads online and sell the vehicles on behalf of their customers. Singh gives personal guarantees on the vehicles that he repairs and trades. They make anything from Rs 3,000 to Rs 15,000 per deal, depending on the kind of vehicle they’re selling.

In the last one year, Singh claims to have sold 19 bikes, most of them Royal Enfields, to customers from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The platform ecosystem

Technocrat Nandan Nilekani had said during the Future of Jobs in India Summit, organised by FactorDaily in association with Careernet in November last year, that the unicorn (like Flipkart, Ola Cabs, Quikr) and startup “ecosystem” would create thousands of jobs. He had added, however, that “these jobs are not going to be what we thought of as jobs.

“These guys are quasi employees, quasi entrepreneurs. The guy who’s driving a taxi for Ola, he’s getting a loan from a bank, he’s taking the risk of buying an asset. He’s like an entrepreneur except that he’s connected to a platform,” Nilekani had said.

This is exactly what the platform ecosystem is doing — creating quasi or micro entrepreneurs.

“These guys are quasi employees, quasi entrepreneurs. The guy who’s driving a taxi for Ola, he’s getting a loan from a bank, he’s taking the risk of buying an asset. He’s like an entrepreneur except that he’s connected to a platform” — Nandan Nilekani  

But homegrown online classifieds rivals Olx and Quikr are facing the threat of disruption by global giants Facebook and Amazon. Realising the potential of the online classifieds business in India, Amazon, recently integrated its peer-to-peer (P2P) selling platform Junglee in the country and Facebook too is bringing its marketplace based on success of its pilot in the US and three other countries.

That, however, is of no concern to Singh. He can adapt to the new platforms if necessary. In fact, more platforms mean more buyers, which means more profit.

“My smartphone has helped me create a business and now helps me expand it every day. We sell a minimum of four bikes in a month these days and I can even afford to buy a washing machine now,” he says. “And, hopefully, my family will never have to go to bed hungry ever again,” he adds, smiling.

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