Venkata Gandikota, Co-founder and President of The Nordic Frugal Innovations Society (TNFIS) talks about his journey as an expat entrepreneur and how he co-shaped a non-profit organization that is working towards creating good quality, accessible and affordable solutions for a sustainable economic growth.
When I first heard of The Nordic Frugal Innovations Society (TNFIS) I had to google ‘frugal innovations’ because it was not a familiar term. Obviously, I know what frugal means but I found out that frugal innovation means creating functional solutions through limited resources for those with limited means. In short, Frugal innovations push for very smart and practical ways to produce and distribute a product or a service without compromising on quality.
Venkata Gandikota, a change agent and an advocate of frugal innovations, pointed out that it is often misunderstood for ‘cheap’ solutions. It is actually about cost-effectiveness and sustainability. “Frugal innovations are mostly entry level solutions but we need not be 100% focused on the bottom of the customer pyramid. The focus should rather be on human aspirations”, Venkata explains.
Whereas it is a process already popular in the developing countries, Europe is slowly catching up. India and China have innumerable examples of frugal and life changing innovations. One popular example is Nano, a $2,000 car developed for the lower middle-class Indians by Tata Motors. Within Europe, Unilever’s (Netherlands) Eco-friendly OMO washing sachets sold in Africa for a few cents is another example. In fact, Nokia’s 1200 cell phones from Finland could be called a frugal innovation as it offered a sturdy body, low price and easy to use buttons along with sophisticated technology. The service industry (e.g. technology based services) is also embracing the same model of ‘much-for-less’. The global healthcare sector too can hugely benefit from it as healthcare costs are insanely high.
For Venkata, starting this venture was challenging because people didn’t understand the concept, especially in Finland, as there is no translatable word for frugal in the Finnish language. To them it was just ‘cheap’. But Venkata and his co-founders persisted and their venture is gaining momentum. They took advantage of the gaps in the way Finnish companies were doing business in developing countries like India. These companies were concentrating more on sales than market research. That is where the model of ‘upfront accessibility and affordability’ fit in.
Since the concept was relatively new these aspiring entrepreneurs made it a non-profit venture. First, they wanted to make the concept mainstream. Today, TNFIS’s annual conference InnoFrugalbrings together industry experts, organisations and thinkers to a reputed platform to discuss emerging trends and success stories in frugal innovations. The 5th edition of InnoFrugal will be held in Helsinki in May this year.
At the core of this is the belief that when commodities are sparse, you are forced to dig deep into human ingenuity, the most priceless resource of all and exploit it to resolve your problems. Limitations in resources; whether financial, material or institutional should only inspire variations. Venkata’s personal story as an expat entrepreneur echoes the same. He admits that entrepreneurship wasn’t something he always had in mind. When his last independent project in Finland was coming to an end he had nothing interesting lined up. This is when Venkata decided to become an entrepreneur to make the best out of his situation.
A life in Finland fell in Venkata’s lap like a bouncing ball. While working as an environmental engineer in the USA he got influenced by a book on climate change called The Two-Mile Time Machine by Richard Alley. This new found interest brought him to Finland. After his one-year study program on Arctic Studies Program in Rovaniemi, Venkata worked for The Arctic Center and later in Jyväskylä for The Finnish Environment Institute respectively. Then he started working as an independent consultant for Finnish businesses in India following which he co-founded TNFIS in 2014. Protomo which was one of the few startup incubators at that time encouraged Venkata to try entrepreneurship.
The rest of the story has elements you all would relate to. Whether you are an accidental expat or an intentional one, the journeys are similar. Attitudes make the only difference!
But does that mean everybody can be an entrepreneur?
Venkata partly agrees. Yes, entrepreneurship can be taught and learned but one needs to have perseverance to succeed. He feels that many fail because they fear failure and lack mental resilience to stick around.
His expat life itself has been his greatest lesson. His open mindedness towards ‘whatever-may-come-next’ and adaptability have given him some advantages. He picked up skills and knowledge throughout his journey from India to the USA and then to Finland. Most importantly, Venkata believes that if you are being original no matter who you are then people trust you more. This entrepreneurship journey has worked out well because of one simple philosophy- what businesses want from you should align with what you have to offer!
But if he must highlight one aspect of his journey, it would be having a strong emotional support because that is the most crucial and the hardest thing to find as an expat. The struggles for the funding, finding partners and wrapping his head around the technicalities of establishing a startup were some challenges that Venkata faced but he considers them as the regular ‘life-giving-you-lemons’ kind of things.
Naturally, he made a pretty good lemonade out of it!
Hope this story inspires you to be a self starter. Life is full of infinite opportunities and anytime is a good time to act. That’s what the real entrepreneurs do-they get started. Follow The Shortcut on Facebook or subscribe to the newsletter for more stories.
By Jutismita Hazarika – March 3, 2019