An interview with Flo Oberhofer

When companies think about India, a lot of prejudices pop up. We all have heard stories about problems with Intellectual Property Rights and differences in cultural understanding. But if companies look beyond the initial challenges, India has to offer a vast market with endless opportunities. Startups are increasingly recognising these opportunities. Among the startup founders that have taken the plunge to work in India is Flo Oberhofer.

Flo’s passion for India developed early in his study years. “I wanted to study where no one else is studying. During this time my professor was involved in building the BMW factory in Chennai and got me in touch with IIT Madras. This is how my India story started,” Flo says. While Flo pursued other dreams after his studies and founded his first company in Dubai, he always stayed in touch with India. “India is a fascinating country with both challenges and opportunities. In India, you can learn something fundamentally new every day,” he further outlines. In 2016, Flo exited his first company in Dubai. The path was now clear to explore business opportunities in India.

Flo is currently running two startups, both focusing on India. EdibleForest is a social EdTech and AgriTech venture which builds an education platform that allows everyone in Rural India to plant a Food Forest on unused or barren land. Those Food Forests not only provide highly nutritious fruits, vegetables and medicinal/ayurvedic herbs at low-cost to the malnourished rural population, but also capture CO2 and reduce rural water distress. To that he is running Bharat Impact which designs and executes CSR projects in India for European corporates and facilitates Impact Investments in Indian Social Startups. He is also working on various projects related to cleantech.

When asked about the differences in founding a startup in India and Germany, Flo highlights that in both countries founding a startup is not difficult. “The only additional barrier for foreign startup founders in India is that the Reserve Bank of India is involved in the process which just makes the process slightly lengthier than for homegrown startup founders. Depending on the type of business there might be additional requirements to be fulfilled for foreign founders,” he says. Another key difference Flo sees relates to the price: “In Germany companies are focused on quality, whereas India is a very price sensitive market. I have seen a lot of startups failing because they had to invest a lot more in customer acquisition than they expected.”

However, India also offers a range of opportunities that Flo highlights during the interview. “In India startups work on different challenges compared to Germany. While in Germany, most of the startups have to identify a niche to be successful, India offers an enormous range of challenges startups can address and tackle. This makes the market so interesting.”

For Flo the market entry was relatively straightforward as he already knew the Indian market due to his studies and an internship he had conducted in India. However, when asked about challenges, he experienced during his expansion process, Flo points out the often extensive documentation requirements and legal compliances that are getting increasingly complex for all companies and can be overwhelming for startups. Flo adds that the government however is doing a good job in working on processes that make those requirements less rigid for the startup ecosystem.

Flo also has a couple of tips for German founders seeking to expand to India. “Before you expand to India invest some time to understand the culture and the market. Although potential business partners may communicate like they follow the same business practices, the reality often looks different. I would also recommend hiring or partnering with someone with an understanding of India. Eventually everything comes down to already having a strong network and existing business relations in place, once you intend to enter the market,” Flo further advises.

When entering a new market, external support is often crucial. For Flo several actors are important that can guide startups during their journey to India. “A lot of information can be found on the GINSEP platform. Depending on the sector a startup is in, I would recommend identifying accelerators and incubators on the GINSEP platform that cater to a particular industry and approach them directly. They are often very open to jump on a call to discuss opportunities how to place a certain product in the Indian market,” Flo says. “Invest India / Startup India is another platform that can help to gain an overview of the Indian startup ecosystem. Here you can find a lot information on support mechanisms of individual federal states and which incubators and accelerators are active in India,” he concludes.