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The third space

India may not have a Silicon Valley equivalent just yet, but something’s been brewing amid the hum in its coffee shops.
By Tanmoy Goswami and Anjali Kapoor Gaba

HARPREET GROVER, 30, says half the techies his company employs have permanently shifted base to cafés. “In the office, people bug them with random questions,” the CEO and co-founder of Gurgaon-based assessment and campus hiring startup CoCubes (backed by Infosys cofounder N.S. Raghavan’s Ojas Partners) tells us. “They concentrate better in a café.” He adds that in some of CoCubes’ other locations, like Pune, there are no offices at all. “Instead, we give people a Rs 2,000 monthly café allowance. They can work from anywhere, so long as it’s somewhere inexpensive—mostly a CCD [Café Coffee Day]!” 

Till 2012, Grover’s tribe would have fitted the stereotype of startup junkies allergic to formal workspaces. But research published that year by Ravi Mehta, who teaches business administration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, hints that their café love reflects something more universal. “We found that ambient noise”—like in a coffee shop—“induces distraction, and a moderate amount of distraction helps you move away from very focussed thinking, which in turn enhances creativity,” says Mehta. “Previous research has argued positive correlation between creativity and risk-taking. That speaks well with innovation and entrepreneurship, which involve the willingness to take risks.”

Risk is a word Grover and his co-founder Vibhore Goyal understand well: Both are IIT-Bombay grads who left promising jobs at consultancy Inductis and Microsoft Research Centre, respectively, to start CoCubes, which has been adjudged one of India’s ‘Top 10 Emerging Companies’ by Nasscom. Many in their 40-member team (average age: 27) are of the same mould. 

 

MEHTA’S RESEARCH finds prominent mention in online chatter around the mushrooming of portals which recreate the café hum for those who need their fix on the go. Coffitivity, one such portal, even made it to Time magazine’s best 50 in 2013. While Mehta studied predominantly North American individuals, he says the creativity-boosting effect of the sound is a “human phenomenon” that should be just as valid in the Indian context. But the marginal status of the creative type—innovators and entrepreneurs—in India meant no one here had time for such trivia.

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The attitude is now changing, with the rush of big money and media attention sparking unprecedented interest in the anatomy of the entrepreneur, a la Silicon Valley. And, intuitively, cafés are emerging as a key symbol. It’s not just about eccentric geniuses though. “Cafés are a blessing for sales guys, who need to park themselves somewhere between meetings,” says Grover.

“I conduct most of my meetings in coffee shops—including with investors and clients,” says Ankit Gupta, the twentysomething co-founder of Piquor, a startup based in Gurgaon that helps companies connect with their target audience through branded selfies. “They are accessible, comfortable, and no one bothers you if you sit for long hours. Importantly, they are cheap.” That last point resonates loud and clear within the entrepreneurial community. “That’s why we love CCD. Startups can’t afford Starbucks,” says Grover. 

The accent on affordability is a departure from the origins of the coffee culture in India. “It was triggered during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when India’s upwardly mobile middle-class was thriving on the IT boom,” says Ankur Bisen, senior vice president (retail) at consultancy Technopak. But for patrons like Grover and Gupta, it’s all about the idea of coffee rather than an indulgent drink.
 

“IN THE GLOBAL NORTH, people still go to a café to drink coffee first,” says Ravi Murugesan, former vice president at Mumbai-based language services startup Cactus Communications and consultant with an HR startup in Wisconsin, who now works in the development sector and shuffles between Africa and India. Murugesan says in India—where per capita coffee consumption is a measly 90 gm compared to 4.2 kg in the U.S.—it’s the third space between work and home, a space occupied by pubs in the West.

“The few places in India that have a homegrown coffee culture, like my hometown Chennai, don’t have the same buzz around cafés. Everywhere else, the label on the mug matters less than familiarity and vibe.”

The café’s informal vibe is finding use in traditional businesses too. Vipin Clement, senior talent development executive at the Bangalore office of British risk management, reinsurance, and human resources solutions provider Aon, talks of “no-obligation meetings” which are increasingly popular at mature organisations. “As part of succession planning, more and more organisations today encourage business heads to meet prospective talent at cafés. Both parties know there’s no immediate intent to hire; such interactions just won’t work in a typical office.”