For the startups – from the tycoons!

Dreaming of a new startup? Great! But before you begin, it’s important you take a thing or two from the tycoons. The Dabbawalas, or the lunch delivery men that carry home-cooked food across Mumbai. When it comes to running a successful, error-free, low-investment and high-profit making business, there is none better than the Six Sigma-certified Mumbai Dabbawala Association.

To give a little perspective to those who haven’t heard about them, they are a 125 year old, 5,000 man business chain whose men collect freshly prepared food stored in lunch boxes from various Indian homes & deliver them to their respective workplaces. The dabbawala would then return the empty boxes even before they return from work. They move around in trains, cycles, hand-pulled carts, even with huge carriers over the top of their head. Many of them cannot read, write nor use any kind of fancy technology (except for their recent inclusion of SMS Bookings), yet, they are better performers than most of the folks working at startups.


In 1998, Forbes Magazine recognized its reliability to match the Six Sigma standard. This means that the dabbawalas make less than 1 mistake in every 6 million deliveries. A very driven business with all the fundamentals required for a successful startup is evident in each and every employee of the Dabbawala Association. From a cultural aspect, all of them are founders and stakeholders who give more than 100 percent each time they are out doing their job. Come whatever may, your dabbawaala will never fail you.

So, what is it that startups can take cues from?


“Ownership is a feeling that an employee has to instil in oneself, and unless you get that feeling of ownership you cannot work excellently,” Pawan Agarwal, CEO of Dabbawala Association, said during one of his speeches at the e-Summit 2012 in IIT Delhi.

Ownership is a key aspect when it comes to startups. Building that culture is an integral part of making your startup successful. Very few people today aspire to become linchpins within organizations they work for. If your startup is driving that culture & appreciating the hard work, you can actually see the boost in productivity.


The people of Mumbai say with confidence: “Our lunch can go wrong but not the dabbawalas.” Why is that possible? It all boils down to keeping things simple.

Be it a Steve Jobs or Picasso, all great artists have always had a penchant for simplicity. The dabbawalas maintain that value. After all, the best innovations the world over, are the simplest.

Build, measure, learn

Understanding the need to keep pace with the fast-changing world around us and the use of mobile technology in the city, the Dabbawala Association recently started to embrace technology. Now, they have a growth rate of 5-10 percent every year. Change is inevitable, it’s important that your company keeps pace with the times.

Build services around your own infrastructure

Dabbawalas use a combination of various transport modes, especially very efficient and low cost ones. Trains, cycles, and handcarts contribute to maintaining reliable, efficient, and accurate delivery timelines. So, always adapt, and stick to what’s most convenient in the environment around you.

As lean as it gets

If you consider the dabawallas, their invesment is bare minimum – two bicycles, a wooden crate for the tiffins, white cotton kurta pyjamas, and the trademark white topi. They only charge around 450 rupees per month per customer. Don’t sell your services at a premium, you have time for that.

When you look at this enterprise, certainly there’s a lot more that everyone can learn from, not just startups.


(Adapted from an article in ZDNet by Srinivas Kulkarni from Startup India)


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