Management lessons I learned from a chai-wallah (tea-seller).

As a middle class 90s kid growing up in India, I have fond childhood memories of what a majority of my Sunday mornings looked like. Down the corner of the road I grew up in, there was a tea-stall. Nothing fancy. Yet, every going every Sunday was a treat it itself. For out of that very rudimentary set-up, came some of the best chai(tea) served in earthen cups. With piping hot samosas to go with it. And jalebis in the winter.

Now that I reminisce back, it is here that I learned some of my best lessons of management and leadership.

1. Product, product, product : A great product, along with a great experience is what wins. Every single time. Anybody can make chai at home. But you went for the experience you knew you wouldn’t be able to replicate at home. One of relishing the ginger, saffron-flavoured chai in earthen cups. And what’s more, you got the same experience, every single time. It was a feeling that never failed you.

2. Know your customer, and serve them well : Once you went to the chai stall, you made sure you went there again. And again. And again. For you’d find that thanks to your multiple visits, the chai-wallah knew all your tastes and preferences. How hot you liked your tea. How much sugar you preferred. And you’d always be served accordingly. Once you became a regular, you could even be served on credit, and have the option of settling your bill monthly instead of daily. All of this made sure you didn’t even bother checking out another place, since your regular place knew you so well.

3. Do few things, and do them well : In the past 20 years, I’ve been going to the tea stall, the menu has pretty much remained the same. Tea. Samosas. Jalebis in the winter. The only variant being that if you requested, they introducing the option of  a sugar substitute, instead of sugar. I remember once asking the owner if he would ever consider extending his menu. To which I remember him saying a no. Why? I asked. Because I have limited resources. And I’d much rather put them to use where they are going to be used. In some cases, its best to grow vertically, instead of laterally. A wise entrepreneur understands which road to take.

4. A great product creates its own community : A good product or service creates its own following. And can be a great leveler. At the tea-stall every Sunday, you’d find people coming in luxury cars, in two wheelers, and on foot. To avail of the same product. For the short period of time they were there, social differences would be forgotten, and they would all be members of the same community – lovers of the chai stall.

5. Stay true to your brand : The chai stall stood for few things. Modest, humble tea at great taste and prices. Even after it started making more money, it didn’t bother to convert itself into a fancy restaurant of sorts. Because it didn’t want to lose the very essence which was a crowd-puller in first place.

Years down the line, I go to the tea-stall. It still is there. And serves the same tea, as it did, years ago. The samosas are still as irresistible, and the jalebis still as piping hot, as they used to be, at one point. The chai-stall stands tall, as my very own institution, where I learned some of the best lessons of management, from the experience of a man who probably had no formal business education, yet the experience of a lifetime in what it takes to create a world-class product and enterprise.

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