• Himansu Varghese

The Saffron Salesman: How Ed-Tech Startups thrive on FOMO Among Indian Parents.

Updated: Nov 28, 2020

Seven years ago on the snowy hilltops of the Himalayas, my father taught me one of the most crucial pillars of modern ed-tech businesses: FOMO.

Back in the summer of 2013, our family had visited Himachal Pradesh, a much needed post-board exam vacation for me. On one of the latter days of the trip, we drove from the beautiful town of Manali to the famous Rohtang Mountain Pass. While I was marveling at the snowfall, a first for me who grew up in South India, a local salesman approached us. And from his pocket, he revealed his good: a small container of pure saffron spice!

His pitch was simple. If a recently-wed lady or an expectant-mother mixes a pinch of saffron in milk and consumes twice a day continuously, the couple would be blessed with a smart, able-bodied, and fair-skinned baby boy. We enquired the price. A whopping 4000 rupees for a small packet of less than 50g!!

My father politely refused, explaining to him that we had no expectant mothers or recently wed women in our family, and he moved onto his next, much younger looking target. But the question still nagged me. Who would buy 50g of the condiment for 4000 bucks to have fair-skinned baby boys?

My father was kind enough to explain; we were not his target audience.

To us, it's absolutely bonkers to make a purchase like that. But for an average Indian newlywed couple who, unfortunately, still believed in the superiority of male children and fair skin, the 4000 rupees is but a mere investment towards a lifetime of good fortune! The fear of missing out on something that, at least in their mind, was a crucial piece to the puzzle of happiness would force them to pay up. Clearly, this man had a successful business. That’s why every time the harsh winter ends he is up here trudging through the snow targeting unsuspecting honeymooners.

Last night I came across a company that was selling brain-stimulating activity packages for 0-2 year-olds. 80% of brain development happens before the second birthday, they say. A team of top engineering and management grads has set out to cash in on this segment. Of course, to every parent, their child should not be left behind, while the other two-year-olds are obviously having their brains stimulated through activities. Once again, a quick search tells me that this company is already recording revenues, meaning a lot of parents have already trusted the stimulation of their toddlers to these folks.

It feels like the cornerstone of education in India seems to be this very concept. The Fear of Missing Out. Every one of these firms wants you to think that not signing up for their product is a crime that the parents are committing towards their children by not securing their future. No parent would want that. So they sign up, at the proverbial gunpoint. Thousands of rupees for trivial courses and activities. The pandemic is exacerbating the issue by ensuring that children are in front of a screen for the most part of a day, and venture capitalists love the numbers and are pumping in fortunes into these firms. Everyone is in on this stunt. Everyone except the working-class parent who, while fighting off a global pandemic and securing their family's daily needs, is also fighting an army of gaslighting salespeople who convince them that they are bad parents for not signing their kids up for a coding class to become the next Sundar Pichai.

Last night I remembered the saffron salesman, trudging along his route looking for the next unsuspecting customer, to sell something. Maybe a box of saffron, maybe a coding course, or maybe even a brain-stimulating activity package.

Update: After facing criticism from netizens, the company I refer to here has temporarily suspended operations and refunded the upcoming orders. A small win for the society I guess.

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