Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The FRRO Again... and Again... and Again...

If you read my latest post, I introduced you to the lunacy of the FRRO. This new process is significantly worse than the old way. For starters, they refuse to allow any appointments without the online form, and you can't get the form until you have uploaded the photos. My helpful team at work said they would try and see if they could talk themselves into the FRRO speaking Marathi and get an idea of what my options are. They were told to get an agent. The FRRO staff were very unhelpful. For every question, they repeatedly suggested getting an agent. One of my team members was finally able to upload the photos using a PC and Internet Explorer and finally got us appointments.

Now, agents run the gamut of cost and services. Most are completely useless. You still end up generating your own paperwork, you still have to show up at the FRRO. The only difference is that the agent is sharing a portion of his fee as a kickback to the FRRO personnel. Hence the speedier service. Typical charges are anywhere from 10,000 rupees to 40,000 rupees per person. Thomas Cook were the people charging the most and provided the least amount of support when we met with several of them. 

We decided to continue to go through this alone to save the company money. Silly me. After we provided all the paperwork and then some, they wanted more. They wanted a Form-16 (like a W2 in the States) even though I work for an American firm and get paid in the States in US dollars. I pay my taxes in India on this US income since my legal domicile is India for 365 days a year. There is a tax treaty between the US and India that keeps expats from paying double taxation in US and India. For this, I need to pay my taxes directly to the Indian government and for that I provided challans (receipts), along with a Form 26AS showing proof that my taxes have been paid to date. Because of their request for a Form-16, I had to get a second letter from my company explaining this. Of course, it needed to have a corporate stamp. Doh. 

The next visit required another police verification, beyond the one we had already done with the landlord verifying our new address, getting the new lease notarized, etc. This one required the police to physically come to the home and verify that we were actually living in the house. Of course, they came bearing sad stories about how underpaid they are and how they have families, to which I replied, yes, me, too. And I'm a single woman raising a child alone. And I'm putting him through college alone. They were looking for a bribe. Will walked them out of the house with a couple hundred rupees each. We went back to the police station the next day for a sealed envelope for the FRRO's second police verification.

By now, we had visited the FRRO four times. I thought we were done. Of course not. All the paperwork is scanned and they tell us we're all done, but there is nothing written into our passports, no paperwork saying we're in process, no acknowledgement that we are legally allowed to be here. At this point, we're illegal. Our visas have expired. The telephone companies, our satellite TV vendor, even our wifi service has been calling stating they're turning off our services because we have to supply updated visas by law. The woman behind the counter explained that everything has to go to Mumbai for processing. Oh, just fu*king kill me now.

I'm having flashbacks of Gurgaon, where it took nearly 8 months to finalize my visa, but here, they won't even grant an emergency one-month visa. If something happens to our family back home, we can't leave the country. We were planning on visiting Burma in the Spring, but that's now cancelled. We can't fly domestically nor travel by train until this is solved. My son was supposed to go on a class trip to Jaipur for the Jaipur Literary Festival today. He went to the train station only to say goodbye to his fellow students. It was a huge disappointment. Thanks, FRRO.

It is, by far, the worst experience the typical expat goes through in India. Think of your worst experience in an American Department of Motor Vehicles and add steroids (to them) and a hangover (to you). I think they actually enjoy screwing with expats. I seriously think that's what gets them up in the mornings and eager to go to work. Will is constantly telling me not to react because i get so upset dealing with these morons who can't make it clear, who deliberately obscure the process to make it so vague they can capriciously decide what paperwork is required for you when you approach the counter. It's never, ever, ever the same, and this is my sixth year doing this. It's enough to say, "Fu*k this country. I'm leaving". But then again, I can't leave until they give me a new visa. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dealing with the New Online FRRO Renewal Process

Blurg. You do know what the FRRO stands for right? Supposedly it stands for the Foreigner's Regional Registration Office, but we foreigners call it either the Foreigners' Rectal Reaming Office or simply just the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Every time you need to renew your visa and residency permits, it seems the rules have changed. This one seems like a pretty big change because now you can supposedly do the entire process online, schedule your appointment and show up at the appointed time and get your paperwork done.

Really. But in reality, absolutely not.

The web site to use is: http://www.indianfrro.gov.in/frro/menufrrodoc.jsp

In Pune, you need to file your renewal request at least 15 days prior to your visa expiration. In Kolkata and Gurgaon, it was 60 days prior (and it still took 8 months after expiration for the Gurgaon FRRO to finally issue my full year visa). In Delhi, I believe we had 30 days to renew... not sure, though.

The application is pretty self explanatory. Do make sure you temporarily save your form and write down your Temporary Application ID. You'll be going back and forth on this form until you get all the data filled in and some doesn't stick, for example, when I add my son into the form as a dependent, the data disappears. Also if you have had your visa renewed before, that data will disappear, too. Nice work QA people.

Paperwork For Employment Visas:

  1. Original valid passport and visa.
  2. Residential permit and extension form.
  3. Passport size photo.
  4. Copy of passport photo page showing validity dates.
  5. Copy of India visa.
  6. Terms and Conditions of Employment letter with salary, title, on company letterhead, signed and stamped with corporate seal.
  7. Statement of Undertaking on company letterhead, signed and stamped with corporate seal.
  8. Copy of passport or other valid ID of Indian national signing your company letters.
  9. Bank Statements (I did last three months).
  10. Copy of PAN card and income tax receipts (showing you are up to date with your Indian income tax payments for current year). If your company can provide a preliminary Form 16, that might work.
  11. Another letter from your company explaining why you need to extend your visa for another year. Again, on company letterhead, signed and stamped with corporate seal.
  12. Company incorporation paperwork.
  13. Proof of residence - NOTARIZED lease agreement.
  14. "C"-Form.
  15. Police Clearance.
Once you have completed the online application, you need to upload scans of your passport photo and mandatory documents. Good luck with this. I scanned my photos at 300 DPI, resized then to 3.5 cm square, and tried to upload. No dice. First the document size was 10.5 centimeters according to the error message. So I resized down to 3 cm square. Now it stated it was 7.5 centimeters. I resized the DPI to 72 pixels per inch and now it was erroring in the other direction - too small at 2.5 centimeters. I spent over an hour carefully resizing and downsampling the image in Photoshop to no avail. I gave up. Making the image 192 pixels square was too big, and resizing it it 191 pixels was too small. I felt like Goldi - fricking - locks.

Here's where it gets even more ridiculous. Good luck getting the correct forms. Since we're also moving house, we needed to get a new "C"-Form for each of us, which needs to be processed at the Police Commissioner's House in Pune. This cannot be done by the foreigner. Your landlord is required by law to do this. You all need to show up and bring your passports and original permits just in case he asks for them. The "C"-Form Counter is only open Monday - Friday from 10-2 and 3-6 PM. They lied when we asked if they were open on Saturday (every other counter was open EXCEPT the "C"-Form Counter). Thanks for wasting my time. AGAIN. We came back again on Monday, only to have the jerk smirking and making us jump for every little thing. He wanted two copies of certain forms, just some. We went to make copies, and then he found another page that needed a second copy. So went and made more copies, then went back again. Now he decided the lease needed to be notarized. So we went back out to find a notary. That took another hour and we returned again, just before they were closing the counter for lunch. He finally stamped the damned papers. Step 1 done.

The next step your landlord has to do is the Police Clearance. You will probably have to accompany them there as well, at least once. Don't say or do anything. Let your landlord handle this completely. Just smile and wave at the police officer if he looks at you. Do not engage. You'll need just about everything you needed for your "C"-Form. We went three times last year and it required a bribe from the person helping me (my broker). We're still trying to secure this paperwork for this renewal process and we only have six days before we are in trouble - we have to get all this stuff done and ready by the 15th, I have been working on this, generating all the paperwork required, for over a month. It's exhausting.

Next, you have to scan your documents. Now, it says only the photo is mandatory. If you have a different visa type, there may be other forms which need to be uploaded before you click on the button to set up an appointment. None of them can be more than 200K. They all have to be PDFs. Every single one of my documents is at LEAST 2 MB. I'm pretty much screwed unless I downsample these documents to basically unreadable, but hey. Not much else I can do. I can't even get the photo upload to work. I'm dreading this next time sink of downsampling all these documents - like I don't have anything better to do with my time. I think I will skip this since only the photos are required.

My next post will hopefully end on a positive note - that we finished the process successfully. I will fill you in with tips and tricks that worked for us in that post. Good luck and share what's worked for you.



Wednesday, August 28, 2013

e-Commerce Goes to the Dogs Here in India

I recently connected with an entrepreneur in Delhi on Linkedin who was looking for advice on how to improve their web site. Rashi Narang operates "Heads Up for Tails", an e-commerce web site that sells food, pet toys, accessories, apparel, bowls, beds, and more.

http://www.headsupfortails.com

I gave her some ideas on how best to tweak the site, and suggested a number of activities she could try to get more exposure. Her site's colors are fairly quiet, but it's busy with animated graphics - a little extra effort is required to understand the mechanics of the site as a user. Her use of big photos, with lots of "cuteness", helps lift the web site experience and engages the user. Her payment process is straightforward (with one minor glitch in Chrome - the checkbox to make the shipping address same as billing address did not work), and offers Cash on Delivery, a big part of online shopping here in India. E-COMMERCE PROFESSIONALS IN INDIA: Always offer a COD payment option. It's the bulk of the payments for e-commerce sites in India. She has successfully connected her social media pages and has made it easy for people to share the site. Overall, it's well thought out.

I told her that I loved her product offering (She has a whole section called "Awesome Toys"!). I told her that I planned to buy a couple of her customized collars for my own pups.

Then she did something super nice. Unexpected. For taking a few minutes out my schedule to give her a thoughtful answer, she offered to send the collars to me, free of cost, as a thank you for my time. Of all the people I have ever advised, she was one of only a handful to ever thank me for doing so. Which brings me to another topic. Mentors, uncles, whoever you go to for advice, should be appreciated for their time. A simple thanks is all that's expected because mentors enjoy sharing ideas, watching people get better at what they do, change their way of thinking, sometimes change their life. Regular updates of what you tried, what you learned, examining what failed are ways to deepen your relationship with that mentor. It what makes us do what we do, with little expected in return.

The collars arrived yesterday. As soon as the guard brought the package and tore it open. They were beautifully wrapped in colourful tissue paper with each collar individually wrapped in plastic for protection. The imitation leather is thick and sturdy, far stronger and well constructed than I had expected. The little rhinestone letters spelling out their names looked awesome! I couldn't wait to get home to try them on the pups.

These photos aren't the best, and the dogs weren't cooperating, but I hope you get a sense of Heads Up for Tails' product line. They're gorgeous and I plan to visit the site often, especially seeing how quick their delivery was. :-) If you have pets, check out "Heads Up for Tails". I'm sure you will be as delighted as I was.

Eunice, dozing with her new collar.

Eunice, dozing with her new collar.

Ethel, liking her new collar.

Ethel, showing the other side of her collar.

Eunice again.

Ethel.

Don't they look cute? :-)



Friday, July 26, 2013

So, You Want to Be an Entrepreneur?

Since moving to India, I have been (somewhat) active on the startup/entrepreneur circuit, engaging with people who want to become entrepreneurs. The reason I say "somewhat" is because it seriously pisses me off that people think it's a big cake walk. That someone gives you money, you start a company, and then magically, you're a rich man. That couldn't be farther from the truth. I've worked with entrepreneurs in both countries. I love risk takers. I love risk takers that bootstrap their companies, because the gamble is far more personal. The new business I'm launching is one of these high-risk ventures.

For the past seven months, I have been working deep in the trenches getting a new e-commerce business going. For those of you who want to be an entrepreneur, here's my take on what is involved.

As a new initiative for the company, it is essentially a startup within an established firm. We had a very small development budget and an even more limited marketing budget.

What started as a nice idea for serving US small business owners who need help recruiting candidates, morphed into something unique in the industry. Many staffing firms use RPOs (Recruiting Process Outsourcing) firms to provide cheap candidate sourcing and screening and we work with many of the best of them. These staffing firms are too expensive for US small businesses, so we decided that we could offer a similar service at a price point that was affordable. To make this successful, we were intent on providing a simple and easy user experience, and the site had to be intuitive - make is clear where to submit an order, feature an easy payment process and a dead simple and fast delivery process.

We started with a different name. When we went to research our service mark and domain name, many of the options we were looking for we already taken, but our favorite was still available. Within the next 30 days, we tried to register it, only to find out some company in Arizona registered it a few days after Christmas. Blurg.

LESSON #1: If you have a great domain name, register it right then. Before anyone else gets the same idea. This is good for SEO. The longer you've owned the URL, the higher its rankings.

We decided to hire a local development firm who insisted that they managed their development iteratively, but that did not happen. The project cost us twice as much and took twice as long as expected, even though the bulk of the interface had been designed. They did not develop use cases, document their work, nor provide any ability to do design reviews because everything was programmed by them before the process flow had been agreed upon. A number of times. But at least we're launched. And the site is pretty decently bug-free for a BETA site. Seriously. I've dealt with plenty of Indian developers who do ABSOLUTELY NO testing before launching. They've done a decent job.

LESSON #2: Sit on the developers. Meet with them regularly. If they're not meeting milestones, meet them more often, even if that means daily. I didn't do this faithfully due to other pending projects.

We did not have staff in place to market effectively. We needed people who could manage social media, connecting with Americans and speaking authentically. It took a lot of training and exposure, but our staff are now working at similar delivery levels to Americans doing the same work. I am very proud of that.

LESSON #3: Train, train and train again. Monitor and provide feedback regularly. Ask them to evaluate each other's work, mentor each other and share information. Make them feel safe in testing new ideas, even if they fail. Learning it does NOT work is just as important as learning what DOES.

Forecasting staffing levels is always a challenge when launching a site. Some sites take forever to gain traction, others never do. We have tough targets to reach. Our pricing structure depends on volume. Our staff have been exposed to "P&L Lite", also known as "justifying our salaries", which has given them insight into how startups work and what you need to be mindful of when making business decisions. We've demonstrated how much traffic is required in order to convert a small percentage of visitors into sales.

LESSON #4: Be as transparent as possible with your staff. If they know what metrics you are following as a business owner, this will be translated into their priorities (hopefully). Explain why each metric is important and what is required to meet your business goals.

Right now, staffing is all over the place. We have a set of dedicated staff, plus additional employees on the bench waiting for job orders. While in BETA, this is okay, but we still need to start generating revenue. The way to get revenue is to drive qualified traffic to our site.

LESSON #5: If you have staff on the bench, train them to do marketing and sales activities. Everyone should be able to express who you are as a company. If they can't, you have failed them if you lead marketing in your firm. Many mindless tasks can be assigned to people, like directory submissions, article submissions, link building, etc. Other disciplines, like social media, take more training. Expect it to take six months to see any success. Provide them with tools, training, and templates and set them off into the "interwebs" to drive traffic back to your site. We have found shortened Google URLs or bit.ly's to be great at tracking each individual's contribution and sharing this insights with the staff to increase their own effectiveness. (Google's URLs, however are automatically tracked in Google Analytics, so we prefer them at the moment.)

Life is challenging when launching a startup. My life has been all about the business for the past six months, from the moment I wake up and check my emails, to the moment just before I go to sleep after checking my emails and traffic reports. I wake up in the middle of the night to send emails to myself about ideas on tweaking the web site, blog post ideas, etc. I skip meals to accommodate yet another training meeting, or to visit my developers. I could not find a decent illustrator, so I created the images on the site myself. The entire user interface was designed by me, because I simply could not identify anyone, nor could our developer, nor anyone in our online networks, that was good enough to do the work. I wrote the bulk of the content myself, with feedback from the CEO. I checked the quality of the backend code along with my fearless Ritu, who is currently leading the operations for this initiative. Ritu spent weeks testing countless job orders, and broke the system many times, identifying lots of work for our developers. Allen and the Social Media team have been working night and day, establishing the right connections on social media. Every single person involved with this project has dedicated themselves more than full time employees. I feel confident in saying that they are partnering with me to build this business. I am not merely trading a paycheck for their completion of certain tasks. They are with me. They now understand the excitement of launching a business and I am sharing with them how I go about doing this. It isn't the first time I've launched businesses, here or in the U.S., so I hope my background can help them learn the best practices I've learned, lo, these many years.

post job online, pay $59, get 12 resumes next business day

So here, I introduce you to iPlace Connect. Please feel free to visit and let me know what you think. In the coming weeks, I will be updating you on how my Indian staff are handling this initiative and how we fare.

One of the things I discuss a LOT (and people are sick of me doing so), is the fact that international development is not a zero sum game. A job in India is not the same job in America. I hear all the time that what I do is taking jobs from Americans and that simply is not the case. What I do is bring the best of America and using that foundation, train Indian staff to work in that environment. What I have seen is that my Indian workforce, when given clear expectations, support and empowerment, can rise to International standards quickly and efficiently. I get the best of both worlds. Because salary levels are significantly lower than Americans, I can provide an affordable service to Americans that, frankly, could not be offered by an American staffing firm. The business model does not make sense and would not be successful. This unique service can significantly change the way U.S. small business recruits qualified candidates, and I am very proud of my staff in helping me get this project launched, marketed, and delivering the quality service I envisioned.

Please visit the site and let me know what you think. :-)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

We're moving to Pune!

Will and I will be moving to Pune in January. I have accepted a new position with iPlace USA, a recruitment process outsourcing service provider, running their sister company, iPlace India. In an expanded Senior Vice President role, I will be in charge of HR, marketing, leadership development and career coaching, and responsible for all new initiatives for expanding the company and achieving the business goals. It's going to be AWESOME. Even better, the CEO is American and we're in synch with where the company should go and how we can grow it together as a team. The company has made some amazing hires and while most of the staff are very young, they have tremendous potential. The company works hard to treat everyone fairly, there is parity across the organization, and employees are compensated based on their performance and effectiveness, not by who the managers like or are related to. Nice change. Some of the managers in place are extremely impressive and I look forward to working with these rock stars. :-)

We're super excited! Will is looking for the right college and there are plenty of very good schools in Pune. We'll be closer to Mumbai and south Goa, a couple of our favorite places in India, and will enable us to focus our travels in the south of India, where we haven't spent much time. We've been all over the north of this great country, but the backwaters of Kerala are calling, Pondicherry has been whispering in my ear for years now, and the fact that I've never been to Bangalore is almost embarrassing to make public.

So, this blog will effectively end with this post. My thanks to all my readers, for all of your great feedback, support, laughs and fury. It's been a tough slog these past few years. I will deeply miss my current co-workers, some of the best and brightest women (and a few good men!) I've ever worked with, here or overseas. But fear not, dear reader! I have set up another blog, focused on Pune at http://american-in-pune.blogspot.com. Check it out! Subscribe to it, like it, share it amongst your friends and we'll continue our brilliant conversations from there, okay? Follow me!

Onward,
Jeanne

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Dignity of Your Workforce

Because of India's caste system, employees in India can have issues reporting in to a senior staff member who comes from a lower caste. Foreigners don't have any caste, but can be seen as either not applicable or unclean, depending on the caste of the person you are meeting. I've seen countless indignities forced upon members of the workforce based on their positions in the company and these other societal issues.

Every office has "tea boys" or "office boys" that run errands for staff, fetching lunch, picking up laundry, what-have-you. These "boys" can be any age, but many start very young. I've watched elder men slicing up apples and serving tea to really rude junior staff, not even acknowledging their presence unless to yell at them. They think it makes them look important to THEIR junior staff. Not so. You just look like an idiot.

I'm usually pretty friendly with this low level of staff because no one ever seems to interact with them, tea boys, cleaners, security guards... It's a shame. They're human beings and deserve at least a friendly hello just like any other worker. They're part of your team, no matter what level they are in your office structure. Without them, the office couldn't function. They should be treated as part of the team.

I once moved into a new building at a company I worked for a while ago here in India and noticed that the washroom cleaner was squatting in a corner on the floor. She wouldn't even look up at me. I'd say hello, and I'd get a very quiet, "Hello maam," while she continued to look at the floor. First - why is it necessary to have full time cleaners you ask? Bathrooms here are typically a nightmare. Water all over the floor, toilet paper either missing or fallen on the floor, soaken wet (if available at all), unflushed toilets, hair in the sinks... seriously, ladies, you're not the only one using these stalls. Clean up after yourself when you leave. Be considerate of your fellow workers.

Because of this, many offices have bathroom staff. Just to clean up after people who think they're "too good" to clean up after themselves. Second, I really felt it was unnecessary to force this young girl to sit on the floor, so I asked the admin guy to get her a stool. He refused. "Madam, she is a cleaner. No chair required." I insisted. He said to talk to the CEO. I went and got her a stool myself, which she happily accepted. It lasted two days. The admin guy removed it because, "She'll start to put on airs," he said.

Until a week ago, I thought this was typical only to very traditional old school Indian firms, but then a friend told me that she had recently been visiting the subsidiary of an American car manufacturer here in India and while using the restroom, saw the same thing. I have a problem with that. I'm sure that if the people at the company in the US knew about this, they would immediately put a stop to it. Americans don't treat their staff like that - we'd have all sorts of issues, societal and legal, if we did this. It could be a PR nightmare if this information were leaked out. Americans are very sensitive to child labor, indentured labor, and slave labor issues - just ask Nike.

I'm not passing judgement, but I'm frustrated. India does so many things well, but one of its main challenges that I see, is empowering its workers, not from a union point of view (which is another problem here), but from a "team" point of view. Your company is only as good as its weakest member. When you continually stratify staff into certain levels and only see them as going up to a certain point based on caste, religion, or state where you were born, you could potentially be missing out on the vast talents that they may be able to contribute to your organization.

For me personally, since I have no caste and my skin is white, I can enjoy stepping to the front of the line, as people will let me go first whenever I approach. They immediately see me as a "guest", and here in India, "a guest is next to god." While that is an awfully nice premise to work with, I prefer to wait my turn, as I'm really nothing special and shouldn't be treated like that. They've been waiting longer than me. But people feel uncomfortable when I wait because I'm not working within their societal rules and one of us ends up both feeling uncomfortable no matter which option I choose.

I love India. The lifestyle, the natural beauty, the amazing people, all have built castles in my heart. Someone asked me the other day, when I said I had no intention of moving back to the US, if I planned to apply for Indian citizenship. I immediately said, "No". It's not that I don't love it here, but I self-identify as an American and the most problematic? Visas! I travel a LOT. Indians need a visa to go just about everywhere. The mountain of paperwork is incredible. As an American I rarely need to apply for visas - only Brazil and Myanmar have required it, other than India. So I'll be keeping my American citizenship for the near future, thank you.

What are your thoughts on life in India? How do you interact with foreigners? What's the most difficult aspect of life here in India as an expat? I look forward to your comments.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

All the News

RebelMouse has come up with a neat embed script that enables you to curate across the "interwebs" and post in one place. Kind of awesome. Actually, all sorts of awesome.