Utkarsh Amitabh

What startups can learn from flea markets about competition and customers

Utkarsh Amitabh

Entrepreneurs at flea markets take care of inventory, accounts, and pay rent—all on a tight budget

Some things books can never teach. I was reminded of this valuable lesson during a visit to Dubai’s Global Village in 2019. Designed like a flea market, the village brings together sellers and merchants from 90 countries. During the three hours I spent walking around, manufacturers and artisans tried to sell me everything under the sun—from Yemeni honey and Egyptian perfumes to Bosnian kebabs and Irani rugs.

I was amazed by their negotiation skills and sales techniques. Without any business training, these artisans had mastered storytelling and learnt the art of connecting with customers of different age groups and cultures. The more time I spent interacting with the artisans/entrepreneurs, the more I realized that startups can learn valuable lessons from flea markets.

The first thought that crossed my mind was finding talent. I wondered: What if these artisans were to sell software products instead of soaps and oils? What if startups were to hire them as frontline salespeople or customer success managers?

The unexplored talent pool

Sales is not taught in most business schools; getting hands-on practice is the only way forward. That is why these local artisans are likely to turn out to be champion salespeople. What they lack in academic qualifications, they make up for it with an intimate understanding of business.

Hiring these artisans not only makes practical sense but also adds to the diversity quotient of the modern workplace. Instead of looking for candidates with big brands on their CVs, it is worth considering an entirely unexplored talent pool.

My second takeaway was cost efficiency. The entrepreneurs at the village managed their inventory, operated account books and also paid rent—all on a shoestring budget. Such operational efficiency is a valuable lesson for startups that liberally spend on marketing without figuring out a business model.

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The third thing that struck me was how well these artisans knew their customers. Even though most customers were meeting the sellers for the first time, years of dealing with similar groups had given them a strong sense of customer preferences. Based on the speed of walking, group size, gender mix and sartorial choice, they would decide what to pitch and how.

After being convinced to try hundreds of Middle-Eastern perfumes in different shopping booths, I learnt how the artisans had mastered the magician’s choice, a verbal technique employed by magicians to nudge the audience towards an outcome. I am not saying these artisans are the only ones using such techniques, but they are the ones making it work with effortless charm.

Many startups use data to know their customers. While the data-driven approach is commendable, it must be complemented by actual engagement with customers. Data coupled with ethnographic insights from customer engagement can help startups truly understand what their customer wants.

My final takeaway was from the Yemeni booth, where I learnt how the artisans balanced competition with collaboration. Honey from Yemen is among the best in the world. I stopped to try out the flavours at different stalls. Each stall was competing hard for every customer and it was hard to tell one apart from the other. I stopped at the first stall I saw and was about to purchase. That’s when I discovered that the only bottles this stall had were 500ml, five times the size allowed in check-in luggage. I explained my predicament to the stall manager and without any hesitation, he pointed me to his competitor who had smaller cases. Instead of obsessing over undercutting competitors, startups should be driven by solving customer problems. As long as competition and collaboration is driven by serving the customer, it makes business sense. 

** This first appeared in the MINT.
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