Airtel’s Opportunistic innovation


In the past I have written about incremental product innovations that wow you! On my visit to India, I came across such an innovation via the local telecom provider Bharti Airtel. Since the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2004, getting a SIM card for your mobile phone in India requires paperwork that includes your photo, copies of your passport etc. It is doable, but just the thought of paperwork had stopped me from getting a SIM card. Instead, I ended up using my sister’s extra cell phone while I was in India. The only problem with this is that I have to give it back to her before I leave, thereby leaving me with no phone before I arrive home or after I leave home on my return trip. This has been bit of a hassle.

So this time, I am at the Kochi International Airport and wanted to make a phone call letting my parents know that my flight was on time. So I ask someone where I could find a public phone (that vintage one). They point me to an Airtel desk. I walk over and tell the gentleman manning the desk that I need to make a phone call. He had a better offer for me. He asked me if I had a mobile phone on me and I did – but one without a SIM card. He offered to sell me a SIM card for 100 Indian Rupees ($2 USD) and did all the paperwork necessary in less than 5 minutes including using a digital camera to take my photo and copy of my passport. I was just WOWed, because here was a simple innovation that solved a real customer need. And I was not alone, this chap was busy with other travellers either buying new SIM cards or reloading their old prepaid SIM cards with more money. Airtel was gaining customers one at a time, but at a place where there was no competition.

Bottomline, you do not have to come up with game changing innovations like the iphone or the ipad, there are a lot of customers problems that can be solved via simple yet profitable innovations. In fact, I would argue that there are more incremental innovations that are equally effective than game changing ones! Agreed?

3 thoughts on “Airtel’s Opportunistic innovation

  1. Not sure if this is innovation, I believe this a common practice across the world. I travel around the world and the first thing I do is to buy a local SIM card for better data charges. Even in Swiss and Germany they require your passport for SIM Card and it is less than 5 minutes job even then.

    1. @Alok I haven’t seen any wireless cell phone providers at Frankfurt in Germany or the London Heathrow airport sitting with a desk selling SIM cards. I don’t think they would because getting a SIM card is not a very big hassle in those countries and hence not a opportunity or a problem to solve and be profitable.

      In India it is a problem and there is money to be made. What Airtel is doing is innovation because it is a novel way to solve a “problem” which seem to have not occurred to its competitors. What is doing is a very cost-effective way to solve a problem and be profitable.

      1. This february, I actually travelled in UK, Switzerland and Germany and brought these cards on the station shops in less than five minutes. I changed SIM in every country I travelled to have a local 3G plan and used it do my office work. Specifically I brought close to heathrow, on Zurich station and on Munich station. Zurich and Munich required a passport copy which is equivalent to what I need to do in India.

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