How homesickness inspired this Indian’s Swedish startup

It's a long way from Kerala in the south of India to Älmhult in the south of Sweden (about 7300 kilometers to be precise) so when Renjith Ramachandran first moved to Scandinavia in 2008, staying in touch with his home comforts required a bit of effort.

How homesickness inspired this Indian's Swedish startup
Renjith Ramachandran's longing for home comforts inspired his startup. Photo: Personal

“In order to get any Indian stuff I had to drive for hours to Malmö (Älmhult is almost two hours from the southern Swedish city). It was the same for Indian food, restaurants. So what we did was we took someone’s car to Malmö once or twice a month and came back with loads of food for friends,” he tells The Local.

Ramachandran's move to rural Älmhult came thanks to a job in IT with Ikea. Though he eventually fell in love with the Swedish countryside, his first experience there at the heart of the dark winter wasn’t easy.

“I came in January for a short visit to Ikea to meet the client for two weeks, and that was pretty horrible, because it was heavy snow and stuff like that,” he laughs.

“Then I came with another team in April which was good, it was almost the start of summer, it was perfect. The place was pretty nice, not too many people, not much traffic. A peaceful life, a lot of great greenery and landscape. It was a really nice experience.”

When he told his friends he was moving to Älmhult, many of them couldn’t even place Sweden on a map.

“I told my friends I’m going to Sweden, they said ‘where?’. After that I realized maybe lots of people don’t know Sweden. So I started saying ‘I’m going to Sweden, which is very near to Germany’. Germany people know. So they started understanding it,” he recalls.

“That may change. Ikea is opening in India, Scania is there, so there will maybe be a change of mindset and perspective in three or four years.”

Renjith Ramachandran with his wife Vani, who is also an investor in Search Indie. Photo: Personal

Unsurprisingly given the lack of crossover between the two countries, there were a number of unexpected culture changes to cope with when Ramachandran first moved – both good and bad.

“The cultural differences were quite big. I’d never worked outside India, so this was my first outside experience. For example, you said to me this interview would be at 2:30, you called at around 2:29, and by the time I picked up the phone it was 2:30. That’s quite new to me!,” he points out.

“In India we don’t have good time management. When you say ‘I’ll meet this client’, there can be any number of problems. Traffic, weather, a lot can happen in between. We weren’t aware of that kind of stuff. We never had a cultural education or preparation session before we moved.”

Swapping Älmhult for Stockholm in 2009 made the cultural shift less drastic however, as Ramachandran discovered he could acquire Indian food and items in the capital without travelling for hours. That change sparked a eureka moment:

“When we moved to Stockholm I realized there are a lot of Indian restaurants and shops here. Much more things happening here. But I also realized there’s nowhere with the information. There are restaurants opening, closing, events happening, new shops, but it’s not shared across the Indian community anywhere. I have experience of both sides, when you have information and no information.”

He started to think of a solution to the lack of information, and Search Indie was born.

“We jotted down some of the things: what should we have in Search Indie? What shouldn’t we? We launched a prototype in 2012 and showed it to a lot of people. We had the Beta launch in December 2012, they really liked the idea. Then we launched officially on January 1st, 2013,” he details.

From the planning stage to the launch things moved quickly (the process of registering the company in Sweden took a mere 45 minutes). Yet things were about to move even quicker than Ramachandran had imagined.

“The first message we got when we launched was from Finland. Someone said ‘this is an awesome idea, why can’t you launch it in Finland?’. We thought ‘Ok… that’s not what we expected’. I hadn’t looked into any other markets than mostly Stockholm, so that was interesting!”

The Search Indie founder realized there would be other Indians across Europe longing for comforts from back home just as he did, so he had a gap in the market to fill.

“The basic idea is that when you’re moving from your country, what are you going to miss? You’re going to miss your food, because in a place like Sweden you don’t get your real food. You’re going to miss your culture, events, celebrations. You’re going to miss your shops where you buy your local stuff. We started from that angle. What am I missing? That’s what we try to provide.”

In some cases the information was already there, but it wasn’t obvious or easily available to the masses, he had discovered.

“If you go to Facebook there are 20 Facebook groups just for Indians in Sweden, but the problem is it’s in a closed space, not open anywhere. That info is really important,” Ramachandran explains.

“There’s a lot of people posting, so the key information goes down the page and is eventually lost. That was an inspiration: information that’s needed should be there, up front, for people whenever they need it.”

While the goal in the beginning was to help point Sweden’s Indian community in the right direction, the site also serves the growing number of Swedes interested in Indian culture.

“There are a good number of Swedish people following us. Most of them know our website through events. A big number of people go to Indian events who aren’t Indian, and there are Indian event organizers targeting Swedes,” Ramachandran says.

“Last weekend there was an Indian event done by Usha Balasundaram, one of the famous dance teachers in Stockholm. She did an Indian drama at a theatre on Rådmansgatan, and most of the crowd were Swedes. So through those kind of events we get good exposure to Swedish crowds too.”

Search Indie has collaborated with Saraswathy Kalakendra, a Bharatanatyam dance school. Photo: Search Indie

Having a solid expat audience and growing domestic interest to work with is evidently a plus, but that doesn’t mean they are easily pleased. Standards need to be high when running a Swedish site, the Search Indie founder has learned.

“Obviously Sweden is a very small country, but people are very critical. Sweden has a culture of having the best of things: people really expect the best,” he says.

“It’s actually pretty good, because you can use Sweden as a test market. It’s very useful to test a product here before a bigger market.”

Search Indie appears to have lived up to the high standards. From launching without a business model in 2012, the site is now in nine European countries, and also has its own online ticketing platform for Indian events. The latter is a benchmark Ramachandran is particularly proud of.

“The official launch of the ticket site was in October. In the last nine months we’ve had around 400,000 kronor ($43,216) in ticket sales. We feel really happy about that: that’s good sales, we had done zero marketing for it. Nothing.”

“We’re now running events from Malmö to Gothenburg, Stockholm and Västerås. Even in Denmark.”

Search Indie collaborated with Indian music and dance event the Stockholm Sangeet Conference in October: Photo: Michelle Job

The ambitions for the platform are big: the goal is to cover most of Europe within the next two years. Events in Germany and Amsterdam are already on the agenda, and with the distance from Sweden to those places tiny by Indian standards, it’s hoped that Indians in Sweden can be drawn to events elsewhere, and vice versa.

“If I’m sitting in Sweden I won’t be searching for what’s happening in Amsterdam, but if you have a platform that shows you what’s happening there… If you see even in Amsterdam, Germany or Riga for example, that there are good events, those places are only two to three hours by flight and people are ready to travel,” he explains.

Search Indie is already fulfilling its founder’s dream by allowing him to travel and see different countries, and he has come a long way since he started his first ever job outside of India in rural Sweden back in 2008. Despite the constant travel, the plan is to keep the company based in the place where it started.

“I’ve traveled to most of the countries we’ve launched in and met people there, that’s really interesting. That fulfills my dream of traveling around and meeting new people, exploring new cultures. The company will be in Sweden, but I’d like to travel around.”

Next year will provide a clear moment for reflection when the Stockholm Culture Festival takes on a familiar theme:

“India is the theme. A four or five day event, that’s something we can really look forward to.”

It will be the first time the festival has adopted a theme from a country outside of Europe. Ramachandran’s timing really couldn’t be any better – rivaling even the Swedes.

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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”