Nothing in my life prepared me for an entrepreneur! No one would believe how I had changed or to use a current phrase, how I had re-invented myself!
This thought ran through my mind recently as I was glancing through the pages of any old book I edited when we launched the Vadamalai Media Group. The book’s title is: “Can India win the Electronics Revolution?” published in 1994. I hadn’t seen the volume all these years and now, with nearly a decade of serious entrepreneurial ventures behind me I was both astonished as well as a bit embarrassed too! I became the editor of the volume for the simple fact that none was willing to undertake that role. I met one or two in the then new industry, I visited the Electronics city on the outskirts and in fact saw the HP hardware unit. The head of that unit, one Indian, seemed first willing but backed out at the last minute.
Astonished from the fact that we dared into a field that must have been totally alien to me. It was! Alient to my educational background and to my temperament. I studied economics under the giants and though I call myself an economist at times, now with the entrepreneurial background and experience, I consider economists cant promote economic growth! Indian economists are either academics or turned into cosy bureaucrats. See the current crop of economists crowding the corridors of power in Delhi! I am embarrassed because there are so many rash observations in the book and of course there are much inaccuracies and yet some predictions that might seem to have overtaken even the professionals and experts in the field!
By the time I came to edit the volume, we at Vadamalai had already been producing an annual volume on agriculture and industry, the very title today is our flagship monthly magazine and now more a trade journal, sought after those interested only in the agri sector. The other title was in education. Later we ventured into regional language newspapers, in Tamil, Malayalam and Kannada. The two English titles of course reflected my background and my concerns.
I come from an agriculture family, a village background and my father and forefathers were simple peasants. The urban press might write me off as a typical feudal landlord! This is both inaccurate and also misleading if we go by the current political and press jargon. Though I have no hesitation to admit that as a farmer (yes I still do farming and visit my village very month) I am still interested to buy farm land property. In fact, the first property I purchased soon after my return to the village is a small plot of agriculture land. It was adjacent to my ancestral landed property. The Leftist politics had led to a mental conditioning of the urban public opinion which ,given India’s recent past and the emergence of a strong middle class of English educated job-seeking class it is natural that those who are educated and also not seeking any salaried job must either be failures or otherwise feudal lords families. This need not be the case. And in my own case, for a person to be educated in an unusual way, Santiniketan and Oxford, and also not taking up a job ,more so a government job, as most of my Oxford-Cambridge friends had done, it is really a puzzle if I don’t claim to be a feudal lord! I am amused by the invitations I receive now and then from the India Oxford Cambridge Society. Most of the names mentioned very honourably are either government servants or academics. This is, in my view genteel poverty and I don’t see any virtue in this type of existence! Yes, that is how I see things and why am still misunderstood by highly educated friends of mine.
I have a hard time in getting myself correctly explained, in sociological terms.
Anyway, what I did soon after my santiniketan and Oxford education was to return to my village and getting myself sucked into its entrenched problems. First, I wanted to return to my village as my mother was engaged in fighting a land dispute case, a tenancy case in which the fellow village strongmen were interfering. So, my first duty was to help my mother. This took time and in the process I was also involved in village activities and that is how I was led to found a high school in the village in 1962.
Soon after my interest in politics led me to join Kamaraj in New Delhi at the AICC when he was the President. This was in 1967, though my links with the AICC started in 1964, before Nehru passed away. It was Nehru’s death in 1964 that postponed things and I had to wait. In 1968 I contested for the Madras Legislative Council and became an Independent MLC.
In 1971 I married and took my wife to Europe. When I returned after a few months, I found myself face to face with village jealousies, crisis in school, my Opposition politics wen the DMK was at its peak, under Mr.Karunanindhi didn’t improve matters and further drew me into more troubles and complications.
Thus, my married life, though I was a young star in the Tamil Nadu politics, when Kamaraj was still very much in the picture, didn’t lead to a happy and contented life. My young wife found the going hard and we, in the family, became faced with one crisis after another. The economic condition deteriorated. Though soon after my return I took to farming with much enthusiasm, I dug wells in the lands, I bought a tractor and for all outwar appearances we were living a well-off live. I had also bought my new car, a Fiat allotted to me through the MLAs quota! Those days to buy a car was so difficult! What has become today! I have my feel of cars, with a new Merc 230!
I say all these things to give the readers a true picture of how life evolved. In the year 1974 on a visit to Bangalore. In a more depressed mood, I met friends and others, some industrialists and bankers. I had the first idea of starting an industry. To be honest, the idea of building a textile mills very soon after I returned to India was there somewhere in the deep of my mind and this was kindled by the fact that when I was touring the villages to collect funds for my school there was one young fellow Coimbatorean, a Naidu gentleman, who had returned from the USA and was touring the villages collecting equity for his new venture. Also, I had fellow Coimbatore industrialists and also my own kinsmen in business and industry and Coimbatore itself was famous for its textile mills, known as the Manchester of the South! So, I used to know most of them even then, the older generation had gone, some who are still very active have become my close friends and well-wishers now. The Coimbatore entrepreneurs have one unusual quality. They are mostly not well-educated, some plainly illiterate and these people had become millionaires in short times by sheer guts and hard work!
So, I always thought, even late into my mid-age, that great entrepreneurs are not educated people. In fact, this is true also! In my case, my education, my liberal education, my Tagore, Plato and Aristotle were strange allies in my evolution as an entrepreneur! When I visited Oxford in the late Eighties, my college, New College,acquainted me with their development projects and gave me an appeal for funds! I blurted out” You, fellows, you didn’t teach me to become an entrepreneur, a rich man but you want only money from me!” To which the lady secretary said: “Yes, sir, you are right. Oxford had only taught us to spend the money, so long it is somebody else money!”
Yes ,that was the dilemma I faced. So soon after I returned to India for the second tie, I told myself:”I must do something to change the situation”. So, the next time when I thought of entrepreneurial ventures there were already some failed attempts!
In 1994. I was one of the first to apply for an industrial plot in Hosur which was planned as a new industrial complex and Hosur was part of my MLC constituency. In this venture I lost some money. More than that, the harassment from SIPCOT to get out of it was time-consuming.
Whenever I now drive through Hosur, from Bangalore to Coimbatore, which I do almost everymonth, I am always reminded of my first attempt at an adventure! I got the Kirloskar Consultants to prepare a feasibility study for a foundry unit and in fact visited Bangalore to seek the advice of the late Ravi Kirloskar! He advised me with the words: “Put your heart and soul in your venture. You will succeed”. Though I dropped the particular project his words remained with me.
Now, through a series of steps, we, our family took the first step in business when we started the Vadamalai Media venture into agriculture publishing. As luck would have it, it was registered in Bangalore, then, a small quiet city and we were pleasantly surprised that registration of publications can be so easy! In TN, I have had some bitter experience. May be in your own society, the very society doesn’t allow you the mental space to take risk and operate. In a new environment the freedom is much more for you. May be that is why Indians in the USA make it good so fast while back in India they feel suffocating. Though lately the scene is changing fast within India itself. This was in 1985 and by the time when my son finished his education at Oxford and returned in 1995, he alighted from the British Airways plane at the Chennai airport and we, three of us, myself, my wife and my son, remember distinctly to this day that straightaway we started talking about our business right from the airport gate till we reached our hotel room!
I was very clear about the future of our family business. For my son, educated at Lawrence school, Delhi School of Economics and Oxford, I was very definite that he wont go into any profession or a job, but start life as an independent entrepreneur. This was a hard decision to take both for me and for my son. He had his friends to compare and he saw everyone of them was into some further education or jobs in the new economy sector, foreign firms etc. In my case, I had this determination it was no further education or a job. It was only independent entrepreneurship!
In the next few days I took my son to Bangalore to get him started! For the whole period when my son was away in England I had not visited Bangalore, though already the publication, the annual surveys, were being published from Bangalore. Myself and my wife used to travel every month, stay at hotels for one week and then return back to our village! The earnings were modest but it was new source of non-agriculture income and this made all the differences to our life. We travelled a great deal in those years, we were frequent visitors to Mumbai and New Delhi. It was Mumbai that gave the push! Bangalore gave us the needed open environment, there were no hassles, as we found to our great discouragement in Coimbatore and Chennai.
We started seriously our ventures in 1995 when my son came home and I set him up in Bangalore. I remember that particular day so clearly still! We were staying in a hotel and the next day we were to choose a business centre to get our address in Bangalore. All night I was agonising, whether to choose that particular address and pay the money. We woke up early and at the right time, when the business centre opened we were there at the dot of the right second! My son had chosen the centre and I said okey and took out the cash from my pocket and I asked him to pay! It was nice, bright, spacious office on the Residency Road and after paying the money I felt as if I had taken off the burden that was weighing heavily till then. The next trip, my wife also accompanied us, and this time we rented out a flat, in fact an upstairs flat in Indira Nanagar. We also bought a car for my son to use. Thus, a new business address was added to Bangalore’s thousands of new start-ups. We have now come a long way, it seems. We have now our own office, our big residence, our cars and a decent set of people to run the businesses. Our diversifications came naturally, our Internet agri portal (www.agricultureinformation.com) survived the dotcom bust and thus our business model worked. Our Consultancy division is now spearheading lots of agri projects in many parts of India. Vadamalai Media Group has now a brand name in anything concerned with agri sector. Of course, the brands grow and survive on some intangibles, trust, values and a moral commitment.
We are into the fields that are found to be low profit areas and also difficult fields. Yet, we deliberately chose where we can make a difference. I think we have made that grade. In an India that is strongly driven by age-old ingrained mindsets, where entrepreneurial ventures in agri-related fields is so tough. Yet, we have of stuck on and survived. The IT revolution, the telecom revolution and the Internet, broadband etc. had helped immensely. In fact, I now see India as life before and after the Google. The Internet search engine technology had changed the way we all do our day to day work and our business these days! Now even for a small start-up company the global reach is possible thanks to these new technologies.
How to apply technologies to business ventures, to the benefit of the large number of people in rural areas is one of our commitments. To make them win in the market place is after all the real challenge. It is here we keep re-inventing new strategies on an on-going basis. Technologies are changing so fast that everyday there are new ventures coming up and Bangalore has become a byword for new startups. Almost every week, it is said, four new companies are coming up in Bangalore. Everyday therefore is a challenge and an opportunity!
Hiring the required talents, assemble the teams, organise them into business niches and drive a vision into innovative business ventures all call for of course courage, guts, vision and a spirit of a long-distance runner! American business practices now have become standard for new Indian ventures, innovation and competitive advantages are the two key concepts on the lips of everybody in this business. Now, in 2005, I read that India had become a global source for out-sourcing. 44% of global outsourcing is done from India! So, India is a new country altogether! One million Indians, well-qualified engineers and graduates are now in the tech sector jobs! The off-shore penetration of Fortune 500 companies have increased to 400 companies in 2004. America now is very much dependent upon India’s skills and technology mastry to keep its economic engine moving forward! Recent strides India has made in IT is a testimony to the coming of age of new generation Indian entrepreneurs.
In fact, much of the happenings in this IT sector is happening without the governments not knowing much of what these new technologies can do for talented Indians. In IT first and foremost capital is the brain power! It is here our Oxford background gives us a head-start. Thus, it is exciting to keep track of developments in technologies. I enjoy reading about these technology trends both for my pure aesthetic pleasure as well as how we can turn them to our business ventures.,
So, one lesson for new entrepreneurs is that Indian bureaucracy still kills all the spirits! So, it was no news for us when read about N.R.Narayanamurthy when he started his Infosys he had to wait for one year to get a telephone connection. In fact, my early reminiscences of Bangalore are ,now unbelievable! One day, I think in 1985, I walked into the newly established WIPRO’s one-room office at the MG Road premises, I met Sridhar Mitta. I asked him: “how can you beat the IBM ?”Or, something tot hat effect. I remember he reeled out some statistics and said “IBM is already going down and we would take it on easily”. It was the time when we were planning to bring out an electronics survey, trying to capture the shape of the new technology as it was emerging. I had already read Akio Morita’ “Made in Japan” and another book, “The Silicon Valley Fever”. These books stirred my imagination. So a diversification of our Media into a new technology area. Subsequently, we brought about a survey on “Biotechnology Research and Industry Survey” edited by an expert. So, we can now claim and I can take some legitimate pride in foreseeing the shape of the new economy industry coming. As I glanced through the Electronics Survey volume now, I am surprised to find I had acknowledged my thanks to many experts who wrote to me. One was A.P.J.Abdul Kalam! Another was N.Vittal, then the chief of the Electronics Dept. and he was making noises in drumming up support for the new industry. One curious instance! When I sent my salesman to find out who were all engaged in the new industry, only years later it was called IT industry, the boy, a Kerala young man after visiting the Electronics city came back to my hotel room and mentioned there “is one Nandan Nilekani” I heard about! In point of fact, it was also the time when still the Infosys team was not united, there were rumours and we could hire some hands! The years between 1985 and 1995 were really the uncertain and yet exciting years in Bangalore. I saw old addressed now totally gone, the old pioneers at the new start-ups( I cant name them here for I don’t wan’t to embarrass any of them!) had gone away, they are now in low profile companies and the original promoters and new CEOs are making the headlines today!
How rapidly the IT industry had transformed Bangalore and the very face of the new economy industries!
Now, we are into our businesses for over a decade and we have come a long way. We have learnt a lot of things. We have also diversified and got into the Internet in a significant way and now I have almost become an outsider, my son and my wife are actively into their respective spheres of responsibilities. As a Coimbatore man and an entrepreneur into the new economy industry, into the highly glamourous and highly challenging media segment, the opportunities into print and Internet, TV media are immense. In the old economy models, you are stuck to your textile mill or a sugar factory all your life Even after years and years your turnover and profits are stuck into a slow growth path. So, we gloat over the small peanuts, like few hundred crores turnover as a big thing. Also, in the old models, the first generation is the success story. The second generation proved disasters in most cases. The third generation also loose steam, it seems. The family businesses are also stuck in an old mindset. Indian entrepreneurial potential is held up by lack of education among the new entrepreneurs. In the small cities it is the problem. In states like Kerala and W.Bengal we see the Leftist politics that had spoilt the mindset. In TN, it is local politics of a narrow, chauvinistic mindset that had held up Indian entrepreneurship.
In IT, your chances of growth is fantastic, even mind-boggling! In a few years you could be a millionaire! If not a billionaire! We see this happening everyday. This is the new India, the new century of unprecedented opportunities.
I don’t read much of business books, though I glance through business journals. My son does read them. In some of the business books, one on IBM, another on Sony and one by Jack Welch, the legendary GE boss, I read about the new mantra of innovation and change. Yes, innovation is the key to growth in the IT industry. So also the new business models which also keeps changing. There is huge pool of highly skilled and highly-motivated human resources. The women with highly educated and trained human resources is not yet fully tapped. So, with so much skills available to deploy to reach your goals and new management models any entrepreneur with some vision and determination can create wealth from nowhere! Fortunately, Bangalore has all the needed environment for innovation and for new startups. In all recent surveys, the visiting MNC men and others like Jack Welch himself hints how new start-ups in Bangalore and Shanghai could pose great challenges to the mighty MNCs. Yes, many new start-ups with practically nothing except the brain power are now coming up in Bangalore. It is a great time to live and in Bangalore! As the Chief Minister of Karnataka, Dharam Singh says that “Bangalore is the fastest developing city in the East and every week there are four new IT companies entering the city, compared to two which was the figure for last year”. So, as far as I am concerned that Bangalore gives me much focus, much intellectual and technological push to my thinking and activities! So, here I am thinking on a different plane, combining in me the liberal education vision as well as the current technological as well as the business environment thrust that is needed for any frontline industrial venture like our media ventures. We are forging ahead in several directions ,into print media, Consultancy and of course a variety of Internet-driven media diversifications. This is also a good time to be in the media business, as I read just now that the reach of the print media, dailies and magazines, has grown faster in the last three years. This a cheering news for us specially, as we are into specialist publications in agriculture and education ,as more English language readers in both the urban and rural India would only enhance our positioning in these niche markets. Satellite TV has grown still faster, the TV reach would only give us an edge as our Internet ventures will now get more audio-visual content, as we diversify. The number of Internet users, according to the National Readership Survey, 2005, has increased to 11 million, 34 per cent surf from their homes, 32 per cent from a cyber-cafe. Mobile phones are also now a new medium, Blackberry, e-mail cum mobile phone devices is being widely used, with value added features such as downloads. All these technological developments, I hope, will only help Vadamalai Media to position itself as a dominant player in the years ahead.
So my message for Indian entrepreneurs, farmers, youth in the rural hinterland is that we live at a time when India is witnessing one of the greatest revolutions in the lives of its peoples in its entire history so far! So, everyone has a chance to better himself or herself. The point is that as a media company, we would ensure that this message reaches all concerned i effectively. After all, that is the definition of a media company’s core business!
Of course I don’t see myself as another entrepreneur. I had come late into entrepreneurship. So, while I enjoy the new challenges and keep myself in touch with all the latest developments in the corporate world, I distance myself from others to pursue my larger interests which are many and diverse. So, I want to have my priorities defined afresh. Money has to be earned, of course. Then, money also has to be “used”, right?
It is here I find my priorities are different. I don’t see myself as a Medici or other! But I like promote literature, poetry, even good politics and much more. Money and time had given me new, long forgotten and yet sought after pursuits. My interests in architecture, period furniture, anitquarian books are all acquiring a new demand on my time. The urban money in rural India can change much of the peoples’ problems. So, my interests in so many fields. One hopes one is able to accomplish so many things in a short time that is left to oneself!