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Photograph by Vishal Koul

Secret Diary Of An Entrepreneur

"Never Give Up"
Secret Diary of Raghav Bahl Part-1

V Keshavdev

Raghav Bahl, founder, Quintillion Media

 
 

I am neither spiritual nor ritualistic, but Hanuman Chalisa has been an integral part of my daily life for the past 34 years. I don’t think I have skipped reciting it for a single day. I carry the Chalisa with me wherever and whenever I go. Does that make me religious, or god fearing? 

I do believe in God and his creation, but I have never feared incurring the wrath of the Supreme, not even when I feast on meat and savour a drink or two during Navratra… the nine days dedicated to Goddess Durga and her manifestations, when the good forces battle for supremacy over evil…

Some may find it sacrilegious or blasphemous, but I believe I have been blessed with a life, with all its trappings…of agony and ecstasy…of trials and tribulations…of guts and glory. A life that ends up being your biggest friend, philosopher and guide…teaching you that sometimes taking the road less travelled can be more fulfilling and enriching than what you would have wished or yearned for…just like I did when I was 22 in 1983.

I was damn sure of making it to Harvard. I had done exceptionally well in GMAT…my score was just a whisker short of 800. When my application got rejected, I was devastated, and since I was also recuperating from a severe health issue, the rejection felt like a body blow. My most cherished dream had turned into a nightmare. 

But like they say it’s not all over till it’s over. I finished my MBA from Delhi University. Like my peers, I started as a management consultant with AF Ferguson & Co, followed by a stint with American Express. But, pretty soon, I got bored. Television was where my passion lay. Working with Doordarshan during my college days held more charm than the job I held.

I got my break when Vinod Dua, whom I knew during my DD days, joined Madhu Trehan at the India Today Group which was launching India’s first monthly video news magazine Newstrack. I had joined as a reporter but when TN Ninan, who was supposed to anchor the show with Madhu, moved out to join The Economic Times, I was offered the anchor’s role. Madhu had seen me on air and found me good enough to make the cut. Those two-plus years that I spent at the India Today Group were really enjoyable as I got introduced to high quality journalism, professional standards and Madhu, who besides being a fine journalist, also made for a good boss. I got to learn a lot; travelled a lot; late nights were a regular feature! I think this was the juncture that I realised that journalism was my calling and television the place where I belonged.

In 1991, I moved on to Business India to create a programme, similar to the general affairs video magazine Newstrack, called “The Business India” show. But the advent of satellite TV around the same time meant that the era of video magazines was over. Things weren’t moving at BiTV as envisaged. Ashok Advani got funding and he wanted to launch a business channel, I wanted to stay on as a production house. It was a messy phase as both of us were production houses and jointly shared the office, people and facilities. The parting took some months. In 1993, TV18 became a private limited company. 

My first investors were friends and family. I put in 50,000, all the money I had in my savings account, as seed capital for the company. As we had just come off the CCI days, the concept of premium was still not prevalent. The first equity placement among friends and relatives was done at par, 10 face value. 

Honestly, we were all clueless back then. India was a different country two decades back…you had business families who understood business issues, and then there were non-business families like mine. My father came from the IAS – we did not understand business issues. I had studied business, but the real world is different. How is equity to be valued? What is discounted cash flow? How much premium should one put on your talent? All these were alien concepts. If I had the wealth of knowledge that I have now, I wouldn’t have sold myself cheap, but that’s life.

At that point in time we were producing the Amul India Show, for Star TV and India Business Report, in co-production with BiTV, for BBC. Eventually, we got to make the report solely for the channel. The 90s were full of crises. In our desperation to be on two channels, we took an entrepreneurial risk by working on a cost-plus model, with wafer thin margins of sub-5%. But we needed to get off the ground and then there was the excitement of working for the channels. The formats were expensive, the budgets weren’t. This is true of media even today, you never get the budget you want or the facilities you want. Then, payments were getting delayed, resulting in a cash flow mess. 

Yet, amid all the challenges, I decided to get into broadcasting. It was ahead of time, a venture that the company’s balance sheet didn’t have the wherewithal to sustain. It was further marred by lack of clarity over government regulations. We entered into a foreign JV with Asia Business News, owned by Dow Jones & Co, and the Hindujas to launch Asia Business News India. The rules around foreign investment were not clear; in fact they weren’t even laid! It took a long time for the government to come up with rules governing content outfits like us. The three years – 1996, 1997 and 1998 – saw a lot of political upheaval, with three government changes at the Centre. For a long time, our application for foreign investment was held up and it was only after a stable government under Vajpayee came to power that the application was finally cleared. 

In hindsight, taking the risk to broadcast in the mid-90s was a huge mistake as the industry was tiny and primitive, and the cash flows had not crystallised. In the absence of regulatory clarity, we went into a spiral and the three-way JV did not work out…revenues did not come the way we envisaged. Then the blame game began on who among the three was or wasn’t pulling his weight. In 1998, the JV ended following ABN’s merger with CNBC. That created its own stress on the joint venture because we had made all the investments…we had recruited people…and then we had to let go of them… 

While we were a quasi broadcaster in the three-way JV as we were producing programmes for ABN, the merger saw us becoming a partner with CNBC as they kept the association alive. A year later, CNBC-TV18 became the first business channel to be beamed into Indian homes on 7 December, 1999. But it was not without hiccups. In April, just before the launch of the business channel, a terrible fire gutted our entire studio in Delhi. For months, my home served as a makeshift studio. Though we were insured, we did incur some losses. 

But the launch of the country’s first business channel marked the beginning of a new innings. In fact, the excitement around the channel was such that it didn’t matter that the first couple of months we weren’t actually “live”. There was a 15-minute delay in what was being telecast. We would record the programme in our studio and send across the tape with a rider, who would ferry the same on a motorcycle to the nearest VSNL uplink station. The entire process of the rider taking the cassette from the studio, the same getting uplinked took almost 15 minutes…even the stock tickers scrolling at the bottom of the screen were delayed quotes! But then no one was complaining as we were the only game in town.

While the pains of the 90s whittled away, a successful IPO of TV18 in 2000 saw us emerge from the shadows. We were being viewed as a serious broadcast player. That phase between 2004 and 2008 was a heady cocktail…duniya pagal hogayi, market chal pada, paisa aasani se mil raha tha, hum bhi pagal hogaye. We grew our revenue grew from 100 crore in 2005 to 5,000 crore by FY13, and made 3-4 investments in different ventures. In 2008, we were investing or losing, whichever way you look at it, 2 crore a day. That year, we invested about 800 crore. In the midst of a global crisis, there was no question of raising equity. So, we went deeper and deeper into a debt spiral. There was also an element of bad luck as 2008 to 2011 was not a great period for world markets. Unfortunately, it coincided with our peak growth period. 

If you are a first-generation entrepreneur, who is trying to grow beyond the balance sheet, then you are condemned to be in a crisis- a lesson I did not learn till I lost it all…

This is the first of a two-part series. You can read the second part here.

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