Reaching For The Stars

New-age entrepreneurs talk about what it takes to sustain the hunger for growth

Published 7 years ago on May 05, 2017 13 minutes Read

Deputy editor, Kripa Mahalingam: The first time I heard the term ‘staying hungry’ was when I listened to Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005. For most of us, success is a destination; for most entrepreneurs, however, it’s just one of the milestones. I often wonder: how can one stay hungry when you’ve been there and done that? All these super-achievers have achieved great successes - V Vaidyanathan started from scratch to build a Rs.6700 crore financial services company, Capital First; Vijay Sekhar Sharma is the man behind India’s largest mobile wallet company, Paytm and Neeraj Kakkar’s Hector Beverages ensures traditional Indian recipes live forever through its brand, Paper Boat. But this hasn’t stopped them from working on their next big audacious dream. 

So what keeps them hungry when they have achieved success? Let’s start with Mr Sharma. You have set yourself an audacious goal that you will bring half a billion Indians into the mainstream economy by 2020. What motivates you and what keeps you going?
Vijay Shekhar Sharma: I think all of us have a long term purpose, a vision that we carry. Till the time we reach the top of the mountain, we don’t know what that view is going to be like. Today if you ask me, I’d say half a billion Indians; tomorrow, it may be something else. When we reach a milestone, the view changes, the landscape becomes wider and the horizon starts looking distant again. It’s a continuous journey where we keep evolving and I love that particular streak about companies. I don’t think I will be able to see my company become a 100 years old because the expected age of Indians hasn’t reached that number. But, I truly want to build a company that ages well and becomes an institution in our country.

Mr Kakkar, you had a high-flying career at Coca Cola, you put yourself through Wharton, and then you decided to give it all up and become an entrepreneur. So what motivated you to give up that cushy corporate career?
Neeraj Kakkar: Entrepreneurship is a very selfish career! You enjoy every bit of it but it’s tough for your family. You don’t have money, you don’t have time, and you’re doing something that only you understand. It’s a pretty selfish thing to do. When you’re young, you aspire to become a superhero. You say you will become Batman, or hit a sixer in the game today, or catch the thief in the neighbourhood, or top in your board exams, with your picture making it to the front page of the morning paper. That [dream] kind of fades away as you grow up. There is some part of you that says superheroes don’t exist, that they only exist in story books. 

So, I find myself in this place where I’m doing this job, and all I feel is that if I’m not there, then thirty years later aam panna will become extinct. I’m the protector of these traditional Indian recipes, this is my self-defined goal. Every evening when I leave for home, I remove my cape and hang it at the back of the door. People are paying me to be a superhero like Batman, which is what I always wanted to be. That keeps me motivated all the time.

What keeps you motivated, Mr Vaidyanathan? You were the blue-eyed boy in ICICI Bank and you left it all behind to start on your own. There are glass ceilings professionals have to break before they start off on their own. What were your challenges when you started out?
V Vaidyanathan: In my case, when I started out, I was on the board of ICICI Bank at 38, which felt terrific. It happened because between 2000 to 2010, India just took off and I happened to be at the right place at the right time. At 41, I had become the MD of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance. Then I started thinking, what do I do now? I had age, seniority, experience on my side, but no capital. I told myself I wanted to start something [of my own], because 8-10 years later I would be turning be 53-54 and start thinking about retirement and stuff. 

I did not want to walk that path. So I began thinking about how I could start. I wanted to start a NBFC. I was looking for a PE firm who would make a Rs.1,000 crore equity investment to which I would add my 10%. I began seeing all these stories of companies with a price to book valuations of 3x-5x. I thought Rs.1,000 crore would become Rs.5,000 crore and I would get 10% of it. I began building castles in the air, but I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because I was in a senior position at the bank. 

I came across a company whose share price had decreased from Rs.1,100 to Rs.92 or Rs.100 within two years because of the global financial crisis. I realised that if I acquired 10% of this company, it would be like making a PE investment. I didn’t research too much about it; if I had done a lot of research, I would probably have backed out. But I walked the path. Like many will tell you, it’s a very tough path to take because you think everything will work out, but then you realise that the QIP does not take place, you don’t get debt, you get equity; you just struggle.  Everyone tells you to talk to other people, to be truthful to the market, etc. But it doesn’t work like that. If you tell someone [about your financial crisis], you will be in deep trouble. You can’t even tell your closest friends. 

Mr. Sharma, tell me what’s the craziest thing you have done to get a breakthrough in business.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma: I think I never had the right to go into business! I come from a family of teachers, so I’m the black sheep in a way because business was what I wanted to do. 

The craziest thing that happened to me was in 2001, when the dot com was reaching its peak. I had sold a company and had Rs.2 lakh left in the bank. So, I started this company [One97] in 2001 and then 9/11 happened, which meant any hope to get funding went out of the window. I think the choice was that I could either take a job or close the exit doors and decide this was the only way I would go. I had no cash flow and no business model! But in 2002, telecom operators such as Bharti and Hutchinson Essar, who were my customers, were just starting to expand their business. The problem was that I didn’t have any cash flow, thanks to their cash flows and vendor payment systems. 

So there were a lot of crazy things that I ended up doing to generate the cash flow. I would be available for a one-day Internet lecture, sometimes I would go meet a journalist whose Internet was not working, set up their email account and receive Rs.500 as payment, and sometimes I would walk 14 kilometres from Priya Cinema to Kashmir Gate [in Delhi] where I used to live because with the Rs.15 that I had, I had a choice to either take a bus or buy the next day’s meal. While such kind of things today, in hindsight, seem so interesting, I can tell you that it is during those tough times that the real decision-making happens. The coolest decision is when you’re still holding on even when it seems like you have run out of options. The best thing I remember is when I used to say that yes, I was available for Rs.5000. 

What is the craziest thing you’ve done, Mr Kakkar?
Neeraj Kakkar: So Kanji is a traditional drink in North India, and when I was growing up, my landlady used to make it. That drink is almost extinct now. Kanji is made out of purple carrots which have disappeared; it’s the world of orange carrots now. I searched for them in India and there were no purple carrots, so we started looking around the world and we discovered that Turkey produces purple carrots.  I landed in a very small airport in Adana, a city in southern Turkey, and went with a local contact to see these huge fields of purple carrots. I was very happy, and I filled 25 kg of purple carrots in my luggage. But the people at the customs caught me and didn’t allow me to bring them to India. So we got the seeds from Turkey. This happened two years ago, and since then we have sown the seeds in three places. But we’ve failed. The quest for making this drink has been going on for the last 4.5 years. This is the craziest thing I’m in the midst of right now.  

Mr Vaidyanathan is the craziest thing you have ever done going to top what these two have done?
V Vaidyanathan: At one point in time, we were desperately looking out for funding. Rahul Bhasin from Barings came to our office saying that he was interested in [our] story and that he wanted to back it. I was very happy and asked to meet again. He said in two months and I wanted to say tomorrow, but it would have looked very desperate. So after a week I decided to go to Delhi. After I landed there, at 11 am I texted Rahul and asked if he was in Delhi and if we could meet. He texted back saying he was in conference. Two hours later I texted him again and Rahul said that he was still in the conference and would be late. I spent the entire day there doing no work, and booked the 5 pm flight back. When I was entering the airport, I took a last chance and texted him. He replied that I could meet him at 7 pm. By this time I had already checked in, cleared security, and was about to board the aircraft. I hadn’t even had lunch. But I tore up my boarding pass and rushed back all the way. The security asked me for my boarding pass, which I didn’t have because I tore it up out of happiness. I pleaded with the security and got my way. At 7 we met over sandwiches and I went over my story again. It still did not work, but I had to give it a shot. Another instance, was when I was talking to a particular person I wanted to meet. He told me that he would be taking the 3 o’clock flight from Delhi to Mumbai. I thought to myself, if I could catch the person on the two-hour flight, it would be fantastic. This discussion happened in the morning, so I took the flight at 11 am and landed there [in Delhi] at 2 o’clock, then flew back with that person. So just to be with that person for two hours, I have flown to and fro. Thankfully he did not ask me what I was in Delhi for, or it would have been embarrassing. 

Who is your superhero, Mr Kakkar? 
Neeraj Kakkar: Growing up in the early 90s, in a small town the dream was to become a sub-divisional officer (SDO) in the electricity board. Every exam you cleared, you did it just to become an SDO, take a jeep and roam around. There is no way you can dream of achieving anything big because you cannot relate to a Tata or a Birla. Narayana Murthy gave you the hope to say no to a government job. That was a big thing for a small-town guy to say, and he is my superhero. He had a much greater impact than what we give him credit for. 

Mr Sharma, for you it is Jack Ma. He told you to build a company that would connect half a billion people and you’re doing that with the payments bank. What’s his next piece of advice for you? 
Vijay Shekhar Sharma: Talking about Jack Ma, let me tell you, the Chinese are far more aggressive than the others I have ever met. I have worked with the Chinese, the Japanese, and Americans. Americans are known to be grand thinkers and world dominators. But the Chinese are extraordinary. For example, once I was presenting at a board meeting, showing our market share and asking if it was time for us to start bothering about profitability. So Jack asks how many users we had. At the time we had only a couple of 100 thousand users. He said, hadn’t we discussed about getting 500 million? He told me we had to place a bet on the market. ‘You don’t wait for the market to happen, you must make it happen,’ he told me. 

When we talk about superheroes for me, it is definitely Steve Jobs. What he has done with smartphones—nobody could ever imagine that you could take so much data and put into a small device like that. And the world as we know it has changed forever.

Mr Vaidyanathan who is your inspiration? Who do you want to inspire?
V Vaidyanathan: People from many walks of life inspire me—anyone who is in an adversity and comes out of it. Mythological characters greatly inspire me, especially Karna, who was a man of his word.

Marvan Attapattu’s story is the most inspirational one I’ve heard. Harsha Bhogle quotes it in some interview. The first time Attapattu gets to play [cricket], he scores a  zero. Then he gets to play 2nd innings and he gets out without scoring. He is dropped out of the team and is out for two years. Then he scores a lot of runs [elsewhere] in cricket, and he comes back in the team. In his comeback match, he gets out without scoring a run. And you know, for a person who’s waiting to make a mark, you come back and score a zero—it can be terrifying. You know you’re cooked even though you know that you’re talented. Finally, six years later he got a chance, and then he blew the world away with his performances. When I read that story, I was greatly inspired.

You have to believe that it will happen. I believe a lot in being positive. I’m not exaggerating this but  when the RBI norms and regulations come in, I’ve told myself to think that whatever it is, it is good. There is a lot of power in positive thinking.

All of you are very driven and passionate entrepreneurs. How do you transfer this energy to your team?
Neeraj Kakkar: You have to surround yourself with people who believe in you. If you are hiring people, you have to hire those who have trust in you. I think people look at the hype around Vijay Shekhar Sharma, and they want to work in startups. But they don’t see the hard work behind it. That’s what you have to show when hiring, and only then the right ones start coming in. 

Vijay Shekhar Sharma: My experience says that those who have been there, done that, will not do it again. You have to hire ordinary people from outside the industry or juniors who have not got the chance to do it yet. They are the classic underdogs who are yet to prove themselves. When you get these ordinary people in, you have to tell them that you are going to do extraordinary things. 

One thing that I have learned is to set a goal that is like a moon shot. It’s so incredible that the journey will then be the reward. And then, surprise surprise, you actually achieve the goal. In my company, we make it very clear that we don’t come to work but to write chapters in history books, and try to write one. People don’t come to work for the money or perks, but for [a sense of] purpose. Yes there are perks, which are hygiene factors, like oxygen. But for the most part it’s about fun and work. In the last two years, we got a lot of bankers and consultants involved in the decision making tree. One of the most important things in the startup world is how fast you make decisions. The number of variables you need to take decisions define who you are. The lesser the variables the greater the leader you are. The more variables you need—you are a great manager. 

V Vaidyanathan: When you have to motivate people, you tell them that you are on a journey of discovery; that there is a blue ocean to discover and we need to crack the ocean that nobody has done before, and then we’re into creating something phenomenal. If anyone talked to me like that when I was in my 20s, I would have found it very encouraging. The space and the environment in India by itself, is extraordinarily motivating. 

What is the one thing that keeps you hungry and motivated?
V Vaidyanathan: The potential is so large in the business that we do, that—I’m not exaggerating—we are only at the start right now. [We have to keep in mind that] the opportunity is there, and we have only just started. For example, when you say we can build a Rs.1 lakh crore company over the next 50 years it is tremendously motivating because we are in a space which has immense potential.

Vijay Shekhar Sharma: I think it’s about the impact that you can create, what you give back and the legacy that you create. 

Neeraj Kakkar: I think there is nothing more I enjoy than what I’m doing right now. When I’m at work, it’s better than any other place in the world. That’s where I want to be.