I owe my success to My early days: my childhood, theatre and just about the whole ecosystem
Strength The confidence of being my best critic
Strongest belief All glory is fleeting
Biggest setback Your worst failure is never the worst because there is always the possibility of another
Sounding board My wife, Zarina
Proudest moment My daughter Trishya’s wedding
Advice to daughter Stay with what you’re doing Believe in what you’re doing
My dream now Working for the foundation and being part of a process to help build the nation
Coming from a lower middle-class background just roots you in a very different way. It gave me a textured outlook on people across social classes. My early memories go back to our home at Grant Road. It was in a nearly century-old five-storey building, Arsiwala, which then housed a lovely biryani restaurant, Café 787. Ours was a four-bedroom apartment. A common passage led to four different rooms, unlike a 4BHK you would find today.
My conversation with parents, grandparents and aunts, outside of cultural values, was on creative pursuits and art because my aunts and my mum used to play the piano. They used to give tuitions, luckily, to some very pretty girls in the neighbourhood! So most of my initial dates was with their students! Those days were fun. There was an uninhibited approach to life. In retrospect, I believe, music had subtly influenced my creativity.
My first tryst with entrepreneurship was as a 13-year-old, selling tickets for movie premieres, the most ingenious way! Our home had a huge verandah that overlooked a well-known movie theatre, Novelty Cinema. Every third or fourth week, whenever a new Hindi film would be released, there used to be a huge crowd waiting to a catch a glimpse of the stars who would come to attend the premiere. Literally thousands would line up on the roads leading to the cinema house, right from the railway station. People would be climbing over the walls.
Initially, my friends would come to the verandah. Soon, strangers began knocking at the door, requesting access to the ‘gallery’. I would strike a bargain with them and sell ‘tickets’ for Rs 10. The premieres were late-evening affairs and everyone at my household would be fast asleep by then so my family was okay with it. Anyway the verandah was kind of secluded, located away from the living rooms. In fact, I was tempted to offer snacks, but my grandparents frowned upon the idea. But my nascent ‘business’ took off well. Though I could have only 10-15 people over, it still was huge pocket money. 10 tickets for 10 bucks meant I had Rs 100 to splurge on a date. It gave me such an empowering feeling to do what I liked and watch events unfold on a larger scale than I could imagine.
Some years later we moved out of our Grant Road home to Warden Road in Breach Candy as my dad had by then become the managing director of JL Morison. In India, I think our private schooling system is strong in some ways. I studied at Cathedral & John Connon School. But colleges in India let the young wander. That’s when one ends up becoming footloose and fancy-free. And my thought as a college kid was: “Do I really need to be attending college? I can anyway catch up on the subject in the last three weeks.”
I was doing my B.Com from Sydenham College when I started to take part in extracurricular activities such as theatre, debate and elocution. But the easy-going attitude cost me a year at college, much to the disappointment of my parents. However, I reappeared for the failed subjects and sailed through. It was a setback for me, but it only made me confident about what I wanted to do. So when that crossroad came after graduation, of what I need to do, I was quite clear that I just didn’t want to study further, even as my brother went ahead and did his PhD.
There are different reasons why you choose to be an entrepreneur instead of following a professional career. It is part gut-feeling and part serendipity. I decided to venture out on my own — (a) to avoid studying further and (b) because I didn’t think I was going to get a job good enough to impress my parents. The realisation dawned after I completed my three months of articleship at chartered accountancy firm, RSM, and three months later as a copywriter at advertising agency, InterPub.
My thinking at that time was, I am not going to be very good at implementing somebody else’s vision. It was quite a mature insight, though I did not quite articulate it like that. However, the need to do something on my own hurtled me into entrepreneurship. I had to tell my father that I didn’t want to study further since I had something in mind and it was not a job. I did not want to tell him, ‘Just give me a year or two, if I fail, I will come back and do what you want me to’. In life, you cannot time your success or failure.
Theatre was a hobby for me, so I took what I thought was a cluster of hobbies and made it into a profession. At 18, I had started off doing voiceovers for ad films, commercials and jingles. It fetched me a pretty princely sum for an hour of work. But what led me to explore my creative side was a failed rock concert, which I had organised with two friends at Shanmukhananda Hall. We had sold 1,500 tickets at Rs 100 each. But, in the end, our expense was more than the revenue and we faced a Rs 50,000 loss. I coughed up my share by borrowing money from my family and girlfriends! Keen to make up for this, I looked for modelling assignments at agencies but, as luck would have it, I ended up auditioning for a voiceover at Lintas. My first voiceover was for an advert for Cadbury 5Star, thanks to Usha Bhandarkar, who was the creative head of O&M at that time. I used to earn Rs 500 for two hours of work, which was like a wow moment. Similarly in theatre, I used to perform on shows, playing Cassio in Othello, from Friday to Sunday, with Alyque Padamsee, Gerson DaCunha and many others. I used to get Rs 500 for every appearance. It was a heck lot of money those days.
Importantly, becoming an actor on stage taught me incredible lessons. Theatre builds confidence like nothing else does. It’s not confidence in your oratory but in yourself. Once you start building on that, you feel you are in command of any situation and, as a leader or an entrepreneur, it helps you tackle problems head-on. While I was working on multiple projects, I would often find myself missing assignments because of time clashes. I remember Alyque Padamsee calling up and saying, “What’s going on, you can’t just walk off.” I said, “Well, I agree, I had given a commitment, so I should be there although it is not my production.” That’s when I decided to start creating my own shows, so that I can be my own boss. So, if I can’t make it, I can cancel the show. You are in control of your situation. I could combine commerce with creativity, and it stood me in good stead when I decided to be my own boss.
When I started my theatre production company, Lazer Productions, I said let’s see how it goes. I think once you have clarity and confidence, you don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Then, there was no concept of raising money. I was not building something to impress somebody. My start-up funding was absolutely zero. So, it would be the bunch of earnings and pocket money that would go into something. I would tell my creditors, I am going to pay you as I build my business. This attitude allows you to absorb many shocks later on in your life. Because when you have been there, you are anyway living on the edge.
Since I used to do a lot of voice recordings, I would go to three to four recording studios in Mumbai and one of them was called Western Outdoor Advertising. Here, I would meet with the founder-owner, Mr. Nanavati, who was also the chairman of Nanavati Hospital, and later on went on to become my father-in-law. He had a post-production studio and a sister company, Western Art, that was setting up closed-circuit television cameras on the race courses in India. Cameras were installed at different points, and they streamed the race to TV audiences. This led to the idea of cable TV.
Those days, since DD was the only TV channel, the idea of local transmission via a cable sounded very possible. That led to the birth of Network. We started off as a small team comprising a technical person, people for content and programming, and sales and marketing. A lot of entrepreneurs today want to succeed in three or six months. It took us a year before we got our first customer. For the first three or four months, we’d go out there and actually set up a demonstration with two TV sets in the lobby of a building or in the common area of a community. We would get viewers on a Saturday or Sunday, and on weekday evenings. So, it was a walking salesman’s job.
Society committees had to meet and give their approval for running a cable through their building or for letting us operate a control room inside the premises. After the third month, we got a little restless and said let’s go door to door. Here again, getting a door slammed in your face was a phenomenal learning experience. You were told to come at 9. Then you go at 9 p.m., and then you are asked angrily, “Is this the time to come!” Then being told, “Come tomorrow.” As an entrepreneur, these things should not faze you. As an entrepreneur, shit will be flung your way in different stages at different levels. At the highest level, it will be expensive shit, but it will still be flung at you!
The biggest worry for most people then was how the cable will run inside the house. So, suddenly we were interior designers, and not really cable operators. Our engineers would double up as concealed-wiring guys. Everything did start falling into place. But you don’t get those insights till you get deep into your customer’s head.
We wondered how to scale without this long-drawn process. So, the low-hanging fruit, which was staring us in our face but we didn’t quite see, became evident in the second year of operation. It was hotels. We kept visiting all the top hospitality chains. For six months, we would debate with hotels whether they would add this as a cable TV charge or simply include it in their bill. Initially, they were not ready to include that in the bill. But, eventually, the resistence thawed because we gave two free channels for advertising. So, when you check into any hotel in India, you will still see channels that give you advertorials about the chain of hotels. This started way back in the late ’80s. We soon signed deals with The Oberoi Group, Taj Hotels and then we had the Ashok Group. We had almost all the hotel chains at that stage.
Then, we decided we would target clusters of buildings where there was no road, that is public road, to be crossed. Cuffe Parade was a great idea because it was a cluster of 16 to 17 buildings with no common road. You had to only cross compound walls. So then we started looking for those clusters. By that time, everyone else realised that we were going to hang a cable and get on with life. And, around the time, we realised this may not be our business long-term because we’ll never really create true value.
In a casual conversation with my COO, Sudip Malhotra, I said, “You know, this is not going anywhere.” That’s when he said, “I am leaving because I have got the Sterling Group in south India who wants me to start cable TV”. So, I just said, “Why don’t they buy this business? If they buy this business, then they will also have a presence in the west, besides south.” In 1998, I sold the business. Everyone calls it vision and clarity but, at that time, there was no clarity. It just came out of my mouth.
It was around the same time I spotted another opportunity, when on a trip to England with my father. During a visit to an Addis hair and toothbrush factory, I came across two brand new machines waiting to be installed in the factory’s toothbrush line. The units were of drab grey metal, two metres high and a metre wide. Not imposing, but solid and built to last. They were like nothing I’d ever seen in India. I asked our host, who had just arrived, when the machines would be installed. He looked at me as though I had gone mad. “Those are headed to the scrap heap,” he said.
What looked like new machines to me had actually been cranking out millions of toothbrushes for two or three years. In the UK, machines were discarded fairly quickly; back home, these very machines would be considered cutting-edge technology. Right then, I knew I had to make him an offer. “How long can a machine like this last?” He thought for a moment. “10 or 20 years, I suppose.”
My eyes widened. “Could you hold these for me for 60 days?” I asked with a smile. As soon as I hit the ground in Bombay, I went straight to the toothpaste makers to convince them to contract us to make toothbrushes. After getting positive feedback from the Colgate-Palmolive senior management, we imported the machines and set up a manufacturing unit at Kalyan.
However, I was pretty clear that it is not something I want to run, it is not going to be my primary business. Therefore, I brought in my friends as co-founders so that I didn’t need to spend more than an hour-and-a-half a week on that business, which I sold eventually.
Those four years in cable TV gave me an incredible insight into consumers. With a little commercial sense, I thought I must be doing something right.
It was during a play, Othello, when I was backstage with Alyque Padamsee for a rehearsal at the National Association for the Blind at Worli, that Alyque, who was the head of Lintas advertising agency, said this is the beginning of sponsored programmes in India. He said, Hindustan Lever wanted to do a television show on Doordarshan. It was the first sponsored programme and they wanted to do a television quiz show. Alyque said, “I need somebody to execute this.” I said, “I will do it.” He kind of looked at me and said, “What does that mean?” I said, “Yeah, I am thinking of starting a television content company.” He said, “Really? When? How?” I said, “I am in the process of putting it up.” June 1990, United Software Communications was incorporated as a private limited company and my first programme was for Lever, thanks to Alyque.
Since there were no studios, we actually hired a theatre. The first show was recorded at the Sophia College Auditorium with four cameras and a live audience. The show was called Surf Mashoor Mahal and with that was born India’s first-ever branded programme. The show gave me an inroad into all multinationals and corporates. Agencies were taking notice of us and, more importantly, it gave me an entry into Doordarshan, India’s only broadcaster then. We went to Doordarshan with a studio-based quiz show called Contact and a show on mathematics called The Mathemagic Show, which was produced by co-founder Zarina, whom I married much later in life.
Around the same time, Madison, which was the agency for Procter & Gamble, said, “We want to do a daily soap.” Since it was the days of Doordarshan, they said prime time wasn’t available except for the afternoon slot. We wondered who was going to watch television at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and that too daily, but it worked fine for P&G. So then we got people from advertising to start writing scripts in our basement office at Worli in Shiv Sagar Estate. Luckily, State Bank of India was emptying the adjacent basement. So, we converted the basement into a studio and set up 19 sets for India’s first daily soap opera, Shanti.
Soon we had teams for ad films, corporate videos, in-flight programming and television programmes. Because some of these things needed to be in multiple languages, we started a dubbing division. So, it suddenly became a sort of a diversified media company, even though we hadn’t designed it that way. We didn’t let any opportunity go. It was like, “Okay, okay, fine, we will do it.” “I don’t know how we will do it, but we will do it.” But that obviously meant we needed a very passionate group of people working with us.
Our programming experience with Shanti helped us much later on when Zee started in 1992. They were the first satellite broadcaster.
When they wanted to get on air, I went in and pitched them 10 shows at one time. They said, “What do you mean? You will do 10 shows for us?” “Because,” I said, “you have a cost economics problem. To start a whole channel with original programming, you will have budget for every programme. Not everybody can do more than one programme at that budget. But, if you give 10 shows, then I can do it at this budget”. That wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t having that discipline in Shanti. At the end of the 520-episode contract for 10 shows, we had built a strong relationship with Zee. That attracted the first private equity investment into our company.
By then, we could describe ourselves as a media and entertainment business. We had multiple shows on television and multiple B2B businesses. I think the next big thing for us was that we needed to grow. For that, for the first time, the penny dropped that maybe we needed capital. But I have to say again that it was not visionary or anything like that. It was people who came knocking at our door, rather than us chasing capital. Because there wasn’t a context of an evolved venture capital or private equity system in those days. It was also the time when News Corp made us an offer, saying, “We want to invest in you.”
Star had just entered India and they had sent one of their directors, Andrew Carnegie and one of their local representatives, who is now an eminent Supreme Court lawyer Raian Karanjawala. I was told that Rupert Murdoch was coming for a three-day visit to India and one of the people they recommended he meet was me. It was indeed a big achievement, but given our frugal basement office and my office no more than 80 sq ft, I was more worried about power cuts and the state of the loo! I am a person who judges a company by the state of the loo, because, I think, it talks a lot about the culture of the company. Since it was a business centre that housed six other companies, I had to talk to these companies and request that they not use the loo that day because Rupert Murdoch was coming! Zarina said, “Okay, you are busy worrying about all these situations, I am going to make a four-minute audio-visual for him, to tell him what is the breadth of India.” The first two minutes about India and the next two about the potential of TV. She made it and the whole concept was that the whole is bigger than the sum of the parts. Her point was to show that you won’t find a company like ours in India.
What struck me about Murdoch was the curiosity and the follow-up questions for everything we talked about. We had a good conversation about what people are watching, why are they watching, what is the consumer trend in India. We weren’t really expecting them to invest in us and even when the team invited me to London, I had no clue it was something big.
A few weeks after Murdoch’s first visit to India and to our office, I got a call from his team in London. “We want to take our discussion forward,” one of his senior colleagues told me. “If you’re interested, let’s meet at the BSkyB office any time next week.” Naïve, I flew there alone, expecting little more than to collect information on what News Corp had in mind. When I landed at 8 a.m. on the appointed day, I was met by a seven-member team that included the head of BSkyB, the strategy team, two lawyers and two investment bankers. I thought I was there to have a broad conversation. They were ready to propose a deal and close it that day. “Where’s your team?” one of them asked, offering me coffee. “Your lawyer? Your banker?” And they began spelling out their proposal. Murdoch’s group had shortlisted us as their content partner in India and wanted a significant minority stake with no operational say in the business, and had no concerns about us working with their potential competitors.
By 4 p.m., their lawyers had punched out a Heads of Agreement on everything we discussed. Four hours later, I stepped out to make some phone calls back home to colleagues and my lawyer while the News Corp team faxed the printout to HQ for final approval. I was surprised Murdoch still wanted to read a document for a relatively small deal — another mark of a true entrepreneur.
Ironically, because I had gone to the UK and struck a deal with Star directly, when they started Star India, the local Star management obviously felt, “Oh! Okay, this is the deal you have done with them, so we have no obligation to give you any business.” So, whatever synergy we were hoping for never really happened.
We were caught between Zee and News Corp. While Star didn’t give us the business we wanted, Zee thought, “Oh! You are part of News Corp, so now we are throwing all the 10 shows off air.” I had a candid conversation with Subhashji who said, “Look, I think I am not going to give business to a competitor.” But I said, “It’s not like if I had come to you, and said would you want to make the equity investment, you would have made it.” He said, “It’s a fair point.” But he did not change his decision. The good part was that it was absolutely straightforward and it wasn’t any chief executive at Zee giving me messages in a different manner.
Though Star, as an investor, was sympathetic about our losing 10 shows, they weren’t giving us business either. That was the time we felt we needed to convert ourselves into a B2C company very soon. That, this B2B was not going to work out for us. So, in retrospect, for all the arrogance of some of the Star guys, I should thank them. They forced us to into the broadcasting and movie business.
Our broadcasting foray in 1998 incidentally happened when at a board meeting I expressed my plan of converting UTV into a B2C player. At that point, we had Dalip Pathak and Rajesh Khanna from Warburg Pincus on our board. Pathak said, “I just had breakfast with Vijay Mallya and he’s got this channel in the south called Vijay TV, a Tamil channel, and he wants to sell it. So, why don’t we go and meet him?” I remember arriving at 11 p.m. at his house, Mallya came in at 1 o’clock. Two hours, we were entertained and we had this conversation at 3 a.m., and we settled the deal. I didn’t understand the language but we understood the market since we were doing a lot of Tamil shows for Sun TV. Importantly, Mallya was willing to accept deferred payments over 36 months. For an entrepreneur at that stage, that really helped. The deferred payment meant I could get into the business the very next day and pay as I earned. So it was like buying a house on EMI. Vijay TV was the first business I bought.
However, there was also a déjà vu moment. Kalanithi Maran called and said, “You bought Vijay TV. You are our biggest competitor. How can I work with you on shows for Sun TV?” But, I have to say, to his full credit, we had a good 20-minute conversation. After that, he said, “Just tell me you will have complete Chinese walls and separate teams for both.” I said, “You have my word.” He said, “That is good enough, no problem.” We carried on and UTV had a phenomenal relationship with Sun even as we were competing with them.
A lot of hassled mums across the country must be wondering, “Who’s the chap that got Shin Chan and Doraemon into the country?” While the Japanese toons may have got on the nerves of parents, it was while doing Shaka Laka Boom Boom, a show for kids, that we realised there was still a gap that the likes of Cartoon Network, Pogo and Nickelodeon Disney, with their 10,000 hours of programming and deep pockets, had not filled. We realised that kids were watching Zee horror shows or Tom & Jerry. It sounded like an interesting opportunity because we were literally dubbing for every single of the six kids’ channels on air, and producing two kids’ shows. It just made a lot a sense because we understood that market. Though the kids’ channel was a disaster in the first year, it became successful in the second year when we got two important shows — Doraemon and Shin Chan. By end of the second year, Hungama had become the number one kids’ channel.
The success of the kids’ channel also got Disney talking to us. As we were building Hungama in India and its Malaysian version ‘Ceria’, the Malaysian broadcaster expressed its desire to invest 26% in the channel. When the news broke of an impending deal in the media, I was in Los Angeles (LA) to meet Fox for details of our co-production movie, The Namesake. I got a call from Andy Bird saying that he had heard about the deal to sell, and instead offered to buy out the entire channel besides investing 14% in the parent. My first reaction was, “We are just looking for an investor and nothing more.”
Andy persisted, saying he was flying out of LA, and would want me to come over and talk. When he realised I was in LA, he wanted me to meet Kevin Mayer, his head of strategy. “Just talk to him and see, no strings attached,” he said. The meeting went well, with Mayer sanctioning me 15 days to pull together a proposal. Post the meeting, I informed my to-be Malaysian partner of the development. Though they were a bit disappointed, they realised what the deal would do for UTV — a strategic partner, resources from the sale of a channel, fresh equity in the company and opportunities to scale up our business.
But, the deal was far from done. After agreeing on a valuation, over four weeks of financial and legal diligence, talks fell through in a conference call while brushing out the final details. I felt that some of the concerns that were being raised were not relevant to the deal. I pulled the plug on the call, saying that I was not in for a re-negotiation, in keeping with the spirit of our earlier discussion. Ronald my CFO, and Amit, my head of business development and strategy, felt that I was impulsive in my reaction and went to drown their disappointment over some drinks. That night, I went to sleep thinking it was all over. The next noon, I called up Kevin, who had travelled to London overnight, to thank him for his work and patience. Though at peace with my decision, I did not want to end our relationship as abruptly as our call, and as it turned out, the conversation ended with the deal being revived.
Even as Disney entered as a strategic partner, our alliance with Star was going through a rollercoaster. While we were not getting headway on programming with Star TV, they wanted to have a presence in the South. I offered to bring them in as an equal joint venture partner in Vijay TV and launch Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam channels. However, on the last day of signing, they said, “We want to run the channel.” About three weeks later, Star’s business development guys came up with a spreadsheet, including a minimum guarantee clause. Arrogance and absurdity is what I saw in that sheet — it was like telling a foot soldier, who is in the thick of the action, that over the next 20 miles, there will be air support, tanks will come in, and the stretch of land will be won. I knew that even in my wildest dreams, I won’t be able to meet the projections for the next 10 years. I told the folks that they were right — they would run it better, and we signed the deal. In 2001, 51% of Vijay TV was sold to Star India.
A year later, the projections made were not being met, and now they had to issue a cheque based on the minimum guarantee. Star realised that it was turning out to be a very complicated affair, where at the same time they were a shareholder, a joint venture partner and a customer. At the end of the second year, they stated that they could not continue paying for a joint venture and wanted to buy us out. News Corp thought that I was the villain, as they were issuing payments to me, an allegedly smart guy, who first got equity and then brought the situation to this. James Murdoch, who was running Star from Hong Kong at that time, told me, albeit in a friendly manner, “You screwed us.” I said, “Excuse me, you were the ones who wanted to invest in my company and chose not to buy any content from us. I offered to run the southern venture, but you chose to drive it.” His perception of me persisted even as UTV exited the Vijay TV joint venture, and sold the four-channel joint venture back to Star, by 2004. Eventually, the chapter with Star came to a close when I bought News Corp’s stake in UTV. To part-fund the buyout, I had to sell off my toothbrush business.
Even as UTV was proving itself in the broadcast space, making films was a steep learning curve. Our first five movies were complete disasters, and the first one was an absolute disaster. The economics is definitely different in movies compared with television, where Friday night is not always a do-or-die moment because the business can always be turned around on Saturday. It was a situation where after the first or second movie, most people would have just packed up and got out. Even large industrial houses such as the Tatas and the Birlas have burned their hands and walked away. But, I did not have a choice because I could not go back to operating on a B2B model, and if I had to stick to the B2C model, I had to be in the business of movies. We were clear that we would look at next generation directors, and the only reason why our earlier movies did not work was because, unlike Shanti, where we knew how each episode evolved, it was the opposite in films: the story would evolve on the floor. At that stage, we did not have complete scripts, and it was this learning that led to me reading the 1st, 7th and 14th drafts of a script, before green-lighting it.
To me, Swades appeared to be an offbeat but powerful story, and one where we were banking too much on a star. Yet, it is one of my favourite movies after Rang De Basanti (RDB), which really gave a boost to our movie business. If Swades got us recognition, RDB gave us serious credibility within the industry. Until then, it was a tough period — I remember my CFO telling me at that stage, “I think we should just call it a day here.” I could sense during meetings that other departmental heads saw movies as a drag on their respective division. The general consensus was that we should get out of movies. But then, you have to withstand the pressure if you believe in something. That’s when a leader has to encash the trust in his leadership. That trust level does not always have to be at its peak, but it cannot go down to zero. My people believed that I would eventually figure things out.
My eventual exit from UTV was not planned. Disney, with whom we were in a partnership for the past six years, had gone up from being a minority to majority stakeholder, by increasing holding from 14% to 50%. At one of the board meetings, I said, “We need funding for our broadcasting and movie businesses, so I’m going to go out and raise money.” Mayer and Bird, both members of the board at Disney, said, “We’ll fund you the next time around.”
As a first generation entrepreneur, the more I took money at the parent level, the more I got diluted. So, from my point of view, I thought that if I float the subsidiaries, I’ll be able to do it in a different manner. In retrospect, if I had done that, I would’ve been wrong. I have seen many media groups do that and struggle. It was not my vision or uncanny business sense, I was just blessed that it happened that way.
It was just one of those moments when Disney felt it made sense to consolidate and own 100% of the company. It did make sense — and a few things happened at that stage. First, I did not think I was going to exit the media and entertainment industry since they were quite happy for me to continue for at least five years, if not more. I was not sure about that since it would have needed me to be working for somebody else. I felt that the timing made a fair amount of sense from all perspectives, and that marked my exit from UTV.
When the buyout finally happened, nothing had changed and I carried on with the company as usual. Zarina, my wife, had a conversation with me regarding scaling up our not-for-profit foundation, now that we had the financial resources for it. That, though, had to wait — I had more than a full-time job the next day, to consolidate Disney and UTV India. It struck me that I am never good at implementing somebody else’s vision. However fantastic Disney is as a company, at the end of the day, in a consolidated entity, I was implementing somebody else’s vision. I felt that I am not the best guy for this job, and it took me another full year to complete the consolidation and move out.
Very early in my career, I had started an NGO called Society to Heal, Aid, Restore and Educate (Share), which got 10% of the money we made every year. Once we listed UTV, we ensured Share was separated, and it became my personal engagement. Post the sale to Disney, my wife and I spent a year researching Share’s future. We met NGOs across India and Bangladesh to understand operations, because we were very clear that we wanted to scale it up.
My vision for Share was to work with a million people every six to seven years, and aid them out of poverty. It took us a year to scale up and build a team, rope in a COO and get in touch with 400 people. From 80-90 villages, we expanded to 2,000 villages. Incidentally, a group of six students from Columbia University had come for a four-day visit. When we met them for a conversation, we came to realise that the work we are doing is a Swades moment — one where Shahrukh Khan quits NASA to generate electricity in rural India. That got us really excited, and eventually led to our venture being called Swades Foundation.
Some people see me as a smart cookie who built and exited the businesses of toothbrushes, cable television, Vijay TV, Hungama, UTV and everything in between. While that sounds pre-meditated, none of these situations were. For me, staying the course has been my biggest learning experience, because you cannot time success and failure.