• What’s in your wallet? Some cash and credit cards. I also carry some vibhuti (sacred ash) in my bag
  • Must-haves for travel Hanuman Chalisa and Ipad
  • My best teacher Life...mistakes
  • My best friend Ritu Kapur
  • Favourite work of fiction Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • Favourite business book In Search Of Excellence
  • Favourite business personality NRN...also because he has been very indulgent of me!
  • Favourite mythological story The deliberations between Arjun and Krishna...its packed with wisdom
  • Favourite mythological character Lord Krishna, the most practical person!
  • Favourite movie character Rajesh Khanna in Anand
  • Favourite poison Scotch
  • Most admired trait Tenacity
  • Management lesson learnt Delegate but don’t abdicate
  • The worst day in my life When Harvard University rejected my application
  • Most cherished moment When TV18 went public
  • Best days of my life Yet to come


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 Rs 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, Rs 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 Rs 100 crore in 2005 to Rs 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, Rs 2 crore a day. That year, we invested about Rs 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…

While we continued to grow, I was being squeezed by a regulatory constraint that meant I could not go below 51%. So, whenever we needed capital, if someone was willing to give me money, I still needed to bring in my own! If I needed Rs 100 crore, I needed to bring Rs 50 crore myself! I did that for a while, by piling on debt. It was a draconian regulation, completely anti-first generation because how do you keep bringing in capital?

All the biggest entrepreneurs in the world have diluted capital…. Steve Jobs owned very little of Apple. Did not the Infosys founders pare down their stake to 5-6%? E-commerce guys can come down to less than 10% and still call it their company, telecom can do it, banks can do it, but news channels can’t! It’s crazy. You have to dilute to grow. If you are a first-generation entrepreneur but have a regulation that needs you to have a 51% stake at all times, then there are only two options: either you remain tiny or you sellout to a large business conglomerate or industrial group.

We were badly in debt when Reliance stepped in as a white knight in 2012 with non-voting rights…I still had operational and management control with 51% stake. But in 2014 when they converted their shares into voting rights, I did not see any reason to stay on as a minority partner. Had I been allowed to go down to 10%, there wouldn’t have been a crisis. But then as an entrepreneur you can’t keep blaming others.

In hindsight, a situation did present itself earlier, where I could have turned things around. That I did not was my cardinal sin. In 2011, when the market went up, because Colors, Homeshop18, CNN-IBN were doing well, I managed to raise Rs 1,000 crore in equity. Our debt was Rs 2,000 crore. Had I used that Rs 1,000 crore to pare the debt to half, it would have given us headroom and time to sell some of the non-core assets. We had Yatra, Bookmyshow (BMS), Homeshop18. These are lovely assets…Today, BMS is making a placement that values it at half a billion dollars and that is still not reflecting in the stock!

I missed that chance to reduce debt. Like a fool, I believed that the upturn in the market was for real and ended up reinvesting in growth. That was a huge mistake, If only I knew, we would have been flourishing today. Network18, today, on the old assets is generating Rs 500 crore of cash…we would have been sitting so pretty…

We did create a lot of wealth for our shareholders but ended up destroying it. People would say we were growing too fast, but we did what we had to. Even if I had a mentor, I wouldn’t have listened to what he or she was saying because ambition can sometimes blind you…At the end of the day, I have to own up to my mistakes…

Truth be told, though I am a great pal at work, I am a recluse in the sense that I don’t socialise too much outside of work…I am not a regular at industry get-togethers and seminars. The problem with being a recluse is that you are misunderstood, people think you are arrogant, that you think too much of yourself. But it’s just that you prefer to be with yourself. People who work with you know that…perhaps you are the most approachable guy in the whole world; you enjoy your joke as much as you enjoy your drink…you are just another regular Joe.

But being distant and aloof means when you do something which is a little bit adverse, the comments are much more vicious than if you were a “networker”. I have faced that all my life. If TV18 would lay off 10 people that would make screaming headlines but some of my competitors, who are better “networkers” than I ever could be, would do much more than that and it would still never make news.

But being a recluse means you don’t care what the world says because you know what you are doing. So, when we laid off people, it was not because we wanted to lay them off, but because there was a financial crisis or a business got folded up…we gave six months of salary upfront, one of the highest severance packages in the media industry - that never got reported. But when my competitors didn’t even pay one month’s salary and sacked people, they got away with it.

When you choose to be a loner, you have to pay the price…

You tide over a crisis, once you decide to let go. Losing what you created is more than a financial crisis. What I was dealing with was an emotional crisis and a work-related crisis - the vaccum that gets created.

A first-gen entrepreneur is inseparable from the company he sets up. Raghav Bahl and Network18 were used interchangeably. The thing is there is no distance, your balance sheet is the company’s balance sheet, your relationships are the company’s relationships, your identity is the company’s identity. Your sim cards are on the company’s rolls, so are your club memberships. Maybe the car that you gifted to your child…one could be on your personal account, the other on the company’s. It’s a tough moment. What has to be really untangled are not the material things but the identity.

I did that the very next day of stepping down from Network18, I moved on to my next innings as the founder of Quintillion.

The lessons I learnt will stay with me for good though…

I do believe in empowering colleagues but my biggest learning from Network18 is that capital allocation and strategic decisions should be yours alone. These are inter-related and as an entrepreneur you have to take that call because ultimately the liability devolves on you.

Operating autonomy, though, should be given 100% to colleagues whom you trust and respect. My mistake was that I allowed colleagues to take even capital and strategy calls and ended up making a lot of mistakes. You can take every advise and go through hours and hours of scenario planning but the final call has to be yours…don’t delegate that call! My mistake earlier was that I let others take that call, little realizing that the balance sheet did not support it. If someone very close and whom you respect wants to do something ambitious which is not in sync with an entrepreneur’s objective, then one should not be emotionally mollycoddled into doing that because down the road it will create problems.

I am a consensus builder but you have to draw the line if a discussion is becoming interminable. I remember when CNBC Awaaz was being launched, we were entering into a new domain - Hindi programming. CNBC TV18 was a profitable and overwhelming market leader, so much so that a lot of my senior colleagues came and told me that by going into Hindi we will be cannabalising our English audience.

“Look at how profitable we are!” “Look how powerful we are! Look at our dominance! If you enter Hindi, it will cannabalise our offering.” I heard the arguments for a while, but my thinking was, “If cannabalisation is the price we have to pay to expand the market. So be it.” Allow consensus to go to a point where it is sensible and relevant. Don’t let it become dilatory or turn into a talk shop.

If you distance yourself from several key decisions then you won’t realise the level of incompetence you have built up. The realisation will hit only when it becomes a crisis...like it did at Network18.

In a manner of speaking, can I be called successful even if I haven’t been able to retain control of what I built? Thankfully, the world at large and my new partner have chosen to look at what I did create. What went wrong is a question that I ask myself…

“Pain is my destiny and I can’t avoid it,” says Amitabh Bachchan in Kaala Patthar. That’s my favourite movie dialogue. In real life too, an entrepreneur cannot escape pain, but he surely can avoid inviting one! I have always heard that an entrepreneur is a risk-taker, but, actually, I believe he is a risk minimiser. He or she has to take risks but minimise them. Never expose your flank so much that you are absolutely defenceless. Never have an ambition way outside of your balance sheet.

Today, I won’t say that I have tempered my ambition, but it’s more realistic. It says build the balance sheet first and then layer over your ambition on that, not the other way around. I am not a serial entrepreneur… I want to be an institution builder.

Even in my role as a venture capitalist, besides all the regular traits such as honesty, integrity and character, what I now look out for is resilience and the tenacity of an entrepreneur…the ability to ride through adversity, the ability to be honest about one’s mistakes, the ability to learn from one’s mistakes and, above all, the gumption to say, “I will overcome the odds.”