Think Beyond, Stay Ahead

"I wanted to be the leader in every business. If not, I would exit"

How media baron Subhash Chandra built his empire by identifying latent demand for entertainment alternatives

October 2, 1992 is etched in my memory—that is the day we laid the foundation of the business we are now known for. Hum ne puchwaya tha panditji se, mahurat nikalwane ke liye (We had asked the priest to find an auspicious time). It was 7 pm, Hong Kong time. Three of us—myself along with two of my friends and financiers at the time, Mohan Tolani and Ranjan Isaac—went to Li Ka-shing’s broadcast centre with our tapes, on which we had already drawn the swastik. Obviously, there was no one around. We drew a rangoli, performed an aarti and handed over the tapes for relay. As soon as the broadcast started, I called up Mumbai where the folks at home had been told to keep the television on.

The cable operator in our society was a notorious man and I was quite sure he would do his utmost to ensure my family would not be able to see the show. So, I had asked my elder son to go to the cable control room and ensure the operator did not get up to any mischief and cut the connection. When I called home, my driver picked up the phone and told me in Marwari, “Babu, accha laago hai” (Sir, it’s looking good). It was a very emotional moment. I cried. And then the three of us went and knocked back a few of bottles of whisky! You could say we had a really heady start!

Truth be told, I did not have a grand gameplan right at the beginning—not for Zee, not for any other business I ever started. As we progressed, we thought of the next step. However, in the case of Zee, at the beginning it was clear that we had a two hour channel, and we had to ultimately take programming to 24 hours. Once we did that, we launched Zee Cinema. And then came the various genres of channels and, of course, now we have 30 services in the country. 

I always take one thing at a time. You cannot think too far into the future, but you have to be clear about your objective. What do you want to do? What do you want to achieve in life? I always pursued in my mind that I wanted to be a leader in any given business—either No. 1 or a strong No. 2. If I am neither, there is no point in pursuing that business. It’s not widely known, but I have exited a lot of businesses. For instance, I bought a factory that made hand tools. We did not succeed, so we decided to exit the business. Then we started molding fibreglass, made bathtubs, ceiling fan covers... and many, many things. But again, we were just one of the many players in those businesses, so we exited all of them. After many of these ups and downs, my thinking evolved, I learned and I achieved greater success. 

The first criterion for me to enter a business is the market potential: is there demand for that product? Once that is established, I look around at the alternatives available and see if we can offer something substantially better. If these two criteria are met, then I go for it. Essel Packaging is a great example. When we set up the factory for laminated tubes in India in 1981, nobody would buy the product. The toothpaste market was still dominated by aluminium tubes.

Even companies like Unilever and Colgate were hooked on to that and were unwilling to graduate to lamitubes, because we were the only suppliers. But we were convinced our product was great and continued to push it. We finally convinced a local brand to use the lamitube and the multinationals, too, embraced the change by and by.

By 1987 or 1988, Essel Packaging was in the black and I was thinking, what next? Initially, it was just intuitive. In Mumbai, in fact, all over India, people did not have enough entertainment avenues. I thought outdoor entertainment was a good business opportunity. I already had some land and I had been wondering what I could do with it. An amusement park was one of the developments permissible in that area so, in December 1990, we decided to go ahead and build one. Interestingly, Essel World also gave us insights to enter the media business. 

When we created Essel World, based on our market research, we had estimated 3 million guests in a year. But instead of 3 million, we got only 1 million visitors. The question was, did people want entertainment? Yes, they did. But it seemed they wanted it closer to their homes. So, we decided to bring entertainment to people’s doorsteps. In fact, in 1991, there were two things in front of me—television and cellular phones.

Telecom licences were being issued for four cities—Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta. Since I could not venture into both television and telecom, I chose to go with one. And I chose the one where I saw a need gap. That is what gave me the conviction to choose media over telecom—there was an immediate perceived demand for entertainment at that time. Whether it would have been better to choose telecom over media at that time is debatable. But in the business I chose, I am happy with what I achieved. 

Getting entry into the media business was a huge challenge because Doordarshan had a monopoly and it was state-owned. You could watch CNN only because it was broadcast from another country. Our application to start airing our programs was first rejected, but then I argued that if the only thing stopping us from entering the business was that we were a local company and wanted to air from our home country, well, we could start airing our programmes from a foreign country as well. It helped that I pursued my case and questioned the logic persistently: finally, the permission came through. If you have a good case, you can’t take no for an answer.

A Hollywood director had once said about the entertainment business that nobody knows what will work with viewers. Anybody who claims otherwise is simply fooling themselves. I agree wholeheartedly. So, in Zee, I used to commission programmes myself. And then I would watch them as a viewer, not as the chairman of a television company. That helped and we were very successful. The reality, however, remains that in the media business, the way the business is being run today will not be the same 10 years down the line. But for you to stay ahead in any business, you have to be grounded in reality and always think about the next step, not necessarily very far out into the future. 

I don’t live in the past, I don’t delve too much into the future. I live in the present. One of my key learnings in life is that nothing is permanent. One always knew this, but in the initial years of Zee, when we first became successful, I had forgotten this. Then Zee fell back to second and third position. The setback brought back to memory that very vital lesson. For the past 24 years, I have been a practitioner of vipassana, so I am mostly calm and grounded. That’s what helps me bring clarity to my thoughts.