Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO-2018

"If you step away from 90% of the battles, you will fight the rest with an unbeatable velocity"

Secret Diary of Vineet Nayar — Part 2

Vishal Koul

When I joined my first job at HCL, I got an offer from a global FMCG. But I was clear that I wanted to join a tech company. HCL had around $4 million in revenue at that time. It was the fourth largest tech company, with aspirations of becoming the largest. That drew me — that it wanted to go for the top position. I joined them. And within 30 days, I almost got fired.

The firing was completely my fault. I took what they said very seriously that they had hired us to be change-makers. I am a straight talker and say it the way I see it. Some things few of the leaders said didn’t seem right to me. So, a few conversations led to a confrontation. Naturally, I was declared a misfit. 

It was a very big deal. My younger brother had just joined IIT Delhi; his funding would be affected. What if my XLRI friends found out? I would turn into a laughing stock. That night, I cried a lot. I couldn’t go back to my mother because she already was dealing with a lot of issues. 

I had Anupama, my would-be wife, by my side — that gave me some strength. But then, she was far away. Those days, we would only write each other letters. I had proposed to her a couple of years ago — it was around the time the movie Ek Duuje Ke Liye was released. And my father-in-law was not impressed by me. Her parents were doctors, so her father obviously wanted her to marry a doctor. And I was this rookie, still in engineering college, always in trouble, more likely to be on the sports field than in class, wearing a cross and riding my cycle as if it was a Mercedes Benz. I didn’t have anything that would appeal to doctor parents. So, her father had told me I couldn’t meet Anupama for five years — just like in Ek Duuje Ke Liye — and after that time, if we were still interested in each other, we could get married. I promised that I wouldn’t be in touch with their daughter for five years and that was amongst a few promises in life I did not keep. However, at that time, there was still no Anupama by my side. Everything looked grim that night. 

The next morning, when I looked at myself in the mirror, I decided that if I let other people take my life decisions or decide my happiness, I would fail. I need to be in a position where this situation never repeats itself — I wanted to become so good at what I do that I would never have to get my appraisal done by anybody. Otherwise, I would have to change my behavior and toe the line. I am a contrarian, I think differently. I attempt impossible things. I like my teams to think differently and attempt impossible things too. So, the only option was to become so indispensable that people can’t ignore my ideas and me irrespective how out-of-the-box they may be. 

Fortunately, many in the team in Bombay office resigned and the company needed someone to go there immediately. So they postponed the decision to fire me. In those days, we had an inconsequential market share in Bombay. I was there with a bunch of demotivated people. And I was myself a demotivated boss. The organisation clearly told me: “You are not technically good, your culture doesn’t align with the organisation, and you will not succeed. Because we have no choice, we are sending you to this kalapaani called Bombay.”

I had to turn the tide. After many sleepless nights, I went to the Asiatic store in Churchgate in the morning. There, I bought 50 condolence cards and got them to the office. I told my team, every time you win a deal, write the name of the person from the competing company on the card and send it to him. That became our motivation — to post those 50 cards within a year. Everyone was so angry with the competition winning most of the deals that it drove them to think out of the box and win by sheer grit, determination and passion as never seen before. The first condolence card we sent was to a big IT czar. When we won the deal, the entire office signed the card and decided to send it, not to the sales guy, but to the top guy. It became such a big story within the team that we started winning one in every two deals we bid. We were chasing impossible dreams and doing it in ways others were not even thinking. To win over the reins of success, you just have to try harder than anybody else. Then magic happens. And it did. The Bombay turnaround was a classic story of my life.

Meanwhile, Anupama and I had stayed the course, won my father-in-law’s approval, and got married. Winning her hand was actually the biggest victory of my life. The five-year embargo notwithstanding, we stayed connected. But then, that’s the way love works — it finds a way to win. Thankfully, many things had changed in those five years — apart from my MBA, I had a stable job, or at least at a position that gave them the confidence that I could feed their daughter!

Everything was going fine. HCL gifted me a car, transferred me from Bombay to Bangalore, then to Delhi, then again to Bombay. Each time, I was the guy sent to douse the fire. By then, I had been with HCL for five years. I was clear that I didn’t want to stay on the same path because the HP joint venture was coming in. I always thought of starting my own company. That was a dream that was born when I had almost got sacked from HCL earlier. Now when I think about it, had they not sacked me, my life would not have shaped up as it did. I think that shock was critical. It reminded me of Mrs Anand’s question: “What are you going to do about it?” My mother always used to say, “It’s not what happens that’s important, but what you take away from it and do something with it that matters.” 

Shiv is a spectacular human being; ‘brilliantly crazy’ is the word for him. I saw him take big bets which others were afraid of, and win. I thought I needed to do the same, and thus quit. I still remember our conversation at the Taj President. He said, “You are recently married; your wife has moved to Bombay and you are quitting. Why?” I simply told him I didn’t want to continue on the same path. That I didn’t know what I’m going to do next, but I did know what I do not want to do, and this was the end of my HCL innings.

Shiv didn’t probe further, instead, he was curious to know who I was — we talked about aspirations and about life. We discovered that we had many things in common. Our mothers were our main inspiration. His father had died early, just as mine had. We just talked about life, nothing about business or strategy or HCL. Our conversation that night continued till the next morning, and he asked me to come to Delhi the next day. When I met him in his Delhi office, he invited me home and we continued our conversation again until the wee hours. That’s how our partnership as entrepreneurs started. That’s how Comnet was born. Had I not walked away from HCL then, I don’t think Shiv would have wanted me as a partner. I was someone who was willing to risk my entire existence as he had done and, I guess, he respected that. Shiv became the primary promoter of Comnet followed by JP Morgan who came in later.

Over the years, I got a lot of love from him, Guddu (Kiran Nadar) and his mother. His mother is the best cook in the world — you will want to eat your fingers! Whenever I went over to Shiv’s house, his mother would insist on cooking for me. He would come home with me as well, sit down with my mother and spend hours with her. He was a friend, guide and a mentor and I learnt a lot from him.


Comnet was born. It was 1993. We had the partnership but didn’t have the money. The National Stock Exchange had just floated a tender for its trading terminal. We were a young company with zero revenue and 13 employees. But we decided that we needed to win this tender. We had HCL, Wipro, AT&T and other bigwigs as competition. Once again, we were going after the impossible. I put the team together and started working out of a small office in Delhi, which was right next to a smelly toilet — that was the only space we could afford. Getting out of that office became our motivation!

I told the Comnetains that we were going to win by leveraging something that nobody else had — the gumption to work for 24 hours. I told them that nobody is to go home for six months. “We will write a proposal and present it in a way that they don’t ask for our revenue or balance sheet. If we failed, we would shut down the company and take up jobs,” I said. They were a talented bunch from IITs and IIMs, but not from a technology background; I was one of the few so-called geeks. Moreover, they were young, most with just a year or two of experience. I went to Israel and tied up with a technology provider who was small, hungry and cutting-edge.

We did all kinds of crazy things and made it to the final two. The NSE team asked us to be available for negotiations. In those days, there were only landline phones, so we had to give them an address. I told them that everybody was staying at The Oberoi because it was a $6.5 million deal. A deal that size had never taken place in India till then. Of course, we didn’t have money to stay there, but I checked in anyway. I booked a room in my name but all 13 of us stayed there. Whenever the hotel staff came, the others would hide in the bathroom or some corner. All of us slept in that single room. One of them, who is now a big shot in Indian IT, would snore a lot, so we made him sleep in the bathtub! We lived like that for seven days, but crafted a great pitch — that’s what mattered.

I knew how to make a convincing pitch; after all, I managed to convince my father-in-law with the same approach! If you are looking to propose, you can do it two ways. Either you go “Marry me because I’m the most handsome or the richest guy in town” or you make it about her. Tell her she is the most beautiful person you have ever met, the warmest and so on. The same principle works when you go to sell a product or service. Most sales guys go the first route and end up talking about themselves. Going the second way worked for us. Our pitch was about NSE’s aspirations and granular details of how we will get them to that point — faster, cheaper and better. They didn’t just want a technical solution but people committed to their vision. They saw that in us. We didn’t talk about ourselves because that was our weak point. Our approach took away the scanner from who we were to what we could do for them. And we won! We survived! We now had a future.

Our stay at The Oberoi had paid off. When checking out of the hotel, the manager and I exchanged pleasantries. He asked about my stay. I said it was great. Then he said, “Did your friends enjoy the stay too?” I looked up at him in surprise. He knew! Smiling, he said, “We have never seen a bunch of such passionate guys.” Since then, I have always stayed at The Oberoi no matter where I go. 

That NSE win created Comnet. I was building on Sister Laurette’s lessons. When you choose which battles to fight, you have to see where you have the advantage. Number two, it has to be a battle worth fighting. Number three, you fight it like a cornered tiger would. If you step away from 90% of the battles, you will fight the remaining 10% with a velocity and ferocity that is unbeatable. You should be guided by logic, and not fear, and have the patience to wait it out. Comnet grew swiftly and, when we started looking at the billion-dollar milestone, it was time to move on.

This is part 2 of a three-part series. You can read part 1 here and part 3 here.


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