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Soumik Kar

Secret Diary of an Entrepreneur / CEO - 2018

“In life, you cannot time your success or your failure”
Secret Diary of Ronnie Screwvala — Part 1

V Keshavdev & Krishna Gopalan

Ronnie Screwvala, Founder, UTV & Swades Foundation

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 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 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 100 each. But, in the end, our expense was more than the revenue and we faced a 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 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 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.

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

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