I remember the dinner meeting with Mike at Belvedere in 2007 in Bangalore. Mike told me something fundamental that had a profound impact. He said, “In 1992, five people came to me and asked for money, and everyone said don’t because IBM will eat them away, they became Cisco. Then three people came to me and asked for money, everyone said Microsoft will swallow them and they became Google. If you believe your idea is good, you got to pursue it. Dream big for yourself.” If Microsoft and IBM could not kill some company, which other company in the world could? I thought. I had to chart my own course. Another memorable meeting was at a Hong Kong golf course with Ada Tse from AIG Global Investment Group. I remember her asking me, how big can Coffee Day get? I replied, “One coffee company in the world is valued at $30 billion, we should be at least $10 billion.” That other company has since rerated to $80 billion.
I was reading about Elon Musk those days. When he came from South Africa to the US, his first job was cleaning a boiler at $18 an hour. Now that man has created Tesla and SpaceX. Hailing from a family of coffee growers, creating a coffee chain couldn’t be as difficult, could it?
I was lucky to have private equity investors who didn’t sit on my head, allowing me to build my business peacefully. I guess when they see the passion and commitment; they don’t question every step anyway. Parag, Nainesh and Sanjay were great friends – they would just make suggestions or express their point of view and leave it to me – and that actually would make me think and rethink their view and take it more seriously. That was even when we were facing the biggest challenge in our corporate history.
Having read Howard Schultz’s biography – he’s always been an inspiration – and then having to be on the other side of what Schultz immortalized was stomach churning for me personally.
I was spending sleepless nights when I got to know Starbucks was coming to India. I knew we had won over competition in the past but that was also because they got it wrong, not just because we got it right. This time, I was nervous and paranoid, but I made no pretensions about how I was feeling. After all, Andy Grove wrote an entire book – Only The Paranoid Survive. We were busy gathering market intelligence, guessing their strategy, and of course sprucing up our act. But only when competition actually came in did I realise that it was a good thing to have happened – they made us think hard about our format, store size, interiors and so many other things…we are still only a start-up, learning and adaptable. I have stopped worrying…
Even otherwise, in a dire situation, I feel we’ll somehow get out it. As an entrepreneur, you just can’t afford to lose hope. Your body better be like a shock absorber…
Every morning, when I open my cupboard the Vivekananda poster reminds me “strength is life, weakness is death.” I have been a believer in the Ramakrishna Mission – the family has been a believer in the Mission for a couple of generations. Shubha Akka – the day she finished her doctorate in astrophysics, she joined the Sarada Math. Her move inspired me to go and experience what she was talking about…I have been a regular ever since. When I am feeling low, the destination is Calcutta – the Math gives me peace and Kali the courage.
I look back sometimes and marvel at what we have achieved – I never had a business plan, just went with the flow and took the next steps. Whenever something looked like an opportunity, we jumped in. It is all about circumstances; it’s a function of being at the right place at the right time and doing the right things. I feel lucky…
Not everyone is. That realisation hit me at the Café Coffee Day outlet near Calcutta’s Woodburn Street – it was 31, December 2007. I had decided to play barista that night – proudly wore my uniform, was busy greeting customers, taking orders, serving them coffee, settling bills and wiping tables just like thousands of diligent employees. I couldn’t believe how indifferent customers could be. Many customers ordered coffee but didn’t even greet back and once they were done; there was no ‘Thank You’, no tip, and no ‘Happy New Year’. It felt miserable.
That made me realise how hard it is to be a team member at a store. There is no motivation to do any better – most of us need some appreciation. The irony is that store staff has to deliver irrespective of how the customer may behave. What the founder of Four Seasons, Isadore Sharp said is so bang on – in the hospitality industry, people expect the best service from the lowest paid guys – the doorman, the bellboy, the house keeping staff…no one cares who is the head of HR or head of marketing or for that matter who is the CEO. The girls and guys, who make up the tail, have to say a hello and smile.
There are so many times when I land up in a store and find the boys are not really running the store the way it should be. They may not be engaging with the customers, working sloppily, wasting stuff, not taking care of food – it hurts when you see it. These are boys often my son’s age – I put an arm around them and tell them, buddy, would you run this store the way you are if this was your father’s store? It works like magic. Still, not everyone, everything is ever perfect.
I was on my usual official travel, visiting a store in Manipal. My friend went up to the girl at the counter and placed the order. She did not know who I was – she just went about her work with a straight face. I was watching her all along without making it obvious for she seemed to be in a grim mood. After we finished our coffee, I went up to her and told her politely, she could make people’s day if only she smiled a bit. She smiled back at me reluctantly.
On my drive back, I kept thinking about the girl and many other similar faces came to mind. I thought to myself, it’s so hard to smile. Life isn’t easy for so many people. These girls and boys in the stores – they work all day long for a 10,000 salary, travel about an hour of two to get to work, come from tough family circumstances, may be put in a lot of work at home too – surely you can’t expect them to smile all day, I thought to myself. That’s truly the challenge – bringing that smile on people’s faces. Our destination was still a couple of hours away and we were horribly hungry, so we pulled over the car at a small highway dhaba. Both of us enjoyed the rice and fish curry, before we hopped on to the car again and blissfully dozed off.
At times, I wish I could be less harsh on people. Being in business makes you tough, sometimes heartless. You have to take difficult decisions, push people to perform and sometimes put them out of jobs – if you don’t, you could succumb to the same fate because that’s the nature of business, that’s the nature of competition.
That’s why my father was perhaps against me becoming a businessman. At 92, he hasn’t lost his humility one bit. He still gets up to greet people who come to see him, no matter who it is. I wish I always remain my father’s son – despite being in business.