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Think Beyond, Stay Ahead

"Every problem or challenge can turn out to be an opportunity"
My life has had more than its share of lucky accidents, says Ashok Soota, recounting his career and learnings

Kripa Mahalingam

I spent my childhood across the country. We were six brothers and sisters, and our dad was in the army — he would get transferred every 10 months and I would sometimes end up attending two different schools within a year. This whole experience of changing schools and making new friends made me adapt to new environments quickly, which held me in good stead in the years to come, when the world became a faster place and one needed to adapt to change quickly. 

My life has had more than its share of lucky accidents. I spent the first 19 years of my working life with the DCM Shriram Group after I completed my engineering. In 1984, I shifted from my position as the CEO of Shriram Refrigeration to Wipro, which was then a computer company in its second year of business. Shriram Refrigeration had a negative net worth and mounting losses, so turning it around in a year, with exactly the same team in place, was a bigger accomplishment than some of the others things I did, and I was very proud of it. Moreover, Shriram Refrigeration’s revenues were seven times larger than Wipro’s at the time. Though I had a sense of what I was giving up, I was looking forward to working in a fledging industry. Mind you, at that time, the software industry was nowhere in sight, but I had an inkling that it would end up becoming the industry of the future. So, I took the plunge.

There was scepticism when I took over Wipro. How could a guy looking after a refrigeration company head an IT company? The joke going around was that I wouldn’t know the difference between a refrigerator and a computer, and then someone said that I had to know the difference because I knew what a refrigerator was all about! The transition from refrigeration to IT wasn’t difficult because both the businesses, in a sense, are based on R&D. We were developing our own R&D, even before the rest of the world, in some cases.

They [Shriram Refrigeration and Wipro] were both manufacturing businesses. So, I brought my manufacturing business experience to Wipro, and I instinctively understood computer technology. Also, back then, it didn’t matter if you weren’t steeped in the knowledge of computer technology. The world was moving from mainframe to mini computers, catching the incumbents by surprise. We had the edge as outsiders — we could see what the future held that was distinct from the past.

My whole stint in Wipro can be divided into two phases: the computer business from 1984-91, by which time we were the leaders in the computers business in value terms (though HCL sold more computers than us), and the software business from 1991-99, which was the next wave. We overtook Infy to become No. 2 during that period, without giving up the computer business. It didn’t take too long for the sequence in the software business to change.

The transition to the services business was far more difficult because it was so different. I had to learn the business flows, and delays in project delivery are different from manufacturing issues. The kind of people we dealt with, and the nature of communication with customers, was all very different. And, of course, it was global from the word go.

I must give a lot of credit to Mr Premji — though he let me run the company, he was there all the time, adding value and, of course, he had the pulse of the business. He instinctively understood the key factors for success in all of the businesses he ran. Overseas companies were looking for partners who were solid and dependable, and had good governance standards. Wipro had all those parameters down to a T. The demand was so large that once you got going, there was nothing stopping you. Nothing succeeds like success and all you had to do was plan for the right scale. The one thing that was truly different about Wipro was that we began engineering services for software exports. Our R&D capabilities were a continuous thread that we wanted to use and convert into a market. I must also give credit to Sridhar Mitta, who was the CTO at Wipro — he drove many of the conceptual thought process. We had a good team, and we also had the thought processes, so we said: ‘Let’s go out and build a market based on it.’

The thought of entrepreneurship had been in my head for a long time. I first thought it was about time I started my own engineering venture after 19 years in the Shriram Group. Then the Wipro opportunity happened and I put my thoughts aside. I thought about doing something in the computer business but I was also beginning to see how competitive it had become. I think Premji did me the ultimate favour when he gave me the software business because it naturally lent itself more to entrepreneurial ventures. He also did me a big favour the first time I actually quit. I even got a term sheet from a VC and he talked me out of it but both of us knew that this would come up again in the future. I decided to take the plunge finally, after two more years. The dotcom boom happened in those two years and my own shares had appreciated by some magnitude, and I then had the ability to put some money of my own into a venture.

Here’s where luck played an important role, and I also managed to raise more money. Then, I could get $9.5 million whereas two years prior to that, I would have got $2 million and we would have given away more of the company for the $2 million than for the $9.5 million.

The internet gave us the entry point and all you need, in any business, is a clear entry point. One of our highlights at MindTree, definitely, was how we got out of the downturn. There were 50-100 companies that were started during the dotcom boom. Most of them collapsed or managed to survive till they were acquired. We were almost the sole company that went on to have a successful IPO. But survival meant changing our strategy. Engineering services and building enterprise solutions were not part of the initial plan. We were going to be an internet consulting company but the internet work had disappeared and the only way to survive was to re-strategise and develop new skills.

There was a school of thought that said this is not what we had set out to do. Would it not make us look like all the other IT companies? I said, yes, it absolutely would, but we had to bring in differentiators as went along. We had to go where the money was, and that was to develop new capabilities. Fortunately, we had enough money to last till the new capabilities brought in business. Besides, it was not that the need for internet-enabled solutions had disappeared. It was just that the work was not coming, and it came back again two years later. The way web 2.0 companies are proliferating today, everything is on the web. So it’s strange that the sector even went through such a downturn.

Certainly, we achieved what we had promised our investors, and more. It was a great team that I led and the team stayed together through the ups and downs over those 11 years. The IPO was a wonderful source of delight. I know there was a lot of media coverage on how, given the capabilities of the team, we could have done better, but we realised that the days of creating another Wipro or Infy were essentially over.

I would have stepped down at MindTree in another couple of years. Whatever happened shouldn’t have happened. In the end, they are old friends, and I decided to move on because I didn’t want to lead the team anymore. Even Kyocera, which was seen as a bone of contention, paid for itself as an acquisition. Why we abandoned the business is quite another strategic decision issue. The real learning was that when you bring businesses with two different sets of people together, the cultural clash can be enormous. In the services business, people are looking for instant gratification, whereas the products business is a long drawn-out affair, and the challenge of combining both is quite a task. But I still think it’s a worthwhile dream to pursue and, I hope, some day, someone succeeds in achieving it in India. 

The turn of events at MindTree unwittingly turned me into an accidental serial entrepreneur, bringing me onto a new path. The way I see it, every problem or challenge can turn out to be an opportunity. The strategic part of setting up Happiest Minds was very similar to that of MindTree, which is that change represents opportunity. It’s very surprising, with all the change that is being brought about by cloud computing, mobility, big data, social media, unified communications and analytics, that there’s no one new company in the last 10 years that offers solutions built around these disruptive technologies. There are players in each of these fields but no niche player that combines all of them. The new company also allows me to put forth my philosophy on happiness, which is very close to my heart. 

I believe that work-life has become very highly pressurised but we shouldn’t lose focus on the fact that happiness is the sole purpose and aim of all human existence. So, at Happiest Minds, we focus on keeping both our employees and customers happy. I am enjoying my new path.

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