Lead Story

What’s In A Surname?

Lots, if it is Birla. For Nirvaan Birla, MD and promoter of Birla Open Minds and Birla Brainiacs, it opened many doors but also shut a few

"The Birla carries a lot of trust globally. It has a significant impact whenever I meet clients or customers. But, it also carries a lot of responsibility" Nirvaan Birla, Managing Director Birla Open Minds

The oak-panelled conference room at Mumbai’s century-old family-owned Industry House has witnessed generations of the enterprising Birla family members preside over meetings. Surrounded by the omniscient presence of his larger-than-life clan’s accomplishments, stands Nirvaan Birla, the second son of Yashovardhan, or Yash—as he is popularly known—Birla, chairman of the Yash Birla Group.

While being a success story in its own right, Nirvaan’s journey as an entrepreneur is interestingly intertwined with that of his father’s.  

When the Mumbai-based conglomerate entered the education sector in 2008, rather than opening schools left, right and center, under the aegis of Birla Edutech, Yash Birla gradually established 17 schools across India. After Nirvaan decided to take charge of this business post his return from the US in 2017, much like father Birla, he had an eye on long-term prosperity, underpinned by the emotive pegs of his family’s legacy.

As the managing director and promoter of Birla Open Minds (BOM), the new avatar of Birla Edutech, and the founder of edtech start-up Birla Braniacs, 27-year-old Nirvaan, the seventh-generation Birla scion, knows that inheriting a legacy or leaving one behind does not come easy.

A New Approach

Appreciating the merits of his famous last name, Nirvaan admits that it had given him the necessary tailwind when he started his professional journey.  

Even when his father entered the business world in his early 20s, the Birla name proved to be a great asset. “You do not need to introduce yourself wherever you go because the name carries a lot of weight and offers instant recognition,” says Yash as he recalls his early days.  

The Birla scion’s journey, however, is going to be slightly different. Talking about his lineage, Nirvaan considers it a double-edged sword. “Birla carries a lot of trust globally, built by my forefathers. I am proud of it and it has a significant impact whenever I meet clients or customers, allowing me to gain their trust much easier,” he concedes. “But it also carries a lot of responsibility because anyone and everyone can judge you, and it sets a benchmark for you to perform to. You are always in the spotlight,” he adds.

Today, Nirvaan is competing with start-up founders involved in every process of building their company. To match up, he decided to be part of every aspect of the organisation. He joined BOM as head of business development and spent months as an understudy with the heads of various departments, including finance, HR, academia, marketing, sales and IT. “Not only did this give me an insight into the nuances of the business but also helped me bond with people in the company. Dr Puspita Chattopadhyay, president, Academics and Skill Training at BOM, calls me her third child and scolds me if I make a mistake. That is the kind of relationship I have tried to build with my team,” says Nirvaan.

On getting started at Birla Edutech, he recalls, “While the product was present, it lacked a larger vision and execution in terms of operations, logistics, finance and human resource. I started knitting a stronger team with well-defined milestones for growth.”

Since BOM was a loss-making unit in 2017, he decided to focus on a sustainable financial model and concentrate on good revenue drivers on taking over. The result? The company has grown from 17 schools to 143 over the past five years.

Five years ago, most of the company’s revenue came from sign-ups in a franchise model, a one-time payment. Nirvaan soon realised that getting continual royalty on BOM’s curriculum is the critical income conduit. This royalty fee had to be paid annually, could be increased year on year and it could drive supplementary business through income from kits comprising learning material and uniforms.  

“I focused on aspects, including student growth and occupancy, in schools, which automatically increased royalties to the brand and raised this to a level that exceeded our fixed costs. I also analysed the cost benefit to understand what will strengthen the revenue model. I slashed many inefficient and excess costs. Once cash flows were healthy, we started focusing on brand awareness and marketing costs,” he recollects.

While BOM has two business models, franchise and company-owned schools, Nirvaan wants to focus on the latter which is more lucrative with higher margins. He has set a goal of acquiring 70 schools over the next five years and work is underway to acquire five this year which he hopes will help him overachieve last fiscal’s turnover of Rs 20 crore.

Going the Extra Mile

Nirvaan realised early on that success or failure rested entirely on his shoulders. Hence, alongside his graduation studies in Mumbai, he interned with Birla Wellness and Birla Shloka Edutech.  
Later, while pursuing his MA in Management from London’s University of Westminster, he interned with Newby Teas UK, Sapien Capital and Motilal Oswal Financial Services. Working at the grassroots level helped him appreciate the challenges of the lowest denominator, offering better perspective.

I told him to do what he thinks is best for the company but ensure you do it ethically, because we are in the education business and are also pro people as an entity

Yash Birla, Chairman, Yash Birla Group

Nirvaan points out that a famous surname can only help one make inroads initially. Ultimately, it is up to entrepreneurs to leverage it and add value. “Often people join the family business and do not find any valuable role for themselves. So, it is upon you, as an individual, to add value to the business and grow it using your skills,” he points out.

That is exactly what Nirvaan did when made a solid case before his father about setting a new course for the company which had around six brands, including BOM, Shloka Infotech, Globe Tot’ers and Elevate.   

Yash recalls, “Nirvaan convinced me the company lacked a focused approach and clear distinction between each brand, thereby sending mixed signals to customers. I told him to do what he thinks is best for the company but ensure you do it ethically because we are in the education business and are also pro people as an entity.”

With his father’s green light, the 27-year-old began a gradual restructuring exercise, removing the non-viable brands and amalgamating the remainder into BOM. He claims that this move gave the company increased brand equity in the education market and helped it focus more on its core business—providing quality K-12 education.

“I could take this huge step because of my father’s support and guidance,” he candidly admits. “While he has always given me the liberty to try things out, I have to own the responsibility of its success or failure,” he adds.  

Nirvaan concurs that he has the lead when it comes to pedigree and counsel in corporate culture and financial matters but that is necessarily not an advantage in contemporary times. “The start-up community currently is a well-interconnected ecosystem comprising founders, investors, analysts and experts. It is easier for non-family backed entrepreneurs to seek this advice,” Nirvaan notes. “They just have to attend the right seminars, follow the right people and network religiously.”

Besides, when he launched Birla Brainiacs in April 2020, he recalls how pitching the brand at a time when other big start-ups, like Byju’s, Unacademy, Udemy and Vedantu, were already present made his job challenging, his famous last name notwithstanding.

“While we had some advantage with our brand name, overall, it was like any other start-up breaking into that space. We, too, had to work hard to earn the customers’ trust and retain them, manage the finance efficiently across all departments, decide how much to reinvest into the business and how much to use for brand awareness, and decide when to go for a fundraising–just like a start-up founder,” he opines.

However, his hard work has paid off and he excitedly says that Birla Brainiacs has over 3 lakh users on its e-learning platform. While the revenue for last fiscal year stood at Rs 1.5 crore, the company crossed Rs 2 crore in the first quarter of FY 2022-23 itself, which is over 50% of its target for the current fiscal.

Dinner Table Talks

Nirvaan always enjoyed dinner growing up as that was the time his parents, Yash and Avanti, would tell him and his siblings, Vedant and Shloka, stories about their forefathers and their heritage.  

Yash and Avanti Birla made sure their three children—Vedant, Nirvaan and Shloka—knew about their forefathers and heritage through stories during dinner time

He would listen with rapt attention to how the seven generations of the Birla family, originating from a humble setting in Rajasthan’s Pilani city, built the foundation of the eponymous group and spread their business across India and the world.  

One of his favourite stories was about the partha tradition where the proprietor would take stock of the expenses incurred and revenue earned at the end of each business day. This is a practice Nirvaan still follows at BOM.  

“Keeping an eye on the daily cash flow is very important. One has to do it on a macro level as one grows,” he says. “Even today, I devotedly sit with my finance team daily for this activity and take an overview on a monthly, quarterly and yearly basis. This family practice helped me build cost efficiency in BOM.”

Guidance is one area where scions score over start-up founders as they find it from eminent businesspeople, especially their own family, every step of the way. Even today,  whenever he has questions about delegation of tasks, finance, people management or compliance, Nirvaan turns to his elder brother, Vedant, who oversees four factories and five divisions under Birla Precision Technologies.

Nirvaan considers his father his penultimate role model and is inspired by his paternal uncle, Kumar Mangalam Birla, chairperson, Aditya Birla Group. Like Yash, his cousin, Kumar Mangalam, too, helmed his father’s business in his 20s—a seemingly common trait in the Birla family since Nirvaan’s brother Vedant also took charge of Birla Precision Technologies immediately after completing his studies.  

Taking a leaf from his uncle’s performance-driven approach, Nirvaan, too, decided to get into the nitty-gritty of BOM’s business. He assigned clear-cut standard operating practices, key performance indicators and key result areas to processes and people.

“While team members had a monthly review with the head office earlier, no one micromanaged an individual’s deliverables. I changed that,” he says.  

Classical Touch

Given his family’s inclination towards spirituality and mysticism, Nirvaan Birla developed an affinity for the Indian classical music at a young age. Alongside training to hit the high notes and deep trebles requisite for various raagas, he learnt to play the harmonium. Initially, his audience comprised family and friends at his Malabar Hill home, where he would play various raagas along with covers of Bollywood songs. Now, having gained confidence in mastering his voice and musical repertoire, he has started recording bhajans at a local Mumbai studio and hopes to participate in a classical musical concert soon.

Clash of the Camps

Enthused with the growth recorded by BOM and Birla Brainiacs, Nirvaan hopes to go for a round of funding to avoid losing momentum. However, it is here that his famous last name can be a disadvantage.  

Whenever he visits bankers and investors for fundraising, they incredulously remark that since he is a Birla, why did he need to go out of the family to seek funds? “What they fail to understand is that no entrepreneur will keep putting their own funds into the business to keep expanding it,” Nirvaan smilingly states. “But they cannot comprehend that a Birla scion will seek funds which is something they will never ask a non-family-backed entrepreneur.”

Yash points out that start-up founders have a clean slate and can build their vision on it from scratch. “Our slate has the etchings of several generations with definitive structures in principles and codes of conduct. Nirvaan has to adhere to these which can give his start-up competitors an edge over his lineage,” says Yash.

Moreover, most start-up founders approach their business with a do-or-die logic of performance. Scions subconsciously know that they have the security cushion of their family business which could lead to their attention getting divided. However, Nirvaan maintains that he did not fall into this trap.  

“I am more pivoted towards the start-up angle because I founded Brainiacs, while I took over BOM, a family-oriented business when it was very small. I grew these from the ground up, akin to what a start-up founder would do. So, I did not have a fallback either,” he reiterates.

Nirvaan doffs his hat at self-starters like Byju’s founder Byju Raveendran and Nykaa founder Falguni Nayyar for building their companies in highly competitive environments. However, he says one cannot say they are greater or worse than those who run family businesses.

“Kumar Mangalam Birla took a family business and grew it exponentially. Mukesh Ambani took over from what his father had built and scaled it over 1000x in size...So, you cannot compare the two types of entrepreneurs because family businesses have their own set of puzzles to solve,” Nirvaan adds.

He suggests budding entrepreneurs to not focus on too many goals.  “When we incorporated Brainiacs in 2019, edtech was a big space. Back then, we focused on several courses and offerings. Today, we have zoned in on homeschooling and skill development as our core business,” he elucidates. Along with a long-term goal, he recommends having short-term ones, whether monthly, quarterly or annually.  

He also encourages entrepreneurs to network. Even as a self-confessed recluse, he attends business events and gatherings to make the right connections as he navigates the labyrinth of entrepreneurship with the Birla surname.