The Inspiring Story of Abhay Deshpande: How a CEO Made a Successful Exit Inspite of Every VC Turning Him Down!
As part of the continuing series of ‘StartUp Summits’ that I’m privileged to host across multiple cities in association with IAMAI & Google, I came across one speaker that caught my attention. At the Hyderabad edition, Abhay Deshpande, the founder CEO of MartJack, spoke about his entrepreneurial journey.
Quite honestly, until then I hadn’t heard either of the company or its founder. Few things that immediately caught my attention even before Abhay stepped on the stage. He had successfully sold his company and in his own words for “a significantly sizeable amount”. Now, that’s an important credential. An entrepreneur who has made good money. People were now ready to hear his story.
Abhay spoke less about his successful exit but more about his struggles as an entpreneur and his leader. He has this amazing down-to-the-ground attitude that makes him very endearing to the audience. The one story that still stays fresh in my mind is that huge dissappointment he faced when a large Ecommerce company (am guessing Amazon) pulled out of a US$50 Million buyout at the last minute. He was saying that many of the staff were eagerly awaiting the bounty and even started to scout for fancy apartments and cars to buy. But went the deal failed, there was huge dissappointment and the morale was low. He spoke about how as a leader one should shirk aside the loss and put on a brave face because everybody else looks upto the leader.
Abhay was also very candid in telling how he miserably failed raisng money from the VCs but raised US$7 Million seed capital from over 85 small investors. He proudly said that every single one of them made good money in the end.
Over lunch, I asked him about his future plans. His reply was to soak in the victory. The last 12 years was only about struggle and hardwork and he said he was particularly guilty of not taking his family out on a vacation. That’s on top of his priority.
Thank you, Abhay, for inspiring a whole new generation of entrepreneurs.
Excellent insights about Ramco Systems and how its trying to do a turn around by Ramnath Subbaraman of Forbes India.
The reason why its products scored low on usability had to do with Ramco’s culture. It had always been an organisation dominated by engineers—not least because its promoter Venketrama Raja, a chemical engineer from Madras University, had a passion for products and engineering, and has been closely involved in its operations. (Raja, along with Ramco Industries and Madras Cements, own 68 percent in the company.) And engineers aren’t always the best people to think of products with lay users in mind. So, one of the first things Aggarwal did was to stress on usability. He hired over 20 usability experts (Ramco employs around 1,200 people) and made it known that nothing would go to customers unless the usability team gives the go-ahead.
To score higher on usability means the product has to run on mobile devices which, in effect, means everything has to be on cloud, an area that Ramco was already focusing on. Since Aggarwal’s arrival, all the products are built for the mobile first—and they all have elements drawn from the services that define this era: Facebook, Foursquare, Twitter, and, of course, Google. So, an executive checks into an office using his mobile, enters a data centre or conference room using a QR code, uses the maps on his mobile to check on his customers in that location, much the same way one might check out restaurants and so on. (QR code, or quick response code, is a machine readable code, similar to barcodes, but can store more information.)
Importantly, there is more stress on marketing than ever before. Insiders say that when its products failed to take off in the market, instead of turning more aggressive, the executives turned more inward looking, and instead of stepping up the marketing efforts, started investing less on marketing. That has changed since Aggarwal arrived. The team is practically new. (The story goes that sometime after he took charge, he sent a mail to his marketing team asking for their views on a certain issue. Some responded, some didn’t. He asked the HR department to fire those who didn’t respond, saying, ‘if they don’t respond to their CEO, would they respond to their clients?’)
The new marketing office is nothing like the old—bright colours, exercise balls fill up the place, and the cabins are in the process of getting converted to meeting rooms. While Ramco had mostly avoided partnerships for marketing, it has now tied up with Eurocopter, the Franco-German-Spanish helicopter maker. (While Ramco makes enterprise resource planning applications, its focus is on the aviation sector. Columbia Helicopters and Air India are among its customers.) Gartner’s Padmanabh says that during its calls with Ramco’s clients, the feedback has been that it has turned much more aggressive, and that the way it has enhanced its products often draws comparison with SAP or Oracle.
The Crucial Piece of Change Management
Insiders say that these changes haven’t happened without a lot of heartburn. One employee complained that Aggarwal has always been in IT services and doesn’t understand that the products business is different—and might end up destroying the core strength of Ramco, its engineering, by changing too many things too fast.
Aggarwal is aware of the shockwaves that he has sent inside the company, but he believes he has done the right thing. Some time back, Ramco had invited a professor from Harvard, Boris Groysberg, who specialises in organisational behaviour, to help it through the change. The big learning from Groysberg, Aggarwal says, was that change, first of all, should be fast. Do it at one go, and be done with it (instead of letting people speculate what will happen next).
Groysberg also advised the team not to get too emotional about letting people go. “There was a fair degree of shock at the speed at which change took place. But now, the degree of acceptance is creeping in. There has been some pain. But, when we succeed in the market that pain will go away,” Aggarwal says.
At the India Digital Summit in New Delhi, organized by IAMAI (Internet and Mobile Association of India), I was introduced to a very interesting person. The person had an infectious smile, overdose of positivity and a boisterous laugh. Say hello to Rajeev Suri, a Senior VP with Reliance Group and who has had leadership roles at Infosys, Colgate-Palmolive and Cafe Coffee Day. More about at his Linkedin profile.
Rajeev and I share a common passion. Podcasting and interviewing leaders. I pulled him aside to get him on my show but he laid a condition that I should appear on his show too. The deal was stuck. Here is the video of our conversation where Rajeev asks me some very interesting questions. My part of the deal is due soon.
You can watch more of Rajeev’s podcasts here.
Today, I learnt an important lesson.
I was helping organize a fairly large event to showcase India’s best Social Entrepreneurs. I was entasked with selecting ten speakers to showcase their stories. The audience were city’s biggest CEOs and business leaders and an exposure to them would make a world of difference.
There was one entrepreneur who we had short-listed but unfortunately we could not accommodate in the Top 10. An opportunity to present her story to such an influential audience does not come often and her enthusiasm was understandable.
At one point, we even extended a tentative invite to her but due to plans on having diversity of topics, we could not take her in as a confirmed speaker. Since I was busy with the event, I completely missed communicating this to her.
With two days to go for the event, she must have sensed it. She called me and the first thing she said was not to worry. She said she understood the travails of an organizer and that it happens to all of us. She took great effort to make sure I wasn’t feeling guilty.
If I was in her shoes I would have been disappointed and definitely harboured some ill-will. By forgiving and empathizing, it really showed her maturity. She put me in ease… and in doing so made sure I will never forget her !
Right opposite my home is a bakery I frequent. It’s run by a guy who earlier used to run a TV repair shop. The TV repair business wasn’t doing well and he shifted his profession.
What has screw drivers got to do with cakes? Nothing.
One evening, while munching an egg puff, I asked him about his knowledge of baking. He replied he knew nothing but was confident of his business skills. He recruited a very talented baker (“master’ as they are usually called) who did all the hard work of baking while the owner took care of the business side of things.
I asked him what would happen to his business if the baker fell ill and did not turn up for work or had to go home for an important festival. His answer not only surprised me but drove home a very important lesson that we should all learn.
He said that in the baking community, it is commons practice that if a “master” had to go on leave, then it is their duty to find another “Master” and fill his place until he returns. This is a practice that is special to this set of people. The bakers form a community code and help each other.
I learnt a valuable lesson. If a bakery does this, why not in our firm? We now have applied this principle in our office. Should someone be absent, then its their duty to make sure that someone, either within the company or outside, handle the task. If anyone quits the job, then its their duty to get a proper replacement during their notice period.
Amazing what a bakery can teach you in life!