It takes guts to be Ajit Andhare, founder and CEO of Colosceum Media. In 2007, simply overcome by an idea, he started his own content development and production company Colosceum Media Pvt. Ltd., named after the Greek theatre for performing arts. Starting with Wheel Smart Srimati series in Doordarshan, going on to Splitsvilla franchise in MTV, then on to Jai Shri Krishna in Colors and Masterchef India in Star Plus ... the content for television story continues. Years together at Unilever (1995 to 2007) helped Ajit hone his art of business and marketing. Unilever’s IP and media and branding awards are credited to him. But would you bet on becoming an entrepreneur when you are so successful in your job? Ajit did. He simply believed in his idea, called it quits at his cushy corner office at Unilever, and was ready to dirty his hands in the roller coaster ride of entrepreneurship. Maybe his Alma matter National Institute of Technology, Rourkela, and Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, have a hand in his thinking. Three years into this adventure called entrepreneurship with ever-changing audience taste, TRP ratings, and tuff wars, Ajit is here to stay to craft more success stories and we will keep listening to them. For now, Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy, Chief evangelist, Your Story, lent his ears to this gutsy entrepreneur.
Your Story: Thank you Ajit for talking to Your Story.
Ajit Andare: My pleasure.
YS: What surprises at the outset is a person with no background in media or in creative arts found a niche to work with. So how was that possible? You were a techie and business strategist to start with, and now you are in a totally different domain. So, how was that possible?
Ajit: I had some exposure by way of my working in marketing to the creative field of advertising. And when we were actually brainstorming and developing marketing plans for the brand Wheel we conceptualized the whole idea of Wheel Smart Shrimati. I sort of conceptualized the full creative idea and the thought of making this into a mass contact television show. During the development of this show, I had a chance to interact with this industry up close. That is when I realized that if you actually have a creative bent of mind and you have a liking for ideation, there is a lot of scope to do things here. So, the germ got settled into my mind.
Also I always found myself drawn towards the “how” rather than “what” of it. In marketing typically, your job will be to create a brief for the creative guy and then for creative guy to respond to that brief. But I was drawn not just by the, what is to be done, but by the how it was to be done. So, therefore, there was a lot of inclination to actually come up with ideas and creative solutions. I would hear people say you should actually go into something which is more creative. I have attended many sessions to develop brands. So, there was a certain inclination towards pursuing something which is fundamentally creative. When television show was liked by the audience and made a significant difference to the brand itself I felt there is something that I could do well and that is when I got drawn by the industry, which just seem to tell me if you have an idea, really that is all that you need. If you have the will to see an idea come to life, then you can really do it. So, that is how it started.
YS: How did it all start in 2007? Were you all alone or did you have anybody who bought your vision and idea and thought you will be successful in executing it? Did you have a start-up team to work with?Ajit: What I did first was put together a lot of research, which went into a business plan. In fact, I used an earlier business plan template that I had formed when I actually pursued my MBA at ISB. I used that template to develop a formal business plan. I started sharpening it with research and then talked to a lot of people in the industry. I had a plan put together formally, inclusive of projections and all other stuff, to get a sense of direction.
Then I started to look for core people, who have a depth of experience in the industry that could contribute their creative experience and execution ability to my vision. I got in touch with Raghav, and that’s how it all started. He contributed the seed capital, and later on private equity came in and funded our plan. So, initially it was a formal plan that I shared with Raghav and once he bought into the vision, the whole process of recruiting the core team started and we took off from there within 3–4 months. We had all the key leads in place, and we gradually scaled up. It’s an interesting business, which can be scaled up in phases. As you do more work, you can start to infuse more capital, so it’s not a business where let’s say you put a huge amount of capex up front, a huge factory or asset. What you need is, as I said, ideas converted into revenue generating projects.
Wheel Smart Srimati was already in its second or third season. I had moved on from the job and was in the regional team at Bangkok. After quitting and moving back to India I told my parent company about my plans. I pitched for the first venture along with my Creative Director Rajeev Lakshman. We were a garage operation back then. We prepared the pitch and competed with established players. Endemol and Meditech were also in the fray.
Since I had conceptualized the whole thing in the first place and I was very keen, being the first project, that we convert this opportunity. I would have hated to have another company really executing the show which I saw as my baby. Then, with a lot of inputs and development, with my creative director, we developed the pitch. I remember when we went there, our laptop crashed. Murphy’s Law really was in force, and I wanted the whole thing to go flawlessly and everything was full of flaws. But somehow, we got down to making the presentation, after we were through with it, we had a good feeling, and in due course of time, we realized we had our first project. That is how we made our first break.
It is a progression from my first exposure to this industry, to a germ of an idea, and later that very project becoming first break for my company. Then it took off gradually, we kept raising funds from investors, and really scaled up from there onwards.
YS: Did you not have any fear that if it fails, what will happen to me? Because, having a cushy job, you had quit that job, had an idea, and had funding and a lot of responsibility sitting on you. Did you not have the fear of failure lurking at some corner? Because, it is a creative industry and TRP driven. Once your TRP drops, you are nowhere. What gave you the confidence and what was in your mind, from this point of view?
Ajit: When I look back, I feel the fear much more today than when I did at that stage. What happens is once you take a decision, the one I took in Bangkok, that I am leaving safe haven and taking the plunge. I wanted to pursue this. Having always worked in large multinationals, set up with huge responsibilities, and handling large brand, it was like a commercial pilot for an airline who has always flown a 747 kind of fancying “what if I drive a glider?” That is a crazy thought. You have all your sophisticated machinery at your command and disposal, like the 747 and you don’t want all that and want to have something of your own. What guides you through that is you want to prove to yourself that “I can fly, and then I can fly a glider as well”. Call it self-belief, conviction, or momentum. That sort of a belief carries through the phase. When it is not so much fear, it’s more of nervousness, positive energy that propels you to quickly grab on to something and get on to the first thing. You are consumed by the desire to do something, get a move on from start up zero stage. I remember someone referred to us saying it’s a laptop company with a business plan in a form. I remember it really hurt; I was keen to go back to the gentleman and say “we are no longer a laptop company, we have clients & have delivered on live projects”. Yes, there is a fear that what if it doesn’t work. But I have once thought through this and said I have got my deep corporate experience behind me and I said I am going to give it certain amount of time. I was 35 then. If then, all hell breaks loose, I will go back – call it Plan B, go back to doing what I did. I think there was an experience which I was banking on, and that was the soft landing I was hoping for.
As I said, the whole momentum of making it happen is so much that we don’t feel it so much back then as much now when you are asking me now – how did it all happen at that time. That paper weight stage as I call it, where you are there and a paper weight is there. That phase is full of excitement as well, and somehow you get through it, you feel fear much later, or much in advance when you have not made the decision.
YS: How were you able to win the first project? You had money, idea, but winning the project matters. How did you find the first customer?
Ajit: While I had worked for Unilever, it is a large setup. It’s different as a startup. I had to go through a pitch and was pitching against established players. I had to wait to hear as to what they finally decide. It was full of anxiety, I remember, we wanted to follow up and find out what has happened. A sense of anticipation, when will they say yes and what about the other players, what would they have done, and so on. Those few days passed in great anxiety. Once the call came, it was a huge sense of relief. It has not gone anywhere, and it’s your baby and has come to you. We have a job on our hands now. Our production person was actually working at Star at that time. He had barely left his job; we were pestering him to prepare the budgets. We were operating out of a business centre, small team, had no office, and looking for an office at that time. Some members had not even joined; they were on their jobs. I had a feeling that I was playing the boss even without being one yet. In that environment of anxiety, anticipation, we got through opportunity and we were on it. That was the first plank in a wide ocean that we latch on to and there you go. You move from there.
YS: When your first project -- Wheel Smart Shrimati -- was a runaway success, expectations go up. How do you manage to keep expectations about your company and personal brand up against these expectations?
Ajit: In fact, it wasn’t even as good as you are making it right now. Because what happens is Wheel Smart Shrimati was for Unilever, played on DD. Now, our bulk of focus was on satellite television, which was Star, Zee, Sony, Colors, Imagine and all. They don’t look at DD as something significant . Not something like Gavaskar scoring against the West Indian attack on debut; it was more like Gavaskar had scored against a Zimbabwean attack, which no one cares about. It was a huge situation rating wise and nobody knew of it. In fact, the whole challenge was to get people tell you “you’ve done good work”. And when people said “is it?” they didn’t know about it, and we tried explaining to them that “you operate in satellite and in DD this was a successful program.” They would look down upon DD. They would not see it as successful as we would have liked them to. It was a strange sort of situation. It wasn’t that as you described, “Wow, you hit the first one, and you are the man”. We went on to the second one when we got an opportunity with MTV, where MTV came with a brief saying they had had one success with Roadies, a cult show. They said they wanted to develop another cult property in the space of dating or romance reality. That is where our next success came from. We developed what is now MTV’s second cult show – Splits Villa. That was not one show, it is going in the 4th season now, and we are doing this fourth season as well. It was an idea that led to a franchise and that gave us a lot of recognition. We were clearly seen as someone who had created a franchise for MTV and it has become a cult within the first two seasons. That was a point where at least there was far more recognition than we had for Wheel Smart Shrimati.
But even that came with its own problems. There are segments of markets where people use labels for. So, people said “oh! so you are the youth reality guys you’ve not done anything in the GEC space”. You are going on hitting centuries, but everybody saying it is still not good enough. After Splits Villa, we went on to Jai Sri Krishna, which was a big success on Colors; we made Bandhan, which was a slot leader at the 7.30 pm slot. From game shows for housewives, to youth reality programs, to mythological and a social show, we really were able to do something, which was unique for a content development company. Normally content companies focused on one niche and get bottled in that niche, and size of their enterprise will get limited or takes a lot of time building up.
YS: You had first started with a focus on traditional segment – housewives. You then went into a totally different segment – modern youth. Then into mythology, also into sociology. So, does having no niche bother you or are you comfortable doing different things?
Ajit: This was a conscious choice. It’s not that we do not have niche. There is the only reason it is possible is because of the unique approach we took. When I looked at the industry, I said, “this is an extremely fragmented Industry, and there are boutiques around using the creative sensibilities that you have”. So, we are not going to make another boutique. Is there a way around? That’s why the company is called Colosceum, which is actually an amphitheatre. So, I conceptualized the company as a sort of production platform. Now, when you conceptualize yourself as a platform, you say I will work with a whole lot of diverse people and give them platform, and I don’t limit myself to one sensibility. Therefore, we partnered with Sagar, who is an expert of mythology. That’s when we developed Jai Sri Krishna. Similarly, we partnered with another firm Shakunthalam for the socials we did. We essentially adopted this method of co-production. This allowed us to navigate a number of sensibilities, at the same time, whatever we had in-house. So, for example if you look at MTV, after Splits Villa 1, we have done Splits Villa 2 and now doing 4. We went on to make other shows for MTV. We made a show on twins called Connected; we went on to the rival Channel V and made the Player, which was based on an international format. So, you can clearly see the depth in one particular stream, reality shows, that we developed. Similarly, through our partnerships with Sagar, after Jai Sri Krishna, we followed it up with Shakunthala on Star One, Meera on NDTV Imagine. So there are whole lot of niches in that sense. Because we have a niche on mythology, we are continuing on that segment. We have a control on youth reality, which we are continuing on even today. We are doing Roadies, which is the cult property, even bigger than Splits Villa. That is how we have approached it. You can’t build it single handedly. You have to have partnerships and through a collaboration approach, you will be able to achieve, else you won’t be able to scale significantly in such a short span of time. Most of our competitions have been across for even 80 years. We want to scale up far far faster and for that, the approach I took is – let me collaborate, let me work with people who have expertise and let me conceptualize to develop the company as a production platform.
Today, the production platform has expanded down south. We are doing Veer Marthanda Verma. It has gone into east regional Bengali shows. Essentially that vision is propelling us to explore the entire scale and scope in the industry, which has allowed us to actually scale up much faster, otherwise we would have essentially bottled into one or other niche.
YS: Do you have a role model here?
Ajit: Not so much as a role model, but I see there is an approach I see in the Western countries when it comes to content development. They also work with a lot of different creative companies. Look at European companies, whether it is an Endemol or Freemantle. They have taken a similar sort of approach, wherein they have collaborated, partnered and managed to create a far stronger single entity. In that sense, they are an inspiration. We have not done enough in terms of content development growth and that is what we see an opportunity. We want to take Indian format out into the West. It’s only been the other way so far; Millionaire or MasterChef are all from the West that we are doing currently. It’s always the format traveling inward. With our creative scope, abilities, and depth, we should be exporting as well. We have a large domestic market, so to me really the inspiration is really replicate a company in India of a kind that you see in the West. That really is what inspires us at Colosceum.
Choosing the spread and targeting lucrative segments
YS: Today, Indian films are going global. A film gets released in New York, London, Frankfurt, everywhere at the same time. So are you tempted to look at film making or content as one of the options for faster growth?
Ajit: Of course, that is an area that we are actively pursuing right now. So, we see ourselves as a content company, so, we can’t limit ourselves to one particular platform to expressing that content. So, television is particularly one medium that we have chosen to focus on in initial years because that allows us to control the risks we are taking. Film is simply another medium we are taking – digital, mobile are all different mediums too. Essentially taking the same content across. So, we are not just focused thinking about what do we do and how do we take our content to other platforms such as films. Even in the digital space, we are thinking how can we take the content, something similar to Splits Villa or Roadies, on the web and mobile? We think ourselves as a content company; therefore there are plans to look at film entertainment space as well. Films again have star-led cinemas, which are big budget movies; but there is always the scope of script-led cinema, which at a point was very successful, but not so successful today. Today, you have many production houses, say the UTV or Balaji, straddling the space of film as well as television. I really see no reason why we should not be looking at that. It’s a question of phasing your growth, your investments and what kind of risks you are willing to take.
YS: What has been the most fulfilling part of the journey in 3 years so far?
Ajit: I think it’s hard to pick up a moment from the various things we have done. When MasterChef, which is our current ambitious project, goes on air on Star Plus, which is going to be very soon, that is certainly a moment we will feel really great. Somebody had said 3 years ago that you will be doing a show for the biggest channel in the country with the biggest actor among celebrities in less than 3 years’ time, would I have believed him? My answer honestly is NO. But there we are, the show will be on air in less than a month’s time. I think that is the moment, this is a dream for a content developer to be on one of the premier GEC channels of the country, Star Plus. And that too to work on an international format, we have worked very hard to adapt to India, and it has got Bollywood A star, somebody as big as Akshay Kumar. I think every which way you look at it, whether it is a GEC or it is the number one GEC Star Plus. It’s got a format which has made television history from a leading country and it has got Akshay Kumar. So, this is certainly a moment for us to pause and kind of let that sink in and say that “My god, we have really come somewhere”. I wouldn’t have believed it; I mean I would not have put it in my business plan which I prepared in the beginning that in a year or two, we will be doing a show with Akshay. That will be the moment.
Experience with creative people
YS: How does it feel to work with creative people? It’s a challenge working with creative people. So, how do you handle that part?
Ajit: If you are working in the marketing department, you do work with creative people. You work with the entire advertising fraternity. The key thing is to be flexible. And this is something I feel as I am drawn to ideas. If you are trying to straight jacket people into too much of process or prescriptive way of doing, I think that is where you are basically stifling some of the creativity. So, what I have preferred is to have a broader overall framework structure, in which there is a lot of freedom for people to do what they want to do, and how they want to do. And again, the choice I make is not on the “how” part of it, but really specify on the outcome we are expecting, what do we need to do. No creative person really likes to be told how to do it. But you can tell what you want to be achieved. Usually you can tell what you are searching for, you can share vision, ideas, share final address where you want to reach without bothering him with too much of directions on how to reach there. That helps.
YS: Also, how do you handle time line versus creative people? How would you handle this stress of having on one side somebody needing more time and space to do something extraordinary or to the satisfaction of what you have set for them and you having pulled by the pressures of time in a commercial venture?
Ajit: I am fortunate to have a high quality team. That is an asset that I have. The people in the team are extremely self disciplined. Especially people who have worked in television are actually well versed with the time pressure. You actually don’t need to put any added pressure on them. Because they are all driven by the desire to put the tape out on time, I think that is really the easy bit. They share the same stress; it is not like they are into a free atmosphere to ideate, free from stress. The pressure is as much theirs as it is mine. It is in fact more theirs at certain points. So they completely understand what needs to be delivered when and they are as much a part of the delivery process. So I have really not faced too much of problem on this. Because of the inherent discipline which I think television really steeps you in. It makes you value of time very well. If you have genuine honest committed people, I think they really manage well by themselves if given the space.
YS: What were the challenges of assembling a starting team and how did it evolve? How was your experience with respect to the starting team and staying with you? How are they looking at Colosceum now?
Ajit: We had a starting team. The way we have kept it is from day 1, everybody – core people, top level – were very close to the vision and the entire plan. There was a complete sense of transparency and ownership. The other practical and right thing to do is we had given people stock options, so we are putting our money where our mouth is. We have the passion and people believe they are building value for themselves. This is not just doing a job somewhere; this is building something, which will come back to you, reward you and truly is yours in that sense. That is the sense with which we have gone about building the company and therefore, i don’t think there is any employee–employer relationship here. It’s pretty much a core team or founding team which has been there since the beginning.
YS: As a person, where do you draw your inspiration from? At times when you are down, or don’t feel things are working to your expectations, where is your personal well of comfort or strength?
Ajit: The source of inspiration is really this whole magic of building stuff. If you see, even earlier, when I was doing engineering, I was setting up green field factories. What used to excite me is that there is this jungle today, after few months there would be a factory here. The whole point of pursuing engineering for me was to create something that didn’t exist. The whole notion that what did not exist will come now inspire me a lot. So I have named my first born as Kriti, which is creation. Whenever i am down, I look back at where we started.
I read a lot of historical fiction; emperors have gone down and lost their empires, and have rebuilt them. That sort of stuff gives me a lot of inspiration. How could people lose it all and still remain on a horseback and go all the way back to Persia, raise an army? It sounds clichéd, but somebody like Alexander, coming from a small Macedonia, winning all across the world, and the whole thrill of building something large, which is something I find very exciting. To me, of course, I am a big believer in the team. To me, an individual contribution or individual driving a change is an attractive prophecy. The biggest change in the history has been made by individuals.
How is it that a person can create, whether it is an empire as a king, or as an entrepreneur today, perhaps an equivalent today, as conquerors used to build kingdoms entrepreneurs are building. Today, look at somebody like Lakshmi Mittal. There are so many role models to look at in India, post liberalization, whether it is Kishore Biyani, or Captain Gopinath. You read Rashmi Bansal’s story and there are so many people who could have easily remained with their education and in jobs who could have gone on to become somebody in a company. They quit all of that, started from scratch and built something. I find that whole thing very exciting to look back and say “Wow, this wasn’t there, and I built it.” That excites me and spurs me on.
YS: You were in a corporate job, high-paying perhaps as well. You had an idea and became an entrepreneur. But it’s not easy to convince someone very close to you. Were you married at that time?
Ajit: Yes, of course. I was married and my younger daughter was just born. My younger daughter and Colosceum were almost actually born at the same time, just with a two-month gap. I think that credit goes to my wife entirely. But before you sell it outside, you have to sell it to your spouse first. So from the first point of buying into the vision is your partner. So that credit entirely goes to Deepali, with my child being so young. She was very supportive and did not have any other notions. She said, “If this is what you want to do, then go ahead with this.” And then come back to a tough city like Bombay and battle again with issues that a city like Bombay presents. She was completely a sort of partner in that entire decision; one is leaving something which is also good and going great guns and then trying to take a plunge into something else. You cannot do it unless you have her unquestioned support. You still might have to convince an investor every 6 months or quarterly meeting, but you don’t have that, it is your own decision with your spouse, I guess.
YS: How do you view the ecosystem for creative professionals or somebody venturing into this field like yours? If someone wants to become an entrepreneur, what kind of a support system can they expect? How do you view the ecosystem and how did it help you? And how is the ecosystem at present?
Ajit: I think ecosystem today is far superior than maybe a decade ago. Today, you have so many channels, so many networks, mobile phone operators. I think first of all, the necessary requirement for an entrepreneur is the market, which is there. The opportunity is there. Then there are people who have put institutional mechanisms, like private equity companies in media. If I were to take the same decision 10 years ago, it would have been very hard. Who would fund me? Today, the ecosystem is much better; there are players out there to back ideas, willing to back creative individuals. Therefore, I think ecosystem is very supportive. The fact that it is a growing market, growing economy and the larger India story is there to support you. When you are outside the country, you feel you are missing the action, because this is where all the action is.
There is an overall growth story, the number of icons you see coming out of this growth story, number of people taking the plunge, finding a niche, their moments of glory; at a larger level, at a hard level, having the market place, having companies who will back you today. In this ecosystem, if we don’t go ahead, then we would never go ahead.
YS: What are the books you read and what would you recommend?
Ajit: For a startup entrepreneur, I would recommend this Lovely Quintet by Alex Rutherford .called Moughals. It’s a fictionalized account of how the Moughals empire cam eto be founded & built in India. It’s absolutely amazing and so inspiring. It will spur on anyone who is on an entrepreneurial journey because he will see so many parallels in the cases of ancient empire builders and modern entrepreneurs; you will see lot of source of inspiration there.
YS: So your final word for the Your Story audience...
Ajit: I think only thing i will say is “Don’t think so much, go ahead and do it”. I think we should let anxieties be and there are far too many people to do this (regular corporate stuff), too much of potential which is not getting converted. The only way it will happen is if they take the first step.