Follow your heart and don’t be complacent—Pravin Shekar, the serial entrepreneur and founder of Krea, a market research firm, shows how (Part 1)

15th Dec 2010
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What starts as a hobby or a part-time job can give you a life. After making a business out of this kind of a trade, you would want to create an ecosystem and do something different. Pravin Shekar, a serial entrepreneur, got into this rough and tumble world of entrepreneurship not by choice but by accident. His friend suggested that they jump into business and Pravin said yes. In his latest venture, Krea, market research is done through panels, a novel concept as far as India is concerned. Krea has built an impressive database of 75,000 panelists with their demographics clearly assorted. This gives Krea an edge in exactly meeting the tough needs of its customers. For example, a customer wanted to test out a product on new mothers who had babies that were three months old. Krea did it. When you know the panelists in detail, the customer’s choice of segments and research area are narrowed down to the clearly defined target set of panelists. What results is not a mix-and-match result but a very focused and concrete result with which the customer gets an exact feel of the market.

YourStory: Thank you Pravin for talking to YourStory. Let’s start with your education.

Early days

Pravin Shekar: I am pretty much a Chennai boy, barring the first decade of my life when I was in Udaipur, Rajasthan. Subsequently my dad was transferred and we came over with our grandparents here. I grew up in Adyar, which is where my school was. I completed Bachelor’s in engineering from Venkateswara College of Engineering and subsequently got absorbed by Dun & Bradstreet, which is now Cognizant TS.

Summer jobs in college

While I was in college, I already had this bug. My first job per se was in market research. It was with Indo Matsushitha Limited, which is Nippo batteries now and they wanted freelance interviewers to go out and interview people. That was close to two decades ago and they paid a pretty handsome sum at that time of Rs. 40 a day. I had my rickety cycle, going around, with my target of 40 interviews a day. They used to give a random sampling of houses I have to go, ask a bunch of questions, come back, and report it to them. No technology those days, so I had to cycle back to Nungambakkam to the headquarters and deliver the written reports. There was a supervisor.

My second job was again related to research, but combined with sales in Lever’s export division. All this were during my summer breaks in college. Things were a lot different then. Because money was always scarce. It wasn’t the main motivator but it always helped when you earned your own pocket money. And by the time I went in to work for the second job, my pay increased to Rs 100 a day, which is quite nice. I had the gall to say no to my third job during the third year of my summers for by that time I had graduated to an old rickety Bajaj Chetak scooter. Because the company, which is one of the top ones in antivirus stream, refused to pay my fuel allowance. And I had graduated from a cycle to a scooter by then, and so that kind of set the stage.

First job in the market research domain with Dun & Bradstreet

It so happened that my first job in Dun & Bradstreet, I was working with clients who were all in market research. I was fast tracked at Cognizant and was positioned in Germany, where I worked with IMS here, which is the No. 1 healthcare research company in the world. And while there, I also had the opportunity to work with Neilsen. Both of them at that point of time were part of the mother company Dun & Bradstreet.

Having fun in Germany

This was in the pre-Internet days. I made one of the best decisions ever of buying a VCR. You had a bunch of bachelors in Germany and so my house became the weekend adda. All of them used to come home to watch movies, and they cooked for me. Because of this, you get to meet a lot more people, you get to host a lot and there my business partner, who was my friend, asked me “what do you want to do?” and I said “I want to get into business as well”. There were favorable factors—German TV you technically wouldn’t want to follow, no Internet, and pretty much everything shuts down by 8 o’clock at night. So, we started taking walks, getting the business proposition in place, and pitch to a client.

Starting up

A prospect at that time, who interviewed both of us, rigged us and said fine. He was ready to invest and give you the first business. That is how Dexterity came about and I am an accidental entrepreneur that way. My business partner pretty much pulled me out of Cognizant. He comes from an agriculture background, and his name is Pala. He is responsible for my entrepreneurial jump; because I am a first generation entrepreneur and you know how it is, in terms of inertia, family pressures and everything else. It was easier though at that time because I was still a bachelor, with not too many responsibilities and I had just returned from Germany.

Initial days of running your own business and jumping into a second venture

It was a heavy journey to begin with; both of us technologists, with a lot of knowledge in research per se, but not in business. And this was at the height of the dot com boom. 1999 was when we set up shop, started recruiting, setting up the place, getting everything else done, which used to be quite slow those days. Subsequent to that, after the first year’s success by our standards, which was good, very profitable, we went into the second business head on, which was into the education sector. Because at that time, IT education was really big. So, we picked up a program from Tata and jumped in, set it up in a tier 2 city. It didn’t really go the way we wanted it to. With remote management, with the fact that city-English couldn’t work, there were a lot of nuances. And that was the time that dot com bust hit and if there was anything “IT related”, nobody wanted to touch it.

Third venture goes nowhere

After that, we tried another venture, which again didn’t take off as expected, more so because of the government regulations. We came up with telephone cards, and then the government came up with a rule that VoIP can be offered only by the Internet specialists. So, only Sify and a couple of other firms had the possibility to offer the services.

Dexterity KPO: Building a hypersuccessful company

The fourth business was hyper-successful. It was in the knowledge process outsourcing space and in terms of branding, we decided to retain the same Dexterity KPO name and we were one of the pioneers then in getting the entire research process outsourced. We worked with Nielsen and got a whole bunch of clients—Mazda, Unilever, and putting all of these in terms of process outsourcing, either completely or in sections. We did either data collection, inferencing, number crunching, analytics. This venture was extremely successful. Within the first year, we were servicing about 45 clients. By the second year, we took off and were going on fine.

The ten-year seed Krea finally blossoms

Krea – which we are talking about was technically the 2nd company that I wanted to start off. It started in 2000 and I have been sleeping with this for 10 years now. It is all to do with the unique concept, and the reason it has taken close to a decade is that had I started it then, I would have burnt my nose. Because the Internet penetration, the broadband connectivity were not available on a scale as it is today. I believe the time is “right now” and so last year, when I was approached by a couple of people saying “yes, you are on the right track and we would like to work with you on this,” I decided to take the plunge and start something outside what we have been doing.

I went to the Dexterity KPO board and requested saying this is what I want to do full time. By that time, Dexterity had a new COO and they grudgingly said yes. That is how Krea came into being.

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