“There’s something to be learnt from every story we write”: S. Prem Kumar, founder of business magazine Smart CEO

5th Jun 2011
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Strange are the workings of the mind. The young, handsome Prem Sivakumaran (S. Prem Kumar) chose a startup in the already crowded business magazine space after having worked with the microprocessor design team of AMD. With no journalism experience, he took a plunge in October 2009 and in less than two years, Smart CEO, Prem’s brain child catches the eye every month in the stands. It’s not always necessary that you know everything fully before you dirty your hands in something you want to do. The reason why he chose to launch a magazine rather than a tech startup is because as a consumer of business magazine in India for years, he found a market to address. Smart CEO enjoys a wide readership in Chennai and is sure to expand to other cities in future and its smart CEO Prem is gung-ho about it. He explains his views in an email chat with YourStory’s chief evangelist Venkatesh Krishnamoorthy.YourStory: You are from an engineering background and now into magazine publishing. Where did the connecting the dots happen with publishing?

S. Prem Kumar: I used to work at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) in its low-power microprocessor design team in Austin, TX. The quality of work at AMD was phenomenal and I thoroughly enjoyed working there. But, for some reason, I was convinced that it was the right time to do a startup in India and starting up The Smart CEO was something that just happened. I guess, as a consumer of business magazines for several years, I was convinced that there was a need for something like The Smart CEO. It is a business magazine that is focused on entrepreneurial startups and growth companies in India. We focus on companies between Rs. 10 crore and Rs. 1000 crore in revenues that have a clear growth agenda. The Smart CEO comprises of a healthy mix of articles across three genres:

- Company stories that tell the stories of entrepreneurial ventures as they are

- Sector stories that help an entrepreneur understand the key drivers of success in that particular space

- Case study based stories from various business functions including marketing, sales, finance, operations, legal, human resource and leadership strategy.

YS: Magazine is an overcrowded market in India. New magazines are launched in India as well as leading international magazines now have an Indian edition. What gave you the inspiration to launch a business magazine?

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Prem: Yes, there are several interesting and high-quality business magazines that are launching in India. There is no doubt about that.But, as is often discussed, the Indian consumer market is large enough to accommodate each and every player that delivers value to its customers (in our case, readers and advertisers). From a Smart CEO perspective, I am convinced that we’re delivering tremendous value to our customers. Our readers, several of them entrepreneurs, investors, fast-growing professionals at growth companies, can relate very well to our content and reading the magazine, we believe, helps them make well-informed better decisions in their own careers/startups. The key is – there’s something to be learnt from every story we write.

Additionally, the fact that these foreign publications have just launched (over the last 24 months) is an indication that several people are betting on the Indian market for magazines.

YS: Give us an insight into Smart CEO—what drives it and what’s its vision?

Prem: I think I have already answered this question. The goal is to make The Smart CEO one of the best/widely-read business magazines tracking “growth” companies in India. Having said this, the vision behind Smart Media Group, the parent company behind the magazine, goes beyond the media space. We’re working on a couple of other interesting product/service offerings and we’ll reveal more information once we’re ready to do so.

YS: How difficult was it to sell yourself as a new business magazine?

Prem: Not sure I have an answer to this question. For us, it wasn’t a question of whether it was difficult or easy. The way we saw it was—the early phase (of both the business magazine and Smart Media Group) had to be focused on building the foundation for future growth. We’ve obviously made a few mistakes, but overall, we’re headed in the right direction. Our product offering is getting better, our team is fairly stable now and most importantly, and we’re on track to building a solid foundation before we hit the accelerator pedal to pursue aggressive growth.

YS: In terms of financials, how viable or how easy is it in a magazine publication?

Prem: For any business, the economics of the product and business model has to make sense. But let me talk a little bit about the overall print media industry before we get into the financials.

Globally, the print media industry is going through a complete overhaul. Traditional print newspapers and magazines are now aggressively focusing on “online and mobile strategies” to turnaround their companies. Having said this, the online vehicles of the most well-known print media brands are the ones that are attracting maximum traffic. In the West, the business model seems to be broken atleast in its current state, and some kind of innovation needs to happen to fix this. Maybe, the cost structures of their content teams are just too high, which is adding to the problem.

However, in India, print media continues to be an attractive sector. Both foreign and local media houses continue to bet on the Indian consumer of print media. Specifically in the business media space—foreign publications (like Forbes, Entrepreneur, Fortune and Inc.) have launched in India through local partners. Traditional Indian print media houses (Outlook Business, Business World, Business Today, Business India) continue to attract robust readership and are attracting more and more advertisements—thanks to the growing Indian consumption story.

I think I have rambled enough about the sector—but its important to understand the “status” of a sector before we start the analyzing the financials. From a Smart CEO perspective, I am convinced that the “advertising and subscription” driven revenue model will certainly work in India when implemented well. Over the next few years, if we make the right moves, the magazine will continue to grow at a robust pace financially from both these revenue streams.

Having said that, at a company level, we’ve started working on some “innovations” that go beyond the traditional advertising and subscription revenue models. As I mentioned, we’re working on other products/services that’ll leverage the foundation setup by the magazine. However, at this point in time, I cannot reveal more that this.

YS: Deadlines should be crazy. And how do you keep those stories coming?

Prem: We’ve a good team in place in terms of content. Our consulting editor, Poornima Kavlekar, comes with a lot of experience from The Hindu Business Line and Outlook Money. Our Assistant Editor, Divya Chandramouli, worked with The Hindu group and Reuters and brings a lot to the table. I play a fairly hands-on role and bring in my years of “no experience” in the media world, which, trust me, is very handy.

Overall, in terms of project management we’re getting better by the day and overall, deadlines are managed better. The process-driven AMD culture that I was used to in my previous job certainly helps as well. My belief is: a small, efficient team that keeps costs in check can deliver a great magazine and our current focus is to make this happen.

YS: Are you adequately staffed?

Prem: In our content team, we still need to fix some gaps that we’re working on. Going forward, we’ll be growing some of our other teams including art & design, advertising sales and subscription teams. At this point of time, we’re not adequately staffed in these domains. The thinking was, we’ll get our content offering sorted out first.

YS: Your best interview and the issue you felt good about…

Prem: I am excited about each and every issue. Usually, I am the happiest about our latest issue—which, I guess, is a good thing. Most of our interviews have been exciting.

My top four, in no particular order have been with Mohandas Pai of Infosys, Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Naukri.com, Captain Gopinath of Deccan 360 and Vinod Dham of Intel and Indo-US Venture Partners.

YS: Your advice to young entrepreneurs based on your numerous interactions with entrepreneurs.

Prem: I have a whole editor’s note dedicated to this:

http://www.thesmartceo.in/detail_article.html?rid=424&rId=11

I meet several interesting entrepreneurs and senior management professionals on a fairly regular basis. After almost every meeting, there’s something new—a strategy or working style or a new idea—that I come across that can be incorporated into the magazine business. But I couldn’t pinpoint on any one meeting that was the most exciting. From Sanjeev Bikhchandani of Naukri I learnt that entrepreneurs have to be patient and make the venture work over a sustained period of time. From Mohandas Pai of Infosys I learnt the art of people management. Vinod Dham of Indo-US Venture Partners gave me a first-hand perspective of Silicon Valley and the role of innovation in entrepreneurship. The most exciting learning from Captain Gopinath’s meeting was this quote: “Once you have a vision to create something, don’t go to several people to get this vision validated. You are seeing the potential for something, go out there and create it.”

YS: Your recommended reading list…

Prem: Two very different books. The first one is by journalists who unravel the story of Obama becoming the president of the United States. The authors are not “insiders”, but have come up with the story with the help of painstaking research and the access they had to insiders in American politics.

The second one is wonderful, simply because it is written by someone who worked directly with Steve Jobs and it just gives us some wonderful information about the working style of one of the world’s greatest “product” entrepreneurs.

The books:

Game Change: Obama And The Clintons, McCain And Palin, And The Race Of A Lifetime (This book was suggested to me by Vinod Dham)

The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership for a New Generation

We at YourStory wish the Smart CEO and its smart founder all the very best.

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