For any business to become successful, it has to solve a problem. It should address an issue and provide a solution which the user can avail at a cost. While companies are business driven, the business itself needs a driver. What is going to get your customers to buy your product? What is going to make your customers choose you over others? How are people going to differentiate you from your competitors?
Questions along these lines have perennially riddled many entrepreneurs. They pull out all stops, addressing each problem, step by step, so as to be the best in the market. It is in how well they have answered these questions that defines the degree of success in the market.
However, Mahesh Choudhary, Founder of Microqual has a simple yet effective approach. We first interviewed Mahesh in September, 2008, and till this date his dream of making Microqual a billion dollar firm has started taking shape. In this conversation , he gives us an insight into the life of an ambitious entrepreneur with level headed approach to business and an insatiable thirst to be the best at what he does.
The Genesis of Microqual
Mahesh doesn't have the usual engineering and MBA degrees from premier institutes that one expects an entrepreneur to hold these days. While his academic record shows a commerce degree, Mahesh is the founder of a 500 Cr telecom business. The reason behind how he did it is rather fascinating:
"As a 19-20 year old, I was very arrogant in life having seen my father, who owned a dying company. If someone with very little education, as a 16 year old could set up a chemical engineering company with just the understanding that chemicals mixed in the certain proportions could make black green and yellow, it only goes to show that opportunities lies outside. I never really thought of what I had, and to me what I wanted to do was more important." says Mahesh. "I wanted to be 5 times bigger than what my father had made and seeing the various great entrepreneurs create, what they had created in their lives only made it more clear in my mind that I wanted to be something big in my life," he adds.
Coming from a business oriented family, Mahesh believes that the journey has been easy as well as tough for him. "Knowing that your father has created a business out of hard work and then for me to go and do something else was something that I had to fight within the family for some time. But if you have a strong business case and you believe in what you’re doing, then it is easier to put in the kind of conviction that a business requires," he says.
"On the bright side, the business family background helped me in approaching and managing multiple private equity players at the same time. Many of my friends ask me how I do it, and I’d tell them, ‘this is nothing compared to managing 3 uncles all my life!’ and every time I had to explain to them why I was doing something, I would always come away having fully convinced them."
Mahesh does, however, admit that being in the telecom industry is difficult . "There is definitely a "big boys club" in the industry and not everybody gets a chance to be there. Many people move up and then subsequently down and the move on from there and not a lot of people have managed to stay on in the business. I believe that God gave us a small window to enter the market and has held our hand through all our ups and downs through the past and we’re now a 500 Cr company, which is a comfortable place to be in."
When asked about what keeps him going, he said, after a lot of thinking "That is a tough one. I keep thinking of people like Lakshmi Mittal and what they have done in their lifetime and when I compare myself to it, I haven’t even scratched the surface. I am a very ambitious guy and every morning that I wake up I tell myself ‘today is a step closer to becoming Mr. Mittal!’"
"I have made a lot of mistakes; so many that it’s hard to count! But yes, I have learnt a lot from them. "One mistake that comes to mind is that in late 2008, we were on the verge of raising capital and because of the markets back then and the Lehman Brothers had just happened, I pulled out of the deal in the last minute. The fund was a very respectable one and the lady who headed the fund put in a lot of time and effort in making that deal happen. By not taking that deal, I guess there is some valuation that I lost. In retrospect, I think I shouldn’t have done that. But I have learnt from them," he reminisces when asked about the lessons learnt from his failures.
The IUVP Alliance
"We first met with IUVP in 2006, when we were a relatively small company. We were a 13 Cr company aspiring to be a multiple hundred Cr company. Our beginnings were very humble; when I first started the company in 1999, we started with a turnover of 7 lakhs. So to have got to this place was a big deal for us and we were pitching to various private equity players ever since," informs Mahesh. He vividly remembers meeting Mr.Kumar from IUVP to be the first person to show trust in him; trust on the people before the business plan or company or anything else.
"The discussions were mainly on what my idea was, what the future of it was, my background, my father's background. It was more than just a business related talk and it was very personal and he wanted to know what I wanted to achieve and how I was going to achieve it,"says Mahesh Talking very highly of Mr.Kumar, Mahesh believes him to be more than just an investor.
Scaling, Products and Innovation
His formula for scaling an IP driven business in India and product development provides great insights to factors that led to the success of Microqual."I think most people are good product developers, but something that we learnt very early on is that people lack in the final phase of customization. We realized that if we can do that part well, then we are a very good value proposition. I think this is one of the most important aspects of scaling.
Sticking with this philosophy, Microqual’s products have been more need based. For example,the Tower in a Day product addresses the problem of towers taking 50 – 60 days to make. "The approach to this was ‘can there be a way in which we can build this in a day?’ and the product was received very well." informs Mahesh. Similarly with the Camouflage Tower product was to address the need of people wanting to pull towers down because of the radiation threat. It all comes down to understanding the needs of the customers and finding out what their pain points are and how we can provide a solution to that. If one does these things right, Mahesh feels a company will have great customer relationships.
"Secondly, we have great associations with global players like Earnest and Young and other technical players who keep us in touch with the evolving technologies and what is happening in the west. And clearly whatever is happening in the west will also happen here. So we try to bridge that gap," reveals Mahesh.
He is very harsh in the judgment of his company’s innovative capabilities. He very humbly states that he doesn't believe that Microqual are great innovators yet and that it is limited by the bandwidth of the organization and people, and there is a lot more waiting to be done. He has identified this as one of the areas for improvement with Microqual. However, he does believe that India has great innovation to offer and he has been awed by the innovation the he has seen in the factories of India.
He further goes on to reveal that he makes this company mindset of solving the customers problem conveyed to everyone in his company and he has been able to keep the company motivated by aligning his people to this vision.
Being an Indian Venture on the Global Scale and the World Market
Mahesh says that the dynamics of business are very different around the world and the experience, in his own words, has been fascinating. Having done business in emerging markets such as Bangladesh, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda, he says the experience of doing business is different in every place.
"The day Bharti went global, was the day I decided to take Microqual global as well. The market that this business is in is worth no less than 100 Billion! It’s communication and everyone has to do it. There are various technologies which facilitate it, of which we cover all the solutions; WiFi, 2G, 3G, 4G etc."
His advice on the go to market strategy that should be employed by the entrepreneurs in the communication industry, in his own simple words, is "Solve a Problem."
Mahesh believes that being in the telecom sector itself removes many sales barriers as it is a small community of service providers and everyone knows everybody else. "It is all about cracking the first client, for which solving a problem is of essence.
"That is what has acquired our clients. We have never approached a customer with our product catalogue, terms and conditions; rather we have approached them with how we can solve their problems."
On Hiring and the Grand Vision
"I think my passion for this business is infectious. Whomever I've met so far has been aligned with my vision for the company. Furthermore, I spend a lot of time with the top level management of the company making sure that we are all on the same plane. I spend 4 days in a week traveling to various locations in the world. We have a company blog as well, so we keep everyone in the loop about the direction and the happenings of the company," Mahesh shares, when asked about his recruitment policy and how he manages to keep the workforce motivated.
About his grand vision, he says, "A lot of people don’t like me for saying this, but I want to make Microqual a billion dollar company in the next 5-7 years. Planning beyond this timeframe doesn’t make sense."
Ain't that an awe-inspiring story? We sure do need more entrepreneurs like Mahesh who dare to dream big and think global scale from India!