Younion: A gritty life paved the way for Shajesh Menon's entrepreneurial dreams
Shajesh Menon’s father passed away when he was sixteen, leaving the family in a lurch-not so much financially as it did emotionally. Forced to see to adult responsibilities, he attended a job interview the day after the death of his father and, though he did not know this at the time, got started on a path that would define his entrepreneurial destiny. “I started with door-to-door field surveys and sales, selling credit cards. I moved on to working with media houses-dubious finance schemes to portfolios, space selling and so on. This was until 1997 (a good 5 years had flown by) while I struggled to complete my graduation (correspondence) with Mumbai university,” he says of that time.
It was here he discovered his passion for sales. “I thoroughly enjoyed the struggle-the rigmarole, the daily battles. Somewhere I was learning and drawing inspirations from my sales calls, my interactions with absolutely unknown people, the sales tricks to counter rejections and the joys of performance,” says Shajesh. But at this point, he was too busy surviving to give the long term perspective it needed. That changed in 1997 when he came to Bangalore for a quick vacation, but ended up staying for good after committing to work at a marketing agency startup. “This was a startup that had 3 employees and looked more like a ‘tell-me-anything-and-I-will-do-it’ outfit,” he grins. What was supposed to be a quick detour became fourteen years of his life as he rapidly rose through the ranks at the agency. “The CEO more or less handed over the reins and just allowed me to grow,” he recalls. Shajesh says that he will always remain deeply in debt to the agency and the people there who gave him his second lease of life, but it was time for him to move on and create something of his own.
Shajesh was moved to create his own startup not so much out of a desire to become an entrepreneur as it was frustration and anger at the ennui that had gripped his own industry. He rants, “The Younion was born out of a deep desire to look beyond the tactical, make-believe, template-d and standard approaches to marketing (confession – the information technology industry, the most glamorous of all, unfortunately has the innate tendency to reduce marketing to a cost centre: governed by mandates and diktats of the business function). Add a slice of mundane, monotonous and me-too methods of narrating stories-by everyone, at every time and everywhere.”
“I decided to move to the other side of marketing table in 2009 – from a vendor to a marketer,” he continues, “But it felt like a trap-on one side I had deep exposure of working closely with big brands and the other side, the known rap of mundane and tactical marketing life.” Luckily for Shajesh, a couple of his close friends felt the same way. What followed was an intense soul searching journey, inherently paradoxical because profit was the core motive.
“We committed to two months to derive the purpose of an organization-the core reason why we should exist and, in the process, shape a dream,” says Shajesh. But that idealism had to be backed by cold pragmatism. “The hard task – no cash flows, wiped out bank accounts and ever-growing expenses. The allotted two months had to be decisive or else we had to cut the predicaments, downsize the ego and go back to living someone else’s dream. The idea of setting up an organization was therefore to implement our lifelong learnings, do our bit to fix the gaping holes between brands and their end communities and to utilize marketing as a workable platform (and not just a tactical engine) and help create meaningful marketing conversations and experiences that works for marketers as much as the end consumers,” explains Shajesh.
“The Younion’s primary focus is predominantly below-the-line marketing activities, both online and offline. We are involved in direct marketing, events, seminars, exhibits and roadshows, digital campaigns, experiential design, creative and communication drives, custom-designed demand, audience and business acquisition campaigns, relationship and management programs,” he says.
He elaborates, “The Younion’s primary clientele are marketing and brand leaders from technology companies, both MNCs and mid-sized corporations.” A simple, honest approach to marketing is at the cornerstone to all that we think, all that we do: Insights plus ideas equal to impact,” remarks Shajesh earnestly.
“The immediate challenge is,” says Shajesh, “The cultural and attitudinal shift to break traditional methods of marketing. The delivery frameworks built over 2 decades needs to pave way for structures that are attuned to the digital explosion. This is grounds up work and calls for pioneering tenacity.” But having literally worked his way from the ground up, Shajesh is in for the long haul.
The monotony of this challenge is broken by the excitement the digital field offers to the marketing industry. “The digital medium is throwing up surprises by the minute. Communication and experience delivery using even traditional mediums are boundless. Engagement opportunities and platforms are getting more creative by the day. The twists to existing templates and embracing technology-driven possibilities could never have been more exciting. Brands and marketers are slowly realizing and coming to terms with the digital revolution. They are getting bolder, experimenting more and showing willingness to go the less-ordinary route,” he enthuses. Shajesh is hopeful that his firm will be at the forefront of this new era.
Shajesh’s plans to scale his venture involve a four pronged approach: “Strategic alliances for a global footprint across key markets (US, Europe, APAC), Concentrated investments and focus to build digital capabilities, Younion’s own conceptual and contextual IP-based marketing properties and investments in organic research-backed go-to-market solutions for customers,” he lists.
Shajesh is both terrified and exulted by the onslaught of new trends in the industry. He cautions, “Players who are romanticizing and stuck in the yore will have to learn to keep pace, take some hard calls, invest in resources for tomorrow and shirk the ‘wait and watch’ attitude. The decisive factor will be the volume-value mix. While volume assignments will come in due to the scale and bandwidth, these are bound to be short-term. Customers will move on unless value is not brought onto the table consistently. Technology, innovation and digital creativity will be the bedrock of need for speed and need for scale,” he predicts.
Though not one to rest on his laurels, Shajesh is insanely proud of the growth Younion has seen so far. “2014-15 is the definitive landmark year. This financial year the top line growth of The Younion has been 165%. We crossed $1.2 million. Younion has managed to retain all top four clients from inception. Our team size is 35 and we are executionally spread across 23 towns and cities in India, SAARC countries and South East Asia. Middle East,” he rattles off.
Shajesh’s first investor was his wife who pledged her gold to secure him his seed fund. Currently Younion is self-funded with zero debt, using revenues generated for investment and scale. Their clients include Dell, Google, Citrix, Volvo India, Red Hat and Amazon Web Services among others.
As Shajesh looks back on the rocky terrain of the past, from being a loss stricken teenager going door to door selling dubious financial services to being at the helm of an impressive new age startup, he has just one advice to give to those looking to replicate his success (on their own terms that is, he stresses): “There are a zillion reasons not to do it. But the only question you need to ask yourself is, ‘Why not?’ ”