Up close and personal with Rahul Sharma, the man behind Micromax
At The Park hotel, in the heart of Bengaluru, a group of bloggers/tech reviewers had gathered on Wednesday for a select preview of Yunicorn, a smartphone from Micromax’s YU Televentures stable. Facing a series of tough questions on the tech and OS was Micromax and YU Co-founder Rahul Sharma. But he wasn’t just answering questions, he was asking them too - what do you think the price should be, should we launch products like hover boards? The meet was a quick peek into the consultative style of operations that Rahul believes in. This is partly the reason why Micromax, which launched phones in 2008, is today India’s second largest phone brand and the world’s tenth largest. About two years ago the company launched a brand for the ‘tech-savvy’ – YU, a series of customisable phones. Yunicorn, the latest from the YU stable, will be launched on May 31. Considering the crowded, highly device-agnostic and value-conscious market, Rahul has his task cut out. In a chat with YourStory, Rahul spoke brand building, competition, investments and startups. Edited excerpts:
Q: What’s new since the last launch?
Rahul: The biggest update since last launch is that I got married. Since then, the happening thing has been Yunicorn. Lots of things have changed from Yutopia to Yunicorn, starting right from the OS. We’ve moved away from Cyanogen and have started working on our own project, Project Highway. It’ll be the first version of AoS (Android on Steroids) which’ll be implemented in Yunicorn. So, on the Software front, we are breaking all barriers.
Q: Can you please highlight some features of the new OS?
Rahul: This new OS shall provide more and more new features to our users. However, we’ve tried to retain the stock Android experience in this OS. That was a shortcoming in Cyanogen OS. Even though it gave numerous customisable features to users, it started moving away from the whole stock Android experience. In this OS, we’ve tried to strike the right balance of providing the user with stock Android experience and customisable features as well. For instance, one good customisable feature is the option of enabling the monochrome option so that one doesn’t strain his/her eyes when reading from the phone. These are the features that improve the UX of the whole design and we constantly strive to improve on them.
Q: What made you launch YU, when you have a successful brand in Micromax?
Rahul: Even though Yu is a subsidiary of Micromax, both of them vary in terms of their vision, goals and target users. Micromax focusses on massification and democratisation of technology. However, YU targets the people who want a product that’s continuously evolving. YU caters solely to tech-savvy people who want to control and customise their device.
Q: You have launched a big-bang global campaign for Micromax. How will brand building be different for YU?
Rahul: YU campaign will be awareness led. We want to tell people to move away from the whole app ecosystem as we feel the future is more about the immersive experience. Micromax is very brand and product centric.
Q: Why should a buyers buy YU and not another brand?
Rahul: The way the markets are moving, it is very hardware-centric. People decide on buying phones based on the specs. We want to move away from the hardware centric part. We want to focus on software part rather than how many megapixels we can provide. You should be able to order food, book a cab you should be able to do it with a single swipe.
Q: Who is your consider your biggest rival?
Rahul: We take every brand as a competitor. Lots of good companies with lots of good products out there. To make it big, it’s all about how you’re going to approach the competition. Motorola’s a really good brand, they invented the phone. However, they haven’t been able to produce a successful product after that. A decade ago, Nokia brand was the one that everyone had, but they weren’t able to build upon their early success. So, it’s all about reinventing yourself. The biggest reinvention is Madonna. From being a typical pop artist, she got onto R&B to hip hop to rap. If you don’t re-invent yourself, you won’t see where the markets are moving. If you re-invent yourself you will be successful. Whoever gets the whole thing (re-invention) right will be successful
Q: What are the non-phone products you are launching?
Rahul: We will come up with various products to make the ecosystem bigger. The idea is how will you control your home? This is part of the connected devices idea. For instance, we are working on new version of the YU health band. Instead of it just collecting data like number of steps traversed, number of heart beats per minute, we are revamping it to analyse the data and return useful information to the users.
Q: The market today is mostly brand-agnostic. How challenging is it build a new brand or a new product in today’s market scenario?
Rahul: This is a dynamic market. It’s a very challenging task for a new brand to build the trust of users. Even for well-established brands, if their next product doesn’t live up to their customers’ expectation, their reputation might take a hit. In case of companies like Apple, where there’s only a single main product iPhone, if their next model doesn’t do well the whole company can go down. Every three months something new is happening and you have to adapt to change. Even for Micromax, to build it to today’s level, it took lots of time and effort. However, Yu took just one year to establish itself in India, which we are proud of.
Q: How are you building brand loyalty?
Rahul: I equate loyalty with stickiness. But how will you create that stickiness on your platform? That is why we have a YU account, a cloud storage account and lots of other services so that the user returns back to the same platform again. This market, this was never about price. After we started Micromax, many others were launched. If the focus was on price, then the companies from our neighbouring country would invade the country and win the market over. So you have to create that stickiness factor for the user to return.
Q: What are the learnings from Micromax that you are incorporating in YU?
Rahul: The thing that we learned from Micromax is how to make good phones and we would incorporate it into YU to make great products. For the rest, including software and the likes, we have to create the whole ecosystem of devices from scratch. That is a new thing on which we’re working.
Q: What are the numbers like?
Rahul: In the past one year, we have sold over two million phones of YU in India. We did about 36 million Micromax phones last fiscal and are targeting about 50-54 million this fiscal.
Rahul: Both of them are great organisations and have done great in their country. However they do what they feel is right and we do what we feel is right. One clear difference between us is that we wanted to create an ecosystem and started investing in it from last year itself. We are one of the most active companies that invested in a lot of startups last year.
Q: What is the criteria you look for while investing and will you look at only investments, or will you acquire as well?
Rahul: It depends upon a number of factors like organisation synergies. For example, in health, we will soon be announcing an investment in an India-based company. Another sector in which we are also keen to invest is Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Q: Micromax is today one of the best known Made-in-India brands. Did you plan any of this?
Rahul: It wasn’t all planned. When you start a company, you perceive something according to your passion. However, your ability to understand the market, and then making products accordingly and keeping yourself grounded in terms of what the markets require are key elements to achieve your goal. In terms of numbers, money is a by-product. It’s important to know what our passion is and we should pursue it. If we’re going to follow our heart, then we will be able to solve a complex problem one day. I never thought that I would be making mobile phones one day. I started making fixed wireless products. The main challenge at that time was, how we will provide a phone in the hands of everyone. Massification of technology was the concept that we used to solve the problem. Reinvention is also another key element for success. That’s why we have YU and that’s why we invest in lots of startups. We ourselves as a startup have been profitable ever since day one and haven’t compromised on our equity, for example. The promoters still hold 80 percent of the stake. Today, we see lots of startups that are highly diluted in terms of equity.
Q: What is your assessment of startups of today?
Rahul: I appreciate all startup founders for doing a great job of leading their startups. However, in the idea behind any business, unless you’re doing charity, is to make money. Prime focus of any startup should be when and how will I start making money for everyone, for your investors, for your employees and for their families. How to make your company profitable and how to create wealth for everyone is a mantra that all entrepreneurs should think about while conceiving the idea for his/her company itself.
Q: What is your advice for entrepreneurs?
Rahul: The first advice would be to believe in yourselves. When we started off, lots of people asked us how we are going to compete with Nokia and other MNCs. We believed in ourselves. The second advice would be to be sure that you’re solving a complex problem and the third would be to be fearless.
(With inputs from Kaushik Srinivasan)