Founders of two growing SMEs from two different sectors find answers to diverse challenges with this one single programmeSindhu MV
KMS Rajesh Kumar, who hails from Salem in Tamil Nadu, had always been passionate about agriculture. In 2012, he started an agri-venture called Farm Harvest. “It was a passion-driven enterprise, and initially I grew a variety of crops without understanding the market need and price fluctuations,” he says. “Naturally, I was unable to make a profit. It took me some time to learn the on-ground reality and steer the focus to growing sweet corn.”
Rajesh took a step in the right direction by collaborating with other farmers through contract farming. Yet even after changing his business model, he faced challenges. Sweet corn has a short shelf life of two days, making it challenging to market and sell before it spoiled. Finding the right seeds also proved difficult, as did getting the price right for the produce. Rajesh persevered, however, and found a solution in setting up a processing unit where unsold sweet corn could be turned into preservative-free products such as packaged corn on the cob and sweet corn kernels. He expanded Farm Harvest’s distribution channels to include vending kiosks and franchisees and helped the larger community by training women, differently-abled people, and students to become micro-entrepreneurs by setting up kiosks to sell the products.
The relevance of a business study programme for an established entrepreneur
As Rajesh’s company became more established, Rajesh knew he needed help tackling challenges faced by many growing startups including hiring and retaining talent, tapping new customers, and planning for the future. “Being a social enterprise, working with farmers on one end and micro-entrepreneurs on the other end is difficult. I have a bachelor’s degree in business management from a local college in Salem. But, as I began to scale my business, I felt the need to undertake a course in business management.”
Rajesh read about the Stanford Seed Transformation Program in a newspaper article, and he decided to apply. Nine months into the course, Rajesh says, “I have a clear growth roadmap.”
“From design thinking to employee value propositions, I have learnt interesting business concepts that have translated into a transformation plan for my business, which we are in the process of implementing,” Rajesh says.
The Seed Transformation Program (STP) is a year-long programme that helps established business leaders grow and scale their businesses, create jobs, and lead their regions to greater prosperity. The programme consists of four Immersion weeks (full-time classes) in which participants receive business and leadership training from renowned Stanford faculty and other leaders. In between these weeks, Seed facilitators conduct workshops, hold leadership labs, discuss business problems, and assist in discovering solutions.
Rajesh credits the hands-on, high-touch programme with helping him to see his business from new perspectives. “Earlier we had a fair understanding of who our customers are, but today we have been able to understand our potential customers as well and expand our product portfolio to tap these newer customer segments. We are in the process of launching a new product and are excited about the business potential it has.”
For Rajesh, a key aspect of the programme has been its leadership lab, during which participants are divided into smaller focus groups and share their challenges and opportunities with others. “While there are ample opportunities to interact with others in the cohort and cross-learn, the leadership lab puts in place a structure and focus,” he says. “For instance, when I shared that hiring and retaining talent was a key issue primarily because I couldn’t offer attractive salaries, an entrepreneur shared how he was able to attract talent for his venture with the same salary by offering Employee Stock Options,” Rajesh says. “That vital learning has been instrumental in helping me design an ESOP plan for Farm Harvest, and we are in the process of implementing the same.”
The “aha moments” that transform into insights and learnings
Radhika Choudary, co-founder of Freyr Energy, a clean tech business enterprise, agrees with Rajesh that the Seed Transformation Program is a rewarding experience.
Freyr Energy was founded in 2014 with a vision to revolutionise the way solar energy systems are sold in the market. The company’s primary focus is to offer solar photovoltaic systems to customers in residential, commercial, government, industrial and rural segments. Freyr’s in-house sales and design tool, Freyr SunPro, has been one of its biggest growth drivers.
After Freyr’s revenues tripled over the last three years, Radhika was eager to sustain the company’s growth momentum. The Seed Transformation Program appealed to her.
“As the programme is designed to transform companies rather than the individual participating, it made a strong case for me to apply,” says Radhika.
She did, and the last few months in the programme have been full of “aha moments,” she says, from an invigorating session that helped her craft a focused and articulate mission statement, to developing a better understanding of Freyr’s customer segments, market position and value proposition, to an internal SWOT analysis that helped her focus on arenas of importance. By applying the programme’s Business Model Canvas, Radhika gained a sense of Freyr’s entire business offering. The programme also helped Freyr to optimise its value chain and come up with actionable plans to improve accounts receivable, accounts payable, and to effectively maintain the inventory to minimise project cycle time.
“Even though we were offering better quality products, we had to take a step back and bring down the price due to market competition while negotiating and closing a deal. One of the key outcomes of the programme has been that we have re-evaluated our offering and market positioning, and are now focusing on how we can communicate the USP to our customers and channel partners,” she says. “This has been an instrumental learning for the leadership team and is also being passed on to the sales team. We are able to reposition ourselves in the market and demand the price that we are worth.”
Radhika says other benefits of the programme include quarterly workshops held on-site at each business after every Immersion week programme. At the workshops, STP facilitators help to pass along the learnings of the programme to the business’s leadership team, which helps business leaders to get their team’s buy-in for their transformation plan and aligns the company’s growth roadmap.
Now in the final phase of the programme, Freyr is in the process of completing its transformation plan and chalking action items and timelines to achieve its goals. Radhika is already looking to the future with Seed. “The programme doesn’t come to an end with this. In fact, the facilitators and faculty will continue to stay connected and offer support and help us complete the transformation,” she says. “We will continue to network with businesses that are part of the Seed Transformation Program, not just in India but also those part of the global cohort to cross-learn and grow.”
How community support can help growing enterprises
Once the 12-month programme is complete, cohort leaders become members of the Seed Transformation Network and gain access to additional resources to help grow their business, such as networking opportunities and access to coaches, consultants, and Stanford student interns. The latter work on mutually agreed upon projects for a period of 6-8 weeks.
“Access to Stanford interns will be of immense value to small- and medium businesses (SMBs) like ours because it’s hard to get access to highly educated and experienced talent,” she says.
Businesses can also seek the services of a Seed coach – an experienced and successful professional. Seed coaches spend 30 hours a month for a period of six months at a business, working to understand the company, offering strategic advice, and supporting leadership with critical decision-making.
The entire programme has been designed to meet the needs of growing businesses, Radhika says. “The programme has brought a fresh perspective and helped me dream bigger to realise the true potential of Freyr. It keeps me motivated and helps me focus on the targets. Stanford Seed has transformed me as an entrepreneur, and I am motivated to bring the same transformation to Freyr.”