VG Siddhartha – The poster-boy of Entrepreneurship

It’s tragic when a man who was the ambassador for entrepreneurs at a time when few took risks, decided to give up. Yet, let us not shrug off his legacy, or what VG Siddhartha stood for – an evangelist who believed in ideas, had the heart to let them take a life of their own, and be accountable.

Entrepreneurs are harbingers of hope. Enterprises survive because of someone’s belief in a forward-traded future. Today, at a time when entrepreneurship is celebrated, and entrepreneurs have become demi-gods, it is perhaps easy to understand and appreciate the spirit of adventure that resides in the heart of an entrepreneur.

Spare a thought then for the man who could have stayed back but decided to go. Who could have stopped at one venture but kept going! Who could have said enough, but decided to push the limits! Is he the original entrepreneur who broke all rules, even before the word entrepreneurship was popular in India? Did his own entrepreneurial zeal, get the better of him? 

Cafe Coffee Day Founder VG Siddhartha

The first time I heard of VG Siddhartha was when he was running Sivan Securities. A friend had recounted the tale of his neighbour who had invested in Infosys shares, through Sivan Securities. In his words, “Now, my neighbour doesn’t need to work all his life, because he invested a couple of months’ earnings into Infosys shares”. Since these shares were bought at the behest of Siddhartha’s venture, there was indirect gratitude expressed to him, for convincing his clients to buy them.

While such neighbours who have benefitted from investing in the stock market might be a minority, when you consider a large base of investors who flocked to the markets chasing the golden pot at the end of the rainbow, what I was alluding to, was the first instance of Siddhartha giving hope to those who embodied a spirit of adventure.

As the retail market for personal finance expanded, Siddhartha moved from stocks to advisory, and renamed Sivan as Way2Wealth to give it form, shape and luxe! The same thing that he was doing for coffee – an offshoot of his family-business in plantation and bean trading – in parallel. The stimulating bean that woke-up millions around the world, had lost sheen in its own backyard. Whilst people sipped their cups with joy, it wasn’t quite the same for the planters who rued the inconsistent rates they got for their crops, year-on-year, and the uncertain future they faced.

That’s when the first Café Coffee Day popped-up on Brigade Road in then Bangalore, now Bengaluru. In the midst of all the pubs that spoke of celebration, there stood a café, that proclaimed to earn a place for coffee-drinking, from being a beverage choice to a lifestyle choice. “A lot can happen over coffee,” it said, turning heads of those who thought inebriating beverages were catalysts to conversation.

It was not as though people did not know that coffee was a good excuse for meaningful conversations, given that this luminous café was just a few meters from the traditional ‘Indian Coffee House’ which was anyway the favourite watering-hole of the non-alcoholic intelligentsia (yes, that is not an oxymoron!) of those times. But, what the single Café Coffee Day outlet did, was drive conversations around coffee itself as much as over it, ringing-in good times for growers and drinkers alike, not to forget the large-scale employment generation.

What seemed like a passing fad, actually caught on! Now, at 1,700 plus, I was part of the journey during the formative years, till they scaled to over 100 cafes. And, I can tell you this, with conviction - rarely have I come across enterprises that have combined speed and purpose, so efficiently. An unprecedented model, of opening outlets across India, sometimes at the rate of two a week, each time with the zeal of doing it for the first-time! Siddhartha was mostly in the backroom, except for rare interviews and conferences, but a driving force, nonetheless.

These early days bore crucial lessons for the Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem; the importance of crunching time, standardisation and replication. When the core offering is perfected for quality, it can be reproduced in various forms and formats, Café Coffee Day illustrated this. It was common in those days, until the tech-boom in late 2000s, for people to refer to the ‘CCD model’, in serious boardroom conversations.

What he practiced with CCD, Siddhartha perfected with his other ventures. Find the right people and back them, till they are successful. Build with purpose and speed. Be relentless in pursuit of growth, and achieve scale. Back the entrepreneur, but put the cause of the enterprise ahead of the people running it! In an ideal world, VG Siddhartha, should have been the poster-boy for entrepreneurship in India. He should have been an example of what can happen when the power of an idea meets the proverbial moneybags.

Even though I have not known Siddharth personally, I have had the great fortune of working on the PR mandates of many companies owned by him, during their early years. Café Coffee Day - the largest chain of cafes in India, Way2Wealth – an investment advisory and wealth management company, ITTIAM – a technology company that was trying to bring Wi-Fi into India, Kshema Technologies, Magnasoft and Mindtree – all well-known IT ventures. In all of these, one saw that the man was beyond just a chief patron. He was a go-to man, and in many cases, the first believer.

A case in point - Siddhartha, at that point was backing ITTIAM, a venture that was bringing internet-related technologies to India. Odd as it might seem, the person who called us first (the PR team) and explained the concept of a Wi-Fi, 17-18 years ago was VG Siddhartha! Lest, we get it wrong, he reiterated its many uses and implications. He was more than a funding resource. He was an evangelist, we saw, with ITTIAM, and several of his other ventures.

It appears that, in the later years, Siddhartha played the role of a producer than that of a director, in most of his ventures. Financing a script, rather than actively running the show. Finding the fuel, rather than steering the wheels. An unenviable task, because the person who runs the enterprise is often credited to be a crusader, whilst the financier is often dismissed as a mercenary. It takes a large heart to stand guard on the treasury, and be willing to be blamed for entrepreneurial shortcomings. This perhaps explains the position he has taken on “being responsible for all the financial dealings,” in the letter he purportedly wrote.

In a country that has abundance of ideas and effervescent entrepreneurial energy, we need people like Siddhartha who produce. The resourceful moneybags that support ventures of various hues. People that say, if you have the inclination and the knowledge, I will back you with money! In that way, he was amongst our early “founder’s founder.”

‘I Think Therefore I am’ is what ITTIAM, one of his early ventures, expands to! I wish he had thought, again, on the flipside, and not just on the flop-side. On borrowing, and on putting good money after bad. Lastly, on “NOT” giving-up.

I do not know Siddhartha to criticise or condone his actions, and therefore cannot hold a brief either for or against his actions. Nor have I studied his enterprises well enough to offer a commentary on how they were run. But, even without intimate knowledge, it clearly emerges that Siddhartha was a source of inspiration, as much as he was a source of funds, for several entrepreneurs, across diverse categories.

He was someone who could have rested on the money and the laurels he already had, but didn’t. His zeal for newer ventures and frontiers, seemed inexorable, except perhaps, the last instance. That is perhaps why we should celebrate his legacy as one of entrepreneurship, in an age where there were only ‘industrialists’ and ‘businessmen’, and very few who could call themselves entrepreneurs, in a manner that was convincing enough to stand scrutiny.

Therefore, in his demise, let there not be a dominant narrative of despair – at least for the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Let this turn of events not dent the hope for those who light the lives of others, with the bulbs that glow in their heads, and the funds that are required to energise them.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

(Edited by Suruchi Kapur)


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