Using personal savings to start a marketing business from home, these founders now have the likes of Kotak Mahindra and Rebel Foods as clients
After his marriage in 2016, corporate communication professional Sandeep Rao moved from Mumbai to Delhi. It was cheaper to live in the capital city.
Sandeep had worked across communication, advertising, and sustainability. He took up a high pressure job managing various client accounts at a public relations (PR) firm.
But even a seasoned professional like him did not find the new job easy.
“I was working six days a week for up to 18 hours a day. Many professionals in the PR industry have mental health issues due to stress. I realised that due to the long working hours and the stress, I had to choose between my marriage and that job. But I always knew I could find another job,” he says.
Sandeep walked up to his bosses and told them he’d like to leave.
The decision to quit the job and take time to plan his next move would soon lead him down the unpredictable path of entrepreneurship.
Lack of an outcome-driven approach
Sandeep’s experience in the communication industry had taught him it was convenient to pitch flamboyant or unattainable targets to clients just to win a mandate.
“It was easy for a communication agency to tell a potential, large client that they’d get Bill Gates or Elon Musk to come and inaugurate a client event. But that was far from the truth - in fact, most times, such pitches made no sense and didn’t see the light of day,” he explains.
According to his logic, a communication agency following such an approach is more of a cost centre for a client, rather than a revenue centre. He felt any communication strategy should lead to a planned and direct business impact in terms of clientele's revenue.
“Clients would say they wanted to increase their sales or build brand awareness. These are business impact outcomes. But by merely publishing content in popular newspapers and digital media, there may not be any direct business impact,” he adds.
Sandeep felt the industry lacked a business impact consultancy that focused on the Barcelona Principles as a measurement of work.
In the marketing and PR industry, the Barcelona Principles identify the need for outcome-based measurement of campaigns, rather than output-based measurements.
Taking the entrepreneurial leap
Looking to fill this gap in the industry, Sandeep decided to venture out alongside his younger brother Kunal Rao and wife Srishty Chawla as founding partners. Together, they started integrated marketing consultancy One Source in June 2018.
“Kunal started in PR and went into film-making and animation. Srishty also started in PR, and then focused on content creation across agencies. Together, we pooled in Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh from our personal savings and invested it in our new company,” he says.
The firm adopted an outcome-based communication approach and began working under four verticals: branding and films, corporate communication, content marketing, and digital marketing.
The name One Source wasn’t new - it was the name of a pro bono communication forum founded by Kunal, Sandeep, and Srishty in 2014. It has now grown into an 11,000-member strong community with over 45 groups for sharing information about the media industry.
Once the trio started an integrated marketing consultancy of the same name, a real estate player approached them to place positive articles about its company in newspapers. The real estate business was looking to pay for the placement.
“It was a sizable contract, but we didn’t take it. We had just started the business, and we felt that if we got into the dirt of paying for editorial stories, we’d never get out of it. We had made a decision to focus on driving business impact through our work, even if it meant growing at a slower pace,” Sandeep says.
Initial challenges and a growing client base
For the first three months, they worked from home. Sandeep recalls how it was a challenge keeping work-related matters and home relations separate.
“Due to work-related discussions and arguments at home, we have broken tables and almirahs to show for. It took one year for things to settle down at home,” he says.
Despite work fights, Sandeep and the co-founders stuck with their outcome-driven approach, which helped One Source land some marquee clients. The firm began delivering campaigns for the likes of Rebel Foods (which runs Faasos), Kotak Mahindra, Reliance General Insurance, Uflex, etc.
“Referrals helped us land new clients, especially those by existing clients and VCs. But when we landed some of the big clients, we faced another challenge. The clients were not sure if we could handle the volume, scale, and impact of their mandate,” he says, adding:
“However, the clients placed their faith in us. We managed to deliver and it worked out well. We did not lose a single client in over two years,” he claims, adding that One Source signed eight clients in the last six months despite businesses worldwide cutting down on marketing spends on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Growth plans amid an expanding market
Sandeep doesn’t disclose the integrated marketing consultancy’s annual turnover, but he remarks that One Source has been growing at 100 percent year-on-year and is continuing to hire and grow its team.
“We have 38 members in the team and we are looking to hire even in this market. We have built a strong culture of paying salaries on time. We believe no firm should fire someone if the company is responsible for poor financial management and resource allocation,” he adds.
Kunal Rao recounts the business journey, saying: ”It has been a roller-coaster ride, right from working from home to tiny co-working offices and getting our own offices in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. No more making a film first and then figuring what to do with it. Today, we have between 55 and 60 clients. For them, we think up and bring to life ideas which earn them revenues.”
Srishty Chawla says, “We did not lose clients but we have signed off a few for being abusive. We were patient but we ensured we had a strong spine. Our team has worked hard to bring a positive business impact for our clientele over the last year, and so, we gave appraisals of over 20 percent this year despite COVID.”
Sandeep, Kunal, and Srishty are now looking to double the firm’s output and the number of projects handled by the end of this fiscal. They maintain they don’t want to rapidly expand into a huge and unsustainable organisation. They prefer growing at a realistic pace and keeping their team happy.
One Source’s plans to grow sustainable coincide with a growing global market for advertising and PR.
The Indian advertising and marketing industry stood at Rs 68,475 crore in 2019, and pre-COVID estimates suggest it will grow at a CAGR of 11.83 percent to reach Rs 1,33,921 crore by 2025. The PR market is also on the rise, with increased demand for effective reputation management for brands, public figures, and NGOs, etc.
In the hunt for landing new clients amidst market growth, there can arise the tendency to consider a client more important than your own team, according to Sandeep.
“I always tell clients that we value our team more. Simultaneously, we drive business impact for clients. With this approach, we want to continue delivering on extended contracts, sometimes to the tune of several years. This is rare in the integrated marketing space, where a one-year contract is the norm,” he says.
Edited by Dipti Nair