Patriotism plus passion: stories of 20 entrepreneurs from small towns in India
Guess what? The world’s largest company in value-added spices, one of the world’s Top 10 publishing BPOs, India’s biggest exporter of hand-knotted carpets, largest machine tool manufacturer, largest honey exporter, and largest leather exporter all started up in small towns in India, not the big metros.
Over the decades, big ideas and successful entrepreneurs have made a mark in small-town India, as shown by the 20 profiles in the new book by Rashmi Bansal, Take Me Home.
Hunger for success, inspiration, diligence and persistence are also the hallmarks of success of entrepreneurs in smaller towns, where glamour may be lacking but the quieter and gentler way of life as well as the desire to hang on to local roots are assets in their own right.Rashmi Bansal is the author of a number of books on startups and social entrepreneurship, such as Poor Little Rich Slum (see my review). She graduated from Sophia College in Mumbai and IIM Ahmedabad.
The book (357 pages, published by Westland India) covers three kinds of entrepreneurs: those who left India and then returned to launch their ventures, those who never left India, and those who have a broader social vision. Each entrepreneur profile in the book is about 15-20 pages in length, and includes key takeaways along with the ups and downs of each journey.
Vinod Khutal grew up near Indore and studied architecture, before studying computer science. An ad by game developer Gameloft on Naukri.com led him to a job in their Hyderabad office, where he eventually became a game designer. In 2009, he founded Twist Mobile, with apps such as Age Effect. He tied up with VServ to use their app-wrapper technology for ads embedded in apps. Success stories included becoming the first Asian company with 10 million downloads on Noki’s Ovi store. “Today’s killer app is tomorrow’s delete,” says Khutal, who has now branched out into Android and iPhone apps.
Sriram Subramanya grew up in Pondicherry and started work in the auto ancillary business, with postings in Chennai and Bangalore and training in Germany. He later moved into the desktop publishing business, migrating from print designs to digital content. Sriram’s wife had to sell her jewellery at one stage to fund the growth of the company, Integra. A tight focus on quality, precision and business culture helped grow the company into one of the world’s Top 10 in publishing BPO. The company also won the Gender Inclusivity Award from NASSCOM.
Rohit Bhatt grew up in Udupi, Karnataka, and studied computer science. He started off with a Japanese company making Mac products. Exposure to Japanese passion, determination, pride and quality inspired him also to strike out on his own, in the area of Indian language computing. Rohit was also inspired by Taiwanese companies who started off with contract manufacturing then branched out with their own brands such as HTC and Acer. His company, Robosoft, also spawned product companies Global Delight (utility apps such as Camera Plus) and 99 Games (such as Wordsworth and ‘Dhoom 3’ games).
Sanjay Vijaykumar, Sijo Kuruvilla George and Pranav Suresh were engineering students in Trivandrum, and started off their first business by selling SIM card packages for students. Their company MobME began with mobile content for movie and TV promotion. Investment also came from wealthy Keralites in India and overseas. But their biggest idea was to amplify their success via Startup Village: to create an innovation hub like YCombinator and ultimately create a ‘Silicon Coast’ – which eventually found support from the government and private sector. As a result, Kerala has become the first state in India with an official student entrepreneurship policy.
Deepak Dhadotti grew up in Belgaum in an agricultural family, studied engineering and then joined the UK company, Moog, in the area of servo-controls. He travelled extensively in Asia and Europe, building deep experience – and also causing worry to his parents that he may marry a foreign woman. They arranged a marriage for him with a local bride, and he moved back to India eventually. Deepak started Servo Controls India with his brother, bagging orders from HAL and then the steel and power industry. Tie-ups with Russian companies and the Tata group have also proven lucrative.
Dilafrose Qazi grew up in Kashmir, and refined her business skills while studying in a government college. She stared part-time courses for women, and eventually set up the SSM College of Engineering, the first private engineering college in all of Kashmir. She ploughed on ahead, despite having her brother and husband kidnapped and being attacked by militants. Qazi even opened a sister college in Haryana for Kashmiris, helping ensure that the next generation would have sources of livelihood.
Nand Kishore Chaudhary grew up in Churu, Marwar, and started off his carpet business with weavers from the ‘chamar’ caste, regarded as untouchables. Today, Jaipur Rugs is India’s biggest exporter of hand-knotted carpets. The company connects woven products directly to global markets, and employs a range of weavers, including tribal women. A focus on local inclusion and global trends led the company to be profiled as a case study by the late great Prof. C.K. Prahalad.
C.V. Jacob grew up in Kolencherry, Kerala, with his father working in the construction industry. He started off in the resin industry, when a trip to Japan exposed him to oleoresins, or liquefied spice extracts. Jacob returned to India, picked up know-how from the Central Food Technology Research Institute in Mysore, and started the firm Synthite. He later on set up joint ventures in Europe and a factory in China, and his firm is now the world’s largest company in oleoresins.
Parakramsinh Jadeja grew up in Rajkot and excelled in cricket and chess as a student. He mastered lathe technology in school and eventually got into computerised numerical control (CNC) machines. Partnership with Siemens and exposure to machine tool fairs in Paris led him to master the tool business based out of India as Jyoti CNC, and the acquisition of a French company turned out to be a win-win situation. As the largest manufacturer of machine tools in India, Jyoti CNC is planning an IPO.
Jagjit Singh Kapoor’s parents were displaced from Pakistan during the Partition, and he grew up in Doraha, Punjab. He started off in the wine business but then moved into beekeeping and exporting of honey products. A trip to the UK to chase a non-paying customer ended up opening his eyes to a whole new world of quality, processing and technology. Today, Kashmir Apiaries is the largest exporter of honey from India, and Singh started the National Bee Board to increase awareness and networking for beekeepers.
Mukhtarul Amin grew up in Kanpur and left college to work in the family’s leather business. He tapped into the offshoring trend and partnered with European companies, importing their technology. Superhouse Group is now India’s largest leather exporter. Amin also gave back to society by starting schools and an engineering college to educate the next generation.
Vivek Deshpande and Kirit Joshi met as engineering students in Nagpur, and started off by selling study materials for students as VK Publishers. They then set up a workshop for office furniture, where exposure to Canadian and German companies led them to launch Spacewood, a trend-setter in modular kitchen components.
Bahadur Ali grew up in Rajnandgaon in Madhya Pradesh. His father died at an early age, and he got into the poultry business. That also led him into the poultry feed business and soya bean processing, thus opening up the larger ‘protein’ market for his company, the India Broiler Group, with a turnover of Rs 2,200 crores.
Chandubhai Virani and his brothers started selling chips in a local cinema in Rajkot, and today their company Balaji Wafers has a 65% market share in five states, holding out against local and MNC competitors. They first tried the fertiliser business and then running a hostel, before settling on chips and snacks. Adherence to quality helped them get early customers, followed by importing Japanese machines and taking loans to grow their factory.
Sandeep Kapoor grew up in Jodhpur, and worked in his grandfather’s photo studio. Later he joined ITC, getting exposure to Russia and China in the perfume business. He realised the potential of this sector in India, and returned to start Perfume Station. With a wide range of pricing and open minded customer care, he first expanded in Tier 2 and 3 cities before moving into the metros.
Srikumar Misra grew up in Bhubaneshwar, studied engineering in Pune, and joined Tata Tea as part of the mergers & acquisitions team, criss-crossing the world in a jet-setting lifestyle. But the startup bug bit him, and he joined TiE London to interact with entrepreneurs. He returned to Orissa to set up a dairy company, Milk Mantra, plunging into the world of cows, distributors and packaging.
Muruganantham grew up in Coimbatore, with little material wealth but lots of nature and practical wisdom. In the face of criticism from his own family for acting like a ‘mad man,’ he developed a machine to make low-cost sanitary napkins. In the sustainable business model of his company, Jayashree Industries, machines are given to women entrepreneurs who make and sell the napkins to others. Interest in the machines has been received from other parts of Asia and Africa as well.
Chandrasekhar Sankurathri, a fisheries expert from Andhra Pradesh who became a well known researcher in Canada, lost his parents when he was a child – and his wife and children to the terrorist bombing of Air India’s Kanishka aircraft en route from Canada to the UK. Deep soul searching led him to come back to Kakinada and set up the Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology (with inputs from Aravind Eye Hospital) and Sarada Vidayalam School. He eventually converted his deep sense of anguish and loss into a force for successful social enterprise.
Vibhor Agrawal grew up in Meerut, studied in IIT Bombay and IIM Bangalore, worked abroad and then returned to scale up the family’s engineering business, MultiMax. He has kept a keen eye on the cycles of the product business: growth, commodification and decay.
Abhijit Barooah grew up in Guwahati, studied in IIT Delhi and went to the US for graduate school. He returned to set up Premier Cryogenics, succeeding in a volatile part of India thanks to his business acumen and choice of customers like Oil India. India has never been in a better position for entrepreneurship than where it is today and young people must definitely take advantage of this, urges Barooah.
Each chapter in the book ends with advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. Learn how to dream, then make it come true. Create your own destiny; you have just one life. Creation gives the best fulfillment and gratification. Do not get distracted by comforts and easy money. To best understand the value of money, earn it with your own sweat. Startup life is full of ups and downs – learn to love a challenge.
Do not be blinded just by passion alone, keep an eye on the reality of the business. Always be in the self-learning mode, and think global as well as local. Be ready to learn as well as unlearn. Look for inspiration in all that is happening around you.
Do not underestimate the challenges of doing business in India – red-tapism, corruption, chalta-hai attitudes, non-paying corporate customers, slow and erratic government decision-making. But do not give in to corruption or bribery, they will only suck away your time, energy and reputation. Every place in India has its ups and downs, learn how to find the balance.
Act responsibly because the future of this country is on your shoulders. Employ, encourage and empower women – look at how countries like China are also progressing because of how many women are in the workforce.
Some of the advice differs from one entrepreneur to another, of course. Some say it is best to start up in college itself when energy and risk-taking behaviour is at its peak. Others say it is best to first work for a few years before taking the plunge, and build a base of experience and financial resources.
Many entrepreneur learnings are also drawn from India’s rich spiritual traditions. Do your duty but also learn to detach yourself from the outcome. God has given you the biggest boon – life as a human being. Do your best and leave the rest to God’s grace. When you die, you can’t take your bank account with you – so it is better to leave a mark on society and make the world a better place.