Earlier this year, TiECON Silicon Valley 2020 happened online, giving me a chance to attend it virtually. There were talks by Mr Deepak Chopra, Ms Indra Nooyi, Ms Shellye Archambeau and many others.

Coming to my city, Chennai, every year, TiE Chennai organizes their annual mega-event celebrating entrepreneurship called TiECON (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2010, 2008). This year the entire conference had moved to a virtual platform due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The content of the conference was great, with stellar speakers and fine arrangement. I liked the timings, it was spread over 5 days, every day 3 hours in the evening: this suits better for a virtual platform than copying the same two-full day format done physically.

Day 1 (5th Oct 2020):

Mr T V Mohandas Pai, Chairman, Manipal Global Education

T V Mohandas Pai and Viiveck Verma

T V Mohandas Pai and Viiveck Verma

  • India will see overall this year a -6 (minus six) to -10% growth. The next quarter will be negative, but the last quarter of this fiscal might be better.
  • Digital Economy will be a force multiplier for a country like India.
  • Investment is an act of trust. When you have shared everything (like your full financials), then your customer and investor will trust you. Trust is a competitive advantage. In Infosys, we wanted to be the best in the world when it comes to financing transparency & reporting; Also, we were leaders on ensuring diversity & having an independent director.
  • You have to raise the ecosystem; you can’t shine in a sea of failure. Helping the ecosystem, bubbles up the benefit and talent, which will help you on the long-run.
  • Quality of life, ease of business should go up as PM Mr Modi is one who is working hard for the development of India. I like PM Mr Modi, no other Prime Minister has done so much for the poor; I don’t care about their ideology; whoever rules, they are my Government.
  • What motivates you when to work with the Government? I love my country. I have been a bad husband, friend & father. I haven’t spent time with them. But I have been a good Indian. UK (or the USA), does impact Analysis before a public policy or law is enacted. Here we don’t do it.
  • Democracy is a system of competitive (interest) lobby. In Infosys, we didn’t lobby for us, we went for the benefit of the whole industry and not just for us. We have to articulate our case, keep perseverance, keep knocking the doors of the Government till the door falls or you break the head. Government (and bureaucrats) have hundreds of things, for us, it is only one, but they have so much on their plate. In India, our policymakers and society treat the domestic (Indian) capital shabbily, but we treat the foreign capital with a red carpet; we do need to welcome foreign capital, but we should treat Indian capital with equal welcome.
  • Partnership: With a partnership, you stick to your core, you get an enterprise of partners, you can scale well. Many will leave or compete with you, but many will help you grow. It exhibits your confidence in the market at large.
  • All companies are mortal. The value lies in the Market cap and Profits. As long as you received a Rupee ($) of investor money, you are just a custodian and not the owner; you need to act in a fiduciary role.
  • Is India corporate governance worse? Not really. It happens in every country. You deal with human beings, human beings (in the stock market) are about greed and fear. In the USA, Enron happened & Lehman Brothers happened.
  • In India we accept criticism easily; we have a lot of lefties. We are called “Cyber Coolies”, that is The IT Industry.
  • Akshaya Patra – We started this NGO to feed the hungry in 2000, solve one of India’s big ecosystem problem of Poverty & hunger. We are now feeding in Akshaya Patra – about 20 Lakh per day. Rs. 600 Crores over in a year, it is the largest NGO in India. We brought the same corporate Governance from Infosys to Akshaya Patra. The donation (those who give a donation) wishes to see social returns & social impact just like an investor will want a financial return. We work with Government, feed and do everything so that the Hunger doesn’t exist in this country. Whereas most NGOs want to keep their purpose alive so that they can exist. We want this NGO to seize existing, our purpose is to eradicate hunger, and even after 30 years if Hunger continues, there is no point in our work. We don’t want this to keep running forever, this NGO should become redundant with the eradication of hunger.
  • In my teams, I want everyone (People) want to justify their existence and not just keeping headcount for the sake of power. When I left Infosys, we had 135,000 people in Infosys and just 250 in finance serving them; when I joined there were 50 in finance with 5000 people in Infosys or so, didn’t grow at the same proportion, I optimised.
  • What keeps you awake now? I always set ambitious goals and keep working towards it. India will be a $10 trillion economy by 2030, now it will be reached by 2031 due to the pandemic. PM has already said India will be a $5 trillion economy by 2025. You should set large audacious goals.
  • I wish to see Chennai should become the centre for innovation of AI & SaaS. We need to have multiple centres of growth in India and not just Bengaluru or Mumbai.

Day 2 (6th Oct 2020):

Mr N Srinivasan

Mr N Srinivasan, Vikatan Group (திரு ஸ்ரீனிவாசன், விகடன் பிரசுரம் - கற்றதும் பெற்றதும்)

Mr N Srinivasan, Vikatan Group (திரு ஸ்ரீனிவாசன், விகடன் பிரசுரம் – கற்றதும் பெற்றதும்)

  • He described how they adapted to the new media (digital media), the student journalist took to the medium like ducks taking to the water.
  • Their two big mistakes: 1) Missing the satellite TV revolution in Tamil Nadu around 1992/93 and laughing (literally) at SUN TV. Vikatan internally felt there is no way Indian households will spend money to buy a dish and a receiver. They didn’t do anything at all towards this and missed the boat. The 1998 Sudhakaran marriage covered by SUNTV changed the political landscape of Tamil Nadu demonstrating the impact of the media. Realising their mistake, they joined the fray, not as a channel but as producers of programs, from 1998 till date Vikatan has been producing serials for Sun TV and earned some business from the same market. 2) Their launch of an evening newspaper, which was a disaster from word go. They never did any market study or sizing. Published from one edition, instead of the optimised 3-minimum (Chennai, Madurai & Kovai) edition model. 95% of print AD revenue was going to dailies and only 5% to the magazines, so the plan was to capture a part of the 95% but the reality was the evening papers got a very-small portion. Finally, they closed it, and Mr N Srinivasan taking full blame of the initiative.
  • Remember: மாற்றம் ஒன்றே மாறாதது. As a group, we change with the times. We don’t stick to the past, other than our core values.
  • Politics: We are (stand) always with the people; People’s opinion, that’s what matters to us. In 2011, they said Tamil Nadu was at a critical junction and should not be voting for DMK. Similarly, in 2011, 2G was first uncovered by Junior Vikatan. Today, we are accused by Social Media, that we are against the ruling alignment of AIADMK & BJP. We are called as urban Naxals and so on. But we are not. Our founder Vasan was a staunch Congressman, and we have a rich heritage of speaking our mind for the times.
  • How is Vikatan unlocking the value? 1) Director Simbudevan wrote the 23ஆம் புலிகேசி (Imsai Arasan 23m Pulikesi) first as a cartoon in Vikatan, which Vikatan missed to utilize. Instead, he made an enormous success movie out of it. This is an opportunity of unlocking value, but we didn’t do it! 2) Our Vikatan Cinema awards/trophies, which we were just presenting from our office in a private setup. Our photographer suggested we make it into a big stage event and that’s how Vikatan award came up. We are unlocking value.

Mr Harsh Mariwala, Marico

Mr Harsh Mariwala, Marico

Mr Harsh Mariwala, Marico

  • I was a Commerce Graduate. I didn’t study engineering. But I know for a fact, that whenever I (we) have innovated, we have done well.
  • We launched with plastic container parachute coconut oil when the industry was selling in tins. 100% of our plastics are recycled.
  • We entered Bangladesh and could convert in a short time the market to Parachute coconut oil.
  • Safola: This was a wafer-thin margin market. We wanted to convert this to a premium health product/market. We identified the good elements in it which help and made it into a “Heart” brand. And we are on top for the last 30 years. This was a pioneering work then. This enabled us to get a pricing premium in edible oils.
  • You should start with what the consumer wants, discuss with him/her, prototype, incorporate his/her suggestions, discuss with your cross-functional colleagues. This is more important than doing market research, I repeat do a prototype, it will give better results.
  • We have a flat structure in our organization. It should turn to be something that makes the person in the entry-level not able to cope up or without any support or guidance. If you can manage this duality, empowerment happens.
  • Diversity: Not only women, it has to be on all levels: education, regional, etc. This will lead to innovation. Innovation has to be cross-functional and discussed, organization openness is the most important.
  • Management has to constantly demand innovation, on perpetuity.
  • Our sector has always been de-licensed, so we didn’t need to go and stand in a queue in front of the Government. I have seen businessmen taking short cuts, and this has hit them. We need to have a high degree of Corporate Governance. When I stepped down, we got an outsider as the Managing Director.

Mr Ashok Anand (Appiyo), Madhumita (The Indus Valley) & Sneha Priya (SP Robotics)

Mr Ashok Anand (Appiyo), Madhumita (The Indus Valley) & Sneha Priya (SP Robotics)

Ashok Anand of Appiyo: Be (we are) cloud-ready. We work on channels. Today, in the pandemic we are not able to handle the demand. The customer wants it today/tomorrow. Too much good is also a problem. The business grew rapidly during COVID. We could double our headcount. We always had 20% bench, we are still -20 employees in shortage. Our productivity at senior-level has improved with COVID times. Stick to your plan and vision, it will happen.

Madhumita of The Indus Valley: We have a domestic supply chain for our natural kitchen wares. What advice for people doing physical products? All our sourcing happens in India. The reason is that we are emphasizing on design and time to market. We treat cookware as software versions. For every product, we analyse over two thousand customer reviews. We keep tweaking, each time. We want to do small-batch, this means our vendors have to be closer to us. That is a strategic reason. A practical reason is our credit period is less, unlike those who buy from China where the credit line is high. Specific to COVID, we were almost immune. If you look at popular electronic brands from China, most of them are not available, but we were not affected. With WFH, a lot of things came to play: It wasn’t a choice, we are seeing mental health issues like stress, as we are forced to be with your family members 24×7, how much ever we love them, tensions rise when you are always seeing the same faces. Most Indian homes are 1BHK, that’s a reality with Urban India.

Sneha Priya of SP Robotics: We decided to go with the partner route when we want to influence the people we want to. Where we take our product the customer typically required to have a computer, which is rapidly changing due to COVID, in India the numbers (computer penetration) are still low. We grow over 600% in these COVID times. Our assisted lab, maker labs helped a lot. We wanted personal care to each and every one of our students/customers. So we went with an asset-light partner model. All our 83 centres have a high customer satisfaction rating. We encouraged this giving partner awards and shared their success stories widely. In a survey we did with 3500+ parents on how kids are handling online classes and WFH: it becomes difficult to handle the child online classes. Once school reopens, many problems with WFH will go away. At our offices, we are back to physical offices and happy to see others’ faces.

Dr Prashantham, Director, Inst. of Human Relations

Dr Prashantham, Director, Inst. of Human Relations

How did I the coined the term “Tomato or Tennis”? In the 2005-06 period, when 9/11 had created a big challenge, then the Tsunami, I was working with PTSD patients, I coined this expression. Without denying the difficulty, do you want to be a Tomato that crushes when thrown on the ground or be a Tennis ball that bounces back?

Psychology: It is 75% Common Sense, 25% is nonsense, and we were told not to reverse them :-). It is about observing, then understanding what you observed. In a survey I did, people were confused by the conflicting information they are getting. It causes them to have physical and mental health damage to immune.

How to turn Post-traumatic Stress to Post Traumatic Growth?:

  1. Relate – We are social beings; we have to relate to a few or more people. We are having difficulty in relating to people now. We have to routinely share our feelings. Sometimes when we can’t (or unable to) talk to people, we can write our thoughts (externalize). Ventilation, which leads to healing. Even Holocaust survivors have improved their immunity by sharing/writing.
  2. Relax: Evolutionary wise, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated when we are stressed, we are supposed to be in that only for a temporary phase. Freeze, Flight or Fight, many a time in this expression, the “Freeze” gets left out that’s important too. How to relax: Deep Breathing, Walk, Listening to Music, Hearing the sound of water, seeing the sunset, Pranayama, Yoga, Meditate.
  3. Review: If your value is to be independent, help people. Review your goals. Everything is impermanent, including this pandemic.
  4. Routinize: To have a routine in your life, getting to bed at the same time, to get up at the same time. Eating at the same time. Having a system for you. Even for children, it will help. Introduce movements in your life every day, even if you are not a dancer, dance. At the same time, put boundaries in your life.
  5. Rebound: I have seen many people rebound. One reason for India, to have low mortality and more recovery is because of our (innate) immunity. By EOY next year, we will have immunity, this COVID will diminish or end. Quoting “Bill Gates” in Economist magazine: If we spend a few billions in vaccines, we will rebound.
  6. Books: Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman. He initiated the movement of positive psychology. If we imagine or believe everything is negative and exaggerated, it will affect us, instead accept the facts (yes, there is a problem) and focus on the here and now.
  7. Most often, people are limited by external resources they have. After 9/11, Boeing thought of how to turn their security expertise to a new vertical and good revenue stream. Alternate pathways. The VC world also should take more risk of encouraging innovation.

Day 3 (7th Oct 2020):

Mr Sridhar Vembu, Zoho

Mr Sridhar Vembu in conversation with Mr Badri Seshadri

Mr Sridhar Vembu was in discussion with Mr Badri Seshadri. Mr Vembu is a pioneer and icon of “Make in India” software products (Zoho).

  • It was fascinating to listen to what he is doing with his move to villages in Tamil Nadu & teaching in village schools. His views on how we should be teaching in our schools were impressive and thought-provoking.
  • He says, instead of teaching for exams, which puts off students to learn anything; we should teach them by demonstration and kindling their curiosity. He gave an example of students not knowing who came first: Emperor Akbar or Emperor Ashoka, the great? Who came first: the Mughals or the British? Many didn’t know the answer to the first, a few did for the second. But when he asked who came to films first: Actor Vijay or Actor Ajith, they knew the answer instantly and no one taught them that. They had learned it on their own interest. But, if we start having exams on movies & actors, then everyone will stop watching movies. To kill an interest, we should have an exam on it.
  • He strongly promotes education through the mother-tongue (Tamil in this case), which I welcome but English has to be included as a language. He had an observation of a majority (2/3rd or more) of students in villages not speaking English (they don’t need to), will be a revelation for the urban middle-class in India.

There is one item of his, that I don’t agree. He spoke of buying nail-cutters in a small village near Tenkasi (Tamil Nadu) which were made in South-Korea; this he says is wrong and is a failure of economists and policymakers of India. I don’t agree it is a policy failure or wrong. He suggests we should be producing these items locally.  To me, there can be no second-thought on encouraging local manufacturing; at the same time, we can’t be averse (or erect iron walls) to imports. If we do this, then we will have no moral right to expect the world to buy the “software” made us. “An eye for an eye will leave everyone blind“.

Badri asked the right questions which brought out more from Vembu.

Day 4 (8th Oct 2020):

Mr G.R. Ananthapadmanabhan & Mr G.R.Radhakrishnan of GRT Jewellers

Mr G.R. Ananthapadmanabhan & Mr G.R.Radhakrishnan of GRT Jewellers in conversation with Mr Maran Nagarajan

  1. There is nothing greater (and important) than having peace
  2. If you ensure compliance peace will follow
  3. Invest in staff training constantly
  4. Ensure their growth opportunity (they hire laterally only on exceptions)
  5. Staff are truly family members. You may be the owner, but your team members & board will know more, ack & listen carefully
  6. Practice silence & look inside yourself. Mahatria is their Guru.
  7. Customer is always right when they are wrong, they are still correct.
  8. Technology is part of your business, not a separate item.

Day 5 (9th Oct 2020):

Mr VKT Balan, Madura Travels

Mr VKT Balan of Madura Travel, says:

  • Ignore all “how to succeed in business” books
  • Don’t borrow or lend money, you will lose money & the relationship
  • Notices from tax authorities are a necessary evil that can drive you to earn more to pay taxes
  • Points out the data that shows, compared to the 1918 Spanish flu, COVID’s impact has been (thankfully) lesser.
  • Narrated a story of a king who was illitrate. He was curious on the knowledge that’s stored in books. He procured 10,000 palm-leaf sets (books) and commanded ten of his wise ministers to spend an year to summarize them for his benefit. There were books on all subjects of human knowledge – scriptures, mythology, science, economy, management, fiction and so on. The ministers came back after an year of intense reading and summarizing it to 1000 pages. King was not satisfied, 1000 pages is too much. Go back, take another year, summarize it shorter. They went back, after an year each of them came with a 1 page summary of their 100 pages. This went on till they were asked to summarize one page into a single line. Finally, the ministers got the chance to present that one line which read “No one can live without working“.
[Disclaimer: This post is from my notes, it is not comprehensive nor meant to be accurate]

Categorized in: