VET­ERAN PI­O­NEER AT THE CUT­TING EDGE

Malavika Vet­tath talks to Ashok Soota, 75, about his en­tre­pre­neur­ial spirit and the power of ideas for start-ups

The National - News - - BUSINESS -

Think start-ups and you have an im­age of young peo­ple putting their busi­ness ideas to work.

But Ashok Soota is not your av­er­age tech en­tre­pre­neur. At 75, he’s cer­tainly an age-de­fy­ing one. Mr Soota, considered one of the In­dian IT sec­tor’s pioneers, fired up the en­tre­pre­neur­ial imag­i­na­tion of stu­dents at Shar­jah In­ter­na­tional Book Fair this month on turn­ing busi­ness ideas into re­al­ity and why now is the best time to do so.

“If you look at it, the economies of the world are largely go­ing to be driven by en­tre­pre­neur­ial start-ups, by new ideas they are gen­er­at­ing and, of course, the world is chang­ing at such a rapid pace – it is change that is gen­er­at­ing all these new op­por­tu­ni­ties,” he said.

Mr Soota is of­ten termed as a “se­rial en­tre­pre­neur” as he first led Wipro’s IT busi­ness, af­ter which he was the found­ing chair­man and man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the global IT con­sult­ing firm Mindtree and led it through a suc­cess­ful IPO.

Five years ago, he founded an­other next-gen tech startup called Hap­pi­est Minds, prov­ing that age is no bar­rier. Hap­pi­est Minds en­ables dig­i­tal trans­for­ma­tion for en­ter­prises and tech­nol­ogy providers through an in­te­grated set of tech­nolo­gies such as big data an­a­lyt­ics, In­ter­net of Things and uni­fied com­mu­ni­ca­tions across in­dus­try sec­tors in­clud­ing re­tail, e-com­merce, bank­ing and hos­pi­tal­ity.

But he was back to the ba­sics as he sim­pli­fied en­trepreneur­ship for school and univer­sity stu­dents at the Shar­jah book fair. “The first step of any ven­ture is that it be­gins with an idea. And how do you gen­er­ate that idea? “

His tips in­cluded: scan the mar­ket for new cus­tomer needs; look for wide spa­ces be­tween large mar­kets where you can po­si­tion your­self in the con­ver­gence of in­dus­tries.

He stressed that it is im­por­tant to live, breathe and dream that idea for sev­eral months and, if pos­si­ble, do a low-cost mar­ket eval­u­a­tion.

“The first thing with busi­ness is that it’s pos­si­ble that some­one else comes up with a bet­ter idea. You re­ally need to make sure your idea is de­fen­si­ble,” said Mr Soota, who has com­piled his busi­ness wis­dom in a book he co-au­thored called En­trepreneur­ship Sim­pli­fied.

He cited an ex­am­ple of how Star­bucks, when en­ter­ing In­dia, found that the home­grown chain Cafe Cof­fee Day was thor­oughly en­trenched and had built a phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture com­pris­ing not just in­ter­net-en­abled lounges but sell­ing cof­fee in uni­ver­si­ties and of­fices as well – some­thing that is al­most im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate.

Mr Soota pointed out that an im­por­tant ques­tion to ask your­self is do you want to be a first mover or an early fol­lower?

“Everybody thinks ‘I want to be the first per­son do­ing some­thing in the world.’ But when you are ab­so­lutely the first, it takes a lot of time to cre­ate a mar­ket, and a lot of money to gen­er­ate that de­mand.”

He cited ex­am­ples of early fol­low­ers such as how Mi­crosoft was not the first op­er­at­ing sys­tem, Ap­ple was not the first smart­phone and Google was not the first search en­gine and how they were able to cap­ture a mar­ket en­vis­aged by some­one else.

Now is the best time to be an en­tre­pre­neur, he states em­phat­i­cally. But why?

“Firstly, there’s a lot of ex­cite­ment be­cause the pace of change is ac­cel­er­at­ing and there are newer op­por­tu­ni­ties ev­ery day. The world is mov­ing into a stage where it’s no longer go­ing to be driven by the large multi­na­tion­als.

“It’s go­ing to be smaller com­pa­nies gen­er­at­ing new ideas, build­ing new busi­nesses, driv­ing their lo­cal economies and an in­crease in jobs,” he said.

And in­ter­est­ingly, he pointed out, today there’s more money avail­able chas­ing good ideas than the other way around.

“So you have an­gel in­vestors, seed in­vestors, pri­vate eq­uity play­ers, state-owned funds like you have here in the Mid­dle East – all avail­able to help you start your busi­ness and later grow your busi­ness.”

As the founder of Mindtree and Hap­pi­est Minds, what does Mr Soota be­lieve “mind” has to do with start-ups and how im­por­tant is cul­ture for a com­pany?

“Mindtree ap­pears in the Upan­ishads [an­cient Hindu texts] as ‘ManoVrik­sha’ or source of in­tel­lect for those who come in con­tact with it and there­fore fo­cuses on the mind whereas Hap­pi­est Minds is re­ally about hap­pi­ness,” he said.

The cul­ture of a com­pany, Mr Soota said, rests on its mis­sion state­ment, five-year vi­sion and its core val­ues, which in­flu­ence be­hav­iour – and be­hav­iour in­flu­ences re­sults.

“Your unique cul­ture is some­thing that can set you apart. When you’re go­ing through tough times, you look back and ask your­self if I am tak­ing de­ci­sions aligned with the val­ues of my com­pany.”

An­other rule Mr Soota firmly be­lieves in is that founders should not re­fer to their com­pany as “fam­ily” un­less they can re­ally treat em­ploy­ees as such.

“It’s com­mon to de­scribe com­pa­nies as fam­i­lies. But in re­al­ity if a fam­ily finds it dif­fi­cult to make ends meet, it won’t fire some­body be­cause you have to cut costs. Yet that’s what com­pa­nies do all the time.

“If you’re start­ing a busi­ness with peo­ple, it’s those peo­ple who will help you grow suc­cess­ful and you need to help them achieve their po­ten­tial as you would for your fam­ily.”

Mr Soota was bom­barded with ques­tions from ea­ger young minds at the Shar­jah fair – whether it was Mehr, a stu­dent of Delhi Pub­lic School Shar­jah, who asked about whether the mind­set of ex­pen­sive be­ing the best was prefer­able to sell­ing high-qual­ity goods at rea­son­able prices, or Shreya from Vic­to­ria Col­lege Aj­man, who wanted tips on deal­ing with com­pe­ti­tion.

Hav­ing just turned 75, Mr Soota was de­lighted when the stu­dents sang an im­promptu

Happy Birth­day for him. So what keeps him go­ing?

“Firstly, I en­joy what I am do­ing. Sec­ondly, deal­ing with young peo­ple who chal­lenge you at all times, keeps you alive, alert and on your toes.

“What makes me happy is to help oth­ers achieve their po­ten­tial while also achiev­ing yours.”

Ashok Soota

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