Are entrepreneurs naturally born or nurtured? There are those that seem to spot opportunities that aren’t obvious to the rest of us and then there are others who bring deep experience as the differentiation and hence have an advantage on how they execute an idea. After years of working with entrepreneurs, I have come to the conclusion that entrepreneurship can be learnt though some have a special talent for it naturally.
Regardless of natural strengths, translating ideas to profitable businesses is a critical part of entrepreneurial success. Someone who has shown the uncanny ability to merge creativity with commerce repeatedly is Ronnie Screwvala. A born entrepreneur, Ronnie’s inherent ability to spot and craft opportunities in every corner is fascinating. He symbolizes all that can be great about the spirit of entrepreneurship in India.
Rules don’t apply to Ronnie. Entrepreneurs usually work on problems where they have a deep expertise and years of experience. Breaking the stereotype, Ronnie in his 25-year journey, took on challenges in diverse sectors that he barely had any knowledge, and successfully built businesses and profitably exited them, not once, not twice but three times. Very few entrepreneurs have won multiple innings and most aren’t as successful the second time around. Research shows that despite experience, serial entrepreneurs may perform worse in subsequent ventures due to their inability to overcome barriers of learning and the change in market conditions that transpires from one venture to the next. What fascinates me the most is that Ronnie as a serial entrepreneur has gotten bigger and better with every new venture he began. His ability to learn and grow personally over the years offers remarkable insights to us.
For our annual summit, A billion aspirations: Idea’s transforming India, we invited Ronnie to share his learnings from his journey and he readily agreed to help the next generation entrepreneurs blaze their own trail.
We invited Zia Mody to welcome Ronnie. She has known him for two decades. Commencing her introduction by sharing an anecdote from their UTV days, she said that, Ronnie’s attention to detail and stellar work ethic got her team to work on impossible turnaround times. Describing him as a complete entrepreneur, something that fascinates her and is unique to Ronnie is his willingness to embrace failure. Ronnie is a remarkable speaker and Zia’s gracious introduction set a great tone to his fascinating journey.
Ronnie enthralled the audience by sharing his experiences through a series of events that made his journey more exciting than many of the movies he has produced! And he has produced some very special movies. Speaking of movies, a world I am completely disassociated, from the first time I met Ronnie in 2010, I realised he didn’t fit any of my stereotypes. This aside, of all the movies he has produced Barfi is my favourite.
Ronnie started his talk by sharing the mantra to his success?—?4Cs: Conviction, Communication, Clarity and Collaboration, something he continued to reiterate while describing his journey. He emphasized the importance of communication in a leader, encouraging each one to embrace their own unique style.
Never Give Up
Ronnie started his career pioneering Cable TV channel in India. However, for an idea he thought would be readily accepted, he couldn’t find customers for the first full year. He shared that during this process, he doubted if he was cut out to be an entrepreneur, what got him through was his conviction and a never say no attitude. Interacting with the customer first hand and being extremely frugal were some of the key learnings that he took away. Six years on, at a time when the business was starting to get unstructured, Ronnie exited to a large South Indian group looking to enter the Cable TV industry.
When an opportunity knocks…
In his second venture, Ronnie accidentally got into manufacturing toothbrushes proving the art of being opportunistic and strategic. He talked about how he incidentally found two second-hand toothbrush manufacturing machines in the United Kingdom. On coming back to India, he was persistent on finding a market for toothbrushes. He boldly went ahead, found a market and catered to his target audience. The learning he found in this experience was that the element of naivety and curiosity needs to stay at whatever time and age as it helps make bolder decisions. He sold this company too.
“Always have a survival plan and not always a success plan”
said Ronnie describing his experiences while recollecting his home shopping days. We often craft success plans, contingent on best case scenarios playing out. Ronnie suggests that the more important, and less obvious plan to have is the survival plan. Having an internal survival plan helps entrepreneurs ascertain whether they’ve reached the market too early or too late. A survival plan that works means the ability to slow down, cut costs, stay the course, scale up or shut shop. In his book “Dream with your Eyes Open” Ronnie says, staying the long haul is about planning, agility and overcoming crisis as much as it is about stamina, audacity, and conviction. I think the current startups in India would do well to embrace this.
Combination of structured and unstructured time is essential
On effective time management, Ronnie shared that he divides his day into structured and unstructured time, a habit that helps get him almost two working days in one. Structured time is where during working hours, he oversees core-business activities, operations, strategy, human resources. During his unstructured time, he sets out to have brainstorming sessions and meetings with no endpoints. In the evenings and during weekends Ronnie explores the creative functions of the business, which he thinks is relevant to everyone and includes brand building, marketing ideas, new innovations and most importantly culture of the Organization.
“Exits are never planned”
said Ronnie reflecting his journey on how all of his exits were a chain of events that were serendipitous in nature and how one can never possibly time an exit. Ronnie sharing the story of the UTV acquisition, said, when he started a kid’s channel, Disney agreed to be a minority partner at 14% and finally ended up being a 50% shareholder eventually leading to a buyout.The merger was relatively unexpected and he went ahead with it since he was proud to partner with a global leader in media and his entire team would pride themselves in carrying a Disney calling card. Reflecting on his learnings, he advises entrepreneurs to never go in with a plan of building a business to exit. He urges them to not be distracted and focus on building businesses strategically on their vision and exits will happen when the time is right. Also, I couldn’t help but notice Ronnie’s pride in creating wealth for his shareholders (Warburg Pincus did their first deal in India with UTV) and everyone who believed and supported him in his endeavours. I think an essential part of a leaders journey is in creating long-term credibility and value for all stakeholders.
Ending his talk in true cinematic fashion, the finale had him share two lessons he wants an aspiring entrepreneur to keep in mind eternally, the fact that the “Happiest people are the ones who are solving the most difficult problems” and something that is relevant to today’s startup ecosystem is that “All glory is fleeting”.
Ronnie continues to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit in him as the co-founder of Upgrad where he aspires to build careers of tomorrow. He also champions the cause of non-conventional sports in India such as kabaddi, football, martial arts, motorsports and esports. Ronnie is paying it forward with the Swades Foundation, an organization that he and his wife Zarina founded with an aim to lift a million lives out of poverty in the next 5–6 years.
I am deeply inspired by his determination to succeed, risk-taking ability, and most importantly his persistence and conviction to prevail against all odds. He is modest, practical, and insightful. I am delighted he is a fellow venture capitalist, not only investing his personal money, but truly being active in mentoring the entrepreneurial ecosystem in India. In order to fulfill the aspirations of this country, we need more first generation entrepreneurs like him who can advocate and inspire the millennials to take the path less travelled and dream with their eyes open…
Disclaimer: It is strictly an independent opinion of the writer, not representative of Kstart or Kalaari.