Entrepreneur Suryanarayanan A.–Chief Operations Officer, NSRCEL at IIM, Bangalore

Entrepreneurship is a continuous phenomenon. Like a tree that grows from the very ground, depending upon its sources but developing its strength to withstand the tests of variety of weathers, an entrepreneur makes its way through the business community.

Though trees are innumerable but an entrepreneur never loses its value. It is always respected and if it could deliver what others never thought of, it is respected and hailed as a innovative one. Why, innovation is the very germinating point of entrepreneurship.

In India, NSRCEL, Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore is one of the centers that provides training, consultation, and an environment where young minds or even executives get to know the WHYs and HOWs of the art of entrepreneurship. The institute is a world-class Centre of Excellence for seeding, nurturing and promoting entrepreneurship. It has successfully incubated many companies in the past and is in the constant process of selecting new ventures on a regular basis. It provides mentorship from the prestigious faculty who have already done international setting up of companies, support from consulting firms and access to some of the best facilities in the Indian industry.

A. SuryanarayananWe had an email interview with Suryanarayanan, the Chief Operating Office of NSRCEL.

Q1. Let’s start from the very beginning. Tell us about your childhood, education and early career.

Born in a middle class Tam-Bramh family, who had migrated to Mumbai in the early 40’s; last of 4 children, who lived in a 540 sft flat in Wadala; and never felt the shortage of space in an apartment building where front doors were rarely closed during the day.

Schooling in St. Josephs, Wadala; under-graduation in commerce in R A Podar College; and passed my CA from Mumbai in 1981.

Started in a plum job with Union Carbide with a princely salary of Rs 1250 and shifted to Nicholas Labs (pre-Piramal days) where I began my career in healthcare.

Thereafter I have been in the healthcare industry doing a variety of roles till I started doing my own ventures in Healthcare in 2000 post an international program, which involved IIM Bangalore and resulted in a master’s degree from McGill, Canada.

Q2. Around the time when you entered your professional career, what was the scene of small businesses in India? I mean was there any seed of entrepreneurship waiting to grow into a plant or a huge tree?

In the early 80’s, it was still largely a license-raj and businesses were essentially suppliers to large companies and the being a SME manufacturer meant that you were deft at handling multiple government agencies and large projects were based on over sizing and over invoicing for creating promoter capital. Remember a computer was a PC XT or an IBM 404 with words like GIGs reserved for super computers. Telephones were wait-listed and the choice of overseas mail was sea mail or airmail! Entrepreneurs were essentially from large houses and the Ambani phenomena were seen as largely an accounting jugglery and financial wizardry. To believe this was only 25 years ago is mindboggling. This also meant that generations had to constantly reinvent themselves to keep up to date with changing technology.

Q3. How your solid academic background and professional experience in finance helped you to foresee and forecast when you started your own ventures?

My quasi entrepreneurship started when I moved from Mumbai to Bangalore to join a start up pharma set up in 1988. Over 12 years, we grew the company well and finally exited the business in 2000 by selling out the brands to a large Indian pharma company. This stint helped me because I played multiple roles including raising capital through an IPO and got hands-on experience in taking risks albeit on behalf of a family who were risk averse. My deep financial training with all round experience in other functions stood solidly behind me when I started on my own.

Q4. How you got attracted to the healthcare industry and what it felt like with Lifetime Healthcare before Religare acquired it?

To me getting into healthcare industry was not planned. It was my first job-shift and I was moving from one MNC to another for an increase in responsibilities. Thereafter I stuck to the industry, which gave me the advantage of long experience that gave me tacit knowledge hard to put on paper.

My first ventures on my own was Medybiz and I got on to the internet bandwagon at the fag end of the internet boom. The online model failed then but the services model and the deep knowledge of the industry helped me in morphing to a first of its kind disease management company.

Lifetime Healthcare with the stores branded Lifeken was exploiting the opportunity of organized retail with the focus on the three customers: patients, doctors and the pharma companies. We rapidly expanded to about 90 stores when we ran out of capital at the worst possible time when the economy was globally depressed. Religare got a great deal being at the right time at the right place with cash in their pockets.

Q5. Talking about your experience with startups, SMEs and entrepreneurs, what do you think is the most important factor to be considered from a financial angle? Is it funding, scale, marketing strategy or the relevance of the idea itself?

I think a good idea, with a great team and meticulous implementation plan makes the ideal start up. I keep evangelizing the idea that a good start-up never raises money but allows the money to come to it and this means the company has to become money-ready from an investor point of view! There is still more money chasing few good ideas in the market place.

Q6. How has been the experience at NSRCEL? Being among budding entrepreneurs and professionals, do you feel rejuvenated and refreshed after such a long career?

Looking back, my career does not seem to be very long as I have always done new things and the sabbatical at NSRCEL has been refreshing and working with young minds and guiding them to avoid the obvious pitfalls has been very fulfilling. Mentally, I remain ever young by keeping it open and constantly positive. I am by nature an eternal optimist.

Q7. Talking about incubators in India, what is the prime factor that they are not able to generate optimal level of successful startups, though there seems to be plethora of ideas and business plans?

Incubation is relatively a nascent industry hardly a decade old and hence it is evolving. Most of the current incubators are in academic institutions and those that managed to rope in talent with business experience like CIIE and NSRCEL are doing very well. Institutions like ours cannot be measured by the number of financial successes we churn out. If we do that we will start behaving like VCs. These institutions like to take the risk that markets cannot; and hence, try and nurture disruptive ideas before its time.

While there is plethora of business plans, there are very few original ideas.

Q8. Where do you feel India stands with its force of roaring entrepreneurs in the international business community and what are the chances of future growth?

Like in everything in India, we have the advantage volumes. The encouraging signs of many attempting to try new ideas on their own and the slow build up of the eco-system to support such behavior augurs well for the country. What we need is a few examples of Google like successes from our shores and then the floodgates will open. The need is for entrepreneurs to think focused, think value building.

Q9. Being a serial entrepreneur yourself, how do you feel you have grown over the years personally and professionally?

Fortunately, for me, my experiences have been vastly different and this has had a cumulative effect. I have had the chance of fling business in a MNC environment and also learnt to tighten belts when the markets were down and I was up to my nose in debt during the internet bust days. The experience of how to fund the salaries of 200 guys on the first of the month every month makes you a true entrepreneur and after that material things were only to be enjoyed when affordable and they were no longer drivers.

Q10. Any hard lessons that you came across during your entrepreneurial stints?

It is hard to be objective when you are so close to the idea, hence having sound mentors around you whose mind you trust is very essential.

Second lesson is don’t burn any bridges, you never know when you need them and the trick is not to build bridges when you cross but to build them when you really have no need for bridges! They then come very handy during hard times.

Thirdly, always leave value on the table for your stakeholders. Give more than you take till it becomes a habit.

Q11. Share some advice or tips with young entrepreneurs and our readers.

Get the ability to take value after delivering value. Form teams of diverse talent and naysayers. Develop tenacity to see the idea through its logical conclusion. Learn when to cut losses and start afresh and finally make new mistakes every time, never repeat them.

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