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In India, You Really Can Achieve Anything

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There are great inspiring stories of entrepreneurship, but this one will make you sit up and read it again. How often do you find a senior executive leave his job at a board position at a large institution and acquire a falling stock thinking he can turn it around? That’s exactly what Vaidyanathan Vembu (Vaidya, to friends) did to start his entrepreneurship journey. At 42, he was already the MD and CEO of ICICI Prudential Life Insurance, and earlier on the Board of ICICI bank. He built and ran a USD 30 billion consumer finance loan book, and managed 1400 branches with $20 bn in deposit.

His idea was build a retail lending institution, in a niche area where banks don’t lend, on the backbone of technology, but with ownership stakes this time around. The idea was to provide small loans of USD 1000 to USD 1,00,000, in a niche segment of micro enterprises and consumers – an area where banks traditionally don’t focus much. But the issue for any entrepreneurship, even if you had the right idea, is how do you get started- how do you raise your first round of equity? How do you raise debt? What about teams? Also, probabilities of success drop sharply when you don’t have a known brand to bank on. But there have been great case studies of such successes like Narayanamurthy, founder of the revered software giant Infosys -who quit his job at Patni Computers.

“I didn’t mind starting small all over again, but not too small. I believed we need a net-worth capital of at least Rs. 10.00 bn ($150 mn) to have a reasonable shot.” he says. “I was looking around for a Private equity to back me with such a sum, to start a company. While he was still looking around, he chanced upon a publicly listed company with a net worth of USD 100 mn, and whose shares had come down sharply from 1100 to Rs. 95 in 2 years because of the global crisis. The company was basically providing wholesale loans to real estate developers. Non-performing assets were high at 5.4%. “I thought this was ideal platform for entrepreneurship as we could start retail financial services. The company was already listed and had a lending licence, and I could raise USD 50 mn from the markets or PE.” Accordingly, he arrived at a deal with the promoters to own 10% of the equity of the company, who agreed to just be “investors”, and whom he describes as “graceful”.

Ideas are easy on spreadsheets and paper, but tougher in reality. Neither could he raise equity, nor debt, to grow the company he had bought into. In the months following, he had many meetings with many mutual funds to raise equity through a process called QIP, where a company can place shares to institutional investors. But for one reason or the other, nothing worked. Meanwhile, existing majority shareholders publicly expressed intention to sell out at the right price. Vaidya then pitched the idea to over a dozen large private Equity Firms, including the well-known ones Bain, Blackstone, Carlyle for their backing.

But the timing couldn’t have been worse. The India economy took a turn for the worse after 2010. Inflation remained elevated, India’s monetary authority Reserve Bank of India raised interest rates by 25 bps 16 times in 3 years in response to high inflation, and GDP growth rates dipped steadily from 9% to 4.5%. Most important, business magazine cover stories were painting scary pictures like “India-blackout nation, India– drifting into abyss”, corruption scandals, and so on, ceding doubts in the investor community.

The amount was big- he was looking for over $ 150 mn of equity to buy out other shareholders, and it was a big sum to seek backing. Matters got complicated because of high media visibility and speculations whenever a deal was being discussed with any potential investor, being a public company. He couldn’t sleep for more than 4-5 hours a night, out of stress, not knowing who will back him, and not knowing how to convince them to do it. There were too many moving parts about debt, business growth, profitability, attracting new employees, and retaining existing ones under these circumstances.

Meanwhile he had to produce a proof of concept to attract prospective investors as mere spreadsheet projections wouldn’t do. So despite limited capital on hand; he built a top-notch retail team of over 800 retail professionals. He offered handsome

stock options and went talent scouting from the best of names, from Standard Chartered, ICICI, HDFC, Barclays and Citi. The company diversified into consumer and MSME financing. Even under the tight liquidity conditions and uncertainties, the company built the credit lines brick by brick from USD 100 million in 2010, to over USD 900 million by 2012.

He was still negotiating with one Gurgaon-based PE when Vaidya had a chance meeting with a senior Warburg Pincus professional one evening on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai on March 7, 2012. Not letting go of the opportunity of having two captive hours with a large PE, he pitched the same story on the flight. In later negotiations, WP said they wanted to see a well-defined idea (he told them we’ll lend to micro- entrepreneurs), in an industry that has great potential (his case was Financial services), and in an economy they have confidence in (he says “what’s better than India?”). He assured them he could build a loan book of $4-5 billion in 5-7 years if he had their backing. To show personal commitment, he agreed to lock in his entire stake and signed many other caveats, locking himself in contractually.

After 3 months of negotiations, WP agreed to invest $150 mn, with which the existing shareholders were bought out, an open offer launched for the minority shareholders for 26% and fresh equity infused into the company. The deal was concluded and thus Capital First was founded with all things new- new shareholders, a new Board, new business lines, new name and a new Brand.

It was a big breakthrough. “I couldn’t sleep that night” he says, after 2 uncertain years, there was certainty. Since then, Capital First has built a loan book of USD 2 billion, acquired an astonishing 2 million micro-customers, hired 1300 employees. The share price of the company has moved to over Rs. 350 now, and market cap increased from $125 million to over $500 million between 2012 to 2016. “India is really incredible India, anything is possible here.” says Vaidyanathan.

Callum Connects

Malcolm Tan, Founder of Gravitas Holdings

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Malcolm Tan is an ICO/ITO and Cryptocurrency advisor. He sees this new era as similar to when the internet launched.

What’s your story?
I’m a lawyer entrepreneur who owns multiple businesses, and who is now stepping into the Initial Coin Offering/Initial Token Offering/Cryptocurrency space to be a thought leader, writer (How to ICO/ITO in Singapore – A Regulatory and Compliance Viewpoint on Initial Coin Offering and Initial Token Offering in Singapore), and advisor through Gravitas Holdings – an ICO Advisory company. We are also running our own ICO campaign called AEXON, and advising 2 other ICO’s on their projects.

What excites you most about your industry?
It is the start of a whole new paradigm, and it is like being at the start of the internet era all over again. We have a chance to influence and shape the industry over the next decade and beyond and lead the paradigm shift.

What’s your connection to Asia?
I’m Singaporean and most of my business revolves around the ASEAN region. Our new ICO advisory company specialises in Singaporean ICO’s and we are now building partnerships around the region as well. One of the core business offerings of our AEXON ICO/ITO is to open up co-working spaces around the region, with a target to open 25 outlets, and perhaps more thereafter.

Favourite city in Asia for business and why?
Singapore, since it is my hometown and most of my business contacts originate from or are located in Singapore. It is also a very open and easy place to do business.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
Be careful of your clients – sometimes they can be your worst enemies. This is very true and you have to always be careful about whom you deal with. The closest people are the ones that you trust and sometimes they have other agendas or simply don’t tell you the truth or whole story and that can easily put one in a very disadvantageous position.

Who inspires you?
Leonardo Da Vinci as a polymath and genius and leader in many fields, and in today’s world, Elon Musk for being a polymath and risk taker and energetic business leader.

What have you just learnt recently that blew you away?
Early stage bitcoin investors would have made 1,000,000 times profit if they had held onto their bitcoins from the start to today – in the short space of 7 years.

If you had your time again, what would you do differently?
Seek out good partnerships and networks from day one, and use the power of the group to grow and do things together, instead of being bogged down by operations and going it alone from start.

How do you unwind?
I hardly have any time for relaxation right now. I used to have very intense hobbies, chess when I was younger, bridge, bowling, some online real time strategy games and poker. All mentally stimulating games and requiring focus – I did all these at competitive levels and participated in national and international tournaments, winning multiple trophies, medals and awards in most of these fields.

Favourite Asian destination for relaxation? Why?
Phuket – nature, resort life, beaches, good food and a vibrant crowd.

Everyone in business should read this book:
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Richard Kiyosaki

Shameless plug for your business:
Gravitas Holdings (Pte) Limited is the premier ICO Advisory company and we can do a full service for entrepreneurs, including legal and compliance, smart contracts and token creation, marketing and PR, and business advisory and white paper writing/planning.

How can people connect with you?
Write emails to [email protected], or [email protected]

Twitter handle?
@malcolmABM

This interview is part of the ‘Callum Connect’ series of more than 500 interviews

Callum Laing is an entrepreneur and investor based in Singapore. He has previously started, built and sold half a dozen businesses and is now a Partner at Unity-Group Private Equity and Co-Founder of The Marketing Group PLC. He is the author two best selling books ‘Progressive Partnerships’ and ‘Agglomerate’.

Connect with Callum here:
twitter.com/laingcallum
linkedin.com/in/callumlaing
Download free copies of his books here: www.callumlaing.com

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Entrepreneurship

Women on Top in Tech – Pam Weber, Chief Marketing Officer at 99Designs

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(Women on Top in Tech is a series about Women Founders, CEOs, and Leaders in technology. It aims to amplify and bring to the fore diversity in leadership in technology.)

Pam Webber is Chief Marketing Officer at 99designs, where she heads up the global marketing team responsible for acquisition, through growth marketing and traditional marketing levers, and increasing lifetime value of customers. She is passionate about using data to derive customer insights and finding “aha moments” that impact strategic direction. Pam brings a host of first-hand startup marketing experiences as an e-commerce entrepreneur herself and as the first marketing leader for many fast-growing startups. Prior to joining 99designs, she founded weeDECOR, an e-commerce company selling custom wall decals for kids’ rooms. She also worked as an executive marketing consultant at notable startups including True&Co, an e-commerce startup specializing in women’s lingerie. Earlier in her career, Pam served in various business and marketing positions with eBay and its subsidiary, PayPal, Inc. A resident of San Francisco, Pam received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and MBA from Harvard Business School. Pam is a notable guest speaker for Venture Beat, The Next Web, Lean Startup, and Growth Hacking Forum, as well as an industry expert regularly quoted in Inc., CIO, Business News Daily, CMSwire, Smart Hustle, DIY Marketer, and various podcast and radio shows. You can follow her on Twitter at @pamwebber_sf.

What makes you do what you do?
My dad always told me make sure you choose a job you like because you’ll be doing it for a long time. I took that advice to heart and as I explored various roles over my career, I always stopped to check whether I was happy going to work every day – or at least most days :). That has guided me to the career I have in marketing today. I’m genuinely excited to go to work every day. I get to create, to analyze, to see the impact of my work. It’s very fulfilling.

How did you rise in the industry you are in?
I had a penchant for numbers and it helped me stand out in my field. This penchant became even more powerful when the Internet and digital marketing started to explode. There was a great need for marketers whose skills could span both the creative and the analytic aspects of marketing. I capitalized on that growth by bringing unique insight to the companies I worked with, well-supported with thoughtful analysis.

Why did you take on this role/start this startup?
I’m not sure this is relevant to my situation as I had been a marketing leader in various start-ups and companies. I took on the role at 99designs because I was excited by the global reach of the brand and the opportunity the company had to own the online design space. I especially liked the team as I felt they were good at heart.

The challenge I’ve faced in my time at 99designs is how do I evolve the team quickly and nimbly to address new challenges. The work we do now, is very different than the work we did a year ago and even the year before that. There is a fine line between staying focused on the goal ahead and being able to move quickly should that goal shift.

Do you have a mentor that you look up to in your industry or did you look for one or how did that work?
There is no one I’ve sought out or worked with over my entire career as my “mentee” needs have changed so much over the years. There are many people who have helped me along the way. For example, one of my peers at eBay, who was quite experienced and skilled in marketing strategy and creative execution, taught me what was in a marketing plan and how to evaluate marketing assets. As I have risen to leadership positions over the years, I often reach out to similarly experienced colleagues for advice on how they handle situations.

How did you make a match if you and how did you end up being mentored by him?
I learned early in my career that it rarely hurts to ask for advice. So that is what I have done. Additionally, there are people that are known to be quite helpful and build a reputation for giving back to others in advisory work. Michael Dearing, of Harrison Metal and ex-eBay, is one of those people. I, as well as countless others, have asked him for advice and guidance through the years and he does his best to oblige. Finding mentorship is about intuiting who in your universe might be willing and whether you are up for asking for help.

That being said, generally, I have found, if you are eager to learn and be guided, people will respond to the outreach.

Now as a leader how do you spot, develop, keep, grow and support your talent?
I generally look for a good attitude and inherent “smarts”. A good attitude can encompass anything from being willing to take on many different types of challenges to working well amongst differing personalities and perspectives. Smarts can be seen through how well someone’s done in their “passion areas” (i.e. areas where they have a keen interest in pursuing).

I try to hire those types of people because in smaller, fast-growing companies like many of the ones I’ve worked in, it’s more often than not about hiring flexible people as things move and change fast.

Once those people are on my team, I try to keep them challenged and engaged by making sure they have varying responsibilities. If I can’t give them growth in their current job or in the current company, I encourage them to seek growth opportunities elsewhere. I’d rather have one of my stars leave for a better growth opportunity than keep them in a role where they might grow stale.

Do you consciously or unconsciously support diversity and why?
I consciously support diversity. When I am hiring, I am constantly thinking about how to balance the team with as broad a range as possible of skill sets, perspectives, etc. to ensure we can take on whatever is thrown at us, or whatever we want to go after.

What is your take on what it takes to be a great leader in your industry and as a general rule of thumb?
I’m going to assume a great leader in my industry to mean a marketing leader in a technology company. I think a great leader in this industry is not afraid to learn new tricks no matter their age – it’s the growth mindset you may have heard about. I have a friend who inspires me to do this – she purchased the Apple Watch as soon as it was available, and was one of the first people I knew to use the Nest heating/cooling system. She’s not an early adopter by most definitions, but she adopts the growth mindset. This is the mindset I, too, have sought to adopt. In my field of marketing, it most recently has meant learning about Growth Marketing and how to apply this methodology to enhance growth. Independent of your industry, I think a growth mindset serves you well.

Advice for others?
I have been at 99designs for 3.5 years. During that time we’ve invested in elevating the skills and quality of our designer community, we’ve rebranded to reflect this higher level of quality, and have improved the satisfaction of our customers. Our next phase of growth will come from better matching clients to the right designer and expanding the ability to work with a designer one-on-one. We have the best platform to find, collaborate, and pay professional designers who deliver high quality design at an affordable price, and it’s only going to get better. I’m excited to deliver on that vision.

Pam Webber
Chief Marketing Officer of 99designs
Twitter: @pamwebber_sf

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