As a child, I used to wonder where mosquitoes in winter hide, why fish keep swimming, how birds learn to fly and other such 'un-natural' occurrences. After a career in marketing & communications for over 20 years, building and running businesses of excellent sizes and in many a geography, hiring and training dozens of successful managers, I continue to be aggressively curious about beings and things. In 2011, I co-founded Friends of Ambition, a Business Growth Platform for Middle India. It works with growth-minded businesses in Middle India and helps them professionalize their operations, build internal capability and become agile. Our focus on Middle India [a.k.a Tier 2 towns] stems from a strong conviction that the next several decades of explosive business growth in India will come from that geography. As I often find myself in cities and towns I might have only heard of just a few months ago, meet business owners there and hear their stories, dreams and challenges, I feel a sense of elation and sadness, sometimes simultaneously. This blog is a chronicle of my experiences in Middle India - mostly gleaned from real life encounters with business owners, their influencers and well wishers.
Except in e-commerce and technology, most people start thinking of a business that would serve the immediate locality. It’s simpler to think of customers sitting next door to you than those hundreds and thousands of miles away. Expansion of geographic scope comes later. This is the reason why we see many Middle India's entrepreneurs build robust and profitable companies, but unknown to many of us until we visit their towns.
I guess something else must have been going on in the minds of Milind Chittawar and Shashank Garg of Nagpur when they started their respective businesses.
In many ways, Chittawar and Garg are very different individuals.
Chittawar’s self-effacing personality is the first thing that hits you when he starts talking about his career. He makes each of his ‘setbacks’ look very planned and achievements accidental. Son of a Public Works Department engineer, he tells you how he almost missed getting into even an Engineering Diploma because his name was third on the waiting list. Although he eventually got his graduate and then post graduate degree in Engineering, his modesty expresses itself when he says “I am extremely thankful that I failed everywhere”.
Today, he is the owner and CEO of SEE-Tech Solutions, a consulting and technology company that focuses on safety, environment and energy and helps businesses optimise their energy consumption amongst other things. Unlike many other consultants, he is working on at least one client [based in Mumbai] where his remuneration depends directly and solely on how much energy he can save for a large company, whose energy bills must be running into crores of rupees every month. In his energy conservation demo laboratory in Nagpur, which he claims is India’s only such lab, he can already demonstrate 20 out of a possible 150 conservation measures. “Within 3 years”, he says, “I want to be able to demonstrate all 150 measures, convert my lab into an energy museum. I want people from the USA and Japan to visit my lab to see conservation at work”. He has already invented potentially revolutionary energy improvement products including one that can improve the productivity of automotive air conditioning and saving fuel consumption.
Chittawar’s businesses could have been based anywhere, but he chose to remain in Nagpur, an excellent city, but not quite as well known for business as its cousin Mumbai. "In Nagpur, businessmen have always used professionals to grow their business. I want to show the other way.”
Shashank Garg – I would imagine he is 10 years younger than Chittawar – isn’t immodest either. But he is supremely confident and equally passionate. Like Chittawar, he is in the knowledge business, he also helps businesses improve productivity and build competitive advantage. He too would not want to move out of Nagpur to build his business. Garg is the Founder and President of InfoCepts Technologies, a business intelligence company that already employs nearly three hundred people and is hiring more, serving clients in just one market – the USA.
Unlike Chittawar though, he followed a less radical career path, finishing his graduate engineering [also in Metallurgy, coincidentally] in Nagpur’s venerated VNIT, post-graduation in the USA, followed by his first job there, and then returning to Nagpur in 2003 to set up InfoCepts. Unlike Chittawar’s 248 connections on LinkedIn, he has 500+, which could be a 1000 or more in reality.
Now, I haven’t analysed Garg’s company balance sheet [nor Chttawar’s], so I cannot comment on how well the company is doing financially, but then, this isn’t about financials.
This is really about what keeps ambitious people like Chittawar and Garg in ‘less fortunate’ towns like Nagpur and what opportunities they see and the challenges they face. When you talk to these two gentlemen, not for once will you see a hint of regret that they stayed in Nagpur, instead of relocating to a bigger city. The fact is, they chose to stay in Nagpur and build businesses. Even more important, unlike many entrepreneurs in towns of Nagpur’s size, they haven’t allowed their ambition to be scaled down.
Chittawar wants to grow his revenue 50 times over the next decade, create new jobs and make Nagpur a visitor attraction in energy conservation. Mr Garg takes pride in not chasing growth for its own sake [“we are not under any pressure”], but is very proud of the product he delivers, the customers he serves and the number of jobs he creates. He is deploying some of the best global practices in creating a participative workplace and although he didn’t say it himself, my guess is he wants InfoCepts to be known some day for its workplace practices, something very few Indian businesses really care for.
They are not without challenges.
Chittawar feels he needs mentoring and help in business planning, if he were to scale his consulting only company successfully and reconfigure his client composition. I feel he has another challenge of protecting his IPs, which he hasn’t quite thought of. Garg is worried about how the company culture may change as it transitions from a few-dozens to many-hundreds employee organisation, as he creates his second line leadership.
What inspires me about these two gentlemen is their focus on creating employment and their clarity of thought. I am confident that in a few years, both these companies will be case studies. I also have no doubt that they will face new challenges on the way.
But like someone wise said, it’s the speed bumps that give the highway its meaning.
(Based on conversations with Milind Chittawar and Shashank Garg in Nagpur in January, facilitated by Jay Chopde of Persistent Systems)