When I look back on the 11-year journey of pepper square, many people and events flash back in my mind. There were days that were gloomy, days of laughter and anxious moments spread in between.
Anand serving chaat
Before the 5 star gatherings and the business flights became affordable, there were many years of mooli parathas and bhelpuri on the streets. Not that I have anything against these tasty snacks, but it’s a question of choice and affordability. It’s one thing when you stop in your air conditioned car and have a chaat by the roadside and quite another story when you have to eat only chaat for lunch, sprinkled with heat and dust.
The truth is, dreams have nothing to do with the food you take in but with the choice of ingredients you feed the mind. Here’s a list of how I stayed hungry and foolish and how that hunger nurtured my dreams:
Patience is dreams on pause. It’s not a passive act but a strenuous wait that tests your character — whether you are an eagle gathering courage under your wings before the flight, or just any bird that falters on the way. Patience is gathering all the information and the resources for preparing the birth of your dream. It needs more moral strength than muscle. Muscle power can be manufactured, but the fibers of patience are yet to come out of the most advanced labs.
Numbers and preferential treatments have played an important role in my life. They have shaped me, saddened me and also saved me from becoming a slave to my job. Being the third child in the family, I was always competing for attention with my brother who was academically brilliant. I felt that he was the preferred child with centum (100%) scores on his report card, while I came home with zeros. I am sure many of you have experienced something similar in your life.
I remember my lovable and great math teacher P Ramaswamy (affectionately called PR) teaching me a math formula 32 times and finally giving up in exasperation saying, “kanna, unnaku enna pannalum kanaku varadhu” (my dear, whatever you do, you will never learn math).
It took me a number of years to figure out that there is no point in trying to do something just to please others when your heart is not in it. You might get temporary attention, but it fizzles out mostly because you cannot sustain the other’s interest. I accepted that I would never be as good as my brother in math because I simply hated studying. I love to study people instead. And I definitely scored better in the people department.
In business as in life, I follow the same principle: devote myself to what I love. I am in the Digital Agency business not because I want to please others, but because I love what I do everyday. Since I discovered this truth, I have charted my own destiny. But just when I thought I left numbers far behind, I find that they keep following me.
11 years, 550 projects, 250 clients, and 14 entrepreneurs born out of pepper square. We still don’t have a sales team. All our clients come to us through good references of our work and from our website. It seems that if you love what you do, the numbers will keep following you. People and numbers, are all that there is to make your dreams come true. Love people, you have a lovable organization; love numbers and you have a scalable organization.
I find people and their behavior most intriguing. I notice the extent of risks people take to fulfill their parents’, wife’s, husband’s and kids’ wishes. I watch, with fascination, the daily automation of life that circles around our so-called wants. I can sense how people are treated based on the sum of their wealth, and also how power and arrogance result from it.
People’s wants continue to grow irrespective of how much money they have. There is no end to human want. But as an entrepreneur it is important to differentiate between NEED and WANT. Having a strong cash flow is a need in business, and the need to multiply fast is a want. If we understand this fundamental well enough, we will be able to make better decisions. After all, your decisions define your destiny.
12 years old Santro, still going strong
I notice people becoming slaves to their wants, see them losing freedom and the time to enjoy simple pleasures in their pursuit of bigger dreams. In short, people have become automated while THINGS have begun to command more respect; the big car in the driveway is a symbol that you have arrived in life. It’s not that I don’t want it in my life, just that I want to be in control and not to be controlled by it. I would not buy a fancy car that I have to slave all my life to pay off; I would rather buy an affordable car. Because, deep in my heart, I know that there is peace of mind in frugal discipline and that lasts longer than the short-lived high of extravagance.
Hence, I decided I wouldn’t take loans or mortgage my house to fund my dreams but rather earn my way to them. Destiny does not change with a quick makeover; it’s built brick by brick on so many decisions, each affecting a change in lifestyle. Come what may, I am not the kind to mortgage my house, because it’s not just walls that I pledge with it, but the dreams and the lives of those living in it. I wouldn’t crush my home for a dream I keep chasing. I would rather bury the business, because I can always start another.
I have witnessed the so-called struggle to make it big that takes away people’s health and happiness. But having become slaves to their habits, people don’t change, at least not until an external catastrophe leaves them with no choice. People indulge too much until the body says, ENOUGH, I have had it. If you are not in control of your own health, how can you ever take charge of anything else in life? Your heart’s been beating from even before you were born and continues to beat nonstop 24 hours each day, and you say you can’t spare 20 minutes in a day to take care of it?
Truly, the health of a business can be learned from your body. If you keep pushing things in life without exercising every day, your body will initially absorb the shocks, but one day it will collapse, and on that day it would mostly be too late to fix it. The best way to love yourself, is to take care of yourself, and similarly for your business, to take care of it everyday.
Before we change anything, we need to change within. I learned perfection from several sources: the chiseled symmetry of Indian temples, emotions weaved into technicalities from Kamal Hassan and the precision in carpentry from my dad. I travelled abroad and learnt what it means to do things professionally. In India we often use culture as an excuse to deliver substandard stuff, but that needn’t be so. Quality has no boundaries. We just have to commit ourselves to perfection no matter what we do and where we are; it is a way of life, expect nothing lesser.
Often, people say, “The customer is paying only so much. If I have to make it perfect, then I need to charge extra.” I don’t buy this at all. Building a lovable brand is not about delivering what customers want, but delivering it pixel perfect and certified by your heart.
Picture taken in a Mumbai taxi
Once you have discovered your passion, stick with it. I don’t believe in starting companies with an EXIT STRATEGY in my mind. In 2009 when a large Venture Capitalist in the U.S. asked me what my exit strategy was, I smiled, pointing my finger towards the sky. He didn’t understand. Then I told him that going up is the only exit strategy, but it has already been defined and I have no control over it.
Clients, employees and partners
I love to take people along and strive to make the journey worthwhile by providing a beautiful and meaningful environment to balance work and life. pepper square success in the last 11 years belongs to every single person who’s walked into our life, starting from my clients. I still remember my first client. Long before the office, the chairs and the employees, my visiting card or even the URL peppersquare.com a client gave me a check for Rs.10,500 ($200) as an advance to design a form. Indeed, without respecting and valuing clients we don’t go anywhere.
I see opportunities everyday, everywhere and every time. But why are there so few entrepreneurs in India?
I come across two kinds of people who have the spark in them, but something is stopping them from making the next move. The first group is always wondering what others will think if they fail, how to pay their bills, and whether they have to sacrifice their lifestyle. The second one says their problems are bigger than yours. Neither can make it happen in life or in business, because the first one is driven by the society and cannot pursue their aspiration while the latter is imprisoned in a script of self-sympathy failing to see the world around them.
Lessons from my mistakes
Of course there will be obstacles and mistakes in every entrepreneur’s journey. But the one who shines is the one who can face challenges with a smile.
I remember in 2005, when we had very little work, a prospect who was visiting India pressurized me to visit Mumbai so that he could understand pepper square service offering. I asked him to look up our website for the same, but he was hell-bent and threatened that if I didn’t visit him in Mumbai he wouldn’t consider doing business. I was thinking whether I should fly to Mumbai and spend on my stay or pay my employees? It was tempting to go get some work; some work was better than none.
I went to Mumbai and met him. But I discovered that it was a bad move as the work I was supposed to take up was not in my line of interest. It seemed such a waste of time and money. There will always be uncertainties, but the truth is you cannot escape from the certainties you are responsible for. Business is a two-way street. It’s important that vendors understand that they are on an equal professional footing, regardless of who is paying the bill. Learn to say NO.
2. No desperate acts
Since then I decided never to accept work when I am desperate. I apply the same principle for hiring as well. We hire people when we don’t need them. Desperation clouds decision-making and we end up losing more than intended. That was also the time I made up my mind never to begin work without receiving an advance payment from the client. After all, I am responsible for paying my employees and partners on time. An advance also indicates whether the client’s commitment to the project is genuine or just some trend catching their fancy.
3. Temptations and transparency
Just as the path to success is laden with obstacles, there are also many temptations that come your way. I am not for taking short cuts to success. I like to keep my transactions clean and transparent. I will not sign my soul away in exchange of a quick, lavish lifestyle. I have learnt to say NO to clients with whom I am not comfortable doing business. Choose your clients well like the way you select your life partner.
It’s easy to get carried away after the initial dose of success when you start getting invites to events and speaking gigs. But you have to bounce back to reality else you will get sucked into the media hype. You tend to become an image of yourself and start living up to it, eventually losing your true identity.
I therefore visit my hometown Mayiladuthurai every now and then. Going back to my roots makes me happy because people there don’t care how much money I have or don’t have. They are just happy to be with me. Happiness is in sharing the little things that give you joy and spending time with the people you love. It’s not being in the numbers game or being seen in the so-called happening parties. I would rather go home to the people I love than to a bunch of currency notes I want to hide somewhere.