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The truly enterprising ones amongst the modern entrepreneurs have been those whose indomitable spirit and, their belief to do things out of the ordinary has, ultimately, led them to success and prosperity in their lives. One can even say that they did what they really wanted to do differently, knowing pretty well that there may not be much to write home about it, or worse still, it may not succeed at all.
The risk of being branded as out of league, an outcast, and even considered as rebellious (revolutionary) - came gratis with it all. Ajith Balakrishnan, the founder and serving chairman and CEO of India's leading internet company, Rediff.com, is one who inhibits this streak. For, when he passed out of one of the world renowned IIMs, he did not go to the Levers (HUL) or L&Ts (which have so-long been considered as the business leadership schools of India) like most of his peers at college did. Instead, he decided to choose a path which was, at that point in time, so un-heralded by Indians - advertising.
Being different sometimes brings along a bit of stoicism and a touch of recklessness to one's persona. In that, one runs the risk of thinking way ahead of oneself that may often lead to failure. Balakrishnan knew this pretty well, when he quit his first job only after ten months since joining, to start an advertising company - at the very tender age of 22 years. This was called Rediffusion (known today as Rediffusion-Dentsu, Young & Rubicam), which is one of India's largest advertising agencies. Exactly a quarter century later in 1996, he was to establish a company which would go down in the history of Indian Internet sphere as a pioneering initiative, besides bringing much success to its founder and the people associated with it, and raking in the moolah!
Balakrishnan was born into a family of doctors - both, his father and his grandfather were doctors with private practices, so there was nothing enterprising, so to say, about his lineage that one can attribute his inclination toward business, and the subsequent success as an entrepreneur. Born in Cannanore (present day Kannur) in Kerala, he completed his bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Kerala post his school education at St. Michaels High School in Kannur. He is believed to have not been so much into studies as he was into sports. In fact, his admission into the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Calcutta (Kolkata) was pure chance. He took the entrance test (to the IIM) in Trivandrum upon someone's prodding as it is said to have coincided with a trip to the state capital to play a football match. He completed his Master's in Business Management from IIM(C) in 1971. (He is also known to have attended the Owner/President Management Program at the Harvard Business School).
Different spark in the young Ajith
Strangely enough, for someone coming from a family which was not even remotely connected to business or even media, Ajith Balakrishnan was attracted towards the idea of starting a magazine at college. Where the idea stemmed from cannot be established for sure. But, from his accounts of his youth, one can presume that the tumultuous period in contemporary Indian history around the time of his graduation from IIM Kolkata, may perhaps have sown the seeds of bringing forth a magazine. Naxalism was on the rise, India had lost its first and most influential (upto that point in time) premier a few years ago, the country was yet to come to terms with the psychological damage the brief war with China had rendered it, and so on. The times as well as the land were fertile for someone with an ignited mind such as the young and exuberant Balakrishnan possessed. The entrepreneurial flair in him sought to surface even as he was yet to face the big, bad world of business (certainly, if one is not groomed properly for it).
India's first internet entrepreneur wanted to be engaged in anything that had something to do with media, communications, and technology. Thus, it was that he joined an advertising agency for his first job at a time when none of the technology companies had started in India (or the ones that had started, TCS for eg. had not taken off yet).
But, the unflinching belief in their own capability, besides the notion (say it conviction, if you will) that the ads that were being made during those days were not good. At least, not good enough to Ajith's liking, and that of his friend and colleague, Diwan Arun Nanda's. The folly of youth forced the erroneous thought in their mind that they knew better. The young men could not be entirely faulted for this thinking, as what was being dished out back then, in the name of creativity, was mere imitation of ads from abroad. The two youngsters sought to address this with their own brand of creativity and fresh thinking, to come up with original work.
So, Ajith along with Arun, who was many years senior to him, left the agency where Ajith had been employed for only ten months and started an advertising agency, which they christened as 'Rediffusion.' They had also succeeded in bringing in another enthusiast by the name of Mohammad Khan. And true to the founders' belief, their work was truly different and creative - proven by the fact that they had won most of the awards in the creative field that was up for grabs, in a matter of just 12 months since starting the agency. What's more, a couple of their creations even went on to become sensations for a while.
The ad agency was doing reasonably well and, brought to its founders the much needed creative satisfaction that they had been yearning for, for so long. One would imagine that that would be it for them. But, not for Ajith Balakrishnan, who had always demonstrated a sort of geekish tendency i.e. the techie in him could read code as easily as he could an article.
His indomitable self was still in the quest for something that promised so much for this world, and the way it was going to move ahead. He wanted to do something in technology. So, he asked his friend, partner, and co-founder of Rediffusion, Arun Nanda, to take over the mantle of running the company while he invested his thinking, time, energy, and money at making good of the promise that technology held. There was also another aspect that had sparked the ambition in him to take the internet route. The years preceding the economic liberalization had been somewhat hazy for the country in general, in terms of the business atmosphere and its stunted growth. He realised he had to do something about its impact on Rediffusion, and enrolled for a course at Harvard. There he is believed to have stumbled upon a case-study on CompuServe, a pioneer in what was then called the information services business - and the founder's struggle to set up the company and how a new competitor called America Online emerged. The business apparently fascinated him a great deal. But the general view at the time was that information services were not taking off because computer screens were too complex. When he learnt of attempts by the University of Illinois to create a browser - Mosaic - he realised he had an ace up his sleeve. He had played around with the earlier version i.e. tried his hands writing programming code for a browser, and succeeded.
The advent of Internet and the technology boom
Along came 1994 and the world-wide-web (internet) had started to spread across the length and breadth of the world. The following couple of years can be termed as the heydays of internet in India. Balakrishnan was both alert and capable enough to spot this huge opportunity. Coupled with technical know-how (he could code, remember) and management learning and the wealth of experience he had gained after running the ad agency for almost 25 years, he decided to drown himself into internet-related business activity. He invested Rs. 2 crore out of his pocket to start 'Rediff.com,' an internet company in Mumbai, in 1996. It is said that Rediff.com did not bring in any revenues for three long years since its inception.
But, he didn't let go off it. He had resolved to make it a success, not because he believed it would; more because he had very rightly identified the potential the new age technology had in it. Especially for India, a country which had just broken the shackles of the License-Raj and had started to transition towards the phenomena called liberalization and globalization. If India had to make good of the path it had opted to tread along, then technology had to be the enabler of quite a good chunk, if not all, of its success.
As those three initial, almost listless, years trudged along Rediff.com was able to make both the business world as well as commoners, realize the power and possibilities of the internet. And, as the so-called, dot-com fever started to grip the world, scores of venture capitalists, investment bankers and lawyers came knocking at the doorstep of his office (in a low-rent area of Mumbai) urging him to take his company public on New York's NASDAQ stock market.
Being the entrepreneur he was, Balakrishnan was awake to the prospect of floating the shares of the company that would, apart from raising capital for further investment and expansion, make his company global --something that he had neither planned nor aspired for. It just happened.
All this wasn't as easy as it is recounted here. As much promise and opportunity at it had in it, the advent of the internet age in India was anything but a bed of roses. He had to battle it out with adversaries many times his size; fend off scheming lawyers who were always on the look out to extort money through class action suits (in the tough courts of lower Manhattan); and even rebuffed investment bankers who tried to stage-manage the sale of his company, and so on.
The latter half of the first decade of the millennium brought along yet more challenges and tougher competitions with global giants spreading their wings in the sub-continent, looking to cash in on the booming middle-class of an ever-bulging population. That besides the constantly changing face of technology and models, within a very short period of time would be enough to drain out even the most enthusiastic of technology buffs. But not Balakrishnan; the fact that he did not even so much as bat an eye-lid when investing a princely sum of Rs. 2 crore, at the almost ripe age of 46 years (by Indian notions), speaks volumes of the courage of conviction and vision this man from the then non-descript place possesses.
Not even the paranoia that the world was driven into the two major events of the last decade (a man-made catastrophe in the form of 9/11 and, and the out-and-out man-made economic crisis of 2008) right after the much-talked about dot-com bust of 2000, could dampen the man's spirits. He continues in his Endeavour of taking forward company in the information age when businesses the world over are transforming, to align with the dynamics of people's lives. The access and bandwidth constraints hindering the growth of internet notwithstanding, he at 63, is still gunning for Rediff.com to play its part in the most happening spheres -social networking - the next big thing that is already starting to make an impact on our lives.
In addition to shepherding Rediff.com into the 21st century and beyond, Ajith Balakrishnan has also assumed responsibility of many other entities. He is also a director of Rediffusion Holdings Private Limited, Rediffusion Dentsu Young & Rubicam Private Limited, Quintrol Technologies Private Limited, Rediff Holdings Inc., USA, India Abroad Publications, Inc., India In New York, Inc., India Abroad Publications (Canada) Inc., Rediff.com Inc USA and Value Communications Corporation. Mr. Balakrishnan is also Chairman of the Board of Governors of The Indian Institute of Management Calcutta and Chairman of the Working Group of Internet Governance set up by the Government of India.
Path Breaker Award given in December 2000 by Dataquest.
* "Rediff Deal Ho Jaye! will help consumers discover new services and experiences in their city, such as restaurants, spas, hotels, healthcare, tattoos, hobby classes, adventure sports and other local attractions across 70 categories and at 30-60 per cent discounts, thus helping them make the most of their quality time with their family and friends."
* "Education has become a branch of the real estate business. If I ask you to judge an institution, you'll look at the building and say it resembles an Ivy League institution, so it has to be a good college. So an unseen competition has developed among institutions to have better-looking buildings rather than focusing on pedagogy, which goes beyond faculty and teaching processes."
* "Learning happens when some new bit of information attaches itself to something you already know, through a process of scaffolding. So the leading edge educators are putting a PC or an iPad in front of a young person and interactively discovering what level he's at and incrementally building or adding to the scaffolding so you can learn at your own pace. This scaffolding is the most important thing - I wish I could take a year off and just do that - that would be a breakthrough."
* "I keep pointing out that in a country in which virtually anything be bought, you cannot buy an IIM or an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) seat. The beauty of the system is that over time it has developed into a nice, obtuse structure, so that nobody can pressure you!"
* "Perverted and corrupt governance is deep in the DNA of India."
* "We believe that our recent growth is the result of the changes we implemented two quarters ago where we revamped our sales strategy for our online advertising businesses and focused investments on growth-driven programs, specifically related to our online shopping marketplace and internet based local TV advertising business."
* "I tell all my guys in the office to see this as running a marathon. The front runners are a million times our size. In a marathon, you don't run in front of the pack; you stay in the back and wait for your turn, otherwise you'll run out of steam." (On why he never explored selling Rediff.com).
* "It is heartening that B-school students are looking at operations and sustainability issues and solving problems faced by the vast majority of Indians."