After spending over two decades in the corporate world, M.J. Aravind became a part of the founding team of India’s earliest BPO, Daksh eServices. He believes his foray into the entrepreneurial world was accidental and, since then, he has donned several hats including that of a venture investor and, now, a CEO in the social sector
“It’d be safe to say that I am an accidental entrepreneur. The person who conceived the idea of Daksh initially wanted me to validate his idea. When it finally started crystalizing into a proper venture, he asked if I would join him. I quickly checked with my wife and joined him,” says Aravind, as we began our interview with him for the Entrepreneurial Journeys section of Beyond Basics. Aravind’s thought process at the time was that he had already spent over two decades in the corporate world and done quite well for himself. But becoming an entrepreneur would give him the opportunity to not only build something from scratch but also create something with his own, unique stamp on it.
Thus was born Daksh eServices, one of India’s earliest BPOs, which was founded by MJ Aravind, Sanjeev Agarwal and Pavan Vaish. At Daksh, Aravind spearheaded all operations, including setting up of systems and processes, critical in any BPO setup. He says, “As an entrepreneur, I felt far more responsible than I had ever felt before; I felt responsibility towards my people, my customers and everyone else involved. I’d say that is the greatest difference between being an entrepreneur and a professional.”
The early challenges
At the time, the BPO industry was just taking shape and startups had to create a whole lot of new processes to cater to a 24 x 7 work cycle, something that wasn’t very common.
Even if employees understood the importance of working odd hours to service global clients, it was also crucial for other people, like caterers, hardware/software repair vendors and such, to understand this new industry. Aravind says, “The basic challenge was that we were a 24 x 7 industry. This meant, for example, we needed caterers to service our employees at 2 AM in the morning and that ecosystem had to be built up. I even spoke to grandmothers of our employees to convince them that this was a good place to work.”
Aravind believes it was a wonderful opportunity to solve a whole new set of problems as the business was built. Like most companies, training and then retaining employees was a challenge; Young men and women worked together at night changing several social norms and it was important to communicate and set rules such that all employees understood that it was work that they had to focus on.
These are only some broad level challenges, but the critical aspect to scale up any BPO operation was the ability of the founders to setup good systems and procedures. “The satisfaction for me came from the thrill of leaving my imprint on the company. It was built with my ideas and theories, some of which I picked up in my earlier corporate stints,” explains Aravind.
Aravind also explains that Daksh was a venture that was built to last. “We constantly invested in the long term and, I believe, the company is still doing well, thanks to our approach of focusing on the future.” The founders and investors exited the company by selling to IBM, but Aravind emphasises on why the founders never tried to build a company to exit. “The company was in good hands, and for me personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the build-up phase, but got a little bored of the routine after a while.”
Like several of his contemporaries, who turned venture capitalists after exiting a venture, Aravind too joined a VC firm, Artiman Ventures. “This was a carefully planned career move. I knew I loved working with startups, especially in the early stages. Artiman gave me the opportunity to do this parallel and help several entrepreneurs through the challenging early stage,” explains Aravind.
“The exciting thing about this role is that you sort of meet one or two brilliant entrepreneurs almost every week. That’s at least about 50 smart people you meet in a year, and that can be very exciting. I have met people who approach problem solving in such unique ways that all you want to do is watch from the side and clap,”
Aravind further emphasises on a very important trait entrepreneurs should display. “What is the extent of belief in the idea? What is the level of flexibility one has? The point is no plan ever remains the same, so flexibility is key; yet there is some level of passion and perseverance needed. It is crucial to have the right mix,” explains he.
In yet another short entrepreneurial stint, while Aravind was still a Partner at Artiman, he conceptualized the idea of a real estate firm called Woodstock Ambience, to cater to single folks working in the ITeS/BPO industry in Bengaluru. The idea was to setup a housing complex, close to work, to accommodate single working professionals from outside of Bangalore. He hired a team to roll this out. However this didn’t pan out as planned, at least from a financial perspective. Aravind says, “The biggest challenge for us was that our costs were going up constantly, but salary levels at the entry level in the BPO segment remained stagnant.” He decided to shelve the scale up plan for Woodstock, as he soon realized the costing model was broken.
Moving into the social enterprise sector
These days, Aravind is busy with his role as CEO at Association for People with Disabilities, a non-profit firm that is over 55-years-old. Aravind used to be on its Board, but felt he was only scratching the surface with this contribution. They were on the lookout for a CEO and Aravind though it might be a good bet.
“Two years ago, I joined full time and spend about 40 hours a week on APD. The biggest challenge for me was I didn’t understand disability. Also, managing people in the social sector is a very different ball game,” he says.
Aravind, as CEOs, is responsible for driving efficiency and productivity into the organization. He says, the learning curve here is steep, much more than what it was at Daksh.” Another key goal of Aravind at APD is to find his successor, so the organization will run well without him as well.
A glance at Aravind’s career will point you in the direction of a quick observation – his willingness to pick up a set of new skills needed in every new job. At Daksh, he did what it takes to win in the BPO sector, where employees worked round the clock. As an investor, he worked on mastering the art and science of aiding smart, early-stage entrepreneurs to succeed and now, his dream is to make a meaningful contribution to the development of Association of People with Disabilities over the longer term.
On turning into an entrepreneur
The greatest difference between being an entrepreneur and a professional is the responsibility you feel towards your people, product and customers.
On tackling uncommon challenges
Daksh was a 24 x 7 industry. Hence, training and then retaining employees was a challenge because men and women worked together at night, changing several social norms. To tackle this, the company communicated and set rules such that all employees understood that it was work that they had to focus on. In one instance, the team also spoke to the employees’ guardians to familiarize them with the wok environment and assure them of safety norms.
On building a company for the long term
From the beginning, the founders did not build a company to exit. Instead, they constantly focused on the future and invested in the long term. As a result, even today, after acquisition by IBM, the company is still doing well.
On key traits entrepreneurs should have
What is the extent of belief in the idea? What is the level of flexibility one has? The point is no plan ever remains the same, so flexibility is key; yet there is some level of passion and perseverance needed. It is crucial to have the right mix.