Amar Deshpande | Entrepreneur | PGPX IIM Ahmedabad | Gaatha

Q1. Tell us about your journey.

Ans: I have been fortunate to have my wife not just as my partner in life but also as my partner in crime as I like to say it. She has been a part of this journey from day 1 so I have been very fortunate in that way that I haven’t been all by myself. I believe most of the times you are alone but when you need help there is always someone to help you.

Q2. What are the kind of brands you have worked with pre-PGPX? What was your motivation for this 1-year MBA from IIM Ahmedabad, when you had an option of doing it in the US where you were already settled?

Ans: I am a civil engineer so I have a masters in construction management and actually spent 7–8 years of my career in the United States working in the civil engineering design, water supply utilities, reconstruction of dams, and then I have worked with retail store construction mainly in the Chicago area, so I have actually seen from a flat strip of land actually a whole store being built, which is really exciting. Back then, if you are telling your friends what do you do, you need to point towards a water pipe line or the pumping session and tell them that you built it, versus, telling them to check the big building over there, that you built. That was kind of a motivation for switching from design to construction at that point in time. Coming back to India in 2008 was largely because of family reasons, for my parents, so I had to be back in India. It was a tough decision, I actually had an Indian permanent residency at that point in time, I had a fellowship for my MBA from the university of Western Ontario which was the Ivey school of business. Life was an auto-pilot and all one had to do was pack bags from Chicago, load things up in a car or s flight and land in Toronto and get on with a new life. But I consciously moved to Pune in 2008 with the idea that I needed to be with family and somehow working in India in the construction did not work out for me and one thing that really bothered me was the lack of respect for workers when it comes to employee health and safety, lack of standards being followed, even buildings have a rating system called the LEED or the green building rating system, everything that you are not supposed to do people were doing that and they could walk away with a certificate and proudly show it on their website or catalogues that we are LEED platinum certified building. Seeing all those things that were wrong really made me wonder if I really want to continue in construction in India.

The other thing I noticed that was that an MBA could actually extend one’s career by 5–7 years. In 2008 and 2009, I think a lot of my friends, parents, my elder cousin who were retiring from their careers at the age of 55. So at that time I was around 30 and I was asking myself how do I extend my career from 55 to 60, so I thought maybe if I continue with construction, my career will plateau at the age of 50. If you are looking at life expectance at 80, what happens in the next 30 years? So can an MBA investing new skills, extend my career by another 5–7 years, and remember those are the years when income level or your ability to earn money is the highest.

Q3. As of returns of investments, did the MBA pay off as IIM charges a bomb in terms of money?

Ans: Yes it did. It’s all the more now. I can tell this very proudly now that I was actually flat broke, I had like 60000 Rs left in my bank by the time PGPX started. I was married 3 weeks before my PGPX started, so my mother kept telling me why are you going to go and have your MBA when you are 30 years and asked me what was the guarantee that I would get a job after spending 20–25 lac rupees and how would I be able to pay it off, and I found those to be very genuine questions. Probably a lot of parents would ask the same question to men and women even today. I was fortunate to find my life partner whom I met in December, 2009 and got married in March, 2010. PGPX started in April, 2010. So 3 weeks before my MBA everything my mother said would not happen if I take up the loan and leave my job to do MBA, actually did happen positively for me. So in terms of return of investment, don’t worry about it, things will happen with time. The trajectory maybe different for everyone but it does happen.

What are we measuring the return on investment? Are we measuring on the terms of financial returns, did it help immediately? Probably it did so there was typically 1.8 to 2.1x increase in the compensation. I have not kept a track of where the compensation numbers are for over the past 4 or 5 years but I think medium compensation used to be in that 1.8 to 2x for most of the PGPX, those who decided either to continue in the profession or to switch careers and in my case I did switch careers. So I think it does pay off, few things that one need to keep in mind that the brand will help you to open the doors, but at the end of the day it’s your ability and passion for that role which you would like to play that will help you bag that particular role. Secondly, I think 2011 was the first year when PGPX started participating financial times rankings and we were ranked somewhere in rank 11 so I used to very proudly put this footer in the E-mail. One employer told me that it just means that I have you pay you more now, you made my job difficult and you are way too expensive for me so I cannot hire you. 2011 was not the best time to enter the workforce, economy was not doing very great, India was still recovering from 2008 and 2009 economic crisis. Obviously 2012 and 2013 were even worse because of change of government and everything else that came in. So one has to keep the economic cycles in mind and what is it that you are looking for. Either you choose the city or the location, the job or the role, or you choose the sector or the industry — I call it The Triangle. It’s difficult to achieve the perfect triangle or a quadrilateral if you consider the salary range as well. The point is you have to make a compromise somewhere. In my case, I actually wanted to leave construction, there were actually 2 very interesting opportunities, one was with General Electric, at that point in time it was a great brand to work with and it was in Pune. The other role was as energy consulting in Gurugram and my parents, family, everyone was in Pune. I wanted to leave construction, so the cost factor there was to leave Pune and having to go to Gurugram. So obviously you are uprooting yourself of your comfort zone and moving away to a completely new place. My thing was for my own professional growth and longevity of my career in India, I wanted to leave construction.

Q4. By the time you started to venture out on your own, what were your thoughts in your mind?

Ans: It was not all easy moving to Gurugram right after PGPX. Like I said, I was still broke and in fact had to borrow money from my cousin to buy a flight ticket to go to Gurugram so that I could start working. That was also the time that my father was hospitalized, in fact he was there in for about a month and a half so medical bills, loans, it was a difficult time. However a lot of things started happening positively, in fact a part of my bonus check was paid to the hospital and the other part was given to my cousin to pay back the money that I had borrowed. It will not be easy, it will be extremely difficult and I hope no one has to go through what I went through but the point is don’t use these as hurdles or setbacks, look at what you can actually find a way out of. What it did was it made me and my wife so disciplined when it comes to cost of living, we were able to pay off the PGPX loan in 2 and a half years, and out of which for the first 6 months she was not working because even she had to move from Ahmedabad, move to NCR and find a role for herself. Practically a single income for a good part of those 2 and a half years, it was still possible because that’s when the discipline comes into picture.

Let me tell you how does that help you in entrepreneurship. The paycheck is no longer there, you are back to a single income because she was working and I had started out the venture, it’s not just cost of living, it’s the ability to say no and not feel bad about it. Even today I do not think twice before choosing Uber pool over Uber Go because I know what does that 30–50 Rs mean to me. Those are the things that become ingrained. But the advantage is that in the long run it really makes you feel much more prepared for anything that may come your way; you will be ready to do a lot more in much less.

Q5. A lot of people want to start on their own but they don’t know what exactly they should be doing. How did your Gaatha story happen?

Ans: That is something we went through in the second half of 2015. One of the reasons for leaving my role with Amazon was it involved a lot of travel. In the entire calendar year of 2015, I was in the office for about 12 or 13 days, rest of the time was just Monday morning fly out and every Saturday evening fly back. I was spending time on construction sites, it was affecting family life, it was affecting the time where you do other things. Around September 2015, my wife and I decided (you have involve your significant other, your family, before you take the plunge), while we were in Puducherry in early October, and believe it or not we just sat at the beach and we just talked, we talked about everything under the sun, it was actually like going out on a first date with someone. You want a relationship to work, but you don’t know how to steer the conversation so you talk a lot about other things and let the conversation drive itself. So we talked about where our life has taken us so far, what is it that we really want to do, what is it that we were really able to do, a lot of questions that went around and as we started talking, we were like if not my current role with Amazon, then what. Then the answer was obvious, it’s not construction, then let’s do something in the digital media. As we got talking, we both discovered we are both passionate about it. We both loved storytelling, we loved the content space, and we both had listened to a lot of audio for several years, I was listening to podcasts in the year 2004 even before the term was called. So we decided let’s give that the medium or area that we are both passionate about. To answer your question how did digital media come into picture, we actually wrote down the skills required for making a business space out of it, that’s when we realised there are four elements — 1) pre-production, curating the content, finding a narrator, structurer, etc. 2) where do I host it, can people listen to it in their android device or spotify, apple podcasts, etc. 3) marketing element, which is the crux, 4) community selection, whether to do it through a Facebook group or your own website, through an app, etc. These were the skillsets that neither of us possessed. So it was a completely different skillsets that we had to learn and both of us said this is great. If you want to do it, you need to be prepared for a 5–7 year journey where first 3–4 years we will only spend in learning. It was like PGPX in real world. I am learning Kannada only to pitch Gaatha story to a Uber driver or anybody else at least one person every week. It’s a skillset I am still hopelessly prepared for. It’s tough, I am learning and I start conversations with somebody saying “Do you have kids? How old are your kids?” and I tell them that my Kannada is horrible so I am sorry about it but help me become a better communicator.

Q6. Tell me more about Gaatha stories.

Ans: Coming back to October, 2015 in Puducherry, we decided that on demand audio (we didn’t like to call it podcasting because it limits the potential) is what we want to do. Then the question was about the elements I spoke about — production, marketing, hosting, distribution, how do we begin? We had taken a decision that by the end of December, I will be leaving Amazon and from first week of January onwards, we will be starting Gaatha story and so how do we go about it. Some of the steps were very logical, register an entity, etc. which is relatively easy, but the more difficult part was how do we actually execute that. We gave ourselves 3 months to execute and I understood the whole process of production. We actually invested in the learning course which costed 1000$. We invested in the microphone and things like that. So there was a bit of upfront investment in that, there was a lot of learning involved, I am an author as well, I love talking to people then why not start with a show for authors. In terms of product market fit, it probably was very early to the market, it’s only now that publishers in India have started doing interviews of authors or there are audio shows on book publishing in India. Back in October or November, 2015 nobody in the Indian market spoke about it. Once you get the basics right, it’s only about customer engagement, management, marketing, feedback, etc. The reason we started with My Kitaab was because it was talking to authors and understanding the book publishing world was something I was comfortable with and that’s where we could develop a viable product saying that standard format, weekly show, we originally started My Kitaab with 3 times a week show, 3 months later it became 2 times a week show, another month later it became a weekly show because we were giving much more to the audience than they could digest. That’s how My Kitaab started and it was a great learning experience for us. A 45-minute interview in the first year in 3 or 4 months involved 15 hours of my time, researching the author, preparing the question, setting up the time, etc. Today if I do it, it takes me an hour and a half. Had I not spent those 15 hours in 2015 I would not be able to do it in 90 minutes today. There are certain things that you have to do.

Q7. What’s the way forward? Do people in India still pay for an audio podcast over YouTube in terms of listening capability?

Ans: There are parents who understand that video actually reduces a child’s learning and development ability. Most of the contents are drawn by the adults, for example, if an adult says that this is a blue balloon, what is the first picture that comes to somebody’s mind, you know what blue colour is, some variation of the colour and it would most probably be egg-shaped because that’s the shape of a balloon. In India, if you ask a child to draw a kite, they will draw the typical kite image, a rhombus with a tail attached to it. Kites in China are shaped like dragon. So the possibility that a balloon can be rectangle or yellow in colour, the possibilities are endless. So why shouldn’t adults impose their interpretations onto a child, there are a lot of parents who are realizing that audios are a better medium, it reduces the imposed aspect and increases the creativity of the child, goes back to the Indian culture, we had thousands of years of oral storytelling. Definitely if you look at the market segmentation for a Gaatha story or Bal Gaatha in particular, it’s an audio show right now in 3 languages (English, Hindi and Marathi, and we are soon launching in Telugu and Gujrati), it’s tailored towards kids who are under 8 years of age. Irrespective of the geography and the languages, there are parents who are realizing that audio has a significant role to play in a child’s life.

Most of the children’s content is targeted towards children, Gaatha stories are targeted towards the parents. So for pitches, you want the parents to be the storyteller. What if I were to offer to you a library of audio stories about 7 or 8 minutes in length which you can listen to on your way home, and these aren’t new stories, so Gaatha story becomes a refresher to you and then you go ahead and tell your daughter before putting her to bed saying “let me tell you a new story today.” Now that makes you a hero in front of your daughter because my father knows so many new stories.

Depending on who you see as your customer, our audience is still parents and children but for us customers are business or brands. If you look at the 1–2% conversion rates for freemium model, unless you have millions of listeners you are never going to make money in the content, or you do a subscription and limit your growth saying that I am only going to focus on the English language speaking people in India who have an apple device or NRIs. If I have 20000 subscribers and each of them is paying 100 Rs a month, the you are limiting the growth potential of your market as well, but what if the content becomes free in the form of broadcast, TV, and FM radio, all of them are ad supported. It’s the brands who are subsidizing the production and the distribution cost and to the listeners free. We follow the similar model in the sense that production, distribution, marketing, etc., all the costs are met by partnering with the brand and to the listener, it becomes free.

Q8. How is it to get a brand like Pepsi or Vivo to sponsor your Gaatha series?

Ans: The idea is which are the child-friendly brands, like Horlicks and Johnson & Johnson. Now that Baal Gaatha has received over a million listeners, available in 5 languages, it becomes a very attractive package for any large brand to get associated with it, and given the demography about one-third of the audience coming from North America, more than half coming from Indian cities, and mostly women, that was another thing why we are very clear in our segmentation and we invested a lot of time in growing the market. The audience will determine who is going to pay for the advertisements. If we go to a brand now saying this is my brand demography profile and these are the kind of businesses that audience will appreciate. Right now we are operationally profitable, we have been able to standardize the processes to such an extent that turn around time without compromising on the qualities, working out very well. Next issue becomes how do we actually increase the volume in terms of content, production and listenership of the content so that we can start commanding higher margins. That is when the business will actually become attractive to all the players in the ecosystem.

Q9. Are you willing to pay 20 Rs to have someone download your podcast with the Paytm or Freecharge offers?

Ans: Till this year, past 37–38 months, we have spent about total of 1300 Rs on Facebook ads, only ads spent, we have let the content drive the growth of the company.

Q10. You wrote in LinkedIn that you find branded content to be better. What exactly does that mean?

Ans: I used the examples of Vivo and Pepsi for IPL so you got something called the sponsor content wherein I got some entity somebody pays for a titled sponsorship. IPL as a standalone brand has over the years changed the sponsor title 3 or 4 times, so the sponsor has changed. Second could be you associate yourself with the brand so going back to 15–20 years ago the top 10 songs of the week used to be Chitrahar sponsored by Lux, etc. So you got co-branded content, and then something called white label so I produce it on a turn key basis and give it to you and you go ahead and say this is the Anurag Show. To being a bigger brand are able to command or you have a bigger footprint or visibility compared to let’s say, me at this point in time, so for you the advantage is that you get everything done on a platter for you and you just attach your brand to it and you ahead and say it’s your show. There is another format where you approach me saying that we are going to do this together, so we will call it, let’s say the Anurag and Amar Show and footer will show sponsored by Anurag. That is branded content wherein it’s done as a partnership so there are few content makers abroad, one called Pacific Content in Vancouver, Canada, who does on demand audio shows for brands like Dell, Mozilla, Microsoft, Facebook, so they only work with these TR1 brands, they do it as a collaborative partnership, it is not a white label, it is not a sponsored content but they jointly develop the story mode, the topics, themes or issues that they are going to talk about. That has worked out very well for them.

There was a audiobook publisher from Sweden called Storytel, they approached us in the sense can we do it together, in the sense that our content will be available in Storytel exclusively for a period of time and after which we can go ahead and launch it as it’s own show. However it will continue to carry a message for Storytel. Obviously they were willing to pay that met the production cost, that actually solved a lot of problems, we were talking to other brands on doing something similar. It actually works very well, it’s a win-win for the brand as well as the content producer in it.

Q11. How does the alumni connect of IIM Ahmedabad help you in your journey?

Ans: Depends on how much time are you willing to invest in connecting with the alums. Typically in my case it has been if you see the give is to receive ratio, you have to give at least 3–4 times before you receive something from it, it’s a network at the end of the day. How much time are you willing to invest may not be a problem related to their career, it could be related to their spouse’s career, or for their children. There is no better answer than that. Secondly, for every alum who graduates out of IIM Ahmedabad, give them 3–4 years to resettle into their corporate life before you start approaching them for help. There used to be a point in time where every Diwali or Christmas I used to handwrite an email to about 600 people. The response used to be ridiculous. Around 50–60 people used t write “thank you”, that’s it.

However there was certain CFO level executives, who did not reply but one year I did not send and I met one of the gentleman on a flight and they said “I didn’t receive your email this Diwali. What happened?” be careful of what you do, if you stop, it may have some adverse effect.

Q12. What would be your advice to future entrepreneurs?

Ans: 1. Make sure your family’s financial basis are covered. We still live in a society where the make is looked up as the primary bread-earner so it might affect your family.

2. Make sure your other financial obligations are taken care of, home loans, insurance, etc.

3. From day 1 don’t think you will get some sort of a venture investment or something like that. That may not happen. From day 1 treat every rupee that is going into the business. Don’t look at it as something that is going to your retirement savings.

4. Don’t think you can do everything on your own. Just because you have an MBA and certain skills does not mean you can do everything on your own. Find help from professionals, it could be a consultant, contractual, intern, but find others that can take away things from you as quickly as you can, so that you can concentrate on the number one activity that the business requires.