Career Conversation with Indranil Chakraborty - JU | IIM-L | ~20 yrs in Mktg roles at Unilever etc| Entrepreneur @ Storyworks

Q1. Tell us about your formative years. What will be your peak takeaways from St. Edmund School in Shillong?

Ans: Shillong had at that time one of the best convent schools so it does give you great amount of understanding and ability to speak good English. Unfortunately, across the country no one teaches speaking good English and that’s very funny because speaking is science and also an art, there is a structure to it. Back in the time of Aristotle and Plato, schools used to teach speaking. Since nobody teaches you to speak so the way you learn speaking is through your ear, you listen to people who speak well, you listen to people who have an accent, and you pick that up. So to that extent being educated at St. Edmund School, we picked up the right accents, right language structure, etc. all by the ear. It was a nice school; we had 7 football fields, 2 basketball courts, so you were encouraged to go out and play. Values too come not only from the parents but also from school and I still resonate with the motto of St. Edmund School; it was Facta Non Verba which means deeds not words.

Q2. Was engineering + MBA the hot formula for success in the late 80s as much as it is today? For your case Jadavpur University and IIM happened back to back. Did you ever wonder some work experience after engineering and then MBA would have been more effective?

Ans: It is very easy to try and link up dots backwards but I don’t think it was anything like that. You have to remember that we grew up in a place and time when there was nothing called the internet. I came from a smaller city in the North-East. I didn’t even know there was something called MBA till my second year in engineering. If you did well in Science in school then you took up science in college, if you did well in science and maths in college, then you became either a doctor or an engineer. So I don’t there was any proper method. Once in engineering I realised that while I loved coding and software, I didn’t like hardware and I didn’t see myself sitting behind a computer for many hours. When I learnt about what MBA does and what kind of jobs MBA people get, I tried to get into any of the IIMs. As far as your question is concerned, I didn’t think the best way to do an MBA is to get some work experience prior to that. Theoretically, you are absolutely right. If someone told me what is the best way to do that, I would say work for a few years and then pursue it.

Q3. Is everyone cut out for career in marketing and what are the typical challenges one faces? It sounds quite glamourous so is it as glamorous as it sounds?

Ans: I understand when you are a brand manager and you sort of work with an agency and put out an ad and that ad is seen by everyone across the country, there seems to be some glamour. I think what HUL does is probably the best finishing school for anyone in sales and marketing. In the first year you are given a lot of training and guidance and I think that’s what creates foundations and one of the brilliant things back in HUL was that you reached your marketing role only after doing 3–4 years in sales. So you travel a lot and see what it takes for those brands to be available, what supply chain means, etc. So for the first few years, what you should look for is what is it that you really want to learn; glamour gets you nowhere. If people had a choice, I would suggest find out who is going to be your boss, the kind of mentors you will have, that is far more important than which company you work for and which company you work for is far more important than what glamour comes with it. In those formative years, if you have a company and mentor that invests in you, that’s the most important thing you can have.

Q4. What value does a top-end paid graduate from IIM would add and push the daily products to sell more?

Ans: Yes, of course everyone is going to buy shampoos and all essentials when you are selling them but that doesn’t mean that they will buy your brand, unless yours is the only brand in the country. As markets grow there will be more competitors both local and international that will come in and if any brand and brand manager is at the top of their game at all points in time, there isn’t any way that you will survive in the long run. Same with supply change, you may have changes with distributors and you do need to expand. When I was senior enough in recruiting, why would I recruit an MBA and that too an engineer MBA and that is because what the system in India does is that it gives you a huge filter. So anyone who got into a good engineering college obviously has this basic amount of IQ but also is very perseverant and has all the traits that you would want in people in your team.

Q5. After having spent 15 years in actual, you started off with this “Build a Bear” workshop in your next career strength. What were these 2 years about?

Ans: Build a Bear workshop is actually an American retail chain, it’s workshop stores are where children can come and create their own teddy bears and dress them up and take them home. There was a group in that time which had got a lot of these brands as a franchise and they were looking for people who would set up the whole company, so to that extent it was entrepreneurial, but not with your own money or own risk. What got me interested was not because I was unhappy at Unilever, in fact I was quite reluctant to go for the interview. It’s just that the person who was head-hunting was known to me and she kept insisting that if I could just go and show my face because she needed to get her fees and I showed up without even knowing what “Build a Bear” workshop was. As I understood what it was, I found it fascinating because I don’t think there is anything more powerful than co-creation and here was something that you co-created, and my role in Unilever back then required me to travel every week almost across the world and so I took that opportunity to visit “Build a Bear” stores in London and places like that and what I was there was how happy people were leaving that store, how they kept talking about their store experiences and that’s what got me into “Build a Bear”. We created the company from scratch and the Murjanis had an agreement with Build a Bear. I found an office space and recruited the teams, trained them, started 3 stores but then we realised it wasn’t a franchisable brand because a franchise works when the franchisee is not building the brand. If you are a franchisee of Calvin Klein Jeans, it is already known to everybody and let’s say you are the Jaipur franchisee. All you have to do is find a place in Jaipur, find the people and pay for the stock and the brand will sell because it is already promoted by the brand owner. Here no one knew Build a Bear workshop, so we were building someone else’s brand at a franchisee cost structure and after 2–3 years we realised that’s not going to work and so we shut everything down and placed everyone in the company in other organisations and moved on to join the TATAs.

When you are building a brand, your initial profitability will be very low but you are doing that because it’s an investment for the future. Now when it is somebody else’s brand, why would you invest for the future because in the future the company may not keep you as a franchisee in the first place. A lot of people ask me if the concept was ahead of its times, I don’t think so, I think the structure was incorrect. After 12 years Build a Bear is back with a store in Bangalore with another partner. What I would renegotiate would be that they would spend money to build the brand and as a franchisee what my responsibility would be to find the right space, to find the right talent and run it professionally and efficiently. They need to spend on the brand building because after all its their brand and if that was the case your margins would justify.

Q6. In the next few years, you shifted to Tata Teleservices and Mahindra resorts, so how different was it as compared to Lifebuoy, Lakme or Breeze?

Ans: The Lifebuoy, Lakme, or Breeze and selling talktime, there was no difference because you are selling perishable products. Like everyone needs a soap and once it finishes you need to buy another piece of soap and you have a choice of buying a different piece of soap and so the sales and distribution and marketing challenge was to keep people buying your soap. Same with talktime, most of India is prepaid and in prepaid someone has bought your sim, has paid you some money and the money will finish and someone will have to top it up. Those days top-ups had to be done physically and if the brand source nearby then I would probably not buy that brand, so in terms of sales and marketing and distribution, there isn’t much difference between selling talktime and selling soaps and shampoos.

It is different when you are selling holidays because: a) far higher selling price; you are selling a concept and; b) you don’t have to be in every neighborhood. You need to be able to find ways to get the consumer come to wherever the central location is or sell them at their houses. So that is a different ball game altogether.

Q7. Could you share your experience as in how the transition to Storyworks happened, how you met those foreigners with that concept, and what were the initial resistances in India, and how did the concept slowly gain currency?

Ans: Storyworks is a company that helps organisations and leaders be more impactful and memorable in their communication using the power of stories. I was in Mahindra Holidays trying to establish a new set of values, and I didn’t know what was the best way to do it so I did what everyone else did like workshops and posters, coffee mugs and nothing like that ever worked, and during the quest of understanding of how do you get people to understand something abstract but understand it same from the CEO to the janitor, everyone understands what respect means or what transparency means. In that quest is when I landed upon a blog of a person called Shawn Callahan, who was the founder of a company called ‘Anecdote’ in Australia. He had written a blog about how you have to convert abstraction to concreteness by using stories and I had no clue what that meant. So I got in touch and he tried to explain me and like it has been all through my life, luck and serendipity always has been sort of the biggest contributors and as luck would have it, Shawn was coming to India and I spent 2 days with him and I understood what stories are all about in business, how do you collect them, how do you select them, how do you broadcast them and once I learnt how to do that, I came back and utilized that in Mahindra Holidays and I saw magic happened. Very quickly could people understand the difference between each of the values and understand in a concrete manner and I was fascinated by the results this kind of communication was giving.

There were lot of things happening, I wanted to get out of Bombay, I didn’t know what I would do. My wife and I wanted to move to Goa, there was this big company that would have sort of pay me a decent salary there, I had got extremely interested in storytelling and all those things sort of coincided at that point of time and that’s when I quit and I went and approached Shawn whether he would like to partner in India and the journey on storytelling started. Yes, it was difficult for the first year or 2 years because people had no clue what this mysterious storytelling was about. When they heard the term storytelling, people thought I was creating another advertising agency and then I had to explain them about leaders telling stories and why should our leaders tell stories. But once we kept at it, not only did the work pay dividends in terms of increasing awareness, etc., but also made people across the globe understand that complex messaging was increasing and people’s attention span is decreasing, which is a dreadful combination. People needed to find a way to cut through all that and across the world people started getting to understand that stories is a great way to do that.

We had to put in a lot of hard work in the initial years. I remember I met more than 200 companies in the first 2 years and worked with probably 5. All that hard work and the understanding of our storytelling was growing, together, got Storyworks up and running by the end of second year. Today we have more than 30 clients and we do consulting, training and run more than 100 workshops and trained more than 2000 very very senior people, and that’s pretty much been a lovely channel.

Q8. Do people come back and thank you about this knowledge that you imparted?

Ans: Of course they do and I am extremely grateful and that’s not just people we train which is face to face, but I have had a lot of people who had written back and said how it is helping them in whatever work they do, some of them are trainers, or junior manager, etc., through LinkedIn, e-mails, or through our website. I have been positively surprised as to how well the book has done. When I wrote the book, I wasn’t sure and neither was Penguin Random House who had approached me to write the book, we never thought it would do so well. Within the first 3 months it became a national bestseller and its been more than a year and it’s still available. It has also been selected for the Crossword Book Awards as the shortlist and what I hope is that all the love and affection that people have shown gets translated into the votes on the Crossword Book Awards website.

Q9. Is job better or entrepreneurship?

Ans: It’s a controversial statement. There is a lot of people for whom job is a better place to be, different people have different risk profiles, ambitions, and sort of desires and I don’t think there is a sort of yes or no about people should become an employee or an entrepreneur. I think if one gets the opportunity in the initial years to work in a large successful structured company, with great mentors, I would suggest them to go for it and understand how business works, and once you got all that, then you decide whether or not you want to jump into your own because when you jump into your own from day 1, who’s going to tell you what’s right and what works and what doesn’t.

Q10. What is your view on these college dropouts having concepts and VCs shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars after them? Is it like greater fool theory because none of these startups are getting money?

Ans: I think time will tell. As you said they are not making money but I think if someone has identified a difficulty that people face or need people have which is not being fulfilled and that person has come up with either an idea or a product that fulfills the need, at some point of time that will do well. I think if you are building the company for the consumers, that’s the robustness of the company, and that’s when your eye is not on whether the investor or the VCs give you money, it’s about whether the customer is giving you the money, and when you create products or services where the customers will give you money, there will be profit in it. I think getting profitable for me is more important than getting a huge number of customers which is what I see many of the startups trying to do and you do that because you are trying to get valuation.

Q11. In your book you had mentioned that you had bipolar disorder amidst your HUL career, which was a kind of roadblock for your further upliftment but then you emerged stronger out of that and you are doing well in your career. There’s a lot of stigma that surrounds mental health issues in India, so what was your experience in this and how did you overcome this?

Ans: I was lucky because the doctors had picked it up very fast as to the condition I had. My company was extremely supportive because as you know bipolar means you go through a high then you go through extreme low. When you go through that high of course you are extremely productive and creative. A lot of people say that some of the best work of arts have happened when the artist has been in the bipolar high state, whether it’s Michelangelo or Vincent Van Gogh. People don’t pick it up at that time, they consider you as God’s gift to mankind, but it’s when you get into the downwards trend is when you don’t want to meet people, you want to be in bed, and as the downward trend happened, the company doctor requested me to go and meet a mental health specialist who immediately picked up that this was the problem, and not only was the family very supportive, the company too gave me a job that was not too stressful, a job where if I failed completely, it really wouldn’t damage anything in the company and they gave me the space to recover. Once I did, which took about a year, I was back on track and went on to be a regional brand director or a global brand director. Yes, there is a stigma but awareness is growing but then a lot has to change because if someone comes and says I have a toothache, you see people suggest you to visit a dentist, but if I say I am feeling depressed, people will say nothing will happen, let’s go for a movie. That is as big a health condition as is a toothache, and if it is picked up, if “don’t be depressed, let’s go for a movie”, is replaced by “you are feeling depressed so let’s go find out the cause of the depression” a tremendous change can be brought in. Many times, like it was in my case, it’s a chemical imbalance in the head and a chemical imbalance can be corrected with medicines by putting in chemicals into the head. It will be people around people who have mental illness, when you are depressed that’s not the time you can think clearly and say I need to go to a mental health specialist, it is people around you that will recognize something different in your behaviour and suggest you to take help from a professional. Mental health issues are as much a health issue as cancer, a toothache, as fever and is eminently treatable. I was lucky to have that kind of support and encouragement at that point of time.

Q12. Can counselling help along with the medicines?

Ans: I am a big believer that counselling deals with cognitive mind. So at first if there is a chemical issue, counselling can’t help, you need to correct the chemical issue. After the chemical issue is corrected, some amount of counselling can definitely work. My wife works with the sub-conscious mind and she is able to work with people by getting into hypnotherapy and that’s the 93% of the mind. If you can work with the 93% of the mind then why would you try and engage with the 6–7% of it.

Q13. When you interact with the youth and their career aspirations, what are your reflections?

Ans: I think the positive is that the more I see people in college or just out of college, I see far more awareness; awareness about themselves, what they want and what is available, and that’s a great thing. When I was growing up, there was only a choice between engineers and doctors, what if I wanted to be an artist, that was considered as a bad idea, so I became an engineer. I may not have been happy with it. Today people are able to find those avenues and be happy. What I find might get into the way is 2 things: a) I see a lot of desire to have things very quickly, and that won’t happen because there is only that much that speed that will get into your learning curve, and; b) the entire sense of entitlement, that they are entitled to get this and that. You can earn that but you need to understand there is this learning curve that you need to go through and no one is entitled to anything, you need to earn that.

Q14. What do you do to unwind after these tiring workshops? I recently got to know that you have a pet dog, so do you spend time with him?

Ans: Yes, I spend a lot of time with my pets, but the only tiring thing about these workshops is the physical tiredness, not the mental tiredness. When you do work that you love, I would want to do it again and again. For physical tiredness, you need to take breaks, do yoga which helps, I take my dog for a walk as often as I can and yeah pets are probably the best rejuvenator units in the world and so I have 2 dogs and they rejuvenate me every day whether I am doing workshops or not.

Q15. What would be your piece of advice to youngsters of today?

Ans: One is, find a job and a mentor and not a company, so don’t go for glamour but go for finding the right boss in the early stages of your career. If you don’t know how the boss is, find people who have worked under that boss or your seniors who have had prior experience with them and even if you don’t know and join the company and find the wrong boss, quit. You don’t have to stay in that job forever. Second is, use the fact that you have so much more enthusiasm, knowledge, etc., but don’t think fast drag. There is a certain amount time you need to spend to understand and learn. Lastly, you are not entitled to anything. You need to earn it like any of us have done and when you put in the hard work and you are putting it genuinely, you will earn it and yes, then you will be entitled.