Thursday, May 10, 2012

Success From Failures

A long time ago I was listening to a talk by the headmistress of a local school where my son was
studying. This school had a philosophy where they didn't push their students to be competitive and
succeed as an individual but encouraged the students to develop their own personalities as they felt
appropriate and the school was acting as a guide in this process. When the speaker finished her talk
one of the audience member asked her a pertinent question."Dont you think your students won't be
able to succeed in a highly competitive world where they would eventually land up". For that the
speaker asked another pertinent question back: "What is your definiton of success". Well this
stumped everyone in the audience and I was so glad I sent my son to such a school that didnt push
him. But at the same time I asked myself the contra question: What is failure??

Both success and failures are two sides of the same coin. Succcess is measured in terms of what one
thinks of as personal success and what others think as worldly success. Same goes for failures.
Other day when we had an occassion to catch up with some of our classmate after 30 odd years
when we were engaging in exchanging notes about how we had spent our intervening years, I was
amazed at how each one of us had succeeded in our own way in our respective lives. For some it
was a measure of their personal success and for some it included public accolade.
Does that mean our life was a smooth ride all the way. I dont know about others but if I dig deeper
each would have a story to tell about the pitfalls they had to cross to end where they have reached

But in my case I can definitely say that my own story was one failure after another leading to
amazing reinvention of myself after every failure.

Let me narrate how it all started. Soon after graduating from IIT in 1973 I was keen on working
only in design and devlopment job and kept rejecting job offers for sales and production jobs and
ended up jobless for the next 7 months before I finally got a job as a design engineer in a small start
up. It was exhilarating and I ended up doing some great designs and new product development
before I realized that I had no long term future in India, back in those days when R&D came to
mean Read and Duplicate!! So there ended my dream of a successful Design Engineer!!

So I quietly looked around and found that at that time in India (1974) the only future option if I had
to stay back in India and work (I loathed the idea of leaving my country) I would have to get an
MBA to have a meaningful career!!! So when I got a seat for the first IIMB batch in 1974, I simply
grabbed it, and quit my job. But my employer felt I was making a big mistake since in their view I
had a great future as design engineer!! Well I told them I felt otherwise and left anyway.

I dont know if many of you know that when IIMB was inaugurated the stated goal of the institute
was to train future managers who would serve the Public Sector as at that time the commanding
heights of the economy was held by the public sector. It was a patriotic duty of every management
graduate to work only for the public sector and they invited only Public sector companies for
campus placement.

So I along with a few other classmates ended up joining a Public sector company which had just
been formed with the stated objective of promoting east europan rupee trade in electronics and also
develop technology to reduce dependence on the Hard Currency areas. Leave alone the laudable
objective but what was interesting in those days when we joined this company, they already had
more than a dozen MBA's from IIMA and IIMC and we all thought we are the great catalyst
recruited to promote the interest of this great country through foreign trade with east european

Like all great dreams this dream also started souring with in a year of joining when we found that
this company was primarily behaving like a purchase department for the various government bodies
which wanted some imported elctronic product for which they had no foreign exchange so they
asked this company to scout for similar products from these countries. Moreover very soon I
realised that instead of the MBA's setting the agenda for catalysing the great trading alternative, the
company was headed by unqualified bureaucrats from govenment and other public sector agencies
who were only good at throwing the rule book at you. The last straw was when I found that those
who were at the beck and call of the bosses were treated with better work assignments and perhaps
even increments and promotions!!

So my dream of making a big difference through public sector came to an end. When I enquired
with some friends how they were working in other private sector organisations, most of them had
similar dissatisfying experiences. I then decided that it is better to go back to the academic world
and have the freedom to think and act and make a difference!!

I was in Hyderabad back then and the best known institution for managment education was
Administrative Staff College of India (ASCI) and since I had taken a liking for Hyderabad as a city,
explored for an opening there as a member of faculty and very soon I landed up as a Marketing
faculty in ASCI in 1981.

I was elated and felt here is my chance to use my intellectual prowess and make a difference to the
management world. ASCI was unique in one respect in that they only taught working managers and
they had no undergraduate or any other programme. And I was expected to be available when called
for to give specific input on marketing subject depending on the pogrammes they were running. It
all seemed easy. Also I had a lot of free time I could use to read and research and publish and there
was no one to tell you what you should do. No boss no subordinates. Looked like a very cosy job
until to my horror I discovered two major truths about the academic world in management
education of the time.

The first truth was that the managers who came to attend the courses offered by ASCI took it as a
paid holiday and they were not interested in learning which came as a big dampener. But the more
serious problem was with fellow faculty. They knew that the participants were not interested in
learning but they could be influenced to rate their lectures in there respective favour and against
other faculties. And the Indian frog syndrome was opearting in full with each faculty pulling the
other down behind each other's back. For me this was worst than a corporate job. Even though I felt
I had a golden run during the 18 months I worked at ASCI in terms of teaching, research and
publications, at my heart I felt this is not a place I should waste the rest of my life. I was only 32
years old in 1982 when I took the major decision to quit ASCI and literally walked out of the job
with no other alternative except a dream to make something of myself on my own.

After quitting I realised the enormity of the challenges of life. I had by then married and had 2 kids
below the age of three and my wife, though a professional was not able to work as she was busy
bringing up the two kids and zero bank balance. I did not know where the money is going to come
from to pay the mandatory expenses to run a middle class life. In the beginning of this narrative I
said every failure helped me reinvent myslef. This was the first major reinvention when I found that
there is no one out there going to pay you unless you are useful to them. And useful I decided to
become by offering my only asset, my knowledge and learning, to help solve business problems for
any company which would hire me to address the problem.

Thus my consulting practise was born in 1982. Surprisingly I found it was not difficult to get work
so long as you didnt ask for any money upfront and when the clients discovered that they had
benefited immensely from your work they were more than glad to pay whatever you asked for. I
discovered the power of value pricing and with good references from friends and the power of IIT and
IIM network kept the body and soul together comfortably. I was soon joined by a couple of friends
who had similarly left there jobs to start out on their own in Bangalore and Chennai and we felt it
would be a good idea to team up so that we can get larger business from a larger geography with a
complementing skill sets. So we formed and registered a Private Limited company with branches in
Hyderbadad, Chennai and Bangalore and we had very soon a very large client base in both
Bangalore and Hyderabad but the Chennai office was becoming a drag. Moreeover we soon
discovered that as our business was growing we had to hire people to keep our business
committments. And these overheads started eating into our profits since the assignments were not
continuous but the salary committments and office over heads had to be met. Thus after running this
business for 4 years when our top line doubled every year, our bottom line was always showing
negative balance. I soon realised that this business model was not going to work out and decided to
break away from the company and became a totally freelance management consultant.

This move helped me financially since I had zero over head and I literally operated out of my
scooter and home and my client's business premises. Remember this was 1987 and we had none of
the luxuries of the modern day technology to run a home office. The only saving grace was that we
managed to own a landline because my wife had a para medical background and was entitled to
priority phone connection(very funny management graduates with engineering background were not
considered priority professions) which itself was a great feat to get in those days when waiting list
ran for 10 years to get a phone connection.

This was also the period I realised that only depending on Managment consulting practice to make a
living was not a good idea and started other business activities to offer marketing services to help
companies outside Hyderabad to sell in the Hyderabad market. This second busines brought in
significant improvement in my financial position and I was able to afford the luxury of graduating
from scooter to car and own other material comforts.

But all good things cannot last forever. By 1991 Indian economy was heading south and the
consulting business started slowing down and there was a general recession and this took a toll on
my cash flows. Very soon I found no new business was coming and old customers had no money to
pay for services rendered and by middle of 1992 things had reached rock bottom when economic
reforms were announced.

The reforms created new opportunity for the consulting business from the traditional companies
who found their cosy world of easy money from the command and control economy was shattered
by global competition and the need to become more customer focused. The long queues for many
consumer products and services started disappearing and along with that came new opportunity for
smart businesses to make money. I found my work experience of the previous ten years using
emerging Personal computer technology with small businesses was easily adaptable to address the
problems of large corporates who by then had heard of concepts like Business Process
re engineering and Lean management and Theory of Constraints but had no clue how to get them
implemented. I seized this opportunity with both hands and using my old Value pricing model
approached the corporate world with an offer which they found it difficult to refuse. I once again
started on a roller coaster ride for the next 15 years with occassional tripping here and there. I found
that when most of the major consulting firms offered to render advise with a report, my model that
you pay based on implementation of the advise and ideas and creating ownership of solutions
among client personnel made a big difference in our success.

In fact some of the clients jovially jibed that I should have been a consultant in europe or other
developed counties where I would have perhaps travelled in a Rolls Royce for my abilities. Many a
satisfied CEO's used to ring up other companies needing similar help, who sent work to me and my
team. Despite the business growing steadily I resisted the temptation to create an overhead based
organisation; instead created a network of asscoaites who worked with me on a project to project
basis sharing the fees equitably. Everything was looking so great I thought the good times would
never end when one day in July 2008 I was rushed to a hospital with severe pain in my stomach and
doctors performed an emergency surgery and discovered I had a severly gangrened gall bladder
which they had to remove before the gangrene spread to the liver and other parts of the intestine.
With that ended my active consulting pracitise since it took me six months to recover and my
digestive systm couldn't take the strain of intensive travels and outside food. I hanged my
consulting boots in 2009 and since then I am spending my time mentoring young and not so young
entrepreneuers pro bono and willing to give my vast knowledge and experience to whoever who
cares to ask for help. But only from my home, online or over phone!!!

Well the story I told of my life has taught me 2 important lessons about measuring success and
failures. Lesson one is success to me was not the amount of money or recognition I got from others
but how well I did my job assigned to me so that I am remembered for my contribution. The second
lesson is that you have to reinvent your self personally with time if you want to remain relevant to
the out side world if not for yourself!!..You cannot be boxed into a small corner with limited
possibilities but you should use your learning skills to pick up new ideas and adopt them for others

Finally there is one aspect which is most important in life..which is self belief..with out that
you can be swept away by failures.

This is the success of my failures.

R. Srinivasan


  1. hi chitappa..very nice to read a real world story...your guys like me tend to forget that life is not a series of upward movements but involves its fair share of downward and lateral steps! good to read your write-up and here's to your sharing more of ur experiences!

  2. totally awesome chithappa

    wonderful wonderful take away for me too...

    defining success the way you have, on your own terms, is truly out of the box...

    Great flow to your story too

  3. Excellent piece! Very well well written. Please continue writing and sharing your experiences.