“I just want to escape out without anybody remembering me after I am gone”

Pankaj Mishra November 30, 2018 40 min

Between Phanindra Sama and Sachin Bansal, there’s over a decade of Indian entrepreneurship. Both of them co-founded their startups, Redbus and Flipkart, respectively in 2007. While Redbus was sold to Ibibo for around $101 million in 2013, Walmart acquired Flipkart for $16 billion this May.

Both the startups were labelled success and failure at different points in time during the past decade, by different people. In many ways, the story of Redbus and Flipkart is also the story of India’s internet and the country’s inspiring journey of new age entrepreneurship. While Sachin calls himself a capitalist, Phani is more of a socialist reformer. Both in their own ways helped shape India’s new age entrepreneurship.

We will get Sachin to share his entrepreneurial journey and look through the decade through his lens. Meanwhile, we sat down with Phani (as he is called in startup circles) for the 86th episode of Outliers Podcast (Outliers Podcast here). Phani, as much a thinker as an entrepreneur, talks about a range of issues in this chat: his transition from an angry young man in his redBus journey, how a person’s moral compass is set, the need to stay true to oneself, why he took the ibibo offer early etc.

A quick shout out to Kanika Berry who helped transcribe the conversation, produced with light edits below:

Pankaj: So welcome to Outliers. This is a Podcast with Outliers and you know, getting Outliers on the Outliers Show is quite a job. Some of the Outliers take longer to get to sit down. Let me just start and you know I am really excited to have Phanindra Sama, famous for being the co-founder of redBus, on this show. So, welcome Phani, finally!

Phani: Thanks, Pankaj.

Pankaj: So, why do I think you are an Outlier? I think I was with the Mint newspaper and I met you after the so-called deal was done or, no… it was around that time or before that?

Phani: Before that.

Pankaj: Before that and we did a conversation with you and you know the headline that stayed with me was ‘Entrepreneurship is a self-purification process’. I will be honest with you, back then I said, ‘kuch aise hee gyaan de raha hai (he is mouthing platitudes just like that). And, honestly, I didn’t think too much about it back then. I became an entrepreneur two years ago. I am a rookie entrepreneur now and I can’t tell you how many times I myself have thought about that line and I now believe it, it’s actually a purification process. So let us start from this headline itself, Phani. Why did you say that and what did you really mean when you say, ‘entrepreneurship is self-purification process’ because it can be anything. Why self-purification?

Phani: Sure, thanks, Pankaj. Yes, so basically before I started redBus to when I met you… Before I started redBus, I was the kind of angry young man, get upset with things, get angry. I mean, you ask my first few team members they will tell you, this micromanagement because you live that thing, you want to control every feature, every pixel, how does it look, what should it do, what should be the colour of it, that, this and etcetera and all of that. But when we met, I think by then we were like, maybe five years into the journey, I was a completely different person. You don’t get angry at things, you let things happen very different from what you envision, you let people do what they want to do because they also have these visions, they also wake up with ideas etcetera and all that, so you let them do that.

So, transition from that to where I was, I mean I thought, I was a more purified myself with more patience, tolerance etcetera and hence if not for entrepreneurship, what would have I done? I would have worked for another company, I would have become probably a manager etcetera but the pressures would not have been the same. So I don’t know if I would have transformed if I would have worked for another company, it is only because I had this opportunity and the journey of entrepreneurship that I transformed. The pleasures are intense, besides you have a deep self-motivation to make it happen because it is your own and you have the complete context because you are seeing a bird’s eye view from top down… If I were working for another company, I would have like only a different perspective, let’s say I have to get this project done by so and so time, I would probably not take so much ownership of my team because teams come and go and etcetera and all that but here it is very, very different, so that’s why I kind of, I think, in a flow I said that statement and I strongly believe in it also.

Pankaj: The journey from being who we are, like in your case you said, ‘angry young man’ to becoming more self-aware is not an easy journey. I mean, it’s one thing for you to put it, ‘Mein aisa tha, mein waise ho gaya’ (I was like this and I became like this) types, but it’s quite a struggle and I can talk about it as only a rookie entrepreneur. Can you take us through the journey from a learning point of view, what did it really take? And take me through that journey of self-purification.

Phani: Yes, I agree with you that it is a very difficult journey because when we started we were probably like 25 years old and then after 1-2 years of starting redBus I realised that, that being short-tempered and being (into) micromanagement will not let me achieve what we wanted to achieve and hence I had to change.


Once you make that decision, you cannot change overnight because for 25 years of your life and the only life that you had, all your life you are used to a particular thing. You have never done sports, you have never done teamwork, all your education is about you understanding the concept, you putting that hard work, it is all about personal. You personally understanding, learning and then writing that exam, getting good grades and done. Even getting you a job was like that, you write that entrance, whatever exam, then you go through an interview and you get into a job. All your life it has been a single person’s pursuit and for the first time you are in this team and then you had to take care of the team and etcetera and all that is completely different from anything that you have seen in your life.

And, for that massive change to happen, it is very, very difficult. I mean even now, I can’t say that it is a two-year journey for you to transform. From the decision to actually transforming into that person, maybe it is still, I am in the tenth year, I think after we started Red Bus, maybe twelfth year but even now I am not transformed into that… it takes a lot of effort and determination to do that.

Many times I even felt like I was going into kind of a depression because you say, ‘ok, micromanagement is not good’, so you let go things, you are determined to let go things. When you let go things, sometimes things fail. You know that this will fail and then that same thing gets done and then it fails, you feel like, ‘Oh, I could have averted it, no this is not working, I should get back to micromanagement’. Or you could just say, ‘Ok, I don’t care’. It’s not again abdication, they say that. So, you cannot abdicate, at the same time you cannot micromanage… so what is that fine balance, how do you get into that? So, many times you feel that pressure, you kind of get into depression that, this and etcetera but thankfully you have good mentors that you speak your heart to, you talk your problems, challenges.

Much, much later, many years later, one thing that I realised is, actually it’s not about either of the extremes – it is not about micromanagement, at the same time it is not about being macro management, if you have a term like that… it is not about being aggressive. Sometimes people say, as a CEO, you have to be aggressive or it is not about being, not being aggressive. All these things, either of the extremes, I realised, don’t work. What works is a balance of that, a fine balance of that and where you draw that line of balancing is your art of management that is where it comes. It is not about like giving aggressive discounts and all.

People say that ‘Phani is humble and humble’ but if I am just humble, I will never be able to take strong decisions which are required for a company where you know that humility is ok, fine where you are seeing others might be right, thinking where others perspective may be right, etcetera. A strong decision is you feel like you are right and the whole world is wrong. You need both of those to run a company. You need to have your eyes and ears open for others views and you need to have that conviction and a strong decision where even if the world comes against it, you take it forward. That’s when a new innovation happens, that’s when you have a differentiated thing compared to the world. But you need both of those, humility alone will kill you. At the same time, that opinionated will take you down. That fine balance, once I realised that, life was so comfortable to me.

Like, for example, whenever I used to micromanage, my team used to say, ‘boss, you are a micromanager’. When I let go things, the same team came and complained, ‘you don’t care about anything, you just left the team and the company’. After I realised it, I went back to the team and said, ‘I will be both. I will not be this or that, I will be both and when I will be what, is I will choose and I will balance it and if I get that balance wrong, you will all leave me and go which will be a disaster for me, personally and for the company and everything but if I get it right then you have to bear with me that I will be both’. And that gave me a lot of personal comfort otherwise I used to go through this huge mental agony saying, ‘Oh my god, should I say something or should I not say anything because I want to be a micro manager, I want to be this, I want to be that’, so that’s one of the things that has been very helpful and I keep telling some companies that an angel investor where they have the same dilemma.

Pankaj: Once you find this balance or you are close to finding this balance, the battle becomes about maintaining it or keeping at it, no matter what the world says. And if I go back and people can be judgmental, so there will be critiques; there will be people who will praise you. Now, how do you deal with opinions or judgments when you have found your balance?

Phani: Sure. So again there, one of the things I kind of realised and wanted to practice is that, you need to get the brightest people on board and put efforts to retain them and empower them to be their own. When they are their own and giving their fullest that’s when the best happens in your company. So that was kind of my thing that I wanted to do but for that to happen, for others to be their best, you have to be the best leader, greatest leader who makes that happen and hence I went and read about all these leaders. I Googled who is the greatest leader of all of human race. Being in India, you naturally will come across Gandhiji and how he transformed the whole country and got us freedom with non-violence which is unprecedented and etcetera and all that. I read about him, I bought his book, read about him, got his CD, saw it and all that because I said whatever it takes for me to be that person, I will, I mean, you can’t be that person, some of those things, I will try to learn because that is what benefits my company, my team and everybody around me. And then I did read about other great business leaders like Mr (J R D) Tata and Kishore Biyani is one of my favourites, I read about him.

But all of them at the end, Gandhiji is such a great leader. I mean none of us Indians can say anything against him but still he was shot dead by the same Indians. I mean somebody had to hate him so much that he went and shot bullets at him. The same thing with Abraham Lincoln, they say he is the greatest leader of all, the humanity has seen and etcetera, wisest and etcetera and all that, at the end of day he was shot. So, the hatred, the criticism that you are talking about is very small compared to the hatred and criticism these biggest leaders have got. Everybody has been criticised, you take Mr Kishore Biyani, you take Mr Tata, everybody.

and comSo from there I derived a lot of comfort that you will also be criticised, everybody will be criticised, it is the part and parcel of this life that you are taking it forward and there is no running away from it. One running away is don’t do any company, just be at home, do some job and do something. But there also you can’t escape it, even if you don’t do any work, like if you do a work, you go to office, you will be criticised. There will be teams who don’t like you, there will be a teammate who does not like you who will say something. You say I don’t want to do any work, I will just sit at home. Even at home, you will be criticised by family members, they will say something, some opinion, that, this and all. So in this world, there is no escaping that and once we make truce with it whether you are the greatest of the leaders or this, you will live with criticism, you will accept it, you will embrace it, it will not hurt you. When it doesn’t hurt you then it is fine. I think you change your perspective to it, then you will be comfortable with having it.

Pankaj: And you will live with it.

Phani: You will live it, you will embrace it, it won’t hurt you and there is anyway no escaping out of it.

Pankaj: Very well put. I didn’t think it that way. Like all of us find our own explanations of escaping from that or developing a thick skin like they say but it is a very good way of doing it, like you said, nice.

One of the other things I remember, Phani, from that interview: we discussed wealth, I think it was after that sometime and another line that stayed with me is when I asked you, I also wrote a very critical piece on ‘why you…

Phani: Yes, the mafia, the opportunity of creating a mafia…

Pankaj: But I was very humbly, you know, embarrassed when I started believing in the answer you gave me which was, you said, your parents were getting old and how would you demonstrate wealth to them when they are still alive. It was a very simple answer, nothing glorious or academic about it, very middle class answer, if I may say, and a very honest answer. Again, it took me a while to realise why it matters. So, let us talk about that. Let us talk about what happened when wealth happened to you and what did it mean to you and what does it mean to you?

Phani: Yes, one answer is, it means freedom to me, like you can do what you want to do and it also come with another thing, like for example, I mean, there is no end to how much wealth you need, you can say, you have one car, you can say, ‘I want Mercedes’, then you will say Maybach, then something else, then aeroplane, then there is no end to it. If you are somebody, there is always somebody ahead of you. If you are walking in that pursuit, there is no end and there is no freedom of having wealth because you are as good as or as bad as a blue collared worker who has to almost work every day to like feed himself, like there is no savings for him. So there is no difference, a blue collared or the very wealthy man who has that pursuit, so thankfully I don’t have that pursuit. For me, I don’t want to change my lifestyle from where it was, so that gives me a lot of freedom of whatever you want to do because your family is taken care of, their education is taken care of, etcetera and all that. At the same time, all the money that I made also is put in kind of debt funds and etcetera and all that, I am not very adventurous with it.

And coming back to the parents, actually when we were doing entrepreneurship, we were in short contrast to our friends and other cousins… that our parents would look at because almost barring 1-2 years of work-ex, we really didn’t work anywhere and during our time, like entrepreneurs could not encash, they could not sell secondary… so there was no money and salaries were also hardly like Rs 25,000 a month type, something like you need and once you get married, you will get more but as a bachelor that was we were taking. So for them in their mind, there was this thing, ‘Arey, inko ghar bhi nahi hai’ (they don’t even have a house). I mean, nothing is there and what is this, right! So that way once you buy a house, etcetera, they are comfortable that, ‘ok, he is also set’ and some basic minimum comforts that you want to give to your parents, I mean, like give them a car with a driver. For my mom, actually I took her to London, her first trip, I mean all of us, I mean she is born around independence, basically we are little late births so she is quite old. So for her, she has grown with this whole British thing and all that and going to London was a big thing and that too international, she has never seen any country outside India. Now actually, I want to take her to Dubai because that’s another thing in Telangana, lot of people go to Dubai, I mean Middle East to work. I wanted to take her and she was also interested actually about two years ago when we wanted to go, because of some things and some functions at home, we had to postpone. This year, I want to take her but she is not able to come because she is saying, ‘my knees don’t support so I can’t come’. I feel so sad. I would have felt much more sad if I could not have even taken her to London. So now actually we are figuring out to, how to go, I mean it’s not impossible, we can figure out, put some comforts and go to Dubai but things like that. I mean, I would have been terrible if I had like ten times more wealth and have could not have done some of these things.

Pankaj: Glad to know that you are staying with that answer even now. It’s almost like Phani, like I used to meet you when you were an entrepreneur and I have been meeting you even when you are not an entrepreneur, it’s like you go and live a parallel life in a parallel world somewhere and you come back and you are living another one, you know, if I were to take an outsider’s view, what are you really doing? It is clearly, like you said, as a person, you have definitely changed. Is it like that, entrepreneurship is like some space mission that you go, then you come back and then you live a life? So in what ways what you are living now is related?

Phani: Yes, I think, again it is different for different people and there is no right or wrong answer here. I mean, you can continue to be a serial entrepreneur, you can do anything and like some of my friends say that, ‘ok, you should be an entrepreneur again’ and I see the meaning in them. Some of them actually told me that, ‘in the first iteration of entrepreneurship, you have wasted a lot of resources, learning and etcetera, now if you don’t put that to use then it’s all going waste’. That way I feel that, ok, there is a duty to go back and do something. Actually, I told myself that I will take a five-year break and it was a forced break. Actually, when I just left redBus, I was like, so many ideas keep coming and you are in that mode, so I had to really force this break on to myself in the first 12 months where I had to push myself saying that I will force myself into a break. Now it’s about four and a half years, now I think I got so used to this thing, now I have to put pressure to get back into that thing.

But coming to an analogy, I have a different analogy of this thing, I mean, I used to think like, when I compare myself, I have been academically good, kind of a state ranker, distinction, that, this and all, so when I compare myself with my school friends, some of them who used to, like in conversations, all of us have different perspectives of life, so some of my friends had a perspective saying, ‘ki yeh padhai wadhai (studies and all), what will it help? What are you studying in biology, what are you doing social sciences, all this doesn’t help’ and their families came from business, so they would say business, like they had some shops and etcetera and all that, ‘that will at least make you some money, yeh kya karega (what will this studies give)’ and all that and they did not have this inclination and conviction in education. So they didn’t study well and I coming from job, I mean families and all, pursued it.

But even if I didn’t start redBus, when I was working Texas Instruments, my life compared to their life is very, very different, so it’s very different and now it’s even more different, so I feel entrepreneurship, like doing a company and all that is very similar to studying well, when you are studying and get good grades and then your life goes into the next orbit. It’s a lot of hard work. Like actually when we were putting hard work my other friends were like, going to movies and enjoying but that hard work of education was there only for those few days or few months and etcetera when they had but once you get through it and get to the next orbit, for many years you kind of derive the fruits of it whereas they kind of front-loaded the enjoyment… Entrepreneurship is also very like that like when you are very well aware that seven of us started redBus journey. In the first 3-4 months, four of us said, ‘Oh, it is difficult, we will not continue, it is this, that and etcetera’. It was that difficult because you don’t know whether it is going, what you are doing, you are wasting time, you are not even foregoing the salary and maybe that career itself because after a few years, if you want to go back, they may not take you and etcetera it is that difficult, it is very, very difficult and if you can’t trade going to movies and having fun to putting that hard work in the wilderness and etcetera then the same thing will happen. Now, we went through that difficult period and after that many years, now I don’t have to go to work and some of my friends who dropped out, the four out of the seven, today they have to go to work every day. There is no choice of thinking this way or that way. We are all in the same WhatsApp group, we keep meeting and etcetera, they have to go to work every day. So for me, the similarity is, the school education and exams and all that, so that kind of thing stays in my mind.


Pankaj: One of the entrepreneurial questions, Phani, is and I think it is a life question as well: when do you know it’s time to quit? Now, we were discussing this whole entrepreneurial optimism like you believe in an idea even if the world says, ‘Ok, it sucks!’, you keep at it and you are doing it. On the other hand, we see a lot of startups, they become the so-called zombie startups and you know they exist for a long time, no outcome and by outcome, I don’t mean exit but even in general. What are your key lessons on this front like how do you know I should do something else?

Phani: Yes, if you look at it theoretically and through like case studies, there is no right answer there because, I have a friend of mine, an ex-colleague from redBus, I mean after everything has gone and it got into a zombie state and all the co-founders left, he pursued it and now it’s turned around and to a fantastic thing. So looking at his case study, we can say that, ‘Oh, entrepreneur you’d never give up, you continue it’ or some entrepreneurs may be motivated to make it big and make a lot of wealth out of it and etcetera, for them Red Bus is a case study itself will be different.

I mean, recently one of our investors tweeted that it could have been a two billion dollar company. It is probably a two billion dollar company today, so there the case study is ok, if you are not, don’t sell it, if you continue, then it will be much more valuable. And there are equally case studies where companies, if they didn’t take the opportunity, company like Yahoo, if they don’t take that opportunity, the value deteriorates. So there is no theoretical right answer to it.

Then it comes back to the entrepreneur’s conviction, right! When do you think it is the right time to start? How much conviction is needed for you to start? Many people have this idea and they are ideating and ideating but some of them just get out there and start, you get that conviction. So likewise I think, given that there is no theoretical right answer, I think we will get that conviction, we will probably know, ‘ok fine, now is the time’, you should just take that time and anyways 80% of our decisions are based on conviction through this journey of entrepreneurship, so it should be like that and you should not regret after that because you have taken it that way. Once there is no regret, any decision that you take, you are happy. It is the post-decision, analysis and that and this that cause you a lot of trauma in a situation where you can’t do anything then why take that trauma and this thing and naturally if you are inclined towards, what are we inclined towards as a person, we will be well researched on that topic. Like for example, if somebody is inclined towards in this journey to make more money and make a large company, in his journey, naturally they would gather and research about insights that how does the company grow, so their conviction will come out of that knowledge. If somebody is around that, ‘ok let this opportunity go and let me take the next opportunity’.

Recently, I read one article, well researched by a professor where they said, well known fact is that if you are very determined then you are good for being an entrepreneur. There he says that, if you are not determined you are good for entrepreneur because there he makes a case saying that, ‘the biggest of successes’ and that’s how I relate to in the Indian context, ‘the unicorns, the biggest of successes of startups in India, the unicorns, almost all of them have pivoted’. Ola was an inter-city cab aggregator, you take Zomato was something else, InMobi was MobileKhoj, everybody was very different, Snapdeal was a deals site and etcetera.

So if they stayed to what they were, they would not be unicorns today. So that is how he built the case, saying that, ‘entrepreneurs who are not that determined, who change the course as this thing changes are the ones who become mega successful. This is very contrary to what we say is, the determined, single-minded focus guys make it all. So this all different kinds of, you have something in mind, you will find a case study there.

Pankaj: Yes, it is almost like religion, right, you can pick your god, so many choices.

Phani: Yes, and I think in a world like this, the best thing that will give us some good chance of success is, staying true to ourselves. We have realised that it is not the aggressive entrepreneur nor the passive guy, neither the willpower guy nor the guy who doesn’t have willpower… it is none of these things which is determining the success of a startup. So what does determine the success of a startup? Being true to yourself. Naturally you may be aggressive, I don’t know if the right word is flamboyant or things like that, naturally I may be something else. If I try to be like you because I saw such people being successful, it is a sure disaster because I am not being myself, I am always trying to figure out, ‘Ok, how does a person like that react in a situation like this’. By the time I do that, the situation would have changed. So I think just be to yourself. When we have Tatas as successful companies, we have other family large enterprises in India which have very different beliefs and are also successful. So I think, being an entrepreneur, this entrepreneurship journey needs a lot of courage, lot of strength to go against all these odds, every day and that courage can only come to you when you are true to yourself, when you are what you are and without that strength and confidence and courage you cannot navigate this journey of entrepreneurship, day in and day out. Every day there is a problem, every day you feel that it is collapsing but still you have to go back to work the next day as excited as you were the previous day. If your excitement dies down, the company dies down. So that comes only when you have a strong theme as to why you are doing to what you are doing and you are doing it like pure, honest, true to yourself. You may be wrong, the decisions you take may be wrong, totally wrong but they are true to you.

Pankaj: They define you.

Phani: Yes, that originality, that genuineness is needed for that courage and confidence to come.

Pankaj: Now coming to your point about staying true to yourself. You had mentioned how you looked up to people like Azim Premji when it comes to ethics and integrity and you said, you had heard stories about you know, the whole corruption and his stand on corruption and things like that. What were your key learnings on that front, Phani, you know, this whole thing about staying honest, the values, the integrity? I am asking that question because entrepreneurship is a rocket ship, speed is the essence, everybody is looking for outcomes, from investors, to shareholders to even founders and sometimes you can be blinded and there are ways in which you might compromise. What is the value of ‘values’?

Phani: See, like what I said earlier, I mean, being true to yourself and being that original is a value of values. What values you choose for yourself is different but whatever values you choose, you stay true to it, it gives you a lot of strength and courage to take forward, to take decisions to be at it. But it is different that different people may choose different values, knowingly also. Like for example, actually when I started this journey, I mean I didn’t know whether you should value like not giving bribes and being kind of ethical the way you define or be shrewd because some of my friends told, ‘business bole toh shrewd (business means that you got to be shrewd), you should be shrewd, you should make it happen’ and then they pointed me to, all of us follow politics and as bachelors, even more, so my friends used to point me to these big politicians saying, ‘see, we all respect him, he has been successful, made all these things, made good for the country but because he is shrewd. If he was not shrewd and was honest, would he have done any of these? Nothing! So business is also like that because you are running an enterprise and all good but be shrewd, I mean, those things’. And then they gave me examples of businessmen also who would do that and etcetera. So I was in a dilemma, should I choose that or should I choose this? At that point in time, whatever I would have chosen, those would have become my values and I should be true to it because as long as, values are different from law, the law defines whether it is legal or not. Nobody can get away doing illegal stuff, I mean you can’t do illegal, then you are a criminal, then that is a very different path, right! But within the legal framework, the values are what you choose. You can say, ‘I will value this, I will not value this’ and etcetera and some of those things. So those you can choose anything and be true to it. So for me, fortunately when I was in that dilemma, I had a great mentor who worked with Premji and also the only leaders who were in Bangalore were Ex-Wipro, there was no other leader, full of Wipro created all these leaders, so wherever we went to, we got this thing, Premiji did this, that and etcetera and when we see that he built such a large company based on those values, we get the hope and the confidence that it is possible to build with those things and that led us to walk that path and we walk that path.

Actually, naturally, in the early days, I mean when you are spending something, you get these invoices, so you give it to the accountant and you don’t know where you put and we got this IT audit where they were saying, ‘yeh invoice le kar aao (get this invoice)’. Woh invoice humare paas nahin tha (we didn’t have that invoice), kitna bhi dhoondo, woh nahi dikh raha hai (howsoever you search, we were unable to find it). We don’t know which file we put that into and something like that. Then they said, ‘Ok, these service tax, we will not allow, it is a cross, this thing, that thing , so we will charge some six lakh rupees fine’. And six lakh was our one-month existence, our one-month burn was about 5-6 lakh, so that was a lot of money. So we said, ‘How can we pay the fine but the thing is there no other way to deal with it?’ They said, ‘ek lakh pay karo bribe or six lakh fine pay karo’ (either pay one lakh as bribe or pay six lakh as bribe). We said, ‘we don’t have the option of that because we have chosen that this thing though it is one month, even if we had to shut down the company for this reason, it is ok, I mean, for being dishonest’.

For example, when we sold redBus, we didn’t have many RTCs though we were the country’s largest bus ticketing company, we didn’t have many RTCs because some RTCs, you had to go through very different paths to get them. Today it is very different because without redBus, I mean RTC’s themselves started coming to us.

Pankaj: This is Regional Transport Corporations.

Phani: Correct, the government bus operators. Today, I mean, they only come and partner with us but we waited until then. So what will happen if we don’t have RTCs, we may not be the largest bus ticketing company in India, so even if we are the second largest bus ticketing company in India but we are doing it honestly, it gives us much more happiness than being the largest bus ticketing company in India. But look at it in retrospect, I mean now, by practising it, there’s never that we were the second largest bus ticketing company in India, we have always been the largest bus ticketing company. So these are only fears, I think once you face them, walk through them, I think they will make way for you.

Like Premiji, actually, I heard in one of the TiE Con in Bangalore at Ashok Lalit, he was a keynote speaker. In that keynote, he narrated one thing which reinforced my thing. He said, he opened one factory in one of the states, little far away from, there was no I think high tension wire or electric supply there and for a factory you need electricity, so he went and applied to the government and the people there wanted bribe, so the ministers or whoever, right, they were not giving him electricity until they got a bribe. So Premji, I mean, for him the whole investment in that factory would go waste if he doesn’t have electricity and all these capexes (capital expenditures) and all that are very big thing from a public company perspective. So, he said, instead of bribing, he said he would not bribe them, by him I mean, I heard it from the horse’s mouth, he himself narrated this. He ran the factory for 18 months on generators and 18 months later, actually that government fell and the new government came and the new chief minister gave electricity to that place. He waited until then but he said, the advantage of that is after that nobody comes to our factory ever, you just had to put effort for that 18 months, nobody comes to us ever. When he says that, here is a man who has done it, lived that and he is telling you, ‘I have done it, no problem’.

And the other big advantage of that is, as we discussed we need great talent to build these great enterprises and all. A person who is a great talent, passed out from the best of the colleges, has talent, is not afraid of anything, he can live on his own, he is not waiting for somebody to give him a job, that kind of a person, imagine that kind of a person. Now, why will he compromise for ethics and values? If your company is saying, ‘mere paas join karo, hum log jaa kar chori kar ke aayegein’ (join my company and we will steal) or ‘hum humaari government ko hee bribe kareinge’ (we will bribe our very own government only)’, that guy will not join you. He is not afraid of anything, he is confident, he has the talent. He will be inspired to join companies which are ethical and which are like that. Now without attracting such a person, if you are a chor, you will attract chors (if you are a thief, you will attract only thieves); with such people, you will only build such a company. You have to attract that guy, you have to be this, there is no choice.


Pankaj: No, it’s amazing, you talk about Premji because I myself have tracked him over, nearly 20 years now and I think the reason, as to the value of having the right role models is so crucial, I mean, absolutely. And I always tell people about your incident.

Final thing I want to understand from you, Phani, a lot of time people think of entrepreneurship and everything we do, it needs capital, it needs talent but end of the day it is your time and it is almost like you have a limited time and you have to spend it judiciously. There is family, there is company or whatever it is. So what do you think of time and because when you took that decision of, ‘I don’t want to do anything for five years’ or every time you took a decision, what role did this value of time play for you? When you were an entrepreneur and you had family and you got married, what role did that play? I am not sure if I am making sense but I am trying to understand the way you look at time.

Phani: Yes, actually, unfortunately, I am not one of those who values time as currency. I want to be that but it is difficult. I waste a lot of time and things like that but another perspective of that is the work-life balance, like for example, at redBus, you had a reason and at least I had a reason to myself saying, ‘I can’t give as much time to the family as anybody else because I have full of these pressures and this company to run which is ever growing and be there everywhere and I am not an experienced CEO and I have to learn on the job and hence it takes more time than it should take for others’. I used to have this mindset and I used to give that reason to my wife and etcetera and all that and she was also ok but a big realisation happened after we sold the company. So we sold the company, I just had kids, one of the two kids, she is just born and I had nothing to do but still I could not spend time with them, like could not go and play, read the stories, just listen to what they say which is usually doesn’t make sense but you have to be with them. I was not doing that, I was still like open up something, read some article, talk to this guy, talk to that guy, do something by your own self. So, that’s when, again I mean, I realised what Sanjay Anandaram who is my mentor told me when I got married. He told me when I got married, he said, ‘See, until now all your life… (And it was a little different in my case because I grew up in hostels and etcetera). Until now, all your life, you have never lived with another person under the same roof, now you are going to start that journey. It is very different, it is unlike all your life till now, so be conscious of that and make time for her and etcetera’, is what he told me. And I think it is very similar when I had kids because until now I never had kids, so you don’t know, you are in your own life, you continue that life until you become conscious of it and determine to put that effort saying that, ‘Ok, abhi kids ke liye time denge (now, we will give time to our kids)’ because this is a different thing and you force yourself into it. My kids go to school at 8 am and come back at 4 pm, so after 4 pm I don’t want to do anything like just stay with them, take them out, read a book, be with them and etcetera and all that. I think that is what was driving a nice work-life balance and if I get back to entrepreneurship again, I think I would strongly have this as one of the things to do as a value in our company that it doesn’t come naturally to any one of us, we need to force ourselves to get into it. Though I was completely free, I had no work to do, I still was not giving time to my family because it is not the function of time, it is a function of mindset, it is that. It is the function of strangeness, you are stranger to that, having kids in that family and before you realise, that phase will get past you and then you would not have lived that one phase and it’s not like that by spending time from 4 pm with them, I had to make a big sacrifice on my otherwise life, right, you will always make adjustments, you will drop so many unnecessary things and you will prioritise there. So, I mean, that is the thought about the time but in general, I do waste a lot of time. I have (read a lot about) time management, about efficiency and productivity and all that… I am not very good.

Pankaj: Final thing, Phani. This particular conversation is like a journey, you know. Final thing I want. What would you like to be your legacy and don’t get me wrong. What I mean is, if both of us are hit by a truck, we go out today, what would you like people to remember you for because I have found a lot of people I meet, somewhere they are thinking of, this, you know some people talk about it, some people don’t… but if anyone is thinking about you 100 years from now or 50 or whatever, I don’t know, what is that?

Phani: Oh, I don’t have anything like that. Actually, I would want to just escape out of this world without being observed, without being noticed, so no legacy or nothing to leave behind. I mean, you are there, you did something and then you vanished, like so many others, I mean, like all of us. That’s my thought, I just want to escape out without anybody remembering me after I am gone.

Pankaj: I like this answer and I myself believe in it. Thank you, Phani, I mean, please stay this way and Insha Allah, you will find new meanings in everything you are doing. Thank you, god bless.

Phani: Thank you, Pankaj. Thank you so much.

(Kanika Berry has a Masters in Business Administration and has been a communications specialist for over eight years.)

Images: Getty, World Economic Forum (Creative Commons)


Updated at 08:54 am on November 30, 2018  to replace certain blurbs that were edited for clarity.

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