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'It's a huge risk to under-utilise your innate talent'

February 28, 2008

A brief look at his career profile will make you wonder at his genius.

That sense of wonderment is only heightened when you read that he has also graduated from the finest and the best educational institutions in India. For Balu Nayar, the managing director of IMG India has achieved educational excellence as well.

After graduating from IIT Kharagpur (1987) he went ahead and did his MBA from IIM Bangalore (1989). Ask him how he could crack two topmost exams in India and the humble Balu says, "There's a lot of luck involved."

After completing his MBA Balu began his career with Rediffusion DY&R. Though he has an MBA degree, Balu believes that a lot many fresh MBAs have too much of an air about them.

"Starting off with advertising was a great experience. It helps you keep your ego completely down to very realistic levels," he quips.

"Many fresh MBAs place less stress on making a contribution at the workplace and much more on the almost completely irrelevant historical fact that they have an MBA and some others don't" says Balu, tongue firmly in cheek.

In an interview with's Prasanna D Zore Balu discusses his career -- that saw him work with Yahoo! Mobile as regional director, Asia Pacific, based at Singapore, Hutchison Max Telecom as the head of value added services and as its vice president for marketing and business development, and STAR TV as the marketing head. He also shares the lessons learned working at these diverse companies.

At the time of going to press news was out that Balu had put in his papers at IMG India and was planning to start his own private equity firm backed by a global investment bank. Excerpts.

Your journey from childhood to college days:

I was born in Calcutta (Kolkata) and did most of my schooling in Madras (Chennai). I grew up in an environment of learning and reading -- my father was an extraordinary person with interests varying from Sanskrit and mathematics to music and history and hungry to learn new concepts every day. I've always been addicted to books as a result -- and due to a simple supply-demand issue, went on to read a lot of his collection pretty early, sometimes through the night -- ranging from A L Basham, Martin Gardner, Smullyan, Gibbon, Krishnamurthi to Poe and Edgar Wallace.

Don't know how much I understood of some of those authors at that age! Today, it's in the reverse direction, when I sometimes escape to the world of Enid Blyton and P G Wodehouse. 

I think I was really fortunate to go to a one-in-a-million school, Sishya -- run by a visionary gentleman called K I Thomas. We had no homework, no exams and no uniforms -- and each classroom had not more than 20 students. It was an idyllic environment in many ways, but not a complete picnic. In such a free space you tend to learn faster and better, and find out what you're really good at.

I was sort of good at mathematics so I was allowed to go ahead. I think we were free from the pressures that most kids today go through, thanks to a creative approach to education.

My entry into IIT was a life changing experience. We lived in Madras but my parents agreed with my choice of wanting to stay in a hostel environment -- Kharagpur was the most acceptable due to its proximity to Calcutta. I think a hostel stint is a must for everybody at some point in time in their academic lives -- there is such an abundance of stimuli from intelligent, slightly crazy people coming together from all parts of the country, and from overseas. 

It was at IIT Kharagpur that I started playing a lot of outdoor games (as my childhood asthma had vanished) -- more enthusiasm than talent, and was introduced to a range of music from Shivkumar Sharma to Jethro Tull. I didn't spend a lot of time in the classroom except for a select few professors -- some fabulous concepts like fluid dynamics, artificial intelligence which can keep you spellbound for hours.

But I think you grow up very soon there, some bitter-sweet memories too -- of suicides, of friends losing their balance. You'll also find a lot of trauma in that environment.

You also did your MBA in Finance from IIM Bangalore. How did you manage to crack both the exams?

There's a good component of luck involved in getting through these exams -- I'm not sure that there's much to separate the top five to ten per cent who enter these exams.

Any tips to those preparing for their IIT-JEE scheduled on April 13?

I wrote the IIT-JEE many, many years back and I don't think I'll be able to give any specific tips that can help today.

In a general sense, however, I think any person wanting to get into the IITs should understand that what's really the key is the understanding of concepts that is more effective than solving umpteen problems and hours of studying.

Next, to maximise your efficiency, the key that students should follow is to keep a cool head during the exams -- that's the best way to good results.

I'd also like to add that just getting through the JEE is not enough -- many students who get through to IIT tend to be toppers in their schools, but you've got to be prepared to face pretty stiff challenges in competing with people of the same calibre. That's a shock that many kids face on getting through -- and it's important to accept that quickly with due humility, else that could prove quite traumatic.    

What are the lessons gained from your entire career experience till date? Would you share them?

Broadly, I can say that I have learned a little in the area of media, marketing, and investments. I've been fortunate enough to be involved in building businesses in virgin territories, in working closely with numerous start-ups, mentoring a few of them, and in advising venture capitalists, too.  

Starting off with advertising was a great experience, as working in that field keeps your ego completely down to very realistic levels, helps you cope with high pressure multi-tasking across a range of brands, and pushes you to use both sides of your brain. In that environment, you quickly come down from the rarefied MBA level to the learning ground of harsh reality and intense teamwork.  

Many fresh MBAs place less stress on making a contribution at the workplace and much more on the almost completely irrelevant historical fact that they have a coveted degree and some others don't.

People who inspired you:

I have been lucky in working closely with a number of inspiring people, but it's important to be able to learn from almost anybody, not just the obvious corporate names. An opera-singing taxi driver in Singapore, the man who used to deliver bread to our apartment in Mumbai [Images] after a full day at the factory, our maid who went through incredible sacrifices to make sure she could send her daughter to the same school as our neighbour -- these are all sources of inspiration.

Most importantly, I've taken a lot of inspiration from my father. He always made me understand the importance of learning, of honesty, hard work. And, of course, caring for people -- he had helped many, many people around him. On the domain front, I owe my interest in mathematics, cryptography, music and chess to him.   

On a more distant level, I've always been inspired by mathematicians -- Gauss (A German mathematician and scientist) and Euler (a pioneering Swiss mathematician) among others. Sometime in the future I plan to spend more time on exploring the mathematical basis for musical preferences.

Advice to youngsters who would want to emulate you:

My primary advice is not to try to emulate anybody else! Every individual has a unique identity, and needs to chart their own path. In a general sense, I would emphasise the importance of instinct over analysis in making career decisions, and of the need for killer instinct to achieve goals.

Risks that an entrepreneur must take to succeed:

Risks are a fact of life -- whether you are working as a career professional or starting out on your own. I'm only starting out on an entrepreneurial path, so my thinking is largely a level removed. I think the biggest risk one can take in life is to under-utilise the innate talent, energy and resources that one is given.

I've always known that I needed to take this route; it was only a mater of timing. I've come close to starting something on my own quite a few times in the past, but (in some cases, luckily, in hindsight!) hadn't taken the entrepreneurial plunge. This wasn't limited to just the predictable Internet start-up concepts -- I had serious plans to start a resort on an island in Orissa some years back.

It's important however, to be pulled by the concept of entrepreneurship, and not be pushed into it for whatever reason.

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