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From rags to riches: Story of a design firm
Archana Rai, Outlook Money | July 06, 2006
Paranoia is one of the 10 axioms that rule this product design company. Encouraging each of his 30-member team to innovate is another principle guiding the four-year old Axiom Consulting. "We are an idea-driven company and need to foster creative thinking," says its 42-year old founder and CEO, Satya Rao.
For Rao, a mechanical engineer who began his career in the automobile sector, tooling around was a childhood passion. He took to it after his father, who would invent devices to ease simple household tasks. Plus, there was the "vibrant culture of learning in Kolkata."
Setting up a design consultancy seemed natural, after Rao relocated to Bangalore in 1996 following a 10-year stint in the United States.
Start-ups were the flavour of the season and venture capital was in plentiful supply in the late 1990s. After an MBA in the US, Rao had worked as a consultant with Ford Motors. Rao drew upon his US experience to draft a start-up plan focussed on the auto sector. The team kept their fingers crossed, and breathed a sigh of relief on December 31, 2001, when the VC sent them a term sheet for a seed capital funding of $1.8 million.
But their euphoria did not last even a day. The same evening Rao walked into the VC's office to be told that there had been a re-think. Spooked by the anti-outsourcing wave in the US, the VC had decided that Axiom was an idea doomed to fail.
The year 2002 was not a happy new year for Rao. Pole-axed by the setback, Rao herded his remaining team of four promoters and two employees to a local coffee shop. On the menu, apart from the coffee, were some hard facts: anyone who stayed on at Axiom would do so as an equity holder, which meant that instead of getting salaries, they would scrounge around to raise the starting capital.
And, henceforth, the coffee would come from "the neighbourhood Darshinis and not Cafe Coffee Day."
The Axiom team stayed together. "It is a test of judgment to be able to choose the right supporter in a time of crisis," Rao says. Within three weeks, Rao with some help from a family friend bagged Axiom's first order -- a brief to design an electric utility vehicle for corporate campuses.
Buoyed by the team's enthusiasm, their family and friends pooled in to build a corpus of Rs 20 lakh (Rs 2 million) that saw the team of six rent an office in downtown Bangalore and get to work.
For a group that idolised global design hot-shops, the instinct was to target business in US markets. Rao spent three fruitless months seeking business in an anti-outsourcing America. Shouted at by prospective clients for their foolhardiness, the chastened duo returned home and hunkered down to focus on the domestic auto sector.
It was two years before the core team drew even a month's salary. They survived on overdrafts from their bankers. Says Rao: "I could not have pulled this off if my wife did not have a full-time job. The financial and emotional support from our extended family and friends proved invaluable."
The tide turned in 2004. First, Axiom was asked to design a three-wheeler for an Indian major for the Auto Expo 2004. And then, halfway through the year, SIDBI Venture picked up an equity stake in the firm. Still it was rough weather for Axiom, financially. Clients would refuse to pay a premium for design and the auto sector was sliding into recession.
For Rao and his team -- now 12 member strong -- it was back to the drawing boards. It was clear that they needed a pan-industry focus. Says Rao: "We decided not to restrict our repertoire to auto-design and to again venture abroad where the margins for design are higher."
They narrowed down to seeking work at Fortune 100 companies. In January 2005, they made their first serious presentation to a global FMCG major. Their two months of research and minute-by-minute dress rehearsals nearly drowned as a neighbourhood school band began playing just as the clients sat down for an audio-visual presentation.
"Fortunately, the client agreed to watch the march past before returning for the presentation. It was a pivotal moment in Axiom's history," recalls Rao.
Axiom went on to bag that order and started on a journey that has seen the firm grow from 12 to 30 design engineers in less than a year. The team is now churning out project designs, as well as in-house products that range from gaming solutions to personal utility products.
On shop shelves soon will be Axiom's first branded product -- Bill Boy, a portable storage system for bills and receipts.
With a diverse portfolio that boasts of work in urban transportation, consumer packaging, industrial design such as a low-wattage cooling fan, it's clear that innovation will be the fuel that drives Axiom's aim to emerge as an international design company.