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The success story of a serial entrepreneur

Last updated on: January 20, 2012 12:01 IST

The success story of a serial entrepreneur

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Shobha Warrier

Swaminathan K, an alumnus of IIM-B, can be described as a serial entrepreneur who started young; in fact, from his school days.

Identifying problems and solving them through his innovative ideas has been his strength from the beginning. His latest venture is myBskool.com, which he has co-founded with KB Chandrasekhar, another "serial entrepreneur and risk-taker who empowers others to accomplish their dreams".

He says myBskool.com can fill in the gap in the supply and demand of quality managers in India.

In this interview, Swaminathan goes through his entrepreneurial journey from his school days onwards.

I didn't know I was being an entrepreneur but I and my sister had to start working by taking tuitions to earn that extra money to pay school fees, and buy books and uniform.

My father worked as a salesperson for MNCs but was too straightforward. So, he used to work for nine months, resign and be without work for another nine months.

So, there was a need for myself and my sister to earn. From our father, we also learnt to be straightforward in whatever we did. We were not born with silver spoons in our mouth but were brought up with strong values.

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Image: Swaminathan K.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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My first venture was a lending library which I started when I was in the seventh standard. Some of my friends used to buy comics like Amar Chitra Katha, Tinkle, etc, while there were others who could not afford them. So I decided to bridge the gap by starting a library.

When I was in the ninth standard, I started the sale of fireworks. Some of my seniors were studying at IIT Madras and they had difficulty in going out and buying crackers during Diwali.

One of them asked whether I could help them buy crackers. I found out that at the Parry's Corner wholesale market, you could buy crackers at a cheaper rate. I told them I would buy for them at 10 per cent commission. They agreed.

When I found that there was a huge difference between the price of the crackers bought from the wholesale market at Parry's Corner and other residential areas, I included that also as my market.

The business mantra I used as a student and later on as a businessman was, look out for demand and then fill it!

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Image: My first venture was a lending library, he says.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

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I followed the demand and supply norm when I was in college too. It was the 90s and there was Hyundai, Ford and many such MNCs setting base here. It was followed by an influx of expatriates and they were badly in need of good houses.

They had no time to go and look at all the houses, and they were not comfortable with the typical broker who was not fluent in English.

What I had was a cycle, a phone connection at home and a camera. I went around looking for houses for MNCs and told the owners that I would not take any commission from them if they gave me three weeks' time.

That was because I could work only in the weekends. I also wanted to take photos of the interiors of the houses to show them to the clients.

With the photos of the exterior and interior of at least five houses in a folder, I met the clients. They would choose to visit 1 or 2 from the list. Because I was a neatly dressed young collegian, they were comfortable sending their family with me to see the houses, as the final decision was always taken by the ladies of the house.

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Image: I went around looking for houses for MNCs, says Swaminathan.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Tags: , Ford , Hyundai

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After the deal was struck, I charged one and a half months' rent as brokerage while others charged only one month.
But they were always willing to give me that extra money.

My entry into the field of education started after I joined NIS-Sparta to teach sales and marketing strategy. Having been a successful sales person from my school days, in no time, I was heading the southern division.

I am one person who needs to be challenged all the time. So, when I found that the job was no more challenging, I started looking elsewhere.

In 1999-2000, some of my friends had started egurukool.com and they wanted me to be the Business Head. Till I joined the egurukool core team, I had no desire to be an entrepreneur.

I treated it like my own and worked like mad to build it. Every day was uncertain and every day started with dozens of problems. And I enjoyed solving them. That is when I understood my strength was in criss management, trouble shooting and problem solving. Problems never rattled me. Later it was acquired by NIIT.

Those were the dot com days and I founded pookaikani.com to sell fruits and vegetables online with a capital of a lack and a half.

We had 3,000 paying customers in Chennai but every day was filled with some crisis or the other. I had to even do the job of the driver when he took leave without telling us and literally tomatoes were thrown on my face.

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Image: With Professor Xavior of IIM-Ranchi.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj
Tags: NIIT , NIS , Chennai

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I was the Founder, remember! In nine months, we lost Rs 12 lakhs. Then I realised the vegetable business was not for me, and I would be better off in education.

Prof Abdul Kalam had come to Chennai after a stint as the scientific advisor to the Prime Minister and was talking about India 2020. He said Indians should aspire to build the country to the next level.

I caught the word aspire and started Aspire Learning with two other friends (Madhumati and John) with a capital of Rs 25-30 lakhs with five people.

In the first Tamil Nadu entrance examination, in the top 10, three students were from Aspire. In 2004, out of the top 100, 93 were from our institute. We had similar success stories in AIEEE and IIT-JEE also.

If we made an operating margin of eight per cent in the first year, we grew almost 300 per cent the second year. After that, our growth was exponential; about 16 times.

As everybody was in the BPO business, we also started one BPO and lost Rs 6 crores (Rs 60 million). I realised then that one should not do business that one doesn't know. Education was what I knew.

From 2001 to 2009, there was no looking back for us. When I came out in 2009, it was a Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million) company. We had 62 centres with 30,000 students.

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Image: Prof Abdul Kalam.
Photographs: Reuters

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I knew that a management qualification from a premium B-School would be an added advantage. With a view to take Aspire to the next level, I decided to join the first batch of Executive MBA at IIM Bangalore in 2004.

With another 100 or more students from diverse backgrounds, with equal or more experience than me, every session witnessed mind boggling discussions and analysis of various contemporary models and case studies.

All these helped me in structuring business models and fine tuning the strategy for my organization. In 2008, I had another idea. That is to get the country's top professors on a single platform and video capture their lessons on each topic for the IIT-JEE entrance examination and put them online.

So, our student sitting at Kumbakonam could listen to the professor from Kota which otherwise he would not have had the opportunity.

2008 was the year the crash took place. So, the Aspire Board did not agree with my plan. But I decided to move out of Aspire. Having sold my shares, I got some money.

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Image: IIM Bangalore.


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I started Smart learn Web TV with Rs 1 crore (Rs 10 million) from my side and got the first round of investment from Kalpathi Suresh, Kumar of the Sanmar group and KB Chandrasekhar. We pumped in around half a million dollars and built the company.

Within nine months, we had 10,000 paid customer base, and that year, out of the top 100 IIT JEE students, 23 were from us. In March 2010, EdServ acquired us and I made some good money.

Now, they are all over the country with 100,000 students using the material. I happen to see a report that India needs 20 million managers at the entry and middle level in the next 10 years. The demand for an MBA is going up year after year not only in the classroom space but in the distance learning space too.

I found that in the distance learning market, half a million students register every year for Management Studies and it is growing at 8-10 per cent compounded annually.

Entrepreneurship is all about finding a problem, solving it and getting people to pay for it. I thought like we did for IIT JEE coaching, I could bring the best professors in India to deliver lectures on every chapter and put them on a platform.

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Image: Distance learning market is growing.

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I discussed the idea with KB Chandrasekhar and he was game for it. We co-founded myBskool.com and he invested $1.5 million.

I went all around India and got the best professors deliver lectures on each subject with many case studies as examples.

After that, I signed a pact with IMT, Ghaziabad, which has been rated in the top 10 Biz Schools in India for the last 20 years, for a one-year Executive MBA.

It is approved by AICTE, UGC and IGNOU. When the average Biz School charges anywhere between Rs 7-10 lakhs, our fee is Rs 50,000 for an Executive MBA from IMT.

On the seventh of December, 2011, we announced and we already have 800 registrations. Our streaming classroom lectures that include 6,000 plus podcasts, 3,000 plus video lectures, can be viewed on PC, smart phones, tablets and mobiles.

The second plan that we have is, give our online content to other institutes and IIM Ranchi is the first institute to use our platform for their students.

We are also reaching out to 3,000 corporates so that their employees can register themselves for an MBA. This industry is estimated to be about Rs 5,000 crores (Rs 50 billion) and we are looking at 25,000 students in the next three years and a revenue of Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) in four years.

We will soon be raising the next round of funding of Rs 2.5 million. Be focused. Don't be emotional about your ventures. Don't be too attached to your idea.

Take one idea at a time. Have a proper mentor to guide you.


Image: IMT, Ghaziabad.

Tags: IMT , MBA , IGNOU , IIM Ranchi , UGC

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