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'We knew we'd make more money than the corporates'

Last updated on: September 3, 2012 17:48 IST

Image: Sunil Vishnu and Karthik Kumar of Evam
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj Shobha Warrier

In ten years these two entrepreneurs have built a profitable theatre company claiming that theirs is the only company that has theatre as a business venture.

When classmates Karthik Kumar and Sunil Vishnu at the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad (MICA), decided to do a joint thesis on the feasibility of an entertainment company with theatre as the core offering, it was the beginning of a dream. English theatre as entrepreneurship was not tried till then but they chased their dream and became the only successful entrepreneurs in the field.

Karthik, a chemical engineer from Chennai and Sunil Vishnu K, a BCom graduate from Bhopal, took up corporate jobs for two years to make some money to start their journey as entrepreneurs. In 2003 both of them quit their jobs and moved to Chennai to start Evam.

After almost a decade, Evam is a successful business venture that has attracted Venture Capitalists also. Evam is perhaps the only art based entrepreneurship in India even today and Evam has two companies under it -- Evam Entertainment and Sideways Training.

In this interview, Karthik (who also acts in Tamil films occasionally) talks about the unusual journey both he and Sunil have undertaken so far.

Theatre a passion even in school and college days

I come from a middle class working family, and the only person who showed an entrepreneurial streak was my grandfather who ran a small truck company with just one truck. So, he was an entrepreneur in a small way.

Perhaps he inspired me. One thing is sure, I always wanted to do something on my own, and that was in the theatre space. Throughout my school and college days, I was passionate about theatre.

When I was doing engineering, Mani Ratnam had started Madras Talkies, and that was an inspiration for me to think that we can have control over our enterprise.

'Nobody had looked at theatre as business'

Image: Evam artists staging a show
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Doing a thesis on theatre as a business model

When I passed out of engineering, what I wanted to learn was about money and management, and that was why I joined MICA, Ahmedabad.

At MICA, I met Sunil and we found that both of us had a common interest, and that was theatre. We asked ourselves, why can't we make a living out of what we love doing? Why should we take up marketing and finance jobs? Why should we look at making money and doing what you love, as two separate things?

That was why we chose our thesis, the revenue model for theatre as business. Nobody had looked at theatre as business till then in India. Even hardcore practitioners of theatre like Naseerudin Shah or even a Prithvi theatre do not follow theatre as business. They don't make money from theatre but sustain themselves from other avenues while theatre is a passion for them.

For our thesis, we met and spoke to so many people who were in theatre. We found that there was no established revenue model in the country but the same existed in the UK and US. We also found that the governments there invested in art as they looked at it as a social driver.

Yes, what we found for the thesis was quite discouraging for those who wanted to make a living out of theatre. Those around us said, don't. Our brains said don't, but our heart said, yes, as you live only once.

Taking up jobs to make capital

Both of us took up jobs to pay back our educational loans and also make some money to start our business in theatre. After that, we had at our disposal a lakh and a half between the two of us.

'Our theatre-based entrepreneurship surprised a lot of people'

Image: Evam artists staging a show
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Starting Evam in 2003

Exactly, two years after we passed out, with the money we saved, we started Evam. Both of us were 25 then. We decided to name our venture Evam because the name of the first play we did as a student theatre group at MICA was Evam Indrajit.

The play was about what you wanted to become in life, whether you wanted to follow the path that everyone took or did something that was unique.

Theatre as a business venture

When we started Evam as a partnership enterprise, a theatre-based entrepreneurship, it surprised a lot of people. We wanted to tell stories and we chose theatre as the platform. There was nobody like us in that space, and when we started Evam, everybody was curious.

Evam, an English theatre

We had decided in the beginning itself that Evam would be Indian-English theatre as we wanted pan-India presence. We had two options to base our theatre, Chennai and Bangalore. We chose Chennai to base Evam as I was based out of Chennai. Also, Bangalore had a lot of amateur theatre groups. We did not want anyone to think that we were an amateur theatre group.

Sunil, who hailed from Bhopal, was working in Mumbai and he also moved to Chennai.

Humble beginning: Office on the terrace

How much can you do with Rs 1.5 lakh? We set up our office on the terrace of my father's house. We hired one of our juniors from MICA who was bored with her job in Mumbai. She became one of our partners.

'Yes, it was not a safe, rational sort of business'

Image: The Evam team
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

First play by Evam in six months

We spent the Rs 1.5 lakh to find a sponsor as media investor for our first play. That was our first model. It took us six months to find a sponsor (HSBC) and launch our first play, an Indian version of Art in September 2003.

We call September 10th as our birthday. We will enter our 10th year this September 10th!

First play, a success

We had a lot of young people coming to watch our first play and it was a huge success. Till then theatre was watched only by old people above 40 in Chennai. We could draw a lot of young people to theatre with our very first play.

We made money from the first 2-3 plays, and our sponsors also were happy!

Three years went by

We kept our cost very low with just one employee and other part-time employees. There was not much employee or office overheads, so, we even made profit.

When we moved into rented office premises, we started feeling the cash crunch. That was when we realised that the money we made from a play was not sustainable. We made money from hit plays but lost from flop plays.

Yes, it was not a safe, rational sort of business.

Tags: HSBC , Chennai

'We were making peanuts compared to our classmates in the corporate sector'

Image: Evam artists staging a show
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Expansion to solve cash crunch

So, we decided to spread our wings. In 2004, we decided to enter the educational space by conducting theatre workshops for schools, colleges and the corporate sector.

For those in the corporate sector, it was mainly to open up their personalities and get rid of all inhibitions.

This helped us tide over our difficult days.

Alumni meet at MICA

When we had our alumni meet, we found that we were making peanuts compared to our classmates who were in the corporate sector but we knew that after 10 years, we would be making a lot more than them! But we knew we were doing something we were really passionate about and that made us happy.

Soon, we started getting invitations to perform in Bangalore, Delhi, and also to many theatre festivals.

Tags: MICA , Bangalore , Delhi

'We represented India at the Edinburgh Festival'

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Managing the Metro Plus Theatre festival

From 2005, we started managing the Metro Plus Theatre Festival organised by The Hindu. Now, the festival is five-cities-strong: Chennai, Coimbatore, Kochi, Hyderabad and Bangalore. It is probably the biggest English theatre festival in India.

That was how we entered the field of entertainment management, and please don't confuse it with event management. It was our next diversification after entering the field of education.

Finalist at the Tata Nen hottest start-ups in India

In 2008, we became the only arts and cultural business outfit to be in the finals of the Tata Nen Hottest start-ups competition. Except us, the others were IT and retail entrepreneurs.

Being in the finals of the competition opened up a lot of avenues for us.

In 2009, Sunil won the Young Entrepreneur award from the British Council. We represented India at the Edinburgh Festival.

'Investors found our management and art psyche interesting'

Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj

Interest from investors

After the Tata Nen contest, investors started showing interest in our venture. They found our management and art psyche interesting. Funnily, artists say ours is a management company and corporates say we are an artist company! Yes, we are in the business of art management.

Start sideways training

That was how we thought of entering into the application of art-based methodology in corporate management.

We got an investment of Rs 50 lakh and parted with 15 per cent of our stakes.

By floating Sideways Training, Evam became a corporate with two companies under it: Evam Entertainment and Sideways Training.

Evam Entertainment is into arts management, arts education and performing arts.

Sideways Training is corporate training based on art based methodologies.

Now, we are doing very well in training big corporate company employees. Now, we are operationally profitable every month. We will break even by this year-end.

Entering the Art Education space

Next year, we will get into the Art Education space for which we are offered funding. We will be one brand that will train children in all forms of art. We will be a one-stop brand for anything that is connected to art.

Evam stand up comedy

Stand up comedy is very rare and new in India and Evam has become the biggest player in Chennai and Bangalore now. We perform even in the performance unfriendly places like pubs. This also has become very profitable for the company.

After 9 years, theatre as entrepreneurship

It was not smooth sailing. 2010 and 2011 were tough years for us but venture funding helped us come out of the difficult period.

On the positive side, Year 2012 has been great so far as we have been making operational profits and growing at 35 to 40 per cent.

Today, hardcore companies like a Cognizant or an Infosys or a Shell book us to have workshops based on arts based methodologies.

Young people watching theatre have increased tremendously.

In the last 3 to 4 years, 10 amateur theatre groups are doing plays for fun.

On the flip side, even today, not many people have made theatre a source of income. But the 13 employees of Evam are making a living out of theatre.

We still remain the only company that has theatre as a business venture, and I am sure it will change soon.