30 October 2016 09:45:39 IST

‘If you create a culture of innovation, you will attract the right kind of talent’

Harsh Mariwala’s peer-to-peer platform Ascent helps entrepreneurs gain from shared experiences

After having grown Marico into one of the formidable names in Indian FMCG space, Harsh Mariwala has decided to don the hat of a mentor to young entrepreneurs through a not-for-profit outfit called Ascent. Launched in 2012, the initiative was born out of Mariwala’s belief that sharing collective knowledge enables entrepreneurs to address their challenges. The initiative is a peer-to-peer platform, with 10 or 12 entrepreneurs in each group who meet regularly to discuss problems and find ways to solve them. 

Today Ascent has nearly 24 groups, with over 300 active entrepreneurs who learn from each other. For example, Asim Dalal, CEO, Indo Count Retail Ventures Pvt. Ltd., created business processes for his company based on best practices shared by other entrepreneurs in his group at Ascent. “I literally had 10 consultants who could give me their views, share their experiences and point out the shortcomings to perfect the SOPs” he says. In a conversation with Business Line , Mariwala talks about the country’s booming entrepreneurial ecosystem and how his initiative is offering start-ups a platform.

Do you see any difference in the way entrepreneurs are today, and how you were when you started Marico?

I would say there is a huge difference. One is the old economy then and the new economy now. The set of entrepreneurs who are looking at opportunities because of e-commerce or internet or digital, these are disruptions occurring in the environment. The era of technology is driving a lot of new-age businesses.

Second, the risk-taking profile of individuals is interesting to me, especially the so-called professionals, who did not have money at that time, even today they don’t, but today there is an ecosystem of financiers, partners, investors, venture capitalists; so there are various options. The kind of people looking at setting up their own enterprise has also changed dramatically. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they can take risk. They’re all very qualified, they can get a job, to keep them financially secure. There is a backup option if you’re not succeeding.

How does an entrepreneur prepare himself to fail?

The preparation is in one’s mind-set. If I fail, what is my back-up option? This back-up option is in terms of giving up my business and going back to my job, or in changing my business model, or in starting another business. Even within failure, there are various options. But four or five years ago this ecosystem was not really in place.

Do you think, in terms of maturity, we can be like Silicon Valley?

I think we are a long way off. We have pockets of such entrepreneurs who are based out of Bangalore, especially the digital age, e-commerce businesses. I think we have a long way to go; we have just begun.

In terms of ideas, are entrepreneurs moving up the value chain?

I think we are moving up the chain; there are a lot of e-commerce ideas. Some of them are copycats of the US, because something has worked in the US they want to be the first ones to do it in India, and that’s ok. I think that’s a good start. But more importantly, ideas are evolving.

You have said earlier that being an entrepreneur is a lonely process, though you yourself had a group of entrepreneurs in your days to help you out. Was that your trigger to start Ascent?

I think that was one of the triggers. In addition to that, I wanted to create some value for our stakeholders, whether it is for the employees, owners or associates. Then I started looking at start-ups and I realised that they have a different set of challenges, and I thought if I wanted to make an impact in a big way, start-ups would be the way to go, as they form a different kind of network.

In start-ups, the decisions you have to take are unique, the kind of mistakes you make are unique. I wanted to create an ecosystem where people could learn from one another, not as advisors or consultants, but by sharing their own successes or experiences, so that others could learn from them. While they can learn from others, the responsibility of taking business decisions is, however, their own.

Would you say this model is more effective for you than actually investing money in start-ups?

I would say that, first of all, this is non-threatening. It is not advising, it’s a sharing of experiences. Second, with this we will be able to impact a large number of entrepreneurs and associate with them on a regular basis, as they meet every month and learn from one another.

We also have other initiatives such as seminars and huddle discussions, with which we think we can impact a larger number of entrepreneurs. They can take away whatever they want from these sessions and learn from them. It could be anything, it could be some innovation, or about a process.

Are you selective in how you select entrepreneurs who can participate in these groups?

Initially, we started off quite fast in terms of enrolment in the first six months and then we realised that we have to invest much more, in terms of meeting them very regularly. We started losing entrepreneurs. So we decided to focus on first giving the group that we already had high quality inputs, before we embarked on expansion. I think in the last six months we have seen more stability in terms of entrepreneurs sticking with us and that’s leading to higher referrals.

From your interaction with these entrepreneurs, what are the two or three big things they need direction about?

The subjects that come up in huddles would be how to attract the right talent; how do I delegate, how do I trust others; how do I engage with stakeholders; how do I go about raising funds - whether it’s seed fund, private equity, banks, there is no one right way; what does my business model look like, do I have the right plan, and such concerns.

What would your advice be to a young entrepreneur in terms of blind spots or potholes on the road to entrepreneurship?

First, the business model; you need to pave the right way there. Are you creating a good model, that is unique and market-friendly, you may either be copied or may already be copying somebody else; so that brings you to the issue of innovation and how to pioneer yourself in your category. If you create a culture of innovation, that is the kind of talent you will attract.

Also, there are some people who are control freaks, they are so much in love with their business that they don’t want to delegate and, beyond a point, if you really want to be a good leader then you have to learn to trust others. When you are small, you are doing things yourself; when you grow to a medium sized organization you can afford to have teams to do things for you. But when you really grow big, you have to learn to influence others and that’s where your leadership style comes in.

You can’t just instruct your teams any more, you have to start influencing them, through public speaking or through your writing. That’s how an entrepreneur changes, depending on the scale of his enterprise. The things you do when you’re small will not always hold true once you grow.

A lot of entrepreneurs don’t know how to handle investors once they are on board, because there is a set of demands, for performance, and therefore you see a lot of fallout happening between entrepreneurs and investors. Do you get questions around this?

Yes, as in, how do you select the right kind of investor, because there are so many types. There are some who will hold your hand and guide you, there are some who will just have demands and be ruthless about them, so I think selecting the right partner is very important. And once you have selected them, maintaining that relationship is important.

How do you measure how effective your venture is?

I think it is very difficult to know that. We just try to get a feel from our entrepreneurs. Are they getting the most out of it, are they learning from it, are they feeling good about it, that is more important than measuring anything. So now at the Conclave (summit being organised by Ascent), we will have our award-winning entrepreneurs talk about how Ascent has been a part of their thinking.

Is the selection process very stringent?

Yes, almost 50 per cent of applications get sifted out if they don’t meet our guidelines.  It is a three-step process. First is the application we get online, then there is an interaction that we form. Once we have five to seven people who have been shortlisted, we have an orientation and then a presentation about their enterprise and about them as entrepreneurs. Here is where we gauge things like willingness to learn, ability to take professional inputs, where the innovation is in their model, if there is potential for growth.  Some of them also don’t have the right personality for a group interaction, they can be too dominating and we don’t want that to hamper our ecosystem.

Do you plan to have chapters of Ascent beyond Bombay?

We have plans to expand in Bangalore. But after going through the experience in Bombay, we want to first focus on getting 1,000 entrepreneurs in Bombay, and we have been seeing a good trend in the past six months, with a lot of them being referrals.

Do you think you will hit 1,000 in a year?

I think that is difficult, I would be happy if we hit 500 by then. We have 350 as of now.

Are you open to collaborating with other big corporates for this venture?

We have seen some interest from CEOs of companies, who ask why we don’t think of having a group like that for them, for example a Mahindra CEO. Based on my conversations with them, though, all the forums they have for CEOs of companies tend to turn into these cigar and whiskey clubs, and that could dilute any real value they might have. So they asked us to create something for them, since we already have a structure ready. We now have our panel of what we call ‘Knowledge Gurus’, who are industry veterans. We have about 40 of them so far and any group that wants to invite them for their monthly meetings can do so and learn from them. And there is no cost attached to any of this.