Getting candid with Jagdish Kini

He begins and ends with the customer. He is known for his strategic acumen and people skills.
Meet Jagdish Kini, the man credited with bringing a revolution in Bharti Airtel (Karnataka)’s operations. The ex MD of Gillete and CEO of Bharti Airtel shares with Amit Singh his views on entrepreneurship, management and strategy.

Amit Singh. You often say that one should be a general manager before becoming an entrepreneur. What do you mean by the same?

Jagdish Kini. No, I don’t think you have to become a general manager before becoming an entrepreneur but you have to start thinking like one. There are enough youngsters in the age 24-25 who become entrepreneurs or aspire to become one. They obviously can’t become general managers by the time they start up. But what I would like to emphasize on is that you cannot just be an idea specialist. Along with having an idea and along with having the passion of making something work, you need to understand finance, you need to understand legal aspects of business, you need to understand marketing, production, how to bring down product cost. You need to understand all these things and that is why I say you have to be a general manager in thought and a marketer or a finance manager at heart. But the approach has to be that of a General Manager. In fact when you start your venture, you are everything from the peon to the MD of the company. Do not hesitate to do everything.

Amit Singh. Can you tell us something about the coaching that you give to young entrepreneurs?

Jagdish Kini. I give some advice and I do a bit of handholding. I help them focus on their customers and take their product to the next level. It is all about helping these entrepreneurs to achieve their dreams. Most of these young guys have the fire, the vision and the urge to succeed. But sometimes, lack of experience can make them take steps that can be counterproductive to their growth. My job is to guide them, caution them and ensure that they don’t loose a lot of money if at all something goes wrong.

Amit Singh. What are the pitfalls that you see entrepreneurs falling into time and again?

Jagdish Kini. One of the biggest things that I notice time and again is that young entrepreneurs (23-34 years) think that they understand their consumer well. They are often deeply engrossed in their idea and unconsciously overlook activities like studying the consumer behavior. At times they build the product without taking sufficient customer feedback and understanding the factors that affect their buying decisions.

Amit Singh. How important do you think it is to generate cashflow? Any strategies to manage it better?

Jagdish Kini. Well, I think Cash is King! And I keep saying that because, every entrepreneur keeps incurring a cash burn. You have your own limitations to the extent to which you can take the cash burn. 6 months before you have your cash burning out completely, you should have your revenue model kicking in. It takes time for you to know whether your revenue model is really working or not. In the first couple of months, things can get really disruptive. But it takes about 6-9 months for you to have a clear idea of whether the product is actually able to meet the customer’s requirements. Also, it takes some time for you to achieve a product market fit. If you start generating revenues after your cash has burnt out completely, then you are in trouble.

Amit Singh. What keeps a small startup from becoming a big (revenue generating) company?

Jagdish Kini. It’s all about scaling; or whether the idea can be scaled or not. Initially every idea looks like it can be scaled. But there are certain ideas which are bound to become big. Sometimes the entrepreneurs fail to understand how big the idea is and that is sad. Finance is another reason. These days, VCs really look for traction. Many companies remain mediocre because, they didn’t have traction to attract an investment (the presence of which could help them scale). Third is culture. Some of us, who come from middle class families, are very security centric. Entrepreneurship requires courage and this is a function of both the individual and the kind of support and encouragement he/she gets from his/her friends and family. The fourth is the uniqueness of your idea. If it is another me-too kind of a product you are creating then you can’t capture a significant market share unless you slash the prices drastically. But this has other repercussions.

Amit Singh. You have been into finance, sales, marketing… been an entrepreneur, an advisor to many companies, director, MD, CEO of multinationals. Which one has been your most satisfying experience?

Jagdish Kini. I have thoroughly enjoyed all my stints. When I was at Proctor and Gamble, building brands was very satisfying; when I was at L’Oriel building an organization was very satisfying; when I was at Airtel building an industry was very satisfying and as an entrepreneur and a coach, learning from my mistakes and helping others grow is a highly satisfying experience.

Amit Singh. How do you build a brand in the eyes of your customers? What kind of research do you need to do, what kind of questions do you need to answer?

Jagdish Kini. Brand is something that is internal. As a company you decide what your brand needs to stand for. What’s the personality of the brand, what’s the character of the brand? Brand is inwards-out. Products on the other hand are outwards-in, you need to understand the customer and build the products that fit within the brand. And brands are built by performance, not by advertisements. There are a lot of brands that are heavily advertised but failed, and then there are others that have become very popular without advertising. One such example is Infosys. I don’t think anyone has ever seen an ad of Infosys on the television. So brand is something that the company decides for your products to stand for and the products should perform consistently. Consistency is the keyword here. Many a brands have failed to create a lasting impact because their products didn’t consistently perform in congruence with the brand.

Amit Singh. Lot of visionaries and futurists have predicted that the next Google is going to come out of India, China, Singapore or one of these economies. What are your views on the same.

Jagdish Kini. If somebody said that to me, I’d say “probably yes” simply because more than 33% of the world’s population is from just this region J! But besides this, there is a whole lot of ideation happening, a whole lot of stuff is being tested out. Indians, young Indians (not people like me J) have this new found confidence to change the world. A lot of ideation stems from attitude, and when you are trying to change the world, I am sure these young Indians (or young Chinese for that matter), are going to come up with something big.

Having exited from the industry to follow his heart, he coaches young entrepreneurs and operates his Management Consulting firm – Enterprise 5C.

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