"How to start a business?" Most Management Consultants ask this at some point. So I sat down with my former colleague and friend, Ram Soundarajan who started Quber Tech.
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Hi, I'm Sudeshna from The Abundance Psyche, and you are listening to the Not-so-Corporate podcast. Here we talk about all of the not-so-corporate things that we corporate entrepreneurs do within and outside our work.
And today, I have with me a very special guest, my former colleague from Strategy& Ram Soundarajan. Ram and I used to work together at Strategy&. Recently, he has delved into the area of entrepreneurship. We'll talk a lot about that, but I have a bit of an anecdotal story to share.
So some of you might know that I had a career gap, and I used to paint a lot. In my career gap, I took up oil painting, and I painted a few pieces, and I put them up for charity auction in Strategy&, and Ram bought them. And when I heard that, I was like, if it's, if it wasn't for the charitable angle, I would have really questioned your question your taste. But there you go! Anyway, he is a really, really passionate entrepreneur. He has been an inspiration. And he cares really about diversity, gender equality, immigration, urban and rural qualities, all these good topics that we are going to cover. Welcome to the show, Ram. So lovely to have you!
Sudeshna, thank you so much for inviting me to your show. Really appreciate the opportunity. Very, very excited to be speaking to you again. By the way, your paintings were absolutely fantastic. So don't let yourself down. It is hanging right in front of me here in my office here. So well done on that.
Right. Okay, Ram, tell me a bit more about your journey and your story.
Yeah, sure. So I currently run a B2B SaaS company called Qubertech. I founded it about 4 months ago, in November of 2020, alongside other co-founders, and we are really moving at a great pace. And we are building team building products, all the cool stuff that's happening, which I'll tell you a bit more about later. But before founding this business, the last 17 or 18 years or so, I spent most of my time in the corporate world, half of it in the world of strategy consulting between firms like McKinsey and Booz & Company which later became the Strategy&, and another half of my career in firms like ITC limited in India, which is one of the largest FMCG businesses and in another fortune 1000 industrial packaging business.
So, I would say about good 18 years or so, in the world of corporate, but the first 20 odd years of my life, I can tell you, it could have been farther away from anything that looked like corporate. I was raised in a very small village for the first 12 to 15 years of my life, I spent most of my time in a place called Aniol, which is really, really close to a city called Madurai in India, and then after that, I moved on to a tier-three city called Trichy in India and nobody in my family or my extended family or my extended circle worked for any corporates at any point in their lives.
180 degree diametrically opposite experiences of starting with something that doesn't look anything like corporate to then spending a good 18 odd years of my career in corporate and now have ventured on to do something quite different. And something that I'm very passionate about.
That's brilliant. So you had an amazing career, a very, very successful career working for McKinsey and Strategy&, and you were quite young when you managed a multimillion-dollar business. Why give up all of that, and venture into entrepreneurship?
We all have different journeys and paths. We have our own struggles and our own successes. I certainly felt this for the first 12-13 years of my career, I was definitely chasing success and chasing achievements. And you could even say I was chasing trophies right?
So for me, it was always about what next, what am I going to achieve in the next six months? What am I going to achieve in the next 12 months? When am I going to actually run a business? When am I going to run a big business, right? All these things tend to motivate people like us, but I guess around 2014- 2015 timeframe, and I was just coming off running a fairly large business unit out of the Middle East… it was a $250 million business unit, over 2000 people that were a part of the organization. And I was barely 31-32 when I was running that business unit.
So I felt like I had achieved a lot from them. But at the same time when I was coming off that role and took a three four-month career break, I somehow recognised that you know, we cannot measure ourselves and I cannot measure myself with just the yardstick of achievement. It felt like a very narrow way of looking at my own journey. And increasingly I felt more and more people were moving towards this notion of achievement.
And I questioned myself, how did people live over the last 50 years, 100 years, 200 years, 300 years when no corporates existed? And what did they measure themselves on? What was more important than achievement? So it certainly felt that achievement cannot be the only yardstick. And therefore, I chose to take a slightly different path.
So instead of looking at my own journey, and life as one focused on achievement, I started thinking about it as a set of experiences rather than a set of achievements. My focus became one on how can I gain as many experiences as possible as I go through the rest of my life, rather than as many achievements as possible. And clearly, one of the big things I wanted to do was to start something from scratch. I felt very passionately about building things. And it didn't have to be a company that I had to build, right? It could have been an art enterprise I could have built or, I could have built an NGO. But at this point, in my time, it certainly felt the next five to seven years or so, I should go and build a venture. And that was largely the drive behind doing something different rather than just being on the same path and trying to go for more and more achievement.
Yeah, that's amazing. And there's nothing to say that this won't be another achievement. What I was really interested in Ram was your story from that rural to an urban setting, and then how you transitioned through your life? And how that also impacted how you view entrepreneurship?
Yeah, it's a great question. And it's very difficult for anyone for that matter to put themselves in someone else's shoes if they have not been when they don't really understand where they're coming from.
There is this is a very interesting book from Malcolm Gladwell, I'm sure one of the authors, I'm sure you read. And I'm a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell. In his book, “Outliers” he talks about where people come from matters as much as anything else as well. So for me, the first 15 years of my time, living in a largely agrarian society, where almost nine out of 10 people around me were farmers or people involved in animal husbandry or you know, figuring out different ways to make a living, and I've never seen anything more entrepreneurial than that.
When you live in a village, and a village in India is very, very different from probably a village in many other parts of the world. If you live there, you see how entrepreneurial people are because there are no corporates, there are no big businesses, the government's do not necessarily provide mass employment for people in small villages. The majority of the economic activity is centred around the big cities and tier-one cities or tier two. So people have to find a way to make their own living. Subconsciously, all that I saw around me without really realizing it was a form of entrepreneurship at that point in time.
Ad mind you, the labour participation rates among women is very, very high in rural parts of the world. A lot of talk in the corporate world around, diversity and the opportunity for women. But if you really look at what happens in villages, you will find women play a significant role in earning an income. And at the same time, they play a big role, in many cases, they might actually be able to remain, so that was always a great source of inspiration for me. And literally three, four months ago, when I just sat down and thought about what sort of business I want to build, and what sort of values should our business have, and should our teams have, there is a lot that reflected upon 15-20 years living in rural parts of India and learning from all the good things that they did, and people in those parts of the world actually did so. So I wouldn't say, the world of entrepreneurship is not entirely new to me, except that, you know, I've spent the last 17 or 18 years of my life, there has always been a monthly paycheck, hitting my bank account, and you don't truly become an entrepreneur until that stops.
That is so true. In rural India, I don't know about other parts of the world, but in rural India, definitely, women do play such an important role. I think that we tend to talk about diversity from a very corporate Western perspective, and I am guilty of doing this myself- running after achievements and so on. But I guess there's a broader question around equality and what it really means to think every person is capable of doing anything that they want to. But I guess, is our society becoming somewhat of a super achievement-focused society...
It certainly feels that way. While I was raised, there were no expectations from me as to what I will end up achieving. The fact that I might be sitting 30 years down the line in a great city like London and speaking to you about, my life journey and the entrepreneurship that I'm after. None of that could have even been a part of my wildest dream.
When I was growing up, there were very few expectations about what I could achieve with my own life. But today, right from the time, you're 9-10 years old all the way from when you get to college to when you get to work, and it is this big question of what kind is your achievement and is it bigger than others achievements? And how do you outdo each other/ And those sort of questions seem to be more important than probably they should be? Because I think there is enough in this world for everyone to be happy about the ultimate thing that everyone should be after is, I would like to do what I want to do. And if I'm somehow able to get a little bit of control over that, then it feels like things are very, very, very progressive in our life. And we have a great time. And I think that's a great thing to have, except that if that gets only determined by the medals, and the badges and net worth dollars, and how big a business you ran, and things like that, then it just becomes a bit too narrow.
Yeah, sometimes I wonder, are you achieving the medals? Or are the medals achieving you? So tell us a bit more about Qubertech.
Yeah, Quber Technologies is a B2B Software as a Service business. We are currently building an intelligent software platform, which is primarily aimed at mid-tier manufacturing businesses. And when I say mid-tier manufacturing businesses, these are companies who are under $500 million annual revenue. These businesses have a lot of complexity, believe it or not, even though they might sound small compared to businesses that turnover 10s of billions of dollars. Even these businesses have a lot of complexity. Maybe five factories, customers in 10 countries, 3000-4000 employees. So that's a lot of complexity. And wherever there is complexity, there is an opportunity to unlock value.
Many of these businesses have been definitely battered by some of the events that have transpired. During the pandemic over the past year or so. So many of them are searching for ways to improve their profitability and unlock value going forward. Our view is that the current consulting-led, service-led, support propositions to help these companies unlock value is very expensive. And therefore many of these companies don't seek any such help or advice.
It's beyond what they can actually afford. And therefore, they end up doing things on their own, which again, is a great thing. In my view, they end up reinventing the wheel, and their transformation tends to be quite slow. It's also very hard for this business to attract top-notch talent. Top-Notch talent wants to go to these days wants to go to startups or to these big brand name companies. They don't want to go to mid-tier funds. Therefore our view is, you know, how can we build the right set of intelligent tool and lightweight, simple, affordable tools that can complement the internal transformation efforts within these organizations. And there is obviously a lot of technology involved in building these tools. So it is essentially productization of quite a bit of the simpler consulting efforts. So that way, whatever dollars are available for transformation, they can be invested in the execution support, rather than diagnosing and finding opportunities, etc.
Our tools and our platform will help these companies unlock I would say anywhere between 600 to 800 basis points of value, and do so in a very, very quick period of time, right and under a month or two or three, they should be able to figure out where the employment opportunities are. And that can set the stage for their transformation efforts, and not having to spend two or three or 4 million that they would typically spend on a large consulting firm. And mind you large consulting firms are not interested in serving these mature businesses either, right, because large consulting businesses are focused on large clients too.
We feel it's a big sector, a highly underserved segment that requires help. And it's been ignored for a very, very long period of time, in a sector that is vital to the economy and brings a huge amount of GDP. And therefore, we believe we are playing in a very, very exciting area.
B2B SaaS sort of started eight, nine years ago, right on the back of the 2008-2009 financial crisis. And that's when that industry was really born. It still feels like day one in SaaS. And we are very, very excited about taking simple, affordable, lightweight, low-cost technology to firms and help them unlock value. So in one sentence, our purpose really is to help them transform their competitiveness, transform the competitiveness of the manufacturing companies digitally as much as we can, through simple low-cost lightweight technology. That's the way we are.
So you are also making high-quality consulting and the technology, the data, all of that stack accessible to mid-tier companies. And after that, they have money left to actually implement the thing out themselves rather than spending the money on strategy and then realizing, and I have seen quite a few cases where companies would actually spend all the money on the consultants and then wonder, where does the money for implementation come? And I think that's really crucial to solving.
No, we don't, we don't necessarily see ourselves as trying to replace consulting one way or the other. And we don't even think of ourselves as aiming to disrupt consulting in some way. For us, there is a massive market that is underserved, and does not receive help in any form today, neither through technology nor through consultants, because they sort of have that scale and size that is not on the radar of people that want to provide help.
And there are two ways to provide them help. We could have started another consulting organization that goes and helps these firms. But we view that as there are many consulting firms out there already smaller niche consulting firms out there already, but still very, very expensive for these sort of mature companies. Therefore, we are trying to solve part of the problem through productization of diagnostics and productization of the strategy generation process as much as we can.
But then, as you say, most of the money that these companies have invested in the transformation can then be deployed towards execution. So at the execution stage, they could get help from consulting firms, or bring on execution talent or transformation talent to actually make this a reality. So there are many parallels that we've seen in other industries to where we see that as a service-led support model or a consulting-led support model. And that is disproportionately expensive for the value that can be generated to that model, for a certain scale and size of a company. And productization comes over and helps solve that problem.
A great example, is in the world of market research and customer research and consumer research, right. My wife works for a company called Qualtrics, which just went IPO about three weeks ago. And they led the transformation and industry were a lot of the customer research market research that was happening through boots on the ground through marketing agencies and research agencies. A lot of that has now been enabled through technology and experience management platforms. So a lot of that business has moved over to the experience management platforms. It's fast, it's cheap, it gets the job done. And who do you think benefits the most? It's not always the largest of companies that always had budgeted for big research agencies. It's the mature companies and smaller companies that never had the budget, to actually go ahead and spend on things like that. But they've adopted technology at a fraction of the cost. And today, they are able to sort of get the same benefits as they would have spent a lot of that through service-led models. So there are parallels that already exist, but the space that we are competing in is quite green at this point in time.
That's great. Just to take a segway from that, you mentioned that high-quality talent wants to work for either startups or these big brands, quite a lot of young, talented folks are getting into startups. And that's great. Do you see any difference? Or the pros and cons of doing an entrepreneurship sprint? After you are quite seasoned in your career?
Do you mean old people start startups are not?!!
You are not that much older than me!!
So what I really mean is, I always felt that there's a lot of value that experience can bring to the table with entrepreneurship. And yes, there's definitely a lot of things that young talent can do. But also, I think, once you have some real-world experience in what things are, that almost opens you up in ways you wouldn’t think of right out of your graduation.
It’s a great question! I read somewhere the average age of first-time entrepreneurs 41. It feels like more of the norm rather than the perception we have where startups are typically started by very, very early tenure. I wanted to be actually different from what everything I saw around me.
And what I saw around me was people working in the agricultural sector or people working in the public sector in government, like my father was a public servant for almost all his career, and I wanted to go explore something very different than what was in front. And that led me to a corporate path. I'm sure everybody again has their own reasons for the choices that they make when they're about 20. But I think there are huge advantages to taking the entrepreneurial path once you have some number of years of experience under your belt, and I can't say whether it's 5 or 10, or 15, or 20. For some very, very simple reasons:
One, I think you develop much better business judgment. As you spend a certain number of years, you develop judgment around how to work with people and get the best out of people. As you put in a few more years on the ground. You come across as far more credible and a safer bet when investors want to invest money in you, because what are startup startups typically startups that require, let's say, Angel funding, or VC funding to scale these are largely unproven ideas. So when you have unproven ideas, you want proven people to work on these unproven ideas, and that improves the probability of success when you have an unproven idea and an unproven team, the risk profile that appears to be a lot higher than an unproven idea with a proven team.
So if you are like an early tenure professional, in my view, you are actually better off going and buying a proven business, then scale that and that will that's called the search fund, right. And the search fund model is where an unproven individual buys a proven business. And then the scale set. And you might get a very different type of investor for that.
And there's another thing, which is, you know, someone like myself, who's worked for close to 20 years now, incorporate, also has a very strong professional network. And that comes very, very handy, be it for raising investments or be it finding your pilot customers. Those things become practically a little bit easy. But there are also cons to it...
here's as I can see, it is it's very hard for somebody who is doing very well in their careers to just disrupt that and go to a startup because you have to sacrifice a lot, you have to give something away. Like, I'm pretty sure I'm not going to see a paycheck for the next two or three years now. Is that something people want to sign up for when they are 38-39, when they probably have a young family, a number of other commitments and a mortgage and whatnot. Is that something easy to do?
I would probably think it's not easy to do probably they are at a certain point in their careers where we got everything right in the next four to five years, their careers could take off in a much bigger way. And it's also possible that people that have clocked a number of years and have gained a lot of experience have more set ways of thinking. So as I see it, there are a lot of advantages for somebody who is a bit more tenured and getting into the world of entrepreneurship. But it's definitely not easy. And these are very, very personal decisions. And one of my co-founders, by the way, Frank is 60.
Frank was a very successful executive across a number of businesses, but now he's super excited about starting something up hugely inspired by what he wants to do. These could be seen as outliers, right? But the reality is, these are very personal decisions that people make, there is no right answer to when they should do it.
Yeah, that is so true! But I also remember, I think it was Ratan Tata when was 60, or over, that was the time when he came up with the Nano, which is the cheapest car in the world. So we shouldn't really think of age. Age is ultimately just a number, but also experience has massive value. Equally. I guess the reason why people get really excited about young entrepreneurs is because of Silicon Valley and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Just to bring some perspective, that nuance was wonderful.
Ram, so you mentioned a bit about the paycheck. Tell me a bit more about things that you miss other than the paycheck from corporate life,
Definitely, a paycheck is something we will all miss the day it stops coming. We have to reconfigure our lifestyles a little bit around that. And I'm not saying I've shut the door on corporates, right? Who knows maybe two, three years down the line five years down the line. 10 years down the line, I might be back in the world of corporates, there's no running away from the world of profit.
Also, I have a number of my customers who will be corporates, a number of my investors will be corporates. So when we scale and when we become a bigger organization, we might look like a corporate too. So there is no running away from the world of corporates if you're in business.
But having worked for large organizations in the past, there are a number of things that you know, I do miss. When one is large corporate, naturally have hundreds of people and 1000s of people and potentially 10s of 1000s of people and your network is much wider and broader and you have an opportunity to interact with a wide range of people.
And when you work for a small company, a small team, you miss that interaction with so many different people. Similar note, corporates also have access to a lot of resources. So definitely, we had to figure out a way to live within our means. And do things very, as creatively as possible. I think those are two things that I, you know, definitely missed.
There are a number of things I don't miss, I don't miss the long meetings at all. And in a significant number of meetings within our team, decisions get made very, very quickly.
Now, every time I put a 30-minute slot in the diary for people to get together and make key decisions, usually there takes us five minutes to make the decision, not 30. The pace is very, very different. So I enjoy the fast pace at which we move. I also think startups like us have very flat organizational structures, especially when you have just 10 people, 15 people working with you. Your titles mean nothing, there's no currency for titles. And those are some things. I'm not missing it at all.
So, Ram, I know you have a variety of interests. Tell me about that one, Not-so-Corporate thing that you do that has ripple effects and an impact on both your personal and professional life. Is there something like that?
Yeah, I think it's very hard to pin down to one. But I think as I said, I made a very conscious choice five, six years ago, that I'm going to do anything and everything that really, really excites me. I'm going to just experience and certainly have embraced that as much as I can.
If I had to pick really one thing I would say this travel. Like I mentioned earlier, where I grew up the first 20 years of my life, I never left my home state. My views of the world, to everything, was literally shaped by that microscopic microcosm, I got to experience. There were some great things I learned from the microcosm, and they were not so great things. But fortunately, in the last 15 years or so I've had an opportunity to travel to at least 50 different countries, and have had an opportunity to experience and learn from how people live their lives in so many different parts of the world. But the last 15 to 20 years, I've had amazing opportunities to actually go learn about so many things and help people there live their lives and their value systems and what they believe in and what they don't believe in. And I believe that's massively shaped my view of the world for the good, my value systems for the good.
It certainly made me a more compassionate individual, it certainly made me feel more grounded individual. And it's certainly shown me that a number of ideas I had in my head, then were not necessarily right. And I had to change, you know, and eventually continue to be on the journey of being a better individual going forward. That's one thing I would say that's it stands out, for me personally,
You're right. Like, there's something so humbling about getting to know people from different cultures and different life experiences where you are forced to challenge your own system of values. And that is amazing that you went in with an open mind, and perhaps changed some of your values, perhaps at augmented some of your values. But that's not something that comes naturally to a lot of people. So I think a lot of credit to you as well for being able to be open and take that onto your journey.
And there is this and I was hearing watching the great comedians, Trevor Noah, and one of his stand up shows and he talks about, and he quotes actually on travellers, the antidote to ignorance. And I just realized, the more I travelled, the more of my ignorance went away.
Absolutely. I love this chat. Any last thoughts around for our listeners?