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'MBA taught me new ways of thinking'

  ..says serial entrepreneur, KABIR BHASIN. Armed with an MBA from the prestigious S.P. Jain Institute of Management & Research (SPJIMR), Kabir shares his entrepreneurial journey, right from transforming East Lifestyle into a brand, to starting new ventures such as Furlenco. In conversation with Kalyani Majumdar  

Q. You studied at SPJIMR. How was your experience studying there?
Initially, I entered S.P. Jain with the aspiration of getting a certificate that I had completed my MBA degree and get a job. But everything changed after the first lecture. It was a marketing lecture, and I remember sitting at the back of the class at first. Fifteen minutes later, I moved to the absolute centre of the front row! The teaching was highly insightful; the first 15 minutes blew my mind.
In the next two years, every single lecture blew my mind with concepts that I thought I’d already known, thanks to my work experience, and also as I was part of my dad’s business at the time. So with each lectures, teaching me new concepts and new ways of thinking, I went from merely wanting a degree to something far deeper.

Q. Tell us about your work experience before joining S.P. Jain.
I started working with United Brewery for a year—institutional selling of mineral water. After that, I worked in the merchant services department of Citibank for about a year. My father was running his business, but I didn’t want to be a part of it back then. One day, while I was at Citibank, he called me in distress, and told me that the workers were on strike, he was locked out, and he needed me to come and help him out. Naturally, this was my father asking for my help. There was no way I would refuse! So I quit my job at Citibank, which, by the way, made the VP quite unhappy!
I worked with my father for the next 6 months, and then I joined S.P. Jain. So I had around 2.5 years of work experience before I entered the programme.

Q. You are a second generation entrepreneur. Please tell us about East Lifestyle and the journey so far.  How did you transform East Lifestyle?
I entered the business with quite a bang because the strike was on. Lock out at work. So my first task was to sort out this problem. And since it was primarily a matter of communication between the management and labour, I visited the workers at their houses, called a meeting and by the second day, they were back at work. I don’t think that apart from this, I added any value in the initial period. But soon after my MBA programme, I started implementing a few changes within the business, just to make it friendlier to the generation in which we live—technological advancements, a slightly different method of working, and a significantly higher emphasis on design. I introduced a design department within the firm and we released a range of our own products and started working on building a brand.
We went deep into examining ourselves — do we have a vision and do we have a mission? When we realised that we didn’t, the important task was to figure out who we were, what our current vision was. It turned out that we were furniture makers, but that’s not much of a vision. So we decided that we wanted to be the makers of the finest furniture in the world. This became a vision. How we were going to do it then became the mission. And introducing a design department was an important result of this discussion. You have to have innovative designs if you want to be a leading manufacturer in the world.

Q. Do you think an MBA degree from one of the top B-schools helped you approach the existing family business differently?
Of course, it helped tremendously. And S.P. Jain has a specialisation in family businesses. They actually have a module where they teach you specifically about transition, change, etc, within a family business, which is very different from a corporate. This was an interesting part of the programme which helped me in the transition and make changes within the business.

Q. What led you to start your venture with Furlenco? What gave you the idea?
I started three businesses before setting up Furlenco, and these included a motorcycle export business, a design, outsourcing company and then a period design firm. Apart from the design outsourcing company, the other companies didn’t really take off. But I learnt a lot from the design business that I ran for a little over a year.
Soon after I shut down the design outsourcing firm, a company from Singapore approached me to buy out the range of furniture that they used to give out on rent in Bangalore. This company would bring furniture from abroad and give them on rent. But now they were selling the same furniture at a very high cost! I realised that the furniture could be made here in India, and sold at half of the prices they were trying to sell me! This is what led to the germination of the Furlenco idea.
Now of course, merely having the idea is not enough. As I started working on it, I realised that the funds required to launch a business like this were a lot, especially purchasing all the furniture that I would rent out, and then other costs like cost of warehousing, delivering the furniture, servicing the product, bringing it back, office administration, etc. On paper, it would take around 30 months to achieve profitability. So in 2008, I just sat and waited, with the idea jotted down on paper. Then, in 2010, a gentleman named Ajith Karimpana walked into my store and asked if I would rent out the furniture. Even though my immediate response was that we didn’t do rentals, Ajith’s idea of setting up the furniture rental business stuck with me, and we became partners and eventually started Furlenco. Since Ajith was an investment banker, he could put in the initial capital, and that’s how Furlenco initially took off. Ajith is currently the CEO of Furlenco.

Q. Do share with us your learnings at Furlenco. What were the hurdles or challenges that you faced?
I think we were fortunate to have an open mind to education. And I had enrolled for the start-up leadership programme, which is essentially a self-help group of start-up entrepreneurs. Within this group, I learned concepts that I hadn’t even learned at S.P. Jain! An example of one of these learnings is Lean.
Lean production is very popular in operational circles. But I learnt how to set up a lean business. And within the lean concept, it is very important to constantly test and move forward. We didn’t know what product to launch in the market. What was required? What did the market want? So, instead of conducting a market research, we launched a bunch of products in the market, but just one piece of each product, without even knowing who the ideal market would be! Initially, we didn’t see any result. So we dug a little deeper, trying to figure out the demographic that needed furniture on rent. My immediate response was: Expatriates, i.e., people moving in from outside the country. We started with this idea, and it turned out to be a goldmine. That’s really when we saw a growth spurt. The main challenge was to bring in the furniture at the right time as per demand. We had to start from scratch, since there was no historical background in this industry!

Q. Another very interesting venture that you started is fan-a-gig. What inspired you to start this venture?
Fan-a-gig is a passion project. It is terrible that we don’t have enough live events in India, especially with regard to music. Artistes like Pearl Jam and AC DC really shaped my life, but these bands rarely ever come here. So I wondered if we could put together a few million dollars with other people who also wanted to get these bands to come perform in India. However, even though we put in a lot of money, it didn’t work out.

Q. Any new ventures in the offing?
The projects I am involved with right now are all in stealth mode, so I can’t talk about them at this time. A lot of them are revolutionary business ideas, and I am rather protective about what we are doing!

Q. As an entrepreneur, what is your take on the concept of work-life balance?
I don’t think there is such a concept for an entrepreneur. Work and personal life balance does not exist. There is just life. Everything is encompassed within that singular framework—that this is my life within which I work, I play, I network. So, at least for entrepreneur, I don’t think this concept should exist.
I’d read a great book, The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldrat, which impacted me significantly. It is actually a love story, and an operational text book that I read at S.P. Jain, but it is written like a novel. It is about a factory manager who has tremendous problems in his factory, and which then spill over to his personal life. And he realises that if he is able to manage his factory efficiently, his personal life falls in line automatically. A must read for any business student.

Q. What do you think of management education in general?
In general, it is rather overrated, especially because of the number of management colleges that exist in our country right now, vis-à-vis, the number of management colleges actually imparting quality education; the latter are few and far between. I have had MBA degree holders who graduated recently, and I find a huge dearth of quality. So, if you are not doing MBA from one of the top twenty B-schools, you probably shouldn’t waste your time doing an MBA. It is very embarrassing for me to say this, given that my MBA education changed my life, but I think the entire quality of education within the country itself is facing a problem, irrespective of whether they’re engineering students or design students. Apart from the top one percent of the institutes, the rest of them need to improve. And MBA education is not done through textbooks. It is the quality of the professor, and his passion. We don’t have enough of such professors, and the ones we do have move to the top 20 institutes.

Q. What advice would you give to MBA students and future entrepreneurs?
Only if you have the ability to overcome your fear of risk, take the entrepreneurial plunge. You must enter a business that has something in alignment with you, the individual. For instance, if you’re from an extremely wealthy family and are used to the good life, and if you get into the waste recycling business, whereby it involves picking up waste material from various different sources and sorting them and pull out an end product, you may not end up liking what you’re doing. Never enter a business just because of the profit, it must be something you agree with. Remember, always do that you will ultimately be proud of.