After a tepid release of ‘Diamonds are Forever’ in 1971, Sean Connery is reported to have vowed that he would ‘never again’ play ‘that’ role. Yet, in 1983, there he was again, suave and swashbuckling as ever, Agent 007 in the rather cheekily named ‘Never Say Never Again’. Although Sean (may I call him Sean?) took more than a decade to realize the error of his ways, I learned this precept right at the start of my entrepreneurial journey.
A decade ago, when I was just a tiny cog in the wheels of a large consulting firm, I swore off consulting forever and decided to start a ‘real’ business, manufacturing and selling products.
I had no clue about the nature of products that I wanted to sell or how to set up a firm, but I was quite clear about the type of organisation that I was going to create – looking back, this was a clue to where I would eventually end up. I wrote a short charter describing the values, work culture, and environment of the organisation that I would build. Among other things, the charter mentioned a fun-filled pursuit of excellence, a reverence for data and detail, an acceptance of diversity and differences of opinion, a desire to be respected for expertise, and a best-in-class product offering.
As I cast around for the sector that I wished to be a part of and hedged my bets by attending a few job interviews, a colleague connected me to a healthcare start-up. On meeting the founders, I found their knowledge immense, enthusiasm infectious and long-term vision motivating. However, I knew that start-ups in the healthcare domain went through a long research phase and took years to break even. Meanwhile, discussions with a large corporate player in the tech space seemed to be fructifying towards a job which would provide a stable income. I recall feeling bewildered and anxious at the time, and thinking through the pros and cons of every aspect of each opportunity. Though it brought me no closer to a decision between the two, I think it helped clarify what I really wanted.
Luckily, sometimes life lets you off easy, as happened in my case. A middle path opened between adventure and stability – a large MNC that had acquired some wellness brands sought a consultant with prior experience in both consumer goods and healthcare to assist their marketing team. I gave myself a year to experiment, and signed up as an independent consultant with both firms – the large one and the healthcare start-up. Thus began my entrepreneurial journey; not with a daring leap into the unknown but with a few tentative steps towards it.
At both the organisations I had the good fortune to work with people who were experts in their domain, secure enough to generously share their knowledge and to give me the space to contribute to the best of my ability (thanks Shailaja, Nafisa, and Nikhil). Life got a bit hectic at times, with work at the large firm taking up the weekdays and the start-up occupying bits and bobs of free time on Sundays and national holidays. Yet, the satisfaction of contributing towards the growth of multiple brands made it a very fulfilling year.
Unlike U2, I realised then that I had indeed found what I was looking for, a combination of three factors that had made my work enjoyable that year. Two of these were the diversity of categories that I was working on and the satisfaction of having added value to clients’ businesses in each of these. The third was the focus on consumers in every aspect of my work – whether growth strategy, market sizing, go-to-market plans, communication, or implementation. I gave up my prior oath to swear off consulting forever, admitted to myself that consulting was the destination after all, and gave the experiment a more formal shape and structure. Never say never again!
Escape Velocity was formed in Q2 FY ’09, a Market Strategy and Marketing Consulting firm that would help firms and brands grow. The first few months of the firm would be well described by the song “With a little help from my friends”. Friends helped with brainstorming on a name for the firm, finding office space, and finding the first few recruits who took the risk of joining a start-up. Poornima Burte at Design-Orb did a superb job of translating my thoughts into a logo, the objective of ‘accelerating growth’ for clients beautifully expressed in our ‘growth spiral’ logo.
During the initial years, we survived by staying lean – sharing office space and admin resources with another start-up, and limiting our team size to a small group of multi-talented individuals. Our office was tucked away in a quaint nook of this concrete jungle called Mumbai, an old wadi in Prabhadevi that time and development forgot. The neighbourhood consisted of an old bungalow with vines growing on the roof, a chawl, a few apartment blocks, and trees scattered all around. During tough and stressful times, going to office continued to be something to look forward to every morning. When struggling to crack a knotty problem, few things could be more refreshing than looking out and seeing a purple-rumped sunbird perched at a flower on one of the trees, or watching a coppersmith barbet peck-peck-pecking away at another.
The warmth and cheer of colleagues always made me feel optimistic about our long-term prospects. Their willingness to participate in free-form discussions about work ensured I always had food for thought, and kept me learning new ways to look at and tackle problems.
I believed then – and still do – that most issues related to the growth of a brand or B2C business require a mix of quantitative analysis and qualitative understanding, informed by a practitioner’s perspective in order to develop an impactful solution. The importance of maintaining a balance between the qualitative and quantitative approach applies as much to seemingly number-based topics such as growth strategy or market sizing, as it does to topics such as branding, communication strategy or marketing plans.
Unfortunately, until they find boutique firms such as ours, clients often get creative ideas from agencies that may be tangential to brand strategy, or recommendations based on purely quantitative analysis from larger consulting firms. Rarely do they find an integrated approach that analyses both qualitative and quantitative data from a variety of sources to synthesize a custom solution for their brand or business. Rarer still is to have practitioners with industry experience on the team, ensuring that the recommendations are vetted for actionability. The projects that we have successfully completed for firms that are market leaders in domains as diverse as consumer goods, health and wellness, services, chemicals etc., as well as for reputed private equity firms, are testimony to the efficacy of this approach.
From the outset, we were clear that we defined our offering as ‘informed’ or ‘evidence based’ Market Strategy and Marketing; one of our basic tenets was that all our recommendations would be driven by a deep understanding of data from all available sources. Now, as the domain of market strategy and marketing enters a period of prolonged churn and perhaps redefinition, we believe that this twin focus on data – both big data and rich data – and practitioner experience will enable us to serve clients well and help deliver success to their businesses and brands.
I recently reviewed the charter for the organisation that I wrote in 2008. I expected to cringe at a document that hadn’t aged well. However, as I read it, I was filled with immense pride as I realised that not only was it still readable, I could also identify all the principles in the document as values that we at Escape Velocity still adhere to. Over time, of course, these principles have evolved as we understand our work better, but they have given us a strong internal mooring and a cultural foundation that should last us through the next phase of our adventures.
This is truly inspiring! Thanks for sharing your journey, you are truly an icon for our generation.
Thanks a lot for the super-encouraging comment, Tarun, so glad you liked the article. Still a long way away from achieving all that I aimed to, so comments like this are really energising and totally make my day.
I’m intrigued by the logo for your firm. In a future article, would you be able to expound on the visual imagery employed for this logo, and your thoughts on form as an introduction to function? I think one drawback of engineering studies is that we seldom devote time to the importance of messaging and graphics, and fail to realize that initial impressions set the stage for the quality of our interactions with clients (judging books by covers, indeed).
You’re absolutely right about the importance of messaging and graphics, apart from making (or ruining) an initial impression , they often help tell the brand’s story or describe it’s purpose.
All credit for our logo goes to Poornima Burte of Design-Orb, as I’ve mentioned in the article.
Will be only too glad to write about the visual imagery of the logo and the role it plays, will also chat with Poornima and add her thoughts. Give me some time to write that out, will probably end up posting it on the Escape Velocity blog ( https://escape-velocity-blog.com/).
Would love to have a peek at the charter you wrote for EV. Looking back over the decade since you wrote that – I’m sure the satisfaction of seeing it come to fruition was more satisfying than most other accomplishments. I’m sure that it mirrors the longterm satisfaction that a parent gets from seeing their values in their children – as opposed to the excitement of their fleeting achievements. It is only then that you have the confidence that the child/company would be able to weather bad times and make the best of the good.
Will gladly share the original EV charter with you ; you’re right, it is very satisfying to read it and see how much of it has come to fruition. Makes all the tough times worthwhile, and still gives me a sense of purpose that helps weather storms.
Good read, great story. You should indeed try writing a book.
The good part about writing anything anywhere online is that it ends up connecting me to people I haven’t said Hello to in a long time. Hello Hello. How are you ? Hope you’re enjoying work.
I’d try writing a book but the friend who edited (and re-edited and re-re-edited and so on) this article might collapse from the stress of converting many pages written by me into something readable. Thanks for the encouragement though.
I would love to see your original charter too. Please do share.
Sure, will do. Mailing it to you. Promise not to laugh at it, ok – it was written by someone almost a decade younger than I am today.
Not laughing at all. Its lovely and a good learning moment for me!
Ah, thanks for that, good for my confidence. My colleagues refuse to let me put it up on the Escape Velocity website, or even on my linkedin page, it doesn’t measure up to their exacting quality standards.
Rather tyrannical of them, wouldn’t you say ?
Z! NOT g
Zen —I never dreamed this dream. You are definitely an author in the making. You could write the story nto yet told on how much I helped.Do not forget dear MOZRIN or you will have your spare bed taken,TV in house & loud music 6 hrs per day,I HAVE not mentioned kebabs & beers,
Wondering whether to thank my parents for the encouragement, feel embarrassed about their terrible sense of humour, or schedule some lessons in using digital and social media for them pronto.
Mum, Dad, love your comments, but to a stranger you’d sound almost incoherent !
Nicely put Zen! It’s been quite a journey. Would love to get a look at your charter some time
Thanks Rohini. Will share the charter with you in a separate mail, would love to know what you think of it.
Very nicely written, Z! Congratulations on your journey! Now if only you would realize that as your own boss you can give yourself some vacation time to go birding with me 🙂
PS: who took these photos?
Thrilled that you liked the article. Credit for the final form of the article goes to Rohit Grover ( friend and batchmate, remember him ?) who patiently edited (and re-edited and re-re-edited and so on) what I shared with him, and then finally gave up and just rewrote some sections. 🙂
I am happy to go birding with you anytime, but you are now too highbrow to visit places in India.
My colleague took the two photos included in the article. Do they measure up to your exacting standards ? 🙂
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