Employee Speak: Phanindra Sama, CEO, redBus ;V4 Issue 2


About Phanindra Sama and redBus: Phanindra Sama “Phani” is a Founder and the CEO of redBus.in, India’s largest bus ticketing company. Founded in August 2006, redBus today has operations across 15 states and offers services for 5000+ routes and has built a robust distribution of over 75000 outlets! redBus is amongst Forbes top 5 start-ups to watch in 2010.

Phani has been ranked No. 3 amongst India’s Most Promising Entrepreneurs by Business World. He was awarded Star Entrepreneur of the year at 3i summit, Mumbai and BITSAA 30 under 30 award. He has also been selected as Endeavor Entrepreneur (www.endeavor.org) and TiE Entrepreneur (www.tie.org). Phani, a State ranker in Intermediate examination, Andhra Pradesh Sr. Secondary Board, graduated with distinction from BITS-Pilani, and worked with Texas Instruments, Bangalore before co-founding redBus.

1. redBus closed 2009 with a bang by featuring in Forbes India year end edition as one of the top 5 hottest start-ups to watch in 2010. What are your focus areas for the coming year?

We are scaling up. We have just crossed 200 employees. We will be adding another 75 people. To sustain the past growth rates we will need to be organised differently. So we are restructuring the organisation. We have a good set of people and a desired culture is already in place. So right now I am not as panicked about the quality of people as I was in the earlier days. I believe the current team and our culture will ensure we get in quality people. Now, how we architect the system or how we use each manager’s talent is important. I am trying to implement a matrix organisation with an innovation. There will be only solid line reporting. Functional Mangers will have no reportees. There are a lot of talented people who are on top of state of art technology etc, but they fall flat when they need to manage people and processes. So in our new organisation structure such people will be the functional experts whose entrepreneurial skills company will leverage. Only staff managers will have reportees.

2. Would you agree that the managers have a big role to play in an organisation’s success? Considering the phenomenal success redBus has had in the recent years, which characteristics of high performing Managers do redBus Managers display?

Yes I do. The entrepreneurial characteristics of redBus Managers have contributed to our company’s growth and success. By entrepreneurial I mean the ability to be creative, think out of box, not taking lack of resources as a hindrance but as a challenge. Our managers are quite mature. They roll up their sleeves and are quite hands on at work.

3. Before founding redBus what kind of Managers did you consider as effective Managers and now that you are the CEO has your perspective changed?

Before founding redBus I was a reportee and I thought a manager who was considerate, who would help me learn and grow is an effective manager. Now when I am on the other side, I appreciate those managers who can get things done. In our office we have a photo of JRD TATA with a quote that says “We have to manage people as people ….” Effective Managers are Managers who can influence teams to results and drive performance without losing human touch.

4. Is it necessary for Managers in a start up to have a different set of skill sets as compared to Mangers in an established company, to be effective in their roles?

Yes, certainly. While in mature organisations one has to be good at handling complexity, entrepreneurial skills is what is necessary in a start up.

5. How can Managers who have not been trained in mature organizations build their career and credibility in growing companies? Also, what do Managers of that profile find attractive in working for start ups?

The only way to build a career and credibility, regardless of whether you are working for a start-up or not, is by working sincerely. It is more so in a start-up as the Senior Management has very clear visibility into people’s performance. Managers in start-up find this visibility attractive in working for start-ups.

6. Please share your thoughts on how can small and medium sized organisations groom and grow their Managers?

Start ups can’t afford to invest a lot in formal training. However there are other ways to develop managers. Communication is one such tool. We communicate a lot. CEOs should take every opportunity to talk about and give examples of the management style they would want to build in the company. Even naming a conference room as JRD TATA room, affects the way one behaves when one is in that room. I read a lot of management books. In my one-on-one meeting with my managers, I give them copies of the pages of the message I want to give them. This I find is more effective than giving books. I also believe that people react to mails. People come to office in the morning with a blank mind. So I send a mail in the morning which can influence their behaviour for the day.

One should try and discover good training institutes that charge very nominal fees. They are the ones with no frills, but provide good value for the money one pays. Then there are the networks that technology teams can be part of. These are groups such as Bar Camps, Head start, Open Coffee Club, AMC etc., who interact on the internet and meet up also to exchange ideas. Participation is absolutely free. For instance there is a mobile Monday focusing on mobile Technology, geek night outs that discuss latest software technology on Friday etc. I don’t actually need to participate in these networks since I am not directly dealing with technology but I make it a point to pull my team members along to such meets. Another thing we do at redBus is that every 2nd Saturday we invite people to talk about their favourite topic. My schoolmate spoke about Google maps and earth last week and it opened up new thought processes. Every CEO would know at least 24 talk worthy people and that would take care of topics for 2 years at least. Next Saturday we are having a person talk on software testing and quality.

7. What do you feel are some of the measures, which organisations and leaders in small and medium sized organisations, can take to support and ensure effectiveness among Managers?

I would say stretch as much as possible in terms of paying Managers salaries to get good guys in. Cut down somewhere else, maybe air conditioning, marketing etc. Earlier I made a mistake by saying “This is my budget and I can’t afford to pay more”. I used to spend more on real estate etc. But good people deserve good money. Also, I would say making Managers effective is a lot to do with the CEO’s behaviour. The CEO’s behaviour is mirrored in the company culture and employee behaviour. Hence it is important for CEOs to behave in a way they would like their teams to behave. And do give them all the possible freedom.

Employee Speak : Neeraj Roy , Managing Director and CEO, Hungama Digital Media Entertainment Pvt. Ltd.: V3 Issue 1


1. Congratulations on Hungama’s new visual identity!  It is very interesting – do share your thoughts on what prompted this change in identity?

The new logo is more contemporary and is represented by a triangle, which is actually a depiction of the ‘PLAY’ button.  It is formed by the intersection of three triangles represented in blue, green and orange indicating forward and continuous motion. It is also synonymous with the entertainment world, which we are into, be it mobile or online entertainment. The three colours are derivatives of the primary colours from a digital perspective. They actually represent the three digital screens that make up the world today – PC, mobile and Internet TV. The brand name, Hungama, is written in lower case in blue. Blue is a universal, natural and sky colour indicating infinite possibilities. The letter 'G' in the logo is incomplete and will remain so in the quest for perfection, adding irreverence to our brand identity and indicating our urge to challenge convention and define our own benchmarks. It also highlights our desire to innovate and represents a work in a state of motion.


2. You were the only Indian to address the Mobile World Congress at Barcelona in February 2008? In hindsight, has the mobile entertainment industry progressed as envisaged?

Yes it’s been good but it could have been much better had we taken decisions on certain infrastructural related investments earlier.  It’s been now 3 years and we are still talking about introduction of 3G whereas the world is already moving into more advanced environments of 3.5 and 4. The government has aided certain parts of it but has created some kind of an over competitive environment right now. Scenarios where you have 11 telecom companies in 1 single market and another 5 coming up rarely exist.


3. Are you as a company ready with products centered on the 3G technology?

Oh yes! There is a suite of products and services that we have. Essentially, 3G or broadband will enable more people easy access to the internet through the phone. If you look at the internet today as the new form of education and not as a medium of information, then this will not only enhance people’s livelihood but also overall economic prosperity.  Research conducted all over the world shows that there is a direct correlation of enhanced and deeper broadband penetration with GDP growth of those countries.  So I think in that context what it leads to is a more digital lifestyle.  For e.g. young couples using an internet enabled 3G product can keep an eye on what is happening with their children. If a country like ours understands the platforms and technologies for this then as a company we will definitely be  at the forefront of enabling and leading to a digital and mobile lifestyle.


4. Considering that 3G phones are fairly expensive wouldn’t this technology cater to only a certain section of the urban population?

Not true!  In the mobile business niche is the new mass and everything is mass as it were if you see this thing more holistically. Globally the mobile data business will be 124 billion dollars next year, of which Mobile Entertainment will account for 42 billion dollars. In that, music, imagery video, gaming are principal constituents to it.  Now there are two things.  One is the device - the mobile phone, the laptop, the PC, or the television. It has an ability to store more now because memory is becoming a commodity. The second is that connectivity is becoming faster and therefore you can access a lot. And once you start thinking in that manner that’s really what this ecosystem is all about and in many ways convergence is becoming a reality.  You are on your PC or laptop and then you move forward into your blackberry, you are connected and you get into your Tata Sky.  The adoption of this is of course related to price point because it has to be viable for a large enough audience. But today a 3G enabled phone is available for Rs.5000/-.


5. As the new chairman of Mobile Entertainment Forum (MEF) what are the top two initiatives on your agenda?

MEF, a body that founded in the UK about 8 years back is made up of 250+ of the most prolific companies across a range of businesses that are all a part of the entire mobile and digital entertainment ecosystem - content owners, broadcasters, record companies, companies like ours, a whole host of technology companies etc. Among the numerous initiatives our thrust areas in 2009 are:-


6. How do you see the economic slowdown impacting the mobile entertainment industry globally and in India?

I think there is not an individual or business in this world which has not or will not continue to be impacted in some manner or the other and I mean it.  Whatever has happened, is happening and is likely to happen can only be best described as unprecedented and certainly somethingwhich there will be very few people who can turnaround and say that I have witnessed something of this nature before in my lifetime.  Even the economic depression in 1929-33 etc did not have this enormity and the world was not as flat or as connected as it is today. The scary part is of course that whatever is about to happen is likely to be even more dangerous in many ways than what we have witnessed till now.  So that’s a given.  So everything gets calibrated, adjusted and has a caveat attached to them in the current circumstances. 

But when you look at the mobile telephony data in India, the last 3 months have consistently been record breaking months.  The reason for that is that the mobile phone today has become such a utility that it not just makes you connect with people but has the power and potential of changing economic lifestyles.  For eg: If there are 350 million people currently accessing mobile services, even ITC and Unilever don’t reach more than 250 million customers.  Now to a customer in a small town, even basic information like electricity today will come at 3 pm empowers him to utilize the time before 2 pm to do other work rather than just wait by the pump.  Even something as elementary as that opens people’s mind. So even if one has to save 1000 Rupees to get a phone connection one will do so.  It is no longer a luxury.  So I think in that context the trend is positive and insulated from the rest of the world.  If the condition deteriorates then there is bound to be more pressure. Therefore ME growth is very closely linked to customer acquisition growth. If customer grows and gets on to a service there is no reason why he will not want his music, video etc.


7. What about the Digital Entertainment Industry? How do you see it getting impacted by the economic slowdown?

People may not want to change their music so often. Until now, that is the first few months of this blood bath; we have not witnessed that trend.   This is unlike a lot of industries which have literally cramped up like the realty industry.  Because construction is cramped up, steel goes through a crunch, cement goes through a crunch.  You cannot produce. And even if you do how do you stock that because there is lack of space.  Whereas our products and services being digital do not have a physical element to it and can exist somewhere in the ecosystem.


8. What are some of the measures that you have taken for managing the impact of the economic slowdown on Hungama?

All CAPEX is being very closely reviewed. We are preparing our people in a fair way, giving our employees a chance to enhance efficiency or pull up their socks if required.  The investments related negotiation process has seen a very hard nosed approach and as a result, we have seen a tremendous amount of positive fall out.  For example when we were looking for an office space in Delhi, we just stalled saying we are not buyers in the market right now.  And within a matter of four weeks we have seen as high as a 30% drop in prices.


9. Please share your thoughts on what you think business leaders should be doing differently to be prepared for or even prevent another economic meltdown like this in future?

I would like to talk about this more from an entrepreneurial perspective rather than how to avoid an economic crisis of this nature.  In my mind there is a very simple straightforward two word solution “Prevent Greed!”   I think that’s essentially what has resulted in this.

What can businesses do?  I think conserving cash is the first on the agenda for any business at this point in time.  It is going to be a commodity which will be fairly scarce.  It will certainly be available for businesses that have robust profitable pieces because it is not as if liquidity is not there but you have to be very tight fisted the way you approach it.  The second part is that you have to at times like this, talk more, both internally and externally. You have to communicate a lot more, both good and bad news.  You should not be shielding and protecting people from bad news or hiding things because I believe these are times which call for demonstration of even higher levels of transparency and trust to the internal and external stakeholders. This will ensure you come out holding hands, forming human chains and saying that we will not succumb to scenarios like this and we will overcome. That brings about a certain sense of motivation and drive. And the third part is that if you are fundamentally in businesses that you are confident about, then I would urge and encourage businesses to demonstrate pragmatic aggression. So you should certainly be on the look out for assets, whether it be human capital or in businesses. But do not necessarily jump to concluding deals right now because you are likely to get some very very good deals at this time so you can consolidate and strengthen your position even more.  In our own small way that is also the practice we are following.

    • Mobile Internet initiative: This is related to what you can do with getting more access to internet through mobile. To give you a perspective - there are a little over a billion people who are accessing the internet mostly through their PC, where as there are 4 billion people who have access to mobile phones, there are only 4.2 billion people who have access to toothbrushes in this world.  So you know it is the highest adoption of any form of technology in the world.  It is our belief that the next 2 billion people will access the internet not necessarily through the PC but through a converged mobile device of sorts. 

    • Ad-funded mobile entertainment: Until now this 30 to 35 billion dollar industry has largely been very transactional in nature i.e., it’s a consumer buying a product from a telecom company. Now the telecom companies are themselves becoming media companies thus reaching 85 to 87 billion consumers.  When you become a company of that size, you are also in that zone where you are a media company and when you are a media company, brands naturally need to participate in that entire ecosystem. So we feel that this wholebusiness of ME which is currently a transaction between a consumer and the operator will soon get a big boost because the brand will then turn around and say… “You know what, you want this video?  This game? This music? This service? I will give it to you or subsidise it for you” and that is what is called Ad-Funded mobile entertainment.  That is another thing that we are looking at and within that mobile advertising will be another area. 

Employee Speak: Chandru Kini, CEO, LifeKen, Bangalore


About the company: LifeKen was born as a dream of two promoters – Chandru Kini and A. Suryanarayanan. LifeKen is a Retail Pharmaceutical Chain that operates in total 82 Stores in Bangalore, Chennai and Mumbai. It is actively pursuing the opening of its Retail Pharmaceutical Chain in the cities of Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and Kochi. Plans are on the anvil to expand to other cities in the South and West and thereafter to the North and East.

1. How was LifeKen conceptualized? What prompted (Surya and) you to start this venture?

Surya and I ventured into this since we were both entrepreneurs at heart, and were passionate about starting something of our own. A great deal of hands on research was required for establishing a retail pharmaceutical chain like LifeKen. A model pharmacy was set up in Jan 2004. With the success of the model pharmacy, we were granted funding by the Modi’s family, based out of Mumbai. They have put in their personal investments into our venture. Mr Pranab Modi is on the board of directors for LifeKen.

It has been an eventful ride since then. We were also inspired by the success stories of various other retail pharmaceutical chains that were born in India in the last few years.

2. What is the unique experience LifeKen offers to its customers or its unique selling proposition as compared to other retail pharmacies?

Apart from the pharmacies that are successfully operating in the various cities, we have planned to initiate health care awareness programs for our consumers, educating and enlightening them about the preventive measures that could be taken to avoid certain ailments. Health check up mechanisms will also be available at the pharmacies for the consumers to get an insight into their current health status especially for ailments like osteoporosis etc.

The fundamental reason for commencing these programs is to promote a long-lasting relationship with LifeKen consumers.

3. What are the key challenges you face in your industry? How do you deal with them?

The key challenges for a retail pharmacy like LifeKen are at the sourcing as well as at the marketing phases of operations.

At the sourcing stage, there could be a great deal of supply chain issues especially when it comes to availability of commonly purchased drugs. There is always an urgent need to replenish the stores with drugs that are in constant demand with customers. That’s when our relationship with drug suppliers comes to our rescue. The suppliers that we work with are reliable and have the professionalism to ensure timely delivery of urgently required drugs to the pharmacies.

Another complexity that we face is on the marketing front- it becomes a challenge to advertise and to do any promotional activities. It would undermine the ethical standards that we maintain as a retail pharma company.

4. What are the values that you would like your employees to imbibe?

I strongly believe that customer engagement as well as customer delight should be at the forefront of the value system in LifeKen. It would be a reflection of how effective the pharmacy set up is. Employees are required to follow ethical standards of employment which will be critical for the overall success of the organization.

Something that I really hold key to my success is the support and guidance that was provided to me during my stint as a professional. And to a great extent, I would like to continue this tradition with the employees of LifeKen as well. In fact, we would like our employees to be with us and grow along with the success of the organization. 

5. What are your suggestions for future entrepreneurs in retail pharmaceutical?

A great deal of hands on approach would be required for establishing a retail pharmaceutical company. Considerable amount of time and energy have to be invested in research activities to set up an establishment like LifeKen.