BIkram Dasgupta, a Harvard and IIT alumnus and a professional who revolutionized the IT products industry, talks to us about his entrepreneurial journey and shares some life’s lessons in the process
An alumnus of the Harvard Business School and Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, Bikram Dasgupta has been at the forefront of founding and building organizations, mentoring human resources and spearheading industry associations in the IT sector. Hailing from a Bengali middle class family, Dasgupta wanted to do something different in his life. He started his career as part of the marketing and business development team in HCL during its early stages. Eventually, he founded Pertech Computers Ltd (PCL) and led the company to a leadership position in the Indian PC market and grew its employee strength to 1,500. During this period, he closed a deal which is still considered the largest single contract in the hardware industry with an export order to the tune of US $50 million from Dell Computer, U.S. for PCL.
When you start thinking about your organization for the next thirty years, then you change your style of management. You move from tactic to strategy and you want to create legacy and stability
Today, he runs the Globsyn group, a firm with a global outlook and with domain competencies in education, skills and technology. He is also an investor with a focus on investments outside India. He was appointed as an International Expert Advisor (IT/ITeS) by World Bank for Government of Bangladesh, and has set up a foundation called Kalyani (named after his mother) with an intention of helping mentally challenged adults and is also working very closely with old age homes. In this interview, he shares key insights from his rich entrepreneurial journey, with a few interesting anecdotes.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey, which led you to what you are today?
In 1992 – 93, when PCL was facing financial problems, we realised that the only way to get out of this was to do something which can bring money in against business and which we can pay later. This was possible only through an export order. However, during that period, the concept of hardware export was unheard of in India. So I took it up on myself to fulfill this task and eight months later, it culminated into a US $50 million single contract in the IT industry, in manufacturing motherboards for Dell. It wasn’t an easy task. I kept visiting factories, production centres and manufacturing units but I was facing a deadlock at the VP level – the VP of Production hadn’t even met the VP of marketing as they were completely parallel structures. I realised if I had to make a breakthrough, I had to meet wherever they converge. That’s how I had a 2.5 hour life-changing meeting with Michael Dell. It changed things for PCL and we did two public issues after that.
However, a year later, again things weren’t too good. I decided to start again. I was very well known in the market by then because of PCL. So when we started Globsyn, there were huge expectations. In one of the events in Kolkata in 1995, the West Bengal Government officials asked me to set up business in Kolkata. They had plans of turning a building into a software park and they offered me a floor to build a software company, in return for equity. However, I wanted the whole building and promised to build an intelligent building there. That was the germination of Infinity, the model around which Software Parks have been developed. Then, the second phase involved raising money. Fortunately, I got a good response from the banks to raise initial money to start Infinity. I was clear right from the beginning that Infinity is only a building and I was not getting into real estate. I needed an institution, which could bring in people who can work in that building. That is how the second concept came up, the concept of software finishing school called TechnoCampus. When you become an engineer per se, you don’t know programming, application engineering, project management or how to apply knowledge of engineering into a software company. So, my program was basically all of that. I called it the YSM, the young software manager and I started it in 1997 November.
At the third level of this project was fulfillment, which is software. Infrastructure, execution and delivery are the three things on which we built the whole ecosystem of Globsyn.
Can you share some interesting anecdotes from your journey, with respect to your group companies?
My entire business is always input-based and it requires a lot of work and money.
Let’s take the case of Infinity. The concept was to create an intelligent building. I knew that the market will be there, there is a huge software demand but there was no business plan. There was a huge need and I cannot compromise on the quality of the input. The creation comes first, the price comes later. If you take the finishing school, there was need gap to be filled and not how much we will make out of it. Once the gap was filled, I was confident we will make money out of it. The entire cycle of Globsyn has been like that. There is a need in the society that needs to be plugged and once we do it and if we do it well, there will be takers.
Second, when I was building infinity and there was no money, a foreign bank’s CEO had heard about the project and I met him in Oberoi Delhi. He made a statement: “We are bankers and I have no doubt that if this building is built, it will be instantly sold. There will be a large number of takers and it is relevant for the IT industry. There is no worry on that front. My worry is, whether it will be built at all.”
Whenever you are an innovator you will face such questions. If you are convinced enough in what you are doing, you will not mind this question.
I have never looked at real estate as a business. For me it has helped in two ways. One, it has created an infrastructure for my industry; second, I use it as a collateral for my business as real estate is the most tangible collateral you can create. And if you have to work properly, pay taxes and be straight forward in your business dealings, and you are from middle class background, you need collateral. If you take private equity, your company is already sold before you’ve made it. I don’t think debt is a bad instrument. If there is a transaction going on in your business, then debt is the cheapest mode. You keep debt and you have transaction, you pay back the debt. If you are getting business once in a while, then you need private equity.
This is one of the biggest challenges a first generation entrepreneur faces. Aspiration is not driven by boundaries. You would like to have aspirations without boundaries for which there will be huge money requirements. Money requirement will not be available within your own business and you have to go outside. And if anyone gives you money, he is the boss. So you need to think that through. That was another exercise of entrepreneurship which I did go through then.
Over these years, how has your management style evolved? Please highlight five key changes in your style and why?
There have been few changes. As a professional, we learn to work within the system. But when you get out of it, you make blunders and mistakes and learn.
The first phase of my entrepreneurship was pure energy and passion and that makes people around you to work with you. On the other side, you are making lot of goof ups in the financial and legal system by not knowing the process. These are the first phase of entrepreneurship.
Then comes the second phase, to whatever you were doing, you add the concept of questioning wisdom. When you start failing, you start paying for it. Then you start reevaluating your style.
As an executive also I was an intrapreneur, then I became an entrepreneur and the third phase where I have done a generational shift which will come later.
Most of the change in entrepreneurial style happens through your failure. You fail, you learn. And learn fast. That is what characterized the changes in 70 per cent phase of my entrepreneurship. The last 30 per cent is very different. When my sons said they wanted to join Globsyn, I saw Globsyn growing for another 30 years. Till then I didn’t think that way. When you start thinking about your organization for the next thirty years, then you change your style of management. You move from tactic to strategy and you want to create legacy and stability. You want to create assets which will stay within the system and clear up your debt so that they get a better platform to grow.
As an entrepreneur, skill development has been your forte. You set up Globsyn Skills in 2010 in association with National Skill Development Corporation and trained one million youth over a period of 10 years. Do share your opinion on what is the need of the hour for skilling in India. And what are the challenges that Globsyn Skills is facing currently?
Skilling is like healthcare where everyone needs healthcare. So basically when I look at IT now, I find IT too small vis-a-vis skills. And IT is only for the privileged. Skill can go to absolute remotest level. Now the government has added something called the prior learning certification, which means if I have been a carpenter generationally in my family, and I have not had any certification, but government is willing to recognize my prior learning and I can sit for an exam and become a level 4 or 5 certified carpenter. The moment you are bringing skilling into main stream, it is good.
A lot of work is going on in bringing structure in place for certification and accreditation from level 1 to 9 and luckily for us, we are among the top five companies in the skills market. We have 435 centres in 14 domains and have a huge content development team.
Where do you see India’s IT services and products industry heading?
Fortunately, we are very technology focused. Currently, all of us are talking SMAC (social mobile analytics and cloud) and we are architecturing services into some kind of products format. Definition wise, it is just pure services. If you are a java programmer, that is where it starts and ends. Now you are getting into SMAC. You can see from this, the direction in which it is going is more of productisation, more of marketplace and more of ecommerce coming in. This means technology is slowly going backend and consumer is coming in the front end. For example, Flipkart is a complete technology product. The tendency is towards doing either that, or with this broad marketplace, there will be smaller ones. This is the virtual marketplace. From general marketplace, we are talking about the technology marketplace where there are gaps which entrepreneurs are filling. This is going to happen in the next three to five years. India is still in early days of adoption of this. In the U.S., adoption level has gone far ahead. There is a very interesting evolution or growth in the IT industry.