As founder of PPT Salon that designs interesting presentations, Abhisek Sarda loves the thrill of building something different and proving that it works
MAHATHI R. ARJUN
Need an interesting presentation to pep up that boring meeting next week? Just ask Abhisek Sarda of PPT Salon that customises every presentation according to your needs. And considering that he often promises to deliver in two days time, he sometimes ends up having sleepless nights. According to Sarda, PPT Salon was launched almost by accident in September 2010 when a communication design project he was working on for a client got stalled. “The idea of PPT Salon had been floating in my mind for a couple of years and I decided to start building the website to keep my designer busy, with no intention of actually launching it. But the website developed really well and we had a ball writing and designing it. That’s when I started getting excited about it and thought it might be a good idea to actually launch the venture,” says Sarda (28). The website was launched midnight and after a trek the next day, Sarda logged into his inbox to see that close to a dozen requests to design presentations had poured in. In the first 10 days since the launch, he made eight presentations, including for some of India’s most well-known companies.
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Two years later, Goa-based PPT Salon has worked with more than 200 clients from 17 different countries including the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Australia, the Middle East and many European countries. Some of the biggies include Coca Cola, Pepsi, Unilever, Facebook, Johnson & Johnson, Deloitte, Kotak Group, Outlook magazine, Taj Hotels, Dr. Reddy’s, Bloomberg UTV, Rahul Dravid, Reliance ADAG, Marie Claire magazine, People magazine, SlideShare and Anurag Kashyap’s Phantom Films.
Round the clock
Considering the late nights Sarda often keeps, he admits his mornings aren’t always early. His day starts with a cup of dark coffee, a quick look at emails and chasing Bodoni (his dog) to eat her breakfast. “Sometimes, my day starts as early as 5 a.m when clients from different time zones call without realising what time it is in India,” he says. As a vegetarian, he is happy to eat pretty much whatever he can lay his hands on. “My employees sometimes store food that their mom would have sent in the office fridge. If I’m around, it doesn’t last too long,” admits Sarda.
One of the luxuries that Sarda enjoys while at work is the spacious bungalow that he and his teammates work out of. “Our office is an expression of who we are as a company and as people. It is colourful, has doodles and posters all over, a fishpond, a large garden, large balconies, many table lamps and Bodoni running all around. I’m not sure we’d have been able to build the same company from the seventh floor of a commercial building,” he says. While earlier Sarda worked in two shifts: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then 9 p.m. to 2 a.m, he is now a little more relaxed. But that hasn’t stopped him from being very hands-on with every project. “I interfere with the smallest of details. This is probably because of a combination of narcissistic and perfectionist traits,” he says, continuing, “However, in the last couple of months, I have consciously tried to stay focussed on the larger picture, define my role clearly and delegate as much as possible. I now work from home and visit the office only a couple of hours everyday. If I’m in the room, I end up interfering with every pixel of the design.”
But his team of about eight probably don’t mind considering the relaxed atmosphere they work in. “I don’t intentionally promote any particular kind of work culture. Our culture has just evolved and we don’t really make any specific effort to drive it in a particular direction. So, we don’t do any team-building activities,” he shares. Instead, his employees do what they enjoy, which could range from playing volleyball, going on monsoon treks, painting the walls of the new office, making cardboard monsters (they have about 50 of them) and going out for a night of karaoke. But none of these activities are company enforced or sponsored, as Sarda doesn’t believe in trying to create a certain kind of culture through mandated activities.
After a long day, he unwinds with two activities he loves – running and photography. “I run about six kilometres a couple of times a week in the evenings, on a stretch of the national highway that passes by my house. I also love long bike rides on my Bullet. Before PPT Salon, I’ve done bike trips through Gujarat, Maharashtra and Kerala,” says Sarda.
Following his instinct
After finishing school, Sarda took a year’s gap, figuring out what he wanted to do. When he came across an interesting advertisement of a design company, he decided to apply for an internship and duly got accepted. “I managed communication design projects, started a business incubator, a niche brand of handmade soaps and worked on several other very interesting projects. Finally, in 2008, I decided to start my own venture – a consulting firm, when I was 25.” Guts Service Design was built on the premise that, just like products, services should be ‘designed’ to make them more useful for the customers and help build the brand on a real differentiator. But he soon realised early on that most companies in India were not ready for something like this. “So after a while, I decided that we’d use our premise of designing unique services, to create our own service brands instead of working for clients. And that is what we are trying to do now.”
When Sarda attended conferences on entrepreneurship when he was working on the business incubator, he noticed that while the speakers had very interesting things to say, their presentations were, however, lousy, made using templates, clipart and ugly typefaces, whether it was done by a startup or a multi-billion dollar company. He soon found that presentations were designed in-house or outsourced to an advertising agency that often lacked the business context required to be able to design one. And hence, PPT Salon was born. “It might sound a little pompous, but with PPT Salon we’ve had almost no challenges. The only problem was a problem of plenty,” says Sarda. Before he started to build a team, the company got featured at a lot of places and this created a flood of requests for presentations. And he didn’t always have the bandwidth to handle the work, running the company from the spare bedroom of his house until a few weeks back. “PPT Salon has been completely bootstrapped and I expect it to be so for the foreseeable future. We’ve been frugal and smart about how we go about doing things,” he adds. As PPT Salon picks steam through word of mouth referrals, Sarda has also been busy starting another venture, Beard Design, in January this year that helps startups with branding and web design projects.
Sarda loves starting things from scratch than run something built by someone else. “PPT Salon and Guts Service Design are both new business models that aren’t very common. Once the model is up and running, I’d want to build something different. Of course that’s not very good, because proving a model works and building a successful and lasting business are two very different things,” he shares.
Right now, his target is to add one person to the team every month. He is also working on a small e-commerce venture that we will launch in the next 30 days. Moving forward, Sarda’s focus is not on maximising revenue but creating a great body of work, scaling the team, focusing on processes and building a great company. “In a best case scenario, in five years, PPT Salon will be a globally recognised presentation design firm. Also hopefully, I won’t be involved in either company by then. They would be entirely self-running entities with very capable people leading them, and I would be doing something completely different. I’m not a very good manager, I prefer being an entrepreneur,” he says, on a parting note.
On a lighter note
What is your unresolved dream?
In another life, I’d like to be a photographer.
What keeps you up at night?
Emails. And sometimes presentations.
Government bureaucracy and red tape
Your biggest critic:
It is not advisable to criticise a self-confessed narcissist!