It’s not important to measure how many times you fail, but to evaluate those failures and learn from them. This is the belief that has helped Vikram Puri, CEO, Transworld Technologies Ltd, get a strong foothold in the electronics industry. In a candid conversation with Baishakhi Dutta, senior business journalist, Electronics Bazaar, he shares how entrepreneurship can make a good leader out of anyone.
Lesser known facts about me
Year of birth: 1968
Favourite book: ‘1962 – The War that Wasn’t’ by Shiv Kunal Verma
Favourite food: Steaks
Favourite singers: Harry Belafonte and Elvis Presley
Hobbies: Playing golf and reading
Childhood and education
I was born in Ahmednagar, which is very close to Pune. My father was an army man—a decorated Colonel and a war veteran. He passed away a few years ago, and is survived by my mother. I belong to a Sikh family while my wife is Parsee. We have a 24-year-old daughter who aspires to be a lawyer. My sister is married to an army officer, a national sportsman, who has represented India in equestrian competitions.
Due to my father’s transferable job in the army, I attended school in almost all the corners of the country. I passed out from Army Public School, Delhi in 1986. I then studied engineering at PDVP College of Engineering, Ahmednagar where I took up automobile engineering. But in the first year itself (1988) I left college, since I began working with a company that was into earth-moving equipment.
My early professional journey: The twists and turns
I left that job to start a small business in assembling and selling cooling systems (for homes and offices) to larger organisations. A little later, I started working with a company that was doing a World Bank project in Mumbai. This was the time I came into contact with heavy equipment, and that’s what I started working with. Some time in 1992, along with three other friends, I became a part of the founding and startup team in an engineering contracting company called IVRCL Infrastructure, which became a listed company on the stock exchange. It was quite a story because, in those days, nobody talked about startups. We started using advanced technology and built some of the equipment for sections of the Konkan Railway. By the time all four founders went their separate ways in 1996, the company had already bagged contracts worth ₹ 4 to 5 billion. I then started a consulting business, before finally landing up in the electronics and technology domain.
In the late 90s, I began developing technology solutions and systems, starting with industrial solutions. Slowly, I realised that the future was in data acquisition and data management. So, sometime around 1998-99, I started working in this area, creating the first data acquisition device and selling our first data acquisition solution to Gati for their contractor fleet management. By 2000-2001, we were creating wireless data acquisition solutions for various application areas. We manufactured and sold solutions for fleet management, machinery management, etc, back in those days.
We then created what we call the Mobile Eye, an award winning, wireless data acquisition and processing smart device used in IoT edge computing. We have a filed a few patents to protect the technology. It has various application capabilities, such as fleet management and supply chain visibility. Companies like Castrol British Petroleum, Shell and Unilever use our system for behaviour analysis in order to improve fleet efficiency. Another vertical that we are doing well in is the smart grid, where the same Mobile Eye device is fixed onto street side poles to capture images of traffic in real-time, resulting in a complete police control room in the cloud. So, smaller cities and smaller districts, which don’t have the funds or technology for citizen safety and emergency services, use our turnkey cloud solution. In many cases, we fund the investments required and the police have to pay nothing for the solution. In return, we are allowed to display content on large LED signages that are put up on the streets, and try and generate revenue.
Why I chose this profession
The reason behind choosing this profession was always passion. I love creating something new and unique. We are doing technology applications for the military, for other defence establishments, and also for research and development. We love doing this. I could see that there were real big issues out there that people face on a day-to-day basis, which could be solved by the simple use of technology.
One of the products that we are working on, but which surprisingly has no takers, is a traffic signal system. It allows us to see how many cars are waiting in a row at a traffic light and change the lights’ timing accordingly. It’s a very smart system. For example, if an ambulance gets tracked, then automatically all the signals will turn green so that the ambulance can move quickly. It bothered me that no one has a simple, low-cost solution for such issues. So its incidents like this that drove me to work on these products. True, I haven’t always been successful, but those failures only motivated me to get up and get going.
My major contribution to the industry
I think my single largest contribution to the industry, rather our customer base, is that we have made the roads much safer. We have created a wireless data acquisition and driver behaviour analytics system that is used as a benchmark by other companies now. This system evaluates the actions of the driver his fatigue levels and his, driving behaviour using inputs like the use of the accelerator and the brake. A risk-score card allows a company to manage its drivers and mitigate the risks on the road for themselves and for others. In a country like India, we wanted to show how safety has changed for drivers over the years with the help of technology. That has been our biggest achievement.
My management style
We have a system whereby we set tasks and goals, and pay people on how well they do those tasks. We believe that success, unless it is translated into something personal, has no value at all. In life, everyone looks forward to profiting from learning and working hard. We recognise that, and we reward employees for all the goals they achieve. This process helps us to make entrepreneurs out of every person, because their success and failure is directly linked to their personal status, income and professional position.
Integrity is important
The most important character trait for me is integrity. Everyone makes errors, but a person should be upright and own up to the mistakes instead of hiding the truth with a series of lies. Second, I look at how open minded a person is. It is important in our industry to be open minded and adapt to changes every day. If you are expecting things to happen in only a set pattern, then you are not in the right place. You need to adapt to all the little changes that come your way.
In our wireless business, we took the decision very early to go ahead with GSM technology. At that time, there were two major telecom players—the Tata Group operating through a company called Trako (later renamed Tata MobiApps) and Reliance Telematics. These two companies were India’s largest distributors of cellular services and they chose CDMA as their platform, which was a far superior technology for data acquisition when compared with GSM. But we chose the latter because CDMA was a proprietary technology belonging to Qualcomm, and we were too small a company to negotiate with it for the licence fees. So we had to use what was open and build solutions based on that, even though the task was more difficult and expensive.
We were ridiculed for our decision, but I consider this a major turning point in my business. Later, even for their regular telecom services, both companies had to drop CDMA for the same reason that we chose GSM. And both their telematics businesses either had to be sold or closed down, while we continued!
Always have a mentor
I have had different people as my mentors. You always need someone you like and you can trust, to be able to bounce your ideas, worries and concerns off them. Of course, one mentor cannot be expected to have expertise in everything, so you need to have a strong network. You probably need someone to explain how to manage people and priorities, while for managing the hard core business, you need someone else as your mentor. Even now we take the advice of people who are willing to support us. Whether we act on that advice or not is a matter of personal opinion and decision.
Entrepreneurship is leadership
Entrepreneurship is not only about creating unique technology and a value proposition for your company. It is about leadership. An important quality that you need as a leader or an entrepreneur in India is how to respond to the obstructions and obstacles in your path. It is certain that you will fail at various stages. It’s not important to count how many times you failed. Rather, you need to analyse how you respond to those failures. Most people give up easily, but some people are strong, and their determination ensures that they don’t give up, no matter what happens. Every failure has to be evaluated and you must have an experienced sounding board—a mentor. There has to be someone to guide you, and this one person should be a bit disassociated from your field of work.
Key turning points in my career
Entrepreneurship is a series of ups and downs. There have been many turning points in my professional journey. A lot of my learning has come from stepping into the wireless data acquisition domain. Nowadays, everybody claims they know IoT and edge computing. However, these words did not exist when we went into business. When we came into the business, there was no ‘Google Maps’ and therefore we had to write our own map servers, because the cheapest map available was so expensive that we could not afford it. For many years we used our own server. Later, even when Google Maps arrived with highly advanced technology and data, it was not free for industrial use – rather, it was highly expensive. Today, we are in a position to offer similar services as Google Maps. So there is no single turning point, but a series of experiences like these that have made us what we are.
The future looks promising
We are already doing well in the smart grid vertical. In the next five years, we aim to become India’s largest networked out-of-home media company. We are already rolling out the technology. We are also changing the way advertising will work, with context aware and interactive out-of-home content delivery at low costs. We also capture weather data, sound and air pollution levels all over the country, providing Big Data for analysis.