Ratan Tata is like Gulzar.
Gulzar turned lyricist in the 1960s and wrote lines like humne dekhi hai in aakhon ki mehekti khushboo... haath se chhuke ise rishton ka ilzaam na do. I have seen the fragrant smell of those eyes, don’t formalise it as a relationship by making it physical.
Doesn’t that take your breath away, even half a century later? Gulzar, though, is not lingering on those lines. But, at 80, he still can shake it with songs such as Horn OK Please.
Ratan Tata’s first big assignment as a corporate manager was in the 1970s at radio maker Nelco. It shut down because of an economic slowdown and labour problems. He plodded through other assignments, such as Empress Mills and Central India Mill, both textile makers, before being appointed as the head of Tata Industries and eventually as the Tata Group Chairman in 1991.
He showed a remarkable capacity to embrace new concepts such as globalisation and innovation. Tata companies were among the first to go international by acquiring overseas companies. The Nano is not a great success but it is a remarkable innovation.
That adaptability and acceptance has kept Tata, 77 years old now, in business even after he retired as Tata Group Chairman at the end of 2012. Perhaps in a more interesting way now than before. Tata is a great backer of startups.
But how does he choose them? How do you make him invest in your startup?
Just ask him, according to some stories. According to reports, Nidhi Agarwal’s Kaaryah was rejected by 113 investors before she, at her father’s suggestion, found Ratan Tata’s email and wrote to him. And he decided to invest.
Maybe fairytales do happen. But it will not be wise to count on them. If you are serious about getting Tata, you should go through every line of what he said at the recent convocation of Great Lakes Management Institute in Chennai. Here is the gist.
You must not come across as someone chasing valuations. “Just collecting funds from investors over selling a concept and walking away....is an insensitive way to look at business. There has to be a sense of responsibility.”
Linked to that is commitment. “These are the kinds of judgement you make when you meet the founders — what their level of commitment is, will they just walk away at a particular time after making gains, or will they be committed to staying and building an enterprise?”
And passion. “You get impressed by those who have good ideas and no support, but great passion to achieve what they do.”
Tata walks the talk. You can see that in each of the 12 investments he has made in startups beginning with the first — wind energy company Altaeros — right down to his latest: Coimbatore-based electric bikes maker Ampere. The two are working on solutions to the issues of energy and pollution.
That is the theme. Tata prefers those that help improve the common man’s life, typically by working in the areas of health, woman empowerment, access to Internet, etc. “I am interested in supporting anything that seems to have the potential of changing India.”
So he has invested in Snapdeal, which gives access to all kinds of goods to all kinds of people in all kinds of places — buyers as well as sellers. Ola, which solves an everyday problem for those who live in a city that has bad public transport — that is, nearly every city in India.
Agarwal’s Kaaryah is an interesting case. It sells a blend of western and Indian formal clothing for women in 18 different sizes — the usual is six — which accommodate differences in proportions of the Indian woman’s body and address issues like gaping buttons on shirts.
These creative types usually face the problem of financial support, because their concept often appears vague and esoteric. “It is important to nurture them; it’s important to support them. The creative ones usually face the greatest problems in finding support, because they are doing things others have not done before.”
Of course, the startups receiving Tata’s money benefit from it in many ways. The buzz has it that investor interest and valuations shoot up. The founder of a public relations agency was recently kicking herself for letting go of a client in which Tata has just invested.
The journalists she used to chase earlier are now chasing her to talk to the founder of that startup. And she has been apologising saying they no longer work together.