“Always look at the glass half full” Is the themeline of this interview
Sitting across the coffee table, engaged in a free-wheeling chat, I have to often remind myself that I am in conversation with the CEO of redBus – recently rated as one of the world’s top 50 most innovative companies byFast Company – and the man behind 10Mn+ bus journeys in India; and not an old school friend – such is the ease and warmth of Phanindra Sama’s, popularly known as Phani, personality.
From a shy small town boy from Andhra Pradesh to building a business worth Rs. 300Cr+ in annual revenue and revolutionizing the way India booked bus tickets along the way; Phani is a role model for many. In this candid one on one conversation with Internshala, Phani shares lessons from his journey starting from his college days till date. Read on…
1. During your college days (BITS Pillani, EEE, 1998-2002) what kind of a student were you? Was your primary focus on studies or were you actively involved in extra curricular activities too? Were there any early signs of entrepreneur to be?When I joined BITS Pilani in 1998, I was rather shy and under confident, primarily because I could not speak English very well. Most of my education back in my town in Andhra Pradesh was in Telugu. However, during ragging I got introduced to a senior who came from the same town and who sort of took to mentoring me.Upon the advice of this senior I joined the photography club (known as Department of Photography a.k.a DOPy) and was actively involved with it through out 4 years; I was one of the most learned photographer on the campus and eventually became Head of DOPy in my 4th year.I did well in studies too. A strong foundation in 11th and 12th meant that first 2 years at BITS Pilani were a breeze when it came to acads; so much so that 7 of us were known as Bewars Gang on the campus – sort of happy go lucky folks who did not study hard yet scored well. Eventually I graduated with a 9+ CGPA.I believe my stint at DOPy taught me valuable lessons about human psychology and leadership that help me a great deal even today. These lessons, taught in an informal setting with no vested interests on part of the seniors who taught me these, are –
- As head of the club, I had to manage a team of 50 student volunteer who worked for no pay. And in learning to engage and motivate them, I, for first time, learned nuances of how the organization structure, the parts in a large system, work and the whole equation became clear
- I learned that while it may be difficult for me to keep track of all 50 members, as a leader my job would become easier if I could identify 4-5 key members in the group and could influence them who in turn could influence all 50
- Finally, I learned that everyone behaves as per his or her interest, and unless I could align his/her interest with my interests; it would not be possible for me to get work out of the person. This lesson that all of us learn at some stage in our professional lives, I learned during my stint with DOPy2. During your Engineering, where did you do your internship, what project/assignment did you work on, and how was the overall experience?In BITS Pilani, one gets to do 2 internships. One at the end of 2nd year summers called Practice School 1 (PS 1) and another 6 months long internship in your final year called Practice School 2 (PS2)I did my PS 1 with Apollo Hospital, Hyderabad. Strange as it may sound (what would an Engineer do in a hospital?), the internship was a plan by the entire Bewars Gang to be together in Hyderabad during the summer. However, I learned a lot during my internship. It was the time when Apollo Hospital was going for ISO certification and I got to spend 1 week each in every department right from billing, admissions, Operations Theater, maintenance etc.. I realized there was such a huge system (there were 2 basements below hospital where large machines used to run producing Oxygen and what not, along with a large maintenance staff, cafeteria etc.) supporting what may seem a simple doctor-patient transaction.I did my PS2 at ST Microelectronics in Noida where I worked on designing a Bluetooth controller on ST’s FPGA. It was also a great experience because ever since I joined Engineering, I was very passionate about Electronics and wanted to work on a real project and here I was surrounded by 1,200 people who lived and breathed Electronics.Another interesting aspect of this internship was that later when I joined Texas Instruments, I realized the cultural differences that exist between an European organization (ST Microelectronics) and a US based organization (TI). In TI focus was always on results while ST was more about Work Life balance – sort of one wasCapitalistic in nature and other was Socialist – it helped me define the work culture at redBus which I think is somewhere in between the two. We are people friendly but we drive the results too.3. You worked for ~3 years before starting up. Do you think having prior corporate experience helps one in starting up? If yes, in what ways?Oh yes, absolutely! I will give you a real life example.Another friend of mine who stayed back at BITS Pilani for his Masters started his company right after the college around the same time we did.While we at redBus adopted an open office workspace design that we had seen at ST or TI where everyone’s cubicle was same size and type; my friend’s office space design was more hierarchical in nature. 25-30% of space was designated for a closed CEO’s chamber while remaining 12 developers were seated in 50-60% of left over space.In a knowledge economy, where talent is a precious commodity, things as subtle as this can make it difficult for you to hire and retain skilled employees. Which is what happened with this friend of mine where he really struggled to attract talent to the team and eventually had to close down. I believe this happened primarily because he had never been to any office, perhaps other than his own uncle’s and that lack of exposure cost him dearly.Also while working, you get exposed to so many other aspects of running a business such as HR, Finance, leading and managing people, processes etc. – all of which come very handy when you start on your own. For example, in TI despite it being an open office, the payroll department was always a separate enclosure because people are not really comfortable talking/negotiating their salaries in open. What may seem an obvious now, may not be intuitive to someone without this experience. Hence, I always recommend that one should gain some corporate exposure before starting up on own.4. Recently in one of your interviews at Techcircle, you said “Right now (we have) a team of 200 (excluding call centre), redBus plans to have 680 people on board by March 2013.” – how does the recruitment process at redBus work? Do you go to campuses for fresh hire or is it all laterals?Majority of our recruitment is lateral as we look for people with experience who can hit the ground running and set things up for us. Having said that we do hire freshers also every year though that is a smaller number. This year for example we have hired Management graduates from IIM Ahmedabad, Indore and XLRI etc. While our engineering fresh graduates join us from campuses like IIIT, IIT Delhi etc.5. What is redBus’s thought process on internships? Is it an integral part of your talent acquisition strategy? If yes, in what ways? And if no, why not?Internships at the moment are not core of our talent acquisition strategy. Primarily because most of our hiring is lateral and partly because as a new business, there are so many things being figured out that we really have not been able to develop a concrete thought process and action plan around internships. We have hired interns in past but the experience has not been very successful. For a successful internship, there is lot of investment, in terms of time and effort, that an organization must make and we so far have not managed it well.One of the good projects that an IIM Indore intern did for us was financial modeling of our daily/weekly cash flows which was supposed to help the company do a better job of budgeting and estimating.6. From looking for a bus ticket yourself in 2005, to selling 1 Crore+ tickets till date, the 6 years journey at redBus must have been a big roller coaster ride; if there is one principle or individual trait that you believe has stood the test of time and you would like to share with students; it would be?
Always look at the glass half full. In your life there will be many glass half empty moments where you may be inclined to think more about the negative aspect of a situation or decision and I have had enough of these moments all along. What has helped is the ability to look at the positive side of things and move ahead – this not only makes you happier but also changes the mood in the room where everyone in the team starts feeling excited about the challenge ahead.