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Happiest Minds: An IPO that flew under the radar in startup land

With the public listing of Happiest Minds, Ashok Soota has cemented his legacy as one of the finest founders India has ever had

September 17, 2020 / 09:38 PM IST

Note to readers: Hello world is a program developers run to check if a newly installed programming language is working alright. Startups and tech companies are continuously launching new software to run the real world. This column will attempt to be the "Hello World" for the real world.

The startup world is quick to celebrate small wins. Although it generally overlooks the technology services sector, it feels odd when you don’t even hear a peep about a company that just went public, in the otherwise jubilant world of startups.

Happiest Minds, a company founded in 2011, has just listed on the bourses. About 4.2 million shares in the company were earmarked for retail investors but the company is seeing bids for more than 164 million shares. Hardly any Indian startup has inspired such confidence in retail investors.

We’ll leave it to the analysts to dissect the numbers but what I want to focus on in this edition of Hello World is the entrepreneur behind the company.  He’s taken companies from zero to IPO twice and zero to $100 million thrice. There’s a thing or two for today’s startups to learn from him.

Ashok Soota was 68 when he started Happiest Minds. He’d quit as the Chief Executive Officer of Mindtree — a company he co-founded and took public — in a huff.

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At the time, I wrote an article titled ‘Will Ashok Soota's track-record rub off on Happiest Minds?’ for a financial daily. Mr. Soota’s track record was legendary. In the sixties, he became the chief executive of Shriram Refrigeration and turned it around. Between 1984 to 1999, he was the president of Wipro Infotech which became the second-largest IT services company in India by the time he left. He then started Mindtree with nine co-founders. The company was clocking $275 million in revenues the year before he left and was growing.

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But many were still skeptical when he started Happiest Minds with 12 founders.

Given his age and the fact that the heydays of outsourcing were long gone, several analysts and reporters wondered if this was going to work at all. But Mr. Soota was aiming higher. He was clear from the beginning that he’ll take the company public. And he wanted Happiest Minds to become the fastest company to reach $100 million in revenue.

At his home in Koramangala, where conducted most of his meetings then, he’d dribble out bits of information about the new company that he was building. Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to meet him several times. And a few things stood out for me. First, he was always judicious with time. This meant that he not only said no to meetings sometimes but when he did meet, he made sure everyone was prepared. He’d almost always be on time.

One day, I was rather unprepared for an interview and started with a bit of a vague and open-ended question. He handed me a sheet of paper and encouraged me to jot down a few questions while he finished up something he was doing.

Also Read: Happiest Minds shares surge 138% on debut to hit a high of Rs 395; what should investors do?

Second, he practised kindness. One instance underscores this. After he’d left Mindtree, a lot of writing in the press was about how the relationship between him and the rest of the founders at the company had soured. As reporters, we’d never miss a chance to ask him about that.

In an interview, Albert Hieronimus, then chairman at MindTree, was quoted as being critical of Mr Soota’s resignation. When I asked Mr. Soota about that, he responded, "Albert often used to say that I hope my 'German English' is not being misunderstood. I feel this is what must have happened. I somehow cannot visualize him making the statements attributed to him.” I didn’t know and perhaps never will if there is any bad blood between them. But one thing was certain, Mr. Soota chose to answer tough questions with kindness.

“This is my fourth innings, and it should be the final legacy I hope to create,” he told me one day about in 2011. Clearly, with the public listing of Happiest Minds, he has cemented his legacy as one of the finest founders India has ever had; defied the ageist notion that entrepreneurship is a pursuit for young risk-takers and that nice guys finish last.
Jayadevan PK is a former technology journalist and recovering startup founder. He now works with Freshworks Inc as an evangelist, focusing on efforts around brand building. He’s also a commissioned author at HarperCollins.
first published: Sep 9, 2020 10:53 am
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