IIT Madras Research Park president Ashok Jhunjhunwala has seen it all. In a career spanning over four decades, he has seen first-hand the transition from India being massively import-reliant in the 1970s and 80s to a point now where the country has 108 start-up unicorns (more than 1 billion valuation).
Starting off as an academician at IIT Madras in 1981, he set up the IIT Madras Research Park (IITMRP) in Chennai, in 2008. It has been responsible for the incubation of over 200 deeptech companies, including unicorns such as Uniphore and Ather. The 70-year-old Jhunjhunwala’s experience and knowledge in the field of innovation and entrepreneurship are undeniable.
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In fact, when Moneycontrol visited IITMRP earlier this month, most start-ups incubated at the IIT Madras Incubation Cell (housed within IITMRP) credited Jhunjhunwala, who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2002, for shaping their start-ups’ journey. So, when Jhunjhunwala talks about entrepreneurship and innovation, people tend to listen.
In an interview with Moneycontrol, Jhunjhunwala held out some bitter truths for aspiring entrepreneurs. He advised them to be ready to fail multiple times, be realistic that they would not be able to draw any salaries in the beginning and have knowledge in multiple domains in order to make it big in the world of entrepreneurship.
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Look before you leap
“In terms of advice to budding entrepreneurs, I will ask them: ‘Are you ready?’ Is your family dependent on immediate income coming from you? Do you need money immediately? Or can your family somehow support you for the next two to three years? If you need money immediately, then do not get into entrepreneurship,” he told Moneycontrol. “If you don’t have any financial obligations, get into this area, fail, get up and start again,” he added.
Jhunjhunwala, who established IITMRP in 2008 as part of IIT Madras’ efforts to drive innovation, had many words of caution for budding entrepreneurs. “First of all, you have to work 14 hours, probably 16 hours a day… And in spite of that, you will fail. You will also practically get no income. Then you have to do all kinds of things: For example, do you understand what profit and loss is? Do you understand what cash flow is?"
"Will you have enough money at the end of the month to pay your employees? If you don't have enough money at the end of the month, and if you cannot pay them their salaries, will they walk away? How are you going to keep your team together in such a fragile situation?”
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Develop multiple skills
Jhunjhunwala also said that those aspiring to be entrepreneurs should have knowledge in sales and marketing, and urged them to develop a range of skills. “How do you ensure that the product that you have developed is really something that the user will like at a price point at which you want to sell,” he asked.
“I will ask if the price point that you have set up for your product meets all your costs. What is the margin? Do you understand the cost of product, cost of development, cost of infrastructure? Of course, you have to develop products, but you also have to understand what the consumer wants. So, it's a multi-skill task. And you need to acquire all of that to win,” he said.
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Earlier, Moneycontrol spoke with Arun Prakash and SP Balamurugan, co-founders of Guvi, an edtech start-up that was incubated in the IIT Madras Incubation Cell. Their recollections of the time spent incubating resonated with Jhunjhunwala’s advice for first-time entrepreneurs.
When the edtech platform was established in the early 2010s, the founders described themselves as being “more of tech people”. They did not have enough knowledge about the business side of entrepreneurship. So, when they joined the incubation cell in 2014, they were taught “monotonous things” such as accounting, filing and keeping books. “All those things are necessary for any entrepreneur because these are things that are essential for a company to grow,” said Prakash.
They were also, at times, pulled up by Jhunjhunwala, Balamurugan said in a lighter vein. “That is part of the journey as well,” he said, adding that for the first three years, the research park took care of their office space needs
Note to readers: Moneycontrol takes you to IIT Madras and the IIT Madras Research Park in Chennai, both of which have been responsible for the incubation and development of hundreds of deep tech start-ups, earning themselves the moniker of being India's deep tech haven. The 'Inside IIT Madras' series explores the kind of influence these two institutions have had on budding entrepreneurs and equally on those who have been in the ecosystem for years. A Moneycontrol special