Chennai: Sanjay A.J.’s entrepreneurial venture, AJS Services, which offers landscaping, painting, electrical, interior decorating solutions, began as a means to make some money to repay his parents.
Sanjay had been feeling guilty that his parents had to shell out a hefty fee to get him admitted into an engineering college. The ensuing years in college were spent juggling classes and the demands of his fledgling business, even as his parents urged him to focus on getting good grades. Now, he is certain that his future lies with the business.
“Make no mistake, AJS (Services) will be big,” the lean 21-year-old says, offering a sudden glimpse of steely resolve in the middle of nuanced patter streaked with wry humour.
Breaking new ground: A.J.Sanjay (right) with his friends at Velammal College in Chennai. Photo by Sharp Image
He got a leg-up in his business through his father, who worked in housekeeping at the Taj group of hotels before becoming the manager of the Chennai facility of a large logistics company.
The idea came to him after he graduated from high school, when his father took him to meet a wealthy and influential workplace acquaintance, Sanjay says. It was in connection with getting admission to an engineering college, he recalls, adding with a grin, “I’m an average student.”
During the visit, he was curious about men working in the garden of a private residence, and was told that they were workers who had been contracted to landscape the corporate office and were working in the senior executive’s house for no extra pay.
Two thoughts passed through his mind: It wasn’t right that the contract workers were doing the work free; and that people would probably pay for well-managed services connected to their living and working environments.
His first job, in 2008, was to make a pair of cots for a newly married couple, whom he met through his father’s contacts. His first offering, made to the low-budget specifications of the husband, was trashed by the wife. He made a second pair of cots to her exacting standards and made a profit of Rs 35,000 on that transaction. Sanjay still retains her as a client. Since then, he has topped Rs 10 lakh in revenue every year, Sanjay says, adding that he recently bagged a Rs 2 crore contract to re-tile the floor of a heritage home owned by a prominent industrial family for whom he used to pitch tents for social gatherings.
Over the past few years, Sanjay has built up a roster of around 350 contract workers with diverse skills such as carpentry, painting, electrical wiring and gardening, he says. He also has site managers who are employed at other companies but moonlight for him.
While this model keeps costs low for him and offers a steady stream of jobs for a large group of contract workers, there are challenges such as workers not turning up. “Sometimes they complain about personal problems. It just has to be dealt with.”
Sanjay has built up a solid client base, including a few corporate houses. He has also done jobs in Mumbai and Surat. “It’s all through word of mouth,” he says. “But I’m looking to market myself better.”
He would be trying to tap his client base to get more referrals to new clients, he says.
For the 21-year-old Sanjay, the way forward is in a flux. He would like to leave the business to his brother—Rakesh, a second-year civil engineering student—for a couple of years, while he goes on to get a postgraduate degree in business administration, and some work experience at a multinational corporation.
On the other hand, at the back of his mind lurk the words of his mentor—R. Murali, vice-president of corporate finance at Unifi Capital Pvt. Ltd —at this year’s Tata First Dot student start-up awards, where AJS Services was one of the top five judges’ choices.
“He sees me as some sort of seasoned, veteran businessman, and says I should go ahead and expand,” Sanjay says. “The thing is, I’m scared. With another degree or work experience at a multinational, I would be more credible. Most successful start-ups I know of have people who have had experience at other companies.”
Along with his father, always ready with his Rolodex and his technical know-how, and the entrepreneurial development cell at his college, Velammal Engineering College in Chennai, he credits start-up meets such as the Tata First Dot with giving him the confidence to forge ahead. He remembers a time when he was ready to give up. “In my second year of college, I told myself it was not related to my field of study, and wanted to quit.”
Then, a college senior took him to a start-up mentoring session, where he met a lot of people of diverse backgrounds with entrepreneurial dreams—including engineers setting up lobster farms to serve hotel kitchens, and computer science graduates who wanted to set up a chain of supermarkets. “I thought, then, maybe I could have the best of both worlds.”
His parents want him to pursue his dreams, but also want him to get a good education and have a backup plan, he says. As for the original motivation that drew him into the business, he has since repaid the debt he felt he owed his parents for his engineering seat; further, Rs 10 lakh from his business earnings of Rs 26 lakh have gone to help his father build a house in the village of his birth, and Rs 4 lakh for his brother’s college fees.
“I really didn’t think it would end up this big,” he says. “I thought I’d stick with carpentry.” But now, Sanjay plans to expand his workforce and diversify into other areas. He has thought about construction. On the other hand, he has only recently became aware of a burgeoning organized facility maintenance industry. “I haven’t decided,” he says. “I’m taking it one step at a time.” Mint is a strategic partner of National Entrepreneurship Network, which hosts Tata First Dot.