Harish Bahl | Forging digital success

The biggest misconception is that entrepreneurship is about loving money, says Bahl


Smile Group’s founder Harish Bahl grew up in an era when parents wanted their children to either become a doctor or an engineer. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Smile Group’s founder Harish Bahl grew up in an era when parents wanted their children to either become a doctor or an engineer. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Smile Group’s founder Harish Bahl grew up in an era when parents wanted their children to either become a doctor or an engineer. A computer engineer by training, Bahl has never held a job and was clear from the start that he wanted to be a businessman.

After being in the business of making bulletproof cars for about three years, he got bored. In the late 1990s, the cool place to be in was the digital business. Bahl thought that it didn’t need too much capital and although it was not well understood by most people, the long-term prospects were good.

Bahl says he didn’t start out with a sharp idea; it was more of a theme of promoting entrepreneurship through the digital medium. This was the start of an Internet-based company with a revenue of more than Rs.600 crore. The company has operations across continents in sectors such as marketing in media, apparel brands, and e-commerce, among other things. And a minority shareholding in Silicon Valley’s AirBnb.com.

“In the traditional world, human capital is not valued enough. In the digital space, key to success is partnering with the right person and the way things work, it can be very rewarding for those involved. In most of our businesses, ownership is shared with the team,” said Bahl.

Other than perseverance, which he says is the most important lesson of running a business, the right people are what makes a business thrive. “What I have learnt over the years is that even if an idea is not that great, it can become successful with the right people and the coolest ideas can fail if the team is not right.” By right, he means passionate.

Ask him about the challenges and the discipline required to run a business and Bahl is quick to admit his mistakes. An acquisition turned sour to ideas that don’t see fruition, it’s all a part of the game, he says. But if you hold on and put your mind to it, tough times can be tided over.

He points out that the biggest misconception is that entrepreneurship is about loving money. “I would say it’s more about loving the concept of creating wealth—for you or for other stakeholders,” he added.

Besides work, Bahl loves to travel and you can sense his excitement when he says he is lucky to have that built into his work. Ask him about how he adjusts to different kinds of cuisine he has to have on his travels, he laughs and says he is yet to discover a cuisine he doesn’t like.

“In office everybody knows that a meeting can wait if a colleague is offering me some good food. In fact, at home I have told my wife that come what may, our chef can’t be changed and every now and then I slip him something extra so he feels much appreciated,” he says.

De-stressing from the work routine for Bahl means spending time with family. He lives with his wife and two daughters, his parents and his brother’s family. “Children are a big source of peace and comfort, although mothers may not always agree with me,” he chuckles.

Along with the support of his family and friends, Bahl also leans on spirituality. He says that donating time and money for a good cause, meditating, attending discourses and engaging in spiritual discussions with his friends is what gives him inner peace and strength.

Deepa, his wife, is the backbone of everything that he is able to do. Introspecting on life, he adds, “Deepa and my parents are the ones who provide me continuous guidance to remain spiritually connected, which has helped me to remain humble and motivated at all times.” He is the kind of person who will pick up a book but won’t finish it as he figures out how it will end and partly since he doesn’t have the patience to go through it. Ironically, in his professional life, it’s perseverance and good partnerships that have got him through thick and thin.

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