Photo: Bhaskar Varma/Mint
Photo: Bhaskar Varma/Mint

How a sabbatical led to a business idea

Chetan Maini talks about his two-year sabbatical, which helped him explore and experience, connect the dots, and form a new company

When Chetan Maini took a break from electric car company Reva in April 2015, he knew he wanted to do something different, but he didn’t know what. He felt that some time reflecting on his goals might help, and this would not have been possible as the CEO of the company.

Two years later, he co-founded Sun Mobility, a company involved in making smarter, replaceable batteries for electric vehicles and creating convenient refuelling infrastructure.

“This wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t stepped out," says Maini, now vice-chairman of Sun Mobility, over the phone from Bengaluru. For, he says, when you have a lot of responsibility as a CEO and are involved in one area, when you give 100% to something, you can’t think of anything else.

“I didn’t have an idea at that point that I wanted to create Sun Mobility. There is an intersection of what your interest is, what you are good at, and what society needs. If you create businesses or work in the intersection of this, it’s something, but how do you find it?

“I looked over my experiences in life and connected the dots to them," Maini adds. “A break allows you to be more reflective. I had many conversations that were reflective. To come out, be in a calm environment, and not be pushed from morning to evening.... It was a break but I was busy on my own terms in areas creative and strategic, and not operational."

He also travelled a bit during the break, working as a consultant with motorsport team Mahindra Racing. He went to Leh and explored parts of the country he hadn’t seen before, enjoying motorcycling over the weekends. He also got to spend more quality time with family, reflective time spent over dinner-table conversations with his brothers—and all this contributed to the idea of Sun Mobility.

“There was no one ‘aha’ moment though. It took some time. It’s not that you stop overnight and reflect on what that is. Sometimes, you are so busy, and if it’s not your core business, you try and avoid those areas. But when you have extra time, you start to explore and your mind is more open," he says.

Maini’s interest in solar power and renewable energy had been triggered in the early 1990s by solar racing cars in the US and Australia. But if electric could be more efficient, he wondered, why wasn’t it happening here? For companies, he recognized, timing is important.

When Maini launched Reva in 2001, it was perhaps ahead of its time, one reason why the electric car didn’t conquer the market. Mahindra & Mahindra bought it in 2010, with Maini staying on as chief technology officer, and later taking on the additional role of CEO.

But he soon began to feel that the company had integrated well, and that the new leadership team could take over. “I was thinking, what next? I had things brewing in the back of my mind," he says.

“It wasn’t that I stepped out completely from Reva. I was a shareholder, and, for the year following that, I was an adviser to Anand (Mahindra); there was still involvement but not at an operational level. I could do something bigger. I wanted to explore that further."

During this two-year break, Maini mentored several start-ups, even investing in a few of them. He spent time with state and Central governments, working at the policy level to help them understand—from the technology and consumer perspective—what could be done to make electric mobility a reality.

“It was mentally stimulating, I enjoyed the learning. I started to put together my ideas. I had given myself time to figure things out. Each of those experiences—be in investing, or mentoring start-ups, or looking at other technology companies, or taking a break—added perspective," he says.

In April 2016, he met Uday Khemka, vice-chairman of the London-based Sun Group, whose interests were in the same area.

“Since then, I started to spend a lot of time on the idea behind Sun Mobility and looked at why things worked and not, challenges, spent time with technology players globally and with consumers. I saw the gaps. I spent time working on core technology and filed my first patent that December," says Maini.

In April 2017, they launched Sun Mobility, a joint venture between Virya Mobility 5.0—a company belonging to Maini and his brothers—and Sun Group.

“The timing (with Reva) was probably a little early for India. I felt the timing was getting right now, (seeing) where global oil prices are...governments and technology are turning around (the current government wants all car sales to go electric by 2030)," he says.

SABBATICAL

People take a sabbatical when they feel burnt out or fatigued with work, or need some time off for a short-term project. Teachers, for example, typically take a sabbatical to write a book, or for research.

662 million vacation days were left unused in the US in 2016, a figure that may help explain why employee burnout is so common.

Some of the best F1 drivers have taken sabbaticals, returning to the sport with varying degrees of success.

Kimi Raikkonen. 3 years. Photo: Reuters
Kimi Raikkonen. 3 years. Photo: Reuters
Michael Schumacher. 4 years. Photo: Getty Images
Michael Schumacher. 4 years. Photo: Getty Images
Nigel Mansell. 2 years. Photo: Getty Images
Nigel Mansell. 2 years. Photo: Getty Images
Alain Prost. 2 years. Photo: Reuters
Alain Prost. 2 years. Photo: Reuters
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