Youth and inexperience might actually be tools in an entrepreneur’s arsenal. In his book, Dream With Your Eyes Open: An Entrepreneurial Journey, Ronnie Screwvala, founder of media company UTV, recounts how he set up his businesses, the things he learnt along the way, and the hits and misses in the last 25 years.
In the chapter “Opportunity Knocks, Open The Door," he talks about how being young can be your licence to ask many questions that older, more experienced entrepreneurs would shy away from asking. Edited excerpts:
One of my first forays into business was hardly a romantic fairy tale. Nor did it come with the high-adrenaline rush of my later entry into the media. Rather, my creation of Lazer Brushes in the 1980s was more about balls than brains. Lazer Brushes didn’t come about because I had a brilliant insight or had hit upon an idea whose time had come. It was born and succeeded because I recognized the growth potential for a simple product that offered to fill a vacuum in India’s growing market. That, and the fact that I was young, hungry and naïve—so much so that I did not let my inexperience get in the way.
In my early 20s, I did some front-of-television anchoring and had flown to the UK to learn more. Back then, my dad was the managing director of a company called J.L. Morrison, the makers of Nivea cream. As fate would have it, my dad was in London the same time I was. He invited me to tag along for the Addis hair and toothbrush factory tour.
As we stood in the corridor waiting for our guide, I spied what appeared to be two brand-new machines waiting to be installed in the factory’s toothbrush line. The units were of drab grey metal, two metres high and a metre wide. Not imposing, but solid and built to last. They were like nothing I’d ever seen in India. I asked our host, who had just arrived, when the machines would be installed. He looked at me as though I had gone mad. ‘Those are headed to the scrap heap,’ he said.
What looked like new machines to me had actually been cranking out millions of toothbrushes for two or three years... In the UK, machines were considered old before they had even been broken in; back home, they would be cutting-edge technology.
Right then, I knew I had to make him an offer. ‘How long can a machine like this last?’
He thought for a moment. ‘Ten or twenty years, I suppose.’
My eyes widened. ‘Could you hold these for me for sixty days?’ I asked with a smile. Everyone in the room looked at me sceptically. In their eyes I was a 20-something kid. Still, they politely agreed to let me inspect the machines. At the very least, they must have thought, this would shut me up.
At that time, India still had a serious foreign exchange balance of payments issue, so second-hand machines could be imported. We made the numbers work and the deal was accepted, but only after a bit of frustration on the seller’s part when I asked him to hold the machines for me for a month or two. He tilted his head and looked at me as if to say, Who is this guy? And why is he giving me this huge headache? I guess, out of kindness to my dad, he decided to be supportive.
Importing the machines and getting another decade or more of production out of them in India made perfect economic sense to me. At that time in India, in certain sectors, multinationals outsourced production to local entrepreneurs and small-scale industries as they couldn’t themselves set up manufacturing. Wait a minute, I thought, the companies making toothbrushes are Procter & Gamble, Colgate and others. They can’t make these on their own, so they must be outsourcing their orders. That means there’s a market for our product!
As soon as I hit the ground in Bombay, I went straight to them...to convince them to contract us to make toothbrushes.
Simple as that, right? Wrong.
I was diving headlong into business sectors that I knew nothing about.... But half of everything is logic and intuition; the rest is deep knowledge, research, expert opinion and data-crunching. I knew where to find the information. For the first time, I trusted my intuition—the single trait every entrepreneur possesses—to seize the opportunity.
Without resources, funding was my next hurdle... So back then I did what I recommend to all would-be entrepreneurs: I found a way or made one.
I fought like hell to get appointments with companies, leveraging every ounce of influence I had in Bombay. To my delight, they were immediately interested in the machines’ advanced technology, a first for India. ‘Get the machines so you can begin production. What else do you need?’ one executive prodded.
At the time, the machines were still sitting in a London brush factory. That’s when I mustered the courage (or insanity) to ask for a purchase order. ‘A purchase order?’ one of the business suits barked. ‘You’re not even in business! You need to exist first and be listed on our register before we can make a move.’
‘What will that take?’ I asked.
‘Get yourself registered as a company, and give us your whole plan.’
I was learning as I went, using my youthful exuberance as a cover, to ask for things no seasoned pro would have asked for. When you’re new in business, you can get away with such things.