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An interview with IIT and IIM alum, Cyrus Driver - a new age entrepreneur and founder of Calorie Care, a wellness venture.
| Excerpt: The atmosphere is also much more conducive for starting up as an entrepreneur today. A gap in a CV due to entrepreneurship is not looked at negatively anymore, in fact in some cases it is also viewed positively. There is a greater availability of capital, though not for the initial stages but for expansion.
- Cyrus Driver
Cyrus Driver is a budding entrepreneur who founded Calorie Care, a wellness venture based out of Mumbai city in 2004. An IIT-IIM alumnus, Cyrus always wanted to start his own venture. After a few years in private equity investing with J.P. Morgan Partners in Singapore and Mumbai, he decided to take up the challenge. He also joined Helix Investments Advisors Pvt Ltd as a Director in early 2007.
He spoke to 6bridges.com about his personal experiences and challenges faced while making the transition from a professional employee to an entrepreneur, his path up the start-up, and his views and tips on professionals making the changeover into being entrepreneurs.
Interview with Cyrus Driver
6bridges: Tell us something about your journey with Calorie Care? Tell us how and when did you come up with the concept? What was the inspiration to start this wellness venture?
I had always wanted to start my own venture. At the time of placements too, when passing out from IIM (A), I decided to take up a job that would help me start a venture sometime in the future. I joined JP Morgan Partners, a Private Equity firm of JP Morgan. I spend 4-5 years there studying young companies, using the time to also think up ideas and building up a modest amount of capital. I realized that I wanted to start a business, which is not extremely price sensitive, preferably a business where creativity and processes would be the differentiating factor. I zeroed in on the Health & Fitness Industry, which is a sunrise industry. I figured out that even a small firm with a small amount of capital could make a mark in this industry.
From a personal standpoint, I have always wanted to lose weight. My experience led me to believe that just exercise was never enough to do so. It had to be combined with the right type of diet. I found that there was a gap wherein no one provided a calorie counted meal delivered regularly at either your place of work or home. I did a lot of research and also found that there was a gap because no one provided meals specifically for people suffering from ailments like diabetes, blood pressure etc.
6bridges: Was it an easy decision to start your own venture? What were the obstacles you faced when starting up, especially switching tracks from investment banking to an independent wellness venture? What were the reactions of your close ones? What kind of encouragement did you bank on?
I knew that if I didnít try I would regret it. I also knew that even if I failed, I would get a job. I come from a middle class family, which was not very wealthy. I thought I would give 2-3 years for the venture and if it didnít work out Iíd get back into the rat race.
At the time I finally decided to take the plunge, I was working in Singapore. I went up to my boss and told him about my decision. As luck would have it, he offered me the option of working on my venture as well as working for the firm from India on a part-time basis. That additional income from the job turned out to be really useful as the venture took a lot more time and cash than I had anticipated. Every new venture has surprises and challenges. If savings are running low then making ends meet is a challenge and if in that scenario one is focusing on getting the venture going, then there is just too much pressure. One needs a lot of emotional stamina to start out.
When I started, my family was quite concerned. I did not come from a family that had a business background. My father was an Air-Force pilot. They were all worried. I think what helped me was that I had good experience on my CV as well as a sound educational background. Therefore I could always go back to a job.
I think for professionals with a good educational background and good experience, the downside is really the opportunity cost of 2-3 years. Of course you should be able to allow your lifestyle to take a hit. You should also be ok with seeing your peers go far ahead for the initial few years.
6bridges: Do you think work experience, prior to starting a venture, is critical?
I think getting experience is essential. We hear of campus dropouts in the US starting out, but most of them have had some form of experience earlier. I think the most important thing that work experience teaches you is how to deal with people, and it canít be replaced by theory. On campus, one fools oneself into believing that only analysis is enough. How to deal with people is much more important, which one learns on the job.
6bridges: The Calorie Care website mentions it as the first ever calorie-counted meal delivery service? Tell us how was the initial response to the idea when you started - in a country where people are cautious about accepting new business ideas? How did you manage to sell the concept to corporate firms and professionals? Do you think Sales & Marketing was one of the biggest challenges in the initial stages?
We started the service in Mumbai, which is a very cosmopolitan place. I donít think there are any cultural specific issues in terms of people in India being more cautious in accepting a new idea.
It was indeed difficult in getting awareness going initially. There had never been a calorie-counted meal service earlier. Nor were customers used to paying a premium for it. We had to focus on the benefits that the service provided.
Yes, sales & marketing was a big challenge. We did not have too much funds, therefore we couldnít afford to advertise. We had to bootstrap and use innovative, low cost means to reach out.
6bridges: Most ventures undergo the need to change/ adjust between what they originally planned and what they eventually did. Did you too have to do that and if yes, can you give some examples.
Yes. You have to be flexible in many ways. When we started, we had planned a very rigid form of the service - that all the customerís meals during the day had to be Calorie Care meals, which were calorie counted and catered to their needs. But we realized that customers just wanted a healthy lunch meal, therefore we changed our service package quickly.
Another example is that we planned that every customer would visit our dietician in person. We realized that most customers just talked to the dietician over the phone.
Initially, we were not sure about taking on corporate customers. We had thought most of our clients would be individual customers, where we would study their body type, their specific requirements and then customize a meal for them. In the case of servicing corporate clients, such an exercise is futile. We now realize that the corporate side of the business has grown much faster and it is also stickier.
Every now and then we need to keep changing/ adjusting our service/ price/ features, because the customer may want some thing different.
6bridges: An increasing number of people are making decisive choices about giving up the safety net of regular corporate careers to start independent ventures. Professionals are branching out - that too at an early stage. Do you feel itís a pointer to an increase in the risk taking appetite of entrepreneurs aided by an increasingly favorable atmosphere for new entrants?
Yes and this is a very welcome thing. Without a doubt, there is an increasing trend of people taking greater risks to start their own ventures. I also think most ventures will fail, but then societies grow through failures.
The atmosphere is also much more conducive for starting up as an entrepreneur today. A gap in a CV due to entrepreneurship is not looked at negatively anymore, in fact in some cases it is also viewed positively. There is a greater availability of capital, though not for the initial stages, but for expansion. Salaries have also risen, so people can get a few years of experience, build up some capital and start out.
I think there has never been a better time to become an entrepreneur. I think in 5-6 years it will be an even better time, as by then government intervention is likely to reduce even further.
I see an increasing number of my classmates starting or thinking of starting their own ventures. There was a very interesting meet at IIM (A) recently focused on entrepreneurship and there were so many guys trying different stuff in various sectors like manufacturing, pharma, other opportunities. I think this change is already happening.
6bridges: You are an inspiration to professionals in the 6bridges community. There are those ones who want to do their own thing but are undecided about making a start. What is your suggestion to young professionals who go through tough professional dilemmas? How should they look at assessing career-choice decisions?
My advice would be:
- Just make sure you are comfortable with the worst case scenario.
- Set a cut-off date when you will call off the venture in case things donít turn out positively. Also, estimate the funds you would need for that time period and set aside a comfortable amount of funds.
- Be willing to accept whatever comes. Shed your preconceived notions and rigidity, if any.
- Remember, you canít prepare too much.
- Be willing to give your all, and
- Just do it.
6bridges: Has entrepreneurship been worth it? The effort, the time, investment, risks, etc. vs. the security, comfort of a high-paying corporate job.
Thatís actually a hard question to answer. I used to be in the financial services industry earlier, which pays well, and the last few years have been really good for people in the sector, money-wise.
I would say if one compares a job in a high-paying industry vs. entrepreneurship - entrepreneurship is more financially rewarding than a job if you are an outlier on the positive side, otherwise a job is more financially rewarding.
Entrepreneurship has a higher risk-reward curve.
6bridges: What are your views on funding of the venture? Would you suggest taking VC/ PE funding, and if yes at what stage?
From my experience, it is very difficult to get funding at the absolute initial stages. No one is interested and the process can be very demoralizing. Therefore start a business, which you can afford to fund for 1-2 years. Once you have proved something, it is much easier to raise funds.
In case of a service business, donít raise funds till you make a profit. The tone of potential funders changes with profit and so does your bargaining power.
6bridges: Tell us something about your academic & professional background? What do you cherish most from your IIT and IIM days? Any particular anecdote from those days that you wish to share with us?
I thoroughly enjoyed the cultural scene at IIT, the dramatics, the cultural activities etc. I think the times spent at IIT and IIM were the best years of my life.
6bridges: This is a question that everyone seems to wonder? Does an entrepreneur get time and space to address issues of work-life balance? In your case, being a wellness entrepreneur, how have you managed this facet of life?
I was a fat kid. I have always had to put in more-than-normal efforts to maintain my weight, which I try and do.
I think work-life balance was bad in the first couple of years till operations got stabilized. As a founder, the baby falls in your lap, therefore itís hard to maintain a work-life balance. You might end the day and yet have a few things on your mind. Thereafter, as time wears on, a foundersí day-to-day role gets diminished, and work-life get more balanced.
6bridges: Calorie Care began in 2004. Are you happy with what youíve done so far? Where does Calorie Care go from here? What is your vision for Calorie Care?
My vision for Calorie Care is to become the No 1 brand in healthy food in the country. This encompasses better quality food, different formats for improved food delivery, opening up delis, distributing our food through supermarket shelves, retail outlets, corporate tie-ups, etc. I still donít know how it will all pan out.
6bridges: 6bridges is a community designed to help professionals find a platform to voice their professional aspirations and interests? How much do you think professionals will benefit from such communities?
It always helps to have the right contacts and resources and in this aspect, 6bridges can be a really useful platform. It helps professionals to work together and share strengths and resources.
It is useful for exchanging information as it creates possibility for different kinds of collaboration/ geographical expansion/ franchising/ joint ventures etc. ,
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