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Conversations with IIM-A’82 alum Rahul Verghese - the passionate marathoner who left a corporate career to start a company on running.
| Rahul Verghese was forty years old when he first ran an unbroken stretch of 5 kilometres. This was no ordinary run, because ever since that moment, he has continued running and has never looked back. That fateful day, the tryst he made with distance running was to become his destiny. He began doing half marathons and marathons and soon, his hobby began to bloom before him as a possible career choice.
The running bug had bit him so hard that this IIM (A) alumnus, after 25 years of active corporate life with companies such as Unilever, Nestle and Motorola, decided to get people to run for a living! Rahul exchanged his corporate suit for sports gear, and took up running as a full time activity. He decided to promote it in India and started a company called Running and Living. (http://www.runningandliving.com).
Since then, Rahul has run several marathons himself - including Chicago, New York City and London marathons as well as the original distance from Marathon to Athens. He plans to run 50 marathons, one each in every continent - a remarkable accomplishment for someone who claims to overpronate and has one foot shorter than the other.
An exceptionally driven professional, Rahul has the quiet confidence and determination to pursue his passion for running after many years of corporate life where you may usually need large dollops of motivation to survive the threat of inertia. The corporate marathoner believes in bringing this remarkably simple yet overwhelmingly addictive sport to over 200 million Indians through runningandliving.com! Rahul believes that the concept of running is an inclusive and participative one, and can provide sponsors with an opportunity to engage with target audiences. Besides sponsorship, he looks to provide quality and affordable running gear and conducting running workshops with corporates for building high-performance teams. With rapid rise in levels of interest in India towards fitness and wellness, the inclination to be a part of Rahul’s journey can only increase amongst people in future.
Rahul spoke to 6bridges about his enthusiasm for running, about his unique enterprise that combines his passion with a sharp acumen for business and about the process of transition that saw him choose his passion over a regular career. He also exhibits an unflinching zeal and dedication that makes his business pursuit a true reflection of his commitment towards running. 'My mission is to help every man, woman and child, unleash their personal potential by rekindling their joy of running. It's amazing what such a simple thing can do for you. It's no wonder that running is the most participative and fastest growing 'sport' in the world. Our goal is to get 200 million people to take up running,' says Rahul.
His website carries a quote by Sir Thomas Foxwell Buxton which says that with ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable. It’s not hard to see why that also appears to be the philosophy of Rahul Verghese.
6bridges: You had said in one of your interviews - "I had no plans of leaving my corporate career until I got bitten by the running bug. My first achievement was when I ran 5km continuously.” This is someone who had worked for 25 years in a corporate career and then decided to switch to something that captured his imagination. Did you stumble into running and began to develop interest in it, or were you looking for an alternate hobby option when running happened and then took over your career plans?
Can you talk us through your experience on how you identified running as an activity you wanted to work on full time. How did the transition happen and what spurred you on?
Rahul: I got into running quite by accident, while posted in Chicago, during our first Winter there. Having not much to do in the evenings as socializing was sparse and it got dark by 4:30 pm. I bought a treadmill and over those 5 months from Nov to March I saw myself progress to finally be able to run 5km at a slow pace, without stopping. That gave me huge sense of achievement and 2 months later, I committed to colleagues and friends that I would run the Chicago marathon in October that year. Training for the full marathon was quite an experience and I started finding many parallels between long distance running and life. That got me liking running even more. In Oct 2001 I ran my first ever Marathon, in Chicago, and I went on a 2-3 day high like I had never experienced earlier. In 2002 I trained and ran the Chicago marathon again and improved my timing by 41 minutes. I was hooked to running.
I then started meeting various runners - amateurs, world champs, CEO’s and management trainees and started learning a lot more. I met many doctors - friends and others and started reading synthesized reports on the beneficial impact of running - on individual health, fitness, self confidence and optimism, as you go up the benefits hierarchy. So I was now getting significantly more aware of the powerful and multifaceted benefits of running at an individual and organizational and societal level.
When I was posted back to India I started realizing how unhealthy we were as Indians with v high risk in the areas of heart, sugar and stress related illnesses, combined with a total lack of exercise appropriate for today’s sedentary lifestyle.
3 years on, in India I started a website http://www.runningandliving.com which I wanted to develop into the most trusted source of information on running for amateurs, then started writing a column on running and the workplace, in The MINT, a financial daily which had recently started. Then I started getting mails from people - "You have changed my life" and that got me really interested in looking at this more seriously. Running is so simple and egalitarian that there are no entry barriers. I finally decided to take the plunge and fuse my passion for running, with 25 years in marketing, to make this a business.
6bridges: Usually the seed for a sport or a physical or intellectual or artistic activity is sown earlier. Has it been the case with you too? Were you into running or playing sports in some way, in your growing up years? Do you think that in your case, the roots for independent thinking required to pursue life’s passion were imbibed at an early stage of life or did it evolve from your personal and professional experiences in life?
(We asked you this question because there are many professionals who like to talk about their passions and interests in life because it makes them feel good, but unlike you, they are unable to actually muster the initiative and gather the courage required to take the path they would love to tread on.)
Rahul: While I was in school I was not into any regular sport BUT I got into trekking and mountaineering and rock climbing in class 7 and every Summer, Winter and Autumn break was spent in the mountains. So that’s where I got into nature, physical activity and risk taking and adventure- I guess the last is one of the main ingredients of doing something on your own - which in hindsight, I imbibed as a school kid and college student. The other factor which helped was a great sense of self confidence, which I think got further heightened with running. Both of these enabled me to finally take the plunge.
6bridges: You decided to pursue running as a business venture too. What were the kind of opinions and reactions you had to deal with - at social, family, peers levels? Did you find people to be supportive initially? How has that evolved?
Rahul: The thing with getting people to run is that everyone feels good about it - so people were very supportive of the end goal but had varied questions and still do, on how I would convert this to a business model which would help with mortgages, kids education and retirement!
As a family we chatted with our girls who were 12 and 14 when I decided to quit, we looked at our household expenses and decided to trim some of them down - not easy, but…I started some marketing consulting assignments to help get some earnings to pay some bills. My wife resumed working after a 12 year break, and that helped give me a bit more breathing space.
Peers were very supportive - with ideas, contacts, as sounding boards, as folks one could stay with when I traveled, etc etc
The tougher part was getting credibility with large brands, that we could be their marketing partner and deliver much greater value from their engagement with running, than they had ever thought of. Then we started runs in our test kitchen in Gurgaon and this week is our 1st Anniversary of those runs. Summer with the Delhi lifestyles and Running - make a potent combination for an airconditioned sleep till 10am on a Sunday morning but we have been getting thousands to come out at 6am and actually run 5km and 10km and sometimes more. That both built confidence and credibility as the media also picked up the ‘feel good’ aspects of running, from a societal perspective. Then I got a cover photograph in the WEEK magazine last month and that saw credibility go far higher than with anything I could have done. So it’s been quite an interesting journey.
6bridges: Entrepreneurs sometimes find it tough in India with new ideas. There has been a thinking that the market takes a longer time to open up to newer ideas. How do you respond to that? What has been your experience with a concept as unique as yours? Did you face any significant operational issues?
Rahul: A bit of this has been answered above but yes - New ideas require great communication and selling skills by the ideator and also a clear targeting of people who are much more open to brand marketing and have a wider view than that of marketing being a tool to helping sales in the next week.
The other thing is that decision making is so top down in India that that was the route I had to take, though I personally prefer a bottoms up approach, as that makes for greater and more rock solid associations and support. I am working hard on the latter now.
6bridges: Professionals often face a dilemma of taking up a passion full-time versus a part-time pursuit of one’s passion? What’s your take on the kind of decision variables that one should keep in mind when taking such a crucial career decision?
Rahul: I think you have to be clear about a few things :
• Is this passion something that is a passing fad or will it stand the test of time and keep me energized for the rest of my life
• Is this to be done for a living or is this focused on scaling up and wealth creation
• What’s in it that is so compelling for the consumer/customer
• How long will it take to provide sufficient income - whatever your estimate - double the time and make sure you have adequate resources/ savings
• Is there a significant financial upside vis a vis what you are earning now
• What about the longer term issues and building your own organisation, how will you attract talent to scale up
• Then don’t analyse it to death - else everything is too daunting - start part time and get your feet wet - test out some of the assumptions, re-guage your interest and commitment levels, and so on
6bridges: What has been the business model for the venture - ‘Running and Living’? You have mentioned earlier that you have given it a year to make it work. Do you think that is enough time to judge the viability of the idea? Has it met your expectations until now?
Rahul: This has been a moving target as some things have been modified and changed over time. I feel another year is when I should start earning reasonable money and then get into organizational building and rapid scaling. The financial downturn has been a blessing because marketing people with smaller budgets have their ears more open to something that can provide them more cut through and brand leverage. With every 50 doors I knock on, I expect only one to open and several others to stay dormant with about 10% rejections. The success rate now has started improving. I am delighted with the progress we have made but financially it is not close to what I thought off, when I quit my job 2 years ago. So a reality check was in order , I guess.
6bridges: Did you consider an alternative or a supplementary business/income generating option in case your main venture took longer than expected to stabilize?
Rahul: Marketing consulting - which is what I do for a few select clients.
6bridges: There are times when pessimism does rear its head when you pursue a path previously uncharted, with respect to the uncertainties of the future, the viability of the model, the idea, perceptions of people around you etc. Did such occasions ever bother you? How did you cope with the mental challenges?
Rahul: Many around me had other ideas and doubted my vision or conviction in this market. But that seems to be slowly changing. I did not give up a great career to be stuck with pessimism. I am very self charged and excited about my goal and the milestones we have achieved. I coped with the challenges with keeping a totally open mind while listening to dissenting views and processing them to see if there were some things I could work on, which I have done. ‘Not invented here syndrome’ is not for me, but neither is doing what the other guys are doing - I want to be innovative and different in every aspect of the way we approach this goal.
6bridges: You have said, “I have travelled all over India and to over 50 countries around the world, and have realised that all of us share much more than we think. I started running 7 years ago and have now run 25 marathons with a target of running 50, with one in each continent. I have now started a venture focused on working with brands to connect powerfully and meaningfully with their target - via running.” You have also set yourself a goal of making 200 million people run. Do you think you are on your way to doing that? Where do Rahul Verghese and Running and Living go from here?
Rahul: Rahul Verghese will continue to run and enjoy it - but will never set some records because he is no athlete and has no pretensions about that. He is like several other billion people on this planet and that’s what I find people can relate to. I say - “If I can run, having started at 40, being totally flat footed and over-pronating, and at 48 realizing that one leg is shorter than the other, I think anyone can run!” I will go on to run marathons in varied locations and conditions and enjoy myself.
We now reach 10 million households a month with our content on running and plan to work towards stepping that up, building a loose but a passionate organization, and then getting a few big brands passionate about linking in with running and measuring their benefits, so that we can grow together. In the process I hope we find that we have set a very low goal of getting 200 million running.
6bridges: In what way do you think pursuing your dream has helped you acquire a richer perspective of everyday professional life? Has your activity helped you internalize things better, in any way and evolve better? What has been your biggest learning from the efforts in pursuing your passion?
Rahul: I find benefits at two levels - philosophically finding a great parallel between long distance running and - careers/ business and life - so that has helped me manage varied situations better and stay more positive.
The other has been one of being much more optimistic and positive and realize that the buck now stops with me - always - so you get much more action oriented.
6bridges: What do you cherish most from your IIM days? Is there any particular anecdote from those days that you wish to share with us? How much do you credit the strong bonds, camaraderie and affiliations that the educational institutions build during one’s stay there?
Rahul: A lot of stuff actually –
Making loads of friends who are now all over the place
Learning a lot from batchmates in group work and assignments
A residential campus begets bonds significantly stronger than what you make in a day scholar environment - so that also definitely helped, while at IIMA.
Actually in the beginning of our PGP 2 the 12 of us batchmates in the dorm said we need to hook up with someone from D1 - and we used to have discussions at night on each of us being a product and looking at our dorm SWOT having the DJ room and the Dark room in the basement and so on- to start using all the sales, marketing and BP fundas in particular that we had been picking up. It was hilarious, and great fun too.
6bridges: Given the high stress levels, sedentary work requirements and irregular timings, it is indeed necessary for professionals to keep fit. Some people whine about lack of time, restricted lifestyle, excess travel, lack of space etc. In fact you have also mentioned that Indians are ‘well-known for their unhealthy lifestyles’. What are your tips for Indians then to run and stay fit in their daily lives? How can they integrate running and living?
Rahul: We are in the business of spreading the IDEA of running - the first is:
Providing Inspiration and getting over the basic blocks of WHY SHOULD I RUN, or HOW CAN I RUN, No one of us is busier than Bill Clinton or Anil Ambani - both of them run.
Providing Data on the how to’s - schedules, running and health, busting myths, shoes, running groups etc etc
Then a great running experience is important. It has to be fun.
Addiction - running cannot be a one off experience, it has to be done often and we want to provide multiple opportunities in a neighborhood for people to run.
Running can be your ‘alone’ time for planning your day, it can be a time to de-stress and prepare yourself for the work ahead, it could be the way to link up and meet friends without being worried about whiling away time. It could be the first thing you do after a flight through different time zones - it’s a great way to overcome jet lag.
Try a short run with your kids and your spouse - see how you begin to bond differently. Start a running group at work and build a stronger team
And so on…
6bridges: People look to balance their regular jobs with their hobbies or interests when they seek work-life balance. Now that running is work itself for you, do you feel the need to search for other interests to balance your work? Can this be a dilemma for people who plan to immerse themselves fulltime into their areas of interest?
Rahul: It could well be. I am also interested in skiing, photography, wild life, travel and meeting people - many of these other than skiing also get combined often, with my running- personally.
6bridges: More people are giving up the safety net of regular careers to start independent ventures or pursue what they have wanted to do. Do you think this is a result of a new, emerging India which has enabled professionals to express themselves boldly, unlike before? How do you see this trend of increased risk appetites evolve in the future?
Rahul: Definitely. I feel it’s a combination of what you’ve mentioned above, a greater level of self confidence, lower ‘fear’ or stigma of failing to take off, greater exposure to various opportunities in fields of dance, theatre, sports marketing and more.
I don’t know whether the risk appetite will increase going forward but people will look at several different options as ‘normal and regular’ going forward.
6bridges: Do you think that going to a premier institute/school gives a person a better leverage to pursue one's passion as a full-time career over someone who hasn't had the opportunity to go to a premier institute. Conversely, do you think there is also a dilemma of choosing one's passion over a traditional path, for a premier school alum because it means higher opportunity costs, and more pressure of expectations, vis a vis a regular graduate who has had lesser choices to fall back upon/lower opportunity costs. In short is it harder or easier for a premier institute alum to pursue one's passion as a full-time career option.
Rahul: Not sure whether it has to do with opportunity costs or the caliber of the institute because I feel the assumption many make is that your passion could not be as rewarding as your career. I have definitely taken the plunge feeling that the financial rewards will definitely be higher - the justification, and that the future would be much more satisfying - the rationale.
Also I think the confidence build up comes from the friends you have, your experiences and where you find or rediscover your passion. You could possibly find greater confidence - to that extent- being from a premier institute.
6bridges: What is your advice to professionals seeking to pursue their areas of passion but have been unable to take that crucial step towards it?
Rahul: Give it a serious thought. Write a business plan - it gets you thinking. The plan may morph 100 times but that is a good reality checker.
Things will NEVER be comfortable and the transition is NEVER going to be a piece of cake, so don’t wait for it to be so.
Do your homework and then - go for a long trek or start running long distance - spend some time with yourself, mulling over your plans, see that you have enough money to see you through double the duration of your perceived cash negative period.
Then tell all your friends what you are going to do, and go for it!
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