When Sreerekha told me that she’s going to introduce me to Birla for an interview, I almost fell off my chair. Up until then, I had heard of only one Birla; Kumar Mangalam Birla, one of the most successful businesspersons in India. I assumed she must be pulling my leg and kept mum.
Sensing my confusion, she immediately clarified: “no yaaa, I am not talking about ‘the’ Birla…this is a very popular Infypreneur in Bangalore”.
Bal Krishna Birla is an ex-Infoscion (from the 90’s) and has been an entrepreneur since 2006. From restaurants to music to technology, he seems to be passionate about everything under the Sun. He has started up quite a few companies—AskLaila and ZopNow being the most famous—and shut down a few too. He is also the Producer of a web series titled ‘WhatTheGoat’. He has faced some serious setbacks too and seems to have come out of those stronger.
We posed a few questions to highlight his strong positives (his ability to run several startups at the same time being the top one), a few to understand how he handles failures, and a few to get insights into his personal side. And B.K Birla (BKB) bared all in this very candid interview. We hope you will enjoy reading this interview. Here goes:
<– Begin interview with B.K Birla, the ‘Parallel Entrepreneur’ –>
Q: Ex-Infosys Project Manager, RJ, Movie maker, Musician, Chef, Restaurateur, Author, Serial (err…Parallel) Entrepreneur, eCom guy… I mean, what the goat man–what’s going on in your brain? Is there a method to this madness?
BKB: Actually it is maddening for me also. Too many threads keep hanging around. I wake up on most days thinking about some issue related to some venture. Too many context switches have to be done every day. I am not very analytical and hence end up doing a lot of things impulsively. Sometimes it is tough to control myself and my friends keep cautioning me about being into too many things. I know focusing on one thing is a good idea, but I have finally accepted that I personally won’t be able to do it.
Q: How has your choice of being an entrepreneur affected your family?
BKB: Actually there two sides to this. On one side, being a parallel entrepreneur keeps me busy all the time, but on the other side, it also gives me flexibility in my schedule to spend quality time with my family. As I tell my friends, I am always busy and always free.
Q: We were looking through your LinkedIn profile, and waddling through all the professional positions listed there; we noticed (at the very bottom) that you were an Infoscion from 1995 to 2004. Post that, up until 2006, you held a few more corporate positions. What happened in 2006 that made you take the plunge–to be an entrepreneur?
BKB: Till 2006 I was mostly working on problems that were not relevant for India. The biggest reason to switch was my urge to work on something that positively impacts the society I live in. In those days, most of the Indian services companies were focused on Western markets and Amazon (the company he used to work for) too did not have an Indian presence. I started up two ventures—AskLaila and Potluck restaurant.
Q: You seem to have started up a lot of parallel businesses, and some of them seem to have closed down. Would you call them failures? How do you deal with failures and setbacks in life?
BKB: Failures are part of life and accepting that fact is the most important part of starting something. I could say the cliché that they have been learning experiences, but yes, they are failures. Dealing with them has been tough. There are days when you regret your decisions, and days when you are afraid. But as long as the days when you feel positive outnumber them, I am fine. I am like a movie maker who feels that I will make a hit for sure despite many failures.
Q: You have fallen out with your partners on some occasions (like ZopNow) and must’ve learned from those instances. What advice would you give young co-founders to avoid nasty conflicts down the line?
BKB: Trust in people is a fundamental requirement for human life to sustain, but there is no fixed formula to ensure that human relationships will work out. I would not like anyone to draw any conclusions or lessons from my life in this context. It was certainly one of the saddest chapters in my life, more from a friendship perspective than business. But I will still prefer to be vulnerable instead of being cautious and that is the advice I would like to give to everyone.
Quoting Khalil Zibran:
But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.
Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
For improving chances of success, complimentary skills, mutual respect and a clear demarcation of responsibilities is a must between the co-founders. (PS: I did have all of them in ZopNow case :))
Q: Have you ever been depressed? If so, how did you get out of it?
BKB: I have gone through very bad patches but realized that if in those patches you can figure out a way to contribute to other’s life, it gives you a sense of belongingness as well as removes the feeling of being worthless. Spreading happiness via my music group BBG and mentoring lot of startups without any money or equity have been absolute lifesavers for me.
Q: On the one hand they say: ‘Fail fast’, and on the other: ‘Persistence pays’—Is there a way to know when it is time to exit or shut down a startup, or keep trying for some more time?
BKB: I have never understood ‘Fail Fast’ unless you are facing a situation that has changed the market scenario completely. I don’t know if it is right or wrong; but as per me, persistence is the key. As long as you can think up a few more ideas to make things work, persist. And the days you don’t have those ideas, keep trying to find them.
Q: Many a time, founders work on an idea only to realize a few years later that there is no product-market fit, or the idea isn’t viable. What’s the best/fastest way to validate a business idea?
BKB: There are only 3 ways to do it: Talk to your customers, talk to your customers and talk to your customers. [OK, so he has definitely watched ‘The Dirty picture’]
There is no substitute for this. You can sit in a conference room with an Excel sheet for years and dream about what will happen or you can walk down the street and try to understand your customers. If there is a similar business, try to get an internship there. Talk to potential customers and let them experience your product. Observe your customers and that will give you key insights.
Q: If a young entrepreneur wants you as his/her mentor, what will he/she have to do?
BKB: Pretty much nothing. Just fix an appointment over any social media channels and come over.
Q: Can you tell us about how you spend your time nowadays (which companies do you focus more on), and a bit about the businesses?
BKB: During weekdays, daytime is mostly spent on AskLaila and Zimplify; nights and weekends are for the other ventures and family.
AskLaila has gone through a lot of ups and downs, but now we are able to run it as a profitable company. We have expanded AskLaila to few more countries and we have also launched in almost all major Indian languages. Besides providing marketing solutions to small business we are also trying to become an ‘Infosys for small business’ where we tech-enable their operations and marketing.
We started Zimplify in partnership with Superseva last year and we help people with government related services-like Passport, Driving license etc. We are expanding our business and operations there.
I have struggled to build traction for Guesstaurant and AdalBdal. They are operational right now but I am not spending a lot of time on them as of now. Another venture I started, TheSongPedia, is gaining traction and we are now establishing content partnerships with media houses.
Movie making is a recent passion and I produced a web series called WhatTheGoat which is a satire/comedy on Indian startup eco-system. I am working on another movie right now which is more around emotions.
BBG and Check4Spam are two ventures that are non-commercial in nature but have the maximum revenue in terms of happiness. BBG spreads happiness via music across the country and Check4Spam is fighting fake news (which has become such a big menace to our society).
Q: According to you, are you a successful entrepreneur?
BKB: Certainly not. In fact, I am very far away from success. I have just tried my hands at many things, and not really succeeded in them. I am still an Infoscion at heart and my definition of success for my commercial ventures will include doing an IPO and making money for myself and my team members. For non-commercial ventures, it is all about the impact and the happiness you spread.
Q: A phrase that motivates you?
BKB: My favourite is a phrase (in Hindi) that I made up: Life mein purpose hona chahiye, happy to birthday bhi hota hai.
Q: What’s your biggest fear?
BKB: Not having enough money to pay salaries to people who work with me is a constant fear in business. In personal life, losing dear ones is a constant fear. I still miss my grandmother (who I lost almost 40 years ago) every day.
Q: What according to you are some of your habits/traits that have held you in good stead during the tough times you have gone through?
BKB: One of them is ignoring the irrelevant. Sometimes very irrelevant things occupy your mind space and they take away lots of energy away from you. Another important habit I have learnt over the years is that we should be able to divert our mind from negative things. If you are not scoring in few subjects of your life, then you should focus on few other subjects and do them really well. Nobody has a perfect life.
Q: What is your secret to maintaining a positive attitude?
BKB: I did think about a mission statement for my life a few years ago and it boiled down to this: I should have a big crowd at my funeral. I am no politician, and so nobody is going to pay money and get those people. I have to do that myself by impacting people’s life positively and that feeling helps me maintain my positive attitude.
Q: How can you help the ex-Infosys entrepreneur community?
BKB: I am already connected to lot of ex-Infy entrepreneurs and am happy to help anyone. Please drop in to my office with samosa and dhokla any time.
<– End interview with B.K Birla, the ‘Parallel Entrepreneur’ –>
To know more about B.K Birla, please visit his website: http://bkbirla.in/about/.
We hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you have any specific questions for him, please list them in the comments section. If we get ten or more follow up questions or suggestions, we will plan to do a short video interaction with him.
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