Ronnie Screwvala: Looking back at the road less travelled

Ronnie ScrewvalaRonnie Screwvala, the founder of the UTV group, Unilazer ventures and Swades Foundation, founded  the media and entertainment conglomerate UTV,  spanning television, digital, mobile, broadcasting, games and motion pictures

He divested UTV to The Walt Disney Company in 2012 and in January 2014, Screwvala exited and in the process he also exited media and entertainment sector.

He then focused his energies on pioneering the upcoming entrepreneurship in India and building his next set of grounds-up businesses in high growth and impact sectors. His recent commitment to being a first mover in sports made him lend his support to sports like kabaddi and football. Passionate about social welfare, he along with his wife Zarina have managed to empower millions of lives through their Swades Foundation. 

For his innate ability to merge creativity with commerce, Newsweek termed him the Jack Warner of India, Esquire rated him as one of the 75 most influential people of the 21st century and Fortune as among Asia's 25 most powerful.

In this interview with Swetha Amit, he talks about his entrepreneurial journey, his ability to embrace failure and his second innings.

'Dream With Your Eyes Open' is an eye catching title. What was the inspiration behind  the book?
If someone had asked me if I ever wanted to write a book two years back, my answer would have been a flat no. Over the years I interacted with several entrepreneurs / professionals / leaders as well as young adults. I noticed that the levels of aspiration and ambition overall, had not gone up to the next level (barring some exceptions). 

Also the entrepreneurial eco system had not changed much since the time I had decided to take the plunge which was two decades ago. I therefore decided to pen down my entrepreneurial journey for those who share my passion for entrepreneurship, leadership, winning and dreaming of a better future.

For me this book is all about demystifying failure, inspiring success, raising ambitions and dreaming big! When I was sitting with a few colleagues and brainstorming on the concept of the book, someone asked me about the cliché "Dream it and you will achieve it ". My immediate response was that you need to have both your feet on the ground and your eyes open. With that, I knew that we had an apt title for the book and I personally think it communicates a strong message.

Publisher: Rupa publications
Genre: Business / Price: Rs. 350

You have mentioned that during your days, becoming an entrepreneur was an arduous task as the Indian economy did not favour such ventures. Do you think that it has become more feasible today for start-up ventures considering the emergence of external funding from private equities and venture capital firms?
Firstly, I would not say it was "arduous" in my time as it offered its own opportunities and challenges. Secondly, I think we all need to drop this popular perception that starting anything or being an entrepreneur is all about "raising funds'' as it's a lot more than that. Besides in many cases, I think the business goes sideways once you raise funds and when your vision is not in complete sync with the investors. 

But yes, overall the consumer base and awareness levels have grown along with the increase in spending power.  Rural India is also opening up new demands and sectors. The use of technology is changing habits and trends. The democratization of media through social media has given a new twist to how products and services will be marketed and how brands will be built.

It is one thing to take the initiative as an entrepreneur but a different thing to expand it to a rather large scale. Did you ever anticipate UTV Productions to grow to such a large scale as it is today?
For everyone, ambition as well as scale is a growing initiative. As soon as you reach new heights, you look upwards and set new benchmarks.  The sooner you reach each base camp, the higher you will set your goals. So, at the beginning, we were part of a select few, trying to build a sector and an industry that did not exist in any form or that which had a talent base.  So we were focussing on this aspect. But, yes, for me scale was an obsession from the early days and I always looked to push the envelope.

You have stated how UTV took many risks with regards to productions and yet managed to strike gold at the box office. What do you think led to this unexpected tryst with success? Was it intuition, conviction or just a gut feel?
Firstly I want to clarify that while we met with many setbacks and failures as we did, success was in all aspects related to media and entertainment and not just motion pictures. I think it was right from our pioneering work in Television in the initial days to our pioneering daily soap operas in India with Shanti.

I also want to clarify on the definition of "gut". Most perceive this as "waking up one morning, having a flash and then going for it".  Gut is a combination of some deep fact finding/research as well as asking all those questions that most do not ask. It is about having a lot of facts and trends in front of you and most importantly you need to be outward focused.  By that I mean, having a very strong pulse on the consumer and then fine tuning what you think will be future trends. Now with that definition of 'gut', conviction plays a very important part; without which every setback you face will make you want to quit.  I strongly feel quitting is just not an option.

In your book, you have emphasized several times about being an 'outsider'. How did this 'outsider' manage to embrace the success of an insider?
I would say that the raw material for any entrepreneur or leader to make an impact as an outsider comes from within. For me these two key aspects towards learning worked:-

  1. To stay curious at all times. Everything has to be a continuous learning exercise which in turn makes you a strong listener. I think following this rule made my acceptance as an outsider a lot easier.
  2. A collaborative approach. Here we had the choice to be totally opinionated when it came to creativity or being a creative catalyst. We chose the latter and that meant being very clear of the creative content we wanted to stand for. Here one needs to work with the best minds, ensure their vision was clear and in sync with the rest and then back that all the way. 

The element of risk is rather high especially in a volatile industry like entertainment. What does it take for ventures to thrive in that environment?
In the 21st century the element of risk and uncertainty is there everywhere. It's not a patent of the M+E sector. Technology is making large corporations obsolete.

Consumer behaviour is making most companies re-think strategy. So, for us, it was all about being very clear as to what we stood for and then staying steadfast on that vision and road.  Also in some ways, thinking at scale does average and slightly flatten your risk profile. But mostly our confidence came from the fact that we were very close to understanding the needs of consumers and viewers and also what we thought was the next big trend.  Six out of ten times, if you get that right, then you are ahead of the trend and the game.

You have stated as to how you faced a barrier while trying to set up Tele Shopping Network when Indian consumers were reluctant to buy products they couldn't touch or feel. Considering how the buying online concept is booming today, what do you think has brought about a drastic change in the mind-sets of the consumers?
For decades, we Indians grew up on what they called "sub-standard" quality of everything. What was worse was that we still learnt to accept it stoically.

However, the millennium generation consisting of the large youth population has pushed a lot of change and placed demands on quality and standard. At the same time the penetration of the internet coupled with all the comparative information you have at your disposal has given a major lift to this trend. 

I believe we have just seen the tip of the iceberg. Greater internet connectivity coupled with better delivery infrastructure, rapid credit card culture penetration along with the pressure of social media, can make it bigger than 'Breaking News' in minutes if only we allow this sector to swell.

In a chapter named Trucks and Trends, you have talked about the tendency to duck unpopular decisions due to the fear of becoming unpopular. So how does one gather courage to identify these trucks and move on in the business world?
Identifying trucks and trends is one of the most valuable skills any leader can possess. You have to take hard calls. Not the popular ones. There's no room for compromises. If you do that today, you'll find a reason to do it always. You need to have a sharp business acumen and commercial savviness. You need to know when to pivot or cut your losses and walk. That's the toughest part of building any enterprise.

It is a natural course for entrepreneurs to stumble upon failure during the journey. So how have you dealt with failure and what does failure exactly mean to you?
Failure fascinates and intrigues me. I have spoken openly and excessively about all my failures because I want people to believe that it's okay to fail. All of us are bound to fail, not once but many times in our lives! What we do after we face our setbacks is what actually counts. I believe that in business and in life, failure can be a bigger motivator than success.

Every failure of mine has taught me invaluable lessons, be it my failing in my first year of college, the disastrous box office results of our first film Dil Ke Jharoke Mein or our Home Shopping Network Channel not fairing as  well as we wanted it to. There have been several such instances. But what they have taught me is resilience, conviction to stay the course and above all the belief that tomorrow will be better than today. 

Success can either make or break a person. So how have you managed to handle success with a head on your shoulders?
I have a quiet moto of my own and that is All Glory is fleeting and I do strongly believe in it. For me success is a relative term, a "moment" in time to bask and maybe celebrate and then move on to the next challenge the next morning.

After the acquisition of UTV by Walt Disney, you have moved out of the media segment to your second innings. How has the transition from the reel to the real world been?
Though it may be hard to believe since this is my second innings, I am actually working harder than I did 20 years back. I have got more irons today than ever before, especially since I am working with smart and dynamic people who keep me fresh and engaged.

Our initiatives today span the social sector to being VC investors in some very savvy entrepreneurs to building our own ground businesses in sports in the digital media and in online education. And I never lived in the "reel" world ever. It was always the real world for me; back then, now and going forward.

Lastly what are your plans? Any more books?
No. As I have stated in the beginning, I wrote this one book on an impulse and for a reason. I am not an author.

Book Excerpt from Dream With Your Eyes Open

Then came the wake-up call.

The year was over-exams completed, vacation enjoyed. I sauntered back to Sydenham to look at the notice board for my results, certain I had secured nothing but the highest marks. Sheer arrogance compelled me to run only through the list of those in first class. When I didn't see my name there, I scanned the roll more carefully.


My heard pounded in my chest. Surely, there's been a mistake, I thought.

No mistake. An hour later, I realized I wasn't on any list. I had failed the year. Disbelief led to denial as each and every one of my friends and colleagues found their names on the first class list.

Then the reality sank in.

My first thought was: My parents have made sacrifices to put me through college, and I let them down. This is the end of the line and the end of the world for me. I had failed. All my friends would move on. A year wasted. Maybe I would be forced to drop out. This failure would be on my CV and haunt me for life.

A day later, my parents were shattered. Curiously enough, I was not.

Sure, my ego and self-confidence had taken a whacking, but I was determined to get past the failure and learn from it. Isolated from my friends, I put everything I had into taking the classes again, to prove a point to myself as well as to set the record straight. I passed all the subjects I needed to reappear for, and was all the more proud for having done so. And those six months gave me time to think about what path I really wanted to take.

One would think that after having suffered such a failure, my confidence and clarity would have ebbed. Instead, I felt more confident than ever before-I wanted to do something on my own. And from that point on, I learnt to never take anything for granted. Ever. The reality check I got during those six months has given me my favourite motto: All glory is fleeting.