Riding the entrepreneurial wave

Formerly a special advisor to the British prime minister's policy unit at 10 Downing Street, Alan Rosling is an entrepreneur and strategic adviser with a deep engagement with India for over 35 years.  He is the chairman of Griffin Growth Partners and co-founded Kiran Energy since leaving the Tata Group, where he was the first non-Indian executive director of Tata Sons, charged with internationalisation of the group.

In this interview with Swetha Amit,  Rosling talks about the new entrepreneurial wave in India, the factors that have led to this wave and the future of solar power.

Boom Country? talks about the new wave of entrepreneurship and its opportunities in India. How was the idea conceived?
I had many friends who were running businesses and start-ups. As I quit Tata sons in 2009, I began to get a wider picture of what was happening in the market when I became an entrepreneur myself.  There were a lot of young individuals who were brimming with new ideas to improve the economy and experiences of people in the country.  It was something different and that's what brought me to the subject on the new wave of entrepreneurship in India.

Tracing back  your journey, you were the first non-Indian on the board of Tata Sons. What did you find different considering you came from an entirely different western management thinking?
I had worked for the Jardine group as India country chairman earlier and Jardine had a stake in Tata Industries. So I knew Tatas almost as an insider and a family friend. I knew what I was getting into when Ratan (Ratan Tata) asked me to come on board full time. Yes I find the culture of Indian management to be completely different from its international counterparts especially in terms of financial decisions. And, critically large businesses in India are more entrepreneurial and risk taking than typical MNCs.

From Tata Sons to chairman of Griffin Growth partners and co-founder of Kiran Energy, how would you describe the transition?
Well I set up Griffin myself. The transition from being employed since the age of 21 to being independent was quite challenging. On one hand you had the freedom to do anything that you wanted and on the other hand you weren't being paid a salary anymore. I had to do all the work myself right from buying and selling things from people and collecting the money. It was overall very different from working in a large organisation. Co-founding Kiran was different because I was working with a partner, Ardeshir Contractor, and an excellent team.

Coming back to entrepreneurship, India has seen a boom in start-ups especially over the last few years. What do you think had led to this sudden wave?
There are four things that have changed in the last few years. First being the growth of the economy. There has been a 7-8 per cent growth which has changed the country and created new opportunities for people. Second is the change in government policies, which has led to a more liberalised and regulated one. Entrepreneurs were getting into new sectors especially areas like power which wasn't possible earlier.

Third is the availability of equity and risk capital. With the angel investors and venture capitalists coming in, positive and ambitious ideas by young entrepreneurs are getting funded. The last and most important factor is the deep social change and the alteration in mind-sets. There is no longer family pressure to get a job in large companies and young people are encouraged to get into entrepreneurship. The stigma attached to entrepreneurs no longer exists. On the contrary, respect for them has only grown over the years.

India is slowly developing the American way of thinking and these entrepreneurs are becoming an inspiration to many young people who want to venture into start-ups. The fear of failure has lessened and people feel that if an idea or a business does not work out, one can pick themselves and start afresh once again.

You have mentioned that there are two different generations of entrepreneurs - one before the year 2000 and another post that. Do you find any difference between these two?
Well with regards to earlier generation of entrepreneurs, it took them longer to raise capital and set the momentum of business going. It took a longer time to see growth in their respective businesses. Also this set of entrepreneurs were largely from families with a business background.  The new set of entrepreneurs are educated and from diverse backgrounds. They are the ones who are brimming with ideas with the need to do something different for the society. Today the wave of entrepreneurship is spreading both geographically and socially.

Considering that capital access has become easier today with the advent of various VCs as compared to how limited it was earlier, do you think ambition is getting more wings today?
Well it's difficult to generalize as entrepreneurs come in different shapes and sizes. I see a trend of very well-articulated ambition. A lot of aspects have changed in India as I have mentioned before. Whether it is e-commerce or healthcare, people today have the confidence and ambition to work on their idea very early and make things work. For the earlier generation of entrepreneurs, it was hard to change things. Now it seems feasible for the current lot of entrepreneurs and with the amount of ideas being generated, people from India are scaling up their businesses relatively at a faster pace.

Speaking of Venture capital, you have stated that this industry remains strongly immature in your book. How do you think these VCs could do better?
I don't mean to sound rude about them. They are fine people but I feel as an industry they have a long way to go. There are two aspects in which they could do better.  We need more Specialised VCs. These specialised VCs tend to make judgement on sectors with greater confidence than the generalised VCs.

Another aspect is to change the way VCs interact with companies that they back especially the companies which are in their early stages. VCs need to offer guidance and give these companies some mentorship lest they  become too unrealistic with their ambitions or goals.

With the boom of entrepreneurs, technology has seen an immense development as well. You have stated that in most countries, technology has replaced a lot of the print media. However the latter still remains prevalent largely in India today. Why is that? Do you ever feel that electronic media will take over Print media some day in India?
Well people in India still read newspapers. In fact newspapers are growing in India, which is a great thing. However it does not mean people do not read news online. The shift from print to electronic is more apparent in the US and UK. In India, electronic media is still growing and has great potential. There seems to be space for both online and print media. I personally read a lot of newspapers but whenever I am travelling, I download news from all over the world on my smart phone as it's convenient.

As a co-founder of Kiran Energy and being from the solar industry, how do you see the future of solar power in India?
I think the opportunity is massive. The costs are coming down and solar is now quite competitive in terms of its pricing. In order to get returns from investors you need a price, which reflects the risks you are taking. However, this is a market where people want to pitch low prices to win bids and that is quite good for the consumers. The very fact that costs have come down indicates that Solar has gone mainstream. This is good for the government, environment, and consumers and also for the entrepreneurs.

Lastly how would you describe your experience of penning down Boom Country? Any plans of another book?
It's been a wonderful experience meeting and interviewing several people with regards to their businesses. Writing the book was the tough part. As for another book, I have just completed this one and it was a lot of work. So I am not really sure.

(Also See: Excerpt from Boom Country?)