25 Jan 2010

There was something about Satya...

I write this to commemorate AK Satyanarayanan, late founder of “
minds@work”, a former telecom colleague from my BPL Mobile/ Hutch/ Vodafone days and a very good friend.

Satya had a heart attack on the way back from a client meeting and suddenly passed away on Dec 22nd 2009. He leaves behind his wife, Sajitha and a son, Sidharth. I think he was just 40-42 years old and so his death was very shocking to all of us who knew him. The cremation happened the next day and was at his ancestral home in Ottapalam, Kerala.

Satya had quit Vodafone in 2006(?) to start his own marketing consultancy firm “minds@work” in Kerala; he undertook market planning and promotion work for clients in Kerala while aspiring to take up higher grade analytics assignments that would add more value to his customers. I had met him for coffee when I was in India in Sep’09 and we had a long conversation about his work and my MBA, among other things. I, for one, owe quite a bit to him - right from the time I joined the marketing team at BPL Mobile, Kerala (2003) all the way to my Chicago Booth MBA (2007) when Satya was one of my two primary recommenders.

How I met Satya | In mid-2003, after a stint in Retail Sales and Product Marketing, I was transferred from familiar Tamil Nadu to strange Kerala to become a CAM manager – CAM stood for Customer Asset Management and whoa, what a portfolio it was! It involved calculating Customer Lifetime Values, managing a tele-marketing team and running retention programs for our small postpaid subscriber base (10-15% of total base) – not exactly the most exciting job for a young 22 year old ex-sales guy who was used to the everyday adrenalin of launching price plans and promotions for acquiring new subscribers.

When I was in CAM, Satya was the prepaid product manager in Kerala for BPL Mobile; he had joined from Arvind Mills (which he’d joined after IIM-B, I think). Satya’s star was rising then… his skills in analytics were legendary and known across all our other telecom circles; when I was in Tamil Nadu, I would stare aghast at the Kerala team’s nested V-lookups and complex pivot tables – telecom, with endless data about customers and their usage patterns, was (and is) a number-cruncher’s dream and Satya was among the very best of them.

A bit bored with CAM, I soon asked for a transfer and took over from Satya as the Product Manager-Prepaid; Satya was promoted as the Head of Sales, Prepaid for BPL Mobile, Kerala. Over the next 3 years, we had a helluva ride together: the Product Manager is sometimes more in touch (and tussle) with his sales team than his compatriots in marketing, for he needs to constantly know what is going on in his share of the market – Is Airtel offering 3 cards free for every 10 purchased? Is Idea’s retailer gold coin scheme a success? How much has Reliance billed in Pala from the dodgy “hundi” market? What? When? Where? Who? How?... the sales team is like a bunch of over-stimulated neurons that constantly transmits (and sometimes, conveniently amplifies) market happenings to the marketing manager in the regional HQ, who needs to consider the threat-potential of each issue and consider ways and means to address it, tactically or strategically.

Satya in Sales| When he started in sales, Satya commanded a team of approximately 5 RSMs (Retail Sales Managers) and around 15 distributors across Kerala. During the handover, the Senior Management Team (SMT) had earlier expressed concerns about the ‘marketing’ attitude which could possibly hold back the “aggressive edge” required in sales; the typical complaint from our head-honchos was that marketing guys did not visit the market (quite true, but when you also need to deliver daily and weekly spreadsheets to the corporate team, what would you expect?) and this reputation extended to Satya too.

As if to pointedly counter this, Satya started to travel like crazy when he became Head-Sales… I would get calls from all those tongue-twisting Mallu places that I’d hitherto seen only on maps.... “Nelson, this is Satya calling from Parappanangadi and the POPs haven’t reached us – what have you been doing?!”, “Nelson, I am calling from Changanasherry and they still have old stocks – this issue will kill us if you don’t do something”, “Nelson, I have spoken to Ragesh, Jerish and Joshua but customers still can’t make calls in Neyyatinkara-what the hell is happening?!” In those initial days, SATYA DROVE US NUTS!!! – my communications manager, my Head of Marketing, the IT guy who released the SIM cards for activation, the guys in the network team – all of us rolled our eyes as we got a constant tattoo of texts, calls and rants about various problems in the Kerala market. But learn about the market, we did… and it worked for Satya too! With his knowledge of telecom-tech, bureaucratic bottlenecks and his wealth of marketing experience, he was always one step ahead of us in proposing “jugaad” solutions; in those days when our operations were low on cash, Satya’s tactically smart work-arounds and undercover guerilla-shtyle sales promos won many a market for us.

But even as he was pushing his case and our products in the market, Satya was also under tremendous pressure - many have been the crazy month-ends when our finance team would come to us on the 30th of the month and tell us that they were short of Rs 1 million (which was a huge amount considering our overall prepaid revenues of Rs.3 million). With the CEO breathing down our necks (Satya’s actually) and the VP-Sales & Marketing asking for hourly updates, me and Satya would scramble around to put together an incentive scheme that would save the day… but that was the easy part. The difficult part was to implement it and that is when Satya’s cabin door would ominously close… for the next 8-10 hours all the way till midnight, we would listen to him cajoling his RSMs, threatening his distributors and even shouting at the recalcitrant ones telling them that he had no choice but to load them with stock. Mad, mad days when the difference between heaven and hell seemed to be a matter of Rs.1 million.

This is not a very unusual role for a Head of Sales, indeed, this would be a story familiar to most FMCG salesmen in India… but while the principal target that FMCG sales managers typically worked on was “primary sales” (sales made by company to distributor), a telco sales-head like Satya had to consider “secondary sales” (sales by distributor to retailer) so that he could achieve his “activation” sales (when the customer pops in his SIM card and finally makes a call). When you combine this dual-target system with erratic technology, inconsistent MIS and hour-long conference calls, you get an idea of how it was– working in BPL Mobile in those days was riding in the Wild West of Indian Telecom and we were having a helluva ride, with 16 hour days, weekend work and 20% annual salary hikes.

But all this also takes a toll on a human – over the course of 3 years, all of us drank liquor like fish after those long, long nights; we gained weight, started smoking and ate whatever was available nearby to our office or on our travel routes when we weren’t on our heated-up mobile phones berating whoever would take our fire and brimstone. Satya’s physique must have taken a lot of flak during those years– considering his many crazy month-ends, his stress levels must have been atmospheric and his smoking couldn’t have helped, I guess.

As BPL Mobile became Hutch, Satya did quite well, expanding our distribution system in line with our rollout and coming up with a huge spreadsheet that essentially became THE reference for the next 2 years for all our market planning in Kerala. He was at the forefront of launching markets and racking up new sales – over a period of time, his team more than doubled and he tripled his distributors across Kerala to match the expanding telecom network. What used to surprise me was that despite all his incessant market work and travel, Satya’s intellectual horsepower was still relentless – he would analyze competitor financials, propose new products in unrelated areas and many times, he taught me and other aspiring product managers how to dissect and analyze market moves, to infer competitor’s intent from their advertisements and products.

Satya, the person | I must also say that for all his raw analytical intelligence, Satya remained true to his name - he was unflaggingly honest, sometimes to his disadvantage. There were quite a few of us who learnt to manage bosses by saying the right things or rather “reflecting their own wisdom to themselves” in order to keep them happy, while implementing what was required to succeed in the market; this at its best was ingenious, street-smart, boss-management and at its worst, was something mildly akin to duplicity. But not so with Satya… wild horses couldn’t keep him from giving it as it was, regardless of the receiver or the forum – for example, if a product was bad for revenues (my target) but good for sales (his target), he would make a very strong argument to launch it and when I was about to concede, he would tell me why it was bad for me and for the company and I would use his own argument to kill it. This, obviously was a minor example, but imagine this happening in the middle of a hotly contested negotiation on promotion budgets with everyone playing nasty… yes, a lot of times, Satya couldn’t hold from backing the truth, even if it was against his interests. As you can imagine, this sometimes worked against him professionally, but his personal reputation and integrity remained intact, which is much more of an achievement than it sounds like and more than can be said of a lot of men.

Satya’s other strong and sometimes funny trait was his ability to come up with choices. When you asked him for help in choosing between two options, he would give you three more, point out the pros and cons of each and leave you to decide… never ever would he bring himself to choose an option. This was sheer brilliance in its own way – imagine a super-computer that could, for any given situation, generate a list of possible scenarios, list out relevant choices with pros and cons neatly laid out – he could do exactly that and more in an exceptionally self-deprecatory way, as if to say “really, that’s all there is to it, it’s not a big deal at all”. Amazing as it was, sometimes this wouldn’t help when a quick decision was to be made – be it a group decision or something Satya needed to take on his own, he would come up with a staggeringly complex reading of issues and would mull over it again and again. If you have studied fractal geometry or chess-strategy, you can imagine what a stupendous ability this is... but when something needs to be decided upon in 5 minutes flat, this was super-frustrating; both for us and for Satya, who sometimes would walk out of his cabin to the balcony for a relieving cigarette and a view of the Arabian sea, before coming back to ponder about some new twist that would have occurred to him while he was standing out there. That was Satya for you.

Finally, I must add that Satya was good to his men, the RSMs…very good. When you are the Head of Sales, you have a lot of power over your territory and men – you command their budgets, their targets and their sales commitments every waking day – you are their fiery and benevolent god. It is indeed very natural for a Sales Head to go into “command and control” mode; when I was an RSM, I have seen quite a few senior managers do this and expect blind obedience, which was mostly delivered, for after all it was the command from “He Who Headed Sales” and “Thy Will Be Done” was the RSM’s mantra. Satya preferred not to use this mode with his men unless absolutely needed; he would, until the very last moment, lay out the logic of why something needed to be done and expected to win over his guys with reason and persuasion. When faced with unreasonable targets, instead of shoving it straight down to his men and his distributors, Satya would first push back to us and to the SMT – not a very politically correct thing to do but a very decent thing to do from the perspective of his channel team. Unfortunately, the perception of a Sales-Head (and not unreasonably so) is that of a man who is filled with perpetual gung-ho and the never-ending optimism required to sell ice, snow and slush to the very last Eskimo during the Ice-Age… and as may be obvious by now, Satya did not fit into this frame very effectively. But what he held back in hyper-fizzy enthusiasm in conference rooms, he more than made up with his thoroughness in the market, his dogged tenacity and his capacity to achieve targets through a variety of subtle maneuvers.

As far as I know, the idea of starting his own firm was floating around in Satya’s mind for quite some time but he also wanted to break the company record for prepaid sales in Kerala – the month he finally quit, his team achieved a target of 100,000 new prepaid sales, a record in our operations till then. Having quit, he worked to establish his own marketing consultancy firm: “minds@work”. I do not know many details about this phase but what I know, I share… with his core competence in analytics, Satya believed that he could do some really useful analytical consultancy for data intensive businesses, like telecom or banking. However, he also knew that many of his potential customers had their HQ in Bombay/Delhi/Bangalore etc; from what I know, I think he faced some personal/family constraints to move out of Kerala. So instead of coming up with a portfolio of sophisticated analytics services for the small Kerala market, he instead chose to assist companies with their regional marketing and sales campaigns. He often approached me for feedback about his startup and like we always did, we debated for hours about the website, the logo and the USP for his firm. Over time, he built up a team that could execute tactical rollouts across the state; based on his market reputation, execution skills and contacts, many telcos used him for their Kerala campaigns and he even did some strategy work for a couple of FMCG firms. But he believed that the bigger market was always outside Kerala and the idea of growing his firm to achieve some critical mass seemed to appeal strongly to him.

Our last conversation| I was quite erratic at keeping in touch with Satya especially during my Chicago Booth MBA days; I would find some interesting insight from an entrepreneurship class, mail it to him and then forget to reply to some of his clarifying questions. After my MBA, I was in India for two months and I did visit Cochin briefly to sort out some pending PF issues; when Satya heard I was in town, he called me up and insisted we catch up for a drink; I was returning the same night and so I couldn’t, so I proposed that we meet at the Kaloor BTH for coffee. And there he came and it was there that we caught up for about 2 hours over coffee, vadas and the pink water that I had come to love in Kerala. We talked about many things… about his business, about the recession, about my plans, about his car and about some of our old colleagues and finally we wished each other good luck and promised to keep in touch. That’s how I remember him… with his business card in my hand, as he drove off in his trusty old white Maruti 800, with a tired smile to “minds@work” and his newly built-up team.

Rest in peace, Satya.

PS| Based on a condolence meeting held at Cochin, Satya’s former colleagues from his telecom days have formed an e-group at friendsofsatya@googlegroups.com; you can join in if you knew Satya and want to know what is being done to stand by his family/former business.

PPS| All the information contained, opinions expressed are my own and are from & are relevant to the period 2002-2007; it is likely that things have moved on a long way from then on. I've written this entirely from memory, so dates or numbers might be mismatched or wrong.

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