After a tepid release of ‘Diamonds are Forever’ in 1971, Sean Connery is reported to have vowed that he would ‘never again’ play ‘that’ role. Yet, in 1983, there he was again, suave and swashbuckling as ever, Agent 007 in the rather cheekily named ‘Never Say Never Again’. Although Sean (may I call him Sean?) took more than a decade to realize the error of his ways, I learned this precept right at the start of my entrepreneurial journey.
A decade ago, when I was just a tiny cog in the wheels of a large consulting firm, I swore off consulting forever and decided to start a ‘real’ business, manufacturing and selling products.
I had no clue about the nature of products that I wanted to sell or how to set up a firm, but I was quite clear about the type of organisation that I was going to create – looking back, this was a clue to where I would eventually end up. I wrote a short charter describing the values, work culture, and environment of the organisation that I would build. Among other things, the charter mentioned a fun-filled pursuit of excellence, a reverence for data and detail, an acceptance of diversity and differences of opinion, a desire to be respected for expertise, and a best-in-class product offering.
As I cast around for the sector that I wished to be a part of and hedged my bets by attending a few job interviews, a colleague connected me to a healthcare start-up. On meeting the founders, I found their knowledge immense, enthusiasm infectious and long-term vision motivating. However, I knew that start-ups in the healthcare domain went through a long research phase and took years to break even. Meanwhile, discussions with a large corporate player in the tech space seemed to be fructifying towards a job which would provide a stable income. I recall feeling bewildered and anxious at the time, and thinking through the pros and cons of every aspect of each opportunity. Though it brought me no closer to a decision between the two, I think it helped clarify what I really wanted.
Luckily, sometimes life lets you off easy, as happened in my case. A middle path opened between adventure and stability – a large MNC that had acquired some wellness brands sought a consultant with prior experience in both consumer goods and healthcare to assist their marketing team. I gave myself a year to experiment, and signed up as an independent consultant with both firms – the large one and the healthcare start-up. Thus began my entrepreneurial journey; not with a daring leap into the unknown but with a few tentative steps towards it.
At both the organisations I had the good fortune to work with people who were experts in their domain, secure enough to generously share their knowledge and to give me the space to contribute to the best of my ability (thanks Shailaja, Nafisa, and Nikhil). Life got a bit hectic at times, with work at the large firm taking up the weekdays and the start-up occupying bits and bobs of free time on Sundays and national holidays. Yet, the satisfaction of contributing towards the growth of multiple brands made it a very fulfilling year.
Unlike U2, I realised then that I had indeed found what I was looking for, a combination of three factors that had made my work enjoyable that year. Two of these were the diversity of categories that I was working on and the satisfaction of having added value to clients’ businesses in each of these. The third was the focus on consumers in every aspect of my work – whether growth strategy, market sizing, go-to-market plans, communication, or implementation. I gave up my prior oath to swear off consulting forever, admitted to myself that consulting was the destination after all, and gave the experiment a more formal shape and structure. Never say never again!
Escape Velocity was formed in Q2 FY ’09, a Market Strategy and Marketing Consulting firm that would help firms and brands grow. The first few months of the firm would be well described by the song “With a little help from my friends”. Friends helped with brainstorming on a name for the firm, finding office space, and finding the first few recruits who took the risk of joining a start-up. Poornima Burte at Design-Orb did a superb job of translating my thoughts into a logo, the objective of ‘accelerating growth’ for clients beautifully expressed in our ‘growth spiral’ logo.
During the initial years, we survived by staying lean – sharing office space and admin resources with another start-up, and limiting our team size to a small group of multi-talented individuals. Our office was tucked away in a quaint nook of this concrete jungle called Mumbai, an old wadi in Prabhadevi that time and development forgot. The neighbourhood consisted of an old bungalow with vines growing on the roof, a chawl, a few apartment blocks, and trees scattered all around. During tough and stressful times, going to office continued to be something to look forward to every morning. When struggling to crack a knotty problem, few things could be more refreshing than looking out and seeing a purple-rumped sunbird perched at a flower on one of the trees, or watching a coppersmith barbet peck-peck-pecking away at another.
The warmth and cheer of colleagues always made me feel optimistic about our long-term prospects. Their willingness to participate in free-form discussions about work ensured I always had food for thought, and kept me learning new ways to look at and tackle problems.
I believed then – and still do – that most issues related to the growth of a brand or B2C business require a mix of quantitative analysis and qualitative understanding, informed by a practitioner’s perspective in order to develop an impactful solution. The importance of maintaining a balance between the qualitative and quantitative approach applies as much to seemingly number-based topics such as growth strategy or market sizing, as it does to topics such as branding, communication strategy or marketing plans.
Unfortunately, until they find boutique firms such as ours, clients often get creative ideas from agencies that may be tangential to brand strategy, or recommendations based on purely quantitative analysis from larger consulting firms. Rarely do they find an integrated approach that analyses both qualitative and quantitative data from a variety of sources to synthesize a custom solution for their brand or business. Rarer still is to have practitioners with industry experience on the team, ensuring that the recommendations are vetted for actionability. The projects that we have successfully completed for firms that are market leaders in domains as diverse as consumer goods, health and wellness, services, chemicals etc., as well as for reputed private equity firms, are testimony to the efficacy of this approach.
From the outset, we were clear that we defined our offering as ‘informed’ or ‘evidence based’ Market Strategy and Marketing; one of our basic tenets was that all our recommendations would be driven by a deep understanding of data from all available sources. Now, as the domain of market strategy and marketing enters a period of prolonged churn and perhaps redefinition, we believe that this twin focus on data – both big data and rich data – and practitioner experience will enable us to serve clients well and help deliver success to their businesses and brands.
I recently reviewed the charter for the organisation that I wrote in 2008. I expected to cringe at a document that hadn’t aged well. However, as I read it, I was filled with immense pride as I realised that not only was it still readable, I could also identify all the principles in the document as values that we at Escape Velocity still adhere to. Over time, of course, these principles have evolved as we understand our work better, but they have given us a strong internal mooring and a cultural foundation that should last us through the next phase of our adventures.