Don't chase numbers for the sake of numbers, but do a damn good job, and the numbers will happen, says Harsh Mariwala, Chairman of Marico Ltd, reflecting on the past seven years’ work at Ascent Foundation, a not-for-profit trust-based, peer-to-peer platform for entrepreneurs. There has been a shift in focus from chasing numbers and aspiring for 1,000 registered members, to now placing more emphasis on the impact, by ensuring that the foundation is of high relevance to entrepreneurs, he says.

Having founded and spearheaded Marico, one of the country’s leading consumer goods companies, Mariwala’s focus now is on helping entrepreneurs scale up and learn from each other through Ascent. In an interview with BusinessLine, he talks about the foundation, what is in store for it going forward, the start-up culture and entrepreneurship in the country, as well as his reflections on the changing and trying times around us. Excerpts:

In 2016, you had said that you wanted to reach out to 1,000 entrepreneurs under the foundation. You have only got 500 members so far. What happened?

Yes, our dream was to have 1,000 entrepreneurs. But, we have realised that in trying to chase numbers, we should not take short-cuts and take on entrepreneurs who are not fit to be a part of Ascent. So, the quality of entrepreneurs, not just in terms of size and the type of business they are in, but, more importantly, their mindset, in terms of learning from each other and the keenness to improve. Somebody who says that ‘I know it all’ is not the right fit for Ascent. So, we have started applying those filters. It has had its impact on numbers. But that's a better way of moving forward.

So even for somebody like you, there is learning. You also had to sort of reinvent and rethink.

Yes, absolutely. I think it's very important that the learning never stops. And that's the mindset, I think, every person should have, because, irrespective of what you do, whether you are in business or any other profession, that curiosity, the willingness to learn, it's very, very important, because life changes and everybody faces those challenges.

You started this foundation in 2012, are you happy with where you are?

So I would say that in terms of the impact we have created amongst entrepreneurs, it's good. The ratings in terms of what we call NPS scores and scores in terms of satisfaction ratings have improved dramatically.

You did a re-set in terms of looking for quality in 2016, three years later are you satisfied with the model?

Before the re-set we were too occupied with numbers. In the last two-three years, we have had a new team. I have personally spent a lot of time in execution. We started a governing council amongst our existing members - so they also play a very important role in driving this quality and (the) overall way forward. We have been holding an annual conclave in Mumbai for the last three years. In the past, 500 people attended this every year. This year, we're targeting 700. It's an event which has had very good ratings -- on a five-point rating, feedback from attendees has been in the range of 4 to 4.2 in the last three years. We try to bring in something innovative, which is relevant for entrepreneurs in terms of motivating them and building resilience. This year's theme at the Conclave is rewiring for resilience. There are so many changes that are impacting our lives, and how do you rewire yourself in the context of these changes, is very, very crucial to all the entrepreneurs.

Has the reset in the last three years resulted in different outcomes?

So that's something which is very difficult to measure. I can measure the rating of a certain event or conclave. We also have a lot of what we call trust groups. We have 40 trust groups in Mumbai, I can measure the Satisfaction Index. But to say that because of this, I've had a major impact on someone’s business -- so there is no direct correlation, it's very difficult to say. In addition to what they have learned here, they may also have done something else. So there is no point wasting our energy in terms of measuring that. But I'm sure that it has had an impact. Otherwise, people would not have committed to at least spending three to four hours every month on these trust groups. About 60-70 per cent of the people who started out with us in 2012, continue to be associated with us.

How has entrepreneurship evolved over the past years?

I think, overall, interest in the subject has increased dramatically. So, many college graduates, post-graduates, they're keen to become entrepreneurs.

And their vision is to become entrepreneurs because a lot of successful new entrepreneurs - unicorns - are youngsters. But there have been many failures also. Indian society is also changing, saying it's okay to fail. And then there are many options to get funds if you have a good idea. All the disruptions which have occurred, whether it's e-commerce, technology, or the Internet of Things, I think all these are throwing up newer opportunities. And many of the entry barriers in the economy have vanished. I would still say we are at an initial stage compared, to say, a Silicon Valley. But it's improving.

In the current environment where sentiment has been hit by the slowdown, and funds pulling out of India, do you still think that entrepreneurship and the start-up ecosystem continue to grow strongly?

Absolutely, because it's a very small part ofn the overall economy. So there'll be enough opportunities. And I always say that even in a downturn, there'll be opportunities. So as long as entrepreneurs are doing something that is innovative or pioneering, there will always be an opportunity, irrespective of the business environment. In the worst economy, you're seen some entrepreneurs doing very well.

Where do you see Ascent in a couple of years from now?

Over a period of time, ideally, we should have chapters all over India, in the big cities. That’s our dream.

What will you say to a new entrepreneur?

I would say, first of all, you need to think through your business proposition, and while arriving at that business proposition, in that thinking process, you need to identify what will enable you to win in the marketplace.

Because it is very competitive, the environment, and the competition is going to increase. So how do you create that drive to win is very important. You also may have some blind-spots. It is very important to discuss your ideas before you set up a business, when you are at an ideation stage, with the relevant people who can add value. I think that will help you do two things: you will get their inputs in terms of better suggestions and also it will remove blindspots that can be fatal.

Once you do that, then you need to experiment and prototype. There is no amount of market research that you can do. But, there are opportunities for de-risking, by doing it at a very small scale to start with.

Use that prototyping as a live market research lab, wherein you test each and everything you offer, whether it is the technology or the features of your product or the pricing or the packaging, and see what you can learn.

There is a lot of concern on corporate governance issues, with many companies coming under the radar. What should be done?

Managements should have a belief that good governance pays, it adds to the valuation. If that belief is there in the promoters and the chairman of the company, then automatically you will take steps to address those issues and give a very high degree of comfort to the directors, to the outside market, to the analysts, which will enable you to attract good quality talent, which will enable you to attract good associates, and even good board members. So, I think that key shift has to come from the promoters.