Dreaming with eyes wide open

Vinay Kamath | Updated on January 22, 2018

RONNIE SCREWVALA, Author of the book titled 'Dream with your eyes open'.

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From theatre to toothbrushes to the entertainment business: Ronnie Screwvala’s come a long way

Ronnie Screwvala has worn many hats during his long entrepreneurial journey: from building one of the largest toothbrush-making operations to pioneering cable TV before founding UTV, a media and entertainment conglomerate across TV, digital, broadcasting and motion pictures, a few of them blockbusters. Screwvala sold the company to The Walt Disney Company in 2012 and is now on, what he says, is his second entrepreneurial journey. In this interview on the sidelines of a TiECON event in Chennai, he talks about his new book, Dream with Your Eyes Open (published by Rupa), and on his second innings. Excerpts:

Has the environment changed now for entrepreneurship from the time you set out?

It has not changed in many ways as a lot of people do not find the support to take up entrepreneurship. For many families, security matters; the in-laws are worried … that hasn’t changed at all. The education system takes us in a chronological sequence, where we need to get a degree. But today, learning is much more important than a degree, that shift is happening very slowly. We can’t be a startup nation if we are going to lay store by degrees.

The second is the fear of failure which is still very strong in the country. Publications are trying to glamorise the funding part but that happens in a few sectors only; that sends a wrong message and gives false hopes that the be all and end all for entrepreneurs is raising money. And, either you’re in a new economy business or you’re a nobody. But, that’s not true; massive investments are being made in waste management and what people may think as boring sectors like health and education which are actually getting more money today than a more sexy e-comm biz. A lot of people are having wrong perceptions. We are calling ourselves a startup nation, but the number of people who set out on their own is very low; even 10,000 a year would be low in a country like India. We can say we are a startup nation but the world won’t say it.

More B-schools are today imparting education in entrepreneurship. Does that help?

Most of the learning is on the job. But, what can be taught are the basic fundamentals like how important is vision, developing a business plan, how to develop good ideas. A three-to-six month course can give priority and direction on the five or six important things that entrepreneurs need to do first.

In your book you talk about how you came from a middle class traditional Parsi family and your father worked for a consumer goods company. So what sparked the entrepreneurial bug for you in that environment?

I would be fooling myself if I thought I would succeed as an entrepreneur. Maybe my base as a theatre artiste gave me the confidence as that’s when you start feeling you can do something on your own. And also the fact that I failed in college in commerce; so I was thinking what if I don’t need to have a CV. I was pretty clear I wanted to do something on my own, I wasn’t sure what but.

How were you able to see the other side of your failures?

It boils down to your own convictions. It’s all about timing. But, it’s also foolhardy to say that whatever happens you will stay the course, because equally important is you should know when you are going to cut your losses and move forward. It’s a difficult decision to take and chances are you are not going to get it right every time.

After failing in five films, how did you stay on course?

I didn’t have a choice. My thought process was: We had decided to become a B2C company and build the UTV brand and we couldn’t be that as a TV producer or ad film-maker or doing in-flight programmes. We had to do it as a broadcaster so that consumers consumed our content and brand and we could shape what the brand would be.

The channels we ran, the movies we made like Swades, Rang de Basanti, those would define our brand. I could deal with failure and move on, but people didn’t take us seriously, internally too, they didn’t take us seriously. We were moving to be a public listed company and analysts can be brutal. I was not completely convinced we would succeed, but I didn’t have a choice.

The other option was to be a production house and B2B company but that didn’t meet my ambitions.

What is the future of media and entertainment?

Digital media clearly is the frontrunner. We can say we are digital and internet savvy, but that will be only 30 per cent of the population, the other 70 per cent will get net savvy eventually when they get the bandwidth, but the core will be 30 per cent. The digital medium can be disruptive as entry barriers will be low; for a newspaper and broadcast channels, costs and entry barriers are higher. In digital you can experiment much more with the consumer rather than spend money on infrastructure or marketing. But, what’s going to work is experiential. If it is experiential, people they will pay, that’s the model they will pay for, not for a subscription model.

What is your strategy for investments in startups?

I am working only on our ground-up businesses. I’m back as an entrepreneur doing things I was doing 20 years ago. We have an education startup which is an online education initiative for postgraduate specialisation. Then we started a digital media company, both in content and as a platform play. And, we are investing in sports such as kabaddi, motor racing, football. This is where the focus is. I am much more a doer, than a funding investor. Sport, education and digital media; they are all high-impact businesses and change mindsets as media did. If we succeeded in media it is because we were in touch with the consumer. Just getting to know what everybody is thinking, understanding how important it is to build brands, pushing a team to upscale and helping on strategy, those are my strengths.

Published on November 08, 2015

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