My First Gurus of Entrepreneurship

Well, some people it’s said do not need any formal degree to learn the art of communication, a vital microcosm in the art of entrepreneurship. Rather they have all the qualities of becoming an entrepreneur themselves and to teach even established entrepreneurs like us, what we probably did not learn in the pages of our textbooks.

Sadhu and Chhedi were two such persons who touched upon my life very early, in the days when I was a student at IIT Kharagpur. But who were they? We usually made a beeline for Sadhu’s stall every day, surreptitiously tucked away under the staircase of Rajendra Prasad Hall, the IIT hostel where I stayed. IIT had 7 hostels then and RP Hall was the first one on the west wing of the series of buildings. In those days the culture at IIT was carefree, the learning environment was that of living together, eating together, with even senior batches.

Sadhu was a hostel ward boy, doing odd jobs for us and made up that small store under the stairs where cigarettes, biscuits, cold drinks and mango lassi were sold. He kept his stall open only during lunch breaks, away from the gaze of higher authorities and quickly dispensed with business within a span of an hour, leaving no trace of the bustling marketplace like environment the base of the staircase would turn to when we all jostled for space to buy his goods. Sadhu gave us everything on credit, for he knew none of us had the money then and there, our pockets were perpetually empty. But he had a stock of each transaction in his ‘khatta’ or line of credit.

What made Sadhu phenomenal was not that ‘khatta.’ Rather he had a style of never asking for money from anyone, the style of a benign credit extender. Then did he serve us from his own pocket for free? After all he himself was poor, he would not be able to provide us day after day, batch after batch goodies for free! Hundreds of students bought knick-knacks from him. Then how did he recover the money? Much later, I realized how he did it. Most of our parents used to send money to us over money order every month and Sadhu would get to know from the postmen with whom he developed a strong bond of friendship, who all had received their small remittances for a particular month. He would next come to us quietly in the evening, sweetly pleading if part of the bill of last month could be paid, perfectly knowing our money had arrived. This idea of Sadhu’s customer handling skill was indeed intriguing and I picked up the lesson at that young age from him. He never rung you dry, but had his own notion of the length of the credit rope that could be unrolled for each one of us.

Sadhu’s unique skill taught me that ‘Customer is the King’ and never to push a customer to pay up when he is vulnerable or financially not in a position to pay up. ‘Never push him for money.’ The respect that you earn through this gesture, will make your customer turn into a lifetime customer. Training yourself is an important entrepreneurial learning. Hold that time frame and you get many times back. You build in the process a loyal customer bank and a reputation in the market and they keep coming back to you.

Another person in IIT who turned a guru for me was Chhedi. Anyone who has been to IIT Kharagpur would know of his ramshackle shop that served any food under the sun and was the primary adda joint for students, post classes. Born in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Chhedi or Anwar Khan, as his parents had named him, was a teenager who followed his father during the times when IIT KGP was still under construction. A resourceful lad, he quickly set up a small tea shop next to the low perimeter wall at the entrance of the main campus and before long it turned to a permanent adda joint for students.

The style of adda would change according to seasons. Like when exam season rang its bell, Chhedi’s Tea Stall would turn into groups of broken benches, with clusters of students of the same stream sitting together and discussing. At other times, it would be an open forum with all departments having a gala time together. Even whole-night adda sessions were common. And Chhedi knew each one of us by name. Even his Man Friday, a boy named Dennis, who would serve us tea, toast, omlette and the signature dish of Bread Pakora, mop the floor, gave you the menu card, mopped the tables after you left, also knew us.

Chhedi even knew who our parents were, what their profession was. He was a ‘Knowledge Bank’ himself. What I call as a data collector. And he ‘Never said No’ to anything. Suppose we asked for a particular dish that was not in his shop, he would never refuse. Rather, he would see to it that it is served by hook or by crook. Also, his service never changed even if someone could not pay instantly. Like Sadhu he too had a khatta where he kept the names of students he fed on credit. But his style of service never changed even if you could not pay. It was same for all. For me this was my first big lesson in entrepreneurship.

He also served as a fatherly figure to students who were ragged and felt low, he could hold people together, listened to them patiently and helped students to get over their woos. He was a phenomenal database himself with news of every student at his finger-tip. When I started my journey as an entrepreneur I always made it a point to maintain client data base, map the organizations to know which person in the organization had what responsibility and then keep the data base for future use. Both Sadhu and Chhedi gave us rich pointers on fiscal prudence and the uncanny ability to mop up our credit lines before they morphed into worthless shreds of paper! They were big-time influence on me and helped me identify my latent entrepreneurial instincts. They were my first gurus in the art of entrepreneurship and were perhaps the best inspirational models to have at that impressionable age.

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