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Lessons For Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs must learn business development and sales skills early in their careers

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I was very good in studies and always ranked amongst the top ten students in my school. Then, as now, the Class X academic year was an extremely taxing one.

I completed my Class X exams on a sunny Friday in the March of 1985. I was looking forward to taking some time off. But that was not to be. My Nani now said, ‘You’ve worked very hard, so take the Saturday and Sunday off and start working with Nana from Monday.’ And that was that!

On Monday morning, I was in my Nana’s office in a rundown building in the centre of South Mumbai. He ran a small transport company, and there was actually very little for me to do there. My Nani always complained that my Nana never reviewed his accounts and so I began inspecting his financial books to find possible errors and omissions in them.

One day, I asked him, ‘Nana, why don’t we grow our business? Why are we stuck to just a couple of corporate contracts when there are so many companies out there we can do business with?’

My Nana’s reply was, ‘Of course. We must! Why don’t you start looking for more business?’

This was an open invitation for me to try my hand at business development. I was a naive teenager with a direct mandate from the owner to get new business, and I was all fired up! Sitting in the office, I tracked small and large corporations whose names I read in the financial newspapers and cold-called them for meetings. Most companies did not respond to me, but a few did and appointments were fixed. My Nana accompanied me to those meetings initially, and later, I began meeting potential customers on my own. Time passed. I joined college, but I was no longer just a student. I was also a working man.

One day, I heard about this concept called ‘ODC’. It was an acronym for Odd Dimensional Cargo. My Nana’s staff told me that ODC were opportunities for the most lucrative margins in the transport business. When equipment for large industrial plants came into the Mumbai docks, their odd shapes and package sizes required customised transportation services. Unlike for other goods, there were no fixed rates for the transport of these goods. For example, there was no standard cost to transport a fifty-foot furnace from Mumbai to Goa. ODC transporters would therefore charge irrational sums for their services and make huge profits.

I was so inspired that I called all the truck owners who supplied ODC vehicles and equipment in Mumbai and compiled an exhaustive database of them. I was confident that I too could get into this business.

A few months later, one of our close relatives Mr Navneet Zalani began working in the Ruchi Soya Group. They were setting up a massive new steel mill in Indore. I spoke to him and convinced him to introduce me to people within his company. I then liaised with the group’s logistics team, pitched hard, drew detailed charts of my transportation plans, and snagged their ODC order! I was just eighteen years old. In the months that followed, I single-handedly transported most of the heavy machinery and equipment that National Steel Industries in Indore runs on today. When the steel plant went live, I was heartily congratulated by my Nana and by many folks from National Steel. This was my first real business deal, something that I had started from scratch and successfully concluded, very profitably, all by myself. The deal made me experience a high that I had never experienced before. This is the same high that I live for even today!

My Learnings
I believe that entrepreneurs must learn business development and sales skills early in their careers. Generating business needs passion and drive. The salient process of sales must be experienced first-hand by an entrepreneur, and not delegated to someone else. I believe that a market is available to anyone who has the persistence to keep knocking on doors and asking for business. The simple lesson I learned was that business begins to happen when you work towards activating it.

Excerpted with permission from Westland 

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