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BPO's first couple

Subir Roy | October 18, 2003

It's the ultimate Silicon Valley dream: to start one successful business after another and earn the tag of being a serial entrepreneur.

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And it's a dream that's been pulled off in Bangalore by serial entrepreneur K Ganesh and his wife Meena.

This month Ganesh and Meena will be heading to the exit for the last time at Customer.Asset, the BPO company that has grown explosively in the three years since it was started.

One year ago, financial giant ICICI came along with a $22 million offer for the 2,700-seat call centre (at that time) that Ganesh and Meena couldn't refuse.

So, Customer.Asset became ICICI OneSource and Ganesh and Meena agreed to run the company for a year.

"One day the child will grow up and move on," says Ganesh in a matter-of-fact manner.

What happens next to the couple who created one of India's largest independent BPO operations?

Ganesh and Meena are holding their cards close to their chest but the rumour-mill says they are looking at a niche player (unlike ICICI OneSource, which was a mainline BPO operation).

Alternatively, they may team up with a multinational to start a captive centre. In the BPO business that's called a reverse Raman Roy (the reference is to Raman Roy who moved from GE to Spectramind).

This isn't the first time Ganesh has walked away from the management of a company he helped to create.

In 1990, when the software revolution was in its infancy, he and five others started the Delhi-based ITNT, which did things like maintenance and systems integration. It also sold computers for Dell.

The company, started by the six partners with Rs 97,000, has sold its technical services and call centre business to Sunil Wadhwani's iGate for an undisclosed price. Ganesh still holds a large substantial stake in ITNT.

There has been plenty of struggle along the way. Back in 1990, the venture capitalists scornfully said they wouldn't touch ITNT (or anything that needed less than Rs 10 crore), which they reckoned was small potatoes.

So Ganesh and his five partners, who had all earned their spurs at HCL, scraped up the Rs 97,000 needed to keep the company running in the early months.

Ganesh recalls that it was touch and go for the first two years. "The primary aim was to be able to pay salaries at the end of the month and happiness was a positive cash flow," he says.

By 1996, however, the company had carved out its own niche and become a 400-people company, working out of 16 locations.

It was much the same at Customer.Asset. The couple started out with one small contract and initially worked from the office of e-tailer Fabmart.

Says Meena: "The first employee was interviewed in our flat, with a noisy baby in the next room."

Ganesh and Meena have travelled a long way since then. They live in a well-appointed six-bedroom duplex apartment. And the partnership has been a durable one, both at home and in the office.

The couple met at IIM, Calcutta back in the mid-'80s. They got married promptly after graduation in 1985 and set off for their honeymoon to Srinagar, second class. They have two children and two start-ups behind them and still field questions jointly.

Both were early players in the fledgling tech companies of the '80s. Ganesh joined HCL where he worked close to Shiv Nadar, one of the fastest moving entrepreneurs in the tech sector.

Meena, meanwhile, was hired by NIIT. Ganesh insists that his stint at HCL shaped his corporate thinking.

"You got a totally free hand and found out what it was like to give shape to your own ideas," he says. The chance to build with "someone's else's money" also created the desire to do something on his own.

So, in 1990, Ganesh and five others from HCL quit to start ITNT. After the first few difficult years the company grew beyond their expectations.

In 1998, three of the six partners were bought out, a new one came in and Ganesh became non-executive director, retaining his stake.

The company went public in 2000 and later parts were sold to iGate. "It continues as a stable company with cash in the kitty," says Ganesh.

In 1998, Ganesh moved to Bangalore to join Meena who had been hired by Microsoft. In Bangalore, Ganesh joined VSAT company Wipro BT, which eventually became Bharti BT.

In two years the loss-making company had turned into a profit-making one and by the time Ganesh left, Intel Ventures, the chipmaker's VC arm had taken a stake in it. Says Ganesh: "This was an executive job but had the same entrepreneurial environment as HCL."

Meena's turn to get bitten by the entrepreneurial bug came towards the end of her five-year stint (1995-2000) in Microsoft. In Microsoft she dealt with a clutch of small software companies and the work started giving her new ideas.

"These took shape when I got a lot of time to think during my confinement when our second child was on the way."

They took a key decision. As the software space was already crowded, they decided to make a foray into IT-enabled services, which was then just opening up, their chosen area being closer to CRM (customer relationship management).

While they were working on the start-up, a not-so-subtle shift took place. Ganesh had started out by accompanying Meena to business meetings as an advisor.

But, by the time the venture took off he had become the CEO. Funding was tied up and Ganesh launched Customer.Asset in April 2000, with Meena by his side as COO and founder.

Their first customer was Fabmart, for which they started a website and e-mail service. Their first foreign client was a British bank. ICICI OneSource now does eight different processes for the same client.

Ganesh recalls that in those days the future was wide open for ITES. Nobody knew whether it would go down the tube like medical transcription or soar like software.

All eyes were on the Indian third party providers like Daksh, Spectramind and of course Customer.Asset. Says Ganesh: "There was an evangelical zeal among these start-ups."

The pioneers had an especially tough time because they had no role models to copy. All the successful centres were captive units of multinationals like GE.

The idea of a call centre had to be sold not just to the youngsters who manned the seats but their parents who were wary of the newfangled outfit that seemed to do all its work at night.

Unlike most infotech executives, Ganesh insists that he has never worked 14 hours a day and he certainly never worked seven days a week.

"You try to work normal hours unless there's something special happening," he says. "Otherwise, quality suffers. I encourage staff to be happy."

Similarly, Meena has found the time to keep a family going. One reason she has been able to pull it off is because the family has a strong support system and Ganesh's mother lives with them. Meena may not spend time with the children every evening but weekends are sacrosanct.

For Customer.Asset, growth came quickly and in 2001 the company ramped up from a pilot stage and got its second round of funding. The money was used to build a second centre.

Then 2002 brought more growth and the need for more funding. That is how ICICI, which decided to grow into the business inorganically, came in. Says Ganesh: "They offered a good deal."

Ganesh is convinced that selling out was the right move. "You need deep pockets for such rapid ramping up and these are businesses you do not pass on to the next generation, as the technology changes too fast and with it the nature of the business. So you keep creating, building, and when the business matures, moving on, like episodes in a serial."

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