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ZINNOV PODCAST   |   Business Resilience

The Frugal Entrepreneur: Leadership Lessons on Perseverance

Dr A Velumani Creator Thyrocare
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“Success in life is not earning too much. Success in life is spending little”
From our extensive conversations with C-suite executives, investors and business leaders over the last 12 months, a key inflection point is how to scale, sustainably. Volatile market conditions, business uncertainty, and global recessionary forces are calling for organizations to think outside the box.
In our latest episode of Zinnov’s Business Resilience, Dr. A. Velumani, Founder of Thyrocare sits down with Nitika Goel, CMO, Zinnov, to expound growth strategies rooted in first principles of passion, perseverance and cultivating the right attitude. The conversation explores how frugality, perseverance and passion can help leapfrog a growth trajectory.

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When Dr Arokiaswamy Velumani stepped foot into Mumbai, India in 1982, little did he know he was going to lead a multi-million dollar business in a few years. A poster child of the theory ‘try, try, try, till you succeed’, Dr Velumani highlights the importance of focus and a learning mindset as the pivotal levers to building a world-class empire. More importantly, his anecdotes are a masterclass in how to build anti-fragile organizations through careful cost management on both the operations and customer sides of business. In his words, “Nobody goes out of business for providing cheaper options .”

The Frugal Entrepreneur: Leadership Lessons on Perseverance leaves a lasting impression on how to recalibrate an approach to success by traversing the road less travelled.


Timestamps

0:20 – The building blocks of a good leader
2:01 – The core traits needed to imbibe frugality as a mindset
4:45 – How does a leader maintain focus?
8:17 – How do you balance focusing on now, vs later?
10:20 – How to stay inventive, frugal, disruptive, and focused
12:42 – Dealing with irrelevance
14:43 – Why storytelling is important

PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

00:20

Nitika: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Zinnov Podcast and the Business Resilience Series. My name is Nitika Goel, the CMO of Zinnov, and I’m your host for this episode. I have with me an incredibly special guest, Dr. Velumani. I think a lot of you may know him as a household name, but what he has done is rethink the fundamental models of how entrepreneurship works.
He seems to be a leader who has constantly gone against the grain and done things on his terms. So thank you, sir. Very happy to have you today. and we are looking forward to really getting into the nuances of what it takes to be a good leader. Entrepreneurship is one kind of leadership, not everybody has an entrepreneur in them. Maybe, maybe not. But if you really have to think of leadership as a broader construct, what do you think are the fundamental building blocks of a good leader?

Dr Velumani: Yeah, everybody cannot be a leader. In fact, there are three kinds of people. One who doesn’t have time for himself also, he can’t be even a follower. The second man has enough time for himself but for no one else. He is a wonderful follower.
But a man who has time for himself and for a dozen number of people also only can be the leader. Don’t get on to that leadership if you can’t guide people to success. So the power of the leader is how many people can you mentor and guide, for them to achieve what they believe they can.
So leadership is very, very different. Wakht honi chahiye (There should be time) to take care of even others.

02:01

Nitika: It’s a great point. I’m going to talk about more specific aspects or traits of a leader. So one, you talked about the construct of having time for everybody. That also means it’s a degree of selflessness and a deeper understanding of what’s happening.
You’ve built a company in a very different mindset. You’ve talked about frugality. Today we are in an era where money is free, no longer cheap because it’s coming at a price at a different time, but you’re building teams, organizations on somebody else’s dime. You’ve done it very differently. Why did you do that? And what are the core traits you need to have, to be able to do that consistently?

Dr Velumani: I think success in life is not earning too much. Success in life is spending little. I think there are people in villages very successful, though they may not have made millions. They are capable of earning their life without borrowing.
So the word frugality is something very important, not just for the poor. It’s very important for a leader. Especially when the world has a situation where followers will only follow, followers don’t listen. So don’t preach. Practice. So I think a leader who practices himself frugality is more likely to have followers who are more focused on following him.
So maybe I did not know how to show off or I did not have a need to show off. I think the biggest problem is people want to act. I think this word is very important. If you act poor, you have become powerful. If you act rich, you become very weak. In fact my mother was most frugal. I learned frugality from her. I found my wife much more frugal than me. And if you notice, all the three people’s frugality is what today is the most powerful billion-dollar unicorn Thyrocare is.

So I believe that money should not be wasted. In fact, let me tell you. So, whenever you spend money, it goes into two categories. One is expenditure, another is investment. And if you don’t know the difference, you are gone. So I always invested. I never spend on expenditures. So making best use of the resources in hand, be it time or money, is the power of a leader.

04:45

Nitika: And it’s a very beautiful point that you talked about, and I think you also alluded to the construct of focus, right? For a leader, that is also very important and interestingly your email address is also focused on that. So if we’d love to hear the genesis of that and also to understand, in an age of so many distractions, so many changing priorities, how does a leader keep focus?

Dr Velumani: Yeah, in that way, I don’t know from where it was, but I think my all childhood days only focus was, if I finish a graduation, I would be able to sit in a table and chair and work.
Otherwise, I’d have to work in hot sun. So that was the focus in my, first 15 years. Then the focus was if I can get a good job, good salary, my mother, my family will be out of poverty. And then my focus was if I do an MSc and PhD, I can be a very powerful scientist. So I think very often people come to comfort zone and surrender. Comfort zones are danger zones. If you’re not aware of it, you are gone. I think I was fully aware of it.

And then when I started business, again, the focus was first 100 samples. And then the focus was a thousand samples per day. So, that is something which I realized that you can’t take your eyes off of.
I’ve never taken breaks. I think I had the highest level of focus. If, with focus in 25 years, I have done what a man can do in a hundred years, and probably I have also earned what a man can earn in a thousand years. So that’s the power of focus. I keep telling there are only two kinds of people, one who is successful, other could not focus. So I think this word focus, I must have told infinite number of times to my employees, to my family numbers, and even today if I get up to the stage, focus. In fact, I want you to register four words.
Focus, first word. Because if you don’t focus, you can’t learn. So learn is the second word. Focus, learn. Then grow. Without focusing, without learning, you can’t grow. So focus, learn, grow. Then only you can enjoy. So these four words, focus, learn, grow, and enjoy. Please don’t change the order. Very often people tend to start enjoying first, gone. So I strongly believe for, for a boy who has come from a village from the bottom of the pyramid with no parental support, no, what you call as, godfather around. I have focused and today I am what I am.
I don’t want to claim anything else has been a reason for my success. Except poverty, combined with focus, and then frugality. And the consistency in doing what you are doing is most important, that’s discipline. I think these three, four words have added five, six zeros in my net worth.

08:17

Nitika: I think that’s a very interesting point and I think it’s very, very articulately put. Let me talk about what is happening in technology today. You have newer technologies like Generative AI coming in. So there is also trend spotting. For leaders, there is that constant struggle of do I focus on what I am doing now, versus figuring out am I going to be disrupted because there is something much bigger than what I have seen because it’s not been in my focus. How do you balance that?

Dr Velumani: 8 billion brains are working. Let’s put it very simply. 800 crores of people in the world. All brains are working. You need to be a leader means you need to be ahead. If you know less than your subordinate, you are really not a leader. So there’s a pressure on you. I’m today, 64. When I was in my college, there was no computer in the university.
Which means IT was not a word. But if you notice, at an age of 60, I have built my own IT, which means what? You need to keep learning fast. Much more than, your peers can learn, much more than your employees can learn, and you need to be certainly keeping that curve, that slope on. Having said that, I don’t think every discipline you can keep learning.

It is, you know, 360 degrees, it’s growing. In your area, in your space, and let me put it this way, what do you do is not as important as how do you do. Number one. Number two, whatever I do, I won’t allow anyone else to do better than what I can do. That’s all. You can’t master the entire world. In your space, you can’t see somebody else Somebody else younger to you, and somebody else becoming taller than you, is not acceptable. Zid, (Persistence), ego, sab chahiye (all these traits should exist) otherwise the leaders cannot survive.

10:20

Nitika: You also talk about disruption, right? And I think you constantly say there’s innovation and then you talk about disruption. The common perception is to be in pore position, you need money, right? And you talked about frugality. I’m going back to that, I know. How do you continue to stay inventive, plus frugal, plus disruptive, plus focused?
Isn’t that a tall order?

Dr Velumani: I think the word focus, once it is there, you remain frugal. I mean, I think these two words are very interrelated. If you are not focused, then your padosi (neighbor) is the distraction. If the padosi has bought something, you want to buy bigger than that. So if you are focused, that itself is more or less putting you in the track of frugality.
I think money is supposed to come from the business to do innovations. And it’s not that investors can give money and you can innovate. For some reasons in my field, I never had funds as a need. In fact, I’ll tell you a punchline here. No one opens the syringe before the patient opens the purse. Which means money comes from the customer. I think money management, the financial discipline is the biggest, biggest talent a leader should have. I never had a company in which there was working capital. Negative working capital was there. But I think I might sound like a Superman. Let me not emphasize more on it.

You can borrow. Everything needed, you can do. I think managing money with least money, producing maximum growth, maximum returns is what investors want. So in that way, money management is ultimate. I could fortunately do that. And, I don’t think many are successful there.
People have become victims of unnecessarily showing off. I believe that frugality would take you to a logical height.

12:42

Nitika: So, I’m going to ask you the last couple of questions that I have, right? I’m going to bring up an insecurity. As people get older, they question relevance. Am I relevant as the business in the world and things are changing? Is that ever a fear that’s entered your head? Or at least have you mentored people? Because I understand you mentor people. Is that a fear that you mentor people for? And if yes, what advice do you give?

Dr Velumani: Oh, one thing is in my days, the generation was 25 years. Today the generation is five years. Literally speaking, very fast it is changing. Things will change. Before I go, I will see things happening without my understanding. That should not make you feel bad, it should make you feel your next generation and the generation to come are going to live a much more powerful life, if not successful life. A very, very prosperous life, if not happy life. But having said that, I don’t think anybody should feel insecure in understanding the change of environment and culture of the newer generations. As long as you have enough knowledge, you can make money. In fact there is a definition.

What is wealth? Wealth is when you have lost everything, what is left with you is wealth. So, if you have talents, and if you can rock people by your abilities of guiding, mentoring, or even if you are a storyteller, and even if you are a musician, singer, I think the power of a person is the talents he has got, not the closing balance he has. So this is my way of looking at it. I’ve never felt insecure in those angles.

14:43

Nitika: You talked about a very interesting aspect of a core skill, which is storytelling. And I think we’ve discussed this, where you said storytelling is a very important skill for any leader. What have you seen with it and why do you think it’s so important?

Dr Velumani: See, in fact, I have one more punchline. An entrepreneur, if he can be a good storyteller, he need not pay full salaries. Because half of the people work for the story, the remaining work for the salary. To that extent, the storytelling will make the people to follow you. I think very important. The story is a story only when there is a truth behind it. In fact, I will tell you three T’s most important. One is Truth. If the truth is not there, even the family will not follow you. Employees will not follow you. Customers will not follow you. And investors will not trust you. So the truth is most important. Only when truth is there, Transparency can be there. Without truth, transparency is not existing. With truth and transparency, only Trust comes. And if there is no trust, you have nothing. And if you have trust, you have everything. So the very important is trust. For that, truth and transparency. When these three are there, you become a storyteller. Because when you are on a stage, you have to talk truth, you don’t have to think again. But if you are going to concoct and tell, you have to remember last session, what you told and this session has to match. Otherwise, you lose credibility. So these are all important for a storyteller, number one. And let me also define what is storytelling.

It’s an art. The choice of words, the sequence of words, and the pause in between. That’s the story. You don’t have to have vocabulary. You don’t have to have anything other than simple communication. So I think I have fortunately got it right, and I am improvising over it. And in fact, I must tell you here, there are three kinds of people.
One has a constipation of words and diarrhoea of thoughts. The second one has got constipation of thoughts and diarrhoea of words. The third one is a story-teller. I use punchlines because people remember and create punchlines. Had punchlines been not important, Amitabh (Bachchan) would have not been Amitabh, been not Rajinikanth, Salman Khan would have not been Salman Khan, Velumani would have not been what Velumani is. So to that extent punchlines matter a lot.

People forget stories, but it’s very, very difficult to forget punchlines.

17:39

Nitika: That is an absolute amazing session that we’ve had with you, Dr. I think I’ve learned so much personally, and I’m pretty sure that your punchlines have landed. Lovely. Thank you again for your time and thank you to our listeners. For listening in, we of course have a series of leaders on this podcast and we look forward to having you back again.

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