Meet Rajiv Chilaka, the man behind India’s animation superhero, ‘Chhota Bheem’

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Entrepreneurship stories tend to be mostly about instant success or loud, public failures. Entrepreneurial journeys that are a slow burn are often not talked about. But that’s exactly what excites us at Outliers podcast.

The first time I met Rajiv Chilaka, the founder of Green Gold Animation, a couple of years ago in Hyderabad, he appeared too shy to talk about the story behind Chhota Bheem, a popular homegrown animation hero for Indian kids. For me, and for many watching from outside, Chhota Bheem appeared to be an instant hit.

For Chilaka, 42, an engineer who grew up idolising Walt Disney and fantasising about creating animation superstars, the journey started in the year 2000. But, the real tipping point came in 2008, May to be precise, when Chhota Bheem first aired on Pogo channel.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Ten days before Chhota Bheem went to air, Chilaka’s new office was gutted in a fire accident, a big potential investor developed cold feet, and the lenders gheraoed him demanding their dues [/perfectpullquote]

“Pogo was exploring to shut down the channel and I too had had a long journey with failures by then. A lot was riding on Chhota Bheem,” he says.

Ten days before Chhota Bheem went to air, Chilaka’s new office was gutted in a fire accident, a big potential investor developed cold feet, and the lenders gheraoed him demanding their dues.

It was a complete tragedy. Nothing comical about it at all.

And then everything changed. Chhota (small) Bheem brought big fortune to the company. The brand itself is valued over Rs 400 crore according to the industry insiders, and over 60 million watch the show every month.

Listen to this podcast to learn more about Chilaka’s long, slow and dramatic entrepreneurial journey.

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Inside Tejas Networks’ long, slow journey: From near-death experiences to IPO

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At 52, Sanjay Nayak is not among the young, restless and “cool” breed of entrepreneurs in India’s startup ecosystem. But then, his telecom equipment startup, Tejas Networks, is not really a newbie either. Launched in the year 2000, Tejas Networks has been through at least three near-death experiences.

I have been tracking Tejas’ journey for well over a decade. I always thought India lost out on a massive opportunity to create a homegrown telecom equipment behemoth by not supporting Tejas against the likes of Huawei backed by the Chinese government. As I sit down with Nayak for this week’s Outliers, he shares many other battles, and how his team conquered them all to come this far.

The first one near-death experience came during 2009 when Tejas’ biggest customer, Canadian telecom equipment-maker Nortel, filed for bankruptcy.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “Our international revenues at that time were growing at 100% year on year, thanks to Nortel. But once it filed for bankruptcy, it was kind of a slow death for us and our revenues too collapsed with it” — Sanjay Nayak, founder, Tejas Networks   [/perfectpullquote]

“Our international revenues at that time were growing at 100% year on year, thanks to Nortel. But once it filed for bankruptcy, it was kind of a slow death for us and our revenues too collapsed with it,” Nayak says.

Then, around 2010-2011, India’s famous ‘2G scam’ shook the country’s telecom sector and forced customers to shelve buying equipment for expansion. Tejas was right at the centre of all this. “Indian operators were not buying, international revenues collapsed, things weren’t good,” he says.

By 2011-2012, Tejas’ revenues took a massive dip — from over Rs 600 crore to around Rs 200 crore, one-third of what it was. “We were in a mess,” adds Nayak.

From there, Nayak and his team rebuilt Tejas based on the learnings during each crisis. Last week, the company launched its Rs 450 crore initial public offering, the first by an Indian telecom equipment maker.

Listen to this Outliers podcast to learn from Tejas’ battles.

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Sonam Wangchuk wishes people more problems, so they can learn

The first time I heard about Sonam Wangchuk was in Jalgaon, Maharashtra, last year. I was meeting a top executive of Jain Irrigation, and he mentioned an innovative use of the irrigation pipes and drip technology in Leh.

I actually missed Wangchuk by a day in Jalgaon where he was visiting to seek help for his Ice Stupa (artificial glacier) Project. After some digging and asking around, I realised that Wangchuk has been more famous for being a real Outlier. He’s been helping school dropouts and those who’ve ‘failed’ in conventional learning environments become real life achievers.

In 1988, he established The Students’ Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL), an alternative school that helps dropouts and those considered failures in the conventional education system, become achievers.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “I’ve failed in more than half of the things I’ve tried. I wish people more problems, so they learn” — Sonam Wangchuk   [/perfectpullquote]

And he’s been doing all this in Leh, Ladakh, which is clearly among the toughest places to survive in because of its extreme winter and dry, sub-zero temperatures.

“Over the years, I’ve realised that it’s the system that has failed them (the school dropouts); they haven’t really failed,” he tells me as we sit down in a cosy hut-like room with a cowdung ceiling.

Wangchuk is best described as an innovator, education reformist and, of course, an Outlier.

“I’ve failed at more than half of the things I’ve tried. I wish people more problems, so they learn,” he tells me at the SECMOL campus in the Phey village, Leh.

This podcast is the first in a series of three stories we’ve managed to capture during a two-day trip to Leh. Next week, we will publish a multimedia narrative from ground zero about how Wangchuk is building artificial glaciers to solve another real-life problem of water scarcity in the region.

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Life of an ordinary founder — Abhishek Sinha’s extraordinary battle to build Eko

Abhishek Sinha, 40, has been building a “fintech” startup over the past decade, much before it became cool to build a mobile wallet company. The story of Sinha’s journey to build Eko since late 2007 has all the ingredients of a thriller, and that’s not just about the number of times he faced near-death experiences as an entrepreneur. From navigating regulatory uncertainty to facing nearly a hundred creditors demanding payback one fine morning at the office, and hosting the world’s richest man Bill Gates and his family while being completely broke — all these incidents capture a quintessential entrepreneurial struggle.

Sinha got quite an exit when he sold his shares in 6D, a mobile VAS (value added services) startup he had cofounded along with former colleagues from Satyam Computer Services.

“I got an eight-digit cheque; it was so life-changing and empowering. I didn’t even have the courage to go to the bank for depositing the cheque on my own — I had less than a hundred rupees in the account,” he says. “I took my father-in-law along.”

When he started Eko in 2007, the idea was to offer branchless banking to hundreds of thousands of Indians with low to moderate incomes, dealing mostly in cash.

“How can we offer ‘sachet banking’ to people with Rs 5/10/100 average balance?” was the question he asked his founding team.

But much before that, Abhishek and his brother Abhinav, co-founders of Eko, couldn’t even explain “credit and debit” to potential investors.

“We were truly driven by raw energy, we were influenced by how pre-paid talk-time (on mobile phones) worked. We said why don’t we give cash to retailers and it becomes electronic money? “

Now, Eko does monthly transactions worth over Rs 650 crore and counts nearly 20 million customers.

But for Sinha, the near-death experiences have always been part of the journey. When India pushed for demonetisation a few months ago, Eko faced another existential crisis.

In some ways, Sinha and Eko have also lost some of the early mover advantage to the likes of Paytm and over two dozen startups in the alternative lending space in India currently.

“When we started we did see this as a huge opportunity. When we confronted others who came by and started doing a much better job, I got a feeling that we’ve missed out,” he says candidly.

Listen to Sinha’s story, told in his own voice, by clicking the podcast link above.

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