Ronnie Screwvala doesn’t read by the book, maybe that’s the reason he needed to write one. After disrupting the media and entertainment space for almost three decades, he is all set to change the world of sports and education, as he believes having an outsider’s view actually helps. Will his aggressively optimistic outlook actually help him?
When we took the early morning flight to meet Screwvala we were all excited to meet the man who disrupted the TV and movie space in India, and how the media conglomerate he built turned out to be the biggest ever acquisition for Disney. Screwvala’s sprawling house is a piece-of-art on its own. Entrepreneurs have that never-say-die attitude, the ability to innovate every day. Their sharp minds know when to let go and when to enter a new domain. The more you meet this man, the lesser you think you have known about him.
Every phrase he utters opens up a new chapter as we ask him whether he wants to write another book after authoring Dream With Your Eyes Open, he smilingly replies, “I accidentally wrote the book. I felt entrepreneurship is at that cusp we need to write about it. It didn’t come naturally to me.” Our conversation ranges from his start-up story, how he scaled it, his role as a professional, his new avatar as an author and his second innings as an entrepreneur. Excerpts:
Succeeding Like Screwvala
Ronnie Screwvala was not brought up in an environment conducive for entrepreneurship neither was the society ready at that time. On sharing what influenced him to move out of his cocoon, Screwvala says, “In the habitat we were staying, nobody could think of entrepreneurship and getting a degree was an important element. To an extent, my ex-father-in-law was the one who influenced me. When I started cable business, it was with him. He said if I am excited about doing business, he would back me.”
Spending so many years in the media and entertainment space and creating a business out of nothing has helped Screwvala utilise those learnings in other sectors. “Serving overall 25 years in the media and entertainment space, first with cable TV, and later forming UTV, transforming it from a B2B to B2C company then scaling it into a conglomerate. The most critical part in all these years has been to attract talent, starting from actually nowhere.
“Moreover, there was no question of attracting funding which nobody understands. Two words media and entertainment never got together. As media was not even understood. Media came forward in 2000. I think that was interesting and challenging building talent and creating a marketplace where there was none,” he says.
Building a Creative Enterprise
On managing creativity and scale simultaneously, Screwvala says, “Creative people are obsessed with what they do. If you start telling them to think scale, it’s not going to be that easy. I entered this industry as a creative person, but I realised if I remained a creative person, I couldn’t scale.”
Working with the right kind of people and bringing them on board as co-founders has actually helped Screwvala to scale. “My core strength doesn’t lie in being operationally involved in anything. But my core strength is in thinking scale, thinking strategy, thinking brand, thinking value creation, thinking creative, bringing the right team of people and may be attracting credibility to that thought process. So if you look at my co-founders, they are people fully immersed in business, knowing everything that’s happening.”
However, Screwvala is cautious of the fact of how a good and bad co-founder can make or break a venture. “Today the number of co-founders coming up and breaking is massive. They didn’t really know why they came together in the first place. Anything above the count of four I think they must figure out who’s first among equals.” Screwvala’s second wife Zarina was his co-founder at UTV.
Screwvala doesn’t relate himself with the word “Serial Entrepreneur.” As per him, “You don’t pre-meditate to start a business to sell that.” After media and entertainment, his next love is with education, sports and digital media. On asking does this outsider view helps, he replies, “Before I got into movies, I was never a Hindi movie buff. So first thing they asked me was, ‘Do you play football?’ and I said, ‘Actually not.’ They again asked, ‘What got you excited.’ I said, ‘It’s the fact that I am playing the role of a catalyst.”’
In football his company, U Sports, is focused on long-term training where they are taking 90 kids every year for a six year training course. He is investing fully on his own in association with Bundesliga, which is the core German Football league. Screwvala is of the belief that unless we create an ecosystem of massively, deeply trained kids, we won’t be having any second sport.
“You can’t do it with weekend training. You can’t do it with a curriculum of three months or six months. However, six-year training in a competitive environment where you are playing with other Europeans all the time at that young age of 12-16 can do it,” he adds.
“So for the next five years, all we are going to do is invest. So it’s not going to be profitable for five years. But at the end of five years, these young kids that we have trained, we will manage their careers for the next 10 years and that is the business opportunity for us.” But how one can identify the right opportunity, Screwvala says, “When it comes to selecting a business, it comes a fair amount to where one can have a phenomenal amount of impact. And education does have an impact. In some way, media also have an impact. It does influence people’s mind and thinking. Sports too have an impact. So I think that was a tick and something which you can do differently.”
Going forward in education, he has an outlay of about Rs 100 crore for the next two-three years. In UDigital, he will be spending Rs 100-150 crore over the next two-three years. In sports, the investment is around Rs 50 crore as Screwvala says, “Kabaddi has turned surprise positive to us well before we thought it would be. But football is going to be a long-term investment. For next five years, we are going to train 450 kids globally to play here or in Europe or somewhere else.” U Mumba happens to be his kabaddi team. There are two other sports Screwvala is looking at. After exiting from Disney, he started focussing on his social foundation Swades. His daughter, Trishya, has also started her NGO after being funded by the family. She is on her way to mange it on her own.
An entrepreneur is the one who takes things head-on and creates an opportunity where nobody ever thought of. “This country is full of opportunities, but they are not glamorised right now. Disruption will happen in non-attractive sectors,” asserts Screwvala.
“Five years back, if you asked people if they would shop online when we were used to touch and feel everything before buying, everyone would say no. But today, e-commerce companies have given organized retailers a run for their money. That’s real business,” he further says.
An entrepreneur is the one who plays with opportunities, this restlessness and the ability to work on different segments at the same time has actually given Screwvala a frame of mind to work on different genres. On how he weighs the investment, Screwvala shares, “It’s the sector and entrepreneur but in the order of the entrepreneur and then the sector – sector with the scope of and some sense of leadership where we can’t be number two.”
Giving the example of Shopclues, one of the companies funded by him, Screwvala says, “Shopclues is an underdog story not been told.” Other major investments by Screwvala include online eyewear retail company Lenskart, a lingerie company called Zivame, a food venture called Maroosh, an agri company called INI Farms. Then a micro housing finance bank called MHFC, started by a group of ex-Citibankers and recently a service centric hyperlocal platform Timesaverz.
Eyeing an Entrepreneurial India
As the start-up environment is buzzing, Screwvala believes we are still lacking in number of start-ups and first-generation entrepreneurs. “We need 10 million entrepreneurs to start with first-generation entrepreneurs not family businesses who have grown up with the legacy.” When everyone talks about the government not doing enough to support entrepreneurship, Screwvala thinks the government never creates an entrepreneur.
As per him, “Nowhere had they created that. At best, they can support. When we compare India with the US and everyone complains we have a tough business environment to work in. It’s true but if you look at the flip side, I don’t think we are trained to work in an environment where there is so simple to do business. As in the US or other Western markets, competition would be so incredible.”
The overall perception also needs to change. While running an education company, UpGrad in his second innings, he says, “Most people have the obsession of getting a degree. Education is driven with such a pressure that it is for degree and not for learning. Hence, we are trying to sell learning not just a degree.”