The Start Up Guy

Anumeha Verma
Published: April 2016

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Nikhil Malhotra, an Alumni of the University and a budding entrepreneur has been involved with start ups from the time when the term had not even found credence in India. He talks about his various ventures and big dreams here.

Most people barely know at 16 what they want to do with their lives but it was different with Nikhil Malhotra. Ever since he started thinking about his career, all he ever wanted to do was to become an entrepreneur. Some would say beginning at 16 was too early but it did this youngster a world of good. “My father was into knitwear. I learnt my early lessons of business from him. I did gain a lot of experience in dealing with the labours and other operational areas of a business.” Assisting his father in the business was rewarding but Nikhil wanted to do something more. He wanted to be a person who was building a successful business and launched his first venture at the age of 18. Sitting at Residency Road in his soon to be launched second restaurant, Nikhil seems to have come from his 18 year old self with only dreams. He has dappled in several areas successfully, has worked, learnt his lessons and is moving full steam ahead to create a neat bouquet of business ventures.

After his Higher Secondary, Nikhil joined Centre for Management Studies, Jain University for pursuing Bachelor of Business Management. “Fun, learning and inspiration to do something great, were the three things that stayed with me throughout the three years at CMS. We all had big dreams and wanted to do something really great with our lives.” Nikhil reminisces how the talent pool at CMS was huge. “I remember in my batch, everyone could do something special. So, to do anything all you needed to do was to put together the right team. It was an inspiring place to be.”

Nikhil is out and out someone who does not believe in beating about the bush once he has made up his mind about something. Right out of college, he began his foray into the world of business. He loved working with computers and was tinkering with them from as long as he could remember. Even though Nikhil did not have a professional technical education, he could understand the language of computers just the right way. “I look at a computer and see it as its separate component. I can somehow always work out what is wrong with it and what needs to be put right to make it work. When I decided to get into business, my first thought was why not turn my hobby into a business.”

dravidasIn the beginning, he started off with door to door service for PCs. Nikhil would travel all over Bangalore and repaired systems for a mere Rs 200. “At times it used to take me three to four hours to repair a system and the money I would earn at the end of it often used to go into fuel.” The initial experience that this youngster had might not have been monetarily beneficial, but it helped in networking and gave him a different perspective on life. The contacts that he created while doing his door to door service finally assisted him in launching his very first business. This was how CATNAP Systems was born. Nikhil as usual had very huge goals. “My USP was high-end computers. During that period we assembled some really phenomenal machines. We are talking of machines being used in gaming and animation designing. One machine could go into 20-25 lakhs at that time.” Nikhil ran CATNAP Systems till he was about 22. It came to a point when the business started increasing and Nikhil neither had the manpower nor the experience to run a big organization. “We were not attracting the right kind of human resources,” Nikhil shares. He admits that being a young start up and not being able to attract the right kind of talent, and mistakes were happening hard and fast. “They were not mistakes that one could recover from and I realized that I needed more life experiences and better skill sets. At last he decided to devote a few years to understanding how a big organization worked. His quest took him to Google in Hyderabad. He joined Google in 2008. The self-taught techie got into the business side of Google but his acumen gradually took him into the technical aspects too. He begun to design games for the company that would initiate new Googlers into the system and a lot more.

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Working at Google helped Nikhil learn several aspects of running a business. Google was barely nine years old when he joined and was one of the fastest growing companies in the world. “It meant that they were bound to commit mistakes in the management. Being there, I could just see how they used to handle things, the restructuring and reorganization as per the need. The ways in which they found solutions were brilliant.”

Working at Google not only helped him understand the nitty-gritty of running a big company but it also paved the way for his second venture called Netiffic India Pvt. Ltd. Google did online advertising and small companies need online ads. Nikhil realized that there were no links to connect these small time business owners to Google’s sophisticated systems. “I felt that there was a need to start an online marketing agency. That is how Netiffic was launched. I think it was the very first online marketing portfolio management company in South India at that time.” However, the Indian clients for whom Nikhil had launched the company hardly understood the online market and it was slim pickings for the organisation where the Indian market was concerned. Their business actually flowed from the United States. Businesses in the U.S. realized that Nikhil was offering a very cost-effective service. They could get the same services that they were getting in the U.S. by paying in rupees. The business was good and clients were increasing. Money poured in but it was not fulfilling for this budding entrepreneur. He decided to take a two year break from business and joined IBM for further experience. “I worked with the human resources team at IBM and learnt a lot about the processes. I was getting first-hand experience of what would have taken the company more than 30 years to build in terms of their processes.” Being a very resourceful person who is always keen to learn new things helped Nikhil a lot and he took home not only a neat pay packet but also lessons that proved useful to him as he commenced on more serious ventures.

dravidas-int1After leaving IBM, Nikhil wanted to go beyond offering online marketing management services. He thus soon started off with marketing research. And, Infornet India Pvt. Ltd. was born. Nikhil’s foray into marketing research began with the realization that the marketing research industry, though one of the oldest and one of the biggest was still stuck with the old method of doing things. “You can walk into a mall and find somebody requesting you to fill details about a product. Often people give out biased information in such circumstances because most of the time they do not have a clue about the product and besides, that they do not go to a mall to fill forms.” Nikhil claims that the accuracy of market research is usually 18-22 per cent. “It is a huge waste of resources. We are trying to incorporate technologies which would enable to reduce the bias and give more accurate readings on the basis of which businesses can take informed decisions.” The company is still working towards developing applications which can be of help in this direction.

Meanwhile, as the marketing research was taking off, Nikhil decided to explore his love for cooking as a business interest. “I love food and I have been cooking for a long time. Though I still have a long way to go, I am fairly adept at my ingredients,” says the restaurateur with a laugh. Pune became the city for his first venture into food business. There were two years of hard work and getting it exactly right, then came, Dravida’s Bistro. “The USP of Dravida’s Bistro is that we grow our own food, completely organic, free of pesticides.” He opened the restaurant in partnership. Dravida’s Bistro has 16,000 sq. feet in total out of which 8,000 sq. feet is the urban growth space. It is an added attraction for those who dine in this restaurant serving pure veg dakshin (southern) cuisine. “We often take our customers to see the fields once they have eaten and tell them that this is where ingredients in their food came from.” Dravida’s Bistro is currently fluctuating between 4.2 to 4.4 on Zomato. Nikhil remarks that a very limited variety of south Indian food is available in Pune. Most of it, he says, is restricted to idli, vada, dosa, rasam, sambhar and rice. “Dravida’s Bistro provides a refreshing change. We have food on our menu that our customers cannot pronounce but they keep coming back time after time because they simply cannot forget the taste.”
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Another point where this restaurant scores is pricing. “We provide authentic and mouth-watering food at a great price.” A recipe for success that Nikhil is keen to replicate in Bangalore but with a twist. He is about to launch his second restaurant, The Moo Point in Devatha Plaza at Residency Road. “The point about Moo Point is, it is going to serve sandwiches, such as this city has never seen before,” he says with a mischievous glint in his eyes. But, that is just the fun part. Talking to him reveals how dead serious this young entrepreneur is about his sandwiches. According to him, “Sandwiches are something that have been there ever since bread came around. Every country, in fact, every region has its own version of sandwiches. Vada pav is a sandwich in itself. I want to offer the authentic vada pav with the real Mumbai pav in this city.” He means business. It is obvious from the fact that it took him six months just to get the right sort of bread. And, now that he has finally found his guy to make bread Nikhil is rearing to go. “I want people to have yummy burgers, authentic Vietnamese Bun Mee sandwiches and Elbow Grips at effective prices.” The restaurant is going to serve an array of vegetarian and non-vegetarian sandwiches and burgers, along with beverages and side dishes.

Cost effective, scrumptious food is the mantra that Nikhil lives by. He feels that over-priced food is often the result of bad back-end management. “If the price of an ingredient goes up, no one tries to find an alternative, rather, the cost is happily passed on to the customer. I want to end this trend, cut on costs and pass on the benefits to the customers.” He claims that out of 10 items, you can make twenty and save a lot on the costs while still dishing out delicious fare.

Some people would say that Nikhil is dabbling into too many sectors at once but he is not at all apologetic about it. For him, there is no point in putting all his eggs in just one basket. “I am a ridiculous dreamer. I take pleasure in setting goals for myself that look pretty unachieveable at a certain point of time but finally they come within reach.” Perhaps it is this attitude of dreaming big while still keeping within his grips the down to earth attitude that he so effortlessly exudes that is behind his success, apart from hard work and a never say die principle deeply embedded in his psyche. When asked about his future plans, he says without any hesitation. “I want to change the way business is done,” with a look that very clearly leaves unsaid, “And I am going to make it happen.”

 - Anumeha Verma is at present working with Jain University and believes that strategic communication plays a major role in solving development issues.