“No, I don’t eat breakfast. I want to be effective in my day and dependency on the three meal a day regime reduces my energy. I want to add more working hours,” replies Prabhu Ram, Co-founder and CEO, Payswiff when I started the interview with his morning routine. On being given the chance to describe Prabhu Ram, he summarises, “I would like to be not known or called as an entrepreneur, to be honest, but someone who tries to make a difference in people’s lives and guide them. I’m from southern Tamil Nadu, I lived next to Thanjavur. There, from a small age, I was fascinated by leaders from all walks of life. The ability to change people’s lives is quite big. Hence, ideally, I wish I can be called a leader more than anything else.”
The Early Days
Necessity is the most righteous drive for any goal in life. For Ram, when he saw that it was the time for him to do something different, he took it more as fate than as passion, “See it would be a lie, if I say here that, I was super passionate about entrepreneurship and that is all I wanted. After a certain age, I decided that things had to be changed for me and my family and so did business happen.” A keen observer often finds his inkling at the earliest. Ram, back in the days, visited a get together of families of employees of a corporation. It was a Diwali meet. He saw them having dinner together, exchanging gifts and smiles. He was quick to conclude the powers of starting something big that can potentially lead many lives to a prosperous future. Mind you, Ram back then was just 14.
In 1995, a wedding invitation card came in the hands of Ram. He found it ‘very colourful, very different’. He tried to then understand how it was made and got to know that the whole process is rather cheap. With all his friends from college, he formed his first team. Then with Ram, the whole bunch toiled day and night to make it a successful business. “From childhood days, I had a liking for every business that had ‘scale’. I researched a bit and saw that not many people were involved in the printing business in the neighbouring towns. That means, people around me can become a part of what I want to do and it can be expanded.”
Taking time in finding yourself is like choosing the right battle to fight for. My mother used to say, never pick a small fight. She would convince me every time in different languages that I am meant to do something big.
Networking in its classic form was never Ram’s cup of tea. He believes in trying out new things, new kinds of business ideas which will eventually bring people together. He does not believe in the hype of networking as the core of one’s business. He asserts the kind of networking he would rather prefer, “Coming together of people for ideas is a natural process. You attract people who are like-minded. The market is always on the lookout for such scalable businesses. You build one, people will notice and they’ll connect you to other important people.”
Identity Crisis And Entrepreneurship
Till he was 24, Ram’s life was harried by two emotions adults face when the decision taking phase in their life takes over. Peer pressure and Identity crisis. “I think we all carry something like an identity crisis for a long time. Let’s say I was facing the same situation in that time. And to couple that, people started telling me, ‘he is going outside for this course, he is doing that course,’ and that leads to peer-pressure as well.” Ram believes that such moments of stress are necessary for the personality in an entrepreneur to shape up and come out. For himself, he wanted to be seen as someone who is into the business. Ram remembers his mother’s words regarding the same, “Taking time in finding yourself is like choosing the right battle to fight for. My mother used to say, never pick a small fight. She would convince me every time in different languages that I am meant to do something big.” I ask him back if he still chooses his fights conscientiously, he promptly replies, “I very much do it every time, yes. Not the fistfight like childhood but the real ones (chuckles).”
After the printing business reached a saturation point. Ram moved to Chennai. He started working in a computer assembly business. Him leaving one well-set business to another has a clear logic behind it, “I think an entrepreneur has to have a thirst for one thing that is the scale of a business and second, the visibility of the future. Future has to be here at least 12 to 36 months. Not having the ability to think this way, cannot give you success.” says Ram. He also advises the entrepreneurs to have a clear differentiation from becoming a businessman in the process. “It is also about what kind of journey you want to take as an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur who just wants profit or the one who realises that entrepreneurship is just a level below leadership. So, the opportunity is big, that should be realised.”
Till 2003, Ram kept himself with the computer assembling business in Chennai. Just like the printing business, the saturation point was approaching as well as competitive advantage started declining. At this point, Ram decided to move ahead in life as he believes that anything lacking a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) will anyway mushroom into many small similar businesses. To the same fact, he now looks back with contentment. He voices, “I’m very satisfied. People remember us for that time. They call me from the US and Europe, even today. See, even employees starting up with their own businesses is an inspiration that you provided. It is a pleasure to see them doing well. Seeing people take interest in entrepreneurship is a different kind of peace.”
Ram exited the business with a sense of satisfaction and moved on to a journey that catches on to the technological advancements India was going through. His childlike curiosity about the modern communication systems resonated in his voice as he says, “I don’t know about you but the sound that comes from the modems is quite different. The connection of a dialling modem on connection gives a sound, I liked it. All this had so much potential, it was so fascinating.” This statement of Ram are words of a person who absorbs himself in his work and related culture. 14 years from then, I asked him, if he is still curious and updated, he says, “In fact I’m better updated since I’ve a team now. I get time to read. Also, information dissemination is so rapid. I think it is essential to know what is happening around you.”
Ram’s Digital Payment Conquest
Next, Ram finds his way to the e-commerce transactions world through another of his businesses, a website building company. Website building again as per him did not have the USP but the e-commerce requests that he was receiving intrigued him. He tried to fulfil those requests through payment gateways that were already available in India but they were charging exorbitant charges. “Then we decided to start a payment gateway company. I met one of my partners in Chennai. And we were all new with the idea and thought of a company. We did not know how to raise funds. Or fetch venture capitalists. We simply posted an advertisement in the newspaper. We are a payment gateway company; we need capital of 3 to 4 crores.”
As fate would have it, their shot in the dark did create the buzz they wanted. And through that Ram came in contact with a realtor from Mumbai, Kanu Bhai Shah. That was when Ram finally had that one mentor every entrepreneur needs to learn the walk of life. “He took a bet on me. Two guys from South India with no previous experience in entrepreneurship get a check of 2-3 crores on the basis of vision. I learnt a lot from it. The idea of risk.” Ram shares.
Following the cue, I asked him about risks, on which he shared an excerpt from an army general’s interview, “I read somewhere, that you don’t always have the luxury to take the right decision. Sometimes you need to do your own math. Which is, if I’m 40 percent sure about something. I do it. So, entrepreneurs should always take this measured risk and have multiple approaches in mind. Hence, risk-taking is part of an entrepreneur’s life. As the business will scale and more data is at hand, this math will change. 60 percent data reliability, 40 percent of gut instinct. 70-30 and even when we have all the data, there should be some show of guts, be it 10 percent.”
With this powerful guidance at his disposal, Ram started his first major platform of e-commerce payment integration, E-billing Solutions or EBS.
Ram quickly summarises for his first three years at EBS, “They were very tough on us. What did I learn in that time? Hmm, how to survive.” He continues with his journey by sharing what it takes in initial years, “Building an organisation is like wanting to be a cinema hero. Now you need to have an enormous amount of perseverance for this success to come your way. Eventually, acceptance of our solutions started increasing. Banks started trusting us when we improved our system to avoid payment failures.”
Exits are confusing for an entrepreneur when the going is good. Entrepreneurs often get attached to the idea of leading one company for long. For EBS and Prabhu Ram, by 2011, that time had come in terms of offers. To Ram’s good fortune, he had the life-long leadership of Kanu Bhai Shah at his disposal at every step.
“It was a tough decision. Kanu Bhai told us, despite the emotional efforts you’ve put in, it is about scalability at the end of the day. He says, ‘There is an offer on the table, you’ve age, you’ve life, start building something with it. Take it.” he shares.
Risk-taking is part of an entrepreneur’s life. As the business will scale and more data is at hand, this math will change. 60 percent data reliability, 40 percent of gut instinct. 70-30 and even when we have all the data, there should be some show of guts, be it 10 percent.
As per Ram, weaknesses need to be strengthened since fundamentally we all have them. He states, “Personally, I feel I’m good at planning but not really good at execution. So, I have members in the team whom I recognise, who can do things better than you. So, being an entrepreneur you need to realise your forte and make sure the people who can do better than you do, perform those respective roles.”
Shortcuts, Ethics and Gratitude
Shortcuts are often lucrative. However, few of them ask you to go over the line of ethics. Ram gives a prompt, resounding, “very much” to my question- are you an ethical man? He further explains, “Kanu Bhai always told us that when you build an organisation with ethical uprightness, it will last for decades. I also strongly believe that ethics and the idea of righteousness is instrumental. I’m not against street-smartness but never by crossing the grey area.” Ram beautifully shares his turning points of life by mentioning two events in his life, “Meeting my wife had a huge impact on me. It brought discipline in my life. Professionally, the turning point was meeting Kanu Bhai, the most important individual to have impacted my life. He is my godfather.”
Ram today is Group CEO of Payswiff, India’s leading payment gateway service provider. Ram started working with Payswiff as founder with the same set of people he had been working with since 2005. This long association with each other, per him, played a role in their success. “Between the co-founders, there is no ego, there is complete understanding, an ease of communication and as I said earlier, you know who is good at what.” So, it’s like working with friends? He’s asked, “No we fight a lot, like cats and dogs (chuckles). Though, as in arranged marriages, you still fall in love, right? So, you always see good for the company in the end right,” Pankaj answers.
Values To Excel
Lack of integrity, articulateness and perseverance in entrepreneurship can all three in combination or individually could prove to be a spectacular failure as per Ram. Which is the most important out of three? Ram says, “Integrity, which leads to humbleness. People around you should feel confident that what you are speaking is what you are thinking too. There’s no time to play around.”
Entrepreneurship in India has witnessed several changes in its culture but there’s scope for more. “I talk to entrepreneurs here and they talk about what they’ll do in the next three years or five. That is very narrow. I have talked to some entrepreneurs from countries like say China, and they tell you beautifully where they see the company in 30 years. That is vision. We need vision in entrepreneurship,” Ram adds.
Ram ends with a recollection of his packed schedule and tries to amusingly explain why he isn’t sleeping better, “Well, I try to be in bed at 11 come what may but I get up at 4 and I read. I sleep again and get up again at 8 o’clock. So, 4 to 5 at night, it is best for reading. Also conscious wise, at times, like any human being, I have fears and anxiety of what is going to happen and what not. That is life, isn’t it?”
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