“India is a supply-constrained market”

It was a typically warm Mumbai day — the air was sultry with heat when I stood in front of Reliance’s office. In front of me was the sturdy-looking old building, Maker Chambers; its presence vaguely familiar. As I took the elevator, I realized that security was not intrusive and almost non-existent. Nothing in the unpretentious, simple office indicated that this was the office of the richest man in Asia. Yet, here lies the answer to the enormous success of Reliance from the Rs 1,000 crore company it was in the 80s to the Rs 7.8 trillion crore company it is today.

I was at the Reliance office to meet Mr. Manoj Modi. When Manoj walked in, he exuded an air of welcome and simplicity. Despite the reputation that precedes him as a tough businessman, Manoj was not intimidating. We chatted for a while, sharing information on the startup ecosystem in India. Then, I invited him to speak at the Kalaari Summit, making a plug to give back to the startup ecosystem. Manoj said he would think about it and later confirmed that he indeed would participate and share his insights.

Manoj is known to shy away from the limelight — you hardly find interviews of him online or in print. Here is a man who has shaped Jio into one of the most disruptive forces in the Indian startup ecosystem. Jio’s growth has been nothing short of phenomenal and the company is an important driver of the data adoption that is slowly transforming India into a digital superpower. When I told my team at Kalaari about Manoj’s confirmation, the reaction was one of exuberance. “What did you do to convince him?” I was asked. Who better to talk to startups and inspire founders than Manoj Modi? That was my simple logic in requesting Manoj to speak. And in any case, I have never been one to worry about rejection. Often, in my experience, if you have conviction, and are serving a good cause, generally others will join hands and support. In fact, the lineup at the Summit is clear proof of that.

There’s more to this story. Over the weekend leading up to the event, Manoj said he would not be able to come to Bangalore owing to some critical issues. Even as I was mulling over how to inform the attendees, and the wave of disappointment set in, Manoj offered to participate through video conferencing. In a matter of hours, his team took over and set up the system, and tested it again and again, creating backups late into the night. “It has to be perfect for ‘Boss’” was their mantra, and that kind of focus makes you realize the respect he commands from his team. There’s a lesson in that in how Manoj Modi operates: what he promises — he executes, no matter what.

Now, Manoj officially doesn’t have a title or designation. The first lesson on having supreme confidence in your self-worth is that you believe you can create impact without the trappings of fancy designations or titles. Often, entrepreneurs are caught in the web of being in control or not losing control, and some small companies even create roles for SVPs to attract talent! There is a lesson in the way Mr. Mukesh Ambani inducts leaders who feel empowered, and Manoj himself showed that leadership is about making a mark and creating impact. (Manoj may not care about titles, but the world knows that he has probably been one of the most instrumental and influential persons in building Reliance to the scale that it is today).

For entrepreneurs, I felt, there are important lessons to be learned from Manoj’s focus on balancing vision and execution. It was with anticipation that I started the fireside chat with Manoj, determined to obtain every possible precious nugget of advice and wisdom from him during our 30-min conversation…

On building successful businesses: The four-decade proven mantra

Vani: We all know about Jio’s astounding success story. Jio’s numbers are visible for all:

Reliance Jio Numbers (End of Q3FY19)

Going beyond these numbers, how do we measure Jio’s impact as a startup?

Manoj Modi: Jio was not Reliance’s first startup. All our businesses have been startups as we have never acquired anything! We have a practice of creating startups and successful world- scale, global businesses. Earlier, there was this impression among some of our telecom peers that we don’t understand consumer-related startups.

But we were quite sure that businesses are businesses and as long as we are solving some of the needs of the society in the most efficient manner, we will have a successful business.

That is the philosophy that we have always followed.

Coming to Jio, definitely, Jio has done better than what we had anticipated with more than 320M subscribers in such a short time! In terms of data consumption also, we had thought that, maybe, 50–60M subscribers might use 10–12GB per month while the rest will use around 4GB or so. But looking at the Jio phone with just a 2.4” screen, we have seen data consumption of above 9GB a month! Just this 2.4” screen and consuming so much data! This is a confirmation of the theory that we have followed for the past four decades:

“India is a supply-constrained market and not a demand-constrained market”

So, as long as we can efficiently provide goods and services at affordable prices, this market will consume. With Jio, we have proven this hypothesis.

Vani: Coming to startups, what’s the evolving relationship between Reliance and startups? Do startups collaborate with you? Or compete with you?

Manoj Modi: I don’t think we are competing with anybody. The Indian market is so large that no player can provide everything and everybody can co-exist. In creating the Jio system, we opened up opportunities for everybody in the digital and virtual eco-space.

We are working with about 18 startups in this new commerce area in promotions, payments, integration of various points of sale, and voice technologies. We believe that startups bring in new ways of thinking, and that helps us to do things faster as part of the Jio ecosystem. We co-exist — we use multiple startup technologies to achieve our end objective.

Startups that work with us need not worry about reach or funding because we have a large customer base, and we have no problem funding them. So, they can focus on their core competencies of using innovation and putting technology to better use. I think it’s a real win-win relationship.

Mr. Modi joining Kalaari Summit 2019 #HindustanHamara via a video-conference

Vani: While still on the theme of startups, if you were a first-time entrepreneur, what would you build or change?

Manoj Modi: Looking back, right to the time of our first polyester startup, we have not changed our way of thinking.

Consider one of our first businesses back in the 1980s. There were three synthetic fibers that were being produced then: polyester, nylon, and acrylic. There were about four MNCs in India already operating as JVs then. We came from nowhere and built a 15,000-ton capacity plant compared to the combined annual capacity of 3,000-ton for the four MNCs who were competing in this space! And that’s because…

“We believed in the Indian market — if you supply at affordable prices, and provide efficient service, then you will find the market”

I don’t think any differently even now — whether it’s technology, goods or services, we have to ask: Is it required by society? These principles have not changed over the past four decades of my experience.

On e-commerce opportunities: Empower small merchants and expand the reach

Vani: Your announcement of Reliance’s entry into e-commerce caused quite a stir. It is exciting to see a long-established Indian company jump into this already-competitive fray. What took you so long?

Manoj Modi: Well, if you see Mukesh Bhai’s speech during the AGM, he spoke of ‘new commerce’ and not e-commerce. At Reliance, we build all our businesses with the need of society in mind. We try to understand what can be done that will affect the masses, make substantial improvements in their lives, and provide benefits. New commerce is the same.

With Reliance Market, which is our physical B2B business, we have around 1.5M small merchants buying from us. But when we look at their last five years of financial health, these small merchants’ revenues and incomes have not grown during this period because of the cost of inflation even though their cost of operation is just 3–4%. An organized retailer, in contrast, has a cost of operation of 10–12% and e-commerce has even higher costs when you take factors such as the promotions, supply chain management, last-man delivery, etc. In spite of their low cost of operation, the small merchants are not able to compete. Why is this so?

They don’t know how to reach new customers, and younger customers are buying more online. Effectively, their basket of supply has reduced. They are not making enough money to stay in business!

So, at Reliance, we give small merchants the technology where they can reach out to new customers. We facilitate such merchants to do business more efficiently through customer promotions, loyalties and improve the entire inventory efficiency. We provide them with efficient technology bouquet using retail PoS as well as backend services, which will allow them to survive the competition from large players who can offer huge discounts.

“This is what our new commerce is going to be — it’s not direct commerce for consumers — it’s really dealing with merchants and empowering them.”

On negotiation, strategy, and leadership: Coaching and mentoring is the key; execution is critical

Vani: Are there many facets to Manoj Modi? You are known to be a tough negotiator, master strategist, implementer, mentor, and a deep intellectual. When I met you for the first time, you came across as an extremely simple, down-to-earth person. Can you tell us more about the real Manoj Modi?

Manoj Modi: I don’t really negotiate — generally, my work is internal 95% of the time. I, instead, deal with our internal people, coaching them, mentoring them, and guiding them on how something can be done. Our principle at Reliance is very simple:

“Unless everyone makes money while working with us, you cannot have a sustainable business.”

We have no commercial or financial disputes with any customer, supplier or distributor. Our philosophy is that all the stakeholders need to make money. If consumers don’t feel that they are getting value from our products or services, they will not buy! If the intermediaries, retailers or distributors don’t receive adequate remuneration, we will not have a long-lasting business. So, I think, all this negotiation is a myth and not much of reality. Businesses always need to have a win-win proposition.

And as for strategy, I don’t understand strategy! I am a very simple person. In fact, internally, people know that I don’t even have a vision! I put blinkers on when I am executing because I know that if I am constantly changing, I won’t be able to execute. My great strength is in execution because I don’t look at the obstacles. I just know how to pass these obstacles and find the way out. Most of the time people get stuck in their own decisions — they are not wedded to the outcome but to the decisions they made. At Reliance, we don’t care who made the decisions. If a wrong decision was made, we only look at correcting it quickly.

On the future: Bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots is crucial to India’s growth

Vani: If there were a way to feed all startups this execution pill, it would be great! One final question: The theme of the Kalaari Summit 2019 is ‘Hindustan Hamara.’ What does ‘Hindustan Hamara’ mean to you? If you had three themes or dreams about startups, what would that be?

Manoj Modi: When you consider our digital journey, there are about 400M 4G phones in the market. But there are another 400M phones that are non-4G! Within the next two years, that market would be 4G or even 5G. This is important because these consumers would be able to have most of their basic needs met through this digital medium.

When we launched the Jio phone, some of us were apprehensive that not all consumers might be able to fully utilize all its features. But the entire Jio phone can be operated on voice command. People were making 12–15 voice commands on their phone! And these were people who don’t know English or the Internet!

When you provide reach to everybody, you empower them”

Take the example of a small village in Maharashtra with a population of about 1,000. In that village, there were two beauty parlors run by women who were using YouTube to style their customer’s hair using our Lyf phone and Jio connectivity! That demonstrates that people can use these technologies to enhance their occupation and livelihoods.

Then you have the rapidly digital payment ecosystem. Once you have the connectivity and platforms, even in the remotest corner of India, there will be equality of availability. That will be the biggest leveler. Currently, there is a large disparity between the haves and have nots in our country. We believe that this digital ecosystem will eliminate that disparity. For Hindustan Hamara, digital is the most critical element, and startups will create that real equalizing effect for those who have and have not.

This was one of my most satisfying interviews to date for me, besides the interview that I did with Mr. Ratan Tata in 2017. From new commerce to business principles to building a digital ecosystem that bridges India’s economic disparities, Manoj covered a vast range of topics in our freewheeling discussion.

The humility and wisdom that he brought to the Summit lit up our day. The talk may have lasted just about 30 minutes, but its impact stayed with me for days after. I was left pondering the many insights he offered and the sheer focus he displayed. Manoj’s willingness to interact with entrepreneurs also showed his openness and commitment to the Indian startup ecosystem — his examples in building Reliance and Jio show that in him there is a model that startups and founders can emulate. This is a man who has built enormous value for more than four decades, and it was a privilege to have had this opportunity. Manoj’s openness to engage is reflective of India’s own openness to embrace the startup opportunity and makes me optimistic about the impact we can all create over the next decade.

Acknowledging Siddhanth Jayaram. Siddhanth is part of the investment team at Kalaari.

At Kstart and Kalaari, we are committed to continuing to play an active role in fostering India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, and this year’s Kalaari Summit focused on the theme ‘Hindustan Hamara’. Share your views on what ‘Hindustan Hamara’ means to you with me @vanikola on Twitter and LinkedIn.

If you are a founder with ideas that are uniquely Indian, we would love to collaborate. Reach us at team@kalaari.com