The Kunal Bhatia (and Videowaves) story
Show me an event manager in Mumbai who hasn’t heard of Kunal Bhatia (of Videowaves fame) and I will show you the moon at noon!
I (Saurabh at C4E) first met Kunal Bhai and the Videowaves team when I had to put together a huge conference of about 500 guests, spread over two days. Since this setup required complex LED arrangements we had to work with a reliable, trustworthy and reputable vendor. And we knew had to work with Kunal Bhai. And since then he has been a great friend, a mentor and a bouncing board for ideas!
We told him about C4E blog and he readily agreed. We met him over tea at his office and spoke at length. Excerpts from the conversation:
SG: Kunal Bhai, tell us about your background. And some lessons you’ve learned over the years.
KB: So, I started working when I was all of 19. Back then we had a family emergency and I had to figure out a way to make money. I started this rental business where I would give out cameras on rent to videographers. To be honest, it was a great business where all I would do it wait for my equipment to go on rent and I would count money sitting at home. And, in the hindsight now, that was super naive of me!
SG: How so?
KB: Thing is when you give away your equipment, the ones that hire, they don’t really take care of it. The cameras would break often and we would have to either get new inventory or spend a fortune in repairs. Eventually the business started to suffer. And I had to step in. I was still 19 and I did not know anything about the business. I could operate the camera and rather than just renting out, I started working with it.
So, here I was, all of 19, making videos, running a business and supporting my family. And since I was still in college, I had to juggle the roles of a student (at NM) and a videographer. I’ve learnt it by getting my hands dirty, as they say.
And once I was in the trade, I knew I had to upgrade my skills. This trait, the constant upgradation of skills, has remained with me till date. So I joined Xavier’s for a one-year diploma in Film and Video Production. I would work during the day and in the evenings I would attend the classes. I think they used to hold classes from 6 to 9. So yeah!
SG: What then?
KB: After I got the diploma, I went onto work with the legendary SRK Murthy. I was with him for two years and I survived on travel allowance and crew meals only. I remember I used to get 75 bucks a day. This was in 92–93.
After my stint with Mr. Murthy, I started doing freelance gigs at weddings, for corporate clients and documentaries, from 1995 to 2000. And more than just making videos, I would edit those and use the old VHS tech to basic packaging — remember the play and pause buttons on VHS?
SG: No! I was way too young for that.
KB: Good you don’t. It was a back-breaking task. Thank God I don’t do it anymore. But honestly, it was fun. You know you could rent a VCR for 15 bucks, a TV for another 15. And the combo of TV and VCR would go for 25. I would take these on my bicycle to client’s homes. Along with that we had a video library where we would rent VHS tapes.
I got my first VCR from a Rs. 10,000 loan and business was thriving that I returned the loan with a year. In fact, I got another VCR in 6 months.
SG: How did the transition happen to the AV equipment rental business?
KB: this is a funny story. By 2000 I was doing interiors for reputed builders. And at the same time I would go cover weddings and unlike these days, videography of weddings not reputable at all. In fact people looked down upon you if you did that.
On one side I was this fancy photographer that charged a bomb for doing interiors and on the other I was this aam aadmi taking videos at weddings. At one of these weddings, one of my clients, a builder spotted and confronted me by saying that I charged a bomb for interiors and here I was at the wedding. Back then, it was very embarrassing to be honest.
I had to think on my feet and blurted something like, “I just have a rental business and the regular videographer fell ill at the last minute and I was merely filling in.” This is when I got the first lesson of my life — Do not straddle two boats. Choose one and stick with it. Become an expert at it. That day I took a resolution that I will not do any weddings any more. I will focus on other things, grow the team and delegate.
Once I decided that, the natural progression had to be equipment renting. We started with renting out OHPs, slide & data projectors and AV equipment, till about 2010.
This is when LED was beginning to come up in events and exhibitions. And it felt obvious to get into that. I had to invest a substantial amount to get the technology. I remember I got about 160 sq. ft. of LED screens and I wasn’t even sure if I would recover the money. But then I had to take a leap of faith if I had to do well. And it has paid off! Today I have amongst the biggest inventories in Mumbai and it’s always overbooked. And no, we are not the cheapest players in the market.
SG: That’s some story, Kunal Bhai. So tell me, if I am just starting the business, what do I need to know?
KB: I think two things and two things only. A, invest in people. And B, keep learning.
Look at Videowaves. I started by myself and today I have a team of 63 people and 3 people from the team — Manoj, Pravin and Sunil — have been with me for over 15 years. And another 10 have been around for more than 10!
For me, running the business is like taking a responsibility of each of my team members like they are part of my family. Whatever little success I have seen, it’s because of my team. They do all the hard work, dirty work. I am just the face. You know, unlike all other small businesses, I don’t get into accounting at all. If someone from my team brings a cheque to me, I sign it without even seeing it. The entire show is managed by my team.
When it comes to growth, I ensure that my team understands the importance. I have ensured that people continue to grow. Pravin for example is now a trainer and his key role is RnD. He is supposed to train people and bring new initiatives to life at Videowaves. He reads, researches and talks to people in the industry. He keeps telling us about the new things that we have to invest in. And we do!
SG: What next for Videowaves?
KB: We are trying to do three things. A, we are getting into projection mapping in a big big way. That’s the direction that the industry is moving to. B, we are investing heavily into new technology. You will hear about some new, exciting things soon. We would be the first ones to get it in India! C, more focus on team — upgrading skills, training and other similar things.
SG: What’s that one thing you wish you could change about our industry?
KB: I want to change how people are treated. Most people-related initiatives in India are dictated by the government rules (think PF, ESI, Insurance, safety etc.).
But at Videowaves, we treat people like people — not like animals. If I have to send my material to Goa for a show, I ensure that my team reaches comfortably, they sleep well and are fed well. Unlike most players in the industry, I don’t “load” them in the back of the trucks and “ship” them!
Then, each person in my team has an insurance (full cover for them and their family), which is probably a first for the industry. I already talked to you about how we believe in helping them grow.
So yeah, I want to change how people are treated.
SG: And what is Kunal Bhatia as an individual?
KB: I am a very simple man. I just have two hobbies. I play the flute and I continue to learn. And apart from this I make it a point to play Table Tennis every sunday with my friends.
SG: Flute? Whoa! Can you play for me?
KB: No no! This is office. Next time we have an informal get-together, let me show you some tunes.
Now that we are talking, I am also passionate about teaching and learning. I want to share whatever we have learnt with the industry. We do regular workshops [Team from C4E has attended this workshop and we were amazed at the simplicity and yet the depth of the content offered] for the industry and friends. In fact videos are from our workshops are available on YouTube. I urge anyone who wishes to learn to see those videos.
SG: Thank you Kunal Bhai for your time! Really appreciate that you took so much time out to speak to us. I am sure event community would love to read your story!
So that about it from Kunal Bhai and Videowaves team. They maintain a very active FB Page and a great Youtube channel. If you want to learn anything about audio and video for events, you HAVE to see it! Here is one of the videos.
[SG] I think I can learn a lot from Kunal Bhai and his story. In fact as an entrepreneur, to me, each tenet from Kunal Bhai is super important as a lesson. Will make it a point to incorporate this at C4E. The three key takeaways for us are:
A. Continue to learn. Invest if you have to!
As we grow, at C4E, we will have something called the Chief Knowledge Officer or something. I was first told of its importance by Raj Kurup (at Creativeland).
B. Invest in people, empower them
Rajesh already is a huge proponent of this. Case in point? C4E! The goal is continue to do this more.
C. Give back!
Along with Videowaves, C4E will start offering short-term workshops (free of course) to students. Will make a formal announcements soon. But in case you want in, please write to us.
So, that’s about it for the time being. Who else do you think can we meet? Would you want to see someone featured on the C4E blog?
As always, thank you for reading.