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The disrupter

Rahul Sharma, king of mobile handsets, has confounded skeptics by leading Micromax to become a Rs 10,100 crore group

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rahulsharma-1144794In the 16 years that he has been in business, Rahul Sharma has crisscrossed the globe several times. In fact, the Gurgaon, Haryana-based Co-founder of Micromax and Founder, YU Televentures, has even set up operations in a dozen countries abroad. Yet, his most memorable foray has been closer to home, undertaken in the summer of 2007. “While on a trip to Bihar, I saw people paying money to get their phones charged from power outlets,” reminisces Sharma, 40.

Like all good entrepreneurs, he immediately spotted a business opportunity. “At that very instant, Micromax’s first phone was conceptualized,” Sharma recalls. “We made a phone that had a 30 day long exceptional battery life and called it the Micromax X1i.” They internally nicknamed it ‘stamina battery phone’ and put out an initial stock of 10,000 pieces in the market. Within 10 days, every single phone was sold out – on the back of sheer word-of-mouth publicity, without a single paisa being spent on advertising.

The `we’ above refers to Sharma’s co-founders, all his long-time friends. Rajesh Agarwal was a neighbour. Sumeet Arora and Vikas Jain were college mates. Each co-founder owns 18.5% stake in Micromax. Sharma would go on to revolutionise the mobile handsets business in India. In the process, his would become one of the best known faces of the Indian telecom revolution and his company a David that would outsmart the Goliaths then ruling the roost, including giants like Nokia and Samsung.

In Q1 2014, based on a report by market research company IDC, Micromax overtook Samsung to become the largest selling handset phone brand in India. And according to market research firm Strategy Analytics, in Q3 2014, Micromax was the tenth largest smartphone vendor in the world. Employing 1500 people, the group recorded a consolidated turnover of Rs 10,100 crore for FY 2014-15.

Even today, Sharma is a big traveller. He is on the road two or three weeks a month. While at his Gurgaon head office, his time is taken up by market visits, meetings and thinking. “You will often find me taking a walk in my office, thinking about our new product.” And yes, Sharma does something which no other company head may be doing anywhere in the world. Every now and then he walks into a mobile handset store, stands behind the counter and starts selling phones – of all brands – only to elicit customer feedback firsthand.

Often referred to as a disrupter for his tendency to repeatedly stir the status quo, Sharma’s talk is frequently peppered with the d word. “As a brand Micromax has all been about disruption and innovation for consumers,” he declares. He then goes on to explain how, illustrating his claim with some pioneering efforts of Micromax in different categories of the mobile handsets business: long battery phone, dual-sim, phone with Swarovski for girls, quad-core budget smartphone, phone with 22 languages, world’s slimmest and world’s lightest phone.

And yet, mobile handset was not Sharma’s first business venture. In 1999 he started off as an entrepreneur by launching a software company, Micromax Software (now Micromax Informatics). Beginning with ERP, the firm later worked on various other platforms before venturing into e-commerce the following year, making B2B and B2C engines.

“The problem was that the industry kept changing with technology,” explains Sharma. “ERP went bust, followed soon by dotcoms. We started working on embedded technology with the University of California. And slowly we began to wonder if we could also work on the product side.” In the beginning, Sharma and his team worked quite a bit on SIM card technology. They also took up many government projects, including making the digital airport information system for the Airport Authority of India to assist in the landing of aircraft. “However, even as all this was going on, we always wanted to be an innovative product company,” reveals Sharma.

It took Micromax just eight years to become one of the largest mobile handset companies in the world. How was this achieved in such a short span of time? Especially since Micromax hopped onto the bandwagon of the Indian handset market at a time when global players were dominating the Indian market? “The challenge that lay ahead of us was to create a mindshare in an already cluttered market and reach to the mass consumers who wished to own a mobility device to make their life simpler,” says Sharma. “We needed to build trust relationship amongst the consumers about our products and innovations. In order to achieve this we adopted the utilitarian philosophy to cater to all fragments of society, with equal zeal and enthusiasm.”

Two challenges Indian startups often face are getting the right talent and managing them. Micromax faced both. “I have always believed that like-minded people stick together and that holds true for us at Micromax as well. We have been lucky to have with us the best of the talent in the industry. One of the things that you need to do when you get the right talent is to let them make their own decisions, bring in their creativity and develop skills that work well for the company.”

The Micromax team may have won kudos for its technical adaptability skills but it still faces criticism for its distribution weaknesses. For the fact remains that most exclusive Micromax stores are located only in the northern and central parts of the country. Sharma agrees and adds that the company is currently in an expansion phase for setting up more such retail outlets all over the country. He firmly believes that India still needs to be reached through a mix of online retail and a very strong and robust distribution network. “India is still a country with vast and diverse needs. We definitely believe that both online and offline models will successfully co-exist in India.”

Having tasted success in the home market, Micromax started venturing abroad. It first entered the Russian market and later, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Today it is present in nine more countries. In the process, it has become the first Indian mobile handset to go global. But if you thought Sharma has set himself up for life, banking on the hardware aspect of the mobile handset business, you could be mistaken.

For Sharma is as pragmatic as he can be: “In my personal opinion, this industry is going to plateau soon, like the notebook industry. A level of saturation is being reached. How many cores can you stuff into a phone’s processor, how many megapixels can you put into a camera, how big can you make a screen? In this scenario, where will the differentiation come from? We seriously felt that the differentiation will come from software and services.”

So how could Sharma provide this differentiation? It was while exploring the niches in the mobile phone market that he came upon the idea of launching YU Televentures. The brand’s software-driven handsets come fitted with an OS which Sharma claims is “superior to the stock Android”. He calls YU “our new age technology brand for tech natives” and adds that with it, they are looking to create a connected eco-system of devices and services that will shape the industry in times to come. In keeping with its uber-digital feel, the handsets are being sold only through online shopping portals. “The initial response has been unprecedented,” claims the first generation entrepreneur.

Sharma had always been fascinated by technology while growing up. “Yes, technology is something I have always been passionate about,” he says. “Technology has made the most positive impact on the lives of people in the past two decade, and I am proud of the fact that Micromax has led the democratization of technology for the masses of this country.”

Along with technology, Sharma’s other passions include luxury automobiles and music. “For as long as I can remember, I have been a hardcore F1 fan and love to splurge on luxury automobiles. Nothing compares to the adrenaline rush of speed. My cars reflect that part of my persona.” He spends time on the longest flights, usually to the USA, “not with an in-flight movie but with a few packed hours of music. I keep my phone stocked with my favourite numbers that can last for about four or five hours.”

The music he listens to usually depends on his mood but he likes fairly different genres. At any given time, he has a mix of Rock, EDM and soft numbers on his playlist. These days he finds himself partial to Calvin Harris, Tiesto, David Guetta and Avicii, all of which you will often find issuing from his Bose SoundDock in his office. The man who swears by Emporio Armani, Tom Ford, D&G and Paul Smith, has in his garage a Bentley Supersport Limited Edition, a BMW X6, and a Mercedes GL450. The baby of the family is a Rolls Royce Ghost Series 2, “my most recent acquisition and favourite right now”.

Going forward, Micromax is looking at transforming to a devices and services brand from a device only brand by adding innovative service layers to its products. “Entering a new phase, our focus is now more on providing solutions to the consumers using their phones. At Micromax our emphasis will be to drive innovations through software and services that would add a layer to the device eco-system,”
says Sharma.

His long term goal is clearly to take Micromax to key international markets and further pursue his innovation story. “We aim to be a global player which not only understands the rapidly changing market dynamics but also the pulse of the consumers,” says the entrepreneur ambitiously. “We aim to be a global brand from India that makes every Indian proud.”

The man and his micromax

Known mainly for its mobile handsets, Micromax is also into tablets, LED TV and laptabs.

Apart from India, Micromax has operations in a dozen countries including Russia, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Canvas Knight A350 was launched in January 2014 in Russia with the tagline ‘Can be Furiously Fast’.

This is the phone that Rahul Sharma personally uses.

The guiding philosophy at Micromax: “We challenge status quo”.

Sharma has been inspired by various people at different stages in his life – from Mahatma Gandhi to Steve Jobs. Even the “common Indian man who intelligently fights good and bad circumstances to live a happy life.”

Micromax has around 60 mobile handset models in the market today, all customised to the needs of consumers.

Quote Unquote: “We have always been the first to identify the gaps in the Indian mobile industry and have worked towards addressing the same. Therefore, we have been fighting a battle with ourselves more than anyone else.”

Hugh Jackman, Akshay Kumar, Twinkle Khanna and Chitrangada Singh have endorsed Micromax smartphones.

Sharma looks up to legends from the sporting arena for motivation. “From Roger Federer to Lionel Messi, there is a lot to like about the sporting icons in the world. Also Elon Musk is my favourite these days.”