Coverage by Bhat Dittakavi of Variance.AI on “My entrepreneurial journey” by Phanindra Sama on 5th January 2018 at THUB.
Speaker: Phanindra Sama
Moderator: Ankur Jain of Emergent Ventures
How I started
When I started, we did this as a weekend project. I couldn’t find a single bus seat from that operator to go home and I spent the long weekend alone in the room while my roommates left for home town. What started as a weekend project rolled into where it is now.
How did we get first mentors
Then we came to know about TiE. We have signed up as EAP (Entrepreneurship Accelerator Program) participant. We met the mentors. They told me to really find what the real pain for the bus operator is.
First pivot
If we aren’t making progress on our own, we thought we should go meet the bus operator and hear his pain points. He said he didn’t need anything such as IT, operational efficiency and all. Then we asked him what he needs. He said he needs more customers. More customers means more buses that he can deploy. Then we went back to those TiE mentors. Then thankfully after 7 months of working on software we decided to pivot from ERP for bus operator to tickets for consumers.
When someone comes online, inventory is not there, he moves away unlike the physical booking office where he can get some calls to other agents. Challenge is what to do with now Operator said he can’t give seats to us. Then another insight is that bus tickets get only sold just couple of days before the departure date as people preferred trains over buses. With this insight, we went back to the bus operator and asked him to give us the inventory till two days before the departure. That was easy and he only gave us two seats. Bangalore got 300 different destinations. We have convinced only one operator with five buses and two seats each. How do we go to other locations?
Every time, we got answers to every new challenge.
Ankur Jain) Many listen different things. How did your listening, means different things to different people, change over the time?
PS) People say I am a good listener. First you really want to do something. Be your own listener. Be the Devil’s advocate to yourself. If you really want to do it, you become much more tolerant and patient. I used to control every pixel ot out site 10 years ago. That didn’t go far. I wanted the company to go far. I let people control the pixel as I want to go far. Deep desire sets everything in place.
AJ) Regarding the first bus operator who gave that first opportunity, do you still remember?
PS) Yes. We remember. We got around 2000 bus operators. There is no way not to know them. I know even their families too. When we were getting into this business, my parents are fine as they are from a village. Our village never had English medium school so I studied in hostels. Parents left it to my guts. I got state rank, BITS distinction and all. My supervisor at Texas instruments got worried when I decided to move from electronics to bus industry. Mafia is kind of attached to bus operators. Many are politicians and so on. He was genuinely concerned and he said no due to the reputation of bus Mafia and black money. Our mentor said if you are able to get a bus operator 50% more business, you will convert some of that black money to white. I somehow had this in me that those bus operators are people like us as they behave differentl. They are CEO, CTO, VC and all in one for their own business. Investment money comes from family’s jewelry and other assets. Then he is not educated and has to control other educated enablers. Stressful and troubled. He will trouble his driver as his liability is on him for drink and drive accidents.
If you empathize with the bus operators, you can understand them. In my new role as CIO, I see all these politicians as I know why they need the bribe. They need money to get otes as voter wants money in exchange.
Is there a business idea to change this behavior?
Q) How do you handle stress?
PS) There were quite a few times I went to a movie all by myself. It was my stress buster. This is how I stop rewind and replay of that pain or agony. To stop that, I fill the mind with a nearby movie. Those are the times I went alone. Going alone for watching a movie is weird but it was a stress buster. When I come out, I feel less stressed. There was this one situation of 2008 crash that stressed me as I hardly got few lakhs in cash. I had many to invest until before 2008 crash but then all backed out. We ran out of money. Then we did one round at a lower valuation than the previous valuation and my team was little disappointed. Resignations followed. I didn’t know what to do. I read on internet and came across vipasana for 10 days. When I returned, the world was different.
Q) We often conduct meditation sessions for founders in our entity. We give them tool sets such as inner enginerring. It is extremely valuable. Let us talk about hiring. How did you build that culture?
PS) I am an organized person and I have this excel with metrics. I didn’t want to say sorry to myself for a false positive. In an interview, my time is only one hour and is fixed. If the time is fixed if he is a smart interviewee he can fill the slot with anything. We got to be smart with our own agenda. I used to hire that way. Later one thing that really worked well for me is just to drop the excel and meet the person. Choosing the girl I met throguh arranged marriage has taught me something. Thank my aunt to advise me to just go and meet the girl. I apply that in hirin, just go and meet though I still have the excel to track. I just would like to have a good feel.
I just had a conversation earlier today. One said let us structure and scale, the other guy said I would give you only vision and you do it. For me, second one it doesn’t work. For me vision comes out from the team. I know I gel with the first one and not the rest. I know me. There is no recipe for one success. This is reflection of Google culture of everyone is equal. Then we see apple and Amazon early days. More directional. There is no one way of success. Choose the ones you like. This is how subconsciously you like those you like to hang out with as team members. Just do it. Many recipes out there. There are funded companies and it would be an absolute failure to copy cat someone though. One can be a great coder but if you can’t gel, it would be a disaster.
I did many experiments. I was concerned I picked the people who are like me. Then I read literature and tried to get complementary people. Then it didn’t work as I thought he should come and teach me stand corrected. In the end, it didn’t work as we disagreed on subtle things but not on what truly matters.
Q) Soft skills make the difference?
PS: I say complementary skills are good not complementary culture. I can never run meetings and projects. That is a skill. I was terrible at it and I hired someone who enjoyed doing it. This is complementary.
Q) You went through evolution during nine years. What changes did you make as you scaled?
PS) There is value in upgrading imperfection to perfection. It is a continuous journey. I always catch up,with my own ideal me. These things definitely help.
Q) How do you manage time and set goals?
PS) Whoever is the head of that company or community, culture of the society reflects you. There is no way out unless you change on your own like Gandhi did. Gandhi lied and stole in childhood but when he realized he changed. Paying fine is something I do. I change. This change in me changes the entire organization as they follow me.
Q) Team management?
PS: We only had a small team. Just three cofounders. We took decisions on our own and trusted each other. We don’t complement each other on paper as we all studied in the same discipline, same place, same gender and so on. All that we know is the same. Just being in it together with trust is what drove us. No taking each other’s permission.
Q) How different is your role now? Now you have to consult with many more people in this role as CIO of TS innovation council. 
PS) I am only one month old in Telangana. Goverment is completely opposite. Government got unlimited executive powers. No consult or but in. Minister or CM or secretary got the power. Very different. This is not about equals too. This is very different in goverment. Later years of Reseda got 600 people. I woke up everyday with bright idea and hence the control freak I was. Then I realized that “what if my team member comes with theat kind of excitement? It means that would be multiplication of my excitement” But that was very difficult to let others do it as I got to kill my own excitement. Transitioning was tough. I tried but they never tried and I got to let them try and fail. Bus operators said 1999 dot com crashed and they said redbus wouldnt work. It worked for us. Even at the cost of failure,the joy of letting a team member owning it is entirely different.
Individualism in USA is more worse. I heard in psychology class that people in East respect each other and work together. We here are in individualism. In studies too we never let the classmate receive the ball and hitter goal. How do we change this? Going thriguh that journey is fantastic.
Q) When you got the first two seats from the first bus operator, how did you scale from there?
PS) The choice was to sign up with many ot just work with that one bus operator. We chose the second option to make sure he turns a winner. We focused on what we have on hand. Problem statement changes with that. How do we get this telugu speaking customer to give the phamplet? Until we sold redbus we worked with just dial leads. In justdial, people ask for bus routes and we were diamond member and got all the leads to convert. We didn’t have search engine effectively working in those days. We realized people live on clusters. 90% of my uncles and aunts live in Boyinapalli. That was entry point of Nijamabad. We decided to market to such Boyinapalli as 80% people mead to Nijamabad from there. These things worked in our favor.
Q) Customer acquisition?
PS) We did this throguh word of mouth. Even of wr got ten customers, we use analytics to see where the funnel is dropping. Call him to find why he didn’t book and so on. Once we get those insights, we act. I would say convert the 10 people.
Q) Something about your new role?
PS) I decided early that I have to reorient myself. KTR told me if my presence can make them shift even if two inches in different direction, I can consider myself successful. During the following up meeting, I gave an advice. Now we had another meeting and I was so glad that it changed by two feet. I am happy. In redbus I would push more further as I feel I was in charge. The good thing is that without pushing I got 50% of what I wanted.
Q) What is SIC objective?
PS) it is broader. Put Hyderabad on Startup world map.
Q) Why didn’t you go for commercial vehicles?
PS: If top line doubles, bottom line more than doubles. Investors asked us to do airline bookings too. We could do it too. Our own road map for bus ticketing always has the 4 quarters road map. 10% bandwidth that can do new thing has its own advantage. Rivals are equally talented and equally invested. Why should you have that edge?

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