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Hitesh Oberoi talks about how to build a business that outlives founders (and natural disasters).

Come mid-March, COVID had struck human lives and businesses hard. We initially launched a series of webinars to help our founders tide through issues such as burn management, communicating tough decisions, etc. as part of our Davids vs Covid series. With founders everywhere having transformed into wartime CEOs now, it seemed imminent to think of questions such as — What next? What after the curve flattens? How do we plan for a comeback? How do we emerge stronger? 

The sequel to the Davids vs Covid series — ‘Building Against All Odds’ is a series of talks by industry stalwarts who’ve been there, done that. Built rock-hard businesses that have weathered crises and stood the test of time.

In the third installment of this series, we invited Hitesh Oberoi who admitted that COVID is a natural disaster with hitherto unseen repercussions. He also threw caution to the winds by stating that founders have always overestimated the size of the Indian market — whether in 2000 or now – which only stands to harm businesses in the long term.

With that as the backdrop, Hitesh covered two key aspects in his talk.

  1. What does it take to build an IPO-proof business in the Indian market?
  2. How does one emerge stronger post COVID-19?

Pre-IPO mindset

Founders need to understand that markets are unpredictable. It is therefore extremely important to build an engine that generates cash and sustains you when the market fails to. Burning excessive cash to unilaterally optimize growth could harm you — growth is not the only driver! Build for profitability, be a clear leader in your category.

Post-IPO mindset

(1) Holding up your stock: Markets don’t like surprises. Analysts will price you constantly, it will be out there for everyone to see and react. People need to like your stock! Best practices to hold up your stock?  

  1. Communicate like a Pro: Analysts will talk to you daily, ensure that you clearly communicate your strategy and are poised to answer their questions. Quarterly reports and all your analyst interviews are public – your role as a spokesperson moves your stock.  
  2. Put your house in order (as it is made of glass walls now): Institute good corporate governance, processes and tight quality controls – everyone is watching. 
  3. Performance speaks: Demonstrate that your business is either highly profitable, high growth, or in a truly novel category — like Naukri was at its time. Else, the market will forget you (and your stock!)

Take your eye off the ball and your valuation tanks!

(2) So, how do we build businesses that outlast its founders & how do we keep the charkha running?   

  1. Hire people smarter than you.
  2. Coaching culture that’s consistent, data-driven and non-hierarchical.
  3. Put the right board in place that worries about the interests of minority and majority stakeholders.

Hitesh sums up by saying that building a public company is not an event, it is a journey. The IPO itself might be a milestone or an event, but taking that public-private company to becoming a truly public co is a journey that takes years.

On COVID19 and the rise of the phoenix

Hitesh spoke about the 2008 Lehman crisis: Naukri went from +35% to -25% in a month. However, the engine was running on high EBITDA margins and had raised capital from IPO which meant they had cash. Naukri recorded 45% growth the next year and observed a hockey stick growth. However, he was quick to admit that this slowdown is different from all others — we’re struck by natural disaster with consequences that are relatively unpredictable. What we know certainly is that it will set the economy back.

(1) CRISIS MANAGEMENT

Hitesh covered a few key pointers on COVID-19 management that Manish Sharma from Printo has elaborated on in a previous session. At the risk of repetition, summarizing them below.

  1. If there is money on the table, take it. Investors will have much tighter filters hereon.
  2. Conserve cash, cut down on non-essential expenditures.
  3. Take tighter decisions – on salary cuts, he reiterated Manish’s words — start from the top.
  4. Review roadmap and strategy for mid & long term 
  5. Build your org to adjust to the new reality. For e.g.
    (a) Zoom will become the new normal. Refocus energies of sales folks on sectors that are poised for growth – healthcare, online education, insurance, etc.
    (b) Sales conversions may be lower: Number of meetings to get to a sale might go up – train sales engine for that.
    (c) Investments may be limited to certain sectors.  

(2) KEEP YOUR EYE OUT FOR MACRO TRENDS

Overall, post-COVID, we may see consolidation across industries — a few businesses will inevitably burn out and a few may emerge out stronger. However, ensure you’ve accounted for the following major COVID trends.  

  1. Shift in decision-making behavior: More critical decisions will be taken over video. Legacy companies will benefit more due to their relationship, track records. Train your sales team to fit the bill.
  2. Supply over demand: If the pandemic continues for a long time, companies can go bust because of a huge supply shock rather than a demand shock. Try to diversify your risk of supply and manufacturing for the future.
  3. Gainers vs losers: Services sector, hospitality, travel, financial services will be negatively impacted whereas education, health care, insurance, pharma will be positively impacted.

(3) PUT PRODUCTS / RESOURCES IN MOTION TO EMERGE STRONGER POST COVID

  1. Ideating tech extensions: For e.g. Naukri has already started thinking about applications of ML / AI and the data they capture across real estate, jobs, and matrimony to transform them into a career platform company (from a job board).
  2. Ideating biz extensions: Emergence of the blue-collar trend as a new category of job-seeking — new internet users entering the workforce in different capacities.  
  3. Reallocating resources on projects that were important but never urgent:
    • Explore high-touch services with the additional resources at hand.
    • Top-up existing products with new-age updates: for e.g. video resume.

Liked what you read? Keep watching this space for more sessions and updates on ‘Building Against All Odds’.

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