Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Interview With Sudha Kumar, Prayag Consulting

Featuring Women Entrepreneur
Sudha Kumar
Founder, Prayag Consulting

[Category: The Early Riders
Strike The Niche Segment]

Sudha Kumar, has to her credit, building-up of the brand none other than Infosys! With a four year stint at A F Ferguson and the calibre endorsed with management degree from IIM Bangalore, Sudha joined Infosys when it had merely about 400 employees. At Infosys, she was actively involved in conceptualizing, planning and implementing a global marketing programme with particular emphasis on building the Infosys brand.

After eight years of working with Infosys, the entrepreneurial bug bit her and she decided to start her own strategic marketing consulting venture, Prayag Consulting,  specifically targeted at the IT and high-tech industry. Kumar saw a huge opportunity in offering marketing services for high tech companies.

Set up in 2001, Prayag provides comprehensive marketing solutions for companies in the high technology industry. In addition to IT Services and IT Products, BPO and Engineering services domains, they also focus on Telecom, Online and Green Technology verticals. Recently, Prayag has also diversified into newer segments and verticals like Not for Profit Organizations (NPOs) and Educational Institutions.

Here is what Sudha has to say:

Q. Let me first congratulate Prayag Consulting for successfully completing 9 years in the industry. I would like to start with knowing a little about your background (education and past work experience). Do you have entrepreneurial roots?

I have nearly twenty years' experience in high technology strategy and marketing and management consulting. I started my career at A F Ferguson & Co, one of India's leading management consulting firms. At AFF Co. I led and managed market studies, designed information systems, BPR engagements and built econometric forecasting models. After a four-year stint at AFF, I joined Infosys Technologies, Bangalore to start the Corporate Planning function.

During my four years in Planning, I worked closely with top management on several strategic initiatives; have carried out various business modeling exercises and have built comprehensive decision tools for business de-risking and long-term scenario planning. I was also a part of the Infosys ADR team. My role was instrumental in conceptualizing, planning and implementing a global marketing program, with emphasis on brand building. I had anchored the creation and deployment of an intranet based Knowledge Management system for empowering customer-facing employees. At Prayag, I am responsible for overall management of client relationships and branding.

As for the education, I am a gold medalist in Electronics & Communication Engineering from Anna University. I also have a PGDM from IIM (Bangalore).

For background: My father ran a small business but interestingly, seeing how hard he had to work, I actually thought I would never follow his footsteps, when I was in school and college. However, with time, one’s beliefs and aspirations change, and here I am.

Q. Is this your first entrepreneurial venture? If no, then which were the earlier ones? Are you still involved in them?
Yes this is the first one.

Q. What market segment and industry are you addressing now?
Prayag Consulting provides marketing services – advisory through implementation of marketing programs to clients in the high-tech and education verticals.

Q. How would you define your business model? Do you classify your business model as a ‘me-too’ model? Why or why not?
When we started Prayag Consulting in 2001, we were the first company in India to opt to focus on a vertical and offer the entire breadth of marketing services. There are many companies focused on market research, and catering to a number of industries; likewise, there were a lot of companies that provided branding and content services across industries. However, there was no player that chose to use business context with marketing know how as a way to differentiate themselves. And hence our play was unique. Even today, I can count on my fingers companies that have chosen to specialize on one or two industries and offer a wide array of services.

Q. How did you arrive at this business idea?
Both co-founders of Prayag, Jaya Kumar and I, had a lot of experience in the IT industry. Before starting Prayag, I was heading corporate marketing at Infosys. Thus, I saw a clear need for Indian tech companies to leverage the marketing function better. Extrapolating, we decided to focus on the hi-tech vertical, which we felt was underserved. Over time, we expanded to one more orthogonal vertical, education, which we saw great potential in.

Q. Will it be right if I say Prayag is following ‘outsourcing’ model for Marketing Solutions? Please elaborate on the various marketing solutions that Prayag has to offer. Which is your forte?
All details of our offerings are available on our website http://www.prayagconsulting.com/. Our forte is that we approach all marketing problems with a business orientation and blend a research orientation with knowledge of branding and communications. This is quite uncommon and we believe that is what makes our offerings distinctive.

Q. Which service offering – advisory, branding, content, research and outsourcing- makes the biggest slice of the revenue pie for Prayag?
Content and Research are two of our key offerings and bring us roughly equal revenues.

Q. With growing presence of Web 2.0 networking/social media sites and ever-pervasive use of Internet, what is your opinion on importance of Internet Marketing? What is the future of Internet Marketing overall? Will Internet dominate as the media for most (let’s say 90%) of the marketing budgets?
We are very upbeat about the role of the internet and web 2.0 in marketing. We advise several of our clients on social media and online marketing strategies and often help implement them too.

That said, I don’t think online marketing will take the lion’s share of budget as one of the reasons for the increasing popularity of this mode is because it is inexpensive. Also, I do not see a scenario, anytime in the near future, when online marketing will become so ubiquitous that offline marketing will become redundant.

Q. What in your judgment is the potential of the outsourcing marketing solutions or marketing consulting market in India?
It is very high. A year or so back we did a formal assessment only for the hi-tech vertical and we ended up with something like a half a billion dollar market, which I think is huge.

Q. After completing 9 years, Prayag is today a preferred partner for three Fortune 50, three of the top 5 IT Services and three of the top 15 BPO organizations, among others. When you started back in 2001, what were the challenges that you faced?
Actually, we had what one would call beginner’s luck, as I keep saying. We had 2 clients on day 1, one of which was Wipro Technologies, which continues to be our client even today. That said, as we grew, we did have the typical challenges of a growing organization that is trying to establish itself. For example, getting good people was not easy, it continues to remain a challenge, though it is a lot more manageable. Sometimes we would lose assignments to larger international brands, because clients would prefer to work with well-recognized names.

Q. What are the typical entry barriers in this industry?
Actually entry barriers are few, but success barriers are high.

Q. How did you fund your business (starting from when it was incorporated)?
Prayag is self-funded. This business does not require huge upfront investments.

Q. What teething problems did your venture face – finding the business partner, financing the venture or recruiting your first employee? Which in your experience has been the most difficult challenge to overcome?
As I mentioned earlier, finding good talent and retaining them was for me the biggest challenge.

Q. Are you profitable now?
We have remained profitable throughout, except for one year.

Q. What would you like to say to other women regarding taking up entrepreneurship as their career?
To put it simply, “go for it!” I really believe that women have a great opportunity as they are naturally wired to perform multiple roles, and entrepreneurship is all about wearing multiple hats. Also, I think women can play the long-term game well.

Q. Last, but not least, a little about your family – how did you manage to strike a balance between the home, kids and the new venture?
My husband Jaya Kumar is a co founder of Prayag, though he is not operationally involved in managing the company. He is the managing director of software MNC. I have two children- Shreyas who is a month short of 18 and Priyanka who is 14+. At the time when we started Prayag, they were 9 and 5. On managing home, kids and a new venture, you must remember that I worked in Infosys prior, where I worked pretty hard too ( I was associated with the company when they grew literally 100% annually on year for many years). My family, husband and kids, have been very supportive and that is very important. That said, I often keep saying that one thing that cannot be outsourced is raising kids. So, I would make it a point to be home in the evenings. I rarely networked in the evenings; something a lot of people told me was a must! Ultimately it is about listing your priorities and letting go of stuff that is not important or relevant at that juncture.

I thank you Sudha for taking out time and sharing your experiences with us.

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