When you write an obituary of a fellow entrepreneur whom you admire, who has committed suicide by jumping off a bridge, a chilling thought lurks inside — "it could have been me floating in the river". Life is not easy. Life is also unfair, as John F Kennedy said.
Some overwhelming circumstance, a crushing blow, a seemingly impossible situation, a cruel word from a near and dear relative or friend to whom one may reach out in a trying situation could push anyone, even the strongest, over the edge. All entrepreneurs face it. Every human being goes through periods of doubt and despair. The spirit and flesh both give up. We somehow hold on, take courage to take counsel, and rise again.
Still, one feeling haunts. Oh, if only
Siddhartha had shared his thoughts, his travails and trepidations with a friend or associate, this unspeakable tragedy wouldn't have happened. If he had somehow held on and faced the challenge, he would have surely overcome his difficulties once again, as he had done countless times earlier. If only he had not taken that fatal jump, he would have found a way out of the impasse.
Other images and memories crowd the mind. My first meeting with Siddhartha in the mid-nineties is still vivid. He had made his maiden equity investment in IT company Mindtree and reached out to me for a helicopter charter to ferry the Bank of America CEO to his tech park in the suburbs of Bangalore where the inaugural function was held. He was tall, slim of build, sharp and unassuming with a pleasing demeanour. I instantly took a liking to him.
I instinctively admired him for his entrepreneurial instincts. Not a technocrat, nor possessing an MBA from IIM or other Ivy Leagues like Harvard, but a local graduate who had dared to become a venture capitalist when venture capitalists didn't exist in India. Not only was he a venture capitalist but also an entrepreneur himself.
Over the next two and a half decades, our paths as entrepreneurs, being in the same city and hailing from the same districts, often crossed. He never failed to accept invitations to social functions but didn't stay longer than half an hour. He was shy, a teetotaller or held a glass of wine out of courtesy. He never hung around and quietly left without pomp or fuss.
But what really captivated me about him over the years as I watched him was his entrepreneurial instincts, his uncanny grasp of business, shrewd understanding of politics and its dangerous undercurrents. He possessed a native management acumen to structure the organisation and surround himself with capable people. He exuded indefatigable energy and above all a grand vision with a tenacity rarely seen to pursue the goal that he had set for himself.
The Air Deccan Partnership
He was quick to grasp a proposal or business idea and could go straight to where the matter hinged. One small example from my dealings with him will suffice. When I started the low-cost airline Air Deccan, I wished to sell everything on board including water to the passengers on the flight, unlike the practice then of supplying lunch, dinner or snacks free of charge, procuring from Taj or Oberoi 5-star inflight catering, the only facility available until then.
Cafe Coffee Day by then had probably about 60 outlets, fast expanding and present in several of the major and regional cities where Air Deccan flew. My proposal was simple. I was offering a shopping mall to Siddhartha's Cafe Coffee Day — the Airbus — without rent, electricity or water tariffs or the octroi and sundry cesses, and a fully furnished interior with zero capital investment , with my air hostesses as sales girls and captive customers for an hour or two to whom he could sell snacks and coffee. I said all losses, wastage and profits were his and demanded to offer Air Deccan a 30 percent commission.
Read: A millennial's tribute to CCD's VG Siddhartha
Siddhartha's face lit up. He saw in a flash that the offer had great brand value for his expansion. In his mind's eye, there must have rolled visions of hundreds of his Coffee Day outlets mushrooming across the country giving a boost to his brand through the flying outlets crisscrossing the country. He sealed the deal in less than an hour.
But it is his unmatched feat of creating a network of 1,750 outlets in every nook and corner of the country that takes your breath away. The first seven to eight years, he had just a handful of Coffee Day shops in Bangalore, starting the first one on the famous Brigade Road. He called them internet cafes to attract the new millennials. Once he studied and thought through and fine-tuned the business model, he unleashed all his pent-up ideas and expanded with breakneck speed.
Creating such a vast network which is not a franchise model but an ownership model — the acquisition of real estate, building the cafe infrastructure, furnishings and branding, the recruitment of manpower, the IT infrastructure, brand communication, the sheer logistics and complexity of supply chain in a food industry that's perishable is a Himalayan task. Ordinary mortals can't accomplish such deeds.
The thought again returns to torment. Why did an extraordinary individual who had already faced overwhelming odds (no one can achieve such dizzying heights while facing near-death crises many a time in one’s journey without grit, iron will and raw courage) take that
fateful call to end his life? Was it the short-sighted institutions who turned money lenders and breathed down his neck? He says in his note left behind one private equity investor, a friend, pushed him to the point of no return and he couldn't take it any longer. Was that combined by “tremendous pressure from other lenders” to use his words that pushed him over the brink? Was the tipping point the tax authorities that he has named? His parting words are so honourable and touching and poignant — "My intention was never to cheat or mislead anybody..."
He ends the letter, saying his assets (exceeding liabilities) can be used to repay everybody. Such uprightness even while embracing death.
We all wear a mask. May be different masks on varying occasions. One for the public. We wear another even when we are with close friends and kith and kin. "Every man has three personalities, which he exhibits, which he has and that which he thinks he has," said Alphonse Karr.
Also Read: CCD's VG Siddhartha no more: Long live the coffee king
If we can sometimes be without the facade? If only Siddhartha had realised he didn't need a mask? If he had sought refuge in someone, a kindred soul and poured his heart out when he felt let down and the world was unfair to him? If he had only realised that he had already won by innovating a new market in the beverage consumer space where none existed before? If it had just dawned on him that he had hugely succeeded in creating a new cultural space for the young of today to meet and exchange their ideas through his coffee outlets, that he didn't have to prove anything to anybody, he would be with us today.
Before Coffee Day, even in the South, the middle class went to Udupi hotels to read papers over coffee and chat and sip coffee with friends. The Udupi hotels were the favourite hangout places for Kannada writers. The journalists and writers of English press went to a few select coffee houses in the cantonment area. The modern youth never visited them.
Siddhartha changed all that — the entire cultural landscape — through his ubiquitous coffee shops, both in the South and the rest of India where very few drank coffee and spent hours over books or laptops or simply unwinding with friends.
There is no bigger peak to conquer and no bigger or better glory than what Siddhartha had already achieved, even if he had walked away from his empire to square off his debts. His legacy would have lived on.
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan.