The End of 13 Llama Studio – and What I Learnt From It

It has been a year and a half since the transition started, and it just got over around last week.

Prasad’s and my labour of love, 13 Llama Studio, has officially ceased to exist. As you were aware that we had started on our journey of entrepreneurship around five years ago, with an agency named 13 Llama Studio. In the summer of 2016, I decided to end my stint with it, and Prasad decided to pivot to a pure digital marketing agency called 13 Llama Interactive.

Things weren’t looking really rosy for the development part of our business for a few months then. There were a few things we could have and should have done differently. Some time in the spring that year, we took a call that our friendship is more important than a business partnership, and we decided to streamline projects and teams under either of us. Some time around June, I took stock of the situation and realised that I was bleeding at a rate higher than all of our billings combined were able to sustain. If I had deeper pockets, I would have tried to restart everything and take another shot at the kind of company I had dreamt of making.

Sadly, that was not the case. Soon after deciding to shut down the development business, and putting away the name 13 Llama Studio, I was out in the job market looking for openings. Friends were contacted, headhunters I had not spoken in half a decade got calls from me, and resumes on online sites were dusted and preened.

Thanks to many friends, I had interviews soon after, and after converting three of them, I decided to join ICICI Securities Private Wealth Management as the marketing guy. It’s been seventeen months here, and I’m loving every bit of it. The transition was a bit difficult, but owing to the way this place is set up, it wasn’t that difficult. How I have fared here, and what plans I have over here may be the subject of some other post in the future.

Today I would like to share what I learnt from this entrepreneurship stint:

  1. Vision: Every business needs to have clarity of vision — where you want to be in a year, in 5 years, in a decade, and a clear plan of how you plan to get there, not just an industry and a product/service you are going to offer. You can’t wing this.
  2. Being on the same page: No matter how strong your friendship is, your business wouldn’t survive unless all founders/partners agree on the vision and ways of doing business. And constantly communicating with each other about this and whatever you think is important for the business. Skip this step, and you risk your friendship.
  3. Hiring: I had read in the book Ogilvy on Advertising, that if everyone in a company hired people smaller than themselves, it becomes a company of dwarves, while if everyone hired people bigger than themselves, it would become a company of giants. We could not adhere to this principle, despite seeing the merit of it and being awed by the simplicity of it. But to be fair to us, we weren’t spoilt for choice when we first began operations — though I believe that had we acted right back then, it’d have become easier for us progressively.
  4. Hiring the right clients: A small company is eager to survive, to grow, and to thrive. And for each progressive stage, one has to get progressively selective with the kind of projects one onboards and the kind of clientelle one associates with. Through our journey we had a handful of amazing clients, who, no surprises there, are now at the peak of their respective businesses, and are overall happy in life – because they operate out of a sense of fairness and abundance. On the other hand, we had quite a few clients we should have said no to, or should have been careful with while laying down the rules of engagement – these clients operated out of a incessant drive for extracting maximum bang for buck combined with disrespect for what we did for them.
  5. Valuing ourselves: For too long both of us worked at the company with meagre salaries. Either of us still drew more pay than any of the rest of the staff, but that doesn’t say much. This led us to believe for long that we were profitable. We were growing no doubt, in billings, in the size of office we could hire, in getting a coffee machine, and somewhat respectable furniture, but we weren’t valuing ourselves, the founders, at our full cost. The only saving grace was that we began with very little capital, so the return-on-investment seemed respectable optically. But given our backgrounds, and the kind of opportunity costs we both incurred, it was criminal the way we ignored it while doing a health check of the company.

Having run that company we both loved for around three and a half years has left us only wiser. And our friendship remains strong. Whatever we do now is guided by experience and wisdom.

Here’s to the future!

Seamless?

When an Idea customer dials 12345 from their phone, an exceptionally chirpy female voice tells them that they can “now stay connected while in roaming with Idea seamless coverage”. Of course you can. Ok, no sarcasm.

Problem began when I noticed that whenever I come to Bombay, I am unable to send text messages. In technical parlance, outgoing SMS is not working. Different days that I have come here. Different handsets. Different places in Bombay. No sir, can’t go. And lately, my GPRS connection also refuses to work when in Bombay.

How to solve it then? Call someone for help. Who else but Idea helpline? So I do. I dial 12345. I am greeted with the exceptionally chirpy female voice mentioned above, telling me about the alleged “seamless connectivity”, and then some human being talks to me. The moment I tell them my number and that I am coming from Pune, they respond as if I am a stepchild. How can Mumbai executives be expected to listen to Pune customers? Everytime I call, I am told that I need to call the Pune helpline at 9822012345. Other than that they cannot help me in any way, because procedures do not allow them to help me. These people hung up on me mid-sentence twice. Some customer “service”.

9822012345 is another story. The moment I dial it, select the language, tell the system that I am an Idea Maharashtra customer AND dial my phone number (in this day and age of CLI machines at homes!), I am presented a menu that is definitely a prepaid customer’s menu. Why would a postpaid customer be bothered with recharge options? The menu comprises of 4 options only, like PUK, value-added services, recharge options etc. but never did I hear a “to talk to a customer care executive…”. Once by fluke I got to talk to a human being on this number, and all he could help me with was “Sir please try again after some time, it will definitely go. If not, then try a different handset, it will definitely go.”, 5 times when I told him I did not think it would work. The second time I got to talk to someone, again by the rare coming together of five of the eight planets in one line, he politely tells me that he is a prepaid customer care executive and that I need to dial 9822012345 to reach a postpaid customer care executive! If you were not paying attention so far, that was the number where I reached this gentleman in the first place. He could not help me because he was a prepaid Pune executive, while I was a postpaid Pune customer. Wow!

Idea keeps telling us about “seamless connectivity”, while there are silos in their customer service setup. One area’s executive cannot help a customer from another area. One department’s executive cannot help a customer subscribing to another department. Let alone help me, they cannot transfer my line to the concerned persons!

Wonder when companies would really honour their marketing claims, and when customer care people would really care about customer’s problems and concerns.

Widest? Really?

If you have seen or been to a Dosa Plaza restaurant anywhere, you must have seen their tagline “The world’s widest menu in dosas™”.

And if you have been in Dhanbad for more than a day, you surely must have seen the restaurant Waikiki at Bank More.

How are they related, you might ask?

Well, if you have eaten at Waikiki, which by the way is an excellent up-market restaurant, you would know what the link is. Waikiki’s menu runs in pages — I would guess more than twenty pages — and it’s filled with dosas for most of it. Last I counted they had 140 different types of dosas.

And Dosa Plaza themselves claim to have 104 different types of dosas in their menu. Can they claim to have the world’s widest menu in dosas when there clearly is at least another place where you get a wider range?

Dosa Plaza’s claim also carries a ™ sign — which means that they have registered it as a trade mark. All this raised a few questions for me:

  1. Can one trade mark a phrase, which is a claim?
  2. While registering a claim as a trade mark, do the authorities check the validity of the claim?
  3. Is it ethical for Dosa Plaza to make such a claim, AND trade mark it, when it is clearly false?
  4. If Waikiki now decides to contest that claim and wants to trade mark this claim themselves, will they be able to?

Any trade mark lawyers/experts here?

You won’t sell to me?

The other day I went to a medicine shop and asked for a medicine from a prescription. The pack of 10 costs four-fifty. I open the wallet and find that the smallest paper currency I have is a fifty. The second smallest? Five hundred! And the loose change all totalled up to two rupees fifty.

I gave an apologetic sigh and offered the shopkeeper the fifty hoping that he’d give me change. With a stern look the shopkeeper took back the medicines from my hand, gave me a hand signal denoting refusal and put the medicine back in the shelf, without saying a word. I asked him why. And he says “We won’t entertain this”. That’s all.

I walk over to the next shop, which was like two blocks away, enter it. The guy looks friendly. I thought let’s take a chance. So I asked him for the medicine, and while he’s taking it out of the shelf, I casually ask “You have change for fifty, don’t you?”. He looks back at me, and politely says “No”, keeping the medicine back in the shelf.

So I ask him, “You are a shop. How come you don’t have change?” to which his response is “If you can’t produce change for 4.50, how do you expect us to keep change for 45.50?”

So is having a bigger note worthless if you’re buying a small item? I know that if you offer a pan-wallah a thousand rupee note for a five rupee cigarette it’s absurd, but this is not a difference of 995 we’re talking about or a small pan-wallah. Both shops were decent-sized medicine shops, which I’ve grown up seeing and buying from. What is the reason for their refusal? Is short change really short in the market? Is day-to-day liquidity so low that people are clinging on to any short change they have and are refusing business? Or is it just a stand they have taken that they will not entertain business which makes them do this ‘heavy work’ of counting and returning change?

What use is a bigger currency note if I cannot buy small things with it? I had over a thousand rupees with me right then, but I could not buy medicines worth less than ten rupees.

If there is a liquidity problem, then it is worrying. But if the problem is in the mindsets of the store owners, then it is ridiculous. If they are facing a real short change problem, I think they should offer other channels of payment. Accept credit/debit/charge cards, accept cheques.

Why lose business over this issue, and why dishonour a customer even when he has more money than needed for the transaction?

Choices

Which do you think makes a better connect with you, or whom would you buy from?

We are your only choice
The only company selling blah-blah with blah-blah technology.
We are the only option if you want blah-blah on your blah-blah.
(In other words, if you want blah-blah and not choose us, you’re doomed. Where will you go, eh?)

or

We appreciate your choice
We are equipped with blah-blah on our blah-blah, but we appreciate that you have a choice of going to other people but have chosen us.
We appreciate that you have chosen us amongst many others who are giving similar (not the same) offerings.
(In other words, we are better, because you chose us; The blah-blah on the offering might be just one of the reasons you did.)