Tony Paul – Enterprising Entrepreneur

Hailing from rural Kasaragod in Kerala, Tony Paul, with his left leaning idealism, did not in his wildest dreams think that he would end up being an entrepreneur. Yet this firebrand student leader found himself doing just that. The young and dynamic co-founder of Datahut shares the salient points of his journey. Edited excerpts from a conversation over coffee:

Tony Paul courtesy Facebook

Veena Narayan: What comes to mind immediately when I say childhood?

Tony Paul: Curiosity. I was a curious kid, full of questions. I studied in a school close to my home and I was fortunate to have teachers who actively encouraged curiosity in children. I had a teacher called Kunhikrishnan Master. He is to retire in April this year. He was one of the best teachers we had. All my teachers encouraged curiosity in the children and they spent money from their own pockets and bought us books. They would sometimes take us to competitions and other events and bear all the expenses. This environment encouraged me hugely. The teachers would also come and talk to my father who was sometimes unaware of the necessity of exposure to the wider world and they would convince him about its importance. I was fortunate to have such good teachers and they laid a good foundation within me. I was not someone who would limit himself to learning from books alone; but always sought something more. It was this quality that encouraged me later in life to think in ways like ‘let’s try this’ and ‘why not this way’. All teachers don’t like kids who are constantly asking questions. So some of my teachers did get irritated with me and my questions and made me stand outside class.

Also, I used to always be interested in co-curricular activities like quiz, scouts and guides and also, to a great extent, political activities.

VN: I understand you had a left leaning background.

TP: Yes, left leaning. Both my father and grandfather were communists…

VN: Were they active party members?

TP: My father was a party member but my grandfather wasn’t though he was definitely a left sympathiser. My grandfather knew Comrade E. K. Nayanar well. During the days of the Emergency when Comrade Nayanar was underground he received a lot of help from several families in my village.

Then there was an organisation called the Bala Sangham which acted as a kind of feeder to the Students Federation of India. You must have heard of it…

VN: Weren’t these Bala Sanghams active everywhere?

TP: They are present in most places. The one in our village had become inactive and so during my time it was revived and it became a platform for organising several cultural programmes like music, dance, public speaking, debates, etc. I was put in charge of the unit in my area and I participated in several cultural events, won many prizes, and met many people. Some of the people whom I met were the ones who could answer many of the questions that simmered inside my head. That led me to reading.

VN: What did you read?

TP: All kinds of things – fiction, non-fiction mainly politics. I frequented the library in my village. In the Malabar region there are libraries in every village and the collection of books is quite eclectic. There are also people who can talk authoritatively on a wide variety of subjects including the political situation in Venezuela or Cuba because of their use of the library. Since I grew up in this background I was something of a rebel. This continued right through school and when I joined college I was active in student politics too.

VN: You joined the Students Federation of India?

TP: Yes, and was actively involved in the issues of the day. It was during this time that the college brought two entrepreneurs to give a talk to us students. Their talk really resonated with us. So, there were three of us, that is my co-founders and I, who were active members of the SFI, and so had a difficult relationship with our college teachers because of our involvement in politics. We decided that it would be a good idea to start something. So, we came to Kochi and started a company that provided software services.

VN: What kind of software services?

TP: The service depended on the needs of the client. Sometimes a client would want data mining services, others would want some fin-tech service … so it depended on the client. We provided the services the client asked for. While working this way we realised that there were many opportunities to be had in the field of data mining and so we decided to launch a company called Datahut in 2015.

VN: What exactly does Datahut do?

TP: Let’s suppose you are a top shoe manufacturer. Your products are doing well but you would like them to do better than your nearest competitor. So you approach us for data on how your competitor’s products are doing in order to, let’s say, make better pricing decisions. We provide you that data. Among the top twenty companies, around six or seven use data we provide.

VN: What were the challenges you faced in the beginning?

TP: The greatest challenge was ignorance. We didn’t know many things and had to learn on the job. Right from the registration of our company down to how to follow up if a client didn’t pay after availing our services, we had to learn a lot. Several clients used our services and didn’t pay up. Another big learning was how to say no. In the beginning we used to take up every project that came our way.

VN: What made you do that?

TP: See, we didn’t have any backup. We didn’t even have an engineering degree. So we felt that if we didn’t take up what came our way, we wouldn’t be able to pay our employees. We felt responsible for people who depended on us for a living. That prevented us from saying no. It took us a while to realise to be selective about the work we took on. We realised that some projects bring in better money and also helped us grow in many ways. So we gathered the courage and started saying no to some kind of work.

VN: Now your company is in a position to employ more people. Generally, employers feel that the average engineering graduate from Kerala is not employable. A lot of money and time has to be spent in training them. What is your take on this?

TP: I feel it’s true. The average engineering degree holder from Kerala learns for the sake of passing exams. If we ask them to do something practical, make something new from the knowledge they have attained, they are unable to do so. For example if I ask an engineering graduate to make a chat bot, they are unable to do it. They study only with a view to passing exams. Many of them don’t have a spark of interest in what they do. In fact, I would go to the extent of saying that we have to teach them from scratch what they are supposed to have learnt from four years spent at an engineering college. If we look at it from purely financial terms, such an employee starts contributing to productivity only eight months after we take him on. If we look at it in terms of losses for the entire state, the amount would be staggering.

VN: What do you think is the reason for this sad state of affairs?

TP: There are several reasons. One of them is the quality of teaching in engineering colleges. Nowadays there are many self-financing engineering colleges. Only a few of the teachers there have a strong academic background. The remaining teachers are just students who have passed the previous year. Even the teachers who are senior have only an academic background and no industrial experience. So they are unable to structure their teaching around the practical necessities of the industry. The second reason is the projects that the students are required to do. The students pay others and get their projects done. So no learning happens. The sad fact is that the teachers also encourage this trend since it is easier for them to evaluate the paid projects. As a result, no practical learning happens.

VN: Could it also be a lack of interest in the subject of study?

TP: I would like to put it the other way round. I think people with real aptitude and a hunger for the subject don’t get a chance to study it. The entrance exams are not designed to test aptitude. They are only a method of elimination. Many students from disadvantaged sections of society don’t have the money to pay for the coaching classes necessary to crack the entrance. The other option is private colleges, but then the fees there are unaffordable to many.  

VN: Do schools contribute in any way to these falling standards?

TP: Yes, I feel the evaluation in schools is very lenient. That is why the pass percentage is so high. The school system does not prepare the individual to face problems and solve them. It only focuses on rote learning and scoring marks in exams. I think it is high time for some serious educational reform.

VN: I was fascinated by your unconventional and amusing way of learning English. Please detail it for our readers.

TP: I studied in a village school run by the government. There were not many opportunities for me to learn to speak fluently in English. So, as a young man struggling to make our nascent company get off the mark, I used to have salespeople from different companies call me. These were native speakers of English. I would record these conversations and study how they used certain words, how they used pauses, how they structured the conversation. After listening to hundreds of such calls, my vocabulary began to improve and I started gaining in confidence as I learnt the techniques of using the pauses and the right words to structure a conversation to my advantage. It is not any sort of short cut. It requires long hours of hard work over several years. But I did learn.

VN: There is a general feeling that Kerala is not friendly to entrepreneurs, that to start something new and take it forward is near impossible here. What is your opinion about this as the co-founder of a start-up that is going places?

TP: I would say that more than the politics it is the bureaucracy which is responsible for creating a hostile climate for businesses here. Many people tend to blame the trade unions for this. There may be unscrupulous trade union leaders. I’m not saying that all of them work for the welfare of the employees. But we need trade unions. I’d say that they have been made a scapegoat for the situation by the media outlets. It’s easy to blame them since they are visible.

But the real threat to new businesses is the corrupt bureaucracy. If we want to start something new and have to apply for a license we have to bribe everyone in the concerned office from the peon upwards. Not just that, they expect to be paid during festivals like Vishu and Diwali. I feel this is the real Damocles’ sword to businesses and start-ups in Kerala. The bureaucracy is also not accountable. They get away with things with impunity. Even if we get a bureaucrat transferred on charges of corruption, their network is very strong and the new official will make it a point to harass the ones responsible for his predecessor’s transfer. They are not accountable to anybody. But the trade unions, largely, are accountable to the workers.

Besides, I’ve always felt that Kerala is not suited for setting up large manufacturing industries. The social and geographical conditions are not fit for that. Knowledge based or service based industries as well as small manufacturing units will definitely thrive in this place. Since the land acquisition cost in Kerala is very high, it is difficult to set up large scale industries here. There is also the physical limitation, in the sense that not much land is available since there are the Western Ghats to the east and the sea to the west.

VN: How do relax and replenish? What are your hobbies?

TP: I play chess. I find it very relaxing. Even if I have an important sales call coming up, I play bullet chess for half an hour before the call. That calms me and enables me to sharpen my focus. My regret is that I don’t get much time to read though I listen to audio books on Storytel. I was someone who used to have a regular budget every month for buying books until quite recently. I used to also be a member of the public library here. But nowadays it’s very difficult to find time to read physical books. So I compromise by listening to audio books while driving or working out.  

VN: Tony, thank you very much for agreeing to be featured on my blog.             

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2 thoughts on “Tony Paul – Enterprising Entrepreneur

  1. Veenanarayanji it is an eye-opener for the Teachers.We should cultivate Questions by the students & then Question in order to keep the flow.l really enjoyed the blog.


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