Akshay Gurnani - Everything Starts With the 'Why', Starts With Knowing Yourself, Knowing What You Want to Be in Life (Co-Founder and CEO - Schbang)

Akshay Gurnani

The only way you can learn is when you put yourself in uncomfortable situations. An entrepreneur is usually put into 10 or 15 different uncomfortable situations almost every day. It’s almost like saying try something different daily because you never know that’s what will make you stronger in long run.

Tell us about your background, journey, and upbringing.

I was born and brought up in Bombay. I did my schooling and college in Bombay. I graduated from HR College of Commerce and Economics and completed my BMS (Bachelor of Management Studies). I was one of the only students in the class who did both Marketing and Finance. This was at a time where I was confused about what I wanted to do. Marketing and Finance back in the day were the only two streams we could take in commerce, I did both, but I gave my majors in Finance and I got my placement in the financial firm called TresVista where I worked as a Financial Analyst for about 6 months. Within those 6 months, I realized that I disliked finance because of the crazy long work hours, hence marketing became the natural gravitation for me.

Overnight I switched fields and moved to an upcoming agency called Foxymoron, all this was back in 2010–11. Foxymoron was a small bu growing agency at that time. I joined the team since I knew the founders and some of them were my school friends as well. There I started my journey as a content writer and a brand strategist, I used to create and execute digital campaigns and write Facebook posts, tweets, etc. Digital was still growing back then; I think 2012 is when Facebook blew up and became a big platform. A lot of brands were coming on to digital at that time and it also became an opportunity for me to grow myself because it was the right place at the right time.

I was growing along with the company’s rank. I also grew from a content creator to an account lead towards becoming a Group Solutions Manager and finally in 2013 is when I thought that I should do an MBA, typically how everyone does after few years of working. However, the founders gave me an opportunity to go to Delhi and start the overall North India operations. At the age of 23, I moved to Gurgaon, all alone and began operations. I was really a fish out of water because I was doing things that I’d never done before - right from finding new clients, growing a team to building an office from scratch. I was there for about one and half years and literally did my “pseudo” MBA on the job.

It was in 2013–14 when a lot of brands started spending money online and digital was moving from being just social media to becoming complete digital. There was media planning & buying, SEO, Website development, influencer marketing and video production that came to the fore. It was a good time for me to learn and explore what I was going to do in life as the industry was also fairly un-tapped. In 2014 when I was coming back to Bombay after finishing my stint in Delhi, it is when I and two of my partners Harshil and Sohil decided to move out of Foxymoron and started Schbang together. January 2015 is when Schbang was incorporated.

The three of us were in the digital space for many years, so we knew what kind of requirements there are in the industry, what is the need gap and what are clients looking for, so that's when the thought of Schbang came into place. Schbang is an integrated, full-fledged, end-to-end marketing communications and solution agency that provides all sorts of solutions to clients. What Schbang actually is, it’s a colloquial phrase, an English phrase that means completeness and wholeness. It has been six and half years, now we are present in Mumbai, Bangalore, and Delhi. We have 650 people across 3 cities, and we are blessed to have about 100 odd clients working with us daily.

It has been quite an exciting journey. My father’s an entrepreneur so entrepreneurship has been in my blood. I did not know where and how and when, but I just knew that in life I wanted to become an entrepreneur. Schbang was my opportunity to try it out and it has been a fulfilling journey.

What inspired you to start Schbang and what are your future plans?

We had been in the digital space, we knew the kind of direction the industry was moving towards, we knew that clients were looking for an integrated solutions agency so that they can get all services under one roof. The respect and importance that mainline agencies get will always be there, but suddenly clients were giving a lot of importance to digital agencies, wherein communication was flowing from digital to mainline instead of the other way around. We felt that if we could be among the biggest independent agencies which can not only provide great creatives but also business solutions to client’s problems, that’s where we can find our position in the industry.

Technology of course plays a very important part in everything that we do. Right from the kind of development we do for applications, websites, the kind of reporting we do, the dashboards that we create, it’s somewhere fusing that creativity with tech and business, that’s the kind of space we see ourselves building. 

Currently, we are an independent agency and not part of any large group and we plan on keeping it that way. Our objective and our future plans are to be one of the top Indian agencies that actually go abroad to different countries with our vision being “India to the World”. We see many of the Japanese & European agencies who come to India and set up shop over here. We want to do it the other way around, take our services to different countries. 

What does your typical workday look like?

It’s usually very chaotic and unplanned. I do maintain my calendar, so I know exactly how many meetings I have and at what time, who am I talking to, etc. A lot of communication happens over email and WhatsApp, there’s like 100+ WhatsApp groups and they keep buzzing all the time from early morning 7:30AM till late night 2:00AM.

It could be because some brand is going crazy, or some other brand is doing some campaign. Communications are happening 20 hours a day. Most of my day is spent just responding to people. I try catching up with 4 to 5 brands every day so that I can keep track of what’s happening across different brands that I have to work with . It could be catching up on brainstorming sessions, could be campaign planning, checking reports, planning team staffing or looking into client escalations.

We are still a young company and typically with escalations clients sometimes directly call me directly for certain problems or issues they are facing with the team. There is always a lot of firefighting, team planning and thinking how to do things differently. Considering that we are digital, it’s always fast paced, but it’s exciting as there is always a new challenge or new briefs coming every day. As the company grows and as the entire team grows, it’s very important to start putting processes into place so we can streamline a lot of work.

I do spend a lot of time trying to streamline and keep things a little more process-oriented because eventually as the company grows and we become a 5000 member team, we’ve got to have enough automated ways to scale up. 

Several global companies have come out and thrown their support behind not needing a formal education. What is your opinion about this?

I myself did not do an MBA. Of course, I did my M.Com. I thought I’d do my 16th year of education and go to the US and do my MBA, but that plan didn’t materialize for whatever reasons. Honestly, I don’t put too much emphasis on education, especially bookish knowledge. Most of my senior team members, for example, don’t come with an MBA, they’re all graduates who have worked enough in the industry. Digital today has come to a point where many institutions are trying to offer digital marketing as a part of the curriculum, however they are not doing a very good job of teaching the right things. Because of how fast digital is evolving, by the time the curriculum is implemented in colleges, it becomes outdated. We see that even though people are learning digital marketing from an institution and coming to Schbang to work they often lack the real world experience of handling a brand which is something we are open to teaching them, on the job.

It would be better for me to get someone with a completely fresh plate and they can come and learn with us, on the job. In fact, we’ve launched a Schbang Academy, which is responsible for training people within Schbang and also outside the organization. 

These are like small and quick courses that people can do and brush up on the important things. They’ll be equipped with the basics and when they actually get exposed to a brand or to a client, then we can start implementing that and learn along the way. I don’t think there’s any better way of learning other than learning on the job. That’s how I’ve learnt things.

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How do you handle someone who has lied on their resume?

I cannot tolerate lies, period. It has happened a couple of times wherein an employee has lied on their resume and we’ve asked the person to leave because we don’t have any space for such people in our company, especially on a resume which is the first point of contact and the first impression you’re making. If someone is lying on their resume it goes to show that person is not entitled to what they’re doing.

We do a very strict background check on every candidate who joins the company. We very often found that people have lied on their resumes and said that they worked on certain brands or campaigns or worked at different places and have fudged reviews and testimonials about themselves.

We were able to identify them and not take them forward. We have a very strong policy towards people who are not honest, and we try to keep our integrity as strong as possible. As a company we are fairly transparent, every number, every revenue is transparent to anyone who wants access to it and we believe that there is no need to hide anything because the more information you can give to your team, the more they value you and the more they find that the company cares for them.

How has covid changed things at your workplace & which of these changes do you intend to make permanently?

COVID has actually been a good time for our industry overall because digital has become the mainstay for many brands and clients in terms of where they want to spend their money. As of last year, most of our clients are spending about 20-21% of their overall marketing spends on digital, but reports say that that is going to be 30-35% and will soon take over mainline advertising as the highest chunk of spending. We’ve almost doubled our strength from 350 people to 650 in the past year and that happened only because of the way brands have been adopting digital as a platform overall. 

Coming to the concept of remote working, we’ve realized that people are actually happy working from home. It, of course, becomes a bit draining sometimes because they are working much longer hours now that they don’t need to travel to the office and there’s practically no concept of weekends. We’ve fairly adapted well to people working from home and having a system in place to ensure processes are not broken. 

We are thinking of ways to incorporate flexi-working in the office instead of having our teams come in for the whole 5 days. We'll probably do a 2 day work week and let people work the other 3 days at home. This would help them save the travelling time and they can get to meet the teams twice a week. That’s one thing that’ll surely be a way forward for us. 

In the cultural standpoint we’ve also incorporated learning and development extremely strongly in the past year because we can’t interact face to face. The learning curve has gone down substantially because of not having one-on-one conversations. The Schbang Academy is one big part of a culture that we want to continue taking forward with people learning online and spending their 2 hours learning every week. 

This is a good thing as people are getting upskilled by even sitting at home and learning online and that is a very promising thing for us. The more they can learn the better it is for us as a company as well. Technology has taught us that if you have the backend in place, the work will be streamlined. 

We have an HR app, for example, where people can access all of their leaves, their daily check-in and check-out times, holiday lists, share any grievances if needed, access a Schbang wikipedia with company resources, they can meet and contact fellow employees directly via the app, so this intranet created for Schbang was so that they can really interact with people and also get a lot of information all about themselves. Even hiring is happening in a completely automated way now.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs or those eyeing the top job?

The first and the biggest one is not to chase money. A lot of upcoming entrepreneurs are looking for a buyout or looking to cash out real soon. Money and success take their own time and it will come only once you continue doing whatever you are doing, but on a more focused basis. 

Today’s industry has become such that a lot of buyouts are happening, and people are raising money, raising funds. Money is of course important to survive, but do not chase money because you might lose your calling in the greed of wanting too much money. 

Secondly, don’t give up easily. The agency business is a slow process, one should understand this and it takes a lot of learning to grow within the industry, it takes a lot of mentoring and finding the right kind of resources in the industry.

Surround yourself with people who are smart, intelligent, who can kind of mentor you. Utilize LinkedIn to connect to people who are like-minded and who can probably add value to your life. While having conversations with them you might find something which you didn’t know about. Do one thing every day which makes you uncomfortable. 

The only way you can learn is when you put yourself in uncomfortable situations. An entrepreneur is usually put into 10 or 15 different uncomfortable situations almost every day. It’s almost like saying try something different daily because you never know that’s what will make you stronger in the long run. 

It’s always good to have collaborations, especially with someone who is starting off. Collaborate in the beginning, with people, with other agencies, other companies who can potentially give you some work and build your own portfolio, then take it forward. When you are starting up fresh, it becomes difficult to showcase work from day 1, try spending time trying to collaborate and it’s okay if someone is not paying you in the first two months, but at least try getting some work on your portfolio very importantly. If you showcase it as your own and then go out and build more clients.

Which is your favorite book/show and why?

My favourite book is “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek. One of my video editors at Schbang introduced me to this author and said, “Akshay, you have to read this book”. I was never fond of reading but in 2017 when I was introduced to Simon Sinek, I was hooked. 

“Start with why”, tells you about why finding your own “WHY” is so important to decide what your purpose in life is and identifying the Why is so important because most people lose track and sight of where they want to move in life because they don’t know what they want to do. Everything starts with the why, starts with knowing yourself, knowing what you want to be in life and then the "how" and the "what" is something that comes naturally. 

How and what is something that we all know how to achieve, but identifying the why is more important since it’s at the core of what you do. That really gave me a lot of context to my own life. That allowed me to visualize and see myself in the future. That was a life changing book for me.

Interviewed by - Bhavana N 

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