She left for the US when she was 17, studied marketing and finance at State University of New York while working three jobs, and ending up as student of the year. She worked with several top companies thereafter, had gotten round to a steady, comfortable, successful corporate career replete with the green card she’d earned by then. Which was when she decided she wanted to leave the US and get back to India — to start up on her own.
And she created sunSTRATEGIC.
Which is what this deep dive of a conversation with Sherina Kapany, Founder sunSTRATEGIC, is all about. I hope it inspires others dreaming to shift startup ideas into first gear and start the process of rolling out. Read on.
Tell me about yourself. Childhood, upbringing, education, Career.
I come from a lineage where women were always given their due and supported in every endeavour.
My grandparents served with the UN in Africa. My grandmother was the first in my family to leave Pakistan to study in Chicago. My grandfather at that time had been the founding member of the Punjab-Sind bank. He followed my grandmother to Chicago to support her through college and help realise her dreams while fulfilling his own.
When I turned 17, I left for the USA with a one-way ticket from Mumbai to study Marketing & Finance at the State University of New York. I juggled academics with three jobs at one time and hardly had any friends. I used to work with Ernst & Young in Washington, and take a flight back to school to study. I was chosen as the Student of the Year when I graduated.
An illustrious corporate career in the US followed – working for top companies like Warner Brothers, Capgemini, Estee Lauder, and many others, managing teams of more than 100 people each time.
Where were you working before you decided to start out on you own?
I worked for global consulting companies, running strategy and project management. The last two organizations where I worked before starting sunSTRATEGIC were Levi Strauss & Co, and the Adecco Group.
At Levi Strauss, where I worked for Branding & Strategy for the US & Asia Pacific., I built “Centers of Excellence” for my clients to create lean, profitable and high-performance teams.
At the Adecco Group (Ajilon Solutions), I built a Project Management practice to create solutions for my clients and brought in CIOs, CEOs, VPs, SMEs and high-end professionals as part of the human capital solutions my division provided.
When and why did you think of starting out on your own?
I always want my life to be full of thrills. I had an illustrious career, a green card and a well-settled life. But that was not the end for me. I craved for more. I always wanted to do something of my own. That was my dream.
After working for big A-grade companies in A grade cities of the US, Europe and Australia for 14 years, I gained a lot of knowledge and experience in the industry.
After years of experience in witnessing how content can be diversified, I decided to start my entrepreneurial venture in India. There is a clear paradigm shift, but there are no guidelines to plan and strategize for these new media types.
One fine day in 2011, in Central Park, New York, while having breakfast with my father, I made up my mind that I wanted to start my own venture, and that’s where I conceived of the idea of sunSTRATEGIC.
Because it is an emerging playground for start-ups. Although the current market in India is getting more difficult to survive. India is also a country where new ideas are welcomed. There is a flux of spending capital in the masses. They want to consume more. Branding needs are different. The average Indian is consuming huge content and platforms for content are being built in India. I am here to contribute towards making content in India world class.
What were you offering, and what convinced you it was unique enough to strike out on your own?
sunSTRATEGIC was offering content for the digital markets where most of the businesses were focussed on lead generations. To them sunSTRATEGIC was propositioning organic lead generation through the power of content.
This has been a successful concept in various countries, but 5 years ago, it was a fairly new notion in India. It is during the time when Starbucks entered the Indian market and has failed. If you look at that example, then good quality content on the Starbucks cup was not good enough to convince the Indian masses to pay the amount for a cup of coffee.
So, in a market where you are one of the first movers, you have various advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that the people will slowly and gradually become familiar with the idea of content playing an important role in digital marketing. It is an advantage because people during that time were willing to try, but were not fully convinced that content was needed.
It was like a playground for an agency like us to talk to small as well as big businesses, because every business was getting acquainted with the significance of content.
How small, modest, or big was your start? The first day…?
The start of sunSTRATEGIC was very small. In 2013, I started sunSTRATEGIC with one intern and one part time design creator, in my living room.
We started off with INR 5000/- for making the first poster that we sold to a company called Global Food. Our first retainer was INR 30,000/- from the restaurant called Leaping Windows.
And what is it like today?
Today, in 2018, I am leading a pack of 35+ talented and hardworking individuals. They are the ones who make sunSTRATEGIC.
What was your starting fund, amount, corpus, and its source?
We didn’t get any funding. We grew organically. We didn’t get any advances either. So I put in all the money from my savings and grew from every payment we got.
We used the funds to grow our technology and staff. Then we moved to spending on infrastructure. Slow and steady, keeping ahead of the market trends, helped us spend diligently.
As we are finally on our path to achieving our growth objectives, we have opened talks for receiving funding.
sunSTRATEGIC, in my opinion, is an opportunity for individuals who do not have any experience in content marketing or digital marketing. We are a learning ground for them, to learn the methods and importance of incorporating ethics and discipline in their professional lives.
I feel that once you pass out of sunSTRATEGIC, you are confident enough to go forward in your journey and achieve success.
I opened sunSTRATEGIC to provide people with the opportunity that they never received to showcase their flair.
Why the name sunSTRATEGIC? Why the upper-lower case? The colours that you have in your logo are earthy ones… Who designed the logo and iterated the brand personality? Was this always the name?
I started sunSTRATEGIC as a strategy making company for HR. Today, if you look at the profiles on LinkedIn, you will find newbies in MBA writing strategies as a part of their expertise description, which I find amusing because strategies come after working and experiencing the market for 15 to 16 years.
sun in sunSTRATEGIC is there for various reasons. But one thing that defines its main purpose if from a beautiful quote by a Persian poet which says ‘Even after all this time the sun never says to the earth, ‘You owe me.’’ Together with our clients, we will create magic in our projects. Nobody owes anything to anyone in that relationship.
I added the strategy part in the name because I thought that the strategy part was missing with brands. Many of our clients themselves don’t have their digital strategies in place. STRATEGIC is to tell our audience that we give and sell strategies exactly to fulfil their requirements.
If we talk about logo, before officially starting my company I was scrolling through Google images searching for an image resembling sun. That was when I came across a pattern – which was a square within squares, and they were coloured in the changing shades between yellow and orange. I thought the concept of one colour giving birth to another colour is just beautiful. So keeping in mind the colour combination, I created my logo.
The lower case is the sun, because I wanted the company’s name to be ‘sun’, showing humility. STRATEGIC is upper case, because it’s a verb, a noun and an adjective, showcasing the company’s values and services. Hence, the name – ‘sunSTRATEGIC’.
The ideation behind sunSTRATEGIC was borne from a blend of experience in technology, creativity and digital. Initiating sunSTRATEGIC was not a cake walk. The risk associated to start this business was tremendous and the sacrifices to be made were many.
When did you win your first client?
To be honest, I won my first client even before registering sunSTRATEGIC.
When you started sunSTRATEGIC, where did you want to see your company 5 years down the line?
I always wanted to see my company achieve a respectable place in the market. I wanted sunSTRATEGIC to be a respectable company in Mumbai and I think I have achieved that place in these 4 years. We may not be one of the big agencies, but we are a well-thought-of agency, where our clients and all the individuals who have worked with us, do not take our work lightly. They know we would put our hard work in their projects to give them the best quality results.
After 4 years of hard-work, we have served some Fortune 500 and blue-chip companies.
5asec, Airtel, ATG Tyres, Aegon Life Insurance, Bharti AXA, Aegis Logistics, Bayer, Cipla, Droom, Duke Offshore, Epic Channel, FTV, Glenmark Pharma, ICICI Prudential, Marriott Hotels, MAC Cosmetics, Microsoft, Novartis, Prabhudas Lilladher, Torrent Pharma, Yokohama Tyres and Zydus, to name a few of our clients.
You had told me you don’t want to run after servicing a multitude of clients; that you’d be much happier working with just, say, two brands. Is that really possible? I mean, viable?
Yes, it is very much possible. During my work experience in the USA, Australia and Germany, I saw that the agencies are serving to one client for over a decade, and that’s how they make their agency grow.
What it does is that it brings in the respectability and brings in the knowledge about business. It helps you bring out the creative side of you. You need that innovation streak in you because you are currently and constantly serving to that one major client.
I personally believe that an agency should not provide their services to more than 5 to 6 brands as part of their client portfolio. You don’t need 500 employees and you don’t need 500 clients, because that increases the risk level of your business.
So, if you have a few major clients and you are only focussing on them, it shows that you have a long-term relationship with them and that you are honing your skillsets in that particular industry.
This also helps in building a strong and trustworthy relationship with your clients, so they don’t choose another agency over yours. You also learn to constantly innovate because you have to create different strategies for that particular brand, and you cannot repeat what you have already done for them.
With several clients on your plate, you might use the same strategies for all of them and you may lose your innovative quotient.
I think that a lot of people have the misconception of having hundreds of clients. Instead, according to me, having fewer clients with high output is a reflection of a stable business.
Today brands like to hedge their bets — not put all their eggs in one basket, as it were. Wouldn’t they prefer different agencies or solutions providers for freshness, for every large property, rather than have one agency for ALL their properties?
We recently said ‘No’ to a client, because they wanted to work with five different agencies for creating their content, including us.
We said ‘no’, because you cannot come on board with several agencies for the same thing and compare the work we bring to the table.
This is what is going to help them keep their strategies in place and create a magnificent campaign.
You describe yourself as ‘one of the most innovative, forward-thinking, disruptive company that approaches traditional challenges in an unconventional way’…
I would like to believe that there is nothing impossible with our agency.
We may not be the biggest agency, but we have tried and tested and taken several risks in our working experience.
We have the mind-set and skillset to say yes to things that other agencies will not take up.
So we’ve worked with NGOs, hospitality industry, automobile industry, we have done PR for several brands in e-commerce industry to name a few.
We are constantly evolving and taking our business forward in terms of gaining experience and in terms of giving user-experience to our clients.
I look at the good and well-known strategy companies; they do not have more than 20 people working for them. The big strategy companies may have 1000+ individuals working for them, but the good foreign-based strategy companies, like in the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, don’t have more than 15-20 people working for them, and not more than 5 clients.
That is a stable business goal.
… and tell us about approaching ‘traditional challenges in an unconventional way’… Can you share a couple of such solutions?
Brands like ICICI, who have been in the market for more than 20 years, were finding difficulty in selling life insurance to distinctive customers such as the Muslim diaspora who do not believe in life insurance.
Or perhaps the mothers who don’t buy life insurance because they don’t believe that something wrong can happen to her child and God is there to protect them, or wealthy businessmen who don’t believe in getting life insurance because as far as they are concerned… there is no ROI to it.
We changed the whole scenario for them by offering digital personal marketing to them with proper sales to their particular audience, which has not happened through any other agency.
So we took a problem and solved it for a prominent company that had been facing this difficulty constantly.
Another example that comes to mind is that of Torrent Pharma, a very traditionally run family pharmaceutical business based out of Ahmedabad. We were the first agency to convince them to get on to a digital platform and take up digital marketing.
Currently, they are not doing digital marketing with any other agencies. We helped them recruit employees through digital marketing, which was something new and different for them.
What’s the kind of client you’d love to have? I mean, what are the traits, behavior, knowledge, value sets etcetera that an SS client must possess? What are the deal-breakers?
We want clients who are willing to take the risk to think out-of-the box… clients who believe that an agency can bring something to them — a solution or a data point to change their existing game… clients who are looking at expanding their business and who look at digital marketing and content marketing as an investment… e-commerce clients who are looking to put out good content because content is the only thing that will bring people to your doorsteps…
Deal-breakers for us are people who don’t have their brief in place, and do not pay us on time. As an agency, we have to start over everything from scratch, which is time-, resource- and money-consuming, and not getting paid for the hard work we have put in is a big ‘No’ for us.
Any clients you walked out on? Gave up?
Yes, we have walked out on several big clients. Let’s skip on the naming part, but we dared and walked out on them because they refused to pay us for the long-term service we provided to them.
After the completion of the campaign, they refused to pay us our share stating that we didn’t do our work properly. So, we clearly mentioned, we don’t want to work with them again.
People who cannot respect our work and expect getting our services for free, do not stand any chance of working with us.
Keep your attitude at home, because at work, we work together to create an unconventional ROI.
When you choose people to work for you, what do you look for?
Willingness to work. I don’t look at the degree or talent anymore. Because all the talent goes in vain if that individual is not willing to put in his or her hard work and learn new things.
Humility is another aspect that a member of the sunSTRATEGIC family should possess.
From my experience, I can say that even the smartest and most intelligent employees can cheat on you and leave you hanging with a broken trust. Whereas, I also have employees who travel from the farthest corners of the city, travelling for 4 hours every day, because they are passionate to learn something new and create something new every day.
My current team pulls off an all-nighter for consecutive days to create and launch a successful campaign, whenever needed.
Like I said before, we are a learning platform that teaches its employees to be self-sufficient. If you have the passion and courage to do whatever it takes to be successful, you are an integral part of sunSTRATEGIC.
What are the values you have grown up with?
Years ago, when my father was in the service sector at a senior post, and at that peak, he wished to change his field altogether. He actually took the pay cut to change his stream of work. Even though it was for a very minimum period of the time, he still took the risk of trying something new at that time.
Seeing that whole phase growing up, taught me the value of never giving up, and that nothing is impossible.
No matter where you are, you are never too old to try something new. You need courage and a big heart to take a huge leap in your life. Whatever is required to move forward in life should be done. These are the values I grew up with.
Other than that, I’ve also learned to never keep anybody’s money. We are always fair and square in our dealing when it comes to monetary value, and we make sure to never delay our payments.
Where is sunSTRATEGIC bound now? Where do you want to take it, three years from now?
Three years down the line, I don’t see us having a plethora of clients. I see us having very few big clients for a long period of time.
We want to be a part of planning, marketing strategy and market outreach for the brands we are working for.
We are also launching our lead generation app in the coming years.
Let’s shift to the agonizing, enthralling space of Startups. What are the 3, 3 or 5 things that MUST be very clearly defined before you hit the ‘start’ button for a start-up?
Three things I would like suggest here are:
- Initial SOP. It is very important. I have seen lots of people who don’t have their SOPs in place, even after 15 years of running their business. So, your SOPs should be very clear before starting your own business. You should know what different teams and departments should be doing. Their work requirements should be placed right. No place for confusion and chaos there.
- Whoever you bring on-board in your team – employees, partners, clients — make sure their integrity matches your Because people make the company. There should be no place for hard feelings amongst one another; otherwise, working will feel like a burden.
- Always serve your best to your first few clients. Obviously, you are supposed to give your best to every client, but your initial clients are your cherished clients. You become something initially because of their trust in you, and you will serve them at any point of time. Their testimonials mean the world to your business. The importance those testimonials will have, no other testimonial will match those emotions.
Employment mentality is what blocked and helped me in the initial 12 months of my business.
I was blocked because we have gone through several rounds of hiring and firing the people in order to make sure that we have employed the right person for the job.
It helped me because we found people who were willing to support us and trust us for what we were trying to do as a company. We were not focussing on becoming a great agency; we were aiming to become a great place to work and a great place to learn.
People are the key to the success and failure of your business.
In hindsight, what are the things that you would do differently, if you could hit ‘rewind’, today?
I regret trusting the wrong employees, because we gave out a lot of trust. Also, I feel we should have had our HR at place in the start itself.
Talking about clients, then we should not have taken contracts out to the clients without taking advances from them.
We made mistakes and we learned from those mistakes. But these are the mistakes I would like to hit the rewind button on, and change the course of these incidents.
It is not easy to run a business in the Indian market, because most of the time it happens that you don’t receive payments from your clients and you become a call centre and a payment retrieving centre for a while instead of focussing on your business. This set us back because this affects our working capital.
Anything else you wish we had asked you?
Yeah! You should have asked the name of the heads of the digital media who stole our ideas and never gave us credit. Haha!