USC India interviews Trojans Hareesh Tibrewala and Sanjay Mehta, Joint CEOs at Mirum India, A WPP company on their journey from USC to Mirum India.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Hareesh Tibrewala: Serial entrepreneur. I like reading and signing. Have a very philosophical view of the world. Co-authored a book on Entrepreneurship with Sanjay. See my role in the organization as a team coach: guide, mentor, train, motivate.
Sanjay Mehta: Professionally, I am Joint CEO at Mirum, part of the WPP Group, a full-service digital solutions business. Other than that, I love to write – blogs and articles, poems, and short-form content on social media. Enjoying newly acquired (in pandemic times) hobbies of gardening, mixology, the game of bridge. I also love to mentor young startups and travel (though, not being able to do since last year!).
You both met first while doing your Bachelor’s degree in Engineering at Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI) in Mumbai and then both of you went on to do your Master’s degree at USC. What made you choose USC?
Hareesh Tibrewala: Had got some very good scores in GRE and Advanced GRE. Thus got admission to numerous universities in the US. USC was the highest-ranked University to which I got admitted. But I did not have a scholarship. I did get scholarship offers from other universities but their ranking was lower. My dad was clear: you need to go for the best. So that is how USC become my institute of choice. Of course, once I got to USC, I managed to get a full TAship at USC as well. Choosing USC was one of the best decisions in life that I made.
Sanjay Mehta: It’s been a long time, honestly! But what I remember is the programs, a few conversations with seniors there, being in a world-class city like Los Angeles, were a few of the things that influenced my decision.
What degree did you pursue at USC? What was your favorite class?
Hareesh Tibrewala: I pursued MSEE (Master of Science: Electrical Engineering). It is tough to remember the subjects (been a long time now). But I loved the class by Prof Sarma Sastry. He taught well and his tests were very difficult to crack. Another class that I liked was on Computer Networks. As a matter of fact, after coming back to India, I taught Computer Networks as an honorary professor at VJTI. Besides classes, I actively participated in the Indian Students Association and was the association secretary. I created a great platform to network with everyone (in a world where there was no Facebook and email was still nascent)
Sanjay Mehta: M.S. Electrical and Computer Engineering. The courses that I enjoyed were Computer Networks and Databases.
After having studied together at USC, you both came back to India and worked in different organizations for about a decade before you decided to partner and set up your first venture, Homeindia.com. How did this partnership come about?
Hareesh Tibrewala: After coming back to India, I joined my father in his business. He was running a management consultancy firm. This is where I got my grounding in business fundamentals. I remember one of the first tasks that he gave me was to write the books of account. It upset me to no end that even with a graduate education from the US I was being asked to learn accounts. In fact, that very grounded experience provided me a solid foundation for my future journey. After spending a decade with my father, I realized I wanted to do something of my own. A chance dinner meeting with Sanjay (don’t all stories start with dinner meetings?), made me realize that Sanjay too was looking to do something new. That is how the journey into setting up a new business venture started.
The internet was still very new. And we started doing internet seminars to provide knowledge to people on the use of email and web browsing. People who sat for our seminars started asking us to make websites for them. All was going well, till Sabeer Bhatia sold Hotmail to Microsoft for some $200mn. That opened our eyes to the innovation opportunities the internet was opening up. Inspired by Sabeer Bhatia, we started Homeindia as an email-to-post service. NRIs residing outside India could type a letter on our website. And we would print and post it free of cost to the recipient in India…. a 15-day communication cycle got cut to 3 days. Economic Times awarded us as “Indias Most Useful Website” and featured a picture of Sabeer Bhatia handing over this award to us on the front page of ET. Soon we had investors lining up to give us money. And that is how Homeindia was born.
Sanjay Mehta: There is some serendipity about how this happened. We had met over a casual dinner and expressed a desire to do something different, something more creatively challenging, something of our own. And one thing led to another and Homeindia.com became a reality. The real story is more interesting and exciting, but for that, you need to read our book, “If I Had To Do It Again”.
Tell us a little bit about your time at USC. Did you have any unique experiences that you remember and have been key in your life/journey?
Hareesh Tibrewala: USC taught me leadership. Back here in India, one always had the family cushion to fall back upon whenever one got entangled with some problem. At USC, you were completely on your own. You had to manage your finances, your academics, deal with emotional issues and still make your mark. There was no fallback. A senior professor once told me, “No education in life is complete unless you have learned to live all by yourself.” I think USC completed that missing piece of education in my life.
Sanjay Mehta: While the education itself was amazing, the professors and courses were good, it was life beyond classrooms that left a bigger impact. Like working in the cafeteria for some extra cash, doing tutoring to undergraduate students, enjoying the many events of the International Students’ Association and the Association of Indian Students, spending long nights in the computer labs completing projects, and heading down to the Denny’s nearby for a midnight snack.
You both came together again for your second venture, Social Wavelength (now Mirum India). After having worked with each other for a decade at homeindia.com, you both took some time and worked in different organizations. What led you to partner again for your second entrepreneurial idea?
Hareesh Tibrewala: The Homeindia business, while an amazing story, did not end up quite the way we wanted it to end. We exited the business without anything in our pockets and took up jobs in corporate India. And while a job comes with its perks (big car, business travel, office assistants), you also realize that irrespective of how big your designation, you are still working for someone else. So once again there was the proverbial dinner, with Sanjay. And I realized that, once again, Sanjay was thinking on similar lines. We decided to take the plunge. I guess once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur. This time around I learned from all my mistakes at Homeindia. And of course, we have never looked back ever since.
Sanjay Mehta: I would say Homeindia.com was like an incomplete journey. With very many things that were good about that venture, it was perhaps a little ahead of its time. And we had spent many years of effort on it. So, when as entrepreneurs, there was an itch to get back to a new venture, it just seemed like a natural step to come together again and chase our dream. Having known each other for such a long time, there is an intuitive understanding that we have working together, and there is mutual respect too, in terms of what we bring to a venture.
As successful entrepreneurs and partners, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who are looking for co-founders/partners? What are the biggest challenges and pressures young entrepreneurs face today?
Hareesh Tibrewala: I think there are a few ground rules for a successful partnership. The first is the value system: the partners must share a common value system. As businesses move, lots of things will change. The business model will change. The challenges in the marketplace will change. One’s own abilities over time change. But one thing that should never change between partners is the value system. In difficult times, you need to go back to the basics and evaluate the discussion against the value system. The second I think is a sense of generosity. Partnerships require generosity. The other person will make mistakes. And sometimes it will make big mistakes. And sometimes you will also make these big mistakes, in spite of your pointing this out in advance. When this happens, you need to recognize that the intent was always correct, just the outcome is wrong.
Sanjay Mehta: In terms of figuring out co-founders/partners, while at one level you want to see complementary skill sets, which is crucial, the more important part is chemistry. A partnership is not much different from a marriage. One will go over the ups and downs over time, and it is the right chemistry and understanding of each other that keeps you together at such times. The other concern, I fear, is entrepreneurs getting impatient and desirous to get high valuations very fast and not focusing on building really good companies to begin with. Entrepreneurial ventures are marathons — not sprints. Founders must have the convictions to run that long race.
While you both co-founded two organizations, you also co-wrote a book, “If I Had To Do It Again”. How would your experience at USC rate in the list of things you would love to do once more? If you had to do it again, what other ideas would you pursue at USC, things you did not do the first time?
Hareesh Tibrewala: That is a good question. I think one thing I regret not doing at USC is making enough American friends. I kind of remained in my cocoon. And while I made a lot of Indian friends, I don’t have a single American or Chinese friend. My big takeaway: You don’t travel around the globe to meet Indians or eat Indian food. This you can do in India. If you go abroad, learn that culture and make friends.
Sanjay Mehta: While we were classmates at VJTI, it was at USC that we shared an apartment. Being away from other friends and family, we really leaned on each other for support. So, those years at USC remain a significant portion of the development of bonds between the two of us. A lot of challenges were met together during those days, and it built a great foundation of trust and respect for each other. Going back to school, and especially to USC would be like a dream. And what I’d love to do if I had the opportunity to go again, would be to explore some courses at the Film School, perhaps on film appreciation, etc., and some at the Marshall School of Business. Both of these, in addition to Viterbi, are absolute gems in the USC offerings, and it would be so amazing to go and experience these schools and some of their programs firsthand.
What advice would you give to any current or future Trojans, on why they should choose USC or do post their degree at USC?
Hareesh Tibrewala: Los Angeles and USC are cultural melting pots! And besides academics, it gives you huge opportunities to pursue anything else that interests you.
Sanjay Mehta: USC has a fantastic program, especially in engineering. Top-notch faculty, great infrastructure, a very supportive ecosystem, and you will definitely have some fabulous classmates with whom you will create lifelong bonds of friendship. These would be my top reasons to recommend USC. After me, my brother, a cousin, and many friends’ kids have gone to USC, and I have played a small role in nudging them to choose that path. Last but not the least, it is amazing to have a very active USC Alumni chapter run in India, with regular activities and updates and occasional meetings, as well, and Sudha is doing such a fantastic job around keeping that going. And that would also be one more reason to recommend USC!
Lastly, if you had to pick three values you learned at USC, what would these values be?
Hareesh Tibrewala: (a) Leadership (b) Dignity of Labour (c) Work Ethics
Sanjay Mehta: Grit, Determination, and Hard Work. Additionally, I would say that I learned and appreciated the value of networking also, thanks to USC.