Coconut oil milling business in the family was started by Shivashankar Bhat but the brand Cocoguru was started by Keshava Ram. To anybody curious to know about Cocoguru, the common question will be why and how did Cocoguru start?
Those who know its founder Keshava Ram personally will wonder, why did he get into business and this business? Because nobody would have ever imagined him taking up this role. We will get Keshava Ram to answer this in his own words below
To answer this let me explore my life’s journey relevant to this, because the various forces at play shaped the whole journey. I tell you how I was not suited for it but still got into it.
I was just above average at studies. Had special interests in mathematics and science, but was allergic towards languages and social studies. I didn’t watch TV, nor watch cinemas. I was not athletic but would play outdoor games like cricket and badminton, indoor games like carom and chess. I was collecting stamps, coins and match boxes as a hobby. I was innocent, shy, introvert and short tempered. I liked playing with mud, water and nature. I used to make crafts from coconut leaves, maize stem, arecanut leaves. I particularly like making boat and sailing it on water.
Only a few of these qualities are suitable for my role now, majority of them weren’t. That’s why most will be surprised at what I am doing now.
We were a family of 4, father, mother, younger brother and I. We came to Puttur in 1987 and settled down here since then.
Father had no assets, only determination to start a coconut oil mill and he started in a small way. Doing business was very difficult back then, also not glamorous as it is now. It was hand to mouth situation for many years. He fought many tough battles along the way each of which would have wound up the business. That difficulty didn’t come in way of giving us the right education and exposure.
Mother supported my father fully, she never demanded a lavish lifestlye, saved every rupee, continues the simple lifestyle even today. She understood my IQ, supplied me with healthy diet for all round development and especially ladies finger and cows milk for brain development. Though the world would consider me good for nothing, she stood by me, appreciated by creativity, drove me towards what I was good at, love me unconditionally.
Younger brother was more mature, unlike me, he would take up more responsible adult affairs. He was not interested in studies but took part in social activities, was up to date with local general knowledge. He liked interacting with people. He found playing to be childish, but he would partner me with hobbies like stamp and coins collection. You can see how different we are. He used to talk to our workers and customers, understood the operations very well. So he was qualified to be the right successor for the business.
Scientist to Engineer to Manager
During my childhood, I was fascinated by scientists and mathematicians, their great discoveries and its impact on mankind. I wanted to make discoveries and inventions.
I passed 10th standard with 77% aggregate but 85 in science and 93 in maths. Took up science for 11th and 12th. I liked Physics, Chemistry and Maths but disliked Languages and Biology. I listened to lectures attentively, read text books out of interest, solved problems like they were fascinating puzzles. No hard work, just smooth passage getting deeper understanding of the world. Mother motivated me of the importance of this phase of academics and how my life will be settled if I do well now. I got 73.5% in 12th board exams which is just average, importantly I got 98 in Physics, 97 in maths and 83 in chemistry which was decent. Then we had engineering entrance exam that is CET. The questions here were tougher but objective answers were enough, unlike board exams where detailed answers were required for easier questions. It was my cup of tea. I did extremely well here, even to overcome the lower marks in board exams and I got 86th rank in Karnataka state. I realised my academic goodness just in time when it mattered the most. It was a terrific achievement. I could chose any college including all NITs and any branch. I chose computer science at SJCE, Mysuru as my parents believed computer science is where I can apply my talents and has good job prospects. I chose Mysuru as it was a smaller city compared to Bengaluru where I couldn’t adjust because of air pollution.
To summarise, my interest in maths and science got me a good engineering seat.
In engineering, I was tired of academics and didn’t get great marks. But I was fascinated with programming, I liked data structures and algorithms. Focus shifted to placements. I got placed just after 6th semester in Tata Elxsi, the second ever company to visit the campus that year.
Then again my mother motivated me to get into MBA from IIM, as it is needed to get higher up in my career. Mother is very smart, she didn’t tell all the steps necessary to succeed in life in one go. Else I would have given up in the beginning itself. She told the steps just when the situation had arised. That time I completed my teens and got into 20s. I could understand that what drives the world are not discoveries or inventions in science but making money, gaining power and fame. Getting an MBA from IIM is a gateway to that. (Advise to any aspiring MBA, don’t tell this truth in the interviews)
MBA and 2009 Recession
I attempted CAT in my final year of engineering, I got 88 percentile overall, with 95+ in Quantitative and Data Interpretation sections but below 50 in verbal ability section. My weakness that I overlooked during childhood has started haunting me. I started working on improving my English language by reading newspapers, magaizines, books, improving my vocabulary by referring dictionaries. But what had been ailing since childhood couldn’t be overcome in 1, 2, 3 or 4 years. I attempted CAT 2 more time with steady improvement in verbal sections. Finally in my 4th attempt, I gave it my all, took 3 months leave from job. Got 97.5 percentile, with almost 80 percentile in verbal section. Again no shortlists from any IIMs. This time I also applied to next level B-Schools also and got into NMIMS, Mumbai. Since I had 4 years break from academics and no background in commerce and management, I studied well in my first year of MBA. Into my 2ndyear, I focused more on traveling around Mumbai to see places and eat tasty food. And 2008 recession hit the economy and job markets very badly. My experience during summer and final placements were that I was not getting shortlisted in most companies because 4 years of work experience in IT was considered baggage for most FMCG, Telecom, Banking companies. I finally got placed as a lecturer at Lovely Professional University, Jhalandar. The starting salary offered was lower than what I used to get before MBA at Tata Elxsi. But at least I got something.
I had always thought of entrepreneurship after MBA but not too soon. The reason why I wanted to do a business on my own were
- to build something big
- like to take my own decisions and not get instructions from bosses and colleagues
- pursue my own ideas in my own way
- working with teams was not my forte (It is a terrible weakness but I admit it)
- to succeed in corporate career, one should be able to sell ideas, not only work but take credit for the work done, impress boss etc and I didn’t like doing these
- I believed I am creative, I could build things from scratch
- I never give up easily, I tend to take the work to conclusion and not give up mid-way
- I didn’t care about what others thought about me as anyway I wasn’t held in high esteem till now
- I knew it was hard, with possibility of failures but I was ready to take it in my stride and move on
Why Home Town?
I like places that are green, with lot of water, and where it rains heavily. I like rural areas where air, water and soil is fresh, where there is more space and less population, vehicles, buildings. I don’t like traveling long distance for long time for work, home and work should be very nearby. The cost of living is much lower. My home town Puttur in Dakshina Kannada was perfect in that sense.
White working at Tata Elxsi, I had a 5 months stint at Japan. Though it was a developed country and my life was good, I felt home sick. I realised the importance of being at home town with known people around, being with loved ones, eating food you normally eat, getting entertained etc.
While people move to cities in search of opportunities. I felt being at home town is a great luxury. Opportunities are everywhere in this age of mobile and internet connectivity, it is not bound by place but mind.
Why coconut oil business
Entrepreneurship is hard, I have no experience, I don’t have the necessary “qualities” need to run a business. So instead of doing something new, rather start with something we knew under the guidance of my father.
I till then, never bothered about family business, if at all I visited the oil mill, it would be to see how the machines work, how power transmission happens from motor to gearbox to pulley to final oil extraction machine. To eat coconut sprout that we get while breaking coconuts. Never talked to employees or customers, never participated in operations.
Once, while I was preparing for MBA interview, the coaching institute recommended us to know everything we have gone through in life as there would be questions around them. So, I asked my father for the first time about his business. I was fascinated to know the kind of work he was doing, which need much greater intellect than the work I had been doing. Also, he told how our business helps the farmers around. Why it is a healthy edible oil despite all the propaganda against it. What are the challenges he is facing, his need for modernisation, branding and marketing.
So, starting with coconut oil before branching into anything else made sense.
How did I join family business?
While I didn’t get a good job after MBA, I thought time for entrepreneurship is now as the opportunity cost was low. So, I asked my mother if I can join the family business. I thought they would be thrilled at my decision and would vehemently agree. But after a day, they denied. They said, this recession is temporary and I better get into a job.
So, why my parents felt it was not wise for me to join the family business.
- This business was too small, simple for a highly educated person like me to use my intellect
- Brother was already working on the business and dividing it would be a problem
- Father struggled to establish to the present level and they didn’t want me to go through such a struggle when plenty of opportunities are available
- My skills are mostly technical and theoretical, they don’t have a place in this business
- This business needed one to be tough, assertive, have local knowledge which I didn’t have
- Father built it painstakingly over the years and I might foolishly suggest some changes to be done overnight
- Mother didn’t want me to take risks in business rather have a well defined safe job in corporate sector
I respected their decision at that point, completed the course and came back home at the end of March 2009. Joining date at Jalandhar was in July. So, I had 3 months time. I said, I will just do some research on the business and suggest a few ideas to grow. So, I went to Bengaluru to do market research with retailers and consumers. I did it for a month, came back and did the same at Puttur also. Concluded that there is a long way to go and lots need to be done before we will be considered a serious brand at Bengaluru. I just sat back at home and said I will implement the ideas.
I took up marketing specialisation in MBA as it was my weakness and I wanted to learn about it more. My summer internship after 1st year was in marketing. I couldn’t do a good job there because of my lack of understanding of marketing concepts. During 2nd year I took an elective course on Strategic Brand Management and we had to refer a book by Kevin Lane Keller. It was an eye opener for a novice like me. After completing the course and conducting marketing surveys, I sat at home to read the book from 1st page to last page in a period of 1 week. Family members wondered what I was doing, I said I will implement the ideas and here I was lying on the bed to read the book. Now after 12 years of experience in business, I realise the single most important factor contributing to sales is the brand. So all activities by the company must be directed towards building a brand.
Till then coconut oil was sold in loose or with Santhosh brand without any consistent graphics. I thought we have to create a name that is unique, represent the brand, easily remembered and that can be protected by a trademark, website with dot com domain, social media handles can be obtained. Hence started the brand Cocoguru.
When I visited super markets at Bengaluru for market research and asked them what it takes to sell our products there. They collectively said, the packing should be strong and attractive, brand should be strong that people should ask for it. Pricing and payment terms were secondary. So, initial part of my journey was about setting up an automatic packing plant to pack coconut oil in pouches and bottles. Designs have to be made so that they are attractive and professional. Setting up this packing unit was a capital intensive project, got it funded from bank. Subsidy was availed from Coconut Development Board. In 6 months, building was made ready, power connections done, tanks and pipeline were setup, packing and filling machines were installed. Oil vending machine was installed at retail outlet.
Many more improvements were in the pipeline. Making all those changes would mean present setup would be disturbed. So, father recommended to setup a new plant at a new place as a new legal entity and Cocoguru Coconut Industries Private Limited was started at Kallarpe.