Daring Dynamo: Arvind Pani
The various institutions that we are a part of, often chain our thoughts and ideas rendering our attempts to free ourselves as acts of rebellion. However, few of us manage to outgrow these various conformities that are a imposed upon us and shape our lives as we deem fit. A proud NITR Alumnus, Mr. Arvind Pani is a man of strong principles and unmovable ideals. He graduated in 1996, and waded through the corporate jungle, earning several accolades along the way. Currently, he is the co-founder and CEO of Reverie Language Technologies. In an interview with Monday Morning, he shares the various struggles that he faced to reach the pinnacles of success and what has kept him going through these years.
MM: Please share with us a little about your childhood and memories that you have from before joining NITR.
AP: I am basically from Bhubaneswar. I did my schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya, Bhubaneswar, before I moved out to NIT Rourkela for my engineering. Having been born and brought up in Bhubaneswar, I have always been a curious child. I have never accepted a perception without questioning it thoroughly. At home, I always had a lot of freedom because my parents trusted me.
One of the most important aspects of my childhood was certainly my schooling – Kendriya Vidyalaya is an inclusive kind of school which ingrained a sense of unity and equality in all of us. Right from my school days, I believed that all people were equal and this idea has resonated in various other aspects of my life, throughout.
Moreover, even as a child I was quite the risk taker and did whatever I wanted to. The outcome of my actions may not have always been what I had anticipated, but I worked hard and tried to convert the consequences into constructive and positive results.
MM: Tell us a little about your life at NIT Rourkela, then REC? What are your fondest memories from college life?
AP: When I attended college at NIT Rourkela, it was a Regional Engineering College. That was the first time I got out of the protective environment of my home and started staying in a hostel. There were several experiences, each one different and significant – starting from the ragging or interaction with the seniors to making it to morning classes, just in the nick of time and finally the friends that I made. My college life overall was a great experience and I think it really shaped my personality. However, in hindsight, if I had to rethink on the choices that I made then, I don’t think I would have taken up engineering or medicine, at all. Don’t get me wrong, it's not like I don’t consider those experiences important, but I think the education system during that time kind of forced us all into simply jump the bandwagon, without recognizing our true calling. Here, we focus on grades and marks, which ultimately end up destroying a student’s intrinsic creative skills. Thus, if I had known that the four years of college life, would have been purely a theoretical experience, with little exposure and practical applications, I would have certainly chosen to do something else.
MM: How do you think your activities at your alma mater played a role in your later life? How do you think your experiences impacted your personality?
AP: Of course my experiences shaped my personality to a great extent like I just mentioned. The college provides you with a very holistic mix of people – you get to meet super intelligent people who you learn from, you learn life skills from others and become more independent, you slowly mature as a person and start taking responsibility for all your decisions and their consequences.
College prepares you for the life outside this cocoon – it teaches you to be accountable or yourself. You will have to take decisions, irrespective of whether they’re right or wrong and you’ll have to stand by them. Thus makes sure that you can stand up for yourself, and I was certainly no exception. (smiles)
MM: When was the last time you visited the institute? What changes did you observe and what further changes would you like to see?
AP: The last time I visited NIT Rourkela, was two years back. It is significantly different from what it was earlier, for example, the infrastructure is fantastic, the greenery is a lot better maintained. I think it can clearly be said that the aesthetic beauty of the whole campus has gradually increased, substantially. Change that has started right from inside the main building, which still stands strong, has spread and resulted in various new halls of residence. Even though I have not been inside any of the new hostels, I believe they will be at par with the rest of the development that has taken place.
MM: What is your opinion on the importance of alumni relations for an institute like ours, and what do you think about the current scenario?
AP: To be very honest, NIT-R does not have a very strong alumni network if you compare it with other colleges. The relationship with our alma mater is no different from the relationship we share with a friend or confidante. This relationship has to be initiated early on in our career, since then both parties can benefit from it to a larger extent. However, it is important to note that this relationship should not be trivialized by limiting it to business purposes, but it should aim at creating a fraternal feeling, or bonding between alumni as well as catering to their nostalgia.
MM: You’ve been instrumental in the working of several companies and your colleagues are all praises for you. What was the most important thing that you learned from those experiences?
AP: I have been fortunate to have ample experience in both corporate and start-up cultures. The journey so far has been one of self-discovery, and I learned that the most important this is to stay true to your own identity and ideals. In the corporate world, political navigation and advances play an important role in the growth of an individual, but I never participated in it because I realized that I was not cut out for it. That was in fact, one of the primary reasons why I stopped climbing the corporate ladder and entered a different world. Unfortunately, in India, it is very easy to compromise on integrity. After I started this company, I had tried to include the entire team in all decisions that are taken, so that transparency is maintained at all times. Thus, that is the most important thing that I learned – that one must never compromise with one’s ideals; everything else falls into place if we can take care of that.
Another thing is that, whether it's a corporate world or a start-up, it is very easy for an individual to get confined by his/her designation. However, for me, preservation of my self-identity has been paramount. The person I am at the office never interferes with the person I am in real life. In our company, there is no concept of senior or junior, and I have no separate cabin to myself. We are a team, and we work together at all times. I have never differentiated between people based on their positions of responsibility and I think that has always resulted in efficient and better functioning of a team.
MM: You chose a less trodden path of becoming an entrepreneur. What was the driving force behind your decision?
AP: It is extremely difficult to try and answer this question. However, let me try and put it in words for you, with the help of a story. My brother, who is a year younger to me, studied in the same school as I, and we grew up to become really good friends. We always had a dream, that we would do something together, however, for a really long time, it remained unattended and unfulfilled. We both entered the corporate world together – he in Pune, and I in Bangalore. Whenever we met, we’d brainstorm about that dream of ours, but nothing concrete came out of it. However, with time I grew tired of being a corporate slave as it started infringing into my personal identity and my brother too realized that he wanted to work on our dream. That’s when we both decided that we were finally going to do something about it. No doubt, we have faced several difficulties – but no opportunity is devoid of challenges. When we started, we didn’t know where we were headed, but we were willing to take a chance. Even now, we don’t know what the final outcome will be, but the journey has certainly been a great one, so far.
MM: Since you talked about the challenges, we would like you to let us know on how you tackled them?
AP: Reverie Language Technologies is our second start-up, as the first one got wrapped up in two years. As any first-time tech entrepreneurs, we were thinking that it is sufficient to only come up with a great technology, but we soon realized that we would have to address the business aspect of it as well. When we finally discontinued the first start-up we had used up all our contingency funds, and we had two options – to return to our corporate lives, or to start again with nothing. We chose to carry forward our dream once again and I did something that I had not done that far – I listed out 10 of my closest friends and called them up individually to ask for help. Every single one of them told me that they did not know what exactly I was doing, but they had complete faith in the person I was. From their generosity and commitment, we could raise about INR 30 Lakhs, and I think, that in itself was the best compliment that I have ever received. That is the story of how Reverie Language Technologies was started, and how we finally surpassed our struggles and emerged as winners.
Even after the initial problems ceased, we were very careful. We decided not to raise investments, indefinitely. So, we waited for five years in order to raise our initial funds. The idea behind this was, that we wanted to utilize funds in an appropriate manner. We had realized that money was not the solution to all problems and thus we took the decision to bootstrap the company and slow down its growth to ensure development in the long run.
MM: Tell us about your firm Reverie Language Technologies and your role in it.
AP: Three of us were involved in founding the company – apart from me, my brother who was instrumental towards developing ideas and his colleague from Pune who started working on the computing aspect of things. The failure of our first start-up was very important as it taught us some important things, and those were the principles on which we based Reverie Language Technologies, which is a very off-beat and unconventional start-up.
In India, even today, English literacy is 10%. English still continues to be
a language of traders and Businessmen. When we started thinking about it, we realized that the internet is going to be tough for Local Language users because of the heavy usage of English. In fact, even if you look outside India, the internet has 6.5 billion users, out of which only 15% speak English as their native tongue and yet 57% of the content is in English. This is probably one of the primary reasons India has not achieved digital independence, and one of our foremost objectives is to work towards that.
Right from the beginning, I was in-charge of all the non-technical aspects. Despite my engineering degree, there was an unsaid rule that my brother and his colleague would be handling all the technical aspects. That is how we divided our roles and it has stayed that way. We always preferred working in small teams, and fortunately, we found a group of people whose ideas resonated with ours, allowing us to grow, altogether.
MM: You've been in the corporate world, and in start-ups as well, one which didn't work out very well and another which is working out great as of now. What, do you think are the pros and cons of heading your own company?
AP: This question would probably generate a lot of different answers from different people. My perspective on this is that I have always been a huge risk taker and my ability to draw logical solutions and probabilities from a risk, ensures that I do not have to worry about failure. Another important thing that we have to keep in mind is that failure is part of a learning curve. In a corporate process, there is predictability and surety which could be seen as an obvious benefit. All the three companies that I worked for, however, were essentially start-ups in large setups, and thus I never felt a stagnation. Intel and L&T had just opened their units in India when I joined, so I had the opportunity to do a variety of jobs. I wasn't bound by or boxed that I have to do only a particular kind of work. But after a certain point, there was a conflict of my personal nature, vis-a-vis what the corporate required to grow in all aspects, in terms of role, responsibility, etc. As opposed to that, in the case of a start-up, you take up an idea that you're passionate about and you nurture it. Despite the challenges that you face, you enjoy your work and you are never burdened by it. I think this is the biggest advantage of a start-up. Second, you have a huge learning opportunity and exposure.
You're not confined to a desk-job or designation – you have to work on everything, starting from the cleanliness of your office, to meeting clients, to formulating business plans, to making presentations, conductive interviews, dealing with sales and marketing, etc. However, at the same time, let me warn you that this job is certainly not for mild-hearted people – no matter how prepared you are, you are likely to face challenges that you had never anticipated.
MM: What is your opinion on the present start-up culture of India that we are embracing right now?
AP: You know, it is a dangerous thing to generalize since nowadays I see plenty of good start-ups and plenty of not-so-good start-ups as well. However, if you want to have a start-up, you will have to have enough skin in the game – you will have to make constant sacrifices and be passionate about your idea. Whether you chip in with your personal savings, or you give up your stable job – you will have to demonstrate your commitment. Nowadays many people have their own start-ups because it is “cool” and personally I believe such start-ups can never survive because they are not prepared for the grind or the struggle that it takes. When I transferred from the corporate life to a start-up a lot of people asked me about the difference in experiences. Let me share with you two very honest realizations that have stayed with me,
When I worked for Intel, I had a business card with the Intel logo on it, and the first thing I realized was that my value and worth were contingent to the presence of that symbol. The second thing was that I was grossly overpaid.
MM: You already expressed your disappointment in the education system that exists. Do you also think that it is conducive to entrepreneurs?
AP: No, it most certainly is not. After I completed my engineering, I had got through Xavier's Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar. On the morning that I was supposed to join, I decided not to join. Like I said, I was able to take all those decisions because my parents were extremely supportive of me. They never questioned why I didn't want to join even though I was very clear with my own reasons. My engineering experience had taught me zero practical skills and honestly speaking I don’t blame my college for it because the scenario was exactly the same in any other institution of repute – including the haloed IITs. I did not want to get sucked into a similar process, with my MBA and thus I opted out of it. My disappointment in our education system has grown stronger over the years, as I’ve seen how it imposes a unidirectional and unilateral thinking on children of standards 1 and 2, crippling and killing their individual creativity.
MM: You have retained your identity through everything that you have been through. Who or what do you think has been your biggest inspiration through it all?
AP: I would say that my biggest inspiration is my grandfather. There are few things about him which have stayed with me and kept me going , through all my personal and professional struggles. The first thing I need to make clear about my grandfather was that he was a genius in action! I was very fortunate that my entire childhood was dominated by his magnanimous presence because he used to live with us.
He was the Chief Engineer of Odisha at that time, which was the highest possible rank achievable by a technical person, in the state, then. He had declined an offer made to him by M. Vishweshwaraiya himself to collaborate with the center since he preferred working for his state. When I was preparing for my JEE, and he was 77 or 78 years old, he had fractured his thigh. My brother and I used to come back from school and spend time with him in the evenings. But before that, in the mornings, whenever we faced a problem with our Maths or Physics homework, we verbally told him what the problem was and by the time we came back, he had it mentally solved in his head.
He was a truly multi-faceted personality, not bound by the confines of his work and its extent. Despite being a Civil Engineer and having gifted plumbing skills, he even built himself his own car. He had a phenomenal memory and the ability to apply his knowledge to various concepts and practical aspects.
MM: At the end of a long day, how do you unwind yourself, what activities do you indulge in?
AP: During my school days, I used to spend a lot of time with my pets. I had 8 dogs with me, all of them being Golden Retrievers. Due to my busy travel schedule, I haven't had pets in a while because it's unfair to them as well. I was so passionate about pets that I had imported one of them from Malaysia and had traveled there, just to see his parents.
Right now, there are three things that I do in my free time. One, I'm learning how to play piano, because I always wanted to learn some instrument that was keyboard based. The second thing I do is, I listen to music a lot. I have some very good quality music, not the regular mp3 formats, but rather the proper audio files, my portable music devices are not iPods and I don't like Bose speakers because they are of poor quality. I use brands like Sennheiser and AKG. Music is my passion so I spend a lot of time and money on it. I listen to music at least for half an hour before I sleep. The third thing I enjoy is driving and I do that a lot as well.
MM: What is your message for NITians who would be reading this and looking up to you?
My advice to them is not to take too much of advice. Just follow your gut, and follow your instincts. There are so many young guys who come up and ask me how they can minimize the impact of risks, since I’ve taken so many myself. I tell them that if you are graduating from an NIT, you should not think yourself to be so incapable that you will end up dying hungry – and if you know you won’t, then there is no risk! You need to try out different things, and see what works out, and that is what will make your journey fun and exciting. Our biggest problem is that we choose our career, our education, our marriage, our life partners, and everything else based on other people's opinions, and what techniques that have been tried and tested. I would say, "Just don't."