The Indomitable Persona: Damandeep Singh Soni
In yet another effort to create an awareness among the NITR populace about our distinguished alumni, Team MM in collaboration with NITRAA has initiated NITRAA Alumni of the Week.
Damandeep Singh Soni, a name not uncommon in the digital world, currently heads Marketing and Growth at Mobikwik, a popular firm in the area of mobile-based payment systems. In a candid telephonic interview, he shares with Team MM his growth as an entrepreneur and his journey to be at the helm of affairs at a leading company like Mobikwik. Here are the excerpts.
MM: What was life like for you before coming to REC Rourkela (now NIT Rourkela)?
DS: I hail from Goa. My childhood memories, just like every other studious kid’s, is limited to my academic life. I worked really hard and finally landed in NIT Rourkela. I wouldn’t say engineering was what I aspired to do from the very beginning. I intended to study something that involved analytics and problem solving, and engineering was an option which had both to offer. The plan was to graduate in Computer Science. My rank, however, had different plans for me and I thus ended up studying Electrical Engineering.
MM: Tell us about your life at NIT Rourkela.
DS: I was allotted Hall 5 and Hall 2 in different years of my engineering life at REC Rourkela. It gave me friends for a lifetime and I shall forever remain indebted to the institute for that. I am in touch with many of my friends even now and we try and catch up at least once every month.
I was a part of the basketball team while I was in REC and was quite well-known in the college. Definitely not one of the introverts! I practically knew every second guy in my batch. I would make that I was a part of Spring Fest every time we had it, in one way or the other. I never really contested for the elections but I was always active in the political scene of REC. Whether it was participating in some activity or volunteering for some event, I was always up for the job.
MM: What were your hobbies back in college days? Did the club culture of REC help you keep in touch with your hobbies in any way?
DS: Playing basketball was certainly a hobby of mine, back in those days. Also, I was very involved in quizzing while I was in REC. The club culture was not half as rich then, as it is now in NIT Rourkela. Hence, I would not say the club culture assisted me in a big way in pursuing my hobbies actively, but the institute itself provided us with the opportunity to grow as an individual.
MM: Being an Electrical Engineering graduate, what were the career options available to you at the time when you graduated from REC? How has the placement scenario changed now?
DS: Around the time I graduated, the IT industry was flourishing. It was the age of IT big-shots like IBM, TCS, and Wipro. I am not quite sure about what career options are available right now to the students graduating from Electrical Engineering, but I hope they have an array of career options to choose from now as we speak.
Infosys was the company I first joined after graduating from REC. I had always been interested in the IT sector and had set Infosys as my target. I did not even sit for TCS and Wipro campus placements! I got into Infosys finally and was there for 5 years.
MM: How were the years after graduating from REC?
DS: Life has been fun so far. I got to experience a lot of work cultures and travel to a lot of places. I travel frequently to the USA. It was exciting, as I got to learn a lot of new things. I learned to code and worked as a coder/developer for the first 4-5 years.
In the first 10 years of your career, your sole focus should be to learn as much as you can. Your career lies entirely in your hands. If it requires you to shift to a different city, do it. Switch companies. As long as you’re learning, nothing else really matters.
MM: You pursued an MBA from ISB, Bangalore later after completion of your undergraduate studies. Was it something you had planned in advance?
DS: I had always planned that I will pursue a degree in management after few years of work experience. I already knew that I will pursue an MBA after working for a span of 3-4 years while I was at REC. I applied to colleges in the USA and got through, yet I decided to stay back and pursue my graduate studies in India, as I wanted to operate as an entrepreneur in India later.
MM: How was your experience working for Nokia?
DS: I worked in the Marketing unit of Nokia for around 6 months. Although the job profile was super exciting, I didn’t want to continue living in a different city, that was Chandigarh. Also, I had plans to relocate to London and start my own business there.
I ended up rejoining Infosys and worked for their Sales unit in London. It had nothing to do with coding as earlier. I had a pretty good stint in London. We ended up building one of the biggest accounts for Infosys at that time. It was related to accounts and revenues - nothing like what my previous job profile at Infosys was.
MM: Post your brief stint at Infosys in London, you turned into a full-fledged entrepreneur, founding 3 companies back to back, namely ConceptGears, PlanetGogo, PlanetKnorigin. What was it like?
DS: For my first company, we had a business plan, which didn’t quite evolve like we wanted it to. So I can say that my first start-up was a failure. The lessons from the first company helped me in multiple ways while coming up with my second start-up. Our second venture dealt with digital media and was pretty awesome. It was indeed a great experience. Our third company focused on recruiting people passionate about mobile phones. I started out with digital media and then mobile phones happened. Thus, it evolved to mobile phones as the gadget caught my attention almost immediately. I’ve been working in the same area for the past 4-5 years now.
A lot of lessons came from these business ventures. Firstly, you need a great, goal-oriented, hardworking team to make it work. If you don’t have a good team behind you, however good your idea is, it won’t work out. Secondly, the timing is important. When you launch a company, timing plays a key role in making it a success or a failure. A good idea need not necessarily succeed. You need a good environment to make it work.
MM: Most of the engineering students these days are vying for an MBA degree after their undergraduate studies. What according to you could be the reason behind this?
DS: An MBA not only opens many doors but also shows you how many doors exists out there in reality. It helps you see everything from the business perspective. I don’t believe MBA is important for anyone to start a business. It just makes it easier for you to understand the dynamics of business.
As for me, an MBA degree came as a boon. It transformed me from a technologist to an entrepreneur. It changed my mindset and helped me see things in a different light.
MM: You are currently handling at Mobikwik. How is this new role at a new company treating you?
DS: I love driving growth. I’ve done it in the past for LINE, which is a Japanese company, and I’m doing it for Mobikwik now. It is something I feel passionate about and hence, I enjoy doing it. I like to accept a challenge that is essentially larger than life, and that is exactly what the current opportunity has given me. Hence, I believe I want to be here for a while.
I’ve chosen to work for Mobikwik because it deals with an area that is very disruptive as of now. As I stated earlier, the timing is right. The very idea of it is going to bring about a change in the way things work in India and great innovation will come about. I want to be a part of it and thus, I’m here.
MM: What is your take on the current initiatives being undertaken by the students and some alumni of NIT Rourkela to bridge the gap between current students and alumni?
DS: I believe we should focus on building a strong student-alumni connect. We have some initiatives that are happening in NIT Rourkela, but I think we can do much more. With the alumni going back to our alma mater for recruiting, things should improve. Alumni can also drive a lot of research, which will benefit the student community and the institute in myriad ways.
MM: Any message for readers?
Develop a higher learnability quotient. The fact that you have graduated from NIT Rourkela doesn’t deem you fit for a job, the fact that you are willing to constantly learn is what’s going to help you grow in the long run. And that is what I think will take you a long way in your life.