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I am passionate about building businesses that have scale: Aditya Pittie

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From being a young man who had to Google about downlinking and uplinking and did not know how a satellite signal works a decade ago to an entrepreneur at the helm of a media conglomerate, IN10 Media Network and Pittie Group managing director Aditya Pittie has come a long way. Anand Mahindra- and Pittie-promoted IN10 Media has television (Epic TV), OTT platforms (Epic On and Docubay), and production house (Juggernaut) in its kitty.

Pittie finds his passion is creating value and wealth and building scale.  “That’s why I am interested in multiple businesses, not just any particular business. I am passionate about business, and building businesses that have scale, that gives employment to many people. That is what drives me,” says Pittie during a virtual fireside chat with Indiantelevision.com group founder, CEO and editor-in-chief Anil Wanvari.

Here he talks about his and his and his father’s association with Patanjali, Aastha and Sanskar television channels, the distribution business and how he ventured into the world of broadcasting. He is very clear about where he wants to position himself in the broadcast business when he says: “I realised that it is better to be part of a smaller genre but have a better market share, rather than be part of a big genre and have an insignificant market share.” Excerpts:

Describe your journey with Patanjali.

Our relationship has gone stronger over the years. We have a lot of common values in terms of how business can be used to create value for society at large. We have been connected to him since the seeding of the idea and therefore we share the long-term vision and we continue to be part of that journey in some way or the other.

Your father had gone to Haridwar and seen him there and invited him to Mumbai and conducted the very big Yoga gathering some 14 years ago.

That was much before Patanjali. At that time, Swamiji was spreading the knowledge of yoga across the country to as many people as possible and obviously through television. He used to come live on Aastha channel. He was able to create the awareness of how simplified yoga can be done by people in their homes and the value it can add to the health, not just from a weight-loss point of view but from general mental health. So that is the time when my father went to Haridwar first and did yoga camp with him and was impressed with the vision that this man had that we decided to be part of the journey.

Aastha and he became a big name after that.

TV played a big role in his popularity. A lot of people don't know this: Swamiji is actually one of the very people in this country who have travelled to every single district by road. Lot of people think his popularity came from TV, which he does. But he has physically conducted big yoga camps with millions of people in the country. I don't think anybody has done this kind of large yoga camps of this scale ever in the history of the country. So his ground connection with the people is so strong; that is where the whole idea or philosophy of Patanjali comes from. It is for the real people that would not have access to real quality products in a market where brands used to mark up their products by creating brand perceptions, sometimes by compromising the underlying value of products. When he travelled across the country, he realised that there was a big gap in that. And he wanted to give better value products to consumers. That was the mission. I think while television was an important part of his popularity, a lot of people don’t know that he really worked hard. Almost seven-eight years he travelled to conduct yoga camps in every part of the country.

You had a good starting point in a way. Your dad, Acharyaji and Swamiji. Acharyaji was extremely good at Ayurveda. Your father was a good entrepreneur. He was into real estate. Then you came in and expanded the business. Tell us about that. 

I worked with my father for eight - nine years after my graduation. After that I thought of building my own identity and business. That is when the idea of selling Patanjali in super markets came about. That time Patanjali was a Rs 700-800-crore company. They were not present in any of the supermarket chains. And there was a lot of noise around how modern retailers eventually were going to have a larger share going forward. And I was very intrigued by that. So I thought it was a good business opportunity to build from scratch. Before that, while we were part of the Patanjali journey, I was not involved in any of the management decisions or business of Patanjali. It was completely a new business for me. Luckily, Swamiji supported and gave me an opportunity to see if there is an interest among the retailers. Then the first retailer I went to was Reliance. While they liked the idea of Patanjali they were very supportive of the fact that as an entrepreneur I had to build a business. That’s how the journey started. We piloted with five Reliance outlets in Mumbai first. I still remember I used to make the invoices myself and take order sheets from merchants, just to understand how the business is done on the ground. Then Patanjali grew and we started contributing 10 per cent of Patanjali’s overall business.

So there is a logistics side to the business, there is construction and there is Patanjali distribution and you came to the media business.

Real estate is my father’s business. I am not actively involved in the business any more. Over the years we build a lot of capabilities at the backend. We designed solutions that specifically catered to supermarket chains. Dealing with chains was not as easy as dealing with the unorganised sector. We created solutions for the brand to increase market share in supermarket chains. We have a large warehousing network. Now we have started looking for other clients who require this kind of logistical reach and service. Our biggest client continues to be Patanjali.

Are you open to distributing other companies’ products?

We are very selective. I have just done a deal with an American company for their beauty brands; they are non-competing with Patanjali. I also have some companies that use only our warehousing logistics. It is sort of a complex structure we have now. We are trying to find our feet on what exactly we would be when we go forward.

What actually inspired you to get into the media?

The Sanskar opportunity came to us very organically. When the opportunity came, we thought that the product was really strong. Aastha and Sanskar had 95 per cent of market share in the genre at that time. Our family – though not an orthodox Marwari family – was a pretty religious family. And the family found the opportunity to have Sanskar in our portfolio and to be able to be part of the journey as a good decision. And that’s how we got into the media business, specifically in Sanskar. When I started out, the first thing I did was to google about downlinking and uplinking. Until that time, I did not know how a satellite signal works. That was almost 10 -12 years ago. Sanskar was a very different, unique business model. It wasn’t the typical broadcast business where you invest in programming and then monetise through ad sales. Most of the programming on the spiritual genre was given by the content owners for free, because they want reach. In fact, they pay you to use your platform. It was a great experience. We ran it for five years and sold it to Swamiji for a very good return. That’s how we got interested in the media business. Then we looked at starting other spiritual channels. That’s how Shubh TV came along. And during that time, I had met Anand a couple of times. That’s how the journey of Epic started. The primary objective of the relationship was to make sure that Epic as a brand, which was loved by millions, was able to survive and continue in a viable way with critically acclaimed products, something Anand was proud of. When I researched on the channel, I realized that the product was very strong and definitely worth putting some time to make it work. And that’s how my partnership with Anand started. That’s how we started building Epic again.

So you also have invested in the channel, right?

Yes, there is an arrangement where I am also a shareholder.

With Epic what did you feel was right and what did you feel was wrong? And what did you do go about correcting it?

The product was just very ahead of its time. Mahesh Samat is a very seasoned media professional. He ran big companies. A lot of people don’t know this: Mahesh is a consumer guy. He understands what a consumer wants in general. Some of the content he created is still our flagship ones. They did a lot of things right. The timing of TAM going away and BARC coming in, etc., and the fact that the content was slightly ahead of time, something the mass audience in India at the time did not accept as Mahesh would have thought. That’s the challenge they have faced. The opportunity was obviously the fact that there was strong brand affinity. While the viewership was low, it was loyal. My research found that in niche products you have less absolute viewership, but you have relevant one. For example, the number of people watching English news is far lower than mostly all genres. But the reason why they get so much traction and advertising is because brands want that TG and affinity require English news for that. With such strong positioning and niche, I felt in the long term it would definitely reap some value. That was the base concept behind my conviction that Epic can be turned around. Then we did the repositioning and changed the distribution strategy. We did multiple things to ensure that we stay on course and on our path to profitability.

In terms of distribution what did you change? Did you get on to more DPOs?

Epic was always a pay channel. When you launch a new channel you have to incentivise DPOs and cable operators to carry your channel. When I took over Epic had certain deals in the market with DPOs, which I felt was not ideal, and which we then turned around in a couple of years. This year Epic will be subscription-positive from a distribution point of view for the first time. So we went from being a pay channel that incentivises our DPOs and cable operators to carry the channel to becoming a net-positive subscription earner.

From being a man who did not know what uplinking and downlinking to a media entrepreneur, you have come a long way. What next?

My passion is creating value and wealth and building scale.  That’s why I am interested in multiple businesses, not just any particular business. I am passionate about business, and building businesses that have scale, that gives employment to many people. That is what drives me. In Epic and in my partnership with Anand Mahindra I felt that there was an opportunity for a young guy like me to really live up to that dream of wanting to create that opportunity for others.

So you took up Epic four years ago when you were 32. What did you learn about the business?

Honestly, I had the luxury of having people around me who had an equation that was not limited not just to work. I worked with them like they are my friends. We have a very democratic approach to finding solutions to challenges that epic faced. We used to always ideate. It was a collective effort. One of the things was to reposition Epic. While it was intended to be a GEC, somewhere in the programming it became a knowledge-based product. People started perceiving it as an infotainment channel. Even in the market, some of the brands started calling it an infotainment channel when it always was in the GEC space. I realised that it is better to be part of a smaller genre but have a better market share, rather than be part of a big genre and have an insignificant market share. That is why I felt that it would be smarter to be moving to infotainment which is what people perceived it to anyway. And that’s why the decision to rebrand the logo the reposition the channel from GEC to infotainment came about.

It is a smart decision, because GECs’ carriage fee is much higher.

Carriage fees are one part of the GEC. But content is the key. To get significant market share in GEC, you need a certain amount of capital. Otherwise you cannot compete in that space. At that time Epic was loved because to make it into a GEC would have compromised the value and brand identity of Epic and what it stands for. So the objective was not only to make it viable but also to keep the essence of Epic as a brand alive and to make sure that people who love continue to get that content. It wasn’t just about viability; we had to find the right fit. That’s why infotainment was the right fit. We do about 150 hours of original programming. We acquire a lot of programming as well. We have 600 hours of our own IP, all episodic programming. People love watching them multiple times.

How was the advertisers’ reaction?

Infotainment genre is pretty stagnant when it comes to advertising. In the infotainment genre there is a lot of brand integration. A lot of FCTs are done just based on ratings. We have been focusing a lot on content and trying to find brands to plug into the Epic positioning.

What is the journey ahead for Epic? You launched Epic+ HD.

A lot of our viewers have wanted an HD version of the channel for a very long time. We want to have a separate channel and programming line-up for Epic+ HD as and when we decide to launch it. 

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