Ashish Deshpande,Elephant Strategy+Design, Strategy and Innovation hand in hand…..

Posted on August 28, 2011


About Elephant Strategy+Design – The company is headquartered in Pune, co-founded in the late 1980s by Ashish Deshpande,Ashwini Deshpande and Partho Guha . The company is a strategic design and innovation consultancy firm that partners with organizations to transform them into dynamic,profitable and meaningful entities.They have offices in Delhi and Singapore also and have a consistent turnover of more than USD2M. They have a team strength of 60 people in Pune, 18 people in Delhi and 2 team members in Singapore.

Elephant's office designed using its company name in mind

Opening a designing firm in late 1980s was never easy, that too in a market that related designing only to fashion. There was a man, along with his co-founding team consisting of Ashwini Deshpande and Partho Guha and a few others who wanted to give designing a whole new meaning, not for themselves but for the Indian public, in general. The co-founder with the vision and determination was Mr. Ashish Deshpande and the name of the firm is Elephant Strategy + Design, yes ‘+’…read on to know the story behind it and the ups and downs of the design consultancy firm.

A undergrads group from National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad came from various disciplines of design got together and started taking small projects from their fourth year onwards, so much so that the moment they passed out from NID, they were ready to start an office of their own. Some more insights from the man himself.

Founders of Elephant Design

How was the thought of starting a design office conceptualized?

AD : After completing a key internship with TELCO (now TATA Motors) at cab design and a final thesis at Blue Star, a few of my batch mates and me were toying with the idea of starting a firm of our own. Few batch mates joined the initiatives and few even pulled out. It was in the fifth year that we did a 6-month module in Design Management through IIM-A and we learnt the management side of design. It was then that we decided to set up our own design firm.

On 14th April, 1989, soon after our graduation ceremony, the team comprising  amongst other co-founders of Ashwini Deshpande, Partho Guha and I, came to Pune after ruling out Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. Somehow kind souls and well wishers  managed to get us a room of 10*10 feet and our trunks became  work desks. An acquaintance took pity on us and helped us get furniture from a pandal wala (a tent house). That’s how Elephant started…on 2nd May 1989!

Tell us the story behind the ‘+’ sign in the company’s name

AD: Earlier when we started, we were doing more of graphic and product design. Then, we combined it with lot of other things like exhibition design and were always on the look out for providing value in our services. Since we wanted to be multi-disciplinary, we kept trying to understand business and their consumers and we still do the same. We started doing design research and providing “strategic” inputs to our clients. Even clients appreciated our approach as we were giving them “Vision” and explained in the context of the “user” and business. As a result, this “strategy” concept started to give us an advantage and that’s how we added “ STRATEGY +” in our company’s name and logo.

Elephant's Design Team-Experienced Transformers

How did you manage your business when funds were hard to come by, initially?

AD: When we decided to start our firm, we started collecting some seed capital from the projects we picked up during our graduation days. Collectively, our stipend amounted to Rs.60,000-70,000. When we started our operations, our initial projects funded us and in six months’ time we were able to pay ourselves back. No bank showed interest in a design firm at that time and they looked at us as if we were not serious and were surprised that we  were asking for funds! (says in good humour)

Which moment was the one which kick-started the Elephant’s journey?

AD:  There was a project of design of a hospitality magazine called H&FS Review. They gave us a Rs. 5,000 cheque and that gave us the confidence to look for other arenas as well. You can call it one of the turning points in our journey.

At the same time , a project from Dr. Beck ( then a BASF company )a German company, (one of our partners did internship with them) of brochure design gave us the kick. We did it in a completely unusual way. We did a long painting for the brochure which was liked by one and all. By the time we finished the project, Deutsche Marks had risen and we earned more than what we expected. That gave us some more funds to invest in the firm and people started to look at us seriously, including our families and friends.

The colorful team at Elephant Design

 Talking about turning points, what were the other turning points in the Elephant’s journey?

AD: Well, there have been quite a few turning points in our journey. The major ones include the BASF project . Then, it was the “ Strategy +” concept of ours in 2000 which actually turned things around as we were able to command better prices and people were ready to pay because they knew we could help them scale up and during the process of doing so, we grew.

The period of 1994-2000 was an eye-opener as the Indian economy was opening up to global market and the competition was increasing, business was changing. We realized that Elephant needed to be  differentiated. That was the time we took up research and came up with the “ Strategy +” concept, which helped our clients articulate their vision and we told them how design will help them to build their identity,brands and products, such that the effectiveness was far-far better. This strategy concept proved very helpful to those companies who were planning for expansion and also for those who wanted a transformation. Through us they understood how design is an essential component for transformation and we provided  value-added design through Strategy +based service.

Till 1998-99 we were a US$1,50,000 company and by the end of 2000, we had achieved US$2,50,000 and since then, we have not looked back. Today, we stand tall at US$2mn and I am proud of my team&colleagues for achieving this milestone.

Team at work

 What was the best learning curve in your journey so far?

AD: Oh yes, there was one major incident because of which we burnt our fingers terribly. We opened an office in Brussels, Belgium, with the help of our associates . We didn’t do our homework well enough and tried to emulate the IT industry without understanding the nitty-gritty of the sector. Also, we didn’t understand the European culture well. With this agent in Brussels and back end at Pune, we failed miserably.

What we learnt was that Europe is very culture-centric and if you haven’t studied the culture before hand, you are not going to make any headway. From then on, we just did strategic partnerships in the Netherlands, USA and Singapore for Europe, US and South-East Asian markets. In the Netherlands, we have strategic partnership with NPK design. Singapore is our new focus now.

Another difficult time was the recession in 2000-01. Design was no longer a priority for corporate world as they wanted to save every bit possible. Our business slowed down to a large extent. It was then that we decided to widen our client base. No particular industry domain should contribute more than 30% to your revenue; else, you are in trouble.

Was it difficult to convince your parents/colleagues/friends/peers that you wanted to start a firm and not take up a secure job?

AD: Yes, it was difficult to convince our parents and our teachers especially because they were expecting us to take up jobs offered to us from the companies who came to NID for recruitment. In fact, the convincing part was the biggest challenge to start with. When I went to my father for some financial help, he was annoyed at first, but he tried to help me in his own way. He informed about how to keep  books of accounts and the financial statements. This came in handy in our initial days. One of us used to look after the accounts till we hired a professional. As a result, we kept our books of accounts properly from day one.

Also, our vendors showed faith in us by introducing us to associates and from them, we picked nuances of the business. One major thing was that no one discouraged us which kept us motivated.

 Did the thought of quitting the firm and settling for a job ever crossed your mind? How did you motivate yourself when low?

AD: The thought of quitting never came. We always looked at the bigger picture and worked so that the company could grow. We want our company to be known world over. The most hurting part was to lose partners during the course of time. When low, my partners have always pulled me up and then I learnt to be ready and plan for the down. The only thought that crossed my mind then was how should we grow and how will we paint the bigger picture that we had visuali.

According to you, which is that one thing which is essential for the success as an entrepreneur? Also, please share some marketing advice that you used during the journey.

AD: For marketing, we resorted to word of mouth. We used to go to seminars as it was a good platform for visibility purpose and we got opportunities to present our cases. We also conducted design workshops for the interested people. We have been using PR agencies while launching new projects for the past 10-12 years.Since 2008 we have built a robust and professional project management and business development team . We have also developed systems that help us stay connected with existing as well as new client teams.

Workshop with students

When we launched our website 4-5 years back, many queries started pouring in. Even today,our website is a key driver of enquires .We have also given advertisement in CNBC in the past as well as in ET, but then we are conservative here , as many irrelevant queries started coming.

In house Prototype workshop

One essential thing for the success of an entrepreneur is to always keep integrity when dealing with your work, people and client.This puts you on the right path and only good follows.

 Do you think people without work experience can make good businessmen?

AD: It purely depends on the individual. If you have the drive and vision, then you can. Also, one has to keep motivating oneself. Work experience is required just to know how the systems work and what it feels to be in the corporate world. But if one has a brilliant, viable idea, you should not waste time working for someone else.

Let’s talk about you, as a person, now. What are the things you like to do while not working?

AD: I’m not an indoor person, I never stay indoors even on Sundays. I like to do outdoor activities like cycling; I do a lot of that. I like to do something which is not harming the environment (we met him soon after he completed planting trees for the environment week)

Environment Day Activity

Who is your role model and what is the motto of your life?

AD: It’s got to be Charles and Ray Eames, who helped establish design in India 50 years ago.I am also inspired by the work of Sir James Dyson and his relentless pursuit of excellence.I’m generally inspired by designing peers for obvious reasons. As for my motto, it is to keep doing good and keep adding value to the society. For example – by contributing to the environment week and riding a bicycle.Even for this interview, I came on my bicycle.Most important design for our fellow Indians ,our masses.

Finally, what are your future plans?

AD: We, as Elephant Design, want to consolidate ourselves in Delhi, Pune and Singapore and use this as a multiplier effect, especially Delhi, as they have hardened after the downturn in 2008-09. Also, to get people on board who are experts in this field. Singapore, as said earlier, is our new focus. The Economic Development Board of Singapore, a development arm of the Singapore Government, has helped us in setting meetings there. Things are looking bright for us now, ya!

Ashish Deshpande

Mr.Deshpande and the other Directors are very employee friendly and ensure lots of activities for their team . They organise a “EPL” ( Elephant Premier League) cricket tournament once a year , have a music band called “Elefunk” which plays once a quarter ,have regular badminton tournaments. This is an unique way to increase engagement with team members and enjoy when not working . We wish the team all the best and hope they end up reach their vision of becoming the largest design and strategy consultancy firm in the world.

Elephant Choir

Elephant Cricket Team

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