I, Karthi Easwaramoorthy, sat with Mr. Sivarajah who did co-found Nativelead which funds startups and helps them to incubate, accelerate and scale. If you feel that you are struggling in your life and business, you must read his story. He ran through his life from the time he was born in Sri lanka to 1983 popular riots between Singhala and Tamil and how eventually he returned back and settled in Madurai. His ancestors 100 years of earnings and establishments in Sri lanka are shattered to ashes within hours in front of his eyes. After that, how he bounced back. That story is a thrilling ride. Must read story to get some inspiration from his life.
Below is from his words… here you go..
Sivarajah is the founder of Nativelead, which is an investment company that supports, guides and mentors entrepreneurs in metro cities of Tamil Nadu like Madurai, Chennai (in and around), Coimbatore, Erode etc. Each of these areas will have their chapters of Nativelead, which will be supervised by different local industrial leaders or owners. In 2012, it was a small foundation but by 2014, Nativelead adopted a formal structure.
“We pick such members,” he said, “only when they have adequate investment capacity.” When I asked him to briefly explain Nativelead, he answered, “Nativelead is all about how local people can come together and help the younger generation by providing them mentorship, angel investment and market connect.”
He also stated that through Nativelead, they shall provide playbook knowledge and resource support for young and local entrepreneurs. This is because people from small towns and villages live in the absence of efficient investors and this buries their business ideas even before it takes any root. Therefore, Nativelead is a one-stop solution for entrepreneurs who are deprived of any kind of support to start-up.
Shivaraj said, “We also support the new era start-ups that deal with technology or any new ideas by guiding them in building their business with the right business model and unique value proposition. Out of all these, when a business flourishes or performs fairly well, we begin to support seat funding first.” In short, it is clear that Nativelead mainly targets innovation-driven companies in any field and works round the clock to ensure it performs its best.
When I asked him, “What led you to create Nativelead?”, he answered that he wanted to support various start-ups because of his personal pinpoint and 42 years of personal journey.
42 YEARS OF PERSONAL JOURNEY
CHAPTER 1: GRANDFATHER
A person is moulded by different life events and turning points. Especially when one is exposed to the harsh realities of life at a young age, he/she shall grow up more mature than others who’ve had a happy time growing up.
Our hero of this interview belongs to the first category, which was why he pinpoints to his personal journey for his professional success.
His story begins with his grandfather being a supervisor in Sri Lanka’s tea plantation in the late 1800s. “In those days Britishers used to migrate people from Madurai, Ramanathapuram, Thanjavur, Namakkal and Dindigul to Sri Lanka, every 6 months,” he said “and one among those 250+ migrant Indians was my grandfather. These people were made to settle in Lanka and were asked to work on a contract basis. As Indians were suffering from poverty and hunger, they agreed to this deal eventually. However, it’s not like they had a choice. Anyways, Britishers destroyed forests in the hilly region of Sri Lanka and established tea plantations and estates. My grandad used to be the supervisor for these Indian workers because he had a few lands and was also quite influential among his tribe. He worked in Lanka as a tough British labour contractor for many months and one day decided to move his entire family to the kingdom of Ravana, Sri Lanka. Now, I’m telling you all of this not because I saw it but because I remember my father telling me all of this.”
Shivaraj then continued saying, “Back in the 1920s, my grandfather established a bus company named Vellum Mayilum with around 3 buses in Navamlampatti, which gave him a strong threshold to move his entire family to Sri Lanka in 1922. However, my grandfather sold most of his earned property during his period itself and this left my father at bay.”
CHAPTER 2: FATHER
Shivaraj’s father was born during 1916 in Thenthapatti, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He finished most of his studies in Madurai and some in Sri Lanka. Once he earned his PUC graduation certificate, he began to work in the British tea estate. Slowly and gradually, he sealed his hold in Kandi, Sri Lanka (the hill region where Indian Tamilians lived in maximum numbers) and settled there with his family. After a few years, when he decided to shift back to India, his friends motivated him to pursue agriculture in Sri Lanka. Without much speculation, Shivaraj’s father sold all of his property in India (except his ancestral property) only to come back to Sri Lanka and do FMCG products distribution and agriculture. Through this, he did earn a lot and upgraded his lifestyle to an upper-middle-class living.
CHAPTER 3: ME
“Despite all these turmoil and success stories,” Shivaraj said, “I came knocking on the doors of life in the 1970s. During this, my father was 54 years old and was well settled in Sri Lanka. I was brought up in Lanka and even pursued my education there till 1983.”
When I asked him what had happened after that, that’s when he told me the most tragic incident in his life and also how one of the worst historical riots tilted many lives upside down.
“In 1983, Singhala and Tamil people began to turn against each other and embarked on the beginning of the country’s biggest and inhuman riot. During this time, our shops were on fire and our home, which was near an abandoned British airport, was also taken over by the government to set up an army base. This was because of the riding LPT problem in Sri Lanka. This riot, which consumed people’s rage and revenge, destroyed the masses’ livelihood and identity. In a month or so, we lost everything we had owned in Sri Lanka and we stood homeless, penniless and worthless. However, for the next 6 months, we stayed in a temporary place and then came back to Madurai to start a new life. But the biggest challenge that kept haunting us was the fact that we only had 2 acres of land left in India. Meanwhile, our relatives lent their hands for support and my elder brother was also working in Dubai. All of these kept us motivated and encouraged in the path of resuming our life with a fresh start.
Now the reason I’m telling you all this is, my father had a great reputation in Sri Lanka and was also a sincere Gandhian who had a strong social face. It took years to build all these but only a few hours to turn them into ashes. I was brought up in a surrounding where I never had to deal with any kind of problem but the harsh realities of life hit me so hard on my face and strongly impacted my mind. This psychological impact was the only thing I carried from Sri Lanka to India and the consequences of it deals with my entrepreneurial story.”
CHAPTER 4: MY ENTREPRENEURIAL STORY
“I finished my college in Thyagaraja College, Madurai and opted to be an employee in a reputed firm. My father wanted me to work in the Gulf for a better salary but was never against my wishes and likes. While I had all the freedom to choose what I’m supposed to do for work or rather who I’m going to be, I was clueless.”
“But then you became one of the reputed entrepreneurs of Tamil Nadu. How is that Shivaraj?” I asked him.
“Me becoming an entrepreneur was an accident. In the early 1991-1992, I did a few small jobs in different fields like corporate, sales and many more for a few months in Madurai. I still remember, my first salary was only Rs.800 and at that point, all I wanted to do was to join a work that’ll pay me Rs.2000 per month. During this time, I used to read lots of M.S. Udayamurthy’s books and one of his books named Ennangal motivated me to become an entrepreneur. It was that one book that changed my entire course of life to which I’m very thankful right now.”
“After being an employee for 6 months” he continued “I decided to be an employer for the rest of my days. In 1992, 4 of my friends and I began trading computers and fax machines, mobile phones and the internet in Madurai. Even now I’ll proudly claim that it was us who launched computers and other technical products to South India for the very first time through dealerships. As time passed by, 3 of my friends left India for good. But Palanikumar, who was my classmate in B.Sc Chemistry stuck with me and the glue between us is thick even now. Since 1992. We’ve been doing quite a few businesses but only after 10 years of being a failure, we understood that real entrepreneurship is not about selling a product but about creating one.”
CHAPTER 5: UNDERSTANDING REAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP THROUGH FAILURES
“Palanikumar and I came into IT without any intention and were involved only in its sales and not coding in Printer’s division in George company. As we worked there for 6 months, we understood that it was an emerging field. That’s when it struck us to create our own brand and product. Meanwhile, we were into trading and training which filled our bank accounts with an overwhelming balance. All of these factors put together, we decided to create our own software company but that was a tragic blunder. After this, my partner and friend Mr Palanikumar decided to stay in trading for regular income as I went on to create my brand. As the next business step, we launched our CRM (Customer Relationship Management) product in 1999-2000 for small companies’ sales. This product was much similar to Salesforce’s Sales automation but we released it with our local knowledge and Visual Basic. While our product was performing well in the market, Pentafour company bought it from us for Rs. 20 lakhs. But unfortunately, they closed the company after some time due to some financial crisis.
When this became another failure story, we did pause our business venture but instead resumed with another exciting flavour. In 2000, you can customise a greeting card and also tell to whom it should go within Sivakasi. After getting to know about this booming industry, we decided to try our efforts in this field. That’s when we developed another product called ‘Printing House’ in partnership with one of the best Sivakasi based companies. They had invested around 30-35 lakhs in this business and we bought shares from them to be part of the venture. But after some time, they couldn’t fund us because of their internal conflicts and issues, which was why we had to drop this project too. This misfortune cost us our 3-4 years of life and also added to our failure stories.”
“No matter what happened,” he said “I was determined to establish my product which kept me going. In 2002-2003 we executed our plans to launch ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning), which was well ahead of time. As we were the first partners of Linux in Tamil Nadu and brought mobile connections for the first time in the Tamil region, we had a brilliant bank balance. This gave us more confidence to execute this fresh business plan. Our ERP had a module like an engine. When the user defines how they want to input their data and how they want their output to be, the engine will do the process automatically. We had a good tech team for this project but we were clueless about the internal process. Only the idea was ours, whereas the entire process was carried out by our tech team. Just when we thought things were working out for us, we had a setback. Our finances were dropping and we were finding it hard to pay our team with better remuneration. That’s when we realised that we‘ve been doing this business only with mere confidence and nothing with any technical or business knowledge.”
When I asked him what he meant by business knowledge, he told me “We were ignorant of how we should develop and build a product/company as we had no idea about business models. Concepts like resource management, project management, manpower, duration, etc, were all extensive subjects that never reached our minds. With just ideas and mental strength, we kept on experimenting with different business ventures.”
“From 1999-2010, our business ideas went as an experiment but yet failed to stop us. My partner, however, was more practical than me. Throughout this journey, he decided to work in trading while I wasn’t attracted to it. Though we were the first partners for Reddit in Tamil Nadu, I was soaked in the well of entrepreneurship. Throughout these 11 years of entrepreneurial journey, we earned lots of money through servicing but lost all money in building a product and company.”
I was curious to know how they overcame such difficulties and wanted to know the force that enlightened them about the right path. When I asked him the same, he answered “In 2010, Palanikumar and I looked back and began analysing our mistakes and wrong moves. There were 2 major reasons for our enormous failure. One was the presence of overconfidence and second was the absence of a mentor. We comprehended that the main reason for our failure is us and no one or nothing else.”
“But we did find a mentor in 2007. He was our Indian friend and he was from the USA. After analysing our business stories, especially ERP (the ongoing one), he told us that ‘You have envisioned missionary products, but you have processed it the wrong way. But if you want to finish this product in another year, you should invest another 50 lakhs.’ As we were desperate and determined to finish what we had started, we started looking for financial aid. This was when we heard about Angel Investment. I tried contacting Angel Network Funds twice (Chennai and Bangalore) but did not even get an appointment to meet anyone. I sensed the negative aura swirling around me yet again. Even in a few social meetings, everyone told me that ‘being in Madurai, you can’t achieve anything’. All of these demotivated me and yet when I bounced back I had nothing much left to solve.”
“In 2010, we were back to being failures because our loans were high, our product (ERP) was still under development but the market had already begun selling other versions of ERP. Therefore, with no innovation and no proper product to launch, even this attempt hit the ground with a bang. We decided to halt our operations and planned to sit and talk. My partner told me ‘Technology is not our area. We’ve been trying to do something in it for the past 10 years and all we did was to do things the wrong way, so let us stop it. Come, let us continue in the trading business.’ Though we were partners with Tally (since 2000) and have offices at Coimbatore, Salem, Madurai and Trichy, I wasn’t interested in trading at all. Therefore I asked my partner to do it while I decided to do something else.”
CHAPTER 6: BIRTH OF NATIVELEAD
I was keenly listening to him because I wanted to know what he did to achieve after 10 years of failure. I asked him the same to which he answered, “I worked in Tally for around 4 years to repay our loan. But once that was done, I disliked being in the IT and trading field. So I wandered with a failing company, looking for a new scope of business ideas for around 1.5 years. During this time I met a mentor named Bharat, who was part of the TVS family. I got connected with him through one of our CI meetings. I talked to him about my failures and how I want to do something new with a social impact to which he supported me. I was active in Rotary at that time, which further fueled the thought of me wanting to help the underprivileged and slum kids with their education. I wanted to start an NGO. But before I took the first step for its establishment, I suddenly thought about how we weren’t able to develop/build a software company like we had planned. Though with great ideas, we had no idea on how to build it, no idea about its playbook, no right mentorship and no ways to raise funds. That’s when I realised, ‘why not provide solutions for all these problems?’ I developed this as a small thought and told my partner who agreed to it. So, by 2012, we started Nativelead as an NGO foundation but currently, it has two legal foundations (Nativelead Foundation and Nativelead Angel Network). We pooled in different industrial members who were big and successful entrepreneurs, to guide different people who come with various exhilarating business ideas. We also handled many sessions in colleges. Throughout this process, we were handling this only as a hobby. In the meantime, I spoke to my mentor about how I wanted to take Nativelead as an NGO while my partner will run our IT company with 50:50 share partnership.”
CHAPTER 7: A PROMINENT DECISION OVER A DILUTED DILEMMA
“At the age of 45 (between 2012-2014), when people are supposed to have lots of contacts and several life experiences in hand, I stood with a big question mark because I had no idea what I was going to do next. I was expected to choose a career either for personal wealth or social impacts. When I shared my dilemma with my mentor, he told me. ‘Your ideas are great but your passion to make wealth was absent throughout your business journey. You are thinking you had a failure because you did not have the right ecosystem but that’s only one reason. If you had the drive to succeed, then you should have moved to a place where it all would have worked. You would have at least placed a branch office at Chennai and Bangalore. But you did not do it. It might be because of your lack of drive or passion to make wealth.’ His words were so true that I felt awakened.
My mentor also asked me ‘How much time do you spend on your business ventures every day?’ After this question, I realised that I stopped putting in efforts after sharing my idea. I failed to keep working until I made my vision a reality, instead I adopted a lethargic attitude towards my businesses. He also made me recognise how I spent more time in doing social work through Rotary and the CIA. ‘You did pay attention to more social work because of what you had learnt from the Sri Lankan incident. In those few months of wartime, you lost everything. So you understood that wealth can come and go anytime. That’s when you would have entered that enlightened state.’ my mentor said. Through these words, he aided me in entering an even enlightened state because I analysed how I developed a philosophical mindset of how earning wealth and fame are highly volatile in life since we moved back to India.”
“After all these thought-provoking talks, my mentor told me that due to my past experiences, I take failures quite easily. So he asked me to do social service in a field that is quite impactful and how I will have more self-satisfaction than personal wealth creation. Ever since I gained this clarity of thought, I shared my new business prospect to my partner and to my wife (who was working in Madurai Times of India as a Senior Journalist). Both stood as my strong pillars.”
CHAPTER 8: THE EMERGENCE OF ANGEL NETWORK
“In 2012, I began a new business called Angel Network with no profit gaining intention. Meanwhile, I was also mentoring through Nativelead. When I began talking at Angel Network, Nagaraj Prakasam supported me in my new start. He told me it was a great venture and that our city needs it. We decided to open a chapter of the original Angel Network in India but the membership fee was around 20+ lakhs per year (for investment). Due to it, nobody here was ready for it. During that time, I got introduced to Chandu Nair (Chennai) through a friend. I was telling him about this new business idea in a meeting and he introduced me to Pandiyarajan sir. He also favoured me and said ‘it’s a challenging task in Sivakasi’.
My co-founder is Ma Foi K. Pandiarajan (MLA). After meeting him for around three months, he told me in a meeting that we can do this formally. He asked me to create a trust and make him a trustee. Palanikumar, Pandiarajan and I joined together to form a trust. Many started to join our Trust due to these two influential and powerful people. Our Trust kept expanding and in 2015 we extended our Angel Investment Network to Coimbatore, Erode, Karur, Trichy and in another two cities.”
“Currently we have around 242 members” he continued “in our trust. Mostly all these are traditional business people, so many come into this with a hiccup in the beginning. This is the main reason for us to groom investors the way we groom entrepreneurs. 30% of our investors would first observe and then take time to invest in it, which was a great drawback back then. But now, we have more investors coming up. So far we have invested in 12 companies. In each company, we have made a minimum investment of 50 lakhs and a maximum of 2 crores.
“What were the challenges you had to overcome for this investment company?” I questioned him.
“Our major drawback was how no investable companies were coming up for tier 2 and 3 sites. Back then, we used to follow the typical scalable and innovative business model for investments. We followed the paperwork used in Indian Angel Network for all our transactions. Till last year, we rejected companies from Chennai and other districts because we aimed to provide business support to our locals. However, our native people with business ideas had already moved to Chennai or Bangalore, so we got less ideas to invest. To fill this void, we altered our method of function a bit. From last year we began to invest in some Chennai and Bangalore based companies. But yet again, there are more investors with less investing options. So, now we are looking even beyond Chennai and Bangalore. In terms of start-ups, there are around 300 companies connected with us. But, they are not investable start-ups as many would not have any innovation or scalability.”
He then said, “To avoid all these complications we realised we’ll have to rewrite our business model so that we can accommodate more investing options. Our new business model did pay off because we supported many innovative start-ups which are now an established brand. Companies like ‘Native’s Special’, ‘Happy Hens’, etc, are all our members. However, we did work with them for a year before starting to invest in them.”
I asked him what else he achieved through this venture, he answered, “I realised that every entrepreneur who came to us came with the same mistakes I made in my career. This motivated me to keep helping many, whom I mostly saw as my reflection. In the initial stages, we used to focus only on investing in business ideas that solved various agriculture and local problems. But in the last 1-1.5 years, we’ve seen the need for an improvised business model and through adopting the current business ideas like dead funding and strategic investment. We also planned to set up an accelerating business model because so far we did not do any accelerating businesses. We only supported people with people who are in the same field, informally.”
“How is this lockdown treating you and your business?” I enquired.
“After lockdown, I started to do a zoom call with each one every day and fortunately this gained global reach. Indians across the world got connected with us. Now we have around 50-60 global investors. Our next plan is to launch an accelerator and funds.”
WAYS TO APPROACH YOU
“People can approach me through our official website (http://www.nativelead.org/) or through any of our incubators we have in different districts. In Coimbatore, we have our office inside PSG Tech, as part of STEP. In Madurai, we have it in Tyagaraja college. Apart from these official establishments, people come to us through social media and known sources. Currently, we have restructured everything. Post-COVID, we are planning to go fully online. A new site or online pitching will come live in another 20+ days.
So this is my story of how I failed several times and one day realised I shouldn’t let others fail like me.”
“I’m glad you failed in your businesses because now you are creating multiple entrepreneurs. Very well. Good luck and thank you.” I said and concluded our emotional yet encouraging talk.
Read other stories on meet section.