Building sustainable companies

by Nick Mickshik
Photo: Uday Reddy, Tanla
One of India's most successful tech entrepreneurs and founder of Tanla, shares what he has learnt about building sustainable companies.

Uday Reddy was a mere 11 years old when he forayed into entrepreneurship. He sold sweets to the entire school – but that entrepreneurial instinct has always been accompanied by an equally strong leadership drive: he was the class monitor every single year of school, a role that gave him "immense joy". He says, "My entire childhood was about picking up critical life skills and leadership lessons, rather than the pursuit of academic discourse."

Entrepreneurship as a way of life

Uday's "strong belief" is that entrepreneurship is an innate talent. He reflects: "One can see these traits from an early age and they are an integral part of your life." To say he has put those skills to good use would be something of an understatement. In 2022, already a long-time multi-millionaire, he entered the Forbes World's Billionaires List for the first time, having seen his Hyderabad-based Tanla Platforms communications company conquer the Indian markets over the previous two decades.

Uday's first formal foray into entrepreneurship came in the late 1980s. Paging and messaging services were being launched globally and, aware that Hyderabad was becoming an IT hub, the teenage Uday sold his only possession, his motorbike, and set off for the big city to start a paging business. Not knowing how or where to begin, he camped outside a hardware manufacturer's site in Singapore and stayed there until he had mastered the technology "inside and out".

Aware that he needed to innovate fast in the rapidly evolving mobile communications market, he devised a radical new business model: rather than charge for selling the hardware, as incumbents did, he would charge by the message. The innovation grabbed market share quickly and the business soon became the market leader – until changing government regulations forced it to close.

It was now that another of his maxims – invest in market intelligence – came to the fore. Whilst doing an MBA at Manchester Business School, he had seen how text messaging had become near-ubiquitous in the UK, whereas it was greatly under-utilised in India. Inspired by this insight and his experience in the paging business, he decided to leverage business messaging as a communication channel between organisations and users, and founded Tanla Platforms in 1999.

The name "Tanla", which has the initials of his wife, is testament to another guiding principle: the supreme importance of family. He says, "Family is the cornerstone of my success – it is important to share your vision with your family. I don't think the discussions with my family would be similar to most other households. We avoid inane conversations and have engaging discussions on our vision and business. My success is their success and I have their complete backing."

Marrying Uday's ability to spot greenfield opportunities and devise innovative solutions, Tanla swiftly developed its Short Messaging Service (SMS) Centre and launched a new category of business messaging in India. This business was built with all the features that we now call "Software as a Service" (SaaS) from day 1, long before SaaS became fashionable. From building Trubloq, the world's largest use case on blockchain in the Communication Platform as a Service (CPaaS) industry and Wisely, an end-to-end blockchain platform focused on data privacy and data security, to Wisely ATP, the first-of-its-kind anti-phishing platform, there has been a constant culture of innovation. Each of these platforms were profitable from inception and grew to a position of market dominance that has been retained year on year. This is due to immense self-belief and never losing focus. "I have always backed myself to identify opportunities and scale them," Uday reveals. "I think I am a little unique for a businessman – I don't have a family office or personal investments in equity or any other asset classes. I do not believe in making passive investments." Instead, he operates with the belief that "all my energies are directed towards reinvesting in my businesses, where I can personally make the maximum impact."

Progress through partnership

If that makes his approach to strategy sound ruggedly individualistic, nothing could be further from the reality. As he has built businesses, he has always done it in a collaborative manner, "taking the entire ecosystem together", and "always choosing the path of partnerships and collaborations, rather than rip and replace."

The philosophy of creating win-win is similar for his team. "It's very important to ensure that people are happy around you," Uday says. "It cannot be all about the entrepreneur – I have to ensure my team sees value-creation for them in what we do, be it in terms of work experience or monetary benefits."

All of this chimes with a business philosophy that today would be called "sustainability', but which Uday has intuitively deployed since long before the term became a corporate cliché. "I firmly believe that anything that lasts must be earned – things that come easy will never last", he insists, adding that, while entrepreneurship is about value-creation, "You need to have the mindset of a trustee – you are building a brand for the long term, to last multiple generations."

Eschewing the latest fads in management practice and operating with a long-term perspective is a philosophy he has followed throughout his entrepreneurial journey. "I always look to build businesses for the long term", he says. "I don't believe in being tactical. I will invest and hold – my success has been the timing of unlocking value. There are assets I have held for 20 years before I felt I could unlock value, but the returns have always justified my holding period."

And while he readily admits to an obsessive focus on work – he describes himself as a "perfectionist" in everything he does and says his biggest bugbear is "not seeing the same striving for perfection in those around me" – he is quick to share success with others. For that reason, he has always taken care to surround himself with "intelligent, authentic and energetic people".

Entrepreneurship and societal impact

Uday firmly believes that entrepreneurs have social obligations and need to give back to the community, "be it in terms of job creation or paying your fair share of taxes or enhancing the infrastructure of the community we live in."

By extension, he sees a role for the government in promoting entrepreneurship: "I think it's crucial that governments recognise the importance of entrepreneurs and support them – for me, time is the biggest scarcity, and I expect the government to enable me to deliver value in every way possible."

His biggest mantra is around how to drive productivity across society: "I encourage everyone to maximise productivity. I feel this is the biggest challenge, not just in India but globally. We need to inculcate a culture of social welfare which encourages people to become more productive."

To this day, he has never worked for anyone but himself. Does he have a personal philosophy of work? "I love the phrase 'happier and healthier'", he says. "I think it's important to be happy in what you do and always focus on health. Despite my busy schedule, I still dedicate three hours a day to physical fitness. I work seven days a week and don't like taking holidays. I have limitless energy to work because I believe in what I am doing. I don't watch TV, I don't socialise – if there are no meetings, I read and update myself on evolving trends globally. It's key to have clarity on what is important and single-mindedly focus on that. When you're driven by a sense of achievement, it's key to stay focused on the important things."

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