"Focus on talent and not the title". My guest today is Anil Reddy, founder and CEO of Lollypop.Design which is India's top digital design studio. In this episode, we discuss how Anil overcame insane adversities in the early years to pursue a career in design, leaving all the success and fame in New Zealand to move back to India, starting Lollypop, getting acquired by Terralogic and the importance of focusing on the talent over title. For show notes, guest bio, and more, please visit: www.designmba.show To learn how to launch your design side hustle, please visit my blog: www.blog.designmba.show Connect with me on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jayneil
Anil Reddy is an artist by heart, designer by soul and an entrepreneur by choice. Anil is the Founder and Design Director of Lollypop.Design, a research driven design studio that is restructuring the way consumers think about the digital experience. From two people working out of a garage, today, Lollypop is 130+ people strong with offices all over the world. Lollypop studio has impacted a billion lives via clients like Myntra, Swiggy etc. Lollypop has garnered national and international recognition as well as awards.
CONNECT WITH Anil Reddy:
If you enjoyed this episode, please take a moment to leave a rating and review in Apple Podcasts, Spotify or share the episode with a friend. Thank you! 💙
Namaste and welcome. This is Jayneil Dalal and you are listening to The Design MBA. This podcast is a real-life MBA program for designers where we interview design hustlers and learn the skills, mindset necessary for a designer to launch a business venture. You can learn more. Find past episodes and stay updated at DesignMBA.show.
Jayneil Dalal: Focus on talent and not the title. My guest today is Anil Reddy who is the founder and design director of Lollypop.design, a research-driven design studio that is restructuring the way consumers think about the digital experience. From two people working out of a garage, today, Lollypop is 130 plus people strong with offices all around the world. Lollypop has impacted a billion lives via clients like Myntra, Swiggy, etc. Lollypop has garnered national and international recognition as well as won a lot of awards and the founder Anil is core to it. In this episode, we discuss how Anil overcame insane adversities in the early years to pursue a career in design. Hint: He had to take up cleaning jobs and sweep the floors to pay for college. That is insane. We talk about how he left all his success and fame that he had built up in New Zealand to move back to India and start from scratch. Then we talk about how he started Lollypop design studio and how they got acquired by Terralogic and why it's important to focus on the talent or title. Anil's journey has inspired the hell out of me and I believe it will do the same for you. Enjoy.
Anil, welcome to the show, man I’ve been looking forward to this for quite some time. So excited and pumped to be chatting with you, my friend.
Anil Reddy: Thank you, Jayneil. Same here. I’m super excited about this. You're doing something great. I think India should know about this. It's a free MBA. What else can you ask for?
Jayneil: It was just like an idea that I was so lucky that when it came to me, I’m like “Let me focus on this” but I don't know if I told you but I was born in Ahmedabad for most of my life, pure Gujarati at heart. So, people are always asking me “What business school do you want to go to?” and I’m like “Oh, I went to the best business school in the world, GBS - Gujarat Business School.”
Anil: Amazing stuff, man. Just keep up the good work. And I wish these things existed when I started my career.
Jayneil: Oh my God! I guess you probably had to learn everything on your own.
Anil: It was different those days. The knowledge was not so easily accessible. So, we used to cycle all the way to the city center library, borrow books and then come back, read and experiment and then return the books.
Jayneil: Oh my God! So, what was it like growing up for you as a kid? What were your hobbies and how would you describe yourself as a kid?
Anil: My childhood was a bit of a drama. When I was four years old, I lost my dad. He was an aircraft engineer. So, he used to craft airplanes and stuff. He was very talented. That's what I hear about him whenever I go to National Aerospace Limited. So, when we lost him, basically we lost everything. We lost money and we had nothing. We had no house to stay. And me my mother and my sister would be literally on streets. So, journey started from there but me as a kid, I never felt whatever my mom was going through. So, I was a kid. I had good friends around. I used to play and I never felt what the rest of my family was going through. It was my mom's dream that I grew up and take up engineering and become like my dad and join National Aerospace Limited but I was not the brightest bulb in the class. Education was not my thing. I was more into visualizing things. So, in school, every subject, I used to visualize. My homework was filled with sketches, drawings and stuff. So, that's how my childhood was. My childhood was something where everyone identified me as an artist at very young age. When I was six years or seven years old, I did some sketches and people were like “Wow! You're an artist.” And I’m like “Okay, I’m an artist.” So, it was amazing. I think, you know what, when you have that special talent, you stand out in the crowd. So, not just another kid going to school and scoring good marks. I was that one kid who was swimming against the wave, everything was art and any event in our colony or anything in our school, they used to always call me to decorate the stage and do some artwork and stuff. It was like I was the most important guy in those events.
Jayneil: The VIP.
Anil: Yeah, I was like a VIP.
Jayneil: So, you know that you have a special talent for design. And I’m thinking about this was maybe the ‘90s or maybe a little bit after that when you were pursuing college timeframe wise?
Anil: I was born in 1980 and I joined design school in 1995.
Jayneil: Wow! And from society perspective, I guess, I remember, so full confession, I wanted to go to this architecture school called SAP which is very well known in Ahmedabad and part of it was its brand name and supposedly all the beautiful women are also there as well. So, there was a lot of reasons for me to go there but my parents were like “Either you're becoming a doctor or an engineer?” So, I’m wondering if you had the same pressure “Are you going to make money doing design?”
Anil: Yeah, when I chose Art and Design as my career, there were not many colleges here. There was just one very well-known college here in Bangalore and there was another school which was known for Art. So, I couldn't afford the bigger college. And my marks in the 10th class was so bad that I just couldn’t imagine like if I had to explain what my marks were in 10th, in India you have first class, second class and third class. I did third class and divide it by 3, the third one is mine. I passed just to get into an Art college. I love education. I like subject. I like social studies. I like mathematics and stuff but my problem is my brain starts visualizing things. I don't get into the words and the sentences. It's more of illustrations and compositions. I think during 7th or 8th, I don't remember, I was given a topic of Battle of Panipat. So, I had to write two pages about the Battle of Panipat but I didn't know what to write. I was not creative enough in writing. Instead, I visualized the Battle of Panipat. I composed a war scene where there were elephants, there were horses, people killed, dying and someone celebrating the victory. And all I remember is after doing that, I got one tight slap on my face for doing it. So, my teacher was like “You're not going to pass. You're not going to make it” but I was so happy. And on the other side, I still remember I was a little upset that I couldn't finish the composition. So, you can't imagine me getting into engineering or a doctor. So, got into an Art college. There were two colleges, Chitrakala Parishad which was a very well-known college those days and there was KEN School of Art which is a smaller institution for Arts students. So, KEN School was more affordable. The fee was less and we were going through poverty and stuff. So, my mom couldn't afford fancy fees and all that. She said “Okay, if you want to join, join a college where the fee is not that much and where you can still get your degree or diploma or whatever.” So, I started in the art school the first two years. Then I started doing a lot of part-time work. I’ll tell you a story about that. Then I joined the bigger college after two years.
Jayneil: What kind of part-time work were you doing? You said “I’ll tell you a story about it.”
Anil: I was good at caricature. I really enjoyed making funny sketches of people. So, I thought I was the best because when you're surrounded with non-artists when you're in school, they always make you feel like you are the best artist, you are really good at drawing. So, when you come out to this world of art, you are surrounded by artists now. There are so many great artists around you. And there was this job post where it was a Tamil newspaper, they had announced for a caricature artist. I was so confident. I was only 15 years old applying for the job as a part-time caricature artist. I was so confident that I was easily going to get this job because I had a good book full of sketches and compositions and all this stuff. So, I went there in 1995. The queue was so long for the job. There were so many caricature artists. I think there were about 20-23 people in the line and they were all matured seasoned artists and I was a kid standing in the queue. And I was like “Okay, I’m not going to get this.” So, the watchman of the building, he kind of called me and said “You think you're going to get this job?” I said “No.” Then he said “Why do you waste time? My son is studying in a college. Even he has to pay his fees. Why don't you both get together and clean the building and I’ll get you the contract for that.” And I was like “Okay, fine, whatever.” So, my first job was contract cleaner where I had taken this entire building, it was my responsibility to clean each and every floor, bathrooms to every department, start at 6 o'clock in the evening and ends at 10 o'clock in the night. So, I went there to apply for a caricature artist. I ended up getting a cleaning job.
Another incident in the job was there was this Art department there and as an artist, you carry all those long papers where it's full of sketches and stuff. So, I used to keep my bag in a room and then wear a different cloth to clean the building. So, this artist saw me and he was like “Hey, are you an artist?” I said “Yes.” – “Can I see your sketches?” Then I showed my sketches and he’s like “Really good, man. Why do you clean here? Why don't you join as an artist?” I said “That's what I came here for but I got a cleaning job.” – “Okay, you come tomorrow. I’ll speak to the HR and the Finance people and I’ll get you a full-time job here as an artist.” I said “Great.” So, I went to HR. HR was like “Really good. You've been working here for the last six months. You've been a cleaner. Now, you're getting a job as an artist.” I was so happy that I went to the Finance department and the Finance department told me “Your salary will be 250 rupees as a part-time artist.” As a cleaner, I used to get 350 rupees. I said “I don't need the artist job. I’ll clean it.” So, money really mattered to me because I had to save up to go and join a better college.
Jayneil: And then when you were going to college, were you still working part or were you just completely focused on your studies?
Anil: College was from 9 o’clock to 3 o'clock and from 3 to 5, I spent time in the city center library learning things. Then 6 o'clock is when we used to go for cleaning the building.
Jayneil: Now, this drive that you have, you were surrounded by a lot of kids your age at that point and some of them probably wanted to party or just have fun but you were dedicated. Is it because you felt like your family had given up a lot of sacrifices to get you there? What drives you even at that early age to hustle so much?
Anil: I think the first two years of my college, I didn't go to any party. I felt like I didn't belong there. There's so much of responsibility. And, again, my mom was not confident about my career. I was in this mode of proving myself as a artist or a designer and to tell the world that this is a good career and you can still make good living out of it because a lot of my seniors who were in the college, they were jobless, they were literally coming to college and warning us about just discontinue this and do something else. And there were few people who got affected by it and a few from my batch discontinued their studies but some dedicated students like me continued and we finished the course and a couple of my friends are doing wonderful. They are like one of the best art directors in India now.
Jayneil: Wow! Literally, listening to your journey is one of the ones you hear in like a Bollywood movie of like so much struggle but I’m hearing it firsthand from you and it's surreal like I’m sitting here and just thinking about it.
Anil: But trust me, there was absolutely no struggle. I enjoyed each and every moment. I really loved it. I really loved it. Sometimes, my mom reminds me and she keeps telling the next generation in my family that Anil went through a hardship and I’m like “That’s nothing.” I don't remember any hardship. I think I just went with the flow. I enjoyed cleaning the building. I really enjoyed cleaning the building because my partner used to sing songs. He used to sing so loudly. So, it was a good time-pass. We had no MP3s, no music, nothing. I still remember, I met him recently, I made him sing.
Jayneil: Throwback to the old memories.
Jayneil: And then you finish college. What are your next plans as soon as you finish college?
Anil: So, I was not happy with the cleaning job because after my first year of college, I wanted to make some money out of my art and design. I started doing cutouts for politicians of what you call today the digital prints of politicians, that huge cutout that you see. So, I used to do that when I was in college as a contract like a freelance job. So, there was this political party in Bangalore. I used to go to their office and stand there and get a contract from them and do politician cutouts and tie it to the cycle and cycle to the city center and tie it to a board. So, I made some decent money, better money than the cleaning. So, if cleaning paid me 350, each cutout job paid me about 700 to 1000 rupees those days. So, that was where I started seeing money in art and design. So, from doing political cutouts, I got contracts from big five-star hotels. Every star hotel, they have at least four to five events every year. It could be seaside food festival or a Christmas party or summer festival. So, we have to decorate the entire hotel in that concept like for seaside food festival, we have to visualize how we can turn the entire restaurant in a beautiful …
Jayneil: And you just got the job by walking into the hotel and telling them about your skills?
Anil: Yeah, I had a portfolio by then. I had photographs and portfolios. A lot of people used to do that. Even I used to do that. I used to be very shameless about it. I think one good thing about me and my passion is I’m very shameless about things. If I want to go get a contract, I’ll go get a contract. If I have to learn a new language for that, I would do that. I learned Tamil. Actually, I’m from Bangalore, born and brought up in Bangalore. I speak Telugu at home and Kannada is what my first language was. I never knew Tamil. I couldn't speak Tamil but some of the contracts, you had to speak something and I managed to learn Tamil to get the contract.
Jayneil: And I got to know that your wife is Gujarati. So, maybe at some point you learn Gujarati as well.
Anil: Yeah, I can manage with that.
Jayneil: I think the basics of <
Anil: My wife has learned Telugu. I think I really appreciate her for making an effort to learn Telugu because my mom can't speak English, she doesn't know to speak English. So, my wife made an attempt to learn Telegu and she speaks better Telugu than me now.
Jayneil: So, you're trying to do all these side jobs right after college and you're making more money. What is happening next at that point?
Anil: We lived in a very small house, my mom, myself and my sister. I kind of outgrew the house. It was like a small <
Jayneil: So, then you said goodbye to the Bollywood career and then went back to finish your college?
Anil: Yeah, I came back. It was fourth year of college. I had just one year left. And I was very disappointed because I suddenly felt like I have tried everything in art and the max to max I can do is earn enough money to keep things going, not to fulfill all my dreams. Then I came back. I was really disappointed. And then my bad luck and my bad time, there was no contract, there was no artwork. I had given up my cleaning job. And in the fourth year of college, that thing in India where you don't feel like doing the cleaning job because you have earned some name and respect doing some artwork and caricature. I didn't want to go back to the cleaning job. So, there were three months of no work and no money and I realized that I was this close, very close to going back and telling my mom that I made a wrong decision. I want to go back and do my 10th exam again, score some good marks and take up engineering. I was very close. Then one of my friends said “There is a job in a company but you have to draw on computers.” I was like “Okay, fine, whatever. Wherever the money is, I’ll do that.” Then she took me there and she introduced me to the boss. I’d seen computers before that but I’d never touched or never used computer. I’m a typical artist. So, if computer can create something, I could create the same and better things using brushes and hand and stuff. I was excited to see the computers. Then they had the Wacom tablet which was wired and slow computers. So, when you draw something, it takes a couple of seconds or minutes to appear on the monitor. There was a lag between the tab and the monitor. My boss gave me a task and said “Why don't you draw this?” So, I drew it. Then it appeared on the monitor and I was like “Wow!” It was something that I’d never seen that you draw on a piece of board and it appears on monitor. So, I was so excited. Then he asked me if I could make illustrations like this every day and I said “Definitely. Why not?” Then he said “I’ll pay you for this definitely.” That's when I started learning computers. My first time in front of a computer, I didn't even know how to shut down. I just unplugged the wire and walked off and my boss literally yelled at me saying “That's not how you shut down.”
Jayneil: So, you're learning about computers. You are kind of like slowly getting in from the physical realm to the digital realm. At what point do you decide that “I want to go to New Zealand of all places to do a Master’s”
Anil: I sought two words. One is art. Another one is technology. A lot of artists believe that technology is like mathematics. So, they didn't accept technology. And a lot of technology people were not hands-on with art maybe because of the hardware, because of the computers were not that fast enough, the graphics were pretty … you know how the graphics were during the dial-up years, not like what it is today. So, I was curious about learning technology. So, I went to the city center library and bought a book of basics of computers. Then I learned everything about computers. Then I bought a book about Java. I learned to code Java. Then HTML CSS, then Flash Action Script and then Flex. A lot of people believe in this right brain and left brain. I think it's a big bullshit. I think, for me, the journey that I’ve been through, I think that's one of the biggest bullshits I’ve ever heard. I used to believe in it but when life puts you in a situation, you end up using all brains from left to right. So, I was in a situation where I had to learn coding. Until then I was like “Coding is only for engineers, very techy or very geeky people.” So, when I learned coding, I saw that I could create magic. Then after that, I secured a job. And my fifth year in college I had a wonderful career. I earned decent money, got a good job in the same company. I finished my fifth year. I scored really good marks in the university. And then I took up a full-time job. Then, again, family pressure, I had to earn more money, get my sister married and a lot of commitments and all this stuff. I wanted to study further but, again, time and money was a question. So, to earn more money, I got an opportunity in Middle East. So, I flew to Middle East. I worked there for almost one year and eight months. Then I cleared all my debts in India, my sister's wedding loans and all the stuff and then saved enough money to go to New Zealand and study further.
Why New Zealand? Because I applied in US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Us was super expensive. Canada was okay. UK was not that expensive but I didn't like the university but New Zealand was something that I fell in love with because one of my friends graduated from the same college and he was talking really high about the college. It all worked for me then.
Jayneil: Were you looking for scholarships?
Anil: I didn't know about scholarship. I was too late for applying for New Zealand. So, it was just last minute. You know how it is in India, right? You have to go to bank. Apply for a student loan. and to apply for a student loan, you have to prove that you're rich to get a student loan. That is crappiest thing that I’ve ever come across. Student loan is meant for people who can't afford. So, you go to a bank and bank literally asks you “Do you have any assets?”
Jayneil: “That's why I’m here.” Even that and the part you mentioned about. So, I was in India in December and I had the pleasure of going to a few weddings and man, it's expensive as hell. All these weddings are so expensive. And then you finish your masters in New Zealand. I mean, at that point, are you still working in New Zealand trying to pay for your college, again, part-time work?
Anil: Part-time work. Went back to cleaning.
Jayneil: Even in New Zealand.
Anil: Yeah, New Zealand. The student visa, they have a permit where you can work only certain hours. So, I couldn't get a design job there. So, there was this supermarket called PAK’nSAVE. I got a cleaning job. So, I went back to cleaning. I cleaned PAK’nSAVE. I was a master cleaner by then.
Jayneil: Because of your years of experience.
Anil: Years of experience. I used to unload the truck early in the morning. The truck comes around 4:30 in the morning. So, we used to unload the truck. And after that, stack all the products in the aisle and clean up the floor. And the market used to open around 8:30 – 9 o'clock and keep everything ready. And 9 o'clock, my college starts. Cycle back home. Have shower. Then go to college.
Jayneil: Wait. So, you had to wake up at 4:00 a.m.
Anil: 3:30 a.m.
Jayneil: So, what time would you go to sleep if you woke up at 3:30 a.m. in the morning.
Anil: 11 – 11:30. It was crazy. I used to take a nap in the college. I used to go to the canteen and around 2 o'clock I used to take a nap, 2 – 3 o'clock.
Jayneil: I bet. I’m just like “This guy's like hustle is insane, man.”
Anil: Another thing that I faced was the school that I studied in India, we never spoke English there. My first language was Kannada. So, when I went to college, I couldn't speak English. I was very bad at speaking English. So, I somehow managed with my little bit of English knowledge. And then when I went to New Zealand, I realized that you should speak good English to understand what the tutor is saying. So, the first thing that I bought was an MP3 recorder. So, with my tutor's permit, I used to record it and put it on the desk. And I used to go back home, listen to it again and again and again to understand what he was trying to explain. It was really difficult.
Jayneil: I had a similar challenge. So, when I moved to the US in 2012, my accent … This is what we call the American accent but the original accent was something along the lines of “So, how are you doing today?” and then “My day is going fine.” It's still there. So, I had to work really hard because I was doing a lot of public speaking and it made it hard for some people to understand. So, I did a similar thing where I would just stand in front of a mirror and just recite lines from my favorite TV show like Friends and stuff and listen to myself again and again how my friends correct me if I mispronounce a word.
Anil: I started reading books. I’m, like I told you, shameless about learning things. So, if I don't know anything, I would accept the fact that I don't know and I would start learning immediately.
Jayneil: And then you're learning from all these books and you're about to complete your Master's there. And you told me that there was this issue with the visa thing. So, what were your plans at that point like settle down in New Zealand, get a job there? What was going through your head at that point?
Anil: I had no other option. I had to settle down in New Zealand, earn enough in dollars so that I can repay my student loan. That's a typical every student story outside India. New Zealand is beautiful. I just fell in love with that country. I’d never ever even in my wildest dream imagined that I would come back to India. I had everything in New Zealand. I made good friends and I studied in Christchurch and I got a job in Queenstown. Queenstown is the most beautiful place in the world and my office, when I opened my window, I could see snow-capped mountains and a beautiful river. It was like a dream place. Right after the college, I scored really good in my university, I scored, I think, not the top but one of the top scores in university. Then I immediately got a job. Even while I was studying, I got a job. And then I flew to Queenstown and I worked in Queenstown and I fell in love with that country. New Zealand life started and I never wanted to come back. I used to come every year for a holiday but after 10-15 days, I used to always miss New Zealand and go back. I come here for a month and by the 15th day I’m already missing New Zealand.
Jayneil: You fulfilled that dream that you had in the 10th grade of going back and scoring good grades? You finally did that in the last year of your Master's.
Anil: Yeah. So, my education in New Zealand was not just practical. There were a lot of theories. So, I had to pick up my English and my writing skills and all this stuff because education abroad is not a joke and they measure you every three months. And if you don't perform, they send you back to your country.
Jayneil: You did a lot of writing there.
Anil: Did a lot of writing. And it was like the most stressful thing I’ve ever been doing, education in New Zealand.
Jayneil: Wow! Everything's going great.
Anil: Plus part-time job.
Jayneil:Plus part-time job. We completely forgot about that. So, at one point, you were working full-time in New Zealand and then you probably stopped the part-time job or that's still going on along with the full-time job?
Anil: No, I stopped part-time job. Full-time job, it was in a different location.
Jayneil: So, you got the full-time job going on. You got the amazing view with the snow mountains and stuff. Then what happened? Why did you decide like “Okay, I’m going to come back to India.” Why leave New Zealand?
Anil: I worked in New Zealand for 10 years. I think I hit my career peak where I was good at certain things like I was good at bringing art and technology together. And from my university, I also learned few things about psychology and strategy. I believe art is a combination of technology, strategy, psychology and art. So, I learned everything, not in depth but I had enough knowledge to build some great products. So, from Queenstown, I moved to Auckland. I got married to a beautiful Gujarati girl.
Jayneil: Congrats. How did that happen, by the way?
Anil: That's another story. I think you should do another podcast for that. I’ll bring my wife. So, then got married then she moved to New Zealand and I got an opportunity to work at Ogilvy. Ogilvy is a very well-known agency. It's the world's number one ad agency. So, I used to run the digital department there. I was a part of the digital department, handling one of the biggest brands in the world. That gave me an opportunity to understand how big brands work and how do you position them and how can you lay a foundation on a digital world. A lot of things I learned. And I was also involved in building the team. And from there I moved to TBWA. TBWA is another very well-known agency and similar kind of a responsibility there and learned a lot of stuff. I handled one of the biggest brands and won national and international awards. And you reach a point where you've earned money, you've earned awards, you have a beautiful house in New Zealand, money is not an issue anymore and you have everything that you want, cars, sports bike and just mention and this design is given me everything. And in 2010, I realized that “Now, what am I going to do next? What is the most challenging thing that I can do?” I was thinking like “Should I start my own in New Zealand?” but, again, New Zealand is not that kind of a country where you can have a success overnight or you can scale a company so big. It's more like a retirement place, New Zealand. It's not like the US, the UK or Australia. It's pretty laid back and most of the business run like a lifestyle business. It's not like what Lollypop is now. So, in 2010, I was speaking to my wife about “Why don't we go back to India because there are so many artists, so many designers like me waiting for this kind of an opportunity? I think we should go back and do something about it.” And she thought I lost my mind because she fell in love with New Zealand and we had our first kid over there and just name it and we had everything for us in New Zealand.
Jayneil: Yeah, you had a nice life there.
Anil: Yeah, I had a beautiful life. And she was working and she was doing really good in her career. And with all the stuff then, I was 31, and I told her that “This is the right age for me to do something, experiment with my career. If nothing works out, I always have the connection.” I had a good name in the industry and even agencies in Singapore and Australia recognized me and job was not a difficult thing for me. It was easy to get a job. I told her that “We'll pack bags, go back to India and we'll see what we can do there. Either start an institution where we can educate designers about whatever I learned in the last 13 years or we could start a service cum design company.” And she told me “Okay, let's do that. I’ll give you time for one year. And if you don't figure this out, we're coming back to New Zealand.”
Jayneil: Oh man, that’s like a tight deadline going there.
Anil: Nothing serious about the deadline. I know how to convince her.
Jayneil: You're back in India. You just figured out that you're going to like try to do the institution or do a service design agency. Did you have like a backup plan if this didn’t work out like savings because you're leaving all this life that's already successful, you've got things going on for you? So, what were your thoughts on that like “Should I just raise venture capital to start something?” or “I’m just going to fund it with my own money,” whatever it is the next venture you're going to do?
Anil: No clue about business. I didn't know there was something called venture capital. So, I had no idea about how it works. It's just the blind faith. All I came back with was less money, more knowledge. So, India doesn't know me. It's been 11 years that I was not in India. So, I was not a known designer in India and I didn't have any connections apart from my design college friends who used to want me not to come back to India and said “You have a dream job there. India is not doing really good with design and you're not going to make it here” because in 2010-2011, design was not as recognized as what it is today. So, a few friends advised against it and I just wanted to try. I was very confident that I will figure something out once I come back to India. So, I came back. The first concept was to start an institution where I train people. For the first six months I would train people for free and after that figure out the revenue model and stuff. And I realized that I don't have credits in India. People don't know who I am. And why will they come and learn from me? And I’m not a brand. I’m an individual. So, I’m like a tuition teacher. So, people don't take me seriously. Then, again, we were running out of money. All my savings from New Zealand were drying up and the next step was to start a service company. And my boss back in New Zealand, he told “Wherever you go, whichever country you go, I’ll still give you projects. So, you can sit and work on our New Zealand projects,” all in dollars. The first few months, I started working from home. I started a home studio and I took projects from New Zealand. And then I realized that it's the same thing, working on the same stuff but a different location. Then what's so challenging in it? So, I was earning in dollars sitting in India.
Jayneil: It’s a dream gig.
Anil: Yeah, it's a dream thing. Then I called my boss and I told “I don't want to do this. I want to work on Indian projects. I don't want to take up any projects outside India.” And then he was like “Hell with you and your Indian projects.” So, again, I risked that. I said no to any New Zealand project. And I didn't know how to do sales in India. I got my first lead through a friend and I didn't know how to go and greet. I never did sales before. I was very nervous. I thought people here in India wear formal clothes when they do sales. I never had any formal clothes. So, I went to shop nice formal clothes and I went and met my first client and it started from there.
Jayneil: And that's when you started Lollypop Design. How did you come up with that name? Why Lollypop? I mean, you could have come up with so many names. Why that specific one?
Anil: It was not called Lollypop when I started. It was called Pixie Tree. We were running out of names. We didn't know what to name the company. Since I was going to meet my first client, we were just sitting on GoDaddy.com to see if there is any dot com available. So, I was looking for Pixel Tree. The Pixel Tree domain was taken. Then Pixie Tree domain was available. That's what GoDaddy suggested. Then we said “Okay, fine, we'll take some name.” Then we called it Pixie Tree and I quickly designed a logo because next day morning I’m meeting a client and I have to get my business card. So, printed a business card and I introduced myself as Pixie Tree. And then I realized that the too many companies named after tree in Bangalore. Every other company in Bangalore is something – Mind Tree, Soft Tree, People Tree or something. I didn't like the name. And after a year I told my wife “I don't think this name will really fly.” My eldest son's first daycare in New Zealand was called Lollypop. He used to repeat that name again and again. We were thinking of what to name our company and he said “Lollypop.” Then I said “Lollypop.” Then my wife said “Lollypop. Let's call it Lollypop.” So, that's how Lollypop was named.
Jayneil: And that was just you, the person behind the whole company at that point when you're just getting your first client. So, from that point, can you describe in your own words where Lollypop Design is today, just some stats like the amount of offices you have in different locations, the staff and everything?
Anil: My first client, when I met him, I didn't know how to greet him. I’ve never been in such a situation where I do sales because every company that I worked, sales was already done and I had to build the product. So, my first project was about 500 dollars for three months. So, it was like a rip-off and I worked three months and gave another two months of support. In total, I worked for five months for 600 dollars. Then I realized that in India this is how it is. People really don't pay for design. And instead of doing sales, I started spreading the awareness of design-first approach because in 2012 and 2011, India was going through a digital transformation and there was this explosion of startups in India and every startup wanted to look at design seriously. And I think it was a perfect time that we started Lollypop. And the first few clients that we designed were something where we got everything from money to name to fame and we were in the limelight. And suddenly, Lollypop was a very well-known boutique studio, a small studio. We’re a team of four designers and the entire startup ecosystem knew us and every funded startup used to knock on our doors. That was the last sales I did and after that, I never did any sales. We designed the first two projects which became very successful in the market. It reached few million people. And after that, I never did any sales. I never met any client. So, clients started coming to our studio. So, startups started coming. Then some small to medium business started coming and then now bigger brands come. So, from there to here, we have grown to a team of 140 plus across five centers.
Jayneil: Oh my God!
Anil: Yeah, that's insane. And sometimes I lose the count of our team strength. So, today we are 140 plus. I think we have crossed 150. I don't know the numbers exactly. We have five centers. We are supposed to open two centers in the US in Dallas and San Jose but due to COVID, we postponed that. Bangalore is our headquarters and Mumbai, Chennai, Dubai, and Vietnam.
Jayneil: I’m just seeing this right now, seeing the journey from there to there. How involved are you? Are you managing all these people? How involved are you in the projects on a day-to-day basis because that's just a lot of people to oversee in the projects and everything?
Anil: One good thing about my journey and Lollypop is I’m still hands-on with design. So, every day I get at least four hours to sit and design. So, when I say design, I conduct workshops with clients and I work on solutions, I work on visual designs, I work on animation, I work on all the stuff. So, I’m really excited that I’m able to do all this stuff. So, my involvement with projects, not with all the projects, only if …
Jayneil: Like high profile.
Anil: Not high profile. My team, I’m blessed to have such a wonderful team. They manage everything. They don't require me. Sometimes even when I try to poke my nose inside, they ask me to stay away from it. So, I take a project which is more challenging in terms of client management or if it has budget issues like if any startup, they don't have a budget and they want to go to the market, then I get involved in it like a consultant. I get involved during the sales cycle if it's a very big brand. And if I have to go to their location, for example, Climate Corp and if I have to go meet them in San Jose, then I fly to San Jose, I present Lollypop and I conduct a workshop there. I talk about design. I talk about our process. And almost close to 10% to 20% of the project, I try to finish it there. Then I come back and hand it over to the team. So, I’m more involved in that manner but managing the business, now it's been taken over by Terralogic. So, before Terralogic, we had certain departments and certain leadership roles and they managed it beautifully for me. We got acquired last year.
Jayneil: And I’m curious about you're a profitable company at that point, you had a huge staff, why not just raise venture capital from the local VC firms instead of getting acquired? Why that specific route?
Anil: This acquisition has two stories. One is the people behind it. I’m a big fan of Ash Bharadwaj and their team who in the past had acquired Frog Design and scaled it across the globe. Any designer in the world is a big fan of Ideo and Frog Design. So, they are very well connected to that world. Before acquisition, when I was in the US, I met them and they introduced me to the founders of Frog Design which is a dream come true. And when I spoke to them, they said “These guys know what they're doing and they have a good domain knowledge.” So, last year, we got many, many, many offers for acquisition from a business consulting firm to even Ogilvy that I served, they had made an offer to acquire Lollypop but I was very clear about Lollypop and the next big journey that we're going to take. And when I met Terralogic and team, I was very happy with the people and the kind of attitude and the vision they had for their company plus design plus technology. This is one story.
Another story is I have this middle-class mentality or I don't have the appetite to take risk. When it comes to money, I never take risk. I know what it is to raise venture capital and all that but I always stayed away from raising big funds. At one point, my mentor Dr. Devi Shetty invested in Lollypop. He invested because he believes in design, he believes in technology and he believes in me and my vision. And a huge credit of why Lollypop grew to this big is because of Dr. Devi Shetty and my team.
Jayneil: How did you know him?
Anil: I designed a project for his son which became very successful. And then he introduced me to his dad. It was my dream to meet him, just meet and say hello to him. In 2007, I saw a video of Dr. Shetty about making healthcare affordable in India. So, that was one of the documentaries that I sat and I was watching it and, for me, I like this kind of stories, making affordable healthcare. I like big vision. Really, I’m a big fan of AR Rehman, Abdul Kalam, and I keep reading about their books. And, for me, what inspires is people like them. And I had a big vision of putting India on map for design. So, when I started Lollypop, the vision was to put India on map for design. I never wanted Lollypop to run like a lifestyle business like a boutique. So, I wanted to touch at least 1000 designers’ lives, enable at least thousand designers. We have close to 350 people now but still a long way to go. India has 1.4 billion population and this is not the country to have a boutique kind of an agency. I’m not against the boutique but my dream was much bigger, very, very big. I wanted to do two things. One is to enable every product in India with design and position those products as a global product and enable every designer in India. There are so many designers. Today, I think in 2020, close to million designers in India. And where will they go now? They all need job. They all need a beautiful career. And imagine if Lollypop was only 10-people team.
Jayneil: You won't be able to achieve that
Anil: You won't be able to achieve that. So, I want to open more centers to enable more designers, enable more products. I have very big dream. And with this big dream, raising funds, I felt, was not the right way to do it. You need people with a similar kind of a dream to make it happen.
Jayneil: Versus “I need to see the returns in five years or ten years” whatever that might be.
Anil: I’ve been there. I went to Singapore to meet WPP Group and they made an offer and they were like “Can you make an Excel sheet?” I’m like “I’m a designer, man. I don't make Excel sheets.” So, like you said, they wanted to know the breakdown of the first year, second year and the funds utilization and all that and I was like “I don't want to get into it.”
Jayneil: And then when somebody like Dr. Shetty, I hope I got his name right, invested in the business, what kind of advice did he give you over the years? I mean, I’m sure he's a busy man and I’m assuming he's not hands-on in the design field. So, what was that advice like? What it on business side of things, operations?
Anil: His advice was more towards life and how do you handle it. He has multiple hospital centers in India. Narayana Health is a very well-known hospital chain in India. I think they have close to 28 or 30 centers across India and he's the chairman, he’s the founder but still every single day he wakes up on time, he works out, he exercises, he keeps himself fit, he goes to hospital, he operates on patients and he consults patients and he comes back home and again another day starts. So, I was totally inspired by that and I wanted to follow his footsteps where I have some discipline in my life where I wake up a certain time every day, work out, keep my body fit, keep my mind fit and then come to office, face all the challenges and design each and every day. Even though I have thousand things to do in terms of management sales and all this stuff, I take at least one or two hours every single day to do design. So, that's the thing that I learned from Dr. Devi Shetty. If not for him, Lollypop would have been pure business and I would have been a pure entrepreneur, not a designer.
Jayneil: Oh my God, man. That is quite a story. I was thinking about you initially worked with a lot of startups at Lollypop. Did you think about doing some kind of equity model with them instead of just a cash model? I don't know how the deals work but I’m just thinking you designed for Myntra and so many other emerging startups in India. So, what if you just somehow decided to spin that into some kind of angel investing or a VC hub where you're saying that “Oh, I think this is a promising startup. Let me just take more equity here.” Did you think about that?
Anil: They did offer but I didn't know what it meant. So, I didn't really take that as an option. And now I know what it meant if I would have taken all the big brands today. They offered a stake in the company. If I would have taken it, I’d have been the richest guy, man, but trust me, I don't regret at all. Even today I get such offers. See, I don't look at a project as transactional. There are times where we have written off the project, where we have helped the startup and in the midway of the project, the startup says “We don't have the budget” and we have gone our way to finish the project but I think you need a different mindset to do that. My dialogue, my statement to explain is “Who I am? I’m an artist by heart, designer by soul, and entrepreneur by choice.” So, all this equity, stake and all the stuff, it doesn't run in my mind. When people offer, I cannot calculate. I only visualize things. My wife does that. And one of the reasons why we are profitable, why we grew so big without raising funds is because of my Gujarati wife. And if not her, if not for analytical brain work, this wouldn't have been possible. So, I don't think about all this stuff but I will do it in the future. I will invest in few companies that I believe in but not at the moment. At the moment, it's all about Lollypop now. I am totally into it and I think once you have a stake, you have to spare some time and you will have to lend your knowledge. So, right now I work close to 14 to 15 hours a day for Lollypop and I don't have time for any other things to do.
Jayneil: That is an insane work week, working that many hours. I’m thinking about the typical sales that I would imagine when a design agency gets sold. The founders have most of the stake in the company, maybe the employees have some equity and there's a huge payout and there's some kind of clause where the founder has to stay for maybe two years or three years, whatever that is, and the company gets acquired. What was their discussions like when you were talking with Mr. Bharadwaj about the acquisition? Did he have a thing where you have to stay on after this or you were just like “I want to stay on after that question goes through even if I get the payout?”
Anil: I don't see myself leaving Lollypop. Lollypop is me and I am Lollypop. So, I have not thought of what next. I don't think I’m going to do anything after that. I don't know, it's too early for me to answer, I’m really loving this entire merger with Terralogic and it's opened up such a big opportunity across the globe. It looks like I’m just playing my second innings now and there's still third and there's still fourth and there's still fifth innings. So, I’m just playing my second innings and I want to ensure that everyone is successful in the second innings. The first innings was we were all successful. The second innings we have to be super successful because we're going to have centers across the globe and the dream is to become one of the top very well-known design studios in the globe and through that, India should be recognized as design hub. So, this is not something that we will finish it in a year or two. I think it will take its own sweet time. And every center that we open, it will take at least a year or two for it to be successful. So, now, imagine 15, 20 centers across the globe. So, I’m going to be here I think for some time.
Jayneil: Yeah, I can see that too. I can see how that partnership works out now. What advice do you have for designers in India who are listening right now about trying to make their mark or just grow ahead in their career?
Anil: See, India is blessed with talent. We are super talented. We are exposed to a lot of things from early age, be it colors, be it the diversity, be it food, be it anything. We are so exposed to things. And our creativity starts working at a very young age. For some known or unknown reasons, we put a lot of blocks and we don't let certain things grow. So, now, with designers, what's happening is they go by what industry is defining. What I’ve seen in my career is there is design and there are titles that come and go next to the design. So, when I started my career, there was graphic designer, there was web designer, digital designer, GUI designer and again some designer, then UI/UX designer, then product designer, then AR designer. If you look at all this stuff, it's a title. And design itself is a talent. Rest everything is a title. The title comes and goes. Today, web design doesn't exist because web is turned into something else. Today, digital design doesn't exist because digital is turned into a product or something like that. So, the corporates keep giving it a new name for the same thing. People get hooked to the titles. So, they don't really practice design. What is design? Design is a combination of art, technology, strategy and psychology. So, designers today, here in India, they want to learn UX or UI or whatever. They are more towards the title, not the talent. My advice is practice design. Design is so big, so huge. Practice design, not UI/UX. UI/UX is something you can learn overnight. Go on YouTube, watch 10, 15 tutorials and next day morning you’re a UX designer. It's as simple as that. And even tools today, be it Sketch or XD, they're not as complicated as Photoshop or Illustrator. You can learn it in two hours. It's so simple. And UI/UX is not rocket science anymore. It's very, very easy. I think we should give up the title and we should pay more attention to the talent. This is the design side of the talent and other side is soft skills. I request and also advise all the designers to pay attention to the soft skills. The soft skills are people skills, some discipline and balance between what you want to learn and what you want to become. I see a lot of youngsters extremely impulsive in character today. I don't blame them. I’ve got two kids at home and they're also exactly the same. They know everything is available easily. So, they want everything fast. In a snap of a finger, you have a taxi standing outside when you open Uber. In a snap of a finger, you have food delivered to your house. In a snap of a finger, you can access data, you can access movies. So, everything is so fast. So, I think the new generation designers are expecting things to be even faster. It took me close to five years to master something and another 13 years to become an entrepreneur and another nine years to build a company like this.
Jayneil: Oh my God!
Anil: This was not something that I just came out of the university and started Lollypop. There was a cleaner job. There was an artist job. There was a carpentry job. There was a lot of things I had to go through with a lot of patience. And back in the 1990s, salaries were not debited into your account. Salaries were given as cash. There were times you’d cycle all the way to your office thinking it is a salary day and they make you stand there and they say “Today, we didn't go to the bank. We don't have the cash. Come tomorrow.” You go tomorrow again cycling to the office and they say “Hey, we ran out of cash. I’ll give you next week.” So, you go there without cursing them. You have a lot of patience. All you want is your salary. So, I think, being in the generation now, what I learned was the patience and what I advise today's generation is mind fit, body fit and focus on your career, focus on talent, not title.
Jayneil: And how can designers get in touch with you or follow you?
Anil: I’m available on all the platforms, Instagram, but most of the times, I’m bombarded with questions. I can't answer everything. So, hopefully, this podcast will answer a few things because they have a lot of questions about my entrepreneurship journey, I think. And now I’ll direct them to your podcast. And a few questions around their career, I think I should do another podcast on career advice. Every day I get about 20 to 30 questions, random questions or some designers are sending portfolio for me to review it. I honestly don't have time to answer every message but what I’m trying to do is I’m going to centralize some of these things and build a knowledge base where people can learn from me. And now that in COVID I’m not able to go out and meet people and physically meet them and conduct classes, I’m trying to do it online I’m not a big fan of online classes. It's like you're talking to your own laptop. You don't see human faces, you don't see their emotions because, for me, I can narrate the story beautifully when I see people's emotions or else it's just bullet points I have to read out. Most of the sessions, you don't really mean to see the people. Everyone turns off their camera and it's me speaking to my laptop. I think that's the most stupid thing I’ve ever come across.
Jayneil: I just want to say thank you so much, Anil. I’ve had a blast chatting with you. I learned a lot from you and, to be honest, I’m just really inspired by you. You inspired the hell out of me with your vision and your mission.
Anil: Thank you so much. It was wonderful. Feels so nice talking about my journey. For a moment, I went back to the ‘80s and then ‘90s and then early 2000s. Now, I’m back to 2020. So, thank you so much for taking me back to my journey.
You can find show notes for this episode and all the others at DesignMBA.show. If you find this episode valuable, share it on social media and please leave a review. Thank you so much for listening.
Until next time.