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Programmed for success

Right idea, right timing, right approach and solid family support helped literature graduate Abhimanyu Singh become a successful entrepreneur.

Tanvi Varma/Money Today        Print Edition: Jun, 26, 2008

The idea

Abhimanyu Singh
Abhimanyu Singh, 35

Education: BA (Honours in English Literature), St Stephen’s College, Delhi

Previous work experience: An advertising agency

Last salary: Rs 10,000 a month

Time spent as employee: 6 months

Age at starting business: 23 years

No of years as entrepreneur: 13 years

Initial investment: Rs 20 lakh

Sources of fund: Family funding

Company: Contiloe Films Pvt Ltd

Turnover: Rs 80 crore

No of employees: 120

It was an ordinary idea. What made it extraordinary was its timing. In the early 1990s, when TV translated into Doordarshan and producing programmes seemed a fanciful preoccupation rather than a paying profession, Abhimanyu Singh decided to embrace it. “In college, media was never considered a career option. It wasn’t as evolved as it is today when you have a 100 channels to choose from,” says Singh.

With no experience, some money and loads of confidence, the then 23-year-old Singh decided to produce content for TV. Thirteen years on, his production house, Contiloe, is into media, television, films, merchandising of children’s products as well as special effects and animation. The idea has paid off in more ways than one.

Family support

It all began in 1994, when Singh—an alumnus of Doon School, Dehradun, and St Stephen’s College, Delhi— began exploring the idea. This, after a post-college, 6-month stint at an advertising agency proved rather unexciting. His only guide was an aunt who was into television production. After a year-long research and learning from his aunt, Singh started his own unit with Rs 20 lakh, three employees, a computer and a telephone in a 550-sq-ft residential-cum-office area at DLF, Gurgaon.

The initial funding came from his father, an armyman with farming background, who also provided moral support along with the rest of his family. “As my father was not from a business background, he did not have any preconceived notions or opinions,” says Singh.

What also helped was that he was joined by some of his aunt’s employees—the production head and his team—whose experience proved invaluable in the initial years.

Star struck

Singh started generating ideas and approached Doordarshan. “At that time it was only about getting a TV slot,” says Singh. “It took us almost eight months to get a slot with Doordarshan,” adds Singh, who produced his first show for DD in 1995.

Four years, one show and two documentaries later, Singh hitched to Star TV. “We sold what we had produced for DD to Star and started working with them.” says Singh. Once work started flowing in, Singh separated his residence and office. He had shifted to Mumbai in 1995-96 and now rented a 600-sq-ft office. As business became bigger, he bought his own 3,500-sq-ft office on Veera Desai Road at Andheri, which was “close to his house”.

Today, his workplace is a 10,000-sq-ft space at Oshiwara, Mumbai, and he employs over 120 people. Expansion also meant funding from banks, mainly for buying office premises and for working capital. However, it was not difficult as it came at a time when the business was growing and Singh boasted a good credit history with timely repayments.

Singh has been working with Star TV for the past eight years and has produced a variety of shows ranging from drama, comedy and horror to event-based shows and music videos. Some of the programmes include The Great Indian Comedy Show and Shhh Koi Hai…, the latter in its eighth year.

Besides media, TV, films, merchandising of kids’ products built around franchisees created by them, Contiloe is also into special effects and animation, with two animation movies in hand. From conception and execution to delivery, Singh has a fully integrated production house which has grown 100-fold in eight years.

Strategy for success

Tips for starting a TV production house

Get a good team: Employ creative people and hone your people management skills

Don’t follow the herd: Be aware of the latest industry trends, learn and innovate

Work within budget: The most important factor—never stretch the client’s budget

Have work, then scale up: Or you may make your capacities redundant

Innovation and being different,” says Singh, “are our mantras for success.” He adds, “We thought of ideas which appealed to us, were new and we never had a herd mentality. We didn’t get into this industry with the intention of being a full-fledged media enterprise.” The two most important factors for Singh’s success are controlling the cost and working within a timeframe.

“We stretched ourselves only as much as our pockets allowed,” says Singh. Being pressed for money is a good sign, he says, as you constantly plough it back into the business. If you have too much money, it means you have run out of ideas. In television production business it is easier to break even in the first year as the shows produced are self financed; the buyer pays for the show and then you produce it. “So if you take longer than a year, it means you are doing something wrong,” he says.

Singh has always invested in real estate—be it his house, offices or other properties—and is not a stock market investor. “I’d rather invest in my own business. Besides, property is useful for the business and escalates over time,” he says. Singh never spent lavishly on himself and marriage happened in 2004 when his business was established. Rupali, his wife, worked with Star TV for 7 years and now manages the non-fiction shows for Contiloe. “Having an understanding partner is the most important factor for success,” he says.

Challenges

The biggest challenge in this business is to grow, says Singh. For him, growth was gradual, based as it was on the work they got. Initially, production was handled by a freelance team which then became a part of the company. Finding good employees and forming a good team is another challenge as the business is based on soft skills.

“It is important to employ people with the skill sets you don’t have as they complement you,” says Singh. It means the company boasts creative talent as well as MBAs and skilled labour. “It was a challenge to find people with the required creativity, as creativity cannot be taught,” he says.

Singh has picked up the nuances of the business along the way, scaling it with changing environment and moving into related businesses. With the Rs 1,000 crore TV content industry growing at 18% and Indian TV projected to grow at 22% in the next five years, Contiloe seems to be in the right place at the right time.

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