First job, like first love, always has a special significance in everyone’s life. Mine was in 1989 in Ask Me Services (Saraansh Teleinfo Services Pvt. Ltd.) as a Sales Executive. My 2 years’ tenure in this company was an extremely tumultuous one.
It was during this period that I underwent a complete makover; from a bookish, painfully shy, and severely introverted girl who was always scared of meeting new people and visiting new places, I turned into someone completely different. This was one reason why I joined Sales because the best way of overcoming your fears is by doing precisely those things that scare you. I became more outgoing and practical and I actually began looking forward to meeting new people and seeing new places.
I also made lots of mistakes. I often trusted wrong people because I went by the face value of what they said, and not what they meant. But God was merciful and kind. I scraped through all these challenges without getting harmed.
I joined Ask Me straight after an M.Sc. in Maths from Delhi University, as I had no intention of going into teaching or research. Everyone thought I was crazy when I joined this company as I had passed my exams with a first class. They said I ought to wait, be patient, and aspire for better and cushier jobs in line with my education. But all I wanted at that time was to get away from books, to see the world through my own experience, to be financially independent right away, and, of course, to earn a lot of money.
I had heard lots of stories of many college seniors taking up school teaching in frustration after completing Ph.D. in Mathematics. They had to do B.Ed. to make themselves more suitable for school teaching, as no other option was available, and out of fear of being rejected because of overqualification, they had to keep their Ph.D. degree hidden! I didn’t want to end up like this. Ask me seemed to be the kind of opportunity I was looking for. I grabbed it with both hands. One of my colleagues was Sukhangshu who became my husband 3 years later.
I was lucky as I had full support from my parents. My father, a retired school teacher, said, “Just follow your heart and do what you want, as long as it’s not teaching. Teaching is not meant for ambitious people. Day in and day out, you do the same work for years and only a very tiny fraction of teachers ever get the chance to become headmasters or principals in their lifetime. In private schools, the situation is much worse. Apart from harassment by so-called educationists who are basically crass businesspeople, you are often paid much less than what you are made to sign on every month. I don’t want you to weep like those teachers I interacted with during a brief stint in a private school after retirement.”
Before joining Ask Me, I did, however, attend a couple of job interviews in a few private schools because that was what nearly all of my classmates were doing and I didn’t want to leave the rat race yet. The outcome of these efforts was an offer of Junior Teacher at a local school at a monthly salary of Rs.700. When I told my father about it, he scoffed at it and advised me to wait for something better to come along. In the meantime, I had also applied for B.Ed. in MD University, Rohtak. But when I was invited to pay the fees and take admission, my father suggested I do MBA instead. So I forgot all about MDU after joining Ask Me and as advised by Dad, I subsequently completed MBA from IGNOU through distance education.
I joined Ask Me at a salary of Rs.1500, which was a princely amount way back in 1989. Month after month, I kept giving my salary cheques to my Dad and it was always with great pride and joy that he deposited them in my account. He used to say to our relatives, very proudly, “See, I told you. A daughter is as good as a son. Perhaps even better.”
And one day, I got an award in the form of a cheque of a very big amount for a great sales performance. With Sukhangshu’s help and guidance, I spent most of it on clothes for my family and myself (an Arrow shirt for my Dad and salwar suits for my Mom, my sister, and myself). I still remember how my Dad’s face glowed with happiness as he tried on that striped light green shirt. He was pleasantly surprised to see that a ready-made shirt fitted him so well. For me, he was the most handsome man on earth that day!
Now let me tell you a little bit about this company. It was an innovative startup venture at a time when the Indian economy was being liberalized. It was started in 1989 by 3 partners, Rakesh Aggarwal (his family owned TCI, Transport Corporation Of India), Vivek Dutta, and V.S.S. Mani. It operated initially from Samrat Inn, South Extension, Part 2, Delhi.
Rakesh was the one who provided most of the funding and his presence, I think, gave the company a certain amount of credibility and respectability that all startups require intially to gain acceptance in the market. One nice thing about him that I still remember is that he did not have a very flashy lifestyle and always came to the office in an autorickshaw, quite unlike Indian managing directors of those days in the late 20th century.
It was Ask Me which launched the concept of a “Yellow-Pages-on-Phone” in Delhi and the job of the Sales Team was to get businesses in Delhi to buy space in its computers for promotion. The idea was that a special calling number would be advertised and to get information about any business, its location, etc, people would just have to call up this number. An executive would take this call and look up the information in the database. She would give the required information on phone itself.
Ask Me grew phenomenally after its launch and soon diversified into another product, Information Supermarket, which was a collection of various business directories.
Three years later, however, the company collapsed like a pack of cards, mainly because the ground realities were not favorable. Very few people had phones. Mobile phones were still not available and it used to take 10 years for MTNL, which was the only telecom company at that time, to provide a single landline connection. Another reason was probably internal management squabbles so characteristic of partnerships.
It was quite tragic, really, but nothing could be done about it. All the Ask Me employees had to move on to different companies; a lot of them with uncleared dues that were never cleared…
Like a phoenix, however, the company rose up again with a new name, Justdial, in 1996 in Mumbai, Maharashtra, with V.S.S. Mani as the new Managing Director.
Justdial is now a household name all over India and is doing very well, thanks to the burgeoning use of mobile phones, internet, and intelligent entrepreneurship.
Sometimes I wonder if anyone in Justdial still remembers us, the pioneers, who slogged hard, went door-to-door, office-to-office, convinced so many tough customers, to get the first few headings for the company’s database when there was no evidence to prove the company’s authenticity. It was as good as selling dreams!
I recently stumbled upon an old album from those early days (1989-1990). Here are those pics from a Sales Awards Ceremony. I am one of the winners, that’s why I am smiling in these pics! They are a bit hazy since they have been clicked from pics kept inside the album. Digital cameras had still not come into the market yet.
Pic 1: This is the West Delhi Sales team. Starting from left: Me, Sanjeev, Sukhangshu, Rakesh Aggarwal (Managing Director), Puneet Mehta (Team Manager), Devender Pal Singh (we called him DP).
Pic 2: Left to right, Ravi (RSM), Rakesh Aggarwal (MD), me, Ashok
Pic 3: Awards Ceremony speech by MD