‘I May Not Be The Bestselling Author But I Am A More Patient, Wiser, And A More Perceptive Person’ – Aakash Saxena, IIM Shillong – Best30 – Class Of 2019

Aakash Saxena was born and raised in New Delhi, but in the last ten years, he has lived all over the country. Even after spending so much time away from home, he always looks forward to going back. He loves spending time with his family (big shout out to Mom, Dad and Sammy!). Every experience that he has had with different people, cultures, and languages has left him a little wiser than before. Those very experiences are, in a considerable way, responsible for shaping the way he thinks about businesses, and more specifically finance. He maintains a blog, Minimum Sigma (www.minimumsigma.com), the essence of which is that a retail investor should primarily manage risk in personal finances before worrying about returns. Even though he is a Finance Major, he has done well in many aspects of business education; he was Amazon Ace Champion in Operations case study, Mahindra Warroom Gold-tier in a Brand Management case study, and Tata Steel-a-thon National Finalist in a CSR case study. Very recently, he has also made it to the National Finals of Reliance Industries’ The Ultimate Pitch, a business pitch competition which is scheduled for the middle of February. Even though he is not much of a contemplator, he still lives by the belief that be it finance or life; the most rewarding things are discipline and consistency.

 

Name an instance where you wanted something and went out of your comfort zone to achieve it.

In 2011, I wrote a 240-page fiction novel. But getting it out for people to read, is where I had to breach my comfort zone. Earlier, I used to believe; ‘I am good at telling stories. I’ll write a story, people will see how good it is, and the rest will take care of itself’ Of course, that’s not how the world works.

I reached out to a total of 35 publishers of which 32 never wrote back. Out of the three that did, one subsequently decided to pass, and one asked me to pay for getting published. Ten months after I had finished my first draft, a publishing house finally agreed to release my book. But my work here was far from over. The publishing house was relatively new and did not have a particularly strong distributor network. Moreover, their business model was to publish 5 or 6 young authors every month and hope that at least one of them churns out a bestseller. With almost no budget for marketing, it was up to the authors to promote the books on their own. 

Promoting a book is a nuisance for a ‘story-teller’ who would like nothing more than to make a nice cup of coffee, slump in his chair and smack away furiously at the keyboard. It had to be done, nevertheless! I designed a website, brought 15 people together to shoot a promotional video, got myself an interview in the local newspaper and tried (in vain) to get a celebrity on board for the book launch. I went from bookstore to bookstore, building rapport with the owners, getting them excited about selling books written by a ‘local’ author. I even had the publisher send his salesperson to my city so that he can strike a deal with the local bookstore owners. 

My book finally came out in 2013, two years after I had finished writing it. And while I may not have been the bestselling author my publisher had hoped I would be, I was a more patient, wiser, and a more perceptive person. It wasn’t just about stepping out of my comfort zone. It was about coming out of my shell to finally wrap my head around the way this world works.

 

Tell us about a time when you disagreed with an opinion/idea/decision. What did you do about it?

On my first day of taking charge as field-officer of a refinery area, I was assigned two field-operators. My first task was to obtain a sample of petrol from the top of a 20 meters-high tank. I noticed the operators were not wearing any personnel protective equipment (helmet, gloves, safety goggles, etc.) When I pointed this out to them, they casually brushed it off. One of them said that they had been working in the area for the past eight years and knew what they were doing. They proceeded to gather the equipment for sampling.

I knew that working the same routine for so long had built in them a false sense of being in control of their environment. This fallacy had led to a somewhat relaxed attitude toward occupational safety. 

As the field officer of that area, part of my responsibility was to ensure the safety of all personnel on the field. In an area where crores of litres of flammable products are stored, even a single person’s callous attitude towards safety can be fatal for many. 

So, I contacted the control panel over the radio and said that I was delaying the sampling for a while. The operators gave me a puzzled look. I told them that while I appreciated their field-experience, I wouldn’t be comfortable if they carried out the sampling without proper care. They were not pleased but had to oblige anyway. Of course, forcing them to follow precautions wasn’t a sustainable solution. I needed to alter their attitude towards occupational safety. I started following an activity called ‘toolbox talk.’ Every day, I would pause all field activity for ten minutes and discuss issues of safety with the operators. We would talk about following Standard Operating Procedures, identifying hazards, taking precautions, responding to emergencies, and the downside of workplace injuries. 

It took me about three months to finally see a significant change in their attitude. They started wearing safety gear on the field, using harnesses at height and seeking proper permits for non-routine operations. It’s been more than two years since I have left that job, but some of my colleagues who are still there have continued to deliver toolbox talks. It is an excellent way to remind everyone to go through another work-day safely

 

What is the one thing you can claim to have some level of expertise or depth of knowledge in – it could be anything – a subject, a sport, a hobby, a venture, an initiative which has led you to do deep work in that field?

I believe I have a fair measure of depth in financial theory, especially valuation and security analysis. I developed an interest in finance years ago when I realized that I might as well be reading The Economic Times upside down and it won’t make a difference. I wanted to understand how financial markets work. I began educating myself by reading the likes of Benjamin Graham, Michael Lewis, and Peter Lynch. To build a more academic understanding, I watched the courses delivered by Andrew Lo and Brian Bushee. What drew me, decisively, into valuation was Aswath Damodaran’s blog. I bounced around the blog for a couple of weeks before making up my mind on pursuing valuation more seriously. I registered for the CFA Level 1 exam and cleared it in the first attempt. At IIM Shillong, I have chosen finance as my major, and under the supervision of the Mergers and Acquisitions’ faculty, I have undertaken research on the effect of bank financing on a bidder’s post-merger performance in the context of Indian corporations. I also write a blog, MinimumSigma.com, which carries the theme of risk-based investing.

 

If 10 Million Dollars (approximately INR 75 Crores) is given to you to use it any way you deem fit what would you do with this corpus?

I would use that capital according to three broad objectives; make a reliable and steady stream of income in the future, fund a sustainable social impact, and expedite retirement. 

I would invest $5.5 million in a couple of socially responsible startups, preferably in the field of healthcare. To even out the riskiness of that investment, I would park $4 million in G-Secs (safest way to earn an interest of $1 million in about three years). I would retire with the remaining $0.5 million. Retirement for me means building a custom motorcycle brand like Erik Buell Racing. So essentially with $10 million, I would be delivering social impact, keeping the Indian entrepreneurial dream alive, earning a risk-free $1 million every three years, and building motorcycles with a personality for the rest of my life.

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