Anthony de Mello was a Bombay-born Jesuit priest and psychotherapist whose spiritualist books and teachings attracted thousands of followers but which have also been denounced by the Pope as divergent from the “essential contents of the Christian faith”.
He was many things, but not the most obvious inspiration for an IT services and software development start-up.
However, according to Ashok Soota, former CEO of Indian IT giants Wipro and MindTree, de Mello’s book Wellsprings was one of the main inspirations for his new venture, Happiest Minds.
“Wellsprings really influenced me,” he says. “It laid the seed of an idea, and I have been thinking about and researching the topic of happiness ever since.”
This led Soota, who left MindTree earlier this year having co-founded the company back in 1999, to imbue his next business with an explicit manifesto of maximising the happiness of both employees and customers.
“To my mind, all the prosperity that the world has brought hasn’t led to world happiness,” he says. “And if happiness is the objective of everybody’s life, we do not think about it enough. We don’t consciously work to make it happen.”
Launched in September 2011, Happiest Minds has introduced a number of measures to “enable” the happiness of its employees. “We can’t force people to be happy, but we can create an environment that enables happiness,” says Soota.
For example, every Happiest Minds employee is asked to articulate what it is that makes them happy, and their response is built into their personal performance targets.
The company, which so far has around 100 employees, also plans to make social responsibility a core value. “When people look back on life, they find that the time when they were happiest is when they were giving,” says Soota.
Does the fact that Happiest Minds has made happiness an explicit management objective suggest that the Indian IT sector has neglected it in the past? Soota says no. “The industry has not consciously focused on happiness, that’s true, but I don’t think it’s contributed to the lack of happiness,” he says. “This is a global problem.”
Nevertheless, Soota hopes that by focusing on employee happiness, the company can also address some common gripes among the customers of Indian IT companies. A prime example is the typically high rate of employee churn, which means that customers often find themselves having to explain their business to outsourced IT staff.
“In a happy working environment, you should have lower employee attrition rates,” he says. “MindTree was always several percentage points below the industry average for attrition, and I think we can do better than that.”
Another benefit, he says, is that customers will prefer working with happy employees. But Soota is under no illusions. “No-one is going to hire us just because we are the happiest.”
Soota says that happiness is the company’s “soft” differentiator. Its “hard” selling point is a focus on disruptive technologies: cloud computing, social, mobile, analytics and unified communications.
That focus has helped the company win seven customers, spread across its three business lines – IT services, software product development and infrastructure management. Two of these are in the UK: a telco and a gambling company.
It also helped attract $45 million in first-round funding from Intel Capital, the chipmaker’s investment arm, and global venture capital firm Canaan Partners. The remaining investment comes from Soota himself and his co-founders.
Having grown Wipro’s annual sales from $2 million to $500 million during his time as CEO, and MindTree from zero to $350 million, Soota’s focus on happiness does not denote any absence of business ambition.
His plan is for Happiest Minds to be the fastest Indian company to reach $100 million in sales. “The current record is six years, but we have also pledged to go public in six years, and you can’t IPO with just $100 million these days, so it has to be much faster than that.”
Having overseen two fast-growing companies, what does Soota plan to do differently this time? Firstly, the plan is to avoid the functional silos that limit many of the larger Indian IT suppliers from delivering the converged products that the market wants. Secondly, he plans not to let economic circumstances dictate the pace of the business.
“At MindTree, during the dotcom boom, like many companies we started to believe it would last for ever,” he recalls. “That meant we overinvested, and we had to cut back when the bubble burst.
“Now, I think there is a danger of doing the opposite. We’re starting this company during a slowdown, but we need to remember that it won’t last for ever, and that we shouldn’t be too conservative.
“Don’t let the environment close in on you,” he says.