TT Jagannathan - The Road Less Traveled



How do you innovate? First, try to get in trouble. I mean serious, but not terminal, trouble. I hold—it is beyond speculation, rather a conviction—that innovation and sophistication spark from initial situations of necessity, in ways that go far beyond the satisfaction of such necessity (from the unintended side effects of, say, an initial invention or attempt at invention)….The excess energy released from overreaction to setbacks is what innovates! - Taleb in Antifragile

If there is one thing that characterizes Mr. Jagannathan, it is his curiosity. He has an insatiable love for learning. How else would one explain the fact that in a household where no one knew how to cook (including his mother), he learnt cooking when he was a kid? He was the top of his class at IIT, a premier engineering institute in India. At Cornell, where he received his postgraduate degree, one of his professors used to give him an ‘A’ before he took his exams . Mr. Jagannathan’s keen curiosity and desire to learn helped propel TTK Prestige to its formidable position today.

It was this curiosity that led to an early business practice - he did not believe in surveys. He believed surveys could be managed to hear what you wanted to hear; as per him-

"You can never get the right information, especially bad news, from third parties."

And so, he took it upon himself to personally visit as many of his dealers as he possibly could. In an average month, he spent around 15 days traveling to meet various dealers and distributors . The interactions were his key tool to understanding the pulse of the market and periodically gave him inspirations to implement in the business.

It was in one such periodic visit that he found something shocking, something which potentially threatened the survival of his business. Around 1980, a few years after he joined TTK Prestige, the company had begun distributing its products in the Northern part of India. But for some reason they were not selling. To find the reason, he visited a dealer in Lucknow, the capital city of the state Uttar Pradesh. The dealer told him that Prestige pressure cookers were known to burst, and so none of the customers were interested in buying them. For anyone who does not know, pressure cookers burst pretty violently. The pressure cooker is a daily use product and the market was still quite small then. Also ‘Prestige’, given it introduced the product in India, was synonymous with pressure cookers in India. If the news that its cookers were life threatening spread, then it would be the end of TTK Prestige.

Mr. Jagannathan could not believe it as the quality of manufacturing was among the best if not the best in India. He was consumed with the problem and his engineering knowledge came to help here. He eventually figured out that it was a spurious spare safety valve that was causing the problem. Due to the spurious parts, the pressure could not be released when required, leading to violent bursting. While the basic cooker can last for decades, the spare parts had a much shorter life. Customers were unknowingly purchasing spurious safety plugs (as the original plugs were quite costly).

Mr. Jagannathan had two options - convince customers to buy the original spare parts or design a cooker which would not burst even if spurious parts were used. He had no control over what the customer purchased - and this would not resolve the problems of customers who his company could not reach. So he chose the latter approach - he decided to redesign the product.

But there he hit another hurdle - centuries of conditioning. TTK Prestige was started as a collaboration between the TTK Group and Prestige UK. The design of the original cooker was obtained from Prestige UK. The engineers in India refused to believe the design could be bettered as

If the design could be bettered then the people at Prestige UK would have done it. If they could not do it, how could we do it?

Given centuries of British rule, a generation of Indians after independence found it difficult to develop a sense of self-confidence. They were conditioned to believe in the inherent superiority of foreign products.

Talk about overcompensation

However, Mr. Jagannathan was unfazed by this opposition. He remained obsessed with the problem and tinkered with various solutions for a month. Then his ‘Eureka’ moment struck - in a slightly modified Archimedes style (on the toilet, rather than the tub). He came up with the Gasket Release System or GRS which resolved the problem. This invention allowed pressure to be released even if spurious valves were used.

While this invention was patent-able, Mr. Jagannathan decided against patenting it. There were two reasons -

" One is that in the US it used to happen. The pressure cooker used to burst. So the US market went away from pressure cookers. That is something I wanted to avoid in India. And India is the largest market in pressure cookers in the world today - 15 million pieces. If we allowed pressure cookers to burst, it would not have happened. That was one - I did not want pressure cookers to get a bad reputation. The second is if a pressure cooker burst anywhere everybody thought it was Prestige. So I had to avoid that consequence also. So we gave up the idea of patenting it."

TTK Prestige did not stop at this. The company decided to conduct service camps in each city to check the cookers purchased by the customers. They checked the safety of the cookers, educated them about the importance of buying original spares and informed them of their nearest store where they could purchase authentic spare parts. The customers with unsafe cookers were given attractive exchange offers. The company discovered that the camps were a great avenue to get closer to their customers and conducted it for 15 more years as it afforded considerable one-to-one interactions with customers - it showed the customers that the company cared.

The birth of an iconic ad - Not satisfied with just the above, Mr. Jagannathan simultaneously desired to have a high decibel media campaign which would convey the safety innovation to the mass public. He wanted to retain his old customers and not content with just that, wanted to use the opportunity to gain new customers as well. For this he got his friend Mr. Peerbhoy from MAA Communications. Mr. Peerbhoy’s wife came up with the iconic tagline -

‘Jo biwi se karey pyaar, woh Prestige se karey kaise inkaar?’ ('He who loves his wife, can he really say ‘No’ to Prestige?).

Mr. Peerbhoy also pushed for a television ad which was just picking up in the country then. There was only one channel in those days which meant whoever aired ads had monopoly over the viewer’s eyeballs. The ad became hugely popular in no small reason because of this advantage.

The ad was brilliant in the sense it conveyed multiple things. It starts off with a couple shopping for a pressure cooker. The shopkeeper tells the husband,

"The pressure cooker you buy indicates the affection you have for your wife. I can show you an ordinary cooker, or if you are attached to her I can show you something better. But if you love her more than life itself, then buy her the 100% safe Prestige pressure cooker."

Then the ad goes on to show how the novel GRS system ensures that she can cook in complete safety.

As can be seen the ad works on multiple levels - it differentiated the ‘Prestige’ pressure cooker from the others in the market. It also implied why the 'Prestige ’ brand would cost more and it encourages the husband (the one who makes the spending decisions) by associating cooker purchase with his wife’s safety.

The jingle is so catchy and iconic that it is being used in different forms even decades later. For example, it was used by Mr. Modi in his election campaign.

The beginning of history

If one takes the entire history of TTK Prestige, this particular incident of cooker bursting can be considered to be one of the most pivotal incidents if not THE pivotal one. For with the GRS invention, the engineers at TTK Prestige began to believe that foreign products were not the pinnacle in any product, that they could come out with innovations and inventions as well. The innovation instilled a sense of confidence in the company which liberated them. Mr. Jagannathan set up a one man R&D team in the aftermath (staffed only by himself), which evolved into a multi-member team that churned out multiple new products, some of which were the first in the world and enjoy global patents.

This single incident in TTK Prestige’s history is replete with many instructive lessons and insights into TT Jagannathan’s character.

The first is his antifragility. Faced with a seemingly debilitating problem, his approach was not be passive. He actively dealt with the problem head-on and as Taleb would say ‘over-compensated’. If you think about it, because of the issue, TTK Prestige came out with an innovation, an iconic jingle, created a stronger bond with the customers, increased sales and a higher sense of self confidence. While it might seem exceedingly counter-intuitive, the business became stronger because of the threat. Prestige today would have been much weaker without this incident.

The second is his long-term thinking and lack of ego. Given he came up with a patent-able innovation, it would have been understandable if he did so. It is what a normal human being would do. But it was vicarious learning that taught him what could go wrong, a repeat of what happened in the US; his ability to put the company ahead of his ego and his ability to see far into the future that helped him decide not to patent the innovation.

The third is his guts and strength of character. It takes extraordinary psychological strength to choose to go against generations of classical conditioning. While in retrospect it was the easier thing to do, most human beings in his place might have gone for the other choice- which was to try and educate customers. But Mr. Jagannathan was able to overcome the hindrance of psychological conditioning in himself and was not held back by his employees lack of self-confidence. It is even more impressive when one realizes that by then he had spent less than 5 years in the organization while the senior engineers had probably spent more than a decade.

The fourth is his sheer ability to learn and tinker. It was his constant curiosity that led him to discover the problem in the first place and his engineering mindset that led him to solve the issue beyond doubt.

Overall, this incident reminds one of Charlie Munger’s talk ‘Prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life’. In the talk, Mr. Munger uses the principle of inversion - to understand how to lead a good life, one first needs a detailed prescription on how to lead a miserable life.

It looks like Mr. Jagannathan studiously ignored two of Mr. Munger’s prescription for a miserable life:

“My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead."

"My third prescription for misery is to go down and stay down when you get your first, second, third severe reverse in the battle of life. Because there is so much adversity out there, even for the lucky and wise, this will guarantee that, in due course, you will be permanently mired in misery."


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Intelligent Fanatics October 2018 Digest