(Photo credit: Sodexo Sverige)
An American author, Fran Lebowitz began her journey in writing after being expelled from high school.
In real life, I assure you, there is no such thing as algebra.
Her quote doesn’t imply that she would not end up writing had she continued to go to college, but emphasizes that she would still end up writing despite it.
I completed most of my education in India. In urban India, not going to college is not an option, unless you join the family business. I am glad that view is slowly changing. I didn’t invest too much money into my college education in India, but I did invest 3 years after high school. At the time, I was very keen on the functionality of Sodexo Coupons. These coupons were given to employees of organizations which Sodexo partnered with as tax free perks which could be used instead of cash for restaurants.
I thought it was a great concept but quite inconvenient, as it involved the exchange of physical coupons which the employees received in a booklet. It was equally tacky to use for the employee as well as the establishments which accepted them. Physical processing of coupons was not adapted with the electronic age of paperless transactions. I wanted to optimize these coupons into the form of a prepaid card, not limited to just restaurants. I thought their use at grocery stores, as part of the ‘meal’ concept for employees was imperative to boost demand and provide more value to the end user. Though they did expand service to grocery stores, Sodexo stuck to the coupon format. They have not gone electronic till date! Meal coupons were not their core competency, which explains why, they being an oligopoly (a monopoly at that time) in India, have not capitalized on the huge market opportunity.
Barely through my second year at college at the time, I thought I was not being able to look at the concept in its entirety, due to lack of formal education. A cautious personality type, after a lot of thinking and over-evaluation of the pros and cons, I chose not to pursue the idea at that time.
Sodexo covered 2 million employees in the year 2010. I think for my own sanity, I shouldn’t even begin to do the math on revenues at 5% per coupon redemption, or in my case, card swipe. Of course, an electronic system would mean more cost; however, it would also result in increased revenue and hence increased profit. The costs would far exceed what I invested in college, however, in retrospect; I don’t think it would have been difficult to get an investor using whatever little connections I had at the time. I didn’t approach or even discuss the idea seriously except with a few close friends. I was not sure if anyone would have taken me seriously, given that I wasn’t even a college graduate. Research I did on Sodexo raised inhibitions in my mind about the enormity of this competitor that I would be up against. I believed that the courses I would take in college would equip me to pursue this or any other idea in future. And I took them all – Finance, Accounting, Marketing, Human Resources, Advertising, and Management – courses covering every ‘supposed’ aspect of an enterprise.
What’s ironic is not my decision to go to college instead of investing in the proposition, but, the fact that even after I chose to go to college, I didn’t come through with half the skills I would require to pursue the idea on my own. My most important take-away from college was the network of connections I built from college .
As for the meal pre-paid card idea, a friend of mine recently emailed me the Times of India article to let me know that I did have good foresight into the key issues with Sodexo’s system. The article confirmed that major retail stores were not accepting the coupons anymore as the manual counting, sorting, stamping and dispatch of the coupons was leading to extra administrative costs and eroding into the stores’ margins. In the same article, a spokesperson of the Future Group said, “We have decided to stop accepting food coupons in our stores. If the same is presented to us in the form of electronic coupons, we would be open to accepting it.” This reignited thoughts that my idea would have undoubtedly revolutionized the coupon system, had I seriously considered it.
Currently, Sodexo’s only competitor, Edenred has Ticket Restaurant meal cards for company cafeterias and given the current ‘explicit’ demand for electronic settlement systems from external retailers, I am sure both these companies are already considering an upgrade in their product offering. So, what was a foresight a few years ago has now become a demand-driven upgrade.
As for me, over time, most of the entrepreneurship skills I have developed are only through my real life experiences at work and their application through family business ventures.