Mulchand Dedhia – entrepreneur, curator, community builder, avid networker, coffee maker. Dedhia leads various independent projects across multiple sectors across industries. He has organized over 500+ small-, medium-, and large-format events for his work and passion projects and is an active member across various business networking platforms in Mumbai. He speaks eight languages and is a visiting faculty at business institutes and universities. Mulchand founded Photo Konnect in 2009 and it’s now the largest photography community in the city. He is a core member of TEDxGateway and founded the ambitious startup Meter Down, premised on rickshaw advertising.
Eight: First off, please give us a brief rundown of how your career journey began and brought you to where you are today.
Mulchand Dedhia: I have about 12 years of experience in advertising, media, branding, and marketing. My bachelor’s is in media and communications, majoring in advertising. I also took a postgraduate program in business management from NMIMS.
Between all this, I’ve done a lot of extracurricular activities like small courses in photography, animation, computer graphics, and Photoshop.
I started my first media agency in 2009 with two friends. A little before that, because of my photography study and love for travel, I made a few community groups on social media platforms. This also gave me an opportunity to teach certain things – I started giving guest lectures at various colleges on photography.
Eight: You started these groups quite a while ago, right?
I’d say maybe 2008 because during 2006-’07 I was still studying software and still practicing on my own. For photography the best network in those days was Flickr. in 2008, Facebook penetration wasn’t that great in India. That’s where I started putting a small group on these communities. These were really just a group of people, a bunch of friends to stay in touch with over social media, talking about a common interest.
It was easier to create a group on Flickr or Facebook to talk about projects, meeting locations, and other details. We started out with 15 or 20 friends and over time new people got added. Today my friends go out, take pictures, and share things. But at one point in time, they all started with somebody’s passion for something.
Back in 2007, I don’t think anybody intended to build a community. Community building as a career or a job was a relatively new description within HR even 5 years ago. So 10 years ago, we didn’t have a position like that. We didn’t know about social media influencers or managers. It all started out with just a bunch of people coming together and doing fun things.
Eight: Interesting. What has been your transformation from 2009 until now in setting up those communities. What have you learnt in that time?
The platforms themselves have evolved a lot. If you’re talking about social media platforms. Orkut doesn’t exist anymore, but we have LinkedIn, Instagram, and then still Flickr. The major dominant one is Facebook. Flickr used to rule the market for photographers. But people see that as a community and not a social media platform. Facebook became dominant because everyone was there. It’s changed, and a lot of people have joined, and left.
What I’ve also realized is as communities have developed and tastes develop, over the past 9 or 10 years people have changed as well. Somebody who’d probably like street photography has also started liking landscape photography. Or they might now find new love for black-and-white photography. So even the choices of people and the community members have changed.
Connecting among each other has become a lot easier. Earlier it wasn’t so easy to connect with local people and photographers. Today, for example, having mutual friends has become a very useful tool for finding common friends or more friends among your friends’ circles.
The community has definitely grown in numbers and also in content. It is very difficult to manage a community when there are 20,000 people vs. 200 people.
So, you need additional help. That gave birth to moderators, and administrators of communities, and community managers. And I think communities are probably built on the principle of the people within the community being self-regulatory. It isn’t a one-person job. It’s a group and it’s a community job that takes part in communities. Members also have flag things they find amiss.
Eight: Let’s get back to your life. Tell us more about your family and their background.
My family comes from Kutch, which is a small part of Gujarat. It’s close to the border of India and Pakistan. My granddad came to Mumbai about 75 years ago and started our first store, in food retail. I remember my grandfather telling me there was a time that he sold watermelon on the streets of Mumbai. And that’s how he started his life in Mumbai.
He was also helped by a lot of his friends and community members; from renting a store with help from a former employer, as well as friends, to buying up the place and owning it. We basically come from an entrepreneur background. Everyone in the family has the same spirit and we are the third generation in the work environment.
Eight: You have this legacy family business, then you started running communities, and now you run multiple businesses. Was the family ready for this? How did you convince them?
The first point is I’m not running a business. I look at my current work as an opportunity to solve a particular problem. When I started doing things, most were based on the same problems I was facing, whether I was a part of a photography community, a travel community, a food community, a networking community, or an entrepreneur community. The idea was to find answers to whatever I was facing. I was asking these questions and I got to know that these are the same questions other people also wanted to know the answers to. So that’s how the questions started getting answered. And these answers actually ended up becoming smaller ventures. Ultimately, a business idea is a solution to a problem, isn’t it?
When it came to convincing my parents, I’m kind of a black sheep in the family because my cousins, my younger brother, everyone is in our family business. I’m the only one outside the family business. I think it all started with my degree. Generally, when you have your own venture, or you come from a business family you’re expected to study commerce or do an MBA.
After that, you’re expected to join your family business and help your family along. For me, it was completely the other way around. I have a cousin named Digesh, who got me some information about animation courses back in 2002, when they were very new in India. I think my first step was in 2002 when I signed up for a program on 3D modeling and character animation. That helped build my creative vision. One of the challenges I see is people aren’t taught how to see things creatively in most of the programs we study. What we studied was very technical and there are very few programs that would teach you art.
I was very fortunate that my friends who I’d joined with, and my faculty who were teaching me, kept asking these questions around creativity. I think that gave me a brief first step or first support in the whole new domain of what’s there beyond the business part of it. And that’s when I decided to enter media school.
It was very challenging for my parents to understand why I’d be doing photography at night. They couldn’t understand why I was doing an internship in a publication or an advertising agency and getting paid peanuts. I could have done the same amount of work and got paid very well in the family business. So, answering these questions over a period of time was a big challenge.
All of this changed when they first saw my name in the newspaper. I think that was a kind of validation for my parents. I still remember a friend of my dad ended up going to our store and showing the newspaper to my father and saying “hey your son’s in the newspaper and they wrote about him. And I think that’s when he understood that I’m doing something and I’m doing something really good. And I think that was the changing point when they start started understanding what’s really going on.
Studying advertising and media communications for 3 years brought about a 360-degree change. it opened up a lot of new avenues and that’s where my actual journey started.
Eight: You’ve traveled a lot. What did you see among all the different cultures?
This could be my most philosophical answer, but I think the most common way to connect with people is by smiling at them and starting a conversation. You might not understand the person or their language, but a smile always works.
All over I understood that people want to go beyond their community and circle – bond over a common passion. I’ve recently seen some major change in this direction, with people attended networking events giving them the opportunity to meet a doctor, lawyer, a photographer, a school bus driver, yoga instructor, a community builder and all of them under one roof. They have a simple agenda of meeting or knowing people beyond their own domain.
Eight: That’s an interesting way to put it. What are you planning these days?
We have three major large format events this year. I’m a part of TEDxGateway, which is India’s largest independent TEDx chapter. I’m involved in the organization, audio-video documentation, and creating new event IPs for them. So, I have one large-format and one medium-format event for TEDx.
My team at Meter Down is also working on a travel conference which is a completely new IP that we’re launching. Apart from that, we’re hosting at least one event every week. The idea is to have at least 50 events this year, which could be any size, based on various community themes, like photography, food, travel, entrepreneurship, networking, communications, and more. If you do the maths, it’s a herculean task effectively doing one event a week.
Eight: You also run an agency called Meter Down. How did you come up with the idea, where is the agency right now and how did you connect with the auto drivers?
Meter Down as a concept was very simple. My co-founders and I were thinking about doing something on our own. All three had skills in advertising and communication, so if we had to start a business, we knew that it had to be in the same sector. We also wanted to do something new, that’s never happened in India. And the third most important thing had to do with the financial implications because we didn’t have much money back then.
We had about 25,000 rupees in the account that we pitched in and then we said “let’s do it.” After our individual research we came up with a list of 16 or 17 ideas and we all agreed on Meter Down being the best. We came up with an idea to combat the crazy traffic in Mumbai that increases commute times. If there are in-flight magazines on planes, why can’t we have the same for rickshaw passengers? That’s how Meter Down Magazine as an idea was formed. We did a 4-month test run as a community-building exercise for rickshaw drivers, with only 150 drivers agreeing to help us out.
During the same time, we participated in a business contest hosted by the Economic Times and IIM-A, called Power of Ideas. Out of 16,000 entries, we were one of the few selected to compete for mentoring, coaching, and to receive a government grant. Meter Down was one of the grant winners. Because it was such a big competition, we ended up getting International media coverage in around 40 countries. The sheer scale of PR for us created a recognizable brand for Meter Down.
We’ve kept working out the kinks and making it better for the past 9 years. We were at the right place, at the right time during the competition, which worked as a great launchpad for the company.
Eight: In the past 12 years of your career, you’ve worked with all kind of people – age groups, education levels, etc. How do you connect with them? What’s your secret?
I think when it comes to connecting with people is it isn’t only about why you want to connect – it’s also about why should they connect with you.
If you were able to figure out what’s in it for them, that they’ll benefit from your connection. That’s very important. Everyone is so busy today, so it becomes very important for you and the other person to give each other time only if you feel the connection is worth it.
Don’t make a connection just for the sake of it or just because there’s a big name involved.
Eight: Do you have somebody who you look up to or who has helped you in your career?
No one person in particular, I am blessed with amazing friends from whom I have learnt a lot of things and I keep taking their advice on regular basis. I have also learnt a lot of things from my communities and its members.
But when it comes to following certain kinds of people, I’ve always looked up to is Sir Richard Branson. He started multiple ventures and is highly innovative in his approach. He’s uniquely community-driven, so he’s my idol.
Eight: On similar lines, do you specifically mentor people? Or do you have people reaching out to you for mentoring?
There are definitely people who reach out for some kind of assistance or help, but I think how we mentor has also changed a lot in the past few years.
If the mentees are changed, so is the mentoring program. I think it’s not like it’s two-way communication between two people. It’s become very practical.
The format has changed but the idea is to add real value to the mentoring process. I simply look for passion in a person. As long as there is passion, things will work out.
Eight: What’s your advice to the younger generation who want to run communities? What’s the skill set required to do so at a personal and professional level?
Running a community is a huge responsibility because you are adding an extra dimension to the thought process of people or you’re being a catalyst in forming a perception of something.
The most important part of building a community is that it’s never a one person running it. It’s important to encourage participation and contribution. You should listen to everyone who is a part of your community and lastly be open for a change.
Eight: We now come to my last question – we live in a thoroughly connected and technology-oriented world. So, which are the five apps that you can’t live without?
My top five apps include Gmail definitely, then LinkedIn. Also Airtable, even if it isn’t necessarily an app. Facebook has always been a huge contributor, and the last would be Instagram. I use these to connect and network with people. They also help me with new business leads and create new connections.
I also started using Eight recently where I first got my cards (over 3,000!) digitized all in one batch. Now even though I meet hundreds of people at events, Eight’s solved the problem of me having to manage all the business cards I get.
Eight: Thank you so much, Mulchand. We hope to keep learning more about you.