As the new kids on the block, we had to power ahead or perish. Even as our four-bit Micro 2200 desktop for engineers/scientists was still on the drawing board, we began selling. Armed with our brochure, a thing of beauty with a mock-up of the product, our sales force fanned across the country, with the founders leading from the front.

I was asked to base myself in Madras and head sales in South India. The message here is gumption; having the chutzpah to sell a product without a product. As one of our later print ads proclaimed, “At HCL, there’s only one thing more important than brains. Guts.” We trained our sales team in transactional analysis techniques, which call for an assessment of, and adaptation to, the potential buyer. For instance, when you meet a professor, become a student.

Interpersonal communication is the key to sales.

Arjun Malhotra, who’d been my boss at DCM DP, swore he would get the first order – and he did, from his alma mater, IIT Kharagpur. I secured another for six machines from IIT Madras. We were on our way.

The Emergency was followed by the Janata Party government, and industries minister George Fernandes lost no time in asking multinationals to dilute their equity. IBM refused, preferring, like Coca-Cola, to exit the Indian market. This offered a great opportunity to us, and indeed, to all indigenous computer manufacturers, to fill the vacuum left by the multinational giant. Even without IBM, our competition was stiff. It included our old employer DCM DP, Tata’s NELCO, Sarabhai’s ORG and the United Kingdom’s ICL, which had set up an Indian arm, ICIM.

Our 8C, an eight-bit model, had the added advantage of data entry and battery backup. That was our USP, so to speak. In a market accustomed to mainframes, we consciously focused on first-time users. A powerful advertising campaign, intended to demystify computer technology and bust the myth that it was far too complicated for non-techies, piqued interest tremendously. The headlines read “HCL introduces a computer which even your typist can operate...come and see it”; “Even if your yearly sale is Rs 50 lakhs, HCL computers can bring you profits”; and “Now you can buy a computer for as little as Rs 3,500 a month...HCL shows you how”.

Of the many things HCL did right, two stand out as object lessons to entrepreneurs. First, be restless; keep looking for opportunities and gaps in the market and innovate, innovate, innovate. Second, find the right people. Early on, we took a conscious decision to hire the best, regardless of cost. We looked for recruits who were cowboys at heart. “It’s not a job, it’s an adventure” was the message. Years later, the media was fascinated by the number of HCL employees who went on to become successful entrepreneurs.

I set up our office in Madras, in a rented space that we redesigned and painted in bright colours to infuse a sense of optimism and cheer. I hired a team of young people and trained them, imparting the techniques I had learnt at DCM DP. Our first job was to create a list of prospects. The challenge was formidable: the computer was entirely new, more a concept than a product, and we were operating in a highly conservative environment.

To overcome the inherent resistance to change, we positioned the computer as a smart investment. To that end, we introduced a return-on-investment (RoI) calculator, which worked out the savings a business could make by using computers. For the first six months, however, there were no sales. Every other region in the country was far ahead of us.

My boss Arjun called from Delhi, complaining, “You haven’t sold a thing! What’s wrong with you guys?” He decided to send our Bombay business head, a former IBM employee, to Madras to lecture us on sales. The gentleman arrived and subjected us to long sermons on how well his team in Bombay was doing, at the end of which we got the distinct feeling of having been belittled. My team was naturally crestfallen, so after he left, I called them.

“Look, he hasn’t told us anything we don’t already know. I know that you are all good salesmen. Now, we need to turn things around. We absolutely have to make it happen,” I said. That was the turning point. With great determination, they went out and sold aggressively. In six months, we had outsold everyone else. It’s amazing what people can do with the right motivation and leadership.

My next target was Coimbatore, a thriving textile hub with warm and friendly people and a classy ambience, but every bit as conservative as Madras. DCM DP was our major competitor and enjoyed the advantage of a parent company that was in the textile business. The group was the fifth largest in the country at the time, and by comparison, we were nobodies. Our prospects would invariably mention their comfort factor with DCM when we met them.

Clearly, the challenge was to build relationships. We focused our efforts towards developing a rapport with prospective clients. We differentiated ourselves from the competition and explained why we were better. If the objection was that we were small fry, we would point out that we were a joint sector company, set up in collaboration with the Uttar Pradesh government. We would cite our existing customer base and references.

Our breakthrough came when we went head-to-head with DCM DP in a large deal with Premium Mills, one of the leading textile firms in the city. I distinctly remember sitting in their reception area, while the team from DCM DP went in to make its pitch. We went in second, but we closed the deal. It was a great reference to have, and we finally cracked the Coimbatore market. That one order got us five more, then ten, and after that, we never looked back.

Premium Mills was family-owned, headed by three brothers, who had taken the call to go with us. One of them became a friend and we are still in touch. Building relationships is good for business, because it ensures your venture’s sustainability.

Excerpted with permission from Just Aspire: Notes on Technology, Entrepreneurship, and the Future, Ajai Chowdhry, HarperCollins India.