An Interview with Entrepreneur Smita Rajgopal

Imagine you’re 28. What if by this age, you were the Director of your own company, happily married to your sweetheart, author of three text books, blogger on the side as well as have graced the cover of a magazine? Yes, it feels great, doesn’t it? Well, sure it does for Smita Rajgopal as well!

Smita can be called someone who has followed her heart all along. Director of Smitten, a creative services studio that specializes in graphic design and brand consultancy, she’s where she always wanted to be and a successful one at that. After having worked in a design boutique for a little more than a year, Smita made the plunge and opened her very own studio, Smitten (yes, we wonder where that comes from?) in May 2008. Now two years into the business, Smitten’s got a whole lot running for itself, including its long list of clientele. ‘Smitten, that’s how it should leave you’ is their tagline and a chat with Smita herself, is no less! In conversation with her,

VP. Ok, so let’s start from the beginning. How did the transition from engineering to graphic designing happen?

Smita. Well, firstly I found a lacuna in the industry of technical knowhow based writing skills. So I used my knowledge from engineering to land me some exciting projects in technical writing. I knew that writing in any form would slowly grant me a way into the creative line. I went on to find some interesting projects like being one of the 3 writers to script the Pune Development Plan 2004 as a presentation to the Central Government. From there to corporate brochures and copy writing was not a difficult switch. With some years of copywriting and editorial work under the belt, a passion for the art and design aspect of it was natural. Training under several successful graphic designers, I equipped myself with both the technical and practical knowhow to break ground in the field.

VP. You studied engineering for 4 years and then went on to do an MBA. Finally, you’re well settled in a job that is completely in the creative line. Do you think your engineering degree helped?

Smita. Yes, I think it really did help. A technical base helps one develop a certain structured thought process and problem solving ability. This has helped me in numerous facets of design as well as business execution.

VP. Tell us about Smitten. What is the company all about?

Smita. Smitten is a graphic design studio and a brand consultancy built from a burst of passion and a dream I held close to my heart.  I feel the reason for the studios rapid success and growth can largely be attributed to the flavour of our design sense. The team entirely thinks on the same page in terms of an international clean look and yet every individual designer brings forward an individual take on things. In spite of being only two years old Smitten has established a valued list of clientele for whom they have found effective communication solutions. The list comprises of names like Diageo (the international liquor giant with brands like Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff etc), Mattel (Barbie, Hotwheels), Walt Disney (Disney Consumer Products), Khadi (Soaps and Toiletries), Panasonic (Audio Equipment), Gaitonde (Leather Shoes and Accessories) and many more.

VP. You’re an entrepreneur. What do you have to say about India as a base for entrepreneurship? How welcoming is it?

Smita. I think India is at a stage which is most welcoming for entrepreneurs and their efforts. The market in itself is most accepting and consumers are looking to try out new ideas and offerings. The trick is to ensure you take baby steps and then when given a line, be set to run with it. The problem that most people face is that they are unwilling to bear the risk and the volume of hard work and responsibility that is part and parcel of an entrepreneur’s lifestyle.

VP. What do you think works for an upcoming entrepreneur? The time, the place or something else?

Smita. Well time and place are of course important but I think more than that I think it is genuine pride in what you do and how you contribute, to the industry and people’s lives. Today I have worked hard for what I have. I feel pride in not only my work and the appreciation from clients, but from the feeling of being able to employ people and give them jobs. Put money into their homes and food on their tables.  That is a feeling of success for me and maybe for most entrepreneurs. I feel it is important to have close, real bonds with the people who work with you.

VP. Does Smitten have a lot of competition to face? How does a new and upcoming company like yours hold its own?

Smita. Well yes. There is competition in all industries and ours is no different. Yet, I do feel the biggest advantage that we have is that in design every agency/studio must have their own signature style and feel. We have developed our own which is what most clients old and new relate to. They understand our sense of aesthetics and that works for them and us.

VP. You started this company all on your own, with of course support from family. What would you say were the hurdles you faced in this process?

Smita. Well hurdles are as big as you want them to be. I think almost anything can be tackled with a calm head and strong heart. It is tough to kick a steady pay check and leap into the world of entrepreneurship. That done, you have won half the battle. Getting together a good business model that works for you is the key. Finding the right people and motivating them is important.

VP. What about putting together your team?

Smita. I have been fortunate to have found the most driven and talented teams the industry has to offer. They particularly enjoy working for Smitten because the projects they have on offer are both exciting and challenging. I also believe in giving my team tremendous flexibility with the right amount of guidance and direction. It is always better to build your team through networking, especially in our industry. I look at prospective designers’ recruitment through hints from their portfolio of how they can be moulded and developed.

VP. How easy or difficult was it for you to build your clientele?

Smita. Good work gets talked about and definitely gets great references. I think that’s exactly how we built our client base. Also, having a really edgy website helps too. Look at to get an idea of what I mean. In spite of being only two years old, Smitten has established a valued list of clientele for whom they have found effective communication solutions.

VP. How did you go about the publicity of Smitten?

Smita. It is largely word of mouth and the website. Apart from that, there are so many new avenues to be made use of today. Twitter and Facebook open up whole new windows of opportunity when it comes to promotion.

VP. Being the Director of Smitten, is work still a fun place or is it serious business?

Smita. Definitely a mix of both. If there is no fun in what I do I would never be able to sustain the success we have and yet that depends also on the serious discipline that I bring to work and lifestyle.

VP. What is your take on managing a business alongside managing a household?

Smita. I think it’s how you divide your time and schedule.  Everybody gets the same 24 hours but few are able to balance it. I’m lucky to have a wonderful partner in my husband who helps me shoulder to shoulder.

VP. There are plenty of women who think their professional life either ends or doesn’t ascend once they’ve tied the nuptial knot. What would you say to that?

Smita. My story was no different. When I first said I would leave my current job to get married and move from Bombay to Madras, I could see it in people’s eyes, the way they’d cringe and be thinking “poor girl…leaving behind her career for domestication!” I wouldn’t let it get to me. Then when I moved and decided to start my own company, sure enough, the sceptics returned with their “oh, she’s delusional” expressions.  I grew thick skin to battle it. There were times when people jibed that “that’s a short cut to a big fat designation ‘Director’, start your own company, why don’t we do that?!” I just smiled my way through it all. Today I have worked hard for what I have and I take pride in it.

VP. You’re pursuing other interests on the side. You’re training in music and you’ve done a stint in modelling. Is there a plan to shift careers in the future or is this part of exploring the self?

Smita: Definitely self exploration and just outlets for keeping the imagination alive. I think everyone should take out some time for just themselves, else it’s only a matter of time till burnout hits!

VP. Where do you see yourself and Smitten in the coming years?

Smita. Well, at the top I’d say! But jokes apart, I would like us to grow into certain other areas like product design and style consultancy.

VP. What advice would you give upcoming entrepreneurs?

Smita. Follow your dreams and don’t let people tell you how much you can do. You be the judge of that!

VP. Also, what would you tell those who have the desire to go after their dreams but find it too risky?

Smita. Well nothing today is without risk, so why not focus on the returns?

Compiled by:

Meghna Menon