The colourful story of Desmond Nazareth

Think sandy beaches, a guitar strumming in the background, the blue of the ocean, the sweet sounds of the ocean waves crashing around you and a cocktail of blue Margarita within your reach. Think of all this and you think of Goa’s, very own, favourite son, Desmond Nazareth, who works tirelessly to make part of that idyllic,Goan dream come true for all of us. Well, to cut a long story short, Desmond makes world quality alcobevs which make the Goan dream even more colourful. FABs’, Sunil Diaz caught up with the IIT educated, US returned software developer turned alcobev expert on the sandy beaches of Goa. The man who once wanted to be a film maker, spoke passionately to Diaz of his dreams and passion.

 Sunil Diaz: What made you start DesmondJi?

Desmondji: I had come back from the US in 2000 and couldn’t find good quality tequila and orange liqueurneededto make some of my favourite cocktails. I did some basic research to understand why these well-known international drinks were so elusive in the country. I recalled that I had seen blue green agaves growing in India during travels in my youth. These would help in the making of these elusive drinks. I located the algave and as they say, we were in business!Of course,I had a clear target, but no clues initiallyon how to get there. The target was to build an international quality alcobevbrand in one of the most regulated sectors in India. And to becomea model of how to succeed without falling prey to the larger evils affecting the sector- pollution and corruption. Today, I can say that we have managed to pull it off!

Sunil Diaz: What differentiates DesmondJi from other Indian alcobevbrands?

Desmondji: With DesmondJi we have made the idea of Indian alcohol exciting again. India was largely makingboring IMFL spirits with extra neutral alcohol and flavours, where it was difficult to start and sustain a business. DesmondJi brought a fresh perspective. We brought innovation while sticking to international quality standards.

Sunil Diaz: You recently launched DJ Mahua.  Tell us more.

Desmondji: Mahua is a spiritmade from the naturally sweet flowers of the Mahua plant. Over 100,000 tons of Mahua flowers are harvested yearly. Around 90% is made into spiritby tribals, with 10-15% alc/vol. It’s the only liquor in the world distilledfrom sweet flowers. The spiritis delicate and fragrant. We distil Mahua to an international quality, partly maintaining the highest hygiene standards. The bottled result is a smooth and clear. It’s a ‘Forest-to-Bottle’ product. We manage the value chain starting from the collectionin the forest. We have introduced best practices in harvesting,storage and shipping through vis – a – vis our tribal partners.

We currently have two products on sale, both at 40% alc/vol. DJ Mahua Spirit and the DJ Mahua Liqueur,which is a blend of DJ Mahua Spirit and a secret combinationof honey and spices. 

Sunil Diaz: What are your plans for Mahua?

Desmondji:To make Mahua the National Spirit of India. We also plan to take Mahua international and introduce the world to the alcohol heritage of India.  Plans are ongoing to introduce, DJ Sparkling Mahua, as a flowery Indian bubbly, to compete with the likes of Champagne.

Sunil Diaz: What isthe single biggest factor for your success?

Desmondji: Dogged perseverance! In my early days, most of my investors invested in meprimarily, because they believed in me as a person. The trust they showed in me,drives me to face the challenges in the market and validate their faith. There were times where I wondered,whyI was doing all this in such a difficult business environment. But theencouragement of my investors helped me persevere.

Sunil Diaz: Your creativity and innovation also seem to be big factors in your success.  What do you attribute it to?

DN: As a child, I went to seven different schools across India. Each time, I had to reacclimatise myself to systems and culture. My parents, being busy, couldn’t help beyond a point. I developed an attitude of curiosity, asking questions and seeking solutions to problems. It’s this attitude that gives me a mischievous and creative approach to life. I love asking questions, facing challenges and finding solutions.

Sunil Diaz: Is creativity in any way an impediment to the business?

Desmondji:Some people paint themselves into a corner, mainlyinterested in being responsible for the creative part of abusiness. That can be restrictive and an impediment to growth, if not alloyed with other abilities within the organization. The creative stuff in my business is not rocket science, and it’s the coming together of art and many skills that makes it tick. Jaideep Prabhu, once told me he had met people who canideate, do R&D and build a business, and who market the hell out of an idea. He said he hadn’t met anyone else like me who could do all those things together.

Sunil Diaz: What advice would you give to parents to keep their children’s creativity alive?

Desmondji: A guy like me would not survive in the current,grade-focused education system. To parents, I would say “get off your children’s backs” about grades. It’s important to give your child the freedom to chase their dreams. And to encourage them to understand fundamentals of disciplines.

This reminds me of my father, a brilliant manand a topper throughout who had the opportunity to work anywhere in the world in the 1940s. But my grandfather told him that as an only son, he neededstayin India to careforhis family. Thatseverely limited his options. 

My father was wiser. He told us kids that we were free to pursue our dreams, but at our own cost. He would support us till pre-college, past that we were on our own. Either get a scholarship or wash dishes if you must. It’s that sense of freedom with responsibility that has driven us to be successful in life.

Sunil Diaz: What’s your support system?

Desmondji:While my familydoesn’tunderstandall of what I do, they are there when I need them. For instance, my father wanted me to become an engineer like him.  After I graduated from IIT, I had the chance to study engineering across the world. Yet, I wanted to study film making. My father’s only question to me was “Film cameras are quite big, and you’re a small guy, will you be able to handle them?”. His support was unwavering. After, I started the course, he sent me clippings of newspaper articles as story ideas.

The other part of my support system is my vast,friends’ network. Spread across the world, they help whenever I need them. For instance, I needed access to clean and efficient bureaucrats to discuss issues with while starting DesmondJi. My network helped me find some of the right people.

I have this ‘cloud of helpfulness’above me.  I keep trying to give more to that cloud then I receive. I like to help other people on their journey. The cloud keeps helping me back. When anyone tells me of a problem, I can say -wait, I know someone who can help you with that. Often when I need help, I don’t personally know the person helping, but the cloud connects me to the right people.

Sunil Diaz: Given a chance, would you do anything differently?

DN: I would not have started an alcohol company! Don’t get me wrong.  I’m pleased with what I have been able to achieve, both personally and for India. We have a limited life, and I want to give back to the world as well. I let the alcohol business engulf me. My regret is I did not manage to compress the time it took me to get here. I want more time foraproject that I have in mind. I want to create a global platformfor a billion children in the age group 4-12, to get empowered.

Sunil Diaz: Any advice to young entrepreneurs?

Desmondji: If you need funding, make sure you have skin in the game. Do as much as you can on your own before reaching out for money or support. If you don’t have capital to invest, do background work and invest your time. If it’s a worthy idea, you shouldn’t have an issue investing at least 6 months of your time in it.

Sunil Diaz: What about advice for the entrepreneur who’s 5 -10 years into his journey?

Desmondji: Have a wide perspective on things.What works today might not work tomorrow. I’ve seen many companies with an inward focus, relatively closed off from the world. Sort of like shutting the windows. When their products or projects are ‘ready’, the world around them has changed. Often so much that what they have constructed mayno longer be relevant. In a nutshell I’d say“In life keep the windows open, so you can sense and react tothe winds of change”- Desmond Nazareth