Entrepreneurial lessons from Dr. Verghese Kurien, the milkman who didn’t enjoy drinking milk (but sold it to all of us)

“Verghese Kurien (26 November 1921 – 9 September 2012) was an Indian engineer and businessman, best known as the founder of Amul (which stands for  Anand Milk Union Ltd), a dairy-food company.” This is what the Wikipedia entry says for the man who changed the story of milk and dairy products in India.

But for entrepreneurs and startups, this man’s life has more to offer. Its a life lived for making a difference, creating something much larger than one would have thought possible and not settling for mere “meeting expectations”.

Here’s a few things that struck us.

He didn’t enjoy drinking milk, but sold it to all of us!

Against all the regular gyaan of using your product/build on personal itch, the key learning is that he was an entrepreneur willing to solve the bigger challenge of the society.

If you ask what was his core contribution was, well he engineered the system. He architected a platform that enabled people to build/sell on top of it.

Actually, Kurien was the first to produce milk powder from buffalo milk at a time the rest of the world manufactured powder solely from cow’s milk. [via]

A practicing engineer!

He invested in technology, and found solutions that were applicable locally

Kurien built insular systems around co-operatives that were difficult to penetrate and break. He ensured that co-operatives always had the technical edge. Setting up Kaira Can Company in the early days to manage the critical supply chain; using locally developed technologies for producing milk powder and cheese and condensed milk from buffalo milk; tying up with Tetra Pak for setting up a packaging company for selling long-shelf life milk. “ [via}

Kurien and his team were pioneers in inventing the process of making milk powder and condensed milk from buffalo’s milk instead of cow’s milk. This was the reason Amul became so successful and competed well against Nestle who only used cow milk to make powder and condensed milk. In India, buffalo milk is the main raw material unlike Europe where cow milk is abundant [Wikipedia].

Amul Ad on Dr. Kurien's 90th Birthday
Amul Ad on Dr. Kurien's 90th Birthday

They did not get stuck in definitions of fundamental vs incremental innovation – those are mere semantics when you spot a problem worth solving.

He had bigger motive – i.e. beyond money, beyond valuation.

Amul was a co-operative and not about personal wealth or 10x valuations. Yet, scale was inherent to its success. Entrepreneurs have motives beyond money, and that is what passion is born of.

He knew what he was selling was a commodity product. He created a brand out of it.

“Milk is not a white good or a brown good. It is not something people save their entire lives in order to buy – like a car, or a house. Milk is not a status symbol; rather it is the symbol of nutrition. Milk is a nearly complete food, providing protein, vitamins, minerals and other nutrients so essential to maintaining good health.” [via]

Even though Amul was a cooperative, their ad spend and creativity could beat any corporate.

A lot of technology startups tend to not market and are misguided by WoM, without seeding the conversation. Amul took a lateral approach to branding, BUT the brand equity was tightly coupled with the back-end:

“If Amul has become a successful brand – if, in the trade lingo, it enjoys brand equity – then it is because we have honoured our contract with consumers for close to fifty years. If we had failed to do so, then Amul would have been consigned to the dustbin of history, along with thousands of other brands.

What goes into the ‘contract’ that is a brand name? First is quality. No brand survives long if its quality does not equal or exceed what the buyer expects. There simply can be no compromise. That’s the essence of the contract. In the case of a food product, this means that the brand must always represent the highest hygienic, bacteriological and organoleptic standards. It must taste good, and it must be good. [Dr. Kurien]

And finally, a tribute to the man (via) by the Amul girl

R.I.P Dr. Kurien :(
R.I.P Dr. Kurien 🙁

[With inputs from Sameer Shisodia.]

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