Colour Outside the Lines

“One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.” This observation by Oscar Wilde was as true in turn-of-the-century Britain as it is today. Many of us have dreams, goals and talents that we don’t pursue because society divides us into groups and typecasts us. As children we are given colouring books with themes to fit our type. We learn that these books come with an implied set of rules: colour neatly in one direction, use complementary colours, finish one page before starting the next, and, most importantly, stay within the lines. When we grow into teenagers the colouring outlines only get more complicated, and the rules more restricted. Societal “norms” try to limit who we are and who we will become. 

From a young age, serial entrepreneur,Sathish Bala was daunted by the expectation of who he was supposed to be. In the last quarter of a century he has successfully built three back-to-back companies, but his journey was not an easy one. Today he is the Entrepreneur in Residence at the Ryerson Science Discovery Zone, where he works with startups to help students forge a new path for themselves while they are in school. “[This] is exactly what I did when the term ‘entrepreneurship’ didn’t even exist,” recalls Sathish. “In the 90s, it was either you got a job, or you’re a loser. And I didn’t want to get a job. Figuring out what to do was the only option.”

Growing up Sathish was constantly labelled ‘dumb’ and ‘unteachable.’ Society’s hand had sketched out the silhouette of his potential and defined the lines he could not cross. In his traditional South Indian family, it was believed the only route to success was by getting straight A’s. When he was a young boy he went to school in Singapore, where a child’s place in society was pre-determined based on standardized test scores. At the age of 10, according to his academic performance, Sathish was destined to be a blue-collar worker. Thankfully, when he was 14 his parents decided to immigrate to Canada and as his environment changed, so did his self-perception. At his new school in Scarborough he still felt low about his grades, but he gained confidence through the discovery of new talents in drama, DJing and sports.

Photo by Alex Banman

After high school Sathish studied Computer Science at Ryerson University. He enjoyed his program, but any talk of GPA scores still made him feel inferior. It wasn’t until his last year of university that Sathish was recognized for his talents and abilities. He took the opportunity to run for Computer Science Student Body President, created his first marketing campaign and won! The election finally made him feel valued at school.“It was really cool because it was the very first time I wasn’t only measured on my academic success, it was [about:] Can I create programs that help first-year students not drop out? Can I influence teachers to be nicer to students? …I championed a bunch of…really good causes, and in doing so I found my own voice…I wanted to turn that into a business,” he says. It was then that Sathish realized the labels of ‘hustler’ and ‘street smart’ are in fact prerequisites for the entrepreneurial journey. Winning the election gave Sathish a platform to realize his potential and showed him that his people skills could pave the way to success.

Gifted with oratory skills and charisma, Sathish pitched website creation and sold some of the first black and white websites. While still in school he found quite a few clients and started his first company, Spyder Designs. After graduation his business partners left to get ‘real jobs,’ so Sathish converted the company structure and renamed it New-Age Consulting. With timing on his side, Sathish continued on his own. “It was 1999, everybody was freaking out about Y2K, and the only class that I was good at was called COBAL…and apparently a lot of the systems that were Y2K threatened were built on COBAL! I was like ‘Holy s***, this is so dope!’” he exclaims. “So I started calling all these companies, people started reaching out to me, I hired a bunch of people from my class that were smarter than me, and New-Age Consulting was in the business of Y2K. And I single-handedly take responsibility for saving the world, so it didn’t end. Truth. So you’re welcome people!” Sathish laughs. 

“When we walked into that building we knew…either sell, or somebody’s not eating in two weeks. …Poverty and hunger are great teachers”

The business expanded and clients began asking for various services. For the next six years, New-Age Consulting became a large experiment for Sathish. He said ‘yes’ to absolutely everything; besides building websites they ran network cables, did system administration, designed databases, developed click ads, and did early email marketing, e-learning and digital marketing, to name a few. Sathish just wanted to learn as much as he could and figure out what he’s good at. He grew the company successfully and exited in 2006.  

While briefly working in the tech department of a marketing company, Sathish discovered the perfect path for his skillset. He didn’t know a thing about what the company did when his contract began, but as he came to understand the world of marketing he saw how much fun it could be. He asked the executive team, “Wait a second, you get paid to sit in a boardroom, and just like, daydream on a whiteboard? …Where were you all my life?! …I’m full of ideas!’’ As a natural salesperson and creative, Sathish knew marketing was the ideal industry for him. In 2007, once his contract finished, Sathish started BlueBand Brand and Digital and hired his first Creative Director, Chris Gostling. The two of them worked hard out of a shabby, tiny office in Chinatown. “When we walked into that building we knew…either sell, or somebody’s not eating in two weeks. …Poverty and hunger are great teachers,” Sathish shares.

Photo by Alex Banman

BlueBand allowed Sathish to rip off the labels that society had plastered on him.” It all clicked when I founded BlueBand because I never thought…I could be a creative person and also be a technical guy. I [just] didn’t think those two came together.” BlueBand gave Sathish the freedom to focus on his strengths and continue growing into himself. “That company, for 12 years, was like the perfect cocktail for me…it had tech…it had creativity, it had branding, it had problems to solve, all these things that I didn’t think would be available in one ecosystem. …With each win, the company got better, but I as an individual just got more and more schooled on…how to build these really cool little companies,” he shares.

“I no longer fear what I’m not good at…which is a huge weight off [my] back.”

The biggest challenge for Sathish throughout the years has been accepting his weaknesses. He was constantly working hard and stressing to catch up where he fell short. He didn’t think he was good enough and thought he needed to be an expert in everything related to his business in order to fit in. But that was exhausting. “I think there’s something magical when you embrace the s*** that you’re not good at. …A lot of people are much better at the things I’m not good at so, come, help, build, grow together, let’s synergize! …It took me a really long time to be okay with: I’m not this version and I’m not gonna spend my life trying to be this guy, I’m cool with this version of me. …And the people that are attracted to me, see the version that I really am,” he smiles. Now Sathish is happy to offer his expertise in marketing, sales, and strategy to the fresh startups he mentors, but he has realized he doesn’t need to know everything about every industry he’s invested in. “I no longer fear what I’m not good at…which is a huge weight off [my] back.” Giving himself permission to not need to be an expert in everything was very liberating.

Sathish attributes much of his success to his EQ. He knows the value of teamwork and understands people. He created a lively company culture by hiring positive, open-minded, hard-working people, and allowing them the freedom to grow. Empathy has also served him when building relationships with clients. “I’m a natural problem solver, but to solve problems, you can’t go in there guns blazing, you really have to understand the other person, you really have to understand the problem you’re trying to solve,” explains Sathish. Today he continues to use his strengths to help the young companies he’s invested in. 

“Ultimately, I’m only accountable for my self-growth, and the better I am, hopefully the more I impact” 

Besides his active involvement in the startup world, Sathish is the Founder of desiFEST, a non-profit that empowers diverse communities of young artists in the music industry. Now in its 13th year, the annual desiFEST Music Festival is Canada’s largest South Asian urban music festival. This year the festival will run from June 5th to 8th at Yonge-Dundas Square, and it’s expected that about 150, 000 people will experience the brand. The festival has grown from a 2-day concert into a 4-day conference. The South Asian music industry is still very young, and while there are many talented artists they don’t always know how to market themselves and make money. The festival will include workshops to support and educate the artists about marketing, branding and social media. Through desiFEST Music Festival Sathish inspires others to follow their passions in music.

Photo by Alex Banman

Sathish is driven by self-growth. He is constantly reaching for new opportunities. In between Sathish’s three companies he had about ninety other business ideas that he tried and that failed. But having side hustles gave Sathish a chance to be creative, grow, and learn, without jeopardizing the company and hurting the team. His most notable experiment and failure was the creation of Bala Bow Ties. Now he has a large signature collection of bow ties to wear that are also souvenirs of his learning.

“You won’t be afraid of yourself, but if you’re not you, you’re gonna be afraid of the person you’re not”

Through constantly pursuing his business ideas Sathish became who he wanted to be. “The only way I knew how to do it was through building my own businesses, right or wrong…because it forced me to learn on the job, put what I learned into practice, test my own theories, and then do it again the next day. And everybody I’ve ever hired, every client we’ve had, have all helped me in that journey. …It was a perfect playground for me becoming the person I want to become. …Ultimately, I’m only accountable for my self-growth, and the better I am, hopefully the more I impact,” he says. Besides helping startups and running desiFEST, Sathish is growing his speaking career and is working on writing a book. “If I could one day be a mayor and add more value to the city, I totally will, and that’s my hope in [my] 50s, to run for council,” he shares.

Now Sathish is helping startups grow at Ryerson University, the school where his own journey of self-discovery began. Hehopes that young entrepreneurs can learn from his experience and not succumb to the pressures of society. “I realized all these stupid walls and labels and stereotypical biases [were] all created by another dude, and I don’t have to believe in any of it! But then, how do you not create your own? And that’s [really been] the challenge for me the last 10 years…creating positive, empowering labels and walls that give me this fearless attitude in life.” He wants to show them that there is more than one way to succeed, and that they don’t need to change who they are. The C+ student can be a CEO and still wear a hoodie while skateboarding around the office.

“You won’t be afraid of yourself, but if you’re not you, you’re gonna be afraid of the person you’re not,” Sathish states. Society will always try to throw us back into the themed colouring book and trace outlines around us. But once we realize those lines are merely optical illusions, we free ourselves. We make our own rules: try multiple pages or focus on one, get messy, use various media, fill the whole page, add doodles, do the impossible – explore, innovate, create. Certainly, life is much more fun when we colour outside the lines.

Photo by Alex Banman

Published February 13, 2019

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