On 6th January 2017, I received a congratulatory email from my firm, for completing my 2 years anniversary; which I met with mixed emotions. There was a sense of satisfaction and joy, it marked a milestone on my professional journey. I was known among my colleagues as a decent front-end developer, had competed in various company-wide hackathons, received spot awards and worked on a diverse range of PayPal products. But there was a sense of anxiety; even after completing a couple of years, I was still unclear about my goals, had no sense of direction in life and was professionally detached.
How could I get my colleagues to engage more with each other? How could I cultivate a culture in my organization that would be fun, collaborative and recreational at the same time? Something that would survive even after my tenure at PayPal. I turned towards our Chennai office for inspiration.
Being the second largest development center in the world for PayPal after its San Jose center, Chennai office hosts a strength of ~2000 employees along with a multitude of cultural clubs like Photography Club, Music Club, Toastmasters Club, etc. This is obviously much more than Bangalore, and hence is the participation in these clubs. Opening a club in Bangalore office was not the challenge, keeping it alive was. Few of my office colleagues and I believed that music was the answer!
I have had my fair share of club experiences in the past, I have been a part of many and have been rejected from many more! Many have the notion that clubs should be very exclusive and reserved community and entering them requires special talent and prior experience. While this might be true for founders, a club thrives on the active participation of its members, on the frequency of its meet ups and very importantly a strong sense of purpose. And this is something we wanted to convey in the beginning.
Hence, our club purpose become very simple from the beginning: Jamming sessions for experienced musicians, learning sessions for beginners and collaborative internal live performances (at-least initially). Here was the plan:
1. Know your people
But obvious! You cannot start any club without interested folks around. We had a feeling that people were already enthusiastic about music; many employees went for guitar classes, some had played professionally, and some even had experience in recording (Check out Amit's video). But we need some numbers to judge our crowd, target their interests and make them stick in the club long enough. Sounds like a startup dilemma? Well, I treated it that way. This is where surveys come in handy. We sent office wide survey clearing outlining a brief about the club and asking folks if they were interested in Music club memberships. If they were, we went on with the following questions:
Overall experience with music (Beginner, Intermediate, Expert)
Area of interest, select Instrumental or Vocals
If Vocals, select Indian Classical/Bollywood or Western
If Instruments, select Guitar, Keyboard, Drums or Others
Do you own any instrument? If yes, please specify
We deduced the following results from our survey:
Participation: Our audience was almost equally inclined towards learning an instrument and vocals.
Prior experience: Most of us were new in the field of music, with less than 6 months of experience. This data was particularly useful as it will be known later in the article.
Interest: Majority of the folks were interested in learning guitar. This data was a building block for a new subdivision of Music club, namely knowledge sessions.
Number of interested folks (genre wise)
2. Segregate and target: Guitar Classes
On classifying our audience, my main aim was to target the majority, the uninitiated. From our analysis, the guitar seemed like a popular choice for the beginners. So, we decided to host guitar classes in our office itself. Now I knew as a former guitar student that the reason people drop out of learning sessions were:
Classes are far away (Take a lot of effort to show up on the location)
Class timings clash with meetings and meet-ups. (Priority: Work > Family > Friends > ……… > Saving Gotham > Guitar classes)
Classes are costly. (Normal guitar classes cost you around ₹2.5-3k for 8 classes a month, an hour each)
One does not own a guitar. (A typical beginners guitar costs ₹5-6k)
First point, check. As mentioned above, classes would be held in the office premises. So no need to worry about braving the rush hour traffic with your guitar!
For the next 2 points, we had to zero down on an instructor who was comfortable with our timings and was fairly reasonable for the members. We ended our search on Avishek Mridha, who agreed to conduct his classes on Wednesdays from 5 to 6 pm and for whom students would only have to pay ₹500 from their pocket for 4 classes a month and PayPal would bear the rest of the fee!
The last point was tricky! With all the above preconditions met, folks were still apprehensive about their enrollment. Fortunately, the first class was a theoretical one and did not require a guitar. We sent out a mail to all the employees stating that this was a trial class; meaning they could attend the lecture for free, judge the instructor and then decide if they wanted to continue with future classes. This was the most insane step that we took so far. I honestly had no idea on how many people would turn up for the classes. I remember receiving Mridha at the ground floor of my office building and saying "Please do not have high hopes of participation from this class because I am not having much". Mridha patiently nodded and smiled.
It was at that moment that it hit me that I was shooting in the dark. That I was trying to sell a service (guitar sessions) that nobody might be interested in buying. My only hope was my team (including Mridha) by my side and a speck of hope that given suitable conditions and a good instructor, people will always show up to learn/try something new.
And boy did PayPal surprise me! Exceeding all our expectations, more than 18 folks signed up for the classes. Moreover, almost everyone agreed to continue the classes and buy a guitar!
I honestly do not know which of the pain points we successfully targeted. Was it the cost, was the timings and the proximity or was it the calm and cool demeanor of Mridha that persuaded all. But as, of today, the club is 15 members strong which is huge if you have attended any guitar classes. I personally re-enrolled myself along with my colleagues and a few other core members. It gives me great pride when I see my office dotted with guitar bags on Wednesday mornings and an employee comes up to me and says "Kya baat hai Sarwesh, tumhari guitar class to chal padi. Bahut shandaar!!"
3. Practice on ......new gears!
Fast-forward 6 months. Till now I had been focusing mainly on the beginners. They were no doubt the heart and soul of the club, but it was time we catered to the face of the club. Karthik and I decided that to draw in the experienced players of our office to the club, regular jamming sessions were a must. We had already started informal sessions since we began in April, but no serious work was done. We lacked proper equipment, did not have a dedicated room for practice and our regular attendees were limited to a couple of interns. The sessions had no clear agenda and slowly everyone started losing interest in the same. It was at the same time that I got admission into National Institute of Design, Gandhinagar for their Master's course in New Media Design which I decided to join.
With only a few weeks left until my final day, my focus shifted from attending jamming sessions to facilitating them. And one way that could be done was procuring new gears. Among the essentials were microphones, electric guitars and a keyboard. With the help of Bimal Singhi and Priya Raman, we ordered equipment worth 1.5 lakhs for our club which included a Gibson electric guitar, an ESP bass guitar and a Korg PA300 (there is still more to come). This restored the club's enthusiasm level among the intermediates and we saw more participation during jamming sessions; with folks like Aakash Chugh and Manish Kumar pitching in for vocals, Amit on the keyboard, Karthik on strings and Aparajita Roy as vocals.
Also, these instruments have enabled us to record our music and hence publish them online and perform in front of live audience on various cultural occasions like Annual Day, Women's Day, Kids at Work Day and many more.
There is much more to the story than what really meets the eye. There have been numerous water-cooler conversations, endless meetings, mail threads, phone calls, surveys and hours of internet browsing that has led us to this milestone. Although I am no longer a part of this club, I can't thank enough for the support of amazing people who nudged me forward on this venture - Karthik Paramasivam, Priya Raman, Abhinav Tankha, Nilesh Kumar, Bimal Singhi and others and re-affirmed my faith that at PayPal, PEOPLE MATTER!