Makarand Utpat on life, personal branding, lessons from India, and putting the power into his client's hands

April 19, 2018
Influence 100 Authorities
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A conversation with Makarand is a master class in the evolution/revolution of social media and branding. His passion for his clients is peerless. This past summer I had the pleasure of speaking to him about his extraordinary journey from sweeping ashes in his father's temple to advising and shaping great brands. I hope you enjoy meeting Makarand as much as I did!

Mike Ulmer Editor Influence

So, Makarand, how do you describe your business?

I help small business owners with branding, cracking their conversion code, and developing and building their social media presence across a multitude of social media channels using a variety of different strategies.

It seems like the world of digital marketing has rapidly grown. What qualities do you bring to the table to make you special?

There are great digital marketers out there and I respect them. But what makes me special is that my focus is on delivering results. I take proven ideas, proven concepts and I implement them. I make people’s brands shine and prepare small businesses for the future. This allows me to create direct value-add. Secondly, some of my notable achievements have come when businesses were struggling and I was able to turn them around. Thirdly, when I take charge, the chances of that business succeeding dramatically improves because I bring my A-game.

What makes you passionate about branding & marketing?

I’m passionate about how fast the world of digital marketing is evolving. I believe in many ways that we are living through a culture shift, greatly underestimating in terms of the impact on how we are interacting, buying, thinking, and sharing information.

Right now, we are in what I call a “stream economy”. If you think about Facebook LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, we are consuming information by swiping our fingers all day long. We are getting good at swiping on iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.

It’s a dichotomy. On the one side, we are experiencing this massive shift and on the other side, many companies are throwing money away, because many people still think and market like they are in 2006, you know?


What I mean by that is companies still think that people are paying attention to traditional marketing channels and they market using print, direct mail, billboards, etc. They ignore the fact that consumers are looking at their smartphones all day.

I'm stunned to hear you say that, because I can't see how one can survive without acknowledging these factors and implementing them into their business.

Ok.. to elaborate my point, 19 famous retail brands closed about 3400 stores in 2017 already… these include, but are not limited to Payless, Macy’s, Radioshack, JC Penny, Staples, Sears etc. There is a retail apocalypse going on. This is all attributed to the rise of eCommerce and changing buying habits of consumers. There is a massive disruption happening right now. Case in point, a book that was written by the Futurist Alvin Toffler in 1970s which is relevant...

Of course, everyone knows Toffler's book, “Future Shock.”

Correct… So, in terms of the culture shift that I’m referring to relates to Toffler’s “Future Shock”. At its core, “Future Shock” talked about preparing for the change, the discomfort it brings etc. That’s exactly what is currently happening with us. We are experiencing the mega-trends, their effects, and the discomfort they are creating or learning the new ways of doing business.

Give me an example.

Many companies that are unable to fathom or to move quickly to respond to the changes occurring around them are in trouble. We experienced it in the past with iconic brands like Woolworth, PanAm, Blockbuster who became extinct. So, businesses that were once too big to fail…failed. They have gone into the chapters of the history books. And that is what I mean when I say that there are still many people or companies not agile enough to respond.

Behemoths like these companies, are unable to sustain themselves because they are unable to cope up with massive changes that are happening in society.

When you take a step back, you can categorize the companies into three different buckets. One is the older companies, the second one is the disruptors of traditional business models (Uber, Amazon, Airbnb), and the third bucket is called new disruptors. These companies have new thinkers who will put a spin or twist on existing technology or find new modes of sharing and interacting. Companies like Instagram and Snapchat. They're capturing so much attention, so much traction, right? So Facebook is a disruptor and in a way, Instagram and Snapchat are the new disruptors. To me, this theme of disruption is mind-boggling and it fascinates me to see how it keeps everyone on the edge of their seats.

So what kind of businesses do you work with right now?

Currently, I work with small business owners who sense the impending failure if they don’t change their thinking. I help develop a disciplined strategy and position them for the future.

Makarand, sometimes people say they want change, want help, but they really don’t. They just want to be told that what they’re doing is okay, that they can make a few modifications. Do you sometimes have to convince a client about the wisdom of what you are telling them?

I think people who have newer businesses sometimes have an appreciation for where technology is heading. But some traditional business owners are hesitant, they don't know whether they are talking to the right person or not. They want to invest, but they don’t know whether their digital investment will turn into digital advantage. So there is a lot of shakiness, a lot of disbelief that indeed whether this technology will work for them or not.

How do you work with them on that?

I offer a variety of solutions to the business owners such as developing their signature branding and channel arts for social media, carrying out content marketing for them by writing blogs or creating infographics, doing social media marketing to develop an infectious presence on Facebook, Instagram, generating leads, or video marketing to produce captivating videos with background music that convey branding messages.

I use multi-pronged strategy in terms of working with people such as one-on-one interactions, understanding their pain-points, taking advantage of my personal brand, developing omni-presence on social media channels, and practicing what digital influencers teach.

In terms of the digital influencers, one name that comes to mind is Gary Vaynerchuk. He is one of the key figures who has transformed the world of Digital Marketing. He has written many NY Times bestsellers. One of the book is called ‘The Thank You Economy.’ At its core, it talks about giving massive value to your audience without worrying too much about what you're going to get back in return.  

I practice it diligently.

In what ways?

I’ve come up with variety of ways to give back to my audience. If you visit my website, I have been consistently producing blogs - tons and tons of blogs. I have also created my own TV channel on YouTube where I regularly vlog about the audience’s pain-points and frustrations, and I offer solutions.

Some people prefer to read while others prefer to watch videos, so I have equipped myself by creating a presence by developing my own personal brand and presence on numerous social media channels. I have my own Facebook page, I have my own website, I have my Twitter channel, I have my Instagram feed, and I have my YouTube channel. I consider myself a micro influencer in some ways because I have my own market audience with the needs and wants that I’m trying to fulfill. I want to help educate small business owners, and I am working every method.

In addition, I offer lots of freebies such as a free special report, free infographics, free cheat sheets, a free chapter. I also have my own email marketing channel, where in exchange for getting a special report or my free chapter that I wrote with Brian Tracy, I just ask for their email. I then add them to my email newsletter. And then it takes about, I would say, six or seven newsletters. They may not call me the very first time, but they know that there is somebody who is writing about their pain points, their challenges, their frustrations. I’m someone who’s speaking to their needs and wants. They will keep me in back of their mind, and then when the timing is right they end up calling me.

It’s the philosophy of give, give, give, give, and then get.


So someone who just wants to only get, really has no future in this new economy?

Absolutely right. So let’s go back to your first question How do you really differentiate yourself? I think you have to have many different tools in your toolbox. In order to influence, in order to drive that engagement… give, give, give, and then try to get.

I develop and offer educational content that speaks to my audience’s needs and pain-points. I also try to humanize my brand and do storytelling. That is very important. In my blogs, vlogs, and Instagram feeds, I talk about my own experiences, the setbacks I experienced, my likes and dislikes, the things that I learned and are still learning etc. That allows me to build empathy and connect with the audience who share my beliefs and passion.

Makarand, tell me the role your upbringing plays in how you work?

I never forget the roots when I’m working on day-to-day basis. That allows me to put things into perspectives. Basically, I had very humble beginning. We lived in Bombay. My mother was never in good health. She suffered from high blood pressure, diabetes, starting at a very early age. She never finished 8th grade. She went through a series of other medical conditions, such as suffering paralysis, thyroid issues and other medical conditions. She could have come up with a lot of excuses, but she was a fighter, she was phenomenal cook and a loving mother.

At a very early age, let's say about 10 or 11 years of age, I understood the importance of the hard work and a good work ethic. My father was a priest and we used to run a temple in India; I used to help him with the daily temple activities along with my siblings. We also helped my mother with things like cutting vegetables, making curds, making buttermilk, washing dishes, and doing the laundry.

And where were you living then, Makarand ?

I grew up in Mumbai in a small town that was right next to the third largest slum in the world. Experiencing poverty was not like a novelty for me. I knew what it felt like to be ignored, outcast, or denied.

I came back to the United States on an international student visa with a leap of faith. I aspired to get a higher education and received my Master’s in Computer Science. It’s up to us whether we succumb to our circumstances, or whether we are self aware enough to turn that into an advantage.

It’s a decision. You have to kind of audit yourself in terms of what are your strengths, what your emotional quotient looks like, EQ versus IQ. And then, you just go at it full force, basically.

In listening to your story I thought of the movie Slumdog Millionaire.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.

That movie was a real eye opener for people in this part of the world to see the conditions people exist in other parts of the world.

Absolutely. I think this is where I personally feel that I have tremendous advantage over my American peers or any other person I’m competing with. Nothing against them, I mean I have high respect, high regards for their accomplishments, their capabilities, their calibre. But the thing is that I have seen both sides of the equation, and it has allowed me to create a unique perspective towards life, success, failure, and winning. You know? So I truly appreciated every little opportunity that life has offered me.

Tell me about your dad, you mentioned that he was a priest.

My dad was a third generation priest, mine was the fourth generation in the Hindu culture. You can equate my dad’s job to some degree with somebody running the church activities in the U.S. People here go the church every Sunday. In India, they come to the temple basically every day. It seemed like every other day we had some kind of function, some kind of activity, some kind of festival. So we had to cater to the needs of devotees coming every day to the temple. I used to help my dad in preparing him in these rituals, whether it was bringing the flowers, giving some offerings to Gods’ statues and whatnot. So basically that was my other background, where I respected people's viewpoints.

We are all we destined to work with innate wisdom that comes from other places. And yet we have to meld that innate wisdom with the changes and often painful reality of our lives at present. In other words, we have to operate from an ethical base to negotiate difficult change and draw upon those things to  guide people into a new time. That seems to me to be central to your job and to your beliefs. So do you think you can be a successful person in business and not have a moral grounding?

No. You can go only so far with not being able to balance your ethics with your ambition. You won’t be able to achieve long-term success. You have to have that moral compass kind of balanced and mapped out against what you're trying to offer. I believe that gives you much more power when you are trying to talk to people, trying to understand their needs, wants, their pain points. I believe that gives you an extra edge if you have that moral compass.

So, I just want to go back to the idea of personal qualities and humility. Because again, when you talk about a life that you're talking about, the religion that you were brought up in, what your father practiced, what your family practiced, it was one based in service and humility. And in terms of humility you can't, unless you're humble, you can't really listen and understand people's problems.

Absolutely. Success is a very subjective term. Money can be an important distinguisher, but what is also important to me is what you become and the transformation you go through to become successful.

Remember Jack Canfield and his popular book “The Chicken Soup for the Soul” that has sold multi-million copies in different languages, right? He experienced massive hardships and was turned down by every publisher. Only when he was 51 years of age did he get a big break with his book. 

I believe we underestimate ... whenever we see these successful names, whether it's Michael Jordan, Jack Welch, Richard Branson, Jack Canfield, Brian Tracy or Robin Sharma. We sometimes underestimate what it took them to achieve that success. That part that is much more interesting to me, not so much understanding where they are right now, but how they were before they came to the point they are in right now. Success is a process.

And so do you think that everyone has that in them, to be a successful small business or medium-sized business owner? What are the essential qualities of someone that can do well at this?  Who are your clients who succeed the most?

Good clients know they have a good business model that is working in the traditional sense. But they don't know how to make that leap of faith or go to that next stage. The other category, the other class we're dealing with nowadays is basically people who never ran any kind of business. But they have passion. They have a unique value proposition. And what I mean by that is that, perhaps they are good at blogging. Or maybe perhaps they are good at producing music, or perhaps they are good at photography. They have this unique value proposition and passion, but they don't know how to take it to the next level. That is where I help them to create presence, and branding across social media channels.

So I think, to answer your question Mike, I think the people who succeed the most are the ones who believe in what they do and are passionate. They want to help their friends and clientele in a positive way. Those are the people that I have seen succeeding in the long term.

Many of these people are in situations that were not of their doing. People have served companies diligently and then shown the door. They help people sell companies and then are terminated by new management. I wonder, do you think life is fair?

Many times we feel life is not a fair game and wonder why bad things happen to me? However, after going through many hardships, I have learned that life is not about unicorns and rainbows either. Whenever one door closes, if you are willing to take a shot, there are 100 doors waiting for you to enter into. The way you succeed is by going four steps backward and two steps forward. Rather than getting into finger pointing or blame games, if you take charge and if you keep your True North into perspective, you will succeed.

Two years ago, I worked for a big pharmaceutical company. Overall, I had a successful career before that as well. I had what I thought were symbols of personal power and influence in the traditional sense; a big salary, stock options, and a good job title. I had a diverse list of achievements under my belt: I had produced many white papers, I had built up teams, and I had given oversight to numerous projects, which were kind of trailblazers in their own ways for that company. But then, our company went through a series of massive acquisitions and my job ended. My story is not unusual. It happened three times over 15 years. I was leading a marketing group for a big company. Before that, I was a worldwide global IT team head for a $33 billion company. I had a massive list of achievements and breakthroughs for that company.

I had been such a diligent guy and a high performer. I held high paying jobs, and saved these companies millions of dollars, whether it was through software acquisitions, negotiations, delivering projects, managing high-budgets, or leading high-risk projects. But when I looked myself up online, I saw none of my personal power, influence and achievements.

To Google, I was an unknown, a nobody. I realized not only my time but a great part of my personal identity was owned by the companies I had worked for so diligently.

That was an epiphany for me. I decided to start all over again, and that is when I decided to rediscover myself, reinvent myself. I went on my journey which included writing a bestselling book. I got a call from my publisher to write a book with Brian Tracy, and I became a best selling author. My interview appeared on NBC, ABC, FOX. I also created a social media presence and a personal brand.

I think, in many cases, we tend to forget that power lies in our hands. And I think it is incredibly easy nowadays for a person, or a brand or an organization to create their own platform. In the past, we needed permission, or we needed money if you wanted to reach out to people. Today with the Internet, with the gig economy, with the thank you economy, there are absolutely no barriers. The only thing, I feel, that is holding us back from having our own platform is our ability to imagine.

So if you take a look at any platform like LinkedIn, Google+, Twitter, Facebook or creating your own website, for that matter, creating your own blogs, there are millions and millions of people out there who are using those channels. It’s so easy and you don't need anybody's permission, plus you can get started with minimal investment dollars. That’s a marvelous gift. And that’s what I've been doing for the past eighteen months or so. I’m not where I want to be yet and I’ve many goals to accomplish but I feel good about breaking out of my comfort zone. I am at a point, if I do decide to go back to the corporate career, I feel I have much more leverage and a greater advantage compared to others.

We have to grow up. At the end of the day you're teaching people how to grow up. And teaching those same people, independent people, how to engage with the world with the latest tools. So instead of them putting their hands over their eyes, you're saying, "you know, I can help you see what’s going on, help you negotiate the changes and the technology, but we're going to be grown up people from now on."

Absolutely. I think the point is that you can become your own platform. You don't need anyone's permission, you are your own media platform. That is what I am striving towards, that is what I am helping other people strive towards. I find a great sense of satisfaction when I see the lightbulb go on for them.

When you go into a developing nation, you see people don’t ask for permission to make money. They support their families. They do what they need to do. Having come from a background like that must serve you well. Your imagination isn’t limited by asking for permission.

Nowadays the field is wide open. Regardless of your constraints, if you are passionate enough and good at certain skill sets, you can create your own presence. You can create your own brand and you can become your own media platform. You know, that is what it is all about. And we have seen, many examples. Look at kids who are 16/17 years of age who have a million followers on YouTube. They are kind of giving a fright to big brand names, you know. And on the contrary, big brand names are coming to them to make sure that their brand names are advertised through their YouTube channels and whatnot. So I think we are living in the phenomenal age. We just need to know how we can use it to our advantage, you know? I think that's what it boils down to. Today, if you want to succeed in the digital age, it is about becoming known, staying relevant by delivering massive value to your audience, and developing your personal brand.

Makarand, it was pleasure talking to you

It’s likewise. The pleasure was all mine.

Makarand’s Contact Information:


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