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Sathish Bala, Brand Builder Behind DESIFEST, Launches Edtech Startup Schoolio to Help Parents Teach Their Kids At Home
Best known for creating high-performance agency BlueBand Digital and Canada’s largest South Asian music festival; DESIFEST as Co-Founder and CEO, Sathish has been a trusted strategic advisor to some of the world’s most admired brands.
Ara Ehamparam
Co-founder & Podcast Host
Canada
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Sathish Bala is a distinguished business leader in advertising and emerging technology. Motivated by innovation and creativity, he currently applies his insights and curiosity to enable entrepreneurial ideas, champion heartfelt causes, and mentor young professionals. Best known for creating high-performance agency BlueBand Digital and Canada’s largest South Asian music festival; DESIFEST as Co-Founder and CEO, Sathish has been a trusted strategic advisor to some of the world’s most admired brands. For 20 years, he collaborated, connected, and inspired brilliant talent to create award-winning and brand-building platforms for clients. He pioneered the development and launch of 3 digital companies, totalling $50M+ in sales with 150+ staff across 5+ countries.  He now works at the forefront of the Bala Group, a consulting and investment group focused on supporting early-stage startup founders. Sathish serves as a digital wayfinder, charting possibilities for promising companies and entrepreneurs. Sathish also supports Canada’s brightest student entrepreneurs through his work as an Advisor with various incubators and accelerators.

You seem like you have the same challenge as me because you have different projects you're working on. If somebody asked you what you do, how would you respond?

Good question. While i have multiple projects/startups on the go, I tend to have ONE umbrella company that is the lead project. I am currently the founder of Bala Group Inc - a consultancy focused on helping early-stage tech startups get to market with clarity, product and sales. One of our companies is Schoolio - an education startup helping innovate the home education market. 

I'm sure the story starts when you were even younger (as it does with a lot of entrepreneurs), but I think it was the experience you went through BlueBand Digital and getting acquired that really kicked off everything else you worked on . Tell us more about that experience.  

I started my first while finishing computer science at Ryerson during my 4th year. I didn't want to join the co-op program as I felt it would teach me anything for the future. I learned so much on my own that it became addictive. I am in the ultimate 'self-help' game and with each startup - good or bad, success or failure, I won with personal growth. So, when my 3rd company BlueBand Digital launched in 2007, I finally blended my creative side with my techie side into a perfect business model. When I sold the agency in 2017, I was no longer learning or growing. I was lucky enough to recognize that and get out before I got stuck in a routine. During the last year of BlueBand, I was really enjoying mentoring and helping other founders with their startups. Finding a place to share your experience, your scars and your skills as you get older is as important - and is my new addiction. How many other people in our community can I help achieve success?   What is the impact of having representation for the next generation to see?  These are the things I am exploring now. We need more leaders from the Tamil community to share and give-away their blueprint, network and, when possible, funding to help build the next batch of entrepreneurs. 

In addition to marketing & technology, I know music is a HUGE passion of yours and a big reason why you started DESIFEST. You've been running it now for 15 years, which is remarkable in age when I feel like working on projects for a long-time is almost frowned upon. What makes you continue to run this passion project of yours?  

The impact of DESIFEST on community development, empowering young people, and breaking down stereotypes fuels me! When we started 15 years ago, the world was much different - communities self-isolated. We divided ourselves by language, religion and country of origin. Being born in Tamil Nadu, moving to Singapore from the age of 3 to 14 and then arriving in Canada - Scarborough (1989), I need to figure out what culture meant to me. How to live in an east-west lifestyle? How to get along with strict parents who had their vision of MY future. So, yes, we are a music festival, but that was a way to bring the communities together - to have a deeper, more important conversation. 

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There are only 24 hours in a day. How do you manage to balance both your professional and personal life? How did this change after you became a father?  

In my early days, I worked from a place of 'volume' - trying to squeeze in as many things a possible. I experienced depression, mental health issues and burnouts. In 2010, I started to focus on 'impact' - meaning, every morning, I jot down the 5 most impactful things I want to do today. I give myself the ENTIRE day to finish them without the stress of 9-5. Two out of the five impactful things are the same every day - 2hrs of personal time to workout, chill, Dj .. whatever that make me disconnect, and the other is family time with my kids and wife. When you start to think of our days from the perspective of IMPACT, you realize that 'less is more' and with less on your plate, you can give those tasks 100% of your attention. 

Tell us about your latest project Schoolio, how it's doing and why you're so excited about it.

I am really excited about Schoolio. It started as a project to help parents with visibility and access to the curriculum. As a parent, I am expected to help my kids at home with school yet, there we have no visibility into what is being taught or how in class. This forces many families to rely on expensive after school support. Schoolio is changing that. We have developed Canadian curriculum based on the guidelines of public education that is easy to follow and affordable for parents. For the very first time, we as parents have the same tools the teachers do to help at home. COVID has also shown us how broken our education system - this is an excellent opportunity for entrepreneurs to jump in solve big problems. 

I know in addition to building businesses, you're very big of being an advisor and empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs. Why is this?

None of us can do it alone. Humans are best in tribes. When I die, I can't take ANYTHING with me - so everything I am learning is only useful this ONE TIME. I have no competitive edge in hoarding my experiences or blueprints - knowledge and experience is meant to be shared. Our goals as a community should be to learn from each other and find ways to build a better future for the next generation. If every generation thought like this, the future would only keep getting better. You can't take ANYTHING with you. Give it all away. 

What has the impact of social media been on your various ventures?

When done with authenticity, social media has the power to connect and scale your business faster than any other marketing channel. We grew Schoolio from launch to 100k in less than ten months with social media - authentic storytelling - real connections, and engagement.  

Where do you see yourself in the next 3-5 years? 

Bala Group Inc's goal is to help 100 founders launch and grow their business to 1M in revenue - creating a 100M portfolio. The impact of 100 new founders - from a multicultural background will change Canada's startup ecosystem. I hope to teach more and engage more with our Tamil community and our entrepreneurs. 

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What is a failure you've experienced in the last 5-10 years that you've learned the most from?

I almost had the CRA shut down my startup because my financial literacy was weak. We teach business, marketing and sales skills, but many entrepreneurs do not have the necessary financial literacy to understand their business, how to protect it - and themselves. I was always scared of numbers, which forced me to learn business accounting, taxes and more. While I work with excellent bookkeepers and accountants today, having this knowledge helps me better guide my teams.  

In recent years, there's been a glamourization in the startup world around raising money and growth at any costs, how do you feel about this?

I agree. Money too early hurts the startup in the long run and impacts the founder's growth. One of the early signs I look for in founders is their ability to 'do more with less' - the best founders respect the impact of money and know when and how much is needed to make an impact.

Have there been any investor opportunities that you had an opportunity to invest in and missed out on?

Mainly in the Cannabis space - I had the opportunity to be an early investor in a few that have seen exponential growth. Things always connect better when looking backwards, and with any investment, there is no real way to predict the future - so I move on. 

In terms of your personal legacy, in a few sentences, describe how you want to be remembered by your family and friends?

I wish to be remembered for my kindness to others, my courage to follow my heart and leave the world a little better from my time here. 

What is a great business idea that you would be working on if you weren't focused on your current ventures?

Over the counter - COVID self-test kits.

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What do you think you would tell 16-year Sathish looking back?

Fear is made so dream the greatest dream possible

How would you describe your dream life?  

To be honest, outside of living in a hot country - waking up to the beach/ocean - I love my life and what I have been able to build so far. (I hate winters)

What is your favourite book(s) you've read recently or a podcast(s) that you've listened to recently that's had an impact on you?

I recently finished reading "Tiny Leaps" by Gregg Clunnis. Amazing book! I also consume a TON of podcasts, but one of my favourites is "Entrepreneurs on Fire".

What is a new belief, behaviour or habit that has most improved your life?

Yes, Sleep! I never appreciated the impact of sleep - 6hr to 8hr is so crucial to optimal performance. 

If you were given $1 billion, how would you allocate the money to change the world?

I would spend it all on educating kids globally - access to information, education is how we will change the world. As a citizen of the world, we can change the lack of access and inequality in the system - and imagine a world where EVERY child has access to knowledge. 

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How would you describe the impact that the Toronto Tamil community has had on you personally and your business? 

No so much in business, to be honest, but personally, for a family of five, to get off the plane in 1989 from Singapore - without anyone here, the Tamil community embraced us from day one. So many amazing strangers helped us kickstart our life in Canada. 

Do you think affluent members of the Tamil community contribute their fair share to philanthropic initiatives outside of the community? Any changes you'd like to see?

I feel we need to do a better PR job of our effort within the community and outside. We are such a secret to the mainstream. We need to be loud and proud of our accomplishments in Canada.

What is your favourite Tamil food (meal or dessert)?

Rice and Sambar - 100%

What is your favourite Tamil movie?

Anything with Rajinikanth! 

What does Tamil culture mean to you?

Community - a sense of pride in shared values and history. The instant connection when we can speak in our native language - anywhere in the world.

Connect with Sathish via his TC profile

 

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