One of the recurring themes when it comes to entrepreneurship is “valuation”. How much a company is “worth” is in many ways the tail that wags the enterprise dog in our times. I’ve asked this question to every single one of the guests on First Principles.

But the answer from Kamal Sagar, the co-founder and CEO of Bangalore-headquartered real estate and design company Total Environment, still came as a bit of surprise. (Last year the company did around $250M in sales.) “I don’t know what the valuation is,” said Sagar. “We didn’t build it with the idea of selling it, so we haven’t ever looked at that option.”

And this is nearly 27 years after he started Total Environment. During that time, the company has charted a distinctly contrarian path for itself. At every stage of its evolution, it chose to do things that took more time, more money and more effort. It built its own design software. It vertically integrated its operations, down to the bricks, tiles and furniture that went into its homes. It stuck trees and lawns into balconies and roofs. It turned apartment designs into versioned products, much like productized software

 In a candid and reflective conversation that spans his three decade career as an architect and entrepreneur, Sagar shows us an alternate view of building a company. A word that comes up multiple times in the conversation is “authenticity”.

Starting with the “C” he got at IIT for being obstinate, to the many times he chose to take Total Environment down paths that traded rapid growth for slower design, Sagar gives us a glimpse into the incredibly inefficient, frustrating and lucrative sector that is real estate. 

If you’d rather (or perhaps also) read than listen, we have also published the full transcript for this interview on our website. You can click here and read through it.  As usual, a big thanks to my colleague Rahul Chaudhary who diligently helps me with the transcripts each fortnight.

If you have any questions, thoughts, suggestions, or tips, please email them to [email protected] We might not be able to reply to all of them but we do read every single one of them.

Full Episode Transcript:

Rohin Dharmakumar

Kamal, I want to take you back to 1990, IIT Kharagpur, where you were a student, of course, and your thesis for which you got a C. Do you want to tell us why you got a C?

Kamal Sagar

Well, so I was very clear in college that I wanted to, whatever I was doing, I wanted to do what I thought made sense, not necessarily do it just for the grades. So the thesis was on SOS children’s village in Bhubaneswar. And so I had certain, you know, concept in mind from understanding, you know, the problem and decided that’s how I’m going to do it.