Posts tagged BITSian
Posts tagged BITSian
Ramki Sankaranarayanan glanced at his phone one evening, to see an SMS announcing the arrival of Namit’s baby boy. The year was 2007, and Namit was this absurdly young founder/CEO of Prime Focus, a company that dominates the post-production film business in Mumbai. Once a salesman always a salesman, they say, and Ramki true to his calling, immediately picked up the phone to wish Namit, his erstwhile customer. What followed is like a fairytale. Namit asks Ramki about his startup and ends up pitching him to invest in it, as he believes that Ramki’s technology would nicely compliment Prime Focus’ content business! Ramki thought over it a lot, and eventually accepted Namit’s offer, giving him a strong strategic investor, with an existing customer base and a brand name across the media industry. Thus was born Prime Focus Technologies (PFT), which has gone from strength to strength and, today, emerged as one of the rare successful product companies from India! Ganesh Sankaran, Ramki’s cofounder and fellow BITSian, joined him soon thereafter to take charge of technology, leaving Ramki to focus on the business side.
Of course, while all of this seems so straightforward and simple, this has to have been one of the hardest decisions that Ramki has had to make on his entrepreneurial journey so far. Take money from a large strategic investor like Prime Focus…or go with one of the many Venture Capital Funds he has been in discussions with? The strategic investor option looks attractive, and gives him and his business a big leg up, with ready customers, a successful entrepreneur as partner, and a big brand name that can open so many doors. But, he will have far less control over his company, and one big operational investor to deal with and manage. Always, a very tough decision. And in the end, it’s always a judgement call made by the founder, and founder alone, and Ramki made the call to go with the strategic investor.
Today, in hindsight, Ramki believes he did the right thing…as it gave him access to a large customer base from Day 1. And, Ramki’s assessment of Namit turned out dead-on, as Namit has let him run PFT independently, with little intereference. It’s helped that Namit, too, had been a start-up entrepreneur once. The decision also shows Ramki’s leadership quality of being able to put company’s interest before his - a trait he demonstrated again when he chose to work out of Mumbai, leaving his family behind in Bangalore for 4+ years, because his customers are in Mumbai.
So, going back, what got Ramki to quit the corporate ladder at the peak of his career, and jump onto the rocky path of an entrepreneur? He blames it on his Gurus at Tatas, FC Kohli and Ramadurai. He says that watching them create a totally new industry from scratch was a life-changing experience for him. And it was only a matter of time as to when he would set out at building something new himself. (Role models matter so much, don’t they…especially those in the early part of your career?!)
PFT is also one of those rare companies from India that is not a “me too” player. It’s platform, CLEAR, is the world’s first hybrid, multi-platform, content operations infrastructure, on the cloud. CLEAR is a global virtual pipeline of digital media processing and delivery services, designed to transition media companies to the Digital era. Ramki says that he is amused when CTOs and CIOs of some big-name Hollywood Studios remark with disbelief, that “It is too good to be true”!!
But Hollywood was not PFT’s initial target market. As is important for any product company, PFT first targeted and met success with local Indian customers like Star TV, Vijay TV, UTV, and BCCI, before they went westwards. BCCI was, in fact, the first to try out PFT when it launched. Using PFT, BCCI has created an online library of their video collection, that anyone can search and access from his/her laptop. Not a bad deal at all for BCCI, which is sitting on a goldmine of content that it would like to make available to the public. This kind of win-win partnership could be a great case study for what a good domestic market can do for start-up success and vice versa - something that is hard to come by in India.
Ramki and Ganesh stress that it is their “systems” background that helped them architect a well thought-out solution platform for their customers. They believe that pure software engineers lack the multi-disciplinary expertise across video, audio and IT, that media companies require. This is the secret sauce that PFT has leveraged to build its technology. Ironically, it’s his background in IT services that helped Ramki steer far away from offering undifferentiated commodity services, and focus on creating a strong IP based business model!
Ramki is very proud that PFT has been profitable from Year 1. He says the company is very aware that they were not “born with a silver spoon”, and therefore the culture is not one of throwing resources to solve problems. Neither is it the “build product and customers will come” approach that most product companies take. PFT has been working with customers from early on to spec out its product, ensuring that customers are willing to pay for what PFT is offering. Talking to Ramki, you see why it’s always good for a startup to have at least one founder with a strong business background - he thinks customer, and cash flow, from day 1! Ramki is quick to point out, though, that he has enough technology in him to architect the entire product if need be! So it’s even more creditable that he chose to empower Ganesh and leave him to manage the Bangalore delivery set-up, while he holds the fort in Mumbai.
After capturing a good market share in India, Ramki and Ganesh are now all set to take PFT global. They have already launched in US, UK and South Africa.They have landed the first few clients in US & UK already. Ramki rightly believes that this is going to be their biggest challenge over the next few years. Media companies are famously known to be tough, demanding customers, and it is not easy to penetrate that world especially for an Indian company. And once in, they will have to deliver consistently, and scale effectively to quickly build on their early-mover advantage. So the next few years are very critical for Ramki, and PFT, as they move from being an Indian start-up to a global media technology company.
Ramki is very cognizant of this challenge, and believes that getting the right people in place who can support him and Ganesh, and empowering them to perform is going to be the key to success. It is going to be very interesting, and exciting, to watch how Ramki leads, transitions, and scales PFT into a global player.
If Ramki and PFT make it, as I am sure they will, it will be a feather in the cap not just for them but for the entire Indian technology industry.