Posts tagged India
Posts tagged India
I was in the bay area when the dotcom bust of 2001-02 happened. I got to see, first hand, the pink slip mayhem that got unleashed right after. Start-ups folded up virtually overnight, with no funding in sight. Big companies saw their sales plummet, and had to re-size their operations if they wanted to stay afloat. The impact was not restricted to one sector or industry. As retail demand slowed down, the big-box retailers had to let go of their staff. The real estate market crashed, and there were way too many agents for the fewer sales that were happening. Only the healthcare sector was doing well, as you could not postpone your illness with or without a job! The dotcom bust was followed by the Iraq/Afghanistan war, which again took a toll on the economy. Then came the financial crisis of 2008. So, clearly, the boom-bust cycles have become quicker in the last decade, than in any other period. And they are no longer restricted to one country.
What happens in the larger economies of the world immediately impacts the others across the globe. We have seen how each downturn in the US and Europe has affected the Indian economy in the recent past. If big brother sneezes, the economy in India will catch a cold. The other key point that has emerged over the last decade is that even governments need to live within their means. The European crisis brought out clearly that countries like Greece that splurged on hosting Olympics and building large bureaucracies, are now virtually on the street with a begging bowl. The unthinkable is happening, as even socialist governments are now cutting jobs and benefits because they have no other choice.
Why am I talking about all this now and what does it have to do with layoffs? I am highlighting this situation we are in today, because we, in India, are constantly debating about whether it is in our culture to do layoffs. We hanker back to the time when Indian companies treated employees like family and would rather sell the family-silver than let go off a loyal worker. Very recently when Jet Airways announced a large-scale layoff, there was a hue-and-cry with emotional employees crying on TV. Sure enough, Naresh Goyal, the MD of Jet Airways, made a statement taking all the employees back and pronouncing that they were like family to him. Is this sustainable? No, it is not…especially when Indian companies are competing in the global market for customers and employees. There has been a tectonic shift in the job market post economic liberalisation, or rather post the cold war era. Today, there is really only one economic order, and that is one or the other form of capitalism. WTO will ensure that countries open up markets.
Corporate India has to accept the same metrics of performance measurements as its counterparts elsewhere. It has to follow the same economic cycles as others in the developed world. So, willy-nilly, Indian firms will have to follow international practices when it comes to hiring and firing. No longer can we question whether layoffs are a part of our culture, because companies big and small will have to resort to it to tide over bad times.
It’s only when we accept that a layoff is as inevitable as hiring, can, perhaps, both employers and employees be better prepared to face it, and hopefully come out of it with the least amount of trauma. First, let us talk about what employees can do, as this is one aspect that is often ignored when this topic is discussed. But there is a lot that is in your hands, and I’m listing a few here to get started:
Now, let’s switch our attention to what an employer can do to ease layoffs and ensure they have a productive workforce, so that when the inevitable happens, it doesn’t destroy the morale of the current employees or the long-term prospects of their attracting better employees in the future. Much has been said about this time and again, but a few points stand out in the context of the Indian scenario. These are:
All said and done, layoffs can be hard for parties on either side of the table. There is no easy way to do it or be prepared for it. An important step is to realise that it is not something that can be wished away. Therefore accepting it early and being prepared could go a long way in ensuring that it is handled correctly.
ARE WE ON THE CUSP OF THREE BIG TECHNOLOGICAL
LEAPS — SOCIAL, CLOUD AND MOBILE?
I was visiting the San Francisco bay area after almost a year. I was excited about meeting old friends and looking forward to catching up with the new set of entrepreneurs and startups. There is no better place than Silicon Valley for ‘startup-watching’ as it throws up brand new ones unfailingly year after year, month after month, why, even week after week!
And I was not disappointed. A whole new crop of companies showed up on my radar; some in the consumer space; many in the enterprise space; some started by seasoned entrepreneurs and many by young first-time founders. Interestingly, this time around, technology was more of a lever but the real business seemed to be more old-world, like education, hospitality, or healthcare.
Perhaps that explains why Uber, a startup that provides on-demand cab service in New York, San Francisco, Boston and other metros, is a big rage with the vcs. There is also a palpable sense of urgency with a growing number of incubators promising a cookie-cutter model for launching successful startups in a crunched time frame of 3-6 months.
I began to ask myself, “Are we in the midst of yet another bubble, especially after the disappointing ipos of Zynga, Facebook and Groupon?” It was natural for me to wonder if this were a return to the Pets.com and WebVan era. So, I decided to talk to my friends and get a sense of what was happening. A lot of them have seen multiple cycles, and are not ones to see the world exclusively through rose-tinted glasses. So, here is what I found, looking at this phenomenon through their eyes.
I started my meetings with Keval Desai, a partner with InterWest Partners,who is on the board of many of the new-generation startups like Flurry, Locbox, Gojee, etc. He has been around in the industry for a while, having worked at Tandem in the 90s and more recently, at Google and Digg. Keval says ‘social’ is just getting started and the real impact of overlaying ‘social’ on the way we live and work will be felt over the next 10 years. He believes that the road ahead will have its bumps but we will see some serious growth as three big technological changes, viz: Social, Cloud and Mobile, are coming together for the first time. And better still, the place is awash with entrepreneurs, with ex-Googlers, ex-PayPalers and now ex-Facebookers, all in the fray as investors, inventors and mentors.
Says Keval, ‘‘Companies like Google not only provide a fantastic platform to learn the art and science of building successful products, but also instill a strong ‘can do’ attitude’. He still recollects the eclectic array of speakers — like Mohammed Yunus, Bill Joy, Bill Gates, Gwyneth Paltrow, Colin Powell, Jimmy Carter and many others — who he heard speak at the TechTalk@Google programme. “When you hear them talk about how they changed the face of a nation, company, technology, culture etc, adding one more feature to Gmail seems so very doable!”, says Keval.
As I left his office, I was still marveling at the impact that a company like Google makes, way beyond just its products and services! What we are witnessing today in the valley are the fruits of seeds sown a decade back, similar to the impact the earlier ones like Sun, hp and the likes have had on enabling a Google to happen.
My next stop was the office of Shyam Sankar, who heads business development for Palantir, a hotshot company in the much-talked about ‘Big Data’ space. Shyam is passionate about solving complex, real world, problems through ‘computer science’, which is what got him into Palantir as its employee #13. He believes that companies like Palantir are attracting the best brains because they are staying true to the original Silicon Valley spirit — viz, that of using technology to improve the quality of lives of people manifold. Palantir is spearheading the new mantra that the best results are achieved when you leverage the exponential effect of human-computer symbiosis.
They do this by empowering Data Analysts, experts in their domain, whether be it security, finance or medicine, to do their job better and faster. Palantir’s analysis platform is a powerful tool for visualising large data sets, identifying relationships, and doing rapid data modelling. This, in the hands of smart people, can help detect frauds in large-scale mortgage financing, determine source of large epidemic outbreaks in public health systems, discover potential terrorist threats, and solve many more such complex problems.
Shyam feels that developing countries like India that are struggling to invest monies in putting physical security in place to counter terrorist attacks, could leverage such technology to catch potential terrorists at a much lower cost. And he hopes that Indian decision makers will wake up to this before more innocent people die or get injured, like his uncle did in the Mumbai train bombings in 2006.
Shyam’s trait of practical idealism is something that kept recurring across the diverse set of companies and people that I met. There is an intense urge among the new entrepreneurs to move beyond just sharing music and movies, to leverage new techniques like crowd-sourcing, social network, search etc to solve basic problems of people. One such venture is Gooru, a new search engine for learning (www.goorulearning.com).
I spent time talking with Gooru’s founder & CEO, Prasad Ram, a successful engineer and leader who embodies the spirit of free and open access to education for all. The Gooru team has built the world’s first, free, content curating, sharing and learning platform. I got to know Prasad when he moved to India, first as the cto of Yahoo and later as the head of Google’s research and development centre in Bengaluru. Like Shyam, Prasad is passionate about using technology for social transformation. While there are many important social challenges facing the world today, he believes that education is the solution to creating a productive, empowered and well-meaning society. With this in mind, Prasad set out to build Gooru with a focus on how to create a learning solution for every student that would simultaneously stimulate the educational ecosystem.
Teachers and students can find collections that are aligned to standards, and cover every 5th-12th-grade topic of their interest. Gooru enables every student, regardless of socio-economic status, to attain the same level of learning, by providing access to the best content curated by world-class teachers. To do this, its engineers have had to build an intelligent recommendation engine, crawl the web for content, build the taxonomy, engineer an education-specific search engine and provide easy-to-use tools to enable educators to curate lessons and quizzes from the web resources.
Prasad says that the whole effort was made possible because of the Silicon Valley ecosystem. He signed up investors like Ram Sriram, Google ventures etc, when he had nothing to show besides his cv, and a desire to do some good. Today, Gooru is growing rapidly, with over two million educational resources and nearly 5,000 collections and quizzes, all of which are available at www.goorulearning.org to anybody with internet access.
Interestingly, today’s startups are doing these wonderful things with very little money. Thanks to cloud infrastructure coming of age via Amazon’s AWS services, and availability of open source software, getting off the ground does not require a huge investment.
Pooja Sankar, founder of Piazza, who agreed to meet me despite her hectic schedule with a newborn baby, corroborated this as a big factor that’s fuelling the startup frenzy in silcon valley. But she believes that it’s finally the entrepreneur’s passion that gets a venture started, and makes it succesful.
She says that, in her case, the opportunity cost of leaving a job with Facebook, where she was an early employee, was way too high to make sense, except that she had an idea that she just could not get out of her head! It was around helping girls in engineering do their homework and thereby learn faster; a cause that was close to her heart, and a need she had experienced first-hand while studying at IIT. That’s how Piazza was born.
Now comes the interesting part — Piazza has a total strength of just 12 engineers and product folks, even as it has put out a product that is being used by over half the student population at Stanford, Mit, and even a few IITs. Piazza is a powerful social network of students, professors and tas, which allows them to ask questions, solve problems and seek help virtually in real time. It has virally spread through word of mouth referral from one professor to another, and from one institute to another. Piazza has no big sales force, and no major marketing budget, as the users have taken over these critical roles, unsolicited! My son’s friends at mit told me how much they love Piazza. In fact, they could not imagine how they ever survived earlier, without Piazza!!
Where will India figure in this new startup equation?, I kept asking myself. My meeting with Bipul Sinha, Partner with Lightspeed, and a very successful investor in companies like Nutanix, Hootsuite, Pulse, Peel etc, provided me one part of this answer. Bipul says that the time to scale and build has accelerated so much now, that offshore product engineering is hard to justify initially. Most products are launched quickly to get the initial user feedback. Quick product iterations, and scaling when you spot an inflection point, required the team to be in one place without unnecessary communication overheads. No wonder then that companies are choosing to hire talent where they can find them and bring them over to their HQ, rather than set up shop outside.
Facebook, Google, Palantir and the likes are scouring the talent market in places like India, and hiring directly for the US! This is true even for incubators like Y Combinator, 500 Startups, and TechStars, which are aggressively reaching out to potential entrepreneurs in places like India.
Paul Singh, Partner at 500 Startups, says he is planning to put a person on the ground in India so that they can increase the pipeline of Indian entrepreneurs. Again he reiterated that they offer the same valuation, term sheet, etc, to their entrepreneurs in India as they would to a US-based team.
This should get alarm bells ringing in the Indian startup community, as the competition for startup talent is turning truly global, and we cannot afford our ‘India is different’ line anymore!
On the other side, I heard from Mark Straub, Co-founder of Khosla Impact Fund, on where the bigger opportunity for India lies. He believes, strongly, that India will be the ‘Sandbox’ for any new venture that redefines the price-point and caters to the larger `300 crore market place.
Mark plans to actively invest in India in education, healthcare, water sector, etc, with the objective of creating global enterprises that can make a distinct socio-economic impact going beyond India.
We live in truly interesting times. Finally, the traditional barriers to achievement, like access to high quality education, access to capital and information, etc, are getting demolished with technology.
Indian entrepreneurs today have a unique chance to move to the global stage by building products and services which go well beyond customising the Amazons and Ebays for India. It’s time for us to move beyond traditional labour arbitrage models, to leveraging human capital to produce real innovations that can change the lives of people in India and elsewhere. Can we rise up to the challenge?
I have followed SlideShare and its founders Rashmi, Amit and Jonathan, from afar since 2006. So, meeting Amit, when I happened to be in his neck of the woods earlier this week, was a no-brainer for me. Thank you Amit. For being very generous with your time, and for patiently putting up with all my curious questioning :-).
First, something about the company, and their offering. SlideShare is the first web based service from India that has been a super-hit globally, and that too in the consumer world! It enjoyed the classic hockey-stick growth curve, organically, and with zero dollars spent on acquiring customers! SlideShare was initially launched as a purely free service for sharing presentations. Anybody could create an account, load his/her PowerPoint slides on to the SlideShare site, and share it with the world. When it started, I remember thinking what a simple but useful service it was, especially for small businesses. They could use it as a very effective marketing tool to talk about what they did in an interesting visual manner - a content “youtube” for people who were not necessarily comfortable with putting out videos. Soon they moved to a freemium model, with a premium paid account for power users. Over the last few years, the product has evolved into a social network around content, including videos. So you can now follow people on SlideShare. It tells you how many people have downloaded/watched your content, and where you stand in the popularity chart. Now a part of the larger LinkedIn family, Amit assures me that there are more things in the offing besides just the tight coupling with LinkedIn.
The talk around the VC circle in India, and one that I repeatedly hear, is that products, especially web-based consumer products, can never come out of India. So how did SlideShare buck this trend?? Amit says, modestly, that it was a mix of fortuitous circumstances that led to this “miracle”! Amit was your typical engineer, who went on to do an MBA from FMS and embarked on a career in sales & marketing with Asian Paints, Pepsi etc. But, after trying it out for 5 years, Amit was honest enough to admit to himself that he was a techie at heart, and would never be happy selling colored water. At the same time, Rashmi, his sister in the US, was also at a loose end having quit academics. So they sat down in Delhi (yes, Delhi was the original start point) and decided to launch something on their own. Initially, the idea was to build a product that would marry Cognitive Science and Computer Science, and the company was called Mind Canvas. That was what the first set of engineers signed up to do. But soon, the idea of sharing presentations came up, and there was no looking back once they saw how quickly users were adopting the service. Thus it came about that Rashmi and Jonathan brought the consumer knowledge from the bay area, while Amit gave shape to the idea right here in Delhi. (Have we discovered a secret sauce here?)
So how did Amit build the first crack-team that any such cutting edge product requires? He confirms my theory that there is no easy way out, ha-ha; no recruiters who will bring the best coders to talk to you. Realizing that the first set of engineers would only join because they wanted to work for him, Amit went about the hard task of building his personal credibility. One medium that really worked for him was blogging. He wrote about technology, and built a strong following of hackers who were serious about working on cool technology. When they heard that he was hiring, a few of them came on board attracted to the start-up for the right reasons – the opportunity to make an impact by building a world-class product. Another interesting idea he jumped on, was to host the first ‘barcamp’ in India. Amit laughs when he recollects how cheezed off the Chennai/Bangalore geek crowd were, about Delhi taking the lead! The first barcamp attracted 100 techies - a fantastic number that gave Amit a nice network to leverage for his hiring. If you are a tech entrepreneur aspiring to build a world class product from India, I would recommend you seriously follow Amit’s footsteps without wasting time on portals and recruiters.
Amit says that he paid market salaries from Day 1, unlike what you see in the bay area where engineers and executives take a 30-50% pay-cut to join a start-up. He feels, and rightly so, that Indians are still very risk-averse, and are extremely uncomfortable working under ambiguity or facing failure. So, it is a big challenge just getting them to join a start-up, even at similar salaries! L Or, he muses, we have perhaps not seen too many world changing, high impact, product or services startups that have happened out of India, as to motivate people to look at start-ups seriously??? He is clear that money cannot be the prime motivator, for 99% of the start-ups fail and it would be unwise to jump into the 24*7 work environment hoping for a pot of gold. It will have to something much more than that.
How many women has Amit hired into SlideShare, given that the company is headed by a woman? Interestingly, Amit says he has never got enough resumes from women candidates, and he feels women are even more risk averse, gravitating towards more secure, safe jobs (Come on, girls!!). Even the 8 women they have today (out of a total strength of 40 people) have come mainly through referrals. (Reinforces what I hear in other places - women are just not ambitious enough professionally, and are often content with lesser-than-ideal jobs). By the way, LinkedIn is organizing a women hacker meet (in Delhi again??) As per Amit – hopefully, it will bring out the women geeks out of the closets in surprising numbers. You can look it up at http://developherdelhi.hackathon.io/events/home
What was the one trigger that got Amit to jump off the corporate bandwagon? He says he realized that as an executive in an established company he would only be ‘optimizing’ existing products and businesses, while his real passion was to build new products. He is surely lucky, for I see/meet so many people who are like him but then realized this a bit too late in life - when it becomes harder to turn back.
Now that LinkedIn has acquired SlideShare, is Amit looking forward to taking a break?? No! Not Amit, whose dream is to take SlideShare from its place among the world’s Top200 sites into the Top50 list. Which begs the question - how does his wife react to this? Amit is unapologetic about, what he clarifies is, “his chosen way of life”, but hastens to add that he has learnt to build a balance and equilibrium now. Saturdays might see him and his teamwork from home instead of physically coming to work!
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.
It was by happenstance that I came to learn about the Shriram Group and G S Sundararajan (Sundar), MD of Shriram Capital, the other day. Of course, I have known that Shriram was a huge player in the chit fund business and did a lot of truck financing. This only reinforced my image of the company as a traditional, Chennai based, family/promoter-run enterprise. Not the kind of company that I would typically expect anybody in my circle to be working in. So I was intrigued when I heard that Sundar, who had earlier led Fullerton and Citi’s SME businesses, had joined them recently. What is an IIM(A) alumnus, with an enviable track record with MNCs, doing in a hidebound company like Shriram? And what is Shriram’s gameplan here?
I decided to seek out Sundar for a meeting to get some clarity. And before the meeting, I did my own research on Shriram, and found, to my surprise, that:
1. Shriram is a specialist in serving the low income group. Most of its 50 lakh customers live in small towns, and it is the first provider of financial services to 98% of its customers! Given that it started in 1974, the model predates C K Prahlad’s “Fortune-at-the-bottom-of-the-pyramid” mantra by well over a couple of decades!
2. Shriram has a unique company culture where its people are empowered to take most decisions. Its seven CEO’s, who head its different finance arms, have come through the ranks and have been with the company for 25+years!
3. It’s a darling of the Private Equity world with investors from across the globe (Japan, US, Europe) vying to invest. Interestingly, it has hard core PEs like TPG Partners and socially conscious specialist funds like Leapfrog as investors.
4. Shriram Group has created a Trust - Shriram Employee Welfare Trust - which owns Shriram Capital. All employees who have helped the company grow are beneficiaries of this trust, and therefore have ownership in the company. This happened recently in 2008.
So when Shriram Group decided that it needed to put its hat in the ring for a banking license, it was clear that it would be a Bank that would cater to the unserved needs of its existing customer base in the middle to lower income category. And that it would leverage its strong infrastructure of agents, branch offices and collection network to succeed. It appeared that their challenge would be to effect the necessary transformation that’s required to perform as a Bank, where the scale of risk and reward seem of a different magnitude.
Sundar confirmed this when I met with him, that his key charter at Shriram is to create the blueprint for a new Bank, which, unlike the rest of the private sector banks, would be focused on the bottom-of-the-pyramid. He said that he has always nourished the dream of building a bank that would demonstrate that the small and medium customers are a goldmine, and not a liability! And who could be a better partner for him than the Shriram Group, which understands this customer base and has proven the model in many different ways? So Sundar took the plunge, and now has his heart set on making this dream come true. He believes that, with the right mentoring and coaching (something he has done very effectively in his earlier stints), he would be able to morph most of Shriram Capital’s homegrown staff for the new Bank. But how will he, a lateral hire into an organization where most managers have been around for decades, manage to get their acceptance?
Sundar is banking on his traditional middle-class upbringing, and his “no ego” workstyle to help bridge this chasm. As also on his years of training as a cricketer - he was captained of his university cricket team during his college years. He believes that the lessons he learned growing up - in humility, discipline, and team-play - have allowed him to mingle with employees at all levels, and learn from them. His people have sworn by him in the past - when he started Fullerton, almost his entire team at Citi was willing to go work for him and, even today, they are just a call away. But then, at Citi, he had a team that he had built ground up, while at Shriram, he has a team that he has inherited. Can he repeat the same magic here?
We will wait and watch…and we will sure hope that Sundar, and Shriram Capital, succeed big, for this could then well become the model for a true Indian Bank!
I have met many entrepreneurs in my life, including my husband who I have seen through three start-ups. I’m always excited listening to their ideas, feeling their passion and their hunger to achieve success. But I often find it hard to figure out who will eventually succeed, or even go past their first or second round of funding. Most times, especially in India where the market is ripe for any number of products and services, success or failure happens because of the entrepreneur. Not every founder transforms into a good entrepreneur and leader, but the few who do end up creating enormous value for themselves & their stakeholders, and oftentimes, transforming the very industry they operate in.
When I met Girish Mathrubootham, Founder/CEO of FreshDesk recently, I felt in my bones that I was sitting in front of one such entrepreneur! Girish is everything but a stereotype of a tech-entrepreneur that most of us would expect - He has no fancy degrees from fancy Institutes like an IIT/IIM/Stanford/UPenn. No Debonair looks. He has never worked in any blue chip MNC. Worst of all, he has no “airs” as the CEO of a recently funded startup:)
But you hear Girish talk, and you quickly realize that he is in a league apart. It shows in the way he has taken different career decisions in the past; it shows in his straight-forward, honest, and no-nonsense communication style; it shows in the way he has built his team; and above all, it is there in the calm confidence that he radiates.
Girish’s first foray into entrepreneurship in ‘01-02 was a classic failure. He had given up a nice job in the US to return to India, and start a Software Training School. The training venture struggled due to the very negative sentiment that prevailed in India towards software jobs during that time (hard to believe now, but even colleges were finding it hard to fill up Comp Sci seats that year!). People were losing jobs, and very few firms were recruiting. Girish took a wise step - he decided to close his company down and get himself a job. I say ‘wise’, because knowing when to give up is a very important trait in an entrepreneur, and he had his clearly articulated reasons, like:
1. he strongly believes that a startup succeeds when it rides a wave (I couldn’t agree more)
2. he does not enjoy working in a “negative” environment
3. nobody would give a bride to a struggling entrepreneur (Haha!)
As luck would have it, Girish landed in Zoho (AdventNet, those days) in a pre-sales engineer role. But very soon, he morphed into a Product Manager largely because his boss, Kumar Vembu, spotted his talent. As he says it, Kumar Vembu took him out for a chai one day and told him that an ‘authoritative personality’ like him should be a Product Manager, and the role was his if he wanted it. Girish did not wait to think; it sounded interesting and he signed up immediately, even though he had no clue as to what he was expected to do! But this transition surely was a very important fork in Girish’s career, for it introduced him to a “product”, “innovation”, “global market” scenario that most people working in India never get to operate in.
Girish’s first strategic move was to focus on building a strong User Interface (UI) for the product, as he knew what a pain it was to learn/use products with bad UI from his training days. No wonder then that this product, OpManager, took off when launched at InterOp in Las Vegas..with users raving about the easy-to-use, friendly interface! And this was way before the iPhone/iPad days that have anyway brought UI to the fore in all apps today.
Girish learnt his next lesson - on pricing and positioning - when a senior executive from AMEX came to his InterOp stall and inquired if he had a “better functionality” for a higher price for high-end enterprises like Amex! He realized then that it was critical to have different bundles at different price levels for sme and enterprises, because they want to be treated differently.
His product primer got its third entry when he went to meet a potential customer for his Networks Operations Management product. The customer was using an asset management product from a competitor and could not stop raving about it. He was impressed that the product was being “sold” so intensely by the customer. He decided that, henceforth, any product he put out in the market had to be so good that his customers would do the selling for him!
So when Girish got ready to launch off on his own, he knew much of what he needed to do as he had already built 7/8 successful products at Zoho. No wonder then, that when he came across a Hacker News post on ZenDesk’s product pricing strategy, and on how the market was ripe for a better product, he could not let the opportunity pass. He roped in his colleague and friend of several years , Shan, as a co-founder.Very soon, he felt like he had to strike out fully, at the risk of giving up his pay check, as the “idea virus” was buzzing 24*7 in his head. And FreshDesk was born! (You can read all about it in his own words in his blog -http://tinyurl.com/79xrksb).
Girish says his first team was all of people who had worked for him earlier.. And why not? Engineers by nature like to work for bosses who are “what-you-see-is-what-you-get”, and the opportunity to build a world class product out of Chennai does not come every day! So, how does Girish manage his team… especially now given that they are seeing a lot of action in the field with product launch, customer ramp up, funding and red-hot growth?? He says his philosophy is simple - People need to feel happy about coming to work on a Monday. They need to like their job, and they will only like it if they are good at it. So his job is to figure out what they are good at by moving them around if required, or hiring them into the right role…a la Kumar Vembu, his erstwhile boss and mentor? He gives the example of how he hired his digital content man from a retail store where he was handling supply chain, his first job after completing MBA. Girish read his blogs, researched, and realized that it would be a win-win if he got him for managing Digital Content. Today, if you go read the FreshDesk blogs, Twitter & Facebook posts, and all the cool marketing content that comes out from them, you will know what a good hire this has been! I was happy that I met a founder/CEO who does targeted hiring, and hires based not on brand value but based on potential…a theme I oft repeat to my clients when I hear them lament that it is so hard to find the right person for a job. Girish then went on to say that he believed that there was no such thing as work-life balance!!…that there can only be work-life integration and that you have to like your job enough to carry it home with you! Gotta agree, as I have been doing it all my life:). He also does not believe in appraisals where you tell people where they passed, and where they failed. Instead, he believes in Achievement Reviews where he can discuss what they have achieved and what more they can do. Forward looking HR stuff that you don’t get to hear much in India, especially in companies at this stage.
Girish, I enjoyed meeting you. You are one positive person, and they say positive energy is viral. No wonder FreshDesk is blazing on many fronts in just a year, with customers across 40+ countries. Now with mainline VCs like Accel & Tiger backing you, there is no stopping you! Go for the moon, guy!
I first heard of BankBazaar from Rajesh Subramaniam, who invested in them from Walden Ventures. He mentioned that they offered you the option of getting the best interest rates on loans, on-line without going place to place, something like what E-Loan does in the US. My interest piqued, I have been following up to see how they are shaping up since then. So when I got a chance to reconnect during my recent visit to Chennai, I went across to their office and spent a good couple of hours getting to know the company, and Adhil Shetty, their Founder/CEO.
Adhil Shetty impresses you with his sincerity and his sense of mission. Those surely help to take your attention away from his boyish looks that are accentuated further by a mop of incredibly curly hair!
Their nicely done, well appointed office in the heart of Chennai’s CBD also does its bit to make you feel that Adhil means business - that he means it when he says he is out to be the “Make-My-Trip of the Financial Services World”!
Interestingly, Adhil’s cofounder is his own younger brother, Arjun. Just a year apart, the brothers share a very similar background - schooling at DonBosco, followed by Engineering at Anna University. The similarity doesn’t end here, as both studied and worked in the US, and decided to return to India in 2007-08. No wonder then, that they joined hands to set up BankBazaar. Curious to know more about the working dynamics between the two, I prodded Adhil to tell me more. Does Arjun follow what Adhil does?? Who does what within BankBazaar? Do they talk shop at home too?
Contrary to what one would think, Adhil says that it is he who follows his brother at times! At work, Arjun handles the operations, technology and customer service while Adhil handles Sales, Business Development, Finance, HR and Investors. They avoid stepping on each other’s toes with this clear demarcation in responsibilities. It is Arjun who brings the domain expertise as he was handling the Co-branded Credit Card Program of Amazon, and knows how well online financial offerings could scale if done correctly. Adhil is on the road most of the time getting in customers, and says he hardly gets to meet his brother more than once a month! He may not realize it yet, but given how lonely it gets to be in the CEO’s chair, he is very lucky to have his brother around to share the highs and lows.
BankBazaar, interestingly, started out as a B2C portal offering online access to loan products from major players like Axis Bank, HDFC etc. It virtually shepherds a customer through the entire loan application process by taking the customer details, shopping for the right terms with competing banks, presenting the options and finally, getting the selected option to approval stage. However, the team was smart enough to realize that the B2C model will take time and substantial marketing to ramp up, as Indian consumers do take long to warm up to any online model. This was true even for ticketing and shopping, categories that have moved online over a decade ago elsewhere in the world. So, they decided to white-label the platform, and offer it to Banks to enable them to give an on-line access to their customers. This brings in the needed cash flow, and allows them to time the market correctly. This could be an excellent strategy, as we all know that online traffic will pick up eventually, and the underlying market is indeed very big.
Adhil is very proud of the team that they have built this far. His motto, while hiring, is to ‘go for the best’. They have had some good experience hiring from IIT (Kharagpur) and swear by it. Kharagpur to Chennai - sounds like a national integration theme :-). Unlike many founders I meet who think they can do everything themselves, Adhil really believes that his job is to recruit the right people, and let them do their job. He takes hiring very seriously, which showed in the quality time he spent with me despite having gotten back from a business trip just a couple hours ago. They have set up a development center in Bangalore just to attract the best engineering talent - takes guts to do this at this early stage in the company!
So why is he doing all this? The idealist in him answers that they want to build a world class innovative product, generate good returns, and share it with all stakeholders - employees, investors, customers and business partners. More Power to him!
I stepped out into the ever-sunny Chennai outdoors. Something tells me that these guys will do what they have set out to do - they have a razor-sharp focus which is half the battle won in any start-up.
I started the week with a Monday morning meeting with a disarming Venture Capitalist, Kumar Shiralagi. Kumar is a Partner with IndoUS Venture Partners, a VC firm that is focused on early stage investments in India, and has backed some very interesting start-ups like Via, Myntra, Attero, SnapDeal, etc. Despite the fact that Kumar and I happen to be neighbors, and his wife Kalpana and I are good friends and yoga mates, it’s only now that I got to meet Kumar.
First things first. Whitefield + ITPL is a bad combination at anytime of the day, leave alone Monday morning, and by the time I made my way into Kumar’s office I was, like, god, I should have waited for a month, a year, anytime, but met him closer home!! But then, the welcoming fresh bowl of watermelon and pineapple (nice, isn’t it?!) in his office changed my mood instantly. I must mention here that the IndoUS office is a refreshing change from the usual glass and plastic VC offices we see all the time.
It is organized in a very informal way with nice artifacts vying to catch your attention. The fruits + interiors kind of make you feel that this one has a strong Indian DNA and is definitely not a “me too” copy of the West.
So it made sense when Kumar mentioned that their second fund would be exclusively India focused. I have always believed that India, and most of the developing world, need to evolve our own models when it comes to investing, building start-ups and identifying leadership skills. Not a bad idea to start with the office itself.
Kumar also is a very different profile from the traditional Indian VC. He has a strong technology background with a PhD and 23 patents to his name, that too in hard core semi-conductor device fabrication. He has paid his dues with a decade-plus of work experience in Motorola, followed by Lytek, his own start-up in Arizona, and then moving on to a corporate venture fund like INTEL Capital, before launching his own fund with IndoUS. Very unassuming, and down to earth, Kumar describes his journey thus: “I did Engineering at NITK(Surathkal), worked at LRDE and then went to Arizona State for PhD; Worked at Motorola, did MBA, and then did my own start-up with INTEL Capital as one of the investors; Decided to move to India, and INTEL Capital offered me the role to head their India office; Then Vani, an old friend from ASU days and Vinod from being on Boards together, called me to join them, and IndoUS happened.” Hard to believe that you can transform yourself so many times in one lifetime! Makes me wonder if he would still pull some more rabbits out of his hat, or is Venture Capital going to be the final stop?
Kumar says the fund raising environment is tough today, and he should know better than anybody else since he should be done raising his second fund anytime now, I guess. If this is the case for somebody who has had a very successful track record to show with the first fund, I wonder what it would be for the many VCs with patchy records. Tells me that a second VC shake-up is well on its way. No wonder we are already seeing some movements in the VC ranks.
Kumar believes in being very engaged with his companies to the extent that some of his investees even mention that he supports like a co-founder in their early stages. Again not surprising when you see his background. He says that Indian entrepreneurs are no different from ones anywhere else in the world. The execution part becomes more challenging as they have to grapple with infrastructure limitations, archaic laws and bureaucracy. ( In India we run steeple chases - sprints and marathons are for wussies:) ). But then, they have a little less to worry about when a FIDE ranked Chess player like Kumar (Yes he is that too, and in his words, that is another fluke!!!) is working by their side!!
Nice meeting you Kumar, and I will still keep a watch for those rabbits for sure!
Sanjay Parthasarathy (http://about.me/sanjaypat) is back in India, this time in an entrepreneurial avtaar in Chennai. Last I had met him was in a totally different mode, when he was setting up Microsoft operations in India in the 90’s. The energy is still the same…rather more, considering that this is his own start-up! He has been working on it for over 2.5 years and is now at a take off point with a nice team in place. Indix looks all set to ignite some sparks in the Chennai/India product universe with its offering in the “Big Data” space.
I’m excited about Indix after visiting their office in the brand new IIT(M) Research Park. Orange Sofas greet you at the reception, and of course I’m totally partial to orange!
Then, there’s the nice coffee machine on the counter inviting you to take a cup of steaming coffee and sit down to take in the quaint charm. A quirky poster on the wall has the Ice-Cold-Water stand that you see on the streets of Delhi, bringing a smile to your face. Then your eyes take in the other posters on the walls, and soon you get the picture - this is one interesting place, with a strong stamp of identity, one which wants to do things differently, right from its walls!
Sanjay tells me that they have three women out of a total of fifteen full time employees in their team, and an additional four women as summer interns, with one coming all the way from Durgapur. Like it that they are trying to get the balance correct right from the start. The team is in the process of hiring some highly pedigreed leadership (don’t want to spill out more!!), all right from inside of Chennai. Just proves my point that there is always talent available for the right opportunity.
Sanjay says he is looking for some exceptional Data Scientists - you know what to do if you are one and looking to work in a cool company with no hierarchy, no cabins, no bosses and a founder with a sooper track record. They have even done away with visiting cards and that totally won me over! Boy, do I hate carrying those, knowing fully well that they will be lost in receiver’s pockets!!