Posts tagged startup
Posts tagged startup
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!
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!!