Author Archive for Kamla Bhatt

Neeru Khosla On Education and Doing a Startup

Neeru Khosla ‘s name might ring a bell for some people. She is married to the legendary venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. In all these years Neeru has remained firmly under the radar and took care of her family. But for the past couple of years Neeru has been diligently working away on a non-profit organization that runs more like a startup called CK-12. The organization is focussed on creating flexbooks or customized content in math and science for US highschool teachers and students. All you need is access to the Internet and a printer and anybody around the world can create and print these flexbooks. Neeru and her co-founder Murugan Pal have ambitious plans and are also working on creating a social networking site for teachers and students. CK-12’s offering will be unveiled later this year in August.

I met Neeru a couple of times this past month in her Palo Alto office to find out more about CK-12 and what prompted her to do this non-profit organization and what kind of help and feedback she got from her husband. Does Neeru have a better understanding of her husband’s work now that she is running a startup? How is she juggling home and her startup life? How is her husband pitching in to help her? You can listen to the interview where Neeru talks about CK-12, entrepreneurship and her husband.

Two Entrepreneur Interviews: Deepak Shenoy of Moneyoga and Girish Saraph of Vegayan Systems

I recently did two interviews with two very different but passionate entrepreneurs: Deepak Shenoy, co-founder of Moneyoga and Dr. Girish Saraph of Vegayan Systems. Over the past year or so I have spent a fair amount of time talking to both of them and have followed their journey as entrepreneurs.

Deepak and I have spoken at length about entrepreneurship, startup environment, Bangalore, etc over the phone, but never got around to meeting over that cup of filter coffee in Bangalore. Blame it on the messy traffic congestion in Bangalore that precluded me from going to his part of town! Deepak is a passionate and seasoned entrepreneur and it was great fun interviewing him. In the interview Deepak made some great points about entrepreneurship in India.

Girish is an academician turned entrepreneur that I met at the TiE Mumbai conference in 2006, where I interviewed him the first time around. He was very excited at having won the TiE_Canaan Challenge for that year and was looking forward to going to INSEAD Singapore to spend 6 weeks there. I remember how Girish patiently and methodically answered all my questions about the software his company was building and gave me the big picture overview that also helped me in getting a better grasp of his company. Methodical is the word that comes to mind when I think of Girish since that trait or character is reflected in the manner in which he has plotted the course for his startup and in the way he did this interview that I did earlier this week.

Pradeep Khosla: The Entrepreneurial Dean of Carnegie Mellon University

How does Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), a renowned research US university foster research and a spirit of innovation among its students and faculty? How does CMU do tech transfer? What is unique about the US university system that helps in creating startups and companies?

Is there something that India can learn from the US University system? How can India establish a US style research institute and create an ecosystem for entrepreneurship? Can India learn to leverage research conducted at universities at an economic level? These are some of the questions that Pradeep Knosla, Dean of School of Enginering Carnegie Mellon University talks about in this audio interview.

As Pradeep points out there is no major Indian company that can trace its inception to university research. India has to figure out how to leverage the research money it spends to bring about economic development.

Pradeep is an entrepreneurial dean, who combines his passion of being in a university environment and also pursuing his entrepreneurial dreams. He helped found two companies, one of which succeeded and the other did not. In this candid interview Pradeep shares his thoughts on what he learned from the failure of their company, which was in the hot new space of virtualization and received seed funding from Silicon Valley’s Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers.

Video: Rohit Bhargava on Branding and Personality

Since Alok wrote the previous post on branding I thought as a follow-up I’d post this video interview with Rohit Bhargava, who has a new book out called Personality Not Included.

Rohit is Senior VP of Digital Strategy and Marketing at Ogilvy. He has a very popular blog aptly titled: Influential Marketing

This interview was recorded at the AdTech Conference in San Francisco on April 15, 2008.

Headstart: Call For Product Nominations

If you are a product company and looking to demo your product check out Headstart that will take place in Bangalore from Jan 18-20, 2008 at the Indian Institute of Sciences campus.

Here is the criteria for nominating your product:

  • The product or technology elements must be new and should not have been launched before
  • The product or technology should make a significant contribution to the existing state of the art
  • The product or technology should be capable of changing market dynamics and existing rules
  • There are 4 categories for nominating your products: Consumer Services, Mobile, Silicon and Embedded System  and Enterprise Applications and Development tools.

    You can download the nomination form from here.


    Cisco’s I-Prize For Innovators, Technologists and Entrepreneurs

    Just in case some of you missed out on this.

    Yesterday Cisco’s Wim Elfrink announced the launch of the I-Prize contest, where you can collaborate with anyone in the world, build a virtual team and pitch your idea to Cisco. The winning team will then get an opportunity to work with Cisco and get a sign-on bonus of about quarter million dollars.

    I guess this is Cisco’s version of a mashup since John Chambers of Cisco is such a firm believer of web 2.0 and collaboration. Cisco has launched thisI-Prize contestto tap into the untapped human network that exists outside of Cisco’s orbit. (Hint: Human network is the current buzzword in Cisco.) If you have an innovative idea and itching to become an entrepreneur then Cisco, the networking giant wants to hear from you. They want you to help them make their next billion dollars.

    Oh, Cisco employees and their family members are not eligible. You must be over 18 years of age.

    Do Indians Lack A Flair For Entrepreneurship?

    Do Indian lack a flair for entrepreneurship? When I first read that question on Trackin’s post I instinctively and vigorously did the Indian thing: shake my head in a strong no-no, that is not what I have uncovered. I think entrepreneurship is alive and kicking in India, but what is lacking is education, role models, access to information, a supportive environment…variables and factors that help nurture entrepreneurship. What are some unique variables that apply to  entrepreneurs and startups in India? For instance, the role of parents and the diminishing returns in the marriage market for folks working in startups is a fairly significant factor.

    Before we go any further first, a definition of entrepreneur. According to Wikipedia:

    “An entrepreneur (a loanword from french introduced and first defined by the Irish economist Richard Cantillon) is a person who undertakes and operates a new enterprise or venture and assumes some accountability for the inherent risks.”

    Who and where are these entrepreneurs of Indian origin and how did they get there are some of the questions I constantly explore in my blog, internet radio show and video clips. Through this primary field research (maybe I should enroll in a PhD program in some school) that I do via these interviews I see a pattern and that pattern is one of entrepreneurship in India and the Indian diaspora community.  At the global level, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE)  is now the largest network of entrepreneurs in the world. Prof. Anna-Lee Saxenian has written extensively about the contribution of immigrants to Silicon Valley and has examined the role of Indian entrepreneurs.

    In India there are countless, undocumented and untold stories about entrepreneurship. Some are a single owner business, while others may be a small, family-owned business and some are first time entrepreneurs. But they all do the same thing: take risks and create and operate their business.

    Take Indu Sharma, the mallishwali in Bombay who has a fire in her belly to earn money and be successful. (Warning: this podcast interview with Indu is in Hindi.) Lack of education or access to information has not stopped her from her goals. Years ago when she did not know how, she simply persisted and opened a bank account for herself. A couple of years ago she got herself a cell phone and expanded her business and increased her revenue stream by a few hundred percent, an increase that any entrepreneur will die to achieve. Talk about being driven, motivated and looking at every obstacle as an opportunity to make more money. She certainly demonstrates a flair for entrepreneurship. Indu Sharma is a CFO’s dream, a micorpayment company’s ideal customer and the stuff CFO’s dream about.

    What about the kirana store in Basvangudi, Bangalore that was founded by an enterprising female called Subamma in1940s? Subamma certainly saw an opportunity for home-made savories and in the process of created a unique food item with a fantastic and memorable brand name “congress peanuts.”  This family-owned store still continues to operate and has a thriving business as you can witness in this video. The store is an institution in Bangalore that has morphed to include IT terms in their food items. Talk about the success and ubiquity of the IT industry in Bangalore. (Warning: the clip has a liberal dose of Telugu.) The folks at Subamma don’t own a computer system or a CRM system to generate bills, instead their focus is  on the quality of their product and listening to their customers, which are key takeaways from any entrepreneur or company.

    Or, what about Thangavel, the fruit seller in Malleshwaram’s Hosa market in Bangalore? He has continued to operate from the same space for the past 30 odd years. His offering of fruits has gone from selling local fruits and Kashmir apples to kiwis from New Zealand, apples from Washington and pears from China. His store and profits have expanded over the years as he points out in this video. (Warning: this video has a liberal dose of Tamil.) How did Thangavel survive during the leans years of his operations especially when the inflation rates were high in the country? Buying fruits is probably not an option during times of inflation, when the price of your vegetables like onions and tomatoes are over Rs. 50 per kg!

    Or, what about the veena maker, who painstakingly creates his veenas from scratch and has a backorder for them? This veena maker demonstrates in this video that what is needed is dedication, passion and a desire to succeed. (Warning: this video has a liberal dose of Tamil.) The veena maker is in a niche market and has built a loyal customer-base, again something that other entrepreneurs can emulate. When you build your service or product, who is your target audience?

    Then there are entrepreneurs and venture capitalists who have achieved success with no business background. Many of them belong to regular middle-class families and went on achieve success. Kittu Kolluri of NEA comes to mind, as does Alok Mittal of Canaan. Alok founded his business in India and not in Silicon Valley. There are many entrepreneurs like Kaval Kaur, Anu Shukla and others I have interviewed with similar stories and background. Many of them talk about failures too like Kaval and how she and her husband had to re-engineer their business plan when they hit a major speed bump on their road to success.

    As Yogen Dalal of Mayfied Fund pointed out what Silicon Valley offers is a supportive and safety net that helps entrepreneurs. It is that safety and supportive net that is lacking in India, but that clearly has not deterred many people from starting and operating their own business. When that supportive and safety net is set in place you will suddenly find that quite a few Indians have that killer instinct and want to be entrepreneurs. Yogen also talks about failures and how to handle them. Failure is part of any entrepreneurship journey.

    If you look at the Indian diaspora community around the world there are many entrepreneurs. Whether it is the bespoke tailor in Hong Kong or Thailand or the business person in East African nations like Uganda or Kenya or that business person in Mauritius or that owner of a high-end hotel chain in New Zealand or the curry king  or steel king in UK…these are all instances of entrepreneurship. These people migrated to a new land to build their business without any safety or supportive net. Oh, I almost forgot…the Gujarti hotel and motel owners, who own 60 percent of the hospitality market in the USA.

    Do you think Indians lack a flair for entrepreneurship? Or, do you think the right environment, knowledge, government policies and other factors come in the way of an Indian’s entrepreneurship? Or, is it a combination of both?  Does your drive and flair drive you to do business, or do you need supporting environment to venture out and do business? What kind of an entrepreneur are you?  Do you come from a business background? Who was your role model? Why did you start your company? Why did you become an entrepreneur? And are you enjoying the bumpy ride?

    This is also cross-posted on my blog

    Podcast Interview: Gopal Srinivasan of TVS on Entrepreneurship

    Gopal Srinivasan belongs to Chennai-based TVS family, which runs the TVS groups of companies. TVS has led to the growth of Chennai as the automotive capital of India, and today Chennai is known as Detroit of India.

    I caught up with Gopal in Manhattan, to find out about the unbroken culture of entrepreneurship that has continued for almost 100 years within his extended family. How did they do this and become a multi-billion group of companies?

    You can read more about Gopal here.

    I also have a second interview with Gopal about Tamil Nadu and Indian economy.

    Podcast Interview: McKinsey’s Rajat Gupta on Health and Eduction in India

    A couple of weeks ago I caught up with Rajat Gupta of McKinsey at the Pan IIT Global Conference in Silicon Valley. The theme for this year’s Pan IIT conference was “Changing the World Through Technology.”

    I wanted to find out about his interest and passion in health and eductation in India. What is the connection between citizens health and economic growth of a nation? How does poor and bad health of a nation’s population impact its productivity and economic growth? How do you institute good and effective health policy and healthcare in India? What are the the challenges that India faces in the area of healthcare? What are some of the public-private initiatives in this area?

    Inclusive growth is a line that has crept into every decision maker that is doing business in India. How does this inclusive growth happen?

    Mr. Gupta is a senior partner and a former managing director of McKinsey & Company worldwide. Mr. Gupta sits on the advisory boards of Harvard Business School and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is on the board of trustees of the University of Chicago and is the Chairman of the Board of the Indian School of Business at Hyderabad.

    He is Co-Chair of the American Indian Foundation and private sector representative to the Board of the Global Fund for Aids, Malaria and Tuberculosis.

    Mr. Gupta is a trustee of the Rockefeller Foundation. Mr. Gupta advised McKinsey’s work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2006 he was appointed as an independent director at Goldman Sachs.

    Mr. Gupta is a graduate of IIT, Delhi and Harvard Business School.

    Working in Startups + Parents Have a Say….

    Working in  startups in India is going to be a very different experience. The startup culture in India will evolve in a very different way when compared to Silicon Valley or the rest of USA. In India parents play a big role on whether their kids can work in startups. Yes, that is right Indian parents play a pretty significant role  and need to be persuaded and convinced on why their kids should work in startups or early stage companies.  Now this picture is so different from the US where people *want* to work in startups and in some cases will go to any lengths to land a job in a startup, especially if it is a well-funded company.

    Yesterday I met with a group of young people working for a well-funded start-up in Bangalore. We spoke about startup culture in Silicon Valley and what it takes to build companies and why in startups people have to work long hours. Some of the points we talked about included:  How do startups work in Silicon Valley? What does it mean to have a good team? What does it mean when entrepreneurs in the Valley chant this mantra: the team needs to have good chemistry. We talked about these issues and I shared stories about Yahoo, Excite@Home (now defunct) and other companies and how they evolved during the dotcom boom.I recounted the famous story of how Vinod Khosla landed up in his lamborghini to meet with the Excite group and eventually ended up funding them. And how  folks in Silicon Valley startups typically end up spending long nights cranking away on problems and fixing that unexpected bug, and how Davild Filo, co-founder of Yahoo often crashed out in his sleeping bag under his desk when building Yahoo. I also shared my stories about working in startups and the long hours I put in. (Aside I would be up by at 4 am and at work by 5.30 am and spend 9-10 hours at work and then come home and work some more. And I was not member of the founding team of the startup!)

    What does it take to work in startups? Working in startups means you need to put your family and other priorities in the backburner. This is a point that well-established entrepreneurs like Raj Jaswa and others will share with you when they talk about working and building companies from scratch. Working in startups means you have to go over and above your defined role to get the product or service or whatever the startup is focused upon building.

    How do startups succeed or fail? How do you handle challenges in doing startups are some of the questions that I constantly ask entrepreneurs and technologists in my interviews. That is why I  spend time talking to entrepreneurs like Yogen Dalal, Raj Jaswa,Kittu Kolluri, Kaval Kaur and others to find out their war stories. They have already been there and done that and have a pretty good idea of what it takes to climb that mountain. But, what was their journey like when they made the trip to the top of the mountain? How did they handle doubt, fear, and their failures? How did they succeed? What did it take for them to succeed? Does money follow a good idea?

    When I told this young group of professionals in Bangalore that they were lucky to be working in a startup…I noticed that some of them looked surprised. I pointed out that the current confluence of events in Bangalore and India is probably once in a lifetime event. This observation was met with a vigorous nod from many of them. But I was curious to find out why they did not consider themselves lucky about working in startups and that is when I unearthed the role of parents and their involvement in their kid’s career path. 

    It turns out that quite a few of them from the group had to convince and lobby their parents on why they should be allowed to work in startups. Out of this group of 15-18 people only two of them had no objections from their parents. Most of the other parents had reservations and needed to know what does working in a startup entail for their professional career. One of them pointed out that he had an offer letter from a well-established company, but his heart was set on working for this startup. He had a long discussion with his parents and had to overcome their objections and concerns before he could work  at the startup. 

    I recollect Vishal Gondal of India Games pointing out the struggle they had initially in getting people to work for his startup. Avnish Bajaj of Matrix Partners outlined how difficult it was for them to find office space. Realtors were loathe to rent them space since they did not know how startups work. He pointed out that it was not easy starting a company in Mumbai, especially after having spent time working in the US.

    Here is the bottom line: young people who want to work in startups in India have to first convince and sell the startup company and story to their parents. Young people in India have to be consummate sales person before they realize their dream of working in a startup. And, I guess this poses a special set of challenges for entrepreneurs who want to build a successful company and are looking to hire a few good people.

    Why are Indian parents so concerned about their kids working in startups? It turns out it is just not startups, but they are concerned if their kid has an offer from well-established BPOs and major IT companies in Bangalore. (This post is limited to the folks from Bangalore…I don’t the status in other cities and states.) These companies have something like a “parents day” where they help  parents understand how their kids are progressing and where the company is headed!  So, why are Indian parents so concerned about their kids working in startups?   Well they are concerned because they don’t know how or where the young company is headed and if they will be a successful venture and if their kid has a good and strong career path for the next 40 years of their professional life. My sense is that this concern stem from their (parents)  experience of growing up in India and having to listen to their parents about working in a good, stable company and having a steady run in an MNC, or getting into the prestigious foreign or civil services. And of course government jobs were always the best option because you got housing, and provident or pension fund when you retire. Governments do not go bankrupt or default on payments. This mindset or thinking reminds me of Japan, where until a couple of decades ago a Japanese professional also known as salary man worked with one company until he retired. Changing jobs and companies was not done by a salary man. Similarly in India it is all about stability and predictability and marriage prospects for their children.

    Back to the group of young professionals working in startups. When I said they are lucky to be working in a startup in India I was in a way speaking from my own experience. This was not an option available to me when I graduated from school.  One of the group members responded. “I don’t think we are the lucky generation. It will be our children since we are laying the groundwork for them to work in startups. We are struggling to make our parents understand why we should work in startups.”  That statement helped me understand how differently I was looking at this whole startup issue in India. That maybe finding capital is not such a big issue as much as finding the right set of people to work with you.

    The moral of the story is that Indian parents need to be educated about the new India story, about capital that is flowing into the country, and about the new opportunities that are available to their kids in India. Today, many of them have more than one option, and more than one job offer and they don’t have to knock on doors to get a job. This scenario is so different when compared to the time I graduated from school, where I had almost zilch options. If I were to graduate today I could be working for a media company, a BPO, a content creation company or a major IT company or an exciting startup. I did not have those options when I graduated. And I am thinking that this would be the mindset of some of the parents, whose children are joining the Indian workforce. Maybe these parents too might be thinking on similar lines of the opportunities and options they did not have when they graduated in the 1970s or 1980s.

    I came away with more questions in my mind about doing a startup in India and the challenges that need to be overcome to start a company in India.

    Later in the evening I was talking to other entrepreneurs with startups in India and discovered something new. This information was kind of a clincher: folks who work in Indian startups often get better salary when compared to their counterparts in the USA. In some cases the Indian entrepreneurs have to match the salaries for their new hires to the fat paycheck that an Indian IT or BPO firm pays!  How different times are now…

    I am curious to know if anybody has any stories or inputs about working in Indian startups. What has been or is your experience? Did you end up taking that job in a startup or take the safe option and are working for a large and established IT company? What about marriage prospects if you work in a startup? Is it a case of diminishing returns for startup folks in the marriage market?

    Drop me a line at kamlabhatt AT

    This post is cross-posted on my blog.