Mr Anuj Khanna Sohum.
They give birth to a company and nurture it lovingly only to sell it off and start all over again. Meet the serial entrepreneurs who are in it for the sheer joy of creation.
As a child growing up in Canada, Vinay Gidwaney found the mouse easier to handle than pencils. When boys his age were playing outdoors, he wrote a program that helped fix glitches in computers located far from the PC in his garage.
By 16, along with his brother Veer, he had founded a company called Control F-1 that did support automation for several firms. Within a few years, the brothers sold off Control F-1 to the $3.5 billion biggie Computer Associates.
Gidwaney then started up a few more companies, found time to do some brain research at MIT and, while there, “got injected with artificial intelligence”, as he jokes. Then he bent his powerful mind to developing products for the Web.
“I am now doing another start-up — we are trying to solve big, worldwide problems,” he says in all seriousness, of his new company, Daily Feats — an online social platform where people share and earn rewards for their positive actions.
But Gidwaney is not the only one in this game. Suddenly, at various summits and conferences, one is bumping into a number of young entrepreneurs in their 30s and 40s, who are already into their third and fourth enterprises, but still bubbling with ideas, brimming with fire and passion, and infecting you with their enthusiasm.
Take Singapore-based entrepreneur Anuj Khanna Sohum, who looks as though he lives on a diet of energy drinks, arriving like a whirlwind for our meeting and leaving in equally tempest-like fashion.
He was not much older than Gidwaney when he started his first company. At 20, while still doing his undergraduate programme in computer engineering in Singapore, Khanna, along with his friend Julius, set up Anitus Technologies.
In no time, Anitus, which was into knowledge and document managing, got acquired by Malaysian conglomerate MCSB, which renamed it myMCSB. Now 32, Khanna is into his fourth venture, a mobile applications firm, Affle Technologies, about which he expounds with the starry-eyed passion of a college kid.
Compared to these two early starters, Pune-based computer engineer Shirish Deodhar had a pretty late start in his entrepreneurial journey, and that too by sheer accident. Soon after his return from the US, where he worked a number of years, he saw his opportunity during a chance meeting with the CEO of the firm his wife went to for a job interview.
That led him to set up Frontier Software, an outsourced software product development (OPD) services firm, in 1998. In just over a year, the company was acquired by its billion-dollar US client Veritas, and Deodhar became head of their India office.
But the itch to start again saw him seeding another firm, In-Reality Software, in 2003. “At Frontier, it had taken us 11 years to ramp up to 140 employees. At In-Reality, in just 16 months, we grew to 15 customers and 170 employees,” he says proudly.
Not surprisingly, it soon became a target for acquisition — this time by Bangalore-based Symphony Services, a leader in OPD services. Today, Deodhar is on his fourth company, Innovize Tech Software, a firm that is on the coveted Red Herring 2011 list of Asia’s Top 100 technology companies.
Create, perchance to sell
Gidwaney, Khanna and Deodhar are among a growing breed of serial entrepreneurs. Many have made millions selling off their ventures, but there are those like Kallol Borah, Director, LukUp Media, who cheerfully tell you some of their start-ups were before their time. Unfazed by one failure, they have gone on to launch something else.
“In America, such people are celebrated and revered,” says Raman Roy, chairman and managing director, Quattro BPO.
So, what makes these young, restless serial company creators tick? Are they go-getting risk takers who launch companies only with the idea of becoming rich quickly? Or passionate innovators in it for the sheer joy of creation?
Khanna bridles at the question. “I have never started any company with the intention of selling it,” he says emphatically. “We have started and built companies to last — it does not matter who owns it,” he insists.
Gidwaney admits that in the Web 2.0 world, a lot of companies are being started with the sole intention of being acquired by one of the big guys — Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and so on. “Although this might be beneficial for the entrepreneur financially, I think it stifles innovation,” he says.
Possibly a little mellower after recently becoming a father, 30-something Gidwaney is now “looking at a time horizon of 50 years” for Daily Feats.
Deodhar, from his wiser perch of 52 years, and having even written a book on entrepreneurship, has a more mature take on this issue. “Beyond a certain stage, entrepreneurs find it hard to sustain growth. Most are first-generation entrepreneurs who are taking a risk but can only go so far,” he says. “Therefore, a nano-exit, where an entrepreneur makes a few crores, is not a bad idea at this stage in India,” he feels.
No postpartum blues
So, didn’t they feel terrible about parting with their babies? Gidwaney, who jokes that “my baby now has a different connotation for me” as he proudly shows a picture of his moppet, does admit to feeling a pang. “But it is far outweighed by seeing it move to greater heights. When we sold our company to Computer Associates, they enabled us to take our technology to thousands of companies, which we would not have ordinarily been able to reach. That enabled us to do amazing things with our technology,” he says.
Khanna echoes this: “I sold because MCSB had 3,000 corporate customers and my product could reach more companies,” he says.
Deodhar gives two analogies. One is to think of an exit as moving from one train to another when on a long-distance trip. The second is, knowing that one day your daughter will get married, but treating that occasion with joy and hope that it will be a good life for her in future.
“We have to think of the long-term wellbeing of the company and its employees,” he says.
All three, incidentally, stayed associated with their first ventures — Gidwaney and his brother worked with CA for two and four years respectively, Khanna was an executive director at MCSB and Deodhar grew Veritas’ India subsidiary to 600-plus employees.
“One always has a fondness towards the previous companies. Occasionally, the acquiring company morphs over time and one loses the attachment (for example, Veritas was later acquired by Symantec and now the products and culture are very different),” says Deodhar.
“Sometimes one keeps closer tab because the acquiring company’s outcome still has a bearing on your future. For example, many of us have stock in Symphony and look forward to its IPO at some stage,” he says.
Tomorrow’s Wealth Creators
The BPO industry’s big daddy in India, Raman Roy (he founded Spectramind, which was acquired by Wipro, before launching Quattro), is a firm supporter of serial entrepreneurship.
Having incubated several companies and mentored many entrepreneurs, he gives the nursery analogy, “I put a seedling in sand, and later transfer it to a pot or a bed, only then it will grow. Conversely, it will die if you don’t transfer.”
To scale up a company, sometimes selling off is the only route, he says. “In chemistry, the catalyst’s role is only to trigger a chemical reaction — then the reaction continues, even without the presence of it. Similarly, the innovator’s job is to catalyse a creation — and he is then needed to start another process,” he says.
In India, Roy says there is no shortage of entrepreneurs. “Even my paanwalla is one. Uskomonthly income mil gaya (he gets his monthly income), he is happy. He is doing an alternative to a job.” But, says Roy, the serial entrepreneurs are the ones creating wealth. “The risk-taking ability in that environment is different, the highs of that environment are different.”
Having said that, Roy says both models have to co-exist. “We need both. But if one lakh more people got into wealth-creation mode, our economy will change. In India, if you create this trend, our reliance on agri business will diminish,” he says.
The hope, as Deodhar says, is that India will get into the virtuous cycle of more entrepreneurship, more successful exits or IPOs, more wealth, and hence more entrepreneurship.