The two decades of India’s economic liberalization have seen the country pass through a riot of experiences. In his book, Boar in Boots: A Business Travelogue, Parthasarathi Swami takes readers on a journey through these years. The book gives the views of industrialists who have been in the thick of the battles, entrepreneurs who have braved the new world and academics who have studied the process of liberalization. Leavening it are the author’s own views, sometime critical and always controversial. Swami brings to the book 33 years of experience as a business journalist. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, he is currently managing editor of India Knowledge at Wharton and Business India magazine. The book is scheduled to launch this month.
An excerpt from the book follows.
We met Suhas Patil, the founder of Cirrus Logic, in Silicon Valley in late 2000. We met Sunil Gaitonde, the founder of GS Lab, in India in early 2012. They have things in common. Both are from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur. Both are from the same Hall of Residence — Radhakrishnan. They both enjoyed midnight tea at Chedi’s tea-shack down the road and scowled at the soggy French Toast.
There is a big chasm that separates them, however. Patil graduated from IIT in 1965. He then went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for his masters and doctorate, which he accomplished in 1967 and 1970. A long teaching stint followed in MIT and the University of Utah. His first venture — Patil Systems — came only in 1981. This was reorganised and renamed Cirrus Logic — a company into chip design — a few years later.
Gaitonde graduated in 1983. He went to Iowa State University for his masters and doctorate. He then joined IBM in Minnesota. He had four job offers but the choice was between IBM and Bellcore (part of Bell Labs). “My motivation to become an engineer was to do something on my own, something I could build,” says Gaitonde. “Right after my five years at IBM, I joined a small start-up where I got more involved in the sales and marketing associated with products (though my main role was technical). I had no such exposure at IBM even though I worked on some great products.”
Patil came back to India to try and sell the idea of making computers to Indian companies. No one was interested; they wanted to copy what was available, not look at Patil’s advances. Gaitonde came back to India with several ideas in his head — including the design of a new type of mouse. No one was interested; they didn’t see any point in reinventing the wheel when the mouse in fashion was doing a perfectly competent job. So he went back to the U.S. and joined a start-up. That didn’t work too well and he left. In 1994, he and three friends took the plunge in Internet Junction.
“None of us had any prior experience in starting a company,” says Gaitonde. “We were good at building software and generally believed that good products would sell themselves and we would get funding from investors if they understood how good our products were. We were wrong on both counts. We realised that we needed to solve problems that were real or perceived as real by customers who would be willing to pay for it. We also realised that investors invested in teams rather than ideas and while we were good engineers, we did not inspire confidence in our abilities to market and sell the products we had. Therefore, all of us needed to have day jobs so we could eat and then work on our company in the evenings and night. We slowly learnt what our customers really wanted (they almost never want what you start with) and adjusted our product and the sales message accordingly. We had somewhat modest success in selling but before we could go any further, we were acquired by Cisco Systems.”
What did Gaitonde do when the Cisco money rolled in? “Believe it or not, after we got some money in the bank, I went to get an expensive haircut,” he says. “I used to always get it from the cheapest place I could find, as that’s all I could afford. I wanted to know what the expensive saloons did. The haircut failed to impress me so I was back to my regular barber. The other thing I did was to get a nice car to replace my clunker. And the most important thing I did was to tell myself to not get into a situation of keeping up with the Joneses. I have followed that rule since.”
Gaitonde moved to Cisco along with Internet Junction. In 2000, he and a couple of friends he met in Chicago set up Sarvega. This was to process XML. Sarvega was finally sold to Intel.
Today, Gaitonde is back home at GS Lab in Pune, which he set up with a friend in 2003. “We felt that the time was ripe for Indian engineers in India to move up the software ladder from imitation to innovation,” says Gaitonde. “The GS Lab model is to build innovative software for others, as well as building our own intellectual property. We do outsourced product development for many U.S. companies from the Fortune 500 to start-ups where we build all or a part of their products. Our main goal is to build a product DNA company where people think of things instead of taking instructions from elsewhere to do something.”
Is the serial entrepreneur in him kicking up a fuss? “No,” says Gaitonde. “We have no intention of selling the company.” Though Gaitonde resides in the U.S., he is in India quite often. He is CEO of the Pune venture — GS Lab — and you can’t do everything long distance.
This is Gaitonde’s story. So why did Patil put in a cameo appearance? Both are poster boys of the IIT success in the U.S. But two decades removed in time, they are many more years apart in approach.
In 2012, three IITians — Yuvnesh Modi, Rahul Kumar and Alok Kothari — wrote a book titled The Game Changers. It was about success stories from IIT Kharagpur and the lessons they had learnt.
Says Patil (in the book): “Be patient. Don’t be hasty in taking big decisions.”
Says Gaitonde: “Start young. You will get more time to make mistakes and rectify them.”
In the summer of 2012 on a trip to Wharton, we met two IITians doing their post-graduate management programme. They had already started two ventures. Patil turned entrepreneur after 10 years of teaching. Gaitonde took the plunge after five years of working. The new kids will have their own show — with venture capital backing and perhaps more — even while completing B-school.
Time is telescoping. Entrepreneurship is getting younger. Are we aware of the implications?