Indian infotech companies are fast coming of age as dozens of young entrepreneurs display determination and unleash a range of world-class innovative products and services.
rediff.com brings to you the third article in a special series on India's best innovators.
Part I: How to succeed Whizlabs style!
Part II: The world on your mobile phone
The time: Close to midnight, one warm, summer night, some years ago.
The place: A popular pub in Bangalore.
The event: The launch of an IT company.
The performer: The company's CEO.
Five-and-a-half years ago, Liqwid Krystal was started by two friends, Anand Adkoli and Ramana Gogula, both of whom had returned home from the United States. Now, Liqwid Krystal is one of six companies chosen by the National Association of Software and Services Companies (Nasscom) for the IT Innovation Award.
Now, Liqwid Krystal has only Anand, hands-on, as CEO, while Ramana is Chairman of Liqwid Krystal's board. "The words really stand for liquid crystal, but are just spelt differently, as we could not get that particular domain name," explains Ramana.
"Why this name? Because we wanted the company to be fluid, like liquid, and able to take on any shape, but also sparkling, and disseminate knowledge, like crystal disseminates light. The unusual launch too was because of Ramana's other identity, and Anand even features in Ramana's first music video Aye Laila.
Both Anand and Ramana are first generation entrepreneurs. Anand's father was a forest officer while Ramana's father was an academician.
"I always had a lot of ideas, and decided to start trying to productise them finally," says Anand, talking about the origin of the company.
Says Ramana, "I just got tired of working for someone else all the time."
Before LK, Ramana was Managing Director (South East Asian operations) of the American MNC Sybase Inc. He had also successfully implemented projects and set up sales offices for Sybase in North America, South America, Europe, and South East Asia.
"I was with Oracle Corporation in Redwood Shores, CA for about nine years before starting LK," explains Anand now. "I have been in software development, customer support and applications development groups within Oracle. I joined them when they were small and grew into middle management quite rapidly. I quit this 'plum' job because it got routine and the travelling got to me. There is very little wiggle room for innovation and free ideation in large companies. Processes are rigid, approval cycles are part of the culture and I felt that I had spent too much time in my first and only company. So I decided to try my hand at being an entrepreneur. Of course, that was 1999 at the height of the IT boom and I had no idea that things would be so difficult!"
What exactly was Anand's great idea, and the product that came out of it? "I started writing technology books on Oracle Technology with Osborne/McGraw Hill," he says. "All my books have code samples in them as they are technology books. These are little pieces or snippets of code that are used to either illustrate or teach a reader on 'how to do something'."
"Unfortunately, in order for the reader to actually experience or try the code sample, they have to spend many hours acquiring and installing the software necessary to try out that piece of code. This can be highly time consuming and expensive."
"I realised that it is enough for a beginner to just experience the code without worrying about the details of how the code worked, why it worked, what software or development environment was used. I decided to design a product that would enable someone to try out that code sample in 5 seconds at the click of a button. The idea for our premier product CodeSaw came from that. Our product now allows a user to compile and run programs across 19 different programming languages at a click of a button with no installation of software. All a user needs is access to the Internet."
"Once we got the idea whetted by publishers, we took our story to venture capitalists," continues Anand. "The very first venture capitalist we talked to (Global Technology Ventures) funded us $2 million after a 15 minute meeting because they loved the idea and believed in the team."
"Our company was born after we got the money. The office, our first employees, et cetera were hired later. So we got funded in July 1999 and LK was born in October 1999. Being a product company, it took us over two years to complete the product, and we got our first revenues in the third year. We sold our product to the very publishers who had vetted our idea and prototype earlier. So, the largest technology book publishers Addison-Wesley and O'Reilly are our customers today."
Guess what LK's proposed business areas were, back then, when they started out? Development of networking technology products, education and consulting, offshore development and, believe it or not, production of new world music for global audiences!
Just how did the partners hope to reconcile subjects as diverse as IT and music? "Since it is my own company, I decided that it is time I finally did just what I wanted to," Ramana had told rediff.com at that time. "Companies are in diverse interests. Look at Wipro, which started out making oil and is now doing IT. Maybe the separate divisions of my company will shortly become independent companies too."
Sadly, this never happened. LK took five long years to start doing well. Four years after it began, when things began to look really hairy for the company, Ramana opted out of his hands-on role to pursue a career in film music. "The idea of integrating music and IT was abandoned as Ramana was the domain expert and he is not here to drive it," says Anand now.
Anand's other passions are writing, promoting the cause of poor Indian children and the management of wildlife in and around urban areas.
What does it take to become a successful entrepreneur in the IT industry today, post the dot-com bust? "Something as mundane as many, many hours of work," says Anand ruefully. "I am going to say about 25 per cent of the success depends on your knowledge, 25 per cent on execution, and 50 per cent on marketing and sales. My experience as an author and software engineer made it easier for me to find the gap in the market."
He reiterates there is no easy alternative route. "We Indians tend to always try and find short-cuts in everything we do," he admits ruefully. "Besides, we are told repeatedly that it is very bad to fail. So we are very careful and restrained in all that we do. This approach will not work. Unless you can think on your feet and take risks I don't think it is possible to be an entrepreneur."
Where does Anand say LK going? "I think LK will continue to grow till we reach mid-size, say about $100 million revenue, and then we will hopefully get acquired by a larger player," he says optimistically.
"After a point, it is very difficult to market a product out of India in the global market. It is possible to get to being mid-sized but beyond that requires global clout which can come only from outside India currently."
As for the IT industry itself, Anand firmly believes that in India, it will only grow around IT services and IT-enabled services. "Even though some companies are putting in some effort into innovation and all that, it will be at least 8 to 10 years before we emerge as a product player," he says. "For now, we will continue to take the low hanging fruit that is IT services. After all, we only have about 3 per cent of the world market in IT services today."
As for the Internet and e-commerce space, he says, "People -- investors, entrepreneurs and employees -- will not make the same mistakes that they made in the last boom. The last boom had too much speculation and hype and people lost their way; almost like the Gold Rush of 1949! This time around, people will think through the issues and the industry will rebound and actually deliver the promises it made 3 to 4 years back."