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 fourth feature in a special series on India's best innovators.
Part I: How to succeed Whizlabs style!
Part II: The world on your mobile phone
Over a dozen years later, he has never regretted his move. His company, Infozech, specialises in telecom billing solutions and given that everyone expects this sector to explode in the coming years, he has his hands full as his firm keeps seeking out new products to meet the growing and diverse needs of companies competing for consumers.
Infozech's billing solutions earned it an invitation to the National Association of Software and Services Companies' (Nasscom) IT Innovation event in New Delhi.
A few days later, Ankur Lal spoke about his life as an entrepreneur to Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji.
How come a person in 1990 preferred to be an entrepreneur, an idea whose time probably had not yet come then?
Actually I began my entrepreneurship, in a manner of speaking, from my fourth year at IIT (1989-1990), when I began doing some software development for an American firm. This was a follow-up of my summer project, which I did in the United States for Citicorp Software, before my final year at IIT.
When I returned to India, a new US set-up asked me if I was willing to do the software work for them and I agreed, working for them from my bedroom all on my own!
Then, after my graduation, I got a job at Citicorp Software and went back to New York for about a year. But I was keen to stay in India and so decided it made more sense for me to come back, set up a firm here, and work for a US-based client, which is just what I did in 1991.
You were in New York, and working for a Citicorp unit. Was the temptation to stay back strong?
If you work for Citicorp or any large company, it is a very straitjacketed role. You have your set of specifications and you have to produce your results. There isn't much more that you can do.
On the contrary, as an entrepreneur, the challenges are much more. Better still, the pace of learning is much faster. I mean, what a person in a company would know in a year, as an entrepreneur, you learn in a month. And that is exciting.
But in any business, after the initial start, work plateaus and the learning ceases to be so constant.
In any business, there are different phases. One is the learning years, where every day is a new day and you are surviving. Every day then is a challenge and that is what carries you through.
Every now and then you ask yourself is it worthwhile, you recap and see where you are heading. But you are enjoying the thrill and so you keep going.
The first phase, from 1991 to 1996, my firm concentrated on services. In the second phase, from 1996 to 1998, we stayed a service firm but our focus moved to telecom. From 1998 to 2000, we had grown a bit, had a partner on the company, and we were a larger company and moved from my residential office into a proper office.
Also, we were now being sought after. Top companies were seeking us out, so we decided to go on our own. We went back to the market and picked up some venture capital, and started to grow on our own. We also started developing our own products at this stage. Then there came a bad phase, but we survived.
And today, India is being sought after as a destination for products. And we hope to keep developing our products and thus make our company grow. So there is constant growth.
But surely as someone hailing from a middle-class family, there was always the temptation of a job security with a top-notch firm, perhaps abroad?
Yes, that is there. In a job you have compensation, you have work security where you work only so many hours a day. But on the other side, you don't have the satisfaction of achieving as much as you do as an entrepreneur, the thrill of doing something new.
I think if you are confident about what you are doing, then really there is nothing to fear about being an entrepreneur.
Is that the key? Believe in yourself?
It is, to really believe in yourself.
In 1990, IT was still a new world. What got you into doing business?
To be honest, when I was doing my IIT, I was sure I would do an MBA and go into some company. I was only sure that I didn't want to go abroad, since my brother, who is also from IIT, was already based there. But an opportunity did take me abroad when I did my summer internship there and after that I even worked there.
Then I got this offer to work for a US firm while based in India, which I did with a team of four persons from one room in my house.
First, it was great fun, more like a hobby and I just enjoyed what I was doing. And from 1999, we begin to grow and today we a 50-member company.
You said that in a job, you get slotted into a specific role. But even in a company, after a few years, the fast growth plateaus. So how do you keep the job challenging?
When we began, it was more in the nature of offering services. Then, in the last five or six years, we have been working on products. Developing or creating products is far more challenging and that is where we have stayed focused.
Our domain is a product-centric group, we understand the product and we keep innovating to meet our customers' specifications for the products.
So it is a very specific product that is unique to our group.
The second challenge is to stay ahead of the market and keep the costs low. So we would go out and look at competing products, study what our customers need and keep making the changes. Then we would look at packaging the product to meet the market requirements.
Initially, we had one big product but it did not meet the customers' needs. So we then broke up the product in to different parts for different needs, and these were lapped up by the customers. So it is a constant learning process that keeps the job challenging.
Going into business in the 1990s was not easy. How did your family react?
My father, M P Lal, was a journalist who was with The Statesman for 30 years. My brother is an engineer and my sister is married to an engineer. So I come from a family of professionals.
But 1990 was an exciting time, when computers and software were emerging and my parents backed me totally when I decided to set up my own business because they knew it was an exciting opportunity that had come my way.
But you knew that if, God forbid, your business failed, you could always go join a company, given your IIT background?
Certainly. Not just my IIT background but the fact that I had worked for Citicorp Software gave me the confidence of knowing that worst come to worst, I could always pack my bags and return to a job.