Sandeep Murthy has had an illustrious career -- he earned his management degree from the prestigious Wharton School, worked with industry leaders such as Credit Suisse as an investment banker and Sony Music, and is today the CEO of Cleartrip.com, an online travel portal. All this and he's only 30!
In an e-mail interview with rediff.com's Shifra Menezes, Sandeep shares his journey to the CEO's chair at Cleartrip.com and advice on what it takes to build a successful dot com company.
Tell us about yourself, your educational qualifications, your first job.
I was born in the US and moved to India when I was 12 years old. I did my schooling at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, graduated magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in Systems Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania and a Bachelor of Economics degree from the Wharton School, both obtained in 1998.
In 2005, I obtained an MBA from the Wharton School. My first job out of university was in investment banking at Credit Suisse First Boston (CSFB), where I was an analyst in the Technology Group banking on high-tech companies.
What kind of assignments did you handle in the early days of your career? What disappointments or struggles did you have to cope with when you first entered the industry?
At CSFB, we covered the technology sector and my work focused on financing for technology companies. This included working with senior management to develop their stories for investors, structuring IPO road show presentations and performing the financial analysis of the businesses.
The job was very challenging and required many long hours as banking is a world where the client comes first and you must do everything possible to exceed the client's expectations. The role taught me a tremendous amount about professionalism, how to position businesses and on the personal front about the value of confidence in how you present yourself and your business.
Which was the first major assignment that paved your way to becoming CEO?
After leaving CSFB, I went to work in strategic development at one of our client's companies. Here I had the opportunity to interact regularly with the CEO of a public company, this provided tremendous insight into what it takes to build, grow and manage a public company. This experience in conjunction with my exposure to CEOs through my work at CSFB, really helped me develop the basic understanding of what leadership means on a day-to-day basis.
Give us a brief sketch of your career before you became CEO.
Before moving to India with Sherpalo Ventures and KPCB to focus on investment opportunities in India I was part of the interactive development team at InterActive Corp (IAC), the owners of companies such as Expedia, Match.com, CitySearch, Gifts.com and other online businesses. The focus of this role was to evaluate markets and develop business plans for new ventures. In this capacity, I had a chance to be a part of the founding team of Gifts.com. Prior to that, I worked at Sony Music Entertainment, Inc and Intraware.
Two years ago I moved to India as a partner with Sherpalo Ventures and the India representative of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers. I focus on consumer technology oriented investments in India. As part of my role with Sherpalo/ KPCB, I also took on the position of CEO of Cleartrip, one of our portfolio companies.
What is it like working at Cleartrip.com on a day-to-day basis? You've been with Cleartrip.com for about 2 years now, what has the experience been like?
I come from dot com background and see the potential in leveraging technology to make day-to-day tasks simpler. At Cleartrip we focus on the massive task of making travel simple. My job at Cleartrip is to ensure that we align ourselves and our resources to execute this vision in a profitable and scalable manner.
What do you think it takes to build a successful website?
I think putting the customer first and stopping at nothing to make sure you meet the customer need is an important aspect of any business. In the web world, this starts with creating a website that offers a friendly user experience and carriers through to the fulfilment and ongoing support that you provide customers.
Marketing is important as it is how you make customers aware of your offering, however at Cleartrip, we pride ourselves on a very high repeat purchase rate which is a reflection of the overall service that we provide customers.
Our marketing plan includes a combination of print, TV, online, direct marketing, outdoor activity and public relations to ensure we interact with customers at various touch points and create top of mind recall for the brand.
Do you believe in the 'lucky break' factor, or do you believe that an innovative, new idea is all you need to guarantee career success?
Luck plays a role in every success, but if you are not prepared you will not be able to see the opportunity, So yes, I do believe in the "lucky break" factor, but I do not wait for it. Instead, I prepare and keep working towards a goal and try to create opportunities that will be helped by a lucky break.
When presented with a new challenge, how do you set about the task?
I first understand the depth of that challenge; I divide the task and execute it step by step wherein every step is a learning opportunity with an outflow of ideas.
What qualities set apart success stories like yours from the average?
An open mind and humility enable people to be receptive to varying approaches to solving problems and building businesses. This combined with a willingness to work hard and confidence in all you do helps achieve success.
What kind of criticism have you faced in the course of your career, and how have you learned to deal with it?
It is hard to isolate any one type of criticism. I try to surround myself with smart people who are willing and able to speak their mind. This brings with it the open invitation to criticism.
The best way I have found to deal with criticism is to present the data that supports the rationale for a decision. Being a young CEO, I don't have the luxury of pure instinct to drive decisions, therefore much of the decision making at Cleartrip is based on understanding customer needs and desires through either surveys or actual customer actions on our site.
This approach to decision making combined with an open culture has helped create an environment where everyone is open to speak, but has to have the data to support their opinions.
What do you think is the most common mistake newcomers make? What advice do you have to give them in this regard?
People lose track of the customer need that they set out to address and instead get too caught up in the "coolness" of a technology. Stay focused on addressing the customer need and keep an open mind to how that can be accomplished.
Having come such a long way in your career in such a short span of time, what do you think remains to be achieved?
Quite honestly, I am not anywhere near having accomplished any of my dreams yet. I think being CEO of India's fastest growing travel company is a fantastic opportunity to accomplish something, but it is really just an opportunity to start accomplishing something.
I look forward to developing Cleartrip into a world-class company that truly defines the standard for how travel is booked and serviced.
Did you have a mentor, and if so, how did he/ she inspire you to steer your career in the right direction?
I have had many mentors throughout my career, each of which has contributed specific perspectives that have helped me develop as a manager and a person.
My current mentor is Ram Shriram, the head of Sherpalo Ventures. Ram helps by setting a very high bar for excellence and by continuing to drive me to achieve more than I may have thought possible.
How has your career impacted your personal life? Do you feel like you've had to sacrifice a few personal pleasures in favour of your job?
Work can impose upon your personal time and it helps to have a very understanding family. On my side it is an ongoing challenge to manage my time and prioritise.
I am a workaholic and do thrive under pressure, but am continually making an effort to keep the pressure in check by focusing on the solution to a problem rather getting stressed at the enormity of the challenges that we face on a day-to-day basis.
There are quite a few young people in the US and UK who have set up million-dollar websites. Do you think the Indian sphere offers as much opportunity?
India is among the hottest markets in the world. There are foreigners who are now looking to India as an attractive place to build out their careers and really focus on building services to address the domestic consumer.
There are many opportunities in India and as an early entrant in the online space, I look forward to making Cleartrip an example of the type of world-class company that can be built in India.
What tips do you have for today's youngsters looking to set up their own dot com company?
Find a large underserved market and develop a differentiated solution that will add true value to a real (not perceived) customer pain.