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January 22, 2000


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She plotted her success story in a public library

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Sonia Chopra

Where do determined entrepreneurs go to get information about setting up a software company? In Vani Kola's case the answer was surprisingly simple and logical -- the public library in Sunnyvale.

Obviously, the future CEO of RightWorks in San Jose, California picked the right reading material because three years after her visit to the library in 1995, she has accumulated $ 25 million in capital and sells her product -- corporate purchasing systems -- at $ 250,000 and up.

"All I had was gut instinct and a dream," said Kola. "It is going well. The company is doing great."

For Kola, who is in her mid 30s, the journey from Hyderabad, India to the US had few glitches. A happy, secure childhood gave her confidence to go after her dreams. A straight A student, she graduated with honors in electrical engineering in the top ten at Osmania University.

Vani and Srinivas Kola had an arranged marriage, but the families had been friends for many years. In 1985, they came to Arizona State University for graduate studies.

Both graduated in electrical engineers. Her husband, 39, is now a consultant for Cisco Systems. While he went on to doing his Ph D, Vani held engineering and technical management positions at Consilium and Empros.

At Consilium she was responsible for building a scheduling system used by the pharmaceutical industry for manufacturing and inventory control. At Empros, a division of the Control Data Corporation, she was responsible for building a real-time software application for the management of power generation and transmission by electric utilities

Kola realized a few years ago that the growing Web enterprise computing was ready for a revolution and that she could build heavy duty corporate computing systems.

After her research at the library and writing a business plan, she graduated to the next step: raising money. It proved to be easy. Investors and engineers from prominent companies like Cisco and Silicon Graphics listened to her and gave advice, encouragement and support.

Among the first to show interest in her ideas was Prabhu Goel, one of the most successful of Indian venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.

She met with him at an event connected with an education program in India started by Goel with his $ 10 million.

Introducing herself after the event and following up with phone calls, she impressed Goel. 'She was very persistent,' he told The Wall Street Journal, 'but in an engaging, not obnoxious, way.' He would soon become her key adviser.

Dr Suhas Patil, yet another successful entrepreneur and VC in the valley, backed her up with about $ 2 million of his money,

Kola was on a roll. She and her staff honed her Web-based technology from start to finish corporate systems and made her pitch, successfully to Fujitsu's US computer corporate procurement systems.

There was a major setback: Kola's product turned out to be incompatible with another key system already at use at Fujitsu. The deal fell through, but 45 days later, she was back, this time with a new, improved version of her product that fitted in and worked perfectly with the company's operating system.

"The essence of what I accomplished, I feel it is not that hard. The most important criterion is drive. You have to be compelled to give all it all you have," she said.

Today, RightWorks is headquartered in San Jose and maintains sales offices in Atlanta, Calgary, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Toronto and Washington DC.

RightWorks offers a software solution for purchasing professionals. It is a web-based procurement package that allows purchasing departments to negotiate the best deals with suppliers and streamlines the order and approval process. The result is saved time and money and no more chasing paper trails.

A private company, RW does not release information on its revenue and the number of its employees.

The real secret to Kola's success is her focus and her never-give-up philosophy. Being smart and savvy has also been a plus in advertising her company and communicating with executives. For example, Kola sent Fortune 500 CEOs a product pitch printed on oversize cardboard that no one could throw away -- it was too big and too hard to crumble.

She was pregnant with her second child when it was time for a scheduled print advertisement campaign. She posed for the pictures. She took the newborn to the East Coast when she demonstrated her product to companies.

As far as she is concerned, it is all a part of the game.

"You have to navigate your course, check the direction of the wind. With the smart ideas, you have to weigh probability," Kola said.

One thing Kola was absolutely sure would never work: running the company with her husband as co-partner.

"It was not what considered a recipe for success. Start-up companies can be stressful and there is lot of pressure, and for two partners to be involved in the day-to-day operations, it is a bad equation," Kola said.

"Also, him {her husband} having another job was a safety net," she added. "It is not wise to put all your eggs in one basket."

Like other working women, Kola balances both home and work. And if there are events that conflict in her two worlds, she has her own way of resolving it.

"I look at it in the context of being important, whether it is business or pleasure. It all depends," she said.

Her advice to young entrepreneurs: "Be what you want. Chase your dreams. Only you know what you want and what you are willing to settle for."

Kola believes her success was a combination of timing, enterprise and determination.

"I know that all entrepreneurs have arrogance and confidence, but I really knew I had the right idea at the right time. It was a matter of evolution. It was time," said Kola simply.

"We must be open to new ideas," she added.

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