March 27, 2000

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Riches in the Network

Arthur J Pais

Dev Gupta

Could Dev Gupta think of a Hindu God's name that was equivalent of Mercury?

Gupta's friend and partner Andy Chapman wanted to know.

The two were thinking of a name for the new company they were about to float.

"I couldn't think of any Hindu God's name who had Mercury's qualities," Gupta says, chuckling. "But the name of Narad came up. Narad is a sage who runs communication between the Gods. He also causes some mischief, but primarily he is a Communicator."

Narad is the prototype of today's "networked person," Gupta says. Narad also carried the spoken word from place to place, brokered deals, made peace, told tales and embodied the power of communication. Narad Networks is increasing the power of human communication, he adds.

Today, the new firm is chanting Narayana Narayana all the way to the bank.

When many high-tech firms are hit by an economic bloodbath, Gupta's 9-month-old startup, Narad Networks, secured $41.6 million in funding in February.

It was recently named by CableWorld magazine among 10 small broadband companies that were expected to make it to the top.

The Westford, Mass-based company manufactures hardware and software to help cable companies provide broadband services to smaller and midsize businesses.

Narad says it's building a product made up of hardware and software that will convert cable companies' existing Hybrid-Fiber Coax networks to ones that act like fiber optic networks. Cable operators will be able to use its technology to target small and medium-sized businesses.

Narad's technology will allow cable companies to avoid the expensive and slow process of installing fiber optic lines underground, Gupta and Chapman say. Ignoring the hype about fiber optics network, Gupta started his company convinced that cable can be a cheap and more efficient alternative.

Gupta, 49, attributes his vision and plans partly to his age and concomitant experience and partly to his passion for playing bridge. A bridge-champion since his student days at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, Gupta says the card game made him more logical. You not only communicate effectively in bridge, he continues, you also remember every card you play. "If you are good," he often says, "you know who has what and you have a strategy to win."

A key component of his strategy is building a good sales force. "It has everything to do with the holistic business view I have," he explains. "I believe it is paramount one must know in this business what customers want."

Fiber optics entrepreneurs did not think deep about customers' needs, he says. "They thought in terms of speed," he says, adding they did not think how the customers would benefit in the long run.

"Good customers are harder to create than products," says Gupta who in the past five years has sold two companies to Cisco Systems: MaxComm Technologies was sold for $143 million and Dagaz Technologies for $124 million. He says he learned the importance of customer service more than 34 years ago when he started working with broadband at Bell Labs.

"Many people are surprised that I was creating a sales force at Narad even before we were ready to take off," he says. "But then that is how I operate."

Business associates and acquaintances wondered why he hired 18 sales people when there was nothing to sell. "I want them (sales people) to play the ideas before the potential customers," he explains.

Just being older than many younger entrepreneurs, Gupta notes, makes him understand why things change.

"Most people see it (technological changes) as a text book," he continues. "I feel the changes in my gut" His knowledge of electrical engineering, communication theory and his desire to offer complete end-to-end solution has helped his business growth, he adds.

After selling his companies to Cisco, Gupta worked for a year there before getting back to the entrepreneurial world. "Startups are always beautiful," he says. "They are created in an unpolluted environment. It is very pure life when you are working on your dream"

Kanpur-born Gupta would have loved to go into math but his father Jitendra Nath Gupta, a mathematics major who had joined the Indian Administrative Service, wanted him to study electrical engineering.

"He wanted to be an engineer too but his father died when he was young," Gupta talks of his father. "Since he could not afford an engineering school, he made sure I went to one."

Three of Gupta's sons, including the eldest who has joined Narad Networks, are either engineers or are studying to be one. "I have had no say in their decision," he says, laughing. "They are smart guys and they made their own decision." Gupta's wife is a special education teacher. "I think genetics certainly played a role in their decision."

"Soon I would be working for them," he says, laughing even louder. "Who wants to have the headache of running a company? Let them do all the work and I will supply the ideas"

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