It was an otherwise normal day at Bangalore. But, at ITC Gardenia, the fourth edition of TechSparks lent the city an electrifying atmosphere. The annual blockbuster of YourStory went up several notches, in the words of the attendees, “right from the packaging of sessions to the quality of conversations was spectacular.” One talk that stayed with everyone, at the end of the day, was the keynote address by Shailendra Singh, MD of Sequoia Capital.
Shailendra’s mantras for enduring success
If last year’s keynote of Shailendra Singh was like a blitzkrieg from Sachin Tendulkar at his peak, peppered with glorious sixes, this year’s was like Rahul Dravid playing elegant strokes to build a splendid innings. He said that, in a fast pace of change, enduring success is a challenge. Quoting the example of JustDial which took 17 years for an IPO, he added that it takes 10 to 15 years to build a successful business. Enduring success is built around four themes, according to Shailendra, which are moat, agility, culture, and perseverance.
A moat is a defensible system that manifests as superior technology, network effects, consumer brands, user experience, ecosystem and operating model. Taking the example of Sequoia portfolio company, Pine Labs, which facilitates 10% of all credit card transactions in India, he said network effects began to manifest only after 15 years. Lokvir Kapoor, who joined the company in 2004 as a co-founder, launched a cloud-based payment platform in 2010 and helped it see 5x growth in three years. The effort is also a result of perseverance. It’s a moat because of the kind of the operating model that has been built to bring benefits to all players (retailers, banks, and card-processing companies) in the ecosystem.
Agility is the ability to learn quickly and adapt to change. Jaspreet Singh, at 26, took over as CEO of Druva, a backup and disaster management solutions company, though he was not initially taken for that role. The initial product, Replicator, was a failure. Quickly changing tack, Druva developed InSync, a laptop backup and disaster recovery software, which proved to be a huge success. Another product, Phoenix, was also a failure. Emphasising that a company should quickly move on to newer products, he said Druva is an example of an agile company. Now, the failed products, Replicator and Phoenix, are sought after by customers. It was ranked by Gartner as No. 1 in the category of data governance protection in 2012. Druva has seen 25x growth, since its launch in 2008.
A company that exemplifies culture as a hallmark of its success is Mu Sigma, a decision science company, helping organisations make decisions based on big data analytics. Dhiraj Rajaram, cofounder and CEO, has brought in unique cultural elements that blend together to help the company succeed in unique ways. It has surpassed $100 million in revenues. Employees are encouraged to raise questions to the extent that there is an award for the best question every month. In a lighter vein, Shailendra explained how Dhiraj appeared in a lungi, a casual attire, after a pooja at home during a customer visit. This shows openness and authenticity to the customer, he added.
The example of grit and perseverance is SCIO Health Analytics led by Siva Namasivayam. The company, which is into health care space in the United States, missed every single target in the initial two years after its founding in 2007. A couple of its acquisitions failed. Layoffs and cost cuts ensued. But in January 2011, an acquisition turned successful, and the company steadily climbed the ladder of success to record Rs 300 crore revenue in 2013. Shailendra said the success was possible because Siva dug in and kept trying without giving up.
In sum, the lessons for all the entrepreneurs out there are – Endure, persevere, and success will be yours. Don’t be afraid to fail; fail and iterate. It just gets better with time.
Mu Sigma’s Ambiga on what it takes to build a world-class culture
Shailendra went on to engage in a fireside chat with Ambiga Dhiraj, Head of Fulfillment, Mu Sigma (which, in his own words, is not a portfolio company but a partner). Ambiga wowed the audience with her openness about the culture Mu Sigma has built over the years. She explained how Mu Sigma focused on “learning over knowing” and betted on innovation play to solve problems. “You need to have a leaky bucket to learn in an agile manner, it is only by unlearning that you can learn more,” she added. She explained how Dhiraj quit his existing job and won RFP from a global company, which was his first customer, despite attending a lunch meeting with a swollen mouth due to wisdom-tooth removal. She narrated how customers are asked to interact with analysts on the floor instead of being engaged with presentations in the conference rooms. Ambiga also modified the term work-life balance to work-life integration. She felt that there shouldn’t be boundaries between work and life. She also explained how the employees are encouraged to question anything happening around the company to make it better.
Questions from the audience included why Mu Sigma has a fixed salary structure for a new employee for three years (which is increased year after year), instead of announcing increments every year. She explained the uniqueness of Indian culture and the challenges young people face when thrown into a corporate environment right out of college. Despite fixed salary, every two weeks, the new employees are given a performance report, to enable them to improve. Her talk left the entrepreneurial audience with a lot to mull over.
It was inspiring to see Shailendra give centre-stage to Ambiga, and the conversation that ensued was an open testimony to how an investor and investee can have a strong bond.
Shailendra added an icing to his keynote by announcing a Series A investment in Idea Device, a TechSparks 2011 alumnus.
Let’s all try and pick “endurance” as our mantra as we go about building our own ventures.