In April 2012, Cisco made a $100 million investment in a stealth mode startup by its own engineers. The company, Insieme Networks, was launched on Nov 6th 2013 and was immediately acquired for a whopping $863 million. It was seen as a move by Cisco to expand its software-defined-networking (SDN) position. But this success was a mere replication of a past experience for the co-founders of Insieme Networks, Prem Jain, Mario Mazzola and Luca Cafiero. Their previous data center startup Nuova Systems was also acquired by Cisco in 2008.
Recently, we spoke to one of the three innovators of Insieme Networks Prem Jain, a 1968 batch alumnus of BITS Pilani, whose career in Cisco started in 1993 as Director of Engineering when Cisco acquired Crescendo Communications. After his retirement as Senior Vice President, he serves as an advisor to Cisco CEO John Chambers. Prem is a man of few words and each of his words counts as a piece of advice to young entrepreneurs. Here’s a brief account of his life’s values, learnings and challenges.
From closed walls of family to hitch-hiking in Europe
Prem’s father brought him up with values like honesty, transparency and humility. He knows his strengths and weaknesses. He was first exposed to the outside world during his college days at BITS Pilani which was a great learning experience for him. Intermingling with people from different backgrounds and a sense of community was inherited here. Apart from imparting education, lessons on leadership and entrepreneurship were taught under the guidance of professors like Dr. Mitra, Dr. Handa and Dr. Nagrath. Though he made many friends there and got involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities but the highlight of his college life remains the hitch-hiking tour of Europe. And to top it, he lived that experience four times in five years of college life. He just didn’t learn about multiple cultures or surviving on almost no money but it gave him the courage to do things which he has not done before.
Learning from life thereafter
Prem moved to the US for pursuing masters from U.C. Davis and later worked with BNR as a member of the Scientific Staff and as Director of Engineering for David Systems. He was with Crescendo when Cisco acquired it and thus began his fruitful relationship with the technology giant. He shares his learnings from his professional life so far:
- Whatever you do, make sure that your work has significant impact in the industry.
- Accept mistakes, correct them and move forward. Make this cycle as quick as possible.
- Stay grounded; never try to become a star in the sky. There are many of those and chances are you’ll get lost.
Dos and don’ts catalogue for entrepreneurs
Looking back, Prem thinks he could have started his entrepreneurship career earlier than he did as he always liked working in an environment without red tapism and rules where innovation is not considered a contradiction. Nevertheless, he was happy to share a comprehensive list of dos and don’ts for first time entrepreneurs:
- Don’t spend too much analyzing and drawing conclusions when you have an idea. Just start working on it.
- Stay updated with all the transitions taking place in market.
- Never ever do a “me too” and startup (copy).
- Don’t feel bad if you fail. We delivered our best ever technology product in the first venture but couldn’t crack the sales which resulted in a massive failure.
- Be honest. Make sure to mend your mistake the moment you realize it.
- Try to build trust among team mates by complimenting each others’ work and keeping egos aside. Remember that everyone is working towards the same mission – success of the venture.
What’s lacking in Indian startups?
Prem shares some decisive elements which seem to be missing in Indian startups:
- Understanding – Know the problem you are solving and your customer. You need to be more realistic than ambitious here.
- Stay ahead of the wave – Rather than riding on the wave, stay ahead of it. You need to be dynamic and adaptive with your products/venture. Keep a tab on future trends & try to become a trend setter instead of following a trend.
- Get mentors: Look for a good mentor and listen to their advice regularly but the communication shouldn’t affect your understanding of right and wrong. Do what you feel is right. Have conviction.
- Respect this profession – Entrepreneurship is to create impact and not a way to mint money the fastest way.
Prem’s message to the aspiring young generation of India is:
Put your heart, soul and mind in whatever you do. Don’t look back once you’ve started. Assume that you’ve seen success, and then work towards the objective of achieving it. It is never too late to be an entrepreneur nor too early to startup.
What have you learnt in your journey? Waiting to hear from you.