From the small town of Tiruvannamalai, Murali went to Silicon Valley to work with companies like Cisco and Google, only to come back and start his own firm in Chennai
Murali Vivekanandan started Ideas2IT Technologies, a product engineering firm based in Chennai, in 2008, with a team of six. Today, Ideas2IT is 250-employee strong with scores of big names in its client base. A success story is always inspiring. However, Murali’s story is particularly special.
When organisations seek media coverage, it’s their PR team that typically reaches out for the same. It was an interesting change when one of the software engineers at Ideas2IT reached out to me. He said, “My boss Murali’s story deserves to be covered by YourStory. But he is not the kind of person to blow his own trumpet. So, I can give you an overview of his achievements before you speak to him.” Intrigued, I agreed to speak to Murali and an interesting conversation ensued.
First, a synopsis of Murali’s work achievements. Ideas2IT delivers scalable software to companies like Microsoft, Ericsson, Siemens and Motorola, while also being ‘a startup for startups’. The team works with idea stage business founders and helps transform that idea into real-world technology.
Another one of Murali’s ventures, PipeCandy, cofounded with Shrikanth Jagannathan and Ashwin Ramasamy, raised $1.1 million seed funding from IDG Ventures and few other Angel investors. Ideamed, the hospital management software that Murali designed, is now used by several big hospitals such as Kempegowda Institute of Medical Sciences, Dr Agarwal’s Eye Hospital, and Kamineni Hospitals.
Murali was born and raised in a village near Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu and went on to receive a master's degree from the University of Pune. He then worked with large companies in the Silicon Valley, including Cisco and Google, but then moved back to India to start his own venture. Murali recalls,
Silicon Valley is the Mecca for tech guys. I worked with great brands, with the best brains in the industry, learnt a lot, and earned a bit of money. But nothing can beat home, right? I was quite happy in the US, but when I decided to start up, I knew I had to come back and create opportunities for the young talent in India.
When Murali and his wife, Bhavani, moved back, their son was just nine months old. Several well-wishers questioned the wisdom of the move, but the couple had made up its mind. Bhavani is the COO at Ideas2IT; the HR and Finance report to her.
Murali says with a laugh, “Without Bhavani’s efforts, the company would have gone bankrupt a long time back! She jumps into wherever there is a gap, to ensure the seamless functioning of the organisation.”
Ideas2IT hires youngsters from tier II and III towns, and many of them are not professionally qualified. Murali explains,
We have even hired guys who have never worked on a computer! We follow the Google style of hiring, which I call Google Lite, where we screen for potential rather than readymade skills or pedigree.
Murali and his team look for a spark during the recruitment process. This has worked well for the company since attrition is very low. In fact, of the six core members who were there in 2008, five are still with the firm.
When a new batch joins, they learn on the job through real problems and tasks, and by shadowing senior developers on their projects. Murali says, “In a year’s time, my guys will be on par with the engineers working for the big five.” There are two reasons behind this unusual hiring style in a country otherwise obsessed with academic achievements.
Murali says, “It’s not that I have anything against premier institutions. In fact, I am going to IIT for campus recruitment soon, but the fact is that I will not get the cream of the batch there — Facebook and Google will. So, I take the best guys from less-known institutes and have the satisfaction of making a difference to the promising talent there. Secondly, the IIT guy might leave in a year whereas others stick around far longer.”
The right attitude and aptitude to learn is non-negotiable. The interview process is continuously tweaked and the focus is on IQ, problem-solving, and lateral thinking.
The Ideas2IT team has managed to hold on to a close-knit family-style work environment, despite being a mid-sized organisation. Murali credits this to his team, with all team members taking new joinees under their wing. There are also conscious efforts made at breaking the ice. Murali says:
A simple ice-breaker that has worked for us is picking a bunch of guys from different teams and sending them for a dinner and movie at the company’s expense. If we notice a guy is always alone during a coffee break, we pair him with someone who is an outgoing person to help him feel comfortable.
Murali also keeps the morale high with cash rewards, unrelated to year-end appraisals and bonus. He says, “I try to break the mould, rather than sticking to pre-set rules. The intention is to reward capability rather than experience. It is important that the process is fair, so that the ones who are not getting the reward are not upset. When the process is transparent, they can scale up and earn it the next time around. These decisions are democratic and taken by ad hoc committees of employees rather than HR or top management.”
The team doesn’t follow the nine to six work hours routine. The demands of the project and the stage it is in gets to be the deciding factor. At times, the team works seven days a week, at other times they take a break mid-week. Murali says,
My teams are self-managed. They tell me, we will decide how to do this, you don’t interfere. I believe in this line from Spiderman with a twist — with a lot of freedom, comes great responsibility.
Anything good can be done easily on a small scale. However, constant course correction and tough decisions can ensure that the company holds on to its work culture even while scaling up. Murali says, “I feel there are only two companies that managed to grow without diluting their culture — Sapient and Google. I am proud that engineers run my company.”
Ideas2IT also maintains a good gender-diversity ratio. Murali has a lot of respect for the women he used to work for, and he worked with, in the valley, and it shows in his organisation. The mobile and delivery divisions are headed by women and several women are a part of his leadership team. He says, “Women do have restrictions — I would hesitate to call a woman during late evenings or weekends, when she might be busy with responsibilities at home but women bring their own perspectives and strengths.”
Worklife balance is something that Murali and Bhavani integrate in their lives consciously, and the couple ensures that they take turns spending quality time with their children. An avid reader, Murali’s book recommendations are The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Timothy Ferriss, and Mario Puzo’s classic The Godfather.