IIM Americas

1. Tell us something about yourself, your early days of career after graduating from IIM and the progression and career choices that you made?

I graduated in 1983 from IIM Calcutta. My career started like any other IIM graduate with a corporate job at Madura Coats, very well-known brand at that time and they used to have one of the most coveted management training program at those times. During my early days I traveled the interiors of many states including eastern UP and going down into rough parts of Andhra Pradesh with sales rep who were trying to sell sewing thread to people in villages. Even though it was not in line with the expectations that you have after graduating from an IIM grad, the learning was invaluable from the field. I learnt the value of what I was selling, I learnt how to articulate the features of the product and what those mean to the customer and how the customer looks at your product and the competition and how hard is it to sell something. One of the biggest learning I have in my life is that selling is one of the hardest job on the planet.
During my seven years with Madura I was involved with many computerization projects at a regional level and at that time I got interested in the whole world of computers. At the same time I also had the urge to do something of my own so I quit Madura Coats to be an entrepreneur. I went on and mortgaged my parents’ home and raised a load of INR 18 Lakhs to setup a software business in 1991. I also got into training business by taking up franchisees from NIIT and grew the franchisees from just one center to five. In 1997 I went to London as part of the Young Professional Chewening Gurukul Scholarship program run by the British Foreign Office. I spent 3-4 months learning Globalization under an interesting program being run by Lord Meghnad Desai. The whole experience was an eye opener to me where I realized I'm not doing justice to my abilities and my potential by living in India and running my small little software business.
I decided to come to the US and came here in 1998 initially to New York and then California. I came to California and setup my own company for some time. With the dotcom crash some of my customers also tanked and my business went away. I joined some of my friends at that time and started a company called ClickMarks. We raised a lot of money over $ 25 million from top tier VCs, built that company making the mobile middleware for telecom carrier companies. One of the proudest moment of that time was, as a startup going to Vodafone in UK and get them as a customer. We were not only able to convince Vodafone to become a customer of ours but also to become a strategic investor in the company. In 2005, the company was acquired and after a year I left the company to join Persistent. Persistent at that time was a relatively smaller company, they only had 39 million dollars in revenue and was the Product Engineering Outsourcing Company based in Pune. For about 4-5 years we grew the company to about 180 million in revenue and went public in 2010. After going public, I left Persistent to do another startup SourceBits, this was when mobile app and games were becoming a rage. Sourcebitswas a bunch of interesting people working out of Bangalore and we raised lot of money from Sequoia and IDG. SourceBitswas sold in 2013 to a UK based company and then I came back to Persistent in a very different and expanded role. I feel I can contribute to the growth of Persistent and make it a billion dollar company and put it on the map here in US.

2. Tell us something about your current role at Persistent Systems?

As things have emerged Persistent has been around for around 25 years and we specialize in a category in what we actually defined called Outsourced Product Engineering. The DNA of the company is that you hire a really smart group of guys that can build similar products that are being built by Silicon Valley startups. You do that in Pune, Nagpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore and etc. Now recently we started doing that in US in cities like Santa Clara and Seattle. The company's product development DNA is now very different and it is focused towards servicing our customer's customer in the past. We used to earlier service companies with software as their business and now we are serving companies whose business is being driven by software. An Uber comes along and changes the business completely for an Avis or a Hertz. An AirBnB comes along and completely changes the game for a Hilton. These changes are not off chance encounter that somebody just started doing an online business, there are very transformational models that are happening in the industry today. This transformation you can call it Digital Transformation as many of competitors in the services business like to call it, you have to think about your business as a software business. I was really stunned when I read recently that Domino's Pizza Company CEO described his company as a software company. They are optimizing a lot of things that are being driven by a software, otherwise who would have thought a pizza company would describe itself as a software company. This is the journey that Persistent is on and which gets me excited. The DNA that we have built in the company over the last 25 years is going to be significantly relevant for a Domino's or a bank or a retailer etc.
We are not building simple record based IT system that you need to have but we are building software that we believe is needed to change the game or the way how business is done. For a retailer who is trying to build an Amazon like presence online or a telecom carrier trying to build next gen applications that can go on the phone that the company services. These are the areas that we are passionately following and we feel our DNA of building great software if going to be very critical especially because these products that are being built within the enterprise are not products that are going to be sold to millions of users outside the company. But they are definitely changing the way business is being done. This is where the transformation piece comes in and we have a framework that we have built internally to enable companies to look at IT modernization vs. the digital transformation piece in very different ways. If you communicate within your employees over a social community, it’s a very different form of communication, you are dumping the old form of communicating over the email and you are doing a transformational method of communication which is through the community itself. These are the kind of things we have been engaged with customers on and I think that is most exciting because this is the future and where everybody is headed. If I were to go out on a limp and say an absolute endpoint of future is building some disposable apps, an app that is use and throw, you build these apps and then these are used in the enterprise for a specific function and then they are no more relevant but they will morph into something that get built. That is what is going on in the enterprise space whether it be banking, telecom, health care companies etc.

3. You have founded multiple companies, helped raise VC investments and managed rapidly growing technology companies leading to an acquisition and an IPO. Can you share one such experience with the readers?

Let me talk about an acquisition of a company I was working with called Clickmarks, this was a mobile middle ware company where Vodafone was a strategic investor, DFJ had invested in the company as well. There are two major learning/experiences I will share. The first one is around product roadmap and how you think about your business. We were in the process to ship a software to a large company Vodafone that wanted to buy our software but also wanted to be a strategic investor in the company. It's was quiet cathartic for the company because on one hand you have this large customer with a large revenue potential and on the other hand the entire future of the company might be determined based on how we reacted to Vodafone. We almost went down the path where we would have almost turned the whole company upside down in trying to service Vodafone including changing the product direction and changing the product road map. That would have been a disastrous outcome because what would have end up happening is just to satisfy one customer we might have forsaken our mission and vision for what exactly the market was all about. We would have end up thinking about making some services money and tweak the product to suit one large customer. Thankfully we checked ourselves realized that this is not how we wanted to do it. We stepped back and said that this is a completely new business and should be forked out as a services business and we did that as a startup and that helped us a lot when we were doing the valuation of our company. If you have a lot more service revenue vs. product revenue then your valuation goes down, we might have gone down that path if we wouldn't have checked ourselves while dealing with Vodafone.
Coming back to the process of acquisition, as a startup we were not very well organized from the documentation perspective, financials etc. We were all kosher in terms of financials but we were not organized and that was a big experience. In 2-3 week time frame we had to pull in all kinds of record from all over the place. The company that was acquiring us was a public company so they had to make all kind of disclosures and as the COO of company being acquired the buck stopped with me when it came to helping with all the due diligence stuff. It was pretty painful in terms of understanding what is required and what is not, what's important, what is to be disclosed, what's confidential etc. So that was one experience in 2-3 weeks’ time which showed me the power of having a good operations/processes. If the due diligence couldn’t have gone well then the acquisition wouldn’t have happened. Most entrepreneurs live in the moment when it comes to strategy and vision around the startup. It is always very sexy to talk about the app or the product road map etc. but it is not very sexy to talk about operations. Lesson that I learnt from the entire experience is that operations are extremely important and right from the get go if you don't have your act together as a startup you can get dinged and penalized legally financially or regulatory. It's very important even as a startup to have the right controls and focus on all kind of setting up the right operational processes.

4. You are an active member of TiE San Francisco, what got you interested in TiE? What advice will you share with budding entrepreneurs of IIM?

I don't think I want to give advice to anyone. People are really smart, when I look at some of the startups that are attached with the TiE Launchpad the talent and passion is unbelievable. I got interested in Tie in 2001, I have been attending many events, and I even chaired a panel once at TiE. I was never fully engaged with TiE until a few years ago when couple of friends asked me to be a charter member. I think it is a good forum of about 2,500 really smart individuals that are charter members. They are helping startups without any expectations, it is almost like a mentor prodigy relationship that many charter members have with the startups in the valley. I was really thrilled at the TieCon this May to see approx. 4,000-5,000 people gathered together and they all were driven by the same passion 'Entrepreneurship'. Part of the reason why I love to be in the valley is that the energy and intellect is just unbelievable when it comes to interacting with people. I wouldn't trade this for any other place. In the last few months I have been holding sessions for some of the entrepreneurs that are in TiELaunchpad to talk about what it means to scale sales in a startup environment. I have this 1-10-100 rule that until the 1st million you are not even a company, until the first 10 million the founder should continue to do the sales and to scale to a 100 million one needs a team of professional sales folks. Every business is unique and every person is unique, new graduates from IIM should look at areas that are close to their passion and find opportunities where they could turn into entrepreneur managers as opposed to being managers in the company, I think they will add more values to the eco-system.

Sudhir Kulkarni

Executive Vice President. Persistent Systems;

TiE Charter Member