The Fab Story
In this interview with Niranjan Mudholkar, K Vaitheeswaran, Chief Operating Officer (COO), Fabmall.com, illustrates his company's progress
Please tell us something about the origin of Fabmall.com (the concept), its history and the people involved.www.fabmall.com was set up in 1999 (called Fabmart.com then) by a group of six co-founders, all with an IT background. The co-founders were from Planetasia.com and Wipro, and I am one of them. We started the company with the concept that in future, the Internet will become a very popular medium in India and retailing on the Internet will also grow into a significant business. When we began, we realised that our business was at least five years ahead of the times. But we wanted to invest into it at an early stage so that when the concept became popular, we were well placed to take advantage of our early experience. Fabmart underwent a metamorphosis to become Fabmall with an online strategy that aimed at leveraging on its physical and corporate business. How successful has this objective been?It did serve its purpose when we made the change from Fabmart to Fabmall in 2003. But since then we have felt that while there are certain advantages, there are also some disadvantages in carrying the same brand offline and online. This is especially true when the product ranges are dissimilar. Customers were expecting to buy the same items from the outlets as well as online and got confused. We are now evaluating whether we should launch a new brand name online to avoid this confusion. Logistics is a critical factor when it comes to e-tailing, more so when you cater to customers across the country (and even overseas). How is Fabmall.com managing it?Fabmall.com is the only e-commerce company in India that focused on logistics as such. We have our own warehouse and employ a big team of logistics professionals. Other e-commerce companies avoid getting involved in logistics. They leave it to their vendors to take care of shipments. Fabmall.com has its own warehouse not just in India, but also in the US, which helps us ship orders worldwide.
A start-up venture’s CEO must adapt to changing times
India's performance in the current ICC cricket World Cup throws up several important lessons for entrepreneurs. The most notable of these is the criticality of planning: not just for the next few games but for the next several years. In turn, this planning requires the ability to see trends, visualise how these trends evolve over time and consequently impact the venture, if not now, then in the foreseeable future. Let me explain.
From a leisurely 5-day game with a rest day in-between, the game is today being played in a rapid 20-20 format. Fielding, that used to be at best equivalent to a stroll in the park, now requires supreme athleticism and anticipation. Technology that used to be non-existent has now become an integral part of the game. From a gentleman’s game it has become a multi-billion dollar brutally competitive—and I’m not talking of just the BCCI elections—sport with intense pressure from various quarters.
From playing a few days a year to playing around the year and where multiple players are groomed for every position rather than have positions of sinecure based on reputation. And so on. These throw up challenges of planning to those at the helm of the game to ensure that the performance of the team remains consistently high. To do effective planning, there must be the ability to visualise impending changes and make requisite changes—changes that are systemic and organisational. It is obvious that the Indian cricket system has a 19th century mindset in the 21st century.
As the CEO of a startup venture, it will be suicidal to have a similar mindset. You must, therefore, not only plan on how the market and customers are likely to behave in the coming years but also look at competition, the impact of technology on your company and its products, the challenges of attracting, grooming and retaining talent, and consequently what changes need to be made within your company to take best advantage of the situation. Changes include issues like transparency, accountability, empowerment, clear and consistent communication, creating a non-political environment, valuing professionalism, understanding that loyalty and competence are not substitutes, setting up systems to track and reward performance while driving efficiency. Investments in technology and training are necessary. Having the right person on the bus—as Jim Collins so eloquently describes in his book Good to Great—is of paramount importance. Having the right people in the right jobs has a cascading impact on the organisation’s competence and abilities because as the old saying goes, “First-grade people hire first-grade people. Second-grade people hire third-grade people.” Over time, without a meritocracy, only the third-grade people are left behind. One look at the Indian system of sports, among other areas, is enough to convince anyone that all of the above are conspicuously absent. A look at the tragic decline (demise?) of Indian hockey is illustrative of what happens when ignorance of trends in the game converges with corruption, politics, and incompetence. On the other hand, as the CEO of your venture, there’s another important learning from the world of cricket. How does one create a large number of maniacally obsessed, fanatic customers who will keep buying your products in ever larger numbers independent of the quality of their performance such that you generate incredibly high cash surpluses year on year? This too requires a great degree of understanding of the psyche of your customers, of the need to keep them constantly entertained with events and attracting newer market segments such as children with newer gimmicks.
In this light, it is important to keep in mind the US president Abraham Lincoln’s famous comment to a visitor to the White House in 1865: “If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
And we all know what happened to Indian hockey, not to mention all other team sports, over the past 50 years.
‘Wanting freedom to execute my ideas, I became an entrepreneur’
Pradeep Kar, Chairman and Founder, Microland
Acknowledged as a “serial entrepreneur,” Kar is known for his mysterious charm for luring investors. He tells Pankaj Mishra that wooing investors is more about a convincing business plan than inter-personal relationships
“I wanted the freedom to execute my business ideas and enhance my earning capabilities. This prompted me to become an entrepreneur,” says a beaming Kar. After finishing his Bachelor of Engineering and Post Graduate Diploma in Management, Kar joined Wipro in the early eighties. “Wipro at that time was an organisation of 80 people with a turnover of Rs 4 crore,” says Kar. He left Wipro in 1984 to join Computer Point, a retail chain selling computer products. Kar honed his skills across functions like finance, human resources and administration before launching Sonata Software’s US operations in 1987.
Kar returned to India in 1989, for fulfilling his dream of launching a computer company. He, along with Anand Sudarshan and Jawahar Bekay, launched Microland, which is focused on the networking business. They got an early investment of Rs 20 lakh from the State Bank of India. In the late 90s, Kar decided to join the Internet bandwagon by launching Planetasia.com. “Planetasia was the first Indian company to have .com in its name. There were hundreds of companies listed on BSE and NSE looking to build their websites. Through Planetasia, we wanted to tap that potential market.”
Around that time he also launched Indya.com and Itspace.com. When Kar sold Indya.com to Star, people started describing his ventures as futile. “I think we don’t have enough maturity in the country to understand the dynamics of starting a venture and selling it off. Just because I sold Indya doesn’t mean the venture was a flop,” he argues. In its first round, Indya raised $53 million. Kar says that the investors made a happy exit, because they got a good RoI (Return on Investment). When the dotcom bust happened, Kar was left with no choice, but to exit from the Internet space. “We could either continue to be in the dotcom business, or make a complete exit. Fortunately for us, ‘Uncle Murdoch’ came in the right time and offered to buy out Indya. Now the group has been restructured with two entities Microland and Planetasia.”
Kar’s passion for launching new ventures is well acknowledged amongst the CEOs of Bangalore, who also know him as the founder of Beer Drinkers Association of IT (BAIT). “On July 1st 1994, MAIT was having its annual convention in Bangalore. We got some time off and I, along with a few friends, decided to have a gathering at PubWorld. Around 35 CEOs turned up, including Ashok Soota of Mindtree. In those days the hardware industry was witnessing cutthroat competition because of the limited number of clients. We needed a platform to ensure that camaraderie is not lost amongst the industry players. One of the goals of BAIT was to ‘Drown Our Sorrows’ (DOS).” BAIT still has 40 member CEOs who meet at least twice a year to network with each other.
Kar is an avid reader and he takes time out to read books on management, especially those which talk about building companies. ‘Tornado’ by Jeffrey Moore and ‘Crossing fault lines’ are two of his favourite reads. “I also enjoy reading books written by Bill Gates. I read at least one book every month,” he adds. Since his college days, Kar had the urge to become an entrepreneur.
From three professionals in the late nineties to managing a team of over a thousand professionals, Kar has definitely come a long way. “I have always believed in hiring good people and delegating work to them. So far, we have managed to develop a work culture which is devoid of any politics.” Entrepreneurs, according to Kar, are the key to Indian success in the field of IT. “If we look at the period between 1999-2000, we will realise that the industry churned out more CEOs during that period than in the ten years before that. This is because at that time VCs were not apprehensive about investing in start-ups. Today, after the bloodbath in the Internet space, it is difficult for start-ups to woo a VC.”
Kar is a member of the Chief Minister’s Task Force on IT in Karnataka and a Charter member of The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE), Bangalore Chapter. He is also on the Listing Committee of the National Stock Exchange.
The amazing success story of K B Chandrasekhar
K B ''Chandra'' Chandrasekhar, founder-CEO of Jamcracker Inc. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj
July 26, 2006The story of K B Chandrasekhar, founder-CEO, Jamcracker Inc, is highly inspirational. Especially, for all the enterprising young Indian men who desire to be successful entrepreneurs.
Chandra's journey started at Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu where he was born, moving on to Trichy where he spent his early years, and then to Chennai where he did his school and college education, and finally to Silicon Valley in the United States.
It was at Silicon Valley that he struck gold. That too in a big way. It is the classic, modern-day story of a middle class young man-turned-multi-millionaire.
Chandra describes himself as "a serial entrepreneur and risk-taker who empowers others to accomplish their dream."
This is his story.
The Early Years
I come from a classic middle-class family: my grandfather, grandmother, father, mother... all living together in a joint family. Family values were strongly embedded into me as a result of this.
I was born in Kumbakonam, but was in Trichy till 1968. I did my schooling at Ramakrishna School in Chennai and then joined the Vivekananda College to do my BSc in physics because I couldn't get into engineering. In 1980, I got admission to the Madras Institute of Technology at Anna University.
I was not exposed to business of any sort, but my father, in those days, dabbled in shares. He encouraged me to have freewheeling discussions on various aspects of business. Those were the seventies, but I was given enough freedom to think freely. My parents were there all the time supporting me and encouraging me.
I didn't realise the value of it all then, but later on I understood the kind of impact those discussions had upon my thinking. More importantly, they encouraged me to take risks. In the eighties, when working in a public sector was considered safe, I was encouraged to go into a field that was uncharted, like computers.
I entered the world of computers very early, way back in 1983 when I joined Wipro. Wipro is an entrepreneurial company that gave me the opportunity to try out various things.
To the USA
In 1990, I moved to the US on a job assignment. Would I have the courage to start something on my own had I been in India? I think I would have done the same thing even if I was in India. Actually, I had packed my things to come back to India in 1992 because my wife and I decided we were going to do something on our own in Bangalore. It just happened that we got an opportunity to get started in the US itself.
What I mean is, the willingness to do something on my own has always been there. In 1983, I wrote a small business plan to create 'Casio calculator-based ticket punching machines' for bus conductors, and sent it to Casio. We even dabbled in starting companies by importing game kits from Korea and Taiwan for $1 a kit.
Somehow, those things did not click because of our middle-class background, not having the money, and also because of our inexperience.
I would have done business in India too, but probably not on the same scale. Indian companies had the benefit of time. If you look at some of the successful companies in India, you will see that it took them almost 20 years to reach the first $100 million. But when you are in the US, you don't have that luxury; you have to grow fast. The willingness to take risks was more there, and that I got because I was in the US.
I would not have had that courage if I was in India because I would have been more concerned about safety.
First venture: Fouress
When we had packed and were ready to come back to India, one of my friends at Sun Microsystems told me that he had a project. However, he wanted me to stay back and do it in the US. That was where my real entrepreneurial spirit came into play.
At that time, BFL and Mastech had just started. B V Jagadeesh, who had started BFL, was my colleague at Wipro. Jagadeesh and Sundar -- one of the founders of Mastech -- told me: 'Chandra, you do it. We will back you.'
I jumped at it with just $4,500 in my hand, and no capital. I leveraged on Jagadeesh and Sundar. We started Fouress, a software design company. I could do it because we had a great understanding, because we believed in each other and trusted each other.
We took the company from nothing to over a million dollars a year in the first two years.
I attribute my success mostly to my wife for her moral and physical support for standing by me and sacrificing everything. For several months, we used to live on basic food because we couldn't afford anything else. I need not have done it because I had an $80,000 job in my hand at that time. That means it was a self-inflicted pain, and that you cannot go through unless you are in it together.
Secondly, we were leading a nomadic life; we didn't have a car or a house. So, we were not stuck. I feel if I had gone to the US to study, I would not have done all this that quickly.
Starts Exodus Communications
By 1993-end, Jagadeesh joined me as a co-founder. We then started dreaming of building a bigger company, something that would be revolutionary. Internet had not started at that time but we started the Internet business in 1993 itself.
That means we were ahead of the times. Probably, we did not even realise the risk we were taking. By sheer chance, after we started, the Internet bloomed and we were in the right place at the right time.
Destiny and Kanwal Rekhi
I believe in destiny. Jagadeesh and I faced bankruptcy many a time; we borrowed money with no assets but we survived.
It was destiny which brought people like Kanwal Rekhi to us. He is one of the pioneer entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. He started his first company in 1982 which went public in 1987.
By chance, I happened to go to a TiE (The IndUS Entrepreneurs) meeting and saw Kanwal Rekhi there. There were very few people there, so after the meeting I told him, 'I want to send you a business plan.' He wrote his fax number and gave it to me. I still remember it was in May 1995.
The very next day, I sent him a five-page executive summary of my business plan. There was no news from him for three months. One day, we get a voice mail from him saying that he wanted to come and see us. That was the biggest day of our life; somebody was willing to listen to us.
He came to our office and on the first day, he ripped us apart. Yes, our naivety showed in our business plan. But he saw that we were passionate, hungry, and willing to take all kinds of risks to make our idea successful.
Over the next two months, I used to talk to him at his house till late at night about my dreams; we were like Krishna and Arjuna. I still remember how I told him on a rainy day why he needed to support me. And he did. He gave us a cheque of $250,000.
Exodus Communications went public in 1998 and became one of the most successful IPOs (initial public offerings) of that year.
Jamcracker Inc is a continuation of Exodus Communications. Exodus created a utility for the infrastructure, while Jamcracker's role was very simple; IT as a utility. With that simple dream, we (Chandra, along with two MBA graduates from Stanford, Herald Chen and Mark Terbeek) started Jamcracker Inc in 1999.
We struggled initially, but today Jamcracker has become a leader in on-demand IT as a utility.
For rural India
I started doing something for rural India with n-Logue because I saw a big divide between urban and rural India. The question was 'how do we ensure that the masses are able to get the benefits of IT?' I was not doing it as charity because I don't believe in charity for charity's sake.
Our 1-year-old company Akshaya -- which is doubling every quarter -- was created as a combination of communication and people on the ground. The biggest satisfaction to me is that I have been able to establish some innovative methods in how we settle payments between transactions in rural set-ups, the way we are able to aggregate smaller volumes into larger volumes, how we do branding and create a larger distribution system. We are slowly telling the farmers, 'why don't you do it this way? We can do a lot more in productivity.' My role in this is that of a fulfiller.
Indians were referred to as 'crabs' because we were not known for helping each other. People always said two Indians would never help each other. But today whatever I am, is because of an Indian. I have been helped globally also. My first $200,000 loan was given by a Pakistani.
I always tell budding entrepreneurs; 'Don't think if you don't have money, you cannot do anything. All you need is a big dream! And the willingness to give up everything in the pursuit of that dream. Others will take a risk with you only if you are totally committed to your dream.'
In our upbringing, we are always told, 'be careful, be careful.' Rather than, 'go, try and let there be failure.' We are a savings-oriented economy, not a spending-oriented economy. We are always worried about tomorrow. That maybe because opportunities were limited for us.
Absolutely. Innovations were pulled back because of the system that prevented us from taking the risk. That is why when Indians go to other places they are willing to take risks. It has nothing to do with our nature; it is the environment. But it is changing quite a bit now, especially in the past five years.
I set up the Anna University-K B Chandrasekhar Research Centre and also an incubator -- at the Chrompet-based Anna University campus which is not at all flashy -- just to prove that the best brains are available here, and we are capable of producing world-beaters. The name of the incubator translating technology to commercial products is svapas (www.svapas.com).
I want to prove that Indian innovation can be marketed globally. We have a great future. My motto is, 'you be the thinker of what the world needs and not do what others tell you to do.'
Why a research centre at Anna University?
I believe that India will become the knowledge capital of the world. If that has to happen, we need world-class research. India had research but it was done within the four walls of various institutes.
Another reason why I started the centre is because of my love for my alma mater. I want to set an example that your alma mater matters and educational institutions have a larger role beyond churning out students into becoming centres of excellence for future.
And I was willing to show that with my cheque book, my time, commitment and willingness to plough through it during tough times.
We are launching the first two start-ups in the next few weeks.
I believe this country needs strong roots in marketing for it to become a global leader. That is why I have started -- along with Dr Bala V Balachandran -- the Great Lakes Institute of Management in Chennai.
I am establishing a chair for marketing at the Institute and as the first step, we have Dr Philip Kotler, the guru of marketing, on a one week visit to India (See: India is on a roll: An exclusive chat with Philip Kotler).
So, I am looking at everything as an ecosystem. Doing one thing and not having the follow-up will only destroy what you have done before. Everything -- education, research, marketing -- is interlinked.
Asia, a giant in IT
I believe Asia will soon be the giant in the field of IT, but at the same time we can't be complacent because you have got regions like Eastern Europe from where great innovations like Skype are coming. You will see that in the future, innovations will come not from the US alone but outside of the US also.
And, India will become a very important place for innovation.
China and India
Together, India and China will become major global players. China and India also will become competitive and also increasingly collaborative.
You will see three ecosystems developing in the future: the Asian Ecosystem, the European Ecosystem and the American Ecosystem (not North America alone, but South America too). These three ecosystems will compete and collaborate.
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