Published February 25-March 1, 2021
The IndiaWorld Idea
Ideas are seeds that when planted and nurtured right give rise to entrepreneurial ventures which can become proficorns. So, how does one get the idea?
Ideas come from many sources. It could be while working and seeing problems that the current company (or any other) is not addressing. It can come from personal experience – a pain point that you experienced and which others could also be living through. It could be a copy of an idea that is working elsewhere – in another vertical or in another geography. It can originate in conversations with friends. It can come from extrapolating a trend and imagining a new future.
For me, the idea of IndiaWorld came from my own frustrations in the US in getting access to news about India. While studying at Columbia University, I would go to the library to read the newspapers and magazines from India – all of which arrived about two weeks late. Those experiences stayed with me. During 1994, when I realised that my imaging software business had failed, I had to start thinking about what to do next. It was then that stories about the Internet and its potential started appearing in international business magazines.
(An aside: my father subscribed to many publications. His belief was that one had to know the cutting edge ideas across fields. It is a lesson I have not forgotten to this date. I pay for various online publications – a simple belief is that a single idea from any of them is more than enough to pay for the cost of all of them many times over. Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post – they have some of the best tech and business writings. I have even subscribed to many others. In the world of free and abundance, the paid curated sources of knowledge are what have value.)
The dots started connecting: the World Wide Web could bridge distances, Indians in the US could get news and information without delays, the Mosaic browser with the HTML protocol could make access to this information easy, and a web server would make publishing that information simple. All of these ideas came together to create what later became IndiaWorld. I still remember my first experience of using a service called Netcruiser to connect to the Web in September 1994 during a US visit and accessing sites with a click. The excitement and potential convinced me of its power and potential to forge an “electronic informational marketplace.”
In just about 6 months after that in March 1995, IndiaWorld was launched. It had taken about a year since the first idea to launch. IndiaWorld was the first portal globally with a focus on India. Our early mover advantage helped me live through various setbacks and emerge successful in the subsequent years.
An entrepreneur’s idea is deeply personal – it is not always easy to persuade others of the world that will come to be. It is a competition for the future. Of course, execution matters and so does luck. But the idea is what starts it all – the idea that sticks, refuses to go away, becomes better with each passing day and conversation. These are the ideas that lead to the inventions and innovations which make our world better – and at the heart of each idea is an entrepreneur.
The Khoj-Khel-Bawarchi-Samachar Ideas
While the first idea is a good starting point, many times a second idea is needed to push the business forward. In early 1997, I too faced such a situation. I had lost IndiaWorld.com (the domain) and had restarted as IndiaWorld.co.in. Realising I needed a .com domain, I tried IndiaLine.com. Both were not working. Failure was staring at me. And all I could think of was: Not again. For five years after my return from the US, I had tried many ideas. None had succeeded. And now, I once again was on the brink. I needed something new.
Bhavana (my wife) and I were on our way back from Nakodaji to Jodhpur airport. Every year we would take a few days to visit temples in Rajasthan. Bhavana was also my partner in business. A CA by training, she had easily taken over content and operations, even as I tried to generate business from corporates for their websites. We were talking about how none of the names for the portal were working. And in a flash of insight, we hit upon the idea of using Indian names. We had been thinking of various vertical sites for search, cricket, food and news. The initial approach was to do them under IndiaWorld names – like Yahoo and other search engines were doing. But the IndiaWorld name itself was not working, we needed to think differently.
It was during that road journey that we came up with what became a collection of sites with Hindi names. Khoj, Khel, Bawarchi, Samachar, and many others. And did they work! Each became a brand by itself. Khoj became synonymous for India’s search engine, Khel was cricket, Bawarchi became popular for Indian recipes. And Samachar became the start page for millions of NRIs seeking Indian news. The simple idea of using Hindi names worked beyond our imagination. This was the idea that changed our fortunes and future.
As I look back, it was the adversity (not having the right domain) that created the opportunity (Hindi names as the domains). IndiaWorld was the idea that had gotten me going, but it was the quartet of Khoj-Khel-Bawarchi-Samachar that provided the booster shot. They became the brands that we became known by.
Ideas cannot stop. As an entrepreneur, one has to keep pushing. Sometimes, all it needs is one big idea – though one never knows when one is starting if it will really be big. (No entrepreneur starts off with a small idea.) At other times, it is a series of ideas which come together to create something big. Even now, as an entrepreneur, I always have a bunch of ideas floating in my head. They wrestle with each other and the best come through. Ideas have a life of their own; the entrepreneur is the instrument through which they see the light of day.
The Niti Idea
My foray into the periphery of politics also began with a failure and an idea. I started Friends of BJP in January 2009 just before the general elections in April-May. In the aftermath of the election results when BJP touched a new low of 116 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha, it was clear that we had made no difference. But out of these experiences came the desire to do something in the political space. Through various conversations and reflections came a wild idea – could the BJP win a majority in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections? It was the era of coalition governments – no single party had won a majority since 1984 when Rajiv Gandhi swept to power in a massive sympathy wave after the assassination of his mother, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
I started with the thought that a single party in power would accomplish much more than a ragtag coalition. So, instead of thinking 180-200 seats, what would it take for a party (in this case, BJP) to win 272+ so it did not have to depend on other parties to govern? This single idea laid the foundation for my political venture – Niti Digital. In June 2011, I wrote a series on my blog at emergic.org outlining how it could be done. To the political players, what I was proposing seemed impossible – India was then the country of coalitions, an aggregation of state outcomes. I proposed a different approach – to make the next election a wave election where voters rose above caste, class and community to vote as one. A very different campaign would need to be run to make this happen.
It was then that I also decided that instead of me being a passive bystander, I would become an active participant. That led me to create Niti Digital in early 2012 – with Niti being an acronym for New Institutions to Transform India. I funded the venture myself. Niti grew to a staff of nearly one hundred at its peak. Niti’s mission was to help the BJP win a majority on its own in the 2014 elections. Success was binary – and we would know in May 2014. All activities in Niti were driven by a single question: in case we fail, would I regret making the attempt? So I moved ahead and created the four verticals in Niti – media, data, analytics and volunteering.
Niti was an entrepreneurial venture. It succeeded in its mission – not from a financial standpoint (there was none), but from the eventual outcome with BJP winning 282 seats on its own in the 2014 general elections. In a sense, it was also a proficorn – private, ‘profitable’ (in its eventual success), promoter-funded, and had an important impact in the national campaign.
The starting point was again a simple idea born out of an entrepreneur’s desire to not let the past dictate the future. I was an outsider in the political sphere, which worked to my advantage. I had no mental baggage about what was doable and what was not – I just applied my entrepreneurial mindset to solve a different problem with a big, bold idea.
The Netcore Idea
Netcore had an unusual beginning. When I was running IndiaWorld, we had started offering Linux-based mail servers in 1998 for companies to do their internal mail. It was a small side business, useful because this way they could also reply to all the emails that came in from their newly launched websites. When I was trying to raise capital for IndiaWorld during that period, the Linux corporate mail business stuck out as a sore thumb. “So, you are running these global portals for Indians, and then you have a business that offers email for companies in India? Tell us the connection.” This is what I started hearing from potential investors. It put me on the defensive in the conversation. I decided to separate it out – after all, the real value lay in the portals. And thus Netcore as an independent entity was born.
Netcore has lived through many avatars. Had I stuck to the first idea of Linux mail servers, we would have long been dead! After an initial period of failed experiments, we finally hit upon the idea of SMS services for enterprises in India followed by email marketing – both around 2007-8. There was no deep thought or detailed business plan; it was more of figuring out problems we could solve for businesses based on what we knew. Email has been the one constant for Netcore throughout. It is our “hedgehog” attitude – the one thing we are passionate about, the one thing we are best at, and which is also our financial engine.
In 2014, we were worried about the future of email, and so decided to move up the marketing stack. From there was born our marketing automation suite. That has its own story. My colleague, Veer, heard the phrase “martech” in a customer call. He liked it, and we investigated further. As it turned out, there was a Martech conference happening in Boston in a few months. We both decided to attend. The conference opened our eyes to a new world – beyond SMS and email. We decided to make the bet on campaign automation.
As it turned out, email did not die but grew in strength. But with the automation platform, we also opened a new world for ourselves – assisting B2C enterprises with customer engagement and journey orchestration. And as it so often happens, one idea led to another and we expanded into personalisation and product experience via well-timed acquisitions.
There has not been one single driver for Netcore. Instead, it’s been a series of ideas. We never had a long-term business plan; our focus was more on survival and on year-on-year growth. Since we did not have any outside investors in Netcore, the pressure was more internal than external. We kept listening to customers and added features and product lines. It is only in recent years that we have been developing a longer-term roadmap.
In the fast-moving world of tech, new ideas are a must. Keeping abreast of the competition (small and big companies) has to complement one’s own worldview. A proficorn of today can become a has-been of tomorrow if one does not have products that fit the market needs. In a SaaS (software-as-a-service) world where everything is a click away, competition is global. In such a world, to survive and thrive is an extreme challenge. New ideas have to be as much at the heart of a proficorn as they are for a startup.
Decisions abound in our daily life. For an entrepreneur, there are many make-or-break decisions The big decisions one never forgets. Even in happy endings, one realises how close a decision that was – the other path and it could have all been very different.
In the early stage of a venture, the entrepreneur is typically alone. So, the decisions haunt. No one else can fully understand the choices. An hour’s conversation with a friend or mentor can never fully do justice to conveying the depth of thinking and what-ifs that keep buzzing through the mind. Some decisions are consequential and irreversible – deciding on a co-founder or senior team member, making a call on a potential investor or M&A situation are some of them. The impact of some of these decisions can stay for a lifetime.
A decision has to be made. One can do the SWOT analysis, weigh the pros and cons, meditate, procrastinate, debate. At the end, a decision has to be made. Yes or No.
Through the years, for the big game-changing decisions, my instinctive decision now is a No. There is a path one is on, and it must require something very monumental to shift me from that path. Even if a Yes may seem logical, I start with a No and then think deeply on why I should change to a Yes. In my early years as an entrepreneur, I was exactly the opposite. I was more willing to say Yes, and would only say No if I found something going wrong – or of course if the No came from the other side.
In late 1999, I had an offer from a US company to buy IndiaWorld. It would be a stock deal and in a few months, IndiaWorld would be spun off with a few other assets to be listed on Nasdaq. (This was at the height of the dotcom boom.) So exciting! Imagine, an IPO in the US. I was all too eager to say Yes. After a week of negotiations in the US on the term sheet, I was handed a final copy just as I was readying to leave for the airport for the flight back to India. In the cab to JFK on a dark winter evening, I read the term sheet in detail. I expected it to be on the lines we had discussed – after all, we had just spent a full week discussing it clause by clause. As I read, I was surprised to find two clauses changed from what we had agreed on. There was no typo – these were deliberate edits. And in that moment, my Yes turned to a No. I could not trust the other side. Financially, it was an incredible deal – but for me, the trust issue far outweighed everything else.
In the past couple years at Netcore, we have had the opportunity to consider a number of large game-changing acquisitions. Each could have transformed our future, but I have stepped back because I could not find reasons to convert my default No into an emphatic Yes. There is a sixth sense – beyond the numbers and narratives. It could be a fear of the unknown, or a hesitation to cross the rubicon. In each such situation, I said No when the expectation was a Yes. At times, it is hard for me to fully explain – but after 29 years of being an entrepreneur, I have learnt to trust my judgement. Big acquisitions are very hard to pull off, especially if there are geographical and cultural differences. However compelling the logic, I consider the worst case scenario. There is a default path we are on, and the acquisition takes us on a different path. Maybe, I am less of a risk-taker because there is more to lose now. I am willing to wait and build, rather than be in a hurry for a fast-track IPO or scale just for the sake of showing off. Businesses take time to build and nurture. All it takes is a single mistake that can undo years of work. As an entrepreneur, you have the wheel and in control. No one else understands the business and future better than you do. Just because others are clamouring for a Yes, do not be afraid to say No.