Published March 2-6, 2021
Hiring and Onboarding
I start my hiring interviews with a question: “So, what is it that you would like to ask me?” Most candidates are not prepared for such a question. They have come ready with answers, not questions! Seeing them react and then decide on the question tells me a lot about them. The reason I start with the question is that they have gone through multiple rounds of interviews to reach me. They are all ready with their answers. I have read the CV. In an hour-long interview, most can do a good job talking about their lives. I don’t want that – their CV, life and job experience are good and hence I am talking to them. What I want to know is how they think and what kind of questions they ask. Asking the right questions at senior positions is more important than able to rattle off answers.
When hiring, I look more for learnability. I don’t worry about the specific skills for a job – that is for others to judge. I have a strong belief that a good person can pick up any new skill in a few weeks. And sometimes, being an outsider is actually an advantage – one tends to think of problems differently. In my life, I have done software products, media properties, political platforms and enterprise solutions. In each new domain, I started as an outsider. I had no preconceived notions and so was willing to learn and bring in new ideas. That’s what I look for in people. A positive attitude, an eagerness-to-learn mindset, a team spirit coupled with humility and determination will get one further than just deep narrow experience – especially at CxO positions.
In Netcore, we have also tried to pay attention to the onboarding process. What makes us distinctive is the culture we have created and that has to be transmitted to the new hires. There is an orientation program which is the session Bhavana takes. She loves people and it shows in her actions. As HR head, she lives the role. When she speaks to the new hires, she brings the company alive. She is a great story-teller and her infectious passion leaves an indelible mark on people. Netcore has a long history and has lived through many ups and downs. For new hires, they need to understand the past so they can co-create the future.
I was not much of a believer in this until a few years ago. My approach to people was very transactional, but I have learnt from Bhavana. There is a purpose, a cause that people like to associate it – and we try and now bring that out in Netcore. The first month is the best time to inculcate this thinking and mindset in new joinees.
So, find the story-teller in your team and have them not just interview but also onboard new hires. This is how culture and loyalty get built.
After The Exit
I had not planned to sell IndiaWorld. I wanted to run it for life. Wake up every morning and go to work. Go to IndiaWorld. For five years, it was life. All that I could think of. But I also realised in late 1999 that it would be increasingly difficult to compete with the big players with their huge funding. And so, I sold IndiaWorld. The money was good, but just a number.
The day after we had signed the agreement, Bhavana told me words that I have still not forgotten. “If you think of the money, you will never do anything again. Life must not change. We are custodians of God’s money on earth. You have got the money for a purpose. Figure that out.” In that moment, my life’s purpose changed. Until then, it was to be successful. I had lived with failure for too long. And now it was done. The IndiaWorld story was on the front page of every newspaper. Seven-and-a-half years after returning to India with the dream of becoming an entrepreneur like my father, I had my first success. More money than I could ever imagine. India’s first proficorn (though I didn’t call it that then).
Life did not change. In 1999 India, there was no social media. I just went back to daily life. There were a couple of media interviews, and that’s it. I was back to a life like before. The only change was that I had given up IndiaWorld and got a larger bank balance. I was still unsure whether it was a good exchange, but it was done. I had to look ahead.
For an entrepreneur, the joy is the journey and not as much the destination. The thrill of waking up every day, the actions to become a little better, the excitement of climbing the rocks and falling in the water – it is an adventure that has to be lived to be believed. Memories fade over time. But my entrepreneurial zeal has not. Since IndiaWorld, I have done many more things. A few successes, many failures. I keep thinking of new ideas, I keep trying.
I was asked once – “were you smart or just lucky?” And my answer was: I was smart enough to benefit from the luck that came my way. Life’s a bit like that. Had I waited a few months to sell or had an earlier deal for an investment in IndiaWorld materialised, the outcome would have been very different – and probably not a good way. But what I do know is that I would have kept trying. Entrepreneurship is a way of life. I see problems and then think of what the solutions can be. I see the present and visualise a better future. Almost three decades after I walked into my manager’s cabin at NYNEX to resign from the only job I ever had, I am still an entrepreneur – eagerly looking forward to not more money but more journeys.
A Different Journey
It was sometime in 2009 that I started off on a track that took me to the periphery of politics. I wanted a better India, and thought BJP to be best suited to deliver it. From 2012 to 2014, I worked silently and in the shadows via Niti Digital to help the BJP get a majority on its own. I thought my job was done in 2014 and India would march forward on a path to prosperity. Soon thereafter, I realised that was probably not going to be the case. My work as a political and prosperity entrepreneur was not done. And so I went back to the drawing board trying multiple ideas to change minds and channel votes for a movement I termed Nayi Disha. I failed, and shut it down in early 2019.
For almost 10 years, I had applied my entrepreneurial ideas to see if we could change India’s trajectory. On the flight back from San Francisco to Mumbai (via Delhi) in February 2019, as I reflected on the past few years, I realised I had succeeded in one mission (helping bring the BJP to power) but failed in the second mission (to bring freedom and prosperity to a billion Indians). A friend was blunt in his assessment – I had been a complete failure, and not left one single legacy or institution to positively impact India’s future. It was the brutal truth.
A decade gone by just like that. The journey has left me with many learnings, friendships and experiences. The outcome was disappointing, but the ride had its own daily delights. I explored a new world, I learnt about the ways of politicians, I learnt about economics and public choice. A decade ago names like Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, James Buchanan and Milton Friedman meant nothing to me. Thanks to pointers from my friend Atanu Dey, I have read their writings which has in turn influenced how I see the world. I am a better person for it. I am disappointed that the eventual outcome was not what I had wanted, but I am glad I went on the journey.
I have always tried new things in my life. When I was working at NYNEX in White Plains, a suburb of New York. I was asked to go to San Jose for a meeting. Instead of the usual flight, I decided to take the train. Grand Central station in New York City to Oakland (in California) via Chicago. Three days. It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. The beauty of America, the long conversations with other travellers, the sense of timelessness, the idea of doing different things. I have tried to do that most of my life. Different journeys, with the same mindset. Of a person seeking the new.
I cannot see myself as anything but an entrepreneur. I am already working in the tech space with Netcore. I want to go back to the world of politics to complete the unfinished project of transforming India. And finally, I want to build institutions for the future as a philanthropist.
Netcore’s journey as a tech company continues. From SMS and email to marketing automation, from India to the world, from enterprise sales to becoming a SaaS company, Netcore has reinvented itself multiple times. In the process, we have also become a proficorn. I want Netcore to be an enduring, great company. In a hyper-competitive tech world it is a miracle that we have survived thus far. And having done the hard work, I am sure we can travel much longer.
The decade spent on the periphery of politics taught me a lot. While it ended in failure, I am not ready to give up. India needs the Indian Revolution for freedom and prosperity. I have many ideas that I want to get going on. I know there is one path out there which leads to success. I have to discover that path. It is not going to be easy. But I will try. Because we Indians deserve better.
Finally, I want to become a philanthropist and use my entrepreneurship skills to build new institutions in the socio-political space. There is much to do to create organisations that last forever. The US is dotted with such institutions – built not by the government but by visionary people who thought beyond their lifetime.
In each of the areas I want to apply my lifetime of learnings as an entrepreneur and make a difference. These will all be new mountains to climb, and ones I haven’t even seen before. Those are the journeys I look forward to in the rest of my life.
The Obituary Question
Many years ago, I read a column about writing one’s obituary – and then living that life. I was in my 40s then. I decided to do just that. It was one of the best mental exercises I ever did. It gave me immense clarity on what I wanted to do in life. And it is an exercise I repeat every few years.
We all have one life. The question before us is: how can we live our best life? What should such a life be? Early in one’s life one doesn’t think deeply about such questions. Take each day, each year as it comes. After early struggles as an entrepreneur, I got a big success when I sold IndiaWorld at age 32. It was beyond what I had expected. I then dabbled in politics for a decade, which was a mixed bag. But it opened my eyes to the world beyond technology. It made me address a question on impact. I asked the obituary question which made me think of the long future.
And as I looked far ahead, I also surveyed the long past. School and college in Mumbai, engineering at IIT and then Columbia University. The growing up years were all about academics and trying to excel in India’s competitive environment. In IIT, I went in as a studious kid who knew little else and emerged as a well-rounded adult who loved to learn and organise. Seeing my father in the early years instilled in me the spirit of entrepreneurship – and the resilience to withstand and rise from failure. The years after I returned from the US with a chip on my shoulder and the belief that I was God’s gift to India – only to be brought back to earth with failure after failure. And then the IndiaWorld success. Followed by more struggles until Netcore reached the right milestones and started its growth journey. My foray to do better for India brought me into the world of politics with mixed results.
All along, I learnt, for there is so much I did not know. The year at home during the coronavirus era was a period of self-renewal. I rediscovered blogging and started off on many different tracks. Starting new projects (Velvet Rope Marketing, MyToday and Microns, Prashnam) Web shows (hippoBrain and MartechBrain), diverse reading, more thoughts about the future, and writing books. Doing things I had never done before – it was amazing what one can accomplish if one puts the fear of failure away!
And so here I am. Doing what I have done for the past three decades. Ideating, creating, improving, shutting down, starting up. I hope to continue doing that for the next three decades. Hopefully, this time with an eye on the future beyond me.