The mid-century was marked by a wave of immigrants fleeing war-torn Europe. They would add immeasurably to America’s intellectual life, these Einsteins and Von Brauns and Kissingers. There was scarcely a field of knowledge where their effect was not felt. Art and literature, politics and theater, all prospered as a result.
The pattern of immigration in the latter part of the century differed from the two earlier diasporas in one important respect. This time, people were not fleeing a potato famine or a world war. There was no death or devastation behind them. Rather, they came from positions of security. They were attracted by the prosperity and opportunity of post-war America, a country that produced a quarter of the world’s wealth while harboring less than five percent of its population. It was the mythic image of a shining city on a hill.
Indians were a part of this last wave. The percentage that were businesspeople quickly established themselves in agriculture in Yuba City, motels in the Southwest, hospitals throughout the East. But the majority of them came to graduate schools in engineering and the sciences. That first generation tended to be more academic in its ambitions. Indeed, it is close to impossible today to find an engineering department that does not have some faculty of Indian origin. If and when they made the leap to corporate America, it was often to research laboratories.
The next generation was more comfortable in moving from academia to industry. They worked their way assiduously up the ranks, struggling all the while to shed the stereotype of being good engineers but not much else. Wizards at calculations and design, went the knock, but not outgoing enough for sales or savvy enough to run an entire company. Oh, there were mavericks, of course, the entrepreneurs who resented being told what they could or could not do. From their efforts were founded Sun Microsystems and Cirrus Logic and Excelan.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan in his brilliant treatise, “Beyond the Melting Pot,” argues that it takes at least two generations for an ethnic group to acclimatize to an adopted country. The evidence from the Indian community certainly seems to prove him right. The twenty-and thirty-somethings of today are dispensing entirely with the stage of proving themselves in big companies.
Part of the reason they are able to do so is that they have been able to learn from the experiences of Indian entrepreneurs who have gone before
them. One of the leading lights in this field is The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) organization, of Santa Clara. All through the nineties, it has organized monthly talks and mentoring sessions. It has offered free reviews of business plans. Most importantly, it has offered a route to connect two important ingredients, talent and energy, with the third (and some would argue, key) element, financing.
And what a ride it’s been! The organizations and people involved in TiE are a spectacular example of the success that can come from synergy. As a group, this group of fewer than 3,000 people has created more wealth than all the high-tech companies in all of India.
The statistics tell the tale. Smart Modular Design’s founder Ajay Shah saw his company’s stock price go up sevenfold during a dizzy period last year. Sanjiv Sidhu founded 12 Technologies and single-handedly created the software segment for supply-chain management, vaulting himself into the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Syntel, founded at Bharat Desai’s kitchen table, achieved a billion dollar market capitalization within its first year of going public. Hotmail went from a standing start to having 10 million accountholders, and Sabir Bhatia then sold his company to Microsoft a few months ago for a rumored price of $400 million. K.B. Chandrasekhar had one of the three most successful public offerings of 1998 with his company Exodus Communications.
On June 6-7, TiE will organize its annual conference at the San Jose Fairmont. The keynote is being delivered by C.K. Prahalad, professor at the University of Michigan, and by common consensus the world’s leading thinker on business strategy. The theme is “Sales and Distribution Management” and 600 people are expected to participate. About a third of the attendees will be successful entrepreneurs either offering advice or catching up with friends and acquaintances. Another third of the crowd will be fresh-faced students or budding entrepreneurs, people who rush back from their regular jobs so that they can stay up till midnight refining their business plans. The last third will be people who have taken the plunge and who are looking to steady their paths as their ships sail out to sea. This month, India Currents profiles PostX, one such venture, and its founder R.C. Venkatraman.
POSTHASTE INTO THE FUTURE
I have owned a personal computer for the better part of six years now, and have had a home email account for almost that entire time. From about the middle of last year, a new phenomenon made itself apparent. People that I hadn’t heard from in a decade started finding my email address from on-line directories, and dropping me notes. First, it was classmates from graduate school at North Carolina. Then, it became friends from undergraduate days at Madras. Then, high school classmates from Bangalore. I started receiving quarterly missives from a friend spending a year in Egypt. My friend Eric sent me pictures online of the orange groves behind his farmhouse in rural Japan. My aunt, 67 years old, and using a PC for the very first time, inquired about my well being via an email message from Malaysia. Her grandson, 11 years old, in grade school at Penang, put me on his mailing list for jokes.
The full impact of how rapidly the world was getting wired finally hit me in December last year. Some friends and I were planning a trip to East Africa. We bought our tickets through a travel agent in Nairobi, negotiating entirely through email. We booked our safari expedition and hired a guide by using a company in Tanzania. Again, all discussions concerning pricing, itinerary, and payment were conducted between Teri, the owner, and me sitting in front of our respective computers. I could not have imagined how simple and ubiquitous this ability would become.
In computer software parlance, electronic mail is the “killer application” of our age. If the seventies were the era of word processing, and the eighties that of spreadsheets and databases, this decade is indubitably one of communications. Over 200 million users worldwide use electronic mail today. In the history of media, there has been no offering that has taken root so quickly, It took 35 years from invention for the general population to Widely adopt the telephone, 26 years for television, 16 for the PC. Email and the web qualify as a mass medium in just under five years.
If there was a perfect position to observe this dynamic growth, it was probably occupied by R.C. Venkatraman. He had the requisite engineering background, first in his undergraduate studies at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, then while getting a master’s degree in computer science at Iowa State University. He had written software for networks while in his first job after school, at Hewlett-Packard. Then he waded into the world of home computing, by switching jobs to work at Apple. There he helped design the Open Collaboration Environment, which was part of the standard operating system for the Macintosh. The result of his work? A single mailbox icon on the computer screen could accept voice messages, text, graphics, attachments, and faxes.
But Apple was going through serious turmoil in late 1993. The company had bet the farm on a handheld device called the Newton, and was soon to become the butt of jokes as the product failed to live up to expectations. John Sculley, the CEO, was clinging precariously on to his position, as the market share for the Macintosh plummeted into the single digits. Also, the machine was an island unto itself since so many of the protocols used in its operating system were unique to Apple machines.
Venkatraman reckoned that there would be great demand for an email application that offered some kind of universal interface, effectively papering over the underlying plumbing of the 25 or do existing packages like Quickmail, cc:Mail, and Eudora. Users would find such an application even more attractive if it offered an analogue to the physical world of the U.S. Postal Service. Just as a house, it would be an advantage to get a virtual email envelope for confidential data that only you could open by using a PIN. Anybody else who happened to be close to your keyboard or screen would have no chance of Idly being able to browse through your bank statement or stock portfolio.
The more he thought about this, the more he was convinced that this was the germ of a powerful idea. In late 1993, he quit Apple, convinced a couple of other friends to join him in creating this application, and worked beside them in a tiny office in Cupertino to make the product see light of day.
They christened the enterprise Chorus-Soft, and called the product SmartSlip. A company needs critical mass, and Chorusoft wasn’t quite there. They say luck comes to those prepared for it. In Venkatrarnan’s case, his luck was in meeting Thampy Thomas, a veteran entrepreneur who had previously cofounded Elxsi, a supe-rcomputer company, and then followed that with becoming the CEO of NexGen, a hot microprocessor firm. Thomas’s background had brought him in contact with many venture capitalists. One of them was Joseph Rizzi, a
partner at Matrix Ventures.
Thomas and Rizzi were regular users of America OnLine, and had gotten spoiled by the features of that company’s email service, such as the ability to send any kind of document as an attachment and to be notified when the recipient had read the message. They were puzzled that there was no general-purpose mail application that offered these features. Then came the fateful meeting with Venkatraman, and a look at his product which offered numerous features like these. In short order, they raised $1.5 million in an angel round. ChorusSoft morphed into PostX, the First Class Business Email company. The company multiplied in size, and found much bigger quarters in Campbell.
Mailing services are such a huge business that they constitute a few percentage points of the entire U.S. economy. Last year, businesses sent 100 billion pieces of mail, and spent $40 billion in doing so. The letter you receive in the mailbox in front of your house offers some significant advantages over the same letter delivered as text over email. For one, the U.S. Postal Service is a trusted agent, and stands behind its promise to get the letter to you. There is no such promise in the Internet.
Secondly, a single envelope can contain your bank statement, copies of the checks you wrote, a letter from the bank president, and a flyer offering low-cost home refinancing. In contrast, multiple documents require a profusion of email messages. Thirdly, a business can personalize a document and make it uniquely tailored to you based on the information it has about you in its databases. It is harder to do this via email. Finally, you are much more liable to believe that a paper bill came from, say, your phone company, than to believe the same about an email message from the same place, because it is easier to electronically create a fake sender name.
PostX addresses each one of these issues. Its envelope Server product adheres rigidly to the strictest encryption protocol, called RSA RC4. Every PostX email message can include not just text or graphics, but any number of interactive Java applets and forms. This makes it remarkably easy for, say, a marketing firm to send you a survey form, which you fill out online, send back and have the results go seamlessly back into the firm’s database where the tabulation is done automatically.
The product offers tailoring on a person-by-person basis. For instance, your Schwab broker may tell you your special identification code over the telephone. When you get a PostX monthly statement from him or her, it can be opened only by first typing in this code.
Every message created using PostX can be authenticated using digital certificates from trusted third party companies like Verisign. They guarantee that the email message you just got from pge.com indeed came from your electrical utility.
In March this year, Venkatraman was invited to speak at PC Forum, the annual industry gathering hosted by Esther Dyson, the queen bee of the computer industry hive. PostX was chosen for one of eight coveted presentation spots from among the hundreds of companies vying for the honor. It made the cut based on Dyson’s judgment of which products were likely to have the most impact in the coming year. 400 of the most Influential venture capitalists, editors, and retailers in the world listened raptly.
When they returned to their corporate office, Thampy Thomas liked what he had heard so much that he helped raise another $2 million. The company moved yet again, to larger digs in Cupertino. Cubicales are being set up, credenzas moved in, Ethernet cable being laid. The only part that looks completely set up is the main conference room. It has a large and impressive-looking table with comfortable chairs around it.
Even in the middle of pellmell growth, alliances are all-important. PostX is getting ready to announce a host of partnerships with banks and brokerage houses in the coming quarter.
Very soon, on your PC at home, you could be receiving an electronic mail message from your brokerage house. You will type in your PIN and the envelope on your screen will open with a swoosh. It’s a message telling you that Cisco stock has hit the price of 75, the level at which you wanted to be alerted. A live stock ticker flashes on a corner of the message, giving you continuous quotes on CSCO. In another part of your window, a small rectangular window opens up. Your portfolio shows that you own 500 shares.
Do you want to sell? If so, please press the button that says “OK.” You calculate your profit (the email also includes a live calculator), realize that you’ve made enough to put a down payment on that car, and you click on the button. In the ether somewhere, packets scream through wires, a transaction is recorded, a database field altered, your account credited. And on Bandley Road in Cupertino, California, R.C. Venkatraman permits himself the tiniest smile.