Thursday, January 31, 2013

Pacesetters - 1 (Arun Raghupathy)

'Sky is the limit' and 'pushing the envelope' are perhaps the kind of phrases that come to mind when we talk of individuals who dare to dream and then fuel their passion with grit and determination to make their dreams come to reality. Undoubtedly these are the ones who then become the pioneers in their fields or sometimes in the fields which may not seem to be 'their fields' apparently but which entices them nonetheless. It feels as if the terms like innovation, creativity, invention, originality derive their true meaning through the thoughts and efforts of such people. 

As part of the assignment by the newspaper 'The Tribune' I covered the lives and experiences of some young entrepreneurs. The first among them, Arun Raghupathy, is one of the founders of NextNav. Due to word limit criteria in print media, I had to edit some parts of the actual interview. Here presenting the full interview, unadulterated. Stay tuned for part 2 and 3 as well.

Give a brief on your schooling, college education and what dreams that you had in your eyes when you stepped out of the educational institution.

[Arun Raghupathy] I did my schooling across multiple schools – Chinmaya Vidyalaya, Kochi, St. Joseph’s, Bangalore, St. Xavier’s, Kolkata (9th and 10th) and Padma Seshadri Bala Bhavan (11-12th), Chennai. During my school days, science and mathematics excited me the most. And, studying in different states and different schools probably helped me understand different cultures better which is nice to have in a startup where people skills are as important as technical skills. Both my sister and father were electrical engineers and that probably oriented me towards engineering and more specifically electrical engineering

I did my bachelor’s at Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai in Electronics and communication engineering. The education there gave me a solid foundation that helped me in the years ahead, but, more importantly, it also gave me some experience of failure (at least relatively speaking) being among a set of high achievers which I consider to be very important for my career. It also gave me an opportunity to get exposed to sports (and the teamwork associated with it) even if only at the hostel/institute level.

After that I did my PhD at the university of Maryland in electrical engineering. While my PhD topic itself was esoteric (and I never used it in my future career), the 5 years I spent, in my opinion, gave me two very important lessons. Firstly, I had the time to expand my knowledge beyond my thesis work (and I had an advisor who encouraged it or at least did not stop me). Second, some problems have no solution. Third, when I finished my PhD, I had the feeling that I could take on a tough new technical topic, understand the background, look for resources and possibly work my way to a solution. That gave me a lot of confidence.

Share your work experience explaining the ups and downs and challenges of working in IT sector in the recent times. How is India placed in this whole business equation with US in comparison to China and other Asian countries?

[Arun Raghupathy] My first job was a system engineer at Qualcomm at San Diego. I was lucky to enter the market at a time when wireless communications (and Qualcomm were on the upswing) and also an environment where I could learn from some of the finest engineers. What helped me later in my career were the additional hours that I spent expanding my knowledge beyond the scope of my job (and the environment was that people did not stop it as long as you did your principal task). After spending 5 years, I was looking for a change that will provide me a technical lead position where I could utilize a wider variety of my skills. In a large company (such as Qualcomm), there was less scope for people with multi-faceted skillset (probably because there were experts in each of those fields). At the same time, Malini and I were looking to return back to India to be closer to family. That is when I moved to Texas Instruments in Bangalore. When I was looking for a job in India, I wanted to make sure that I would be part of a team that would develop a complete product. One of my fears was that in India there were very few complete product development (atleast in the wireless area) and I did not want to be part of group that was doing bits and pieces. Luckily, such an opportunity came by and we decided to make that move back to india. Support from the family (particularly, the spouse is critical) in such a move because there are lots of “challenges” at a day-to-day level (quite different from the US where the day-day operations are quite smooth).

At TI (Texas Instruments), I had the opportunity to actually lead a team and had the satisfaction of building something that was unique in India at that time(end-to-end chipset development). I also had a lot of exposure to customers and was able to see the problems they were observing. However, one of the main drawbacks was that the India office of TI was still considered a cost center. This mindset meant that the product ideas and control was always from the main office based in Dallas. I began to realize that the local senior management also did not have too much of a say. I was also getting frustrated by a role that had become more of managing people (to be read as managing my managers) and not having tools to make a significant difference (such as creating a new product). There were also a lot of politics going on with different groups trying to grab work for their respective centers.

What triggered the thought process on the lines of creating something on your own instead of continuing with the no-brainer(almost) job where the security of seeing monthly incrementing bank account goes for a while?

[Arun Raghupathy] I was looking at other salaried positions at other large companies (and not convinced that I would be able to do what I was not able to do at TI) when an opportunity came out of the blue. One of my acquaintances (Ganesh) from Qualcomm in San Diego, was looking to start a company with one of his friends (Subbu) at Sunnyvale in the area of location technology. He had happened to meet me at an airport a few years before and had my card from TI. It was more a matter of luck.

How did you finalise on the idea with which to go along?

[Arun Raghupathy] It turned out that the problem I wanted to work on and thought there would be a market for (solving the indoor location problem where GPS does not work in a clean manner from the ground up) was also the problem that Ganesh and Subbu had “decided” to pursue.

How much time has passed since you have taken the plunge?

[Arun Raghupathy] Nearly 4 years (we started in Jan 2009). For the first year, we worked without a salary (and that was a tough risk, but we felt the problem was worth a good solution). We started at a time when there was almost a freeze in venture capital funding. At first we said we would work for 3 months without pay, which became 6 months and finally we were close to breaking point when we got funded in Jan 2010. We also worked out of home for a while and then had a one room rented office for a while that we were paying for. That was a very difficult time when a lot of people would question the decision to leave a well-paying salaried job, but luckily for me (Malini and both our families) were behind me (I am not sure how convinced they were, but were okay with letting me try this out and see if I could succeed and that was very important). However, for entrepreneurs, it is also important (in my opinion) to accept failure at some point in time. That is also a tough decision, but needs to be taken when the writing is on the wall. I would say that I was within a couple of months of giving up.

What have been the challenges on this path so far? How do you see yourself placed in competition against seasoned companies?

[Arun Raghupathy] There were always other technologies out there (and each time something came up, we would feverishly dig up all material and see how we stacked up with them) but, luckily, none that could do better than our technology in all dimensions.

The other key challenge for the founders was to avoid stepping on each other’s shoes. For success, the skillset should be complementary. On a personal level, setting the ego aside is a big challenge as well.

How do you see your product making a difference in the world ?

[Arun Raghupathy] We see our company NextNav as providing a location technology complementary to GPS that works where GPS does not work well. Specifically using a terrestrial network our technology would provide high accuracy in urban and indoor environments, in environments, where other technologies may not be able to provide a position estimate. We also expect our technology to enable pin-pointing a user’s location not only in the horizontal dimension (latitude/longitude) but also in the vertical dimension (altitude).

Our technology can be life-saving by helping safety agencies to quickly locate a person’s mobile phone from which an emergency call is placed.
We also expect our technology to enable new location applications based on accurate indoor location.

How do you see yourself and your  product five and ten years from now?

[Arun Raghupathy] We hope that our technology will be available in the US in mobile phones within a couple of years and worldwide in 5 year type of horizon. We also expect our location system technology to improve the accuracy of location further to enable us to pin-point user location within a room/cube.

What are the big hurdles that you have confronted so far ?

[Arun Raghupathy] The main hurdles initially were with funding (in the first year) and hesitation in believing 3 founders (who had no prior experience in a startup) both from other potential employees and funding agencies. Beyond that, the challenge we faced was to demonstrate the performance of our technology in a wide area. Now, that we are beyond that phase, the next challenge is to make our venture a revenue generating one.

How difficult or easy it is to create visibility in today's world when so many new things are vying for attention and eye balls of people across the world?

[Arun Raghupathy] It is very tough, but if you have a product with a clear performance differentiator (and you know it), it can be done. What is important for success is to build a team that has the right experience (and that might mean giving up some significant control of the company) and business networking ability

What are the motivating factors which are big positives for the professionals who have been thinking of starting on their own but have not been able to make the final decision?

[Arun Raghupathy] Ability to make an impact through a product/concept. Even if the venture fails, the learning that you get out of it can be immense (since it involves taking a concept and converting it into a product). In a large company, you see only part of the problem and you are only a part of the solution (and sometimes you may not be clear how you influence the solution). Less energy lost in political battles (though there are other battles in a startup).

How has your family taken this decision so far and how difficult it was convincing them for your decision?

[Arun Raghupathy] As I mentioned, in my case, it was not that complicated due to the support that I had. People around me wanted me to find a satisfying job and if that involved some risk, they supported me in that decision. The other factor was that financially, we were in a position to not draw a salary for a few months and manage without too much impact on a day-to-day basis. That made some of the decisions easier for us.

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