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.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Book Review : Mr. Popper's Penguins

Title : Mr. Popper's Penguins
Author : Richard and Florence Atwater
Age : 5-12 years

Read a truly feel good children's book after a long time. Once again I owe the sheer pleasure of reading a wonderful book to none other than my sister. She is the one who introduced us to the creative world of Jeff Brown (Stanley series), E.B.White(Charlotte's Web), Andrew Clements (Frindle) and many others. So when this time she mentioned the title 'Mr. Popper's Penguins', I lost no time in placing an order on Flipkart. It  helps that her first born is elder to my children so I get to inherit all the collected wisdom of her experience with the elder child. The family is in US and the mother and kids combo makes the best use of their local public library, taking part in most of their reading programs as well.

Though I have never seen a penguin in real life and I am sure most of the readers haven't either, but based on whatever I have seen in pictures, movies, TV programmes and other such sources, penguins have always appeared to me as very gentle(wo)manly with well groomed hair(fur), shining black tuxedo kind coats, snow-white fronts and sleek beaks. Just seeing them gives an impression that they are always ready for a party or for an office presentation.  And these are exactly the feelings of Mr. Popper as he dreams of far away lands while reveling in his favourite pastime of reading about the polar regions and the inhabitants of those regions.
A painter by profession with limited resources, he knows he could never live his dream of being in the midst of the polar creatures so he looks forward to devoting all his free time reading about them.

While listening to one of the radio programs Mr Popper hears his name called out when Admiral Drake who happens to be exploring Antarctica actually answers Mr. Popper's fan mail with a promise of a surprise. Shortly thereafter a surprise package lands at the Mr. Popper's doorstep. Out comes a fine penguin who is soon christened as Captain Cook by Poppers. The whole family gears up to make their new guest comfortable in their home by letting Captain Cook sleep in the specifically customized family freezer. One is lonely and two is company so another penguin Greta from Zoo joins Captain soon to have a big family with hime. Popper's family is thrilled to have them because Captain's family including ten little penguins now have brought playfulness and cheerfulness in the whole household but there are practical matters to take care of too and the financial issues topped the list of their worries.

Mrs and Mr Popper come up with a brilliant idea of training the penguins to organize a show with them - 'Popper's Performing Penguins'. The unique show soon becomes a rage and gets invited throughout the country but because of some unfortunate misunderstanding Mr. Popper and his penguins end up in a jail. There is a sweet twist in the tale at the end and Mr. Popper gets the lifetime opportunity to live his dream of ages.

The book was originally published in 1938 but a good story remains a good story no matter what year it is. This is undoubtedly one of the finest books in the children's literature space. The illustrations by Robert Lawson are par excellence so do pick the one with illustrations by him. The easily understandable language and the simplicity of the story would surely capture all readers right from page one.  

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review : It's Not About the Bike

Title : It's Not About the Bike (My Journey Back to Life)
Author : Lance Armstrong
Publisher : Yellow Jersey Press
ISBN : 978-0-224-06087-5

Lance Armstrong has been in news for the wrong reasons these days as he confessed having taken performance enhancing drugs to compete for the prestigious Tour De France title, not once, not twice but seven times. Yes, to err is human but sometimes the price of committing some mistakes is so high that it can rip a person off of his/her name, fame and wealth. Unfortunately 'the' unmatched and 'the' invincible Lance Armstrong has become an example of such a case. Final verdict is he has been stripped of his seven Tour de France titles, Olympic bronze medal that he won in 2000 and a lifetime ban has been imposed on him by anti-doping agency. A very sad departure of a fighting spirit from the arena of sports. Lance, you have indeed let your fans down. Lance writes in his book, "Odd as it may sound, I would rather have the title of cancer survivor than winner of the Tour" and after the big revelation he gets to keep the former title only.

There is no reason whatsoever why anybody should resort to unfair means to achieve anything including any coveted prizes or awards. Having said that, his indefatigable spirit to fight against a formidable enemy cancer and his determination to take his body to the same level of fitness where it was before the disease is indeed commendable. "It's Not About The Bike" is a tribute to a man's inspiration, enthusiasm, perseverance, unflinching spirit and determination to achieve what he aimed for.

Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer at the prime age of twenty four when everything was going right for him in the sporting world. The cancer had spread to his lungs and to his brain as well and he was given 40% chances of survival by his doctors. The ordeal that began in the third quarter of 1996 took much more from him than he expected but he battled against the disease, the life sucking chemotherapy sessions, the financial burden and fear of losing his career. But he survived against all odds and not just survived, he worked hard to regain his physical and mental strength so much so that just after sixteen months of getting discharged from the hospital, he won the Tour de France (in 1999) in the fastest ever time. 
(Tour de France is a grueling competition of cycling. The tour typically has 21 days of racing with 2 rest days and covers 3,200km (2000 miles). Tour de France is supposed to be the most physiologically demanding of athletic events. The number of teams varies from 20 and 22 with nine riders in each team)

He inherited the fighting spirit from his single mother who taught him to make every obstacle an opportunity and to make every negative a positive. Lance shares(partly ?) the pages from his life book with the readers and talks about disappointments and miracles, despair and hope, and fear and courage.

Interestingly he also brings up the topic of doping and drugs in the narrative at a couple of places. In his own words:
"Doping is an unfortunate fact of life in cycling, or any other endurance sport for that matter. Inevitably, some teams and riders feel it’s like nuclear weapons - that they have to do it to stay competitive within the peloton (dictionary meaning: The main field or group of cyclists in a race). I never felt that way, and certainly after chemo the idea of putting anything foreign in my body was especially repulsive."

"I can emphatically say I am not on drugs. I thought a rider with my history and my health situation wouldn't be such a surprise, I'm not a new rider. I know there's been looking, and prying, and digging, but you're not going to find anything.  There's nothing to find… and once everyone has done their due diligence and realizes they need to be professional and can't print a lot of crap, they'll realize they're dealing with a clean guy".

But entirely from the book's point of view, it is a well written piece, makes a great read and has managed to motivate many people including our very own Yuvraj Singh.

"I would just like to say one thing. If you ever get a second chance in life for something, you've got to go all the way."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

2012 : The Year That Was

Titles that Literary Sojourn recommends to its readers:






    Mr. Popper's Penguins

     Enjoy Reading :)

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