Archive for the ‘Interesting People’ Category
Exactly one week ago, I was sitting in the living room of Amitabh Bachchan‘s suite at his favorite New York City hotel. I had flown to NYC just for this meeting with the CEO of one of our portfolio companies that we just invested in (and will announce soon!).
“Hi, I’m Amitabh Bachchan,” he said, extending his warm hand to me. “What can I get you – tea, coffee, cookies…?”.
That was the first sign. For those of you who don’t know, Amitabh Bachchan is arguably the biggest star in the world. The true King of Bollywood, he is a god in India. He has won every award in Indian cinema and was in NYC for the premiere of The Great Gatsby. His wife is an actress, his son is a famous actor, and his daughter-in-law is an actress and dubbed “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World”. Yet, here he was introducing himself as if I shouldn’t know who he is and making sure we are comfortable.
A one hour meeting turned into 2.5 hours of gripping conversation focused on Indian media, technology, his father, his charitable work (and how he doesn’t want people to know what he does for reasons unique to fast growing emerging economies), and much more. I wish I could detail all that we talked about, but out of respect for his privacy I’ll just leave it at that.
Yet, what impressed me most about him was his utter genuineness and deep-rooted humility. He is not a man content with being the legend he is; he’s a philomath who listens intently to every word, probes gently but intelligently, and sucks in information like fresh air. Not once did he mention his fame or success–or that of his family–rather, he talked about his goals and areas for improvement: increasing his digital presence, building a brand in other parts of the world, and others. Not once did he mention his countless movie hits, but I can count on two hands the number of failures or shortcomings he brought up in himself. And not once did he exude any sense of superiority, which just put him on a higher pedestal in my eyes.
And I’ll never forget the way he walked us out. He looked me right in the eye, patted me on the back, and said, “I hope we can meet again soon. This was lovely.” And then he walked us out of the suite, pressed the elevator button, waited until we had gotten into the elevator, and then bowed his head slightly until the elevator door had closed, with us on the inside, and him on the outside.
An actor for the ages. But even more impressive, a gem of a person.
Last week, I traveled to Mumbai for NEA’s India CEO summit. We brought together a number of our CEOs who are either based in India or are directly playing in the Indian market. We also had two speakers: the former Chairman of SEBI (India’s version of the SEC) and Sanjeev Bikhchandani, the founder/Vice Chairman of Naukri, India’s first public internet company.
Naukri, an Indian job listing site, has a remarkable story. Unlike many companies in the west, Sanjeev wasn’t used to the notion of spending for growth and taking a short term loss to set the company up to make a long term, larger profit. Eventually, he was convinced that in his situation, because he hadn’t yet turned on any marketing channels, there was a reasonable line of sight to spend short term dollars for long term gains. The company raised $2 million from ICICI Ventures and the timing was perfect: a few weeks later, the dot com bubble crashed and the venture markets dried up. Naukri then had a loss for two years before getting back into the black, after which it effectively doubled profit year over year. Today, it is a public company (under the holding company InfoEdge) and is on a run rate of 120 crores in profit this year, or $24 million.
He gave an inspiring talk with unique pointers to our team of CEOs. I took some notes and wanted to post them here:
- Every once in a while, a business or sector will have tailwinds. Recognize them, use them, and exploit them.
- The best businesses are built on deep customer insight.
- The question that you must ask yourself is: are you solving an unsolved problem?
- The best CEOs are those who are able to build trust across the table. That could be to customers, to partners, to investors, or employees. It doesn’t matter.
- Share recognition, power, and wealth with your best employees. Sometimes, you may have to dig into your own ESOP pool to make that happen. Your employees are not working for the company, they are working for you.
- Create convergence of interest, not conflict of interest.
- Often superior corporate governance gets a 25-28% premium. That means transparency, disclosure of full financial statements (not required in India), and can even mean a non-executive chairman.
- People get hooked to freedom more than to compensation.
- Once again, give massive, massive ESOPs to the right people.
- It’s always a collective decision when things go bad. Rally the troops together and don’t put the blame on someone.
- Hire for commitment, character, and competence.
- The way to beat western companies is to be more customer driven than competitor focused. Plus, US companies are often scared of headcount. If you have better customer insight and an army of people, you’re tough to beat.
In the middle of his talk, Sanjeev told a story that brings together a lot of his advice on recognition, aligning incentives, and creating a convergence of interest. During his tenure, he wanted to increase the salaries of his best people during a rough patch for the company. He went to Bala Deshpande, now an NEA Partner but at the time at ICICI Ventures, who initially disagreed with his proposal, until he offered to cut his own pay. She then agreed, but also gave him a separate incentive: if sales were above a certain number, he would receive a bonus equivalent to a percentage of the sales. He told the rest of the team about this plan, who then volunteered to cut their salaries by 30% (instead of having them raised!) and also participate in the variable sales incentive plan. Suddenly, everyone was aligned to drive the company forward and a year later, the team crushed their goals and everyone made significantly more money than they could have under their original plan.
These aren’t principles that will work only in India, or in Asia, or in emerging markets. Rather, they feel like universal principles and universal values that can apply to any time of business anywhere.
Thomas Friedman delivered an eloquent and insightful address on both energy policy and the uprisings in the Middle East. He happened to be in Cairo nine days before the uprisings in Tahrir Square and witnessed what he called “the most fascinating story he has covered in 20 years”. Here are some of my most interesting takeaways from his talk:
The Middle East Revolutions
- The tiger (i.e. the spririt, the demands, and desires for freedom by those in the Middle East) has been let out of its cage. The tiger is going to spread and the tiger is not going back into its cage.
- The people who led the revolution—and the broader social class—are smart, but disorganized. The most important element will be whether they can rise out of the chaos into a cohesive, middle, centrist party.
- Before, the Middle East was wholesale with countries having to only come to peace with leaders. Now, it’s retail, with countries (most notably Israel) having to come to terms with 80,000,000 Egyptians.
- Our lives are digital, but politics is still analog. It’s still in your face. The Egyptian riots may have been spawned by Twitter and Facebook, but they were effective because a million people stood in Tahrir Square. Blogging can be like launching a mortar…into outer space!
- The two most brutal and uncontrollable forces on the planet are Mother Nature and the market. By ignoring the deficit and budget as well as by ignoring energy policy, we are tempting fate.
- Higher food prices lead to higher instability which leads to higher oil prices. This leads to higher food prices, which leads to higher instability, which leads to higher oil prices. And on and on and on. What if this could be higher prices lead to higher standards which leads to more investment in innovation?
- Before 9/11, the gasoline prices were at $1.69. Now, they are around $4.69. We could have leveled a tax on gasoline then and used the revenue to invest in R&D, or we could give Middle East dictators a 150% raise. The price uncertainty also drives away investors who have trouble investing when prices are low.
Kavita Ramdas, the brilliant, sari-laden, well-spoken, and remarkable former CEO of the Global Fund For Women held a fireside chat yesterday in my residence’s lounge. I have been impressed with her ever since her answers at the 2008 Stanford Roundtable on Leadership for the 21st Century. A few notes from her chat yesterday that I found particularly compelling:
- Our relative position, as a country, should not be important. We should not view ourselves as standing at the head of line trying to stave off competition, with poorer countries at the back. We are a circle of countries, and in a circle, it is much harder to let your counterpart starve, suffer unemployment, endure conflict, etc.
- “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” – Gandhi. While capitalism has many benefits, there need to be other criteria of what defines a ‘good company’.
- “Power can be given, not taken” – therefore, ‘empowering’ someone is a misnomer. We can never really empower someone, but can only set up the environment or can only give them the tools for them to empower themselves.
- As the world is becoming more and more connected through technology, we are becoming more tribal. We need to truly listen to those who are “different” than us (despite the fact that they all listen to Lady Gaga, eat McDonalds, and like the same sports) to understand who they are, what moves them, and what issues they face. We should come in with the mindset of “I don’t know anything about you”, not “here is what we think”.
- The USA probably wouldn’t like it if 10 women from Afghanistan told us how to dress, so it’s tough to justify why they should listen when we do the same.
As part of a group, I was invited to a lunch discussion with Stanford President John Hennessy earlier today. He is on the boards of Google, Cisco, Atheros, and the Daniel Pearl Foundation; was the founder of MIPS; and just sat down with President Obama last week.
Key takeaways/viewpoints of his that I found interesting:
- One thing that makes America great is that failure is not fatal. However, it can also be its weakness, as that is fundamentally what caused the financial crisis.
- Politics have moved away from the Jeffersonian ideal of it being a step away from your “normal”career. It has become a full time career for people and that is troubling.
- Authoritarian leadership doesn’t work in any great company.
- One of the most important character traits of his that made him President was that he was always honest, but gentle, especially when delivering bad news.
- Reputation is critical. It is like a flame: easy to build up, but once extinguished, it is tough to light again.