21 Jan,2013 23:52 IST
The ‘Vishful’ Entrepreneur
Vishwanath Alluri describes how he steered IMImobile from inception to expansion and hopes India gets a world class product company
I was born to a family of farmers in Tarimela village of Anantapur district — a drought-prone but politically-fertile village in Andhra Pradesh. Our family grew paddy, groundnuts and sweet limes. My father was active politically and I was working in the party office during communist leader Tarimela Nagi Reddy’s election campaign, when I was barely six years old. The rub-off of the Communist ideology I was exposed to as a child resulted in inculcating the belief that undue exploitation of Indian resources by any forces should not be allowed. From this belief springs my desire to harness Indian intellectual resources in order to build intellectual property (IP)-based offerings and take on Western hegemony in this sphere.
I studied to be a chartered accountant and company secretary. Thereafter, I worked as a finance manager of a manufacturing company in Bangalore, after which I moved to Hyderabad as the financial controller of a mid-sized pharmaceutical company. After my early years of work in accounting, I was clear that my joy was not in number crunching to prepare audits and financial analysis. Subsequently, I set up a company for the same promoters in the field of medical diagnostics. I decided to venture out at this point of time and my employers allowed me to incorporate Information Management India (IMI) Software, which developed software for design of transmission line towers and telecom towers — an IP in the field of structural engineering. Since this was a niche segment, we contemplated diversification by creating new intellectual property for international markets using Indian talent and resources.
One day, in April 1999, while browsing the The Financial Times, London, I came across an article which talked about how data — not voice — would be the major driving force for mobile phone business in the future. This was my moment of epiphany. My belief in this trend was further reinforced when I, along with my technical director Shyam S Bhat, attended the first Symbian conference where all the speakers talked about data and its growing importance in the future. With the conviction that my non-technical background and Bhat’s technical background provided the right combination, we co-founded IMImobile, as a division of IMI, to cater to delivering data for telecom operators.
At IMImobile, we zeroed in on developing a platform that would provide telecom operators a flexible foundation on which innovation and new services could be delivered to their subscribers. The platform (DaVinci Evolved Service Platform (ESP)) represents 720 person-years of investment and development. We combined this offering with a new model of engagement for operators wherein we hosted and managed services on a pay-for-use basis on their behalf which effectively eliminates both CAPEX and infrastructural risk for them. This ‘Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)’ model is now being increasingly adopted by vendors in the industry and has now come to be labelled ‘cloud services’.
The initial period was tough for us as our business model were radical for that time. Those were trying times which continued for three years. However, we were firm in our belief that operators would see the economics of our offer and eventually come to us. Our perseverance eventually paid off when we finally won the mandate from MTN South Africa for a multi-territory deployment of DaVinci ESP in Africa in their operations in 17 countries. Our first major international deployment — based on the hub-and-spoke model — was successful as MTN achieved reduced time-to-market, increased Average Revenue per User (ARPU) and easier roll out of local services after implementation of our platform. As market entry strategy, we acquired WIN, plc. in the UK, which counted Vodafone, O2, BBC and Barclays Bank among its customers, to whom we up-sold our solutions. There was no looking back for DaVinci after this deployment and today it is deeply embedded in the business processes of 97 mobile operators, over 100 blue chip companies encompassing over one billion subscribers in over 72 countries.
We stayed the course of our vision with our belief in our offerings even when no one was willing to take a risk. But we were confident about the market opportunity and our ability to deliver.
The Road To Success
I have always believed that knowledge travels in the shadow of ignorance: If an individual were to become an entrepreneur based on the assumption that one is an expert, he is prone to run into rough weather. But awareness of one’s own ignorance is one of the necessary conditions for a smooth journey forward.
Ignorance manifests itself as the lack of awareness of one’s own self, desires, passions and motivations. This is caused by not understanding and deeply examining the factors that shaped oneself, and results in lack of understanding of what one would be passionate about and love to do. These factors go back to your childhood and the journey ever since. In my case, coming from a communist village, the instinct against western hegemony was ingrained in me as a child and has manifested itself in the desire to build an IP-based company out of India.
This was, however, followed by the idea of business innocence. A businessman is caught up in end results; but at IMI we weren’t. Once you are not caught in the end result, all your energies flow to respond to the current challenges of the business.
The next aspect is vulnerability: which means you are always aware that you are not omniscient or invincible. You never approach any situation with over-confidence but ensure that the mind is alert to potential missteps and pitfalls. When you are overcome with hubris, failure is inevitable.
Finally, I believe that more than success and failure, it is the fundamental approach that is important. You do not control the outcome, what you do control is your own approach to a task, which must be one of utmost sincerity and should be undertaken with assumption of total responsibility towards all the stakeholders. When you do so, you will never do wrong.
I have been deeply touched by J. Krishnamurti’s teachings and a lot of what I have stated might seem like a reiteration of his ideals. But my journey as the so-called entrepreneur is as much a journey inward as it is outward thanks to the exposure to his worldview.
The ‘Lightbulb’ Moment
The Indian environment for entrepreneurs has never been as good as it is now. Most of it is linked to the phenomenal success of the initial Indian American entrepreneurs in the US who made their fortunes in US and are now helping entrepreneurs in India by pumping vast amounts of angel investments. A vindication that times are good for Indian entrepreneurs is the fact that Ernst & Young, last year, in a global study of G20 nations, had ranked India as the number one country in terms of entrepreneurship culture; education and training; access to funding; regulation and taxation and coordinated support.
Given the lack of adequate infrastructure in the country, Indian entrepreneurs are adept at coming out with creative strategies to deal with systemic inefficiencies to deliver their products and services. Indian entrepreneurs are more determined to get things done, and creative – whatever the odds. I think the time has come now for both India and Indian entrepreneurs to go out seek forth opportunities. In technology and communications, I feel it is a tragedy that an innovation like Google did not come from India. India deserves product companies and I am confident that we will soon have world-renowned Indian product companies.
(Vishwanath Alluri is the founder, chairman and CEO of IMImobile)