Some of the most important lessons I've learned as an entrepreneur are things they don't teach you in business school. I've learned to be fearless in approaching a celebrated figure, listen carefully to those who have paved the trails, and mentor others who seek to learn from my experiences.
In previous columns, I've written about my surprise that movie stars weren't as distant and aloof as they seem (see BW Online, 8/10/04, "My Entertaining Education in Movieland"). While I knew that successful technology executives were often eager to help and mentor, I never expected that film legends would be approachable or readily share their experiences. Networking, it seems, may be the best way to learn and grow in almost any industry.
As a technologist, who grew through the ranks from software programmer to a CEO, I always found it easier to identify with my fellow geeks and hackers. So things like socializing with senior customer executives and cold-calling industry leaders were things that didn't come to me naturally.
My first experience reaching for the stars came in the early '90s. As chief technology officer of a North Carolina software startup, I had a big customer problem to solve. This required porting our software to Sun Microsystems (SUNW) hardware platforms and gaining access to their latest technologies.
After spending weeks trying to get the attention of Sun product managers, I thought desperate tactics were in order. I sent an e-mail to Sun CEO and industry icon Scott McNealy. I detailed the business opportunity and pleaded my case. I was almost in shock when I got a friendly response saying that he would personally look into this. Within days we had a meeting with top Sun executives, and they provided us $2 million in development funding and support for my project.
I was able to replicate this success with IBM (IBM), Microsoft (MSFT), and other top tech outfits. It really wasn't hard to get access to the right people. I had a blast exchanging technical blows with Microsoft executives like Steve Ballmer and Paul Maritz.
In only five years, we expanded our software startup into a $118 million-per-year revenue machine and pulled off a successful IPO. So I thought it would be easy for me to get the attention of venture capitalists when I took the plunge to start my own company in 1997.
As tech entrepreneurs do, I put together a great PowerPoint presentation and lengthy business plan and circulated it to every investment firm in town. To my disappointment, I didn't get a single phone call. And when I probed, the only response I got from locals was that "my people" were great technicians but didn't make good CEOs. Being foreign-born in a tightly knit community in the South without any venture contacts was quite a challenge.
NEVER HURTS TO ASK.
In Silicon Valley, people from my part of the world had cracked the code of overcoming racial stereotypes and achieving success long ago. One of the most successful Indian-born entrepreneurs is Vinod Khosla, a partner in venture-capital powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. He's considered by some to be among the premier VCs of all time.
It was clear that I could use Vinod's advice, but would someone like him have any interest in even talking with me, I wondered? I've learned that it never hurts to ask, so I fired off an e-mail to Vinod, explaining who I was and asking for input. I was blown away when he called the next day and spent over an hour coaching me in the basics of venture capital. Then he followed up with introductions to others in the industry and helped me refine my business plan.
With valuable insights into how the system works and introductions to the top players, it didn't take long for me to secure funding. VCs that had previously ignored my calls were now tripping over each other to provide term sheets.
DRESS UP NICELY.
I had a similar experience with Flip Filipowski, the colorful CEO of Platinum Technologies (which was purchased by Computer Associates (CA) for $3.5 billion in 1999). One of the technologies my new company was marketing was a perfect complement to Platinum's products, and I needed to get their attention.
At a time when I was still working out of my basement, I knew I wouldn't get through to Platinum's marketing staff. So I called one of my best friends, Tom Lewis, who was a Platinum customer, to ask for help. Tom wrote an e-mail introducing me to Flip, and, of course, Flip didn't reply.
I decided to send polite e-mails to Flip every two or three weeks. After all, what did I have to lose? I was delighted to get a call from him after my fourth message, saying that he admired my determination and tenacity and would personally visit me the next month.
So I hurriedly rented an office and asked my employees to dress up nicely. It didn't take long to ink a deal after a productive visit. And I had the pleasure of turning down my first acquisition offer.
The most important lesson I've learned, however, is the importance of giving back to the community. After my initial successes, I made it a practice to set aside five to seven hours a week to help entrepreneurs that approached me. No matter how busy I was, I would always make time for calls from those who dreamed of starting their own businesses or others that were struggling to turn businesses around.
In Silicon Valley, a bunch of South Asian entrepreneurs who had made their millions formed a networking group called TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs). TiE's mission was to mentor fledgling entrepreneurs and provide a structured way for experienced executives to help. The group is reputed to have helped launch hundreds of startups.
I teamed up with several Indian executives in North Carolina to start a local chapter of TiE. Our goal was to help dispel any negative racial stereotypes by giving back to the community and leading by example.
I've won awards from top business magazines for being a "leader of tomorrow" and having one of the "coolest" companies in the world, yet the award that I display most proudly is one from the North Carolina Council for Entrepreneurial Development for community service. Every time I mentor an entrepreneur, I find that I gain much more than I'm giving back.