The Rise of a Dealmaker
Sukhinder Singh's office in Redwood City, Calif., the same office she has occupied since helping found Yodlee.com 18 months ago, is oddly impersonal. No family pictures are in sight, no heap of management books, no routine disarray, even. In fact, the only signs of life in the modestly appointed room are a bouquet of shiny purple balloons and two floral arrangements -- recent birthday gifts.
Bud Colligan of venture-capital firm Accel Partners, which has $10 million invested in the company, explains the spare environment this way: "Calculate the number of business days that Yodlee.com has been up and running" -- roughly 400 -- "then factor in the number of clients it has signed on in that time" -- 110 at last glance. It breaks down to a deal about every three days, work that is "all Sukhinder," Colligan says. "She is an incredibly prolific dealmaker. She's always going. Always."
In the dot-com world, where a lack of paying customers is igniting almost daily flameouts, the ability to attract business for a fledgling Internet company is an unusual skill, indeed. Singh, 31, has plenty of experience with this, though. In her five years in the Internet industry, she is widely credited with having forged customer relationships with several hundred retailers and commerce companies, thanks in part to e-commerce initiatives she designed for Junglee Corp., then for its acquirer, Amazon.com, and now for Yodlee.com.
Indeed, Yodlee, whose business plan Singh authored, already has snagged such clients as financial-services giants Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Fidelity Investments, Morgan Stanley Dean Witter, First Union, and Charles Schwab. It's a feat given not only those companies' stature but also the early view of many financial institutions that the service Yodlee provides -- account aggregation, or scraping together a customer's financial data, various e-mail accounts, and other personalized information and funneling all of it to a single Web site -- presented a threat to their proprietary information.
So, how did Yodlee -- whose name, like that of Junglee, comes from an Indian children's song -- go from being enemy to ally? Largely by shifting its focus from pitching its technology directly to consumers to licensing it to financial institutions and Web portals, which can then centralize the information of their own customers. Its clients give Singh much of the credit for implementing that plan.
Bob Sandler, director of channel strategy at AOL, which has been using Yodlee's technology to power part of its finance channel for the past 13 months, gushes that Singh is "as good as anyone I've ever worked with. I still remember her proposals on how our deals might be structured, and that was last December ," when Yodlee's technology wasn't fully up and running yet.
Singh, whose title is vice-president for business development, shrugs off the accolades, saying she has merely "been lucky." If so, she's on an extraordinarily long streak. Within her first three months as a junior analyst at Merrill Lynch in New York in 1993 -- her first job out of business school at the University of Western Ontario -- the Tanzania-born Singh had taken stewardship of a Long Island thrift's IPO, one that raised $300 million, says her former boss, Henry Michaels. "Almost from day one, Sukhinder was operating as the functional equivalent of a senior associate," says Michaels, now a managing director at Lehman Brothers.
Her work soon won her an analyst position with Merrill in London, where six months later, she ditched number-crunching for a new job evaluating a direct-sales business at pay-TV provider British Sky Broadcasting. Singh calls the experience her first meaty opportunity to do business modeling. She also says that a year into her tenure, she started growing antsy for North America and a new challenge. So she quit.
"A lot of what I do is on impulse," Singh says. "At several points in my career, I've felt like I needed to do something different and that unless I figured out what it was exactly, I'd get stuck."
SMARTS VS. FLASH.
A ski trip and several months later, Singh ended up with college friends in Northern California, where she stumbled across a startup called Junglee. As she recalls it, Junglee's technology -- scraping together information from disparate Web sites -- seemed pretty boring at the time. "I remember thinking, 'How dull. It's like a database company,'" she says. But Singh decided the smarts of the founders outweighed the company's lack of flash, so she signed on, anyway.
Singh didn't set out to create any major e-commerce initiatives at Junglee. In fact, she was initially hired as a product manager. But while awaiting the arrival of her work visa, Junglee's founders -- who had developed a shopping-guide platform that scoured the Web for product and pricing information -- asked if she felt capable of drumming up relationships with e-tailers that they hoped to deliver to Yahoo! in a revenue-sharing deal. She did. They then handed their new business-development manager a blank piece of paper -- their existing customer list -- and told her to get started. Her reaction was to cold-call merchants such as J. Crew and Buy.com that she hoped would subscribe to Junglee's service.
"No one really expected anything of it," Singh says. It was 1996 -- while folks were wondering what would work on the Web. Within two years, though, Junglee's e-commerce business had mushroomed into partnerships with roughly 100 merchants and more than 500 employers, all of which were paying the company a percentage of their transaction revenues to make their job listings and products as visible as possible at major portals such as Yahoo! and Snap.com, launched by CNET. Amazon.com, which had begun to consider partnering with other retailers to show products at its site, liked what it saw. In August, 1998, it bought Junglee for 1.6 million shares, or the equivalent of $190 million, and invited its staff aboard. Singh went, heading to Seattle as one of the company's business-development managers.
At Amazon, Singh helped create Merchant Group, one of the company's first programs designed to deliver shoppers to merchants that carried what the buyers were looking for. "She knew how to solicit merchants," says Ram Shiriam, former Junglee president and now an angel investor in Yodlee. "She had devised a sort of revenue share that went with it," guidelines that continue to partly define Amazon's business model today at its online mall zShops, which replaced the now-defunct Merchant Group. "She takes everything head-on," Shiriam says.
Kudos like that are largely why Singh was courted to be the business brain behind Yodlee. Venkat Rangan, a former professor at the University of California at San Diego who first engineered Yodlee's technology, was impressed with what he was hearing about Singh from friends like Shiriam. Singh, wowed that Rangan, who has 20 patents under his belt, was "utterly without ego," decided to make another leap.
Indeed, all of Yodlee.com's founders -- who also include Schwark Satyavolu, Srihari Kumar, Sam Inala, and Sree Rajan -- are "pretty much egoless," insists Singh, the only woman in the bunch. It was a pleasant surprise, less for Singh than for her mother. "Growing up, I had no Indian friends," she explains. "When I got to Silicon Valley and joined Junglee," also founded by a team of Indian-American entrepreneurs, "my parents were pretty concerned, actually. They worried it might be a chauvinistic environment." Singh had so little exposure to Indian influences, in fact, that friends teasingly called her "Oreo -- black on the outside, white on the inside."
STRADDLING TWO CULTURES.
If anything, though, her time at Junglee and Yodlee has worked to her advantage, she says, both in terms of advancing her career and in creating new ties to her heritage. First, she discovered a community of people who, like her, are straddling two cultures. "I'm liberal by any Indian standard, but I'm probably conservative in terms of my value set in comparison to my white, North American friends," she says. As important, cultivating ties to the Indian community has boosted her career, given the prevalence of Indians in top positions at dot-coms. "It's nothing I sought out, but working for the people I have has introduced me to a lot of business opportunities in the Valley," she says.
How long Singh will stay at Yodlee isn't clear, although she says she has no plans to leave anytime soon. Other job possibilities will come along, of course. And Singh, who says she has never felt disadvantaged because of her gender, has come to a realization recently about womanhood. Her mother is a doctor, and her sister, the mother of two young children, owns her own optometry practice. "I used to think women could have it all," says the unmarried Singh, who plans to introduce her boyfriend to her mother "soon." Nevertheless, "I'm starting to believe that if you want to have a family, it's hard to sustain this lifestyle. You can't be superwoman."
How much longevity Yodlee will enjoy also remains to be seen. In January, the company acquired its biggest rival, VerticalOne, and received $50 million in financing, boosting the total it has raised so far to $71 million. The privately held company, which declines to either disclose its financials or speculate on an initial public offering, claims it will become cash-flow positive by yearend.
END OF MIDDLEMEN?
Still, Ron Shevlin, research director of online services at Boston-based Forrester Research, wonders if aggregation intermediaries will even be necessary in a few years. "It's not likely to happen anytime soon," says Shevlin, "but the day may come when standards emerge that enable the financial-services industry to share data directly." And that could mean the end of middlemen like Yodlee that are largely selling themselves as a conduit for gathering disparate financial data.
Then there's the small matter of consumer adoption. Forrester's research indicates that less than 3% of American households, some 3 million, will use online financial aggregation by 2003. The problem: Few people consider their financial lives complex enough to warrant the type of overview the technology provides. Plus, Forrester finds that more than half of U.S. homes continue to rely solely on paper statements to track their finances, either because they don't have a PC or because they have security and privacy concerns.
Yodlee's best plan of attack, says analyst Robert Leathern of Jupiter Research, lies in creating more value for consumers. "It's fair to say Yodlee owns the market right now," Leathern says, "but they need to move beyond screen-scraping and make the information they are providing more robust." In apparent agreement, Yodlee in December announced plans to enable customers to pay bills, transfer funds, and get financial advice, among other services -- "value adds" that it hopes will give new and existing corporate and individual customers even more reason to partner with it.
Moving beyond the aggregation of consumer-oriented data is an idea Singh has already begun to sell aggressively -- perhaps to a receptive audience. Says Forrester's Shevlin: "We deal with a lot of vendors here, and a lot are looking to BS us in one way or another. I never get that sense from Sukhinder. It's always a good conversation."
By Constance Loizos in San Francisco
Edited by Jennifer Gill