“My journey has been interesting and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else,” says Saurabh Srivastava, chairman, CA Technologies, an IT management software and solutions company. He started his career with standard aspirations of anyone graduating from IIT – left to the U.S. and worked for a multinational corporation. And, accordingly, he got into Harvard Business School and joined IBM after that. Subsequently, he returned to India with IBM and continued his corporate life till 1989, when he was running the software business of Tata Unisys.
From a time when every business plan I saw was some kind of a BPO, with relatively unsophisticated thinking about the business proposition, today, I see exciting entrepreneurs with world class propositions.
Srivastava then changed his professional direction and set up his own company. “The software industry was very small then, barely US $ 60 million, and the conditions in India were far from ideal for a software venture,” he recalls. It took him a year to get a license and he then founded IIS Infotech Ltd (IIS), which within four years of inception became India’s 11th largest software company. IIS was publicly listed in India and post its merger with Xansa (a British outsourcing and technology company), it listed on the London Stock Exchange. “Looking back, I find it amazing how we ever ended up building a US $ 100 billion global industry from there,” he shares. IIS Infotech (Xansa) was acquired by Steria, a company that delivers IT enabled business services, in 2007. Since then, Srivastava has founded and invested in over 50 startup ventures. He continues to serve on various boards, both private and publicly listed companies in the U.K. and India, and is also the co-founder and past chairman of NASSCOM, the NASSCOM Foundation and the Indian Venture Capital Association (IVCA).
Srivastava learnt more in his first year as an entrepreneur than what he did in his entire corporate career. “The going wasn’t easy, but I was lucky. Within five years of inception, IIS Infotech was ranked amongst the top 15 software companies,” he says. But this journey taught him a few good lessons.
First was the value of partnerships. “I would not have succeeded without my partners in the business,” Srivastava recalls. The second lesson was the importance of managing cash. “Profits are great but if you run out of cash, you are dead,” he shares. The third lesson was the critical dependence on high quality people. “As a start-up in IT Services, we built our reputation on the superior quality of our talent. That was not an area where we scrimped or saved,” he shares. “In fact, for two years, we spent almost a third of our profits to become the first Indian software company to get international quality certification (ISO 9001) in 1992,” he adds. That, along with a strong focus on the financial sector and the U.K. market, provided them the differentiators that helped them succeed. “What also helped was that we were ambitious and willing to take risks,” shares Srivastava.
The journey since then
The success of his first venture led Srivastava to found others where he became an investor, major share holder, board member and mentor. He attracted the best people for his ventures and offered them significant shareholding to become the chief executive officers. “The model worked well and put me on the path to becoming an angel investor and a venture capitalist,” says Srivastava.
The biggest realisation for him of what partnerships can achieve came when he co-founded NASSCOM. “We had no idea of the dramatic impact it would have on the creation of the Indian software industry. NASSCOM’s story shows how all of us, who were starting our fledgling companies, with very limited resources (I invested Rs. 11 lakh in IIS Infotech), came together and cooperated (even while we were competing) to learn from each other, jointly build out the global market and work with the government to create a favourable and supportive ecosystem in India,” says Srivastava. In 2000, he co-founded Infinity, among the first few VC funds in the private sector, which has invested in companies such as Indiabulls, Indiagames and Avendus.
TiEing up the network
The success of his first entrepreneurial venture and the experience of building it sharpened his focus on the challenges that the entrepreneurs face and the gaps in the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Hence, apart from being an entrepreneur and a VC, he has been very involved with TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs), a leading organisation devoted to entrepreneurship with 15,000 members in 57 chapters across 14 countries. He served on TiE’s global board and founded the chapter in New Delhi. Again, here too, he found partnerships and people very important as TiE is a non-profit organisation, where successful entrepreneurs mentor and guide those that want to succeed. “It is the same focus on entrepreneurship that led me to co-found the Indian Angel Network (IAN), India’s first and now Asia’s largest group of business angel investors, where the who’s who of successful Indian entrepreneurs and CEOs invest in, mentor and guide entrepreneurs at the early stages of their venture,” says Srivastava.
Entrepreneurs, the country’s future
Srivastava’s focus on entrepreneurship stems from his belief that entrepreneurs hold the key to the country’s future. “They will be the creators of wealth and employment that is needed to change the destiny of the country,” he says. He adds, out of the 12 million jobs created in the U.S. each year, eight million come from startups and companies that are less than five years old. Unfortunately, in India the entrepreneurial ecosystem still has many gaps and considerable work needs to be done to make it more vibrant. One way of helping is to create angel groups and VC funds. “The other way is to educate government and work with them by sitting on different committees, task forces and boards to influence policies and procedures in the right direction,” he adds. The big learning that he has had by sitting on these committees and also by engaging with the government in his capacity as the chairman of NASSCOM, the IVCA and the IAN, has been that one can make a difference. “Undoubtedly, there is a major commitment of time and effort, and the results are not always satisfactory. However, if one persists and has a genuine agenda, you do succeed in the end,” he shares.
Perhaps the most significant, positive change in the last year or two has been the recognition by the government of the critical role that innovation and entrepreneurship can play in changing the future of the country. The Planning Commission has set up a committee, of which Srivastava is a member, to make recommendations on how to build a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in India. He also serves on the board of the National Innovation Council set up by the Prime Minister with an objective of making India an ‘Innovation Nation’.
Srivastava is also encouraged by the quality of entrepreneurs, who have evolved over the last decade. “From a time when every business plan I saw was some kind of a BPO, with relatively unsophisticated thinking about the business proposition, today, I see exciting entrepreneurs with world class propositions,” he shares. Also, he feels today’s entrepreneurs are more ambitious, highly aspirational and are more confident about their ability to succeed. “I am also delighted that the most leading technology and business institutions today have incubators and are beginning to play their rightful role in the entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he concludes.