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May 22, 1999
M D Riti in Bangalore
Black Cadillac pub. Darkened outdoors. Reggae chords pump the air. Cables from an assortment of electronic instruments plug into the glow of a laptop, a reminder to the musician's daytime avatar in the computer software business.
Tonight, he sings for the city's digerati who pass slips of paper with song requests and cheer him on the launch of his own software, education and music company, Liqwid Krystal.
In 1996, when Ramana landed up in Bangalore, he was American multinational Sybase's regional manager for SAARC countries.
"I set up shop for them here, established offices in two cities, set up targets to be achieved," he explains. "There was nothing more that I could do than improve my numbers for them after that and just stopping with improving sales gave me no gratification."
He left them six months ago with the intention of setting up his own business, which he finally did last week. "I just got tired of working for someone else all the time," he explains.
Yet Ramana is hardly a man tired of fighting mid-life, mid-career battles.
On the contrary, his time back in India has been unimaginably rewarding.
In the last three years he has built a sizeable fan following for his music, cut a disc, done the television music channels, directed music for two Telugu films and finally launched his own company.
Iremember the day when I first met him. He was just back in the country then.
In a hotel room, he was saying, "Every now and then I have found the need to reinvent myself." Ramana was surrounded by suitcases full of clothes... and stashed away, somewhere amidst them, was his most precious possession, a personally recorded CD of his own music.
Much before I actually met him, I had heard of Ramana, the engineer whose soul was his music. Strewn around my house were snapshots of him playing with his reggae band in the US. Often there were scraps of news scribbled inside greeting cards, all addressed to his classmate and close friend who is now my husband.
College pictures always had Ramana at the microphone with everyone else waving bottles of beer...
"You must listen to the final outcome of my years of making music in the US," says Ramana excitedly, switching on a portable tape recorder in the hotel room.
"I recorded it myself and sold several copies in the US. Now, I intend to get it on to the television music channels over the next few months and then market it afresh in India."
Polite appreciation changes quickly to mild curiosity. Then genuine enjoyment flows as he plays snatches of various compositions, most with a discernible reggae stamp.
Even our infant daughter, rolling around on Ramana's hotel bed, coos appreciatively. Her gurgles make Ramana gaze anxiously into the toothless gums. He wonders if he could order her some French fries.
At this point, quite naturally, the conversation turns to Ramana's own single state... at 38.
"Oh yes, that's something that I hope to change too now," he says with a disarming grin. "Now that I'm back, even if it's only temporarily, the clan is flooding me with offers from eligible Telugu girls."
What about all those gorgeous white women who are believed to chase interesting singers? "Perhaps they didn't chase me hard enough," he chuckles.
Today, three years later, sitting in his office-apartment at Langford Town, Ramana reveals he has finally found someone. But that is all he is saying for now.
Meanwhile, his debut album sold about 50,000 copies in India under the Sony label.
This apart, Ramana now has enough of a fan following for his particular brand of fusion and reggae music in Bangalore.
Actually, the fan following is what made the Black Cadillac show happen. Ramana was hanging out at the pub with friends, discussing his intention of forming an Internet software company Liqwid Krystal.
The pub's owner, also an old friend, promptly suggested that Ramana should launch his company with a one-man show right there at Black Cadillac.
The gig was a deal. A major liquor house sponsored the event. And amidst algorithm altered arrangements, Liqwid Krystal was born.
The company will do four businesses:
and, believe it or not,
Is failure now not a concern? "Let me be honest with you: I am really afraid," he admits readily. "I am not expecting any wonders to happen. But we do have our strategies in place. And more than anything else, I believe in myself. And I have achieved a good combination of my interests in music and information technology."
The realisation that the two don't really go together or complement each other in any way does not bother him.
"Since it's my own company, I decided that it's time I finally did just what I wanted to," he says. "Companies are in diverse interests. Look at Wipro, which started out making oil and is now doing IT. Maybe the separate divisions of my company will shortly become independent companies too."
Liqwid Krystal has two equal partners, Ramana and friend Anand Adkoli.
Anand was senior development manager of Oracle Corporation's Industry Applications Division and has even written four books on Oracle Server Technologies for Osborne/McGraw-Hill.
The conceptualisation and design of the products will probably come from Ramana, who will also eventually market them. Anand will actually create these products.
The company has a starting capital of Rs 5 million, invested equally by both partners. "My share came from my savings and my movies," says Ramana.
Why not venture capital? "Because right now, we have only concepts and a vision," he says ruefully. "We don't know yet exactly what we will be doing. I have always been investing in myself. After another three months, we might go in for venture capital."
The products division
This will focus on developing technology products that leverage Internet and related technologies like mobile computing and computer telephony. It will develop technology that will enable companies to view their entire IT environment through a virtual business environment.
"I do know what my first product is going to be, though," he says confidently. "I cannot tell you what it is, but I hope to have it out in the market in a few months."
The education division
This part of the business is going to be pretty diverse. One, the partners will themselves offer high-end consulting. Two, they would provide "technology snapshots" of a company's IT infrastructure so as to enable it to see what it is doing right or wrong. And three, a virtual university that will let people download from the Internet training courses at affordable prices. The courses, on Internet expertise, would be built according to industry standards.
"Why should you pay Rs 50,000 for a course to learn skills when you already have a degree in engineering?" demands Ramana. "I am talking about institutes like the NIITs and Aptechs. You journalists should go, see the quality of teachers that they have. Often, they are just the kids who graduated the previous day with absolutely no knowledge of industry and how it functions! See, what has happened to so many people from Hyderabad who took courses in areas like BaaN and got hired by American companies. Those firms found that they actually didn't know anything and simply sent them back!"
Does Liqwid Krystal have the expertise to teach such courses? "Maybe not, but that's what I like about what I'm doing now," says Ramana candidly. "I write a song on the World Cup, I test it and see if it works. Similarly, we are going to test our courses and see if they work. I know that there are many gaps that need to be filled. I am not in rush to fill them. I know that people need high-quality tools, education systems and consulting. I want to find out carefully and slowly how I can do this best."
The offshore development division
An offshore development centre directly contradicts Ramana's frequently aired views on what he calls "mind selling" and "body shopping".
He hastens to clarify: "I am just going to use this like international eavesdropping. I would just tie up with just two or three hot companies, which would then become my gateway to the industry. We will not do data entry or medical documentation. We will only associate ourselves with companies working in the area of the Internet and maybe develop products for them or add value to their products. This will enable us to learn about the industry. I agree that when the Indian infotech industry talks about software development, what it usually means is that it will be selling cheap labour. But I would not do that. My problem is that I am no longer in the US and cannot understand what is going on in the international market. Therefore, I would like to partner with a couple of companies that are techno savvy. The only way I can do that is by adding something to what they are already doing."
The music division
This most distinct division will produce "New World music for global audiences".
Explains Ramana: "Record labels worldwide do not have the time or the facilities to identify talent that can be promoted. We will bridge this gap by giving them completely finished products that they can just distribute in the market. Then we will go a step further and enable Internet users to sample the music we produce and buy and download it electronically."
Why the Internet? "Just because of its sheer power," explains Ramana. "We are going to focus on it as our backbone for all our technology concepts. I see a lot of bottlenecks in technology here that have not been filled adequately."
The outcome of several days of creative outpouring is a colourful abstract oil on wall. Ramana has now had that portion of the wall encased in a wooden frame for effect.
His marketing communications manager Nicollett Mascarenhas was so inspired by the endeavour that she painted a canvas that now adorns the office area.
And as for film music direction, Ramana hopes to keep doing it for as long as he is in demand. If things get better, perhaps Hindi cinema too!
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