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'To be successful, you need a compelling vision'

March 24, 2008

Shirish Nadkarni has led an interesting life. He studied at some of the world's most illustrious schools -- IIT and Harvard. He was the tenth Indian to join IT behemoth Microsoft [Images] back in 1987, contributing to its incredible growth and played a pivotal role in the overall online strategy for the MSN portal.

He then went on to set up his own company TeamOn Systems, which he sold and is now heading portal, a portal that helps people learn a number of different languages.

In an e-mail interview with's Shifra Menezes, he shares his experiences and lessons young entrepreneurs can learn from them.

Give us a brief sketch of your career in the industry and the agencies you worked with before Livemocha.

I started my career at Microsoft in 1987 in product management. In fact, I was the No 10 Indian to join Microsoft at that time. It was a great time to join Microsoft and was able to contribute to the huge growth that Microsoft enjoyed in the PC software business.

Towards the end of my career at Microsoft, I was responsible for driving the overall online strategy for the MSN portal. In that context, I was responsible for Microsoft's entry into the two largest application categories on the internet -- email and search.

On the e-mail front, I led the acquisition of Hotmail and, on the search front, I led the partnership with Inktomi, a leading search provider. I left Microsoft in 1999 and started my first company, TeamOn Systems.

At TeamOn, we developed a unique wireless e-mail technology for mobile handsets. TeamOn was acquired by RIM (Research in Motion) in 2002 and the technology we had developed became BlackBerry Internet E-mail which now has several million users.

I stayed on at RIM in an executive capacity and helped RIM grow their consumer business. In 2006, I left RIM to start working on my next venture which became Livemocha.

You have studied at some of the illustrious colleges in the world. Tell us a little bit about what it was like at an IIT and Harvard.

It was truly an incredible experience going to both IIT and Harvard. You get to interact with some of the best students and professors in the world and the competition is very tough.

However, the experiences were different in some respects. With IIT, the focus was very much on very rigorous theoretical learning -- as you know, the IIT entrance exam is legendary for asking very tough problems.

With Harvard, the focus was much more practical in nature. Instead of just learning theory, it was an all case study based approach with theory being taught in the context of the case studies being taught.

Both approaches have their place in the learning process and one is more effective than the other depending on the discipline that you are in.

How did Livemocha come about? Tell us a bit about what the portal does and its growth.

Livemocha emerged out a personal need to teach my own kids a foreign language. I was disappointed with the existing solutions in the market and felt that the internet provided a perfect platform to connect people so that they could each leverage their native language expertise to help each other.

Livemocha combines in-depth instructional content for six different languages with  a worldwide community of language learners. The site has experienced growth.

We launched the site in Sept 2007 and have already grown to over 300,000 users from 200 different countries in a matter of 5 months. India is one of the biggest source of users on our site.

What kind of assignments did you handle in the early days of your career?

My first assignment at Microsoft was a Product Manager for Microsoft Mail. It was an amazing experience since e-mail (which we take for granted today) was hardly commonplace. It was an opportunity to establish this whole new category of application on the PC platform.

My work schedule was quite hectic in the early days since Microsoft was a fairly small company in those days and one didn't have access to many resources. It was not uncommon for people to work 60 to 80 hours a week. But we didn't mind since it was great to be at the forefront of new technology adoption

Tell us a bit about how you went about setting it up TeamOn Systems.

I started TeamOn Systems in 1999. To fund the company, I went to a number of prominent angel investors who I had known. These included people like Sabeer Bhatia, the founder of Hotmail, Pete Higgins, Executive VP at Microsoft, Mike Slade, CEO of Starwave etc.

This was very valuable not just for the funding that they provided but more importantly for the tremendous amount of advice and experience they were able to provide. 

The acquisition by RIM happened in 2002 and was prompted by RIM's desire to enter the "prosumer" (mobile professional or individual business user) in addition to their traditional enterprise business.

At TeamOn, we had built a unique consumer wireless e-mail technology which was a perfect fit for RIM's requirements. The acquisition was very successful for RIM -- the technology that was built by TeamOn became BlackBerry internet e-mail which is now being used by several million BlackBerry users.

What kind of challenges have you faced in the course of your career, and how have you learned to deal with it?

The biggest challenge I faced was with my first company, TeamOn Systems. We originally started TeamOn Systems with the idea of creating a small business e-mail solution (sort of a super charged Hotmail for business users).

However, the dot com bust happened right after we got venture funding for the company and many of the partners who would distribute our application went out of business. So we had to retrench and look for new opportunities for the technology we had built.

Given the advent of data applications on mobile handsets, we decided to redirect our technology to the mobile space. It turned out to be a fortuitous move and a successful one at the end through the acquisition of the company by RIM.

Do you believe in the 'lucky break' factor, or do you believe that an innovative, new idea is all you need to guarantee career success?

I believe in both innovation and luck. You can be very innovative but sometimes you are ahead of your time.

So it is important to have some luck as well to be at the right place at the right time. But luck by itself is not sufficient -- you have to be prepared to take advantage of the "lucky" opportunities that present themselves.

What do you think is the most common mistake newcomers make? What advice do you have to give them in this regard?

The most common mistake that newcomers make is to not focus on what exactly is the value proposition that would get people excited about using your offering. Sometimes you get carried away with some interesting idea or technology but if its not something that really solves a real need, it is not going to be adopted. As most venture capitalists would say "You need to sell Aspirin not vitamins!"

Having come such a long way in your career, what do you think remains to be achieved? Which dreams are yet to be realised career-wise?

Right now my immediate priority is to make Livemocha into a global company that is teaching at least 50 different languages to millions of users all over the world and creating a better understanding between people from different countries.

However, beyond Livemocha, I want to dedicate my time to help upcoming entrepreneurs achieve their dreams as well as make a major contribution in the education field (Livemocha is the first effort in this regard).

My dream is to eventually start a series of volunteer schools that provide free math and science tutoring to kids.

Did you have a mentor, and if so, how did he/she inspire you to steer your career in the right direction?

I have not had a specific mentor but have relied on a number of senior executives for advice and guidance. People who have had big influence on my career are people like Pete Higgins, former Executive VP at Microsoft and Jim Balsillie and Mike Laziridis, co-CEOs of Research in Motion.

Has your career impacted your personal life? Do you feel like you've had to sacrifice a few personal pleasures in favour of your job, or are you a workaholic, thriving under pressure?

I have been happily married for the last 20 years. My wife Mona is also Indian. I have 2 kids -- Rohit and Priyanka who are both in high school in the US. My career certainly has had an impact on my personal life though my family, especially my wife, has been very supportive.

I do, however, take time to spend with my family and also contribute time to the community.

Currently, I am volunteering my time as the President of the Seattle chapter of TiE. I am also on the Board of Trustees of a new school in the Seattle area.

How do you spend your free time?

I love to play tennis and watch sports. In fact, my dream is one day to watch Roger Federer [Images] play at Wimbledon [Images] before he retires.

What is the last book you read or are currently reading?

I love reading books -- currently I am reading the Age of Turbulence by Alan Greenspan.

What would you say is compulsory reading for young entrepreneurs?

One of all time favourite business books is called Positioning: The Battle for the Mind by Al Ries and Jack Trout. It describes in very simple terms how to build a compelling and a unique positioning for the product that you are trying to market. Without clear "positioning" that differentiates one's product from others, an entrepreneur has no real chance of success.

What tips do you have for today's youngsters looking to set up their own company? Other than a good idea, what is required from them?

To be successful, you need to have a compelling vision that you are willing to go all out to achieve. It can't just be a product idea. It has to be a vision about how you are going to change the world with this idea. And you need to complement your vision with an incredible amount of drive because undoubtedly, you will experience many challenges and disappointments.

Without the vision and the drive, it will be very hard to get to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

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