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February 01, 2005
Indian infotech companies are fast coming of age as dozens of young entrepreneurs display determination and unleash a range of world-class innovative products and services.
rediff.com brings to you the fifth feature in a special series on India's best innovators.
Part I: How to succeed Whizlabs style!
Part II: The world on your mobile phone
Part III: Want to set up a successful IT firm? Work hard?
Part IV: How to set up a company, and succeed!
This is a story of a tech wizard who was fascinated by the Internet; a fascination that led to the development of some of the most amazing and innovative Internet communication solutions.
Meet Sharad Popli, a modest man who has transformed the Internet into a simple, easy and cost effective medium for millions of people in India and abroad.
The beginning of this nine-year-old entrepreneurial venture, Quantum Link Communication, was quite accidental. After his graduation in electronics from Pune University, he joined Rolta.
He then went on to pursue better opportunities to innovate and experiment with software. He made it among the few who were selected by the National Centre for Software Technology to work in the Internet applications arena.
"The stint at NCST changed my life. It was awesome as it introduced me to the Internet and its applications as NCST was one of the pioneers in introducing Internet in India," says Sharad.
This was a turning point in his career. He later joined Business India Information Technology, a pioneer in introducing private e-mail in India. With the introduction of the Internet in India, Popli realised that life would change like never before. The country was on the threshold of a new technological boom.
"The three letters, www -- world wide web -- was the talk of the town. VSNL (Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd) had just opened up Net access to the public, but it was very expensive at Rs 15,000 to get an account. So the Internet was quite inaccessible to the common people," says Sharad.
He realised the immense potential of the Net and started to explore the immense opportunities of this medium. But the cushy corporate job limited his freedom to explore and experiment. "I thought I was stagnating being a part of a big organisation. I realised it was the right time to take the plunge," say Popli.
From here started the journey of a techie on path to becoming an entrepreneur. "I looked out for market avenues where I could convert my ideas into useful products and sell them profitably."
He joined hands with a friend Ajit Menon on this special mission to launch QLC on October 15, 1995. Their first step to create a platform to work on.
"I bought a book on Linux as it had a free CD to download the software to set up the server." A bulletin board service, to start with, which would help people log in, chat and share information was just the beginning. The enterprising duo started this system with just three computers and three servers.
Sharad and Ajit also managed to get phone connections and modems at very high speeds of 14.4 kbps at that time. But the capital to begin a new venture was hard to come by.
"We borrowed Rs 500,000 from friends and relatives to start with," says Sharad about his humble beginning.
"Christened 'The Virtual Community,' we launched India's first Web-based dial-in system where people could log in for just a rupee and experience the magic of HTTP and HTML.
"This online chat became quite a hit and our modems lit up like a Christmas tree with large numbers of people dialing in," says Sharad with a twinkle.
The company received some good breaks when it received projects for setting up Web domains for elite clients like Magnasound, Sab TV, Sony and shipping company Exim. The company also prides itself as the first to put up the Miss World '96 contest on the Web. It was the first time in the history of the pageant that the coverage was run online.
These are some happy memories for Sharad Popli who has come a long way, 'slow and steady.'
Quantum Link Communications is today a name known across the globe and is doing excellent business in developing Internet solutions, Web sites, writing Java scripts and networking software.
The company has the distinction of having developing 'mail without Internet', the company's first and best-selling product 'PostMaster.'
"PostMaster is now one of the leading software brands in India. PostMaster satisfies the needs of many clients who want just e-mail facility without the Net so that employees don't waste their time surfing! Our aim now is to ensure that the Internet service is productively utilised."
Popli received desperate requests from employers who wanted a monitoring system along with PostMaster wherein they could monitor the mails of their employees, mainly for security reasons.
PostMaster thus caters to the growing demands of about 3,000 customers with over 4,000 installations. While prominent Indian clients are Overnite Express, Nerolac Paints, BPL Mobile, Associated Road Carriers, ISRO, Wipro Consumer Care, Eveready Industries Limited, IT Secure and Balaji Telefilms, overseas clients include Cadila Healthcare, France, Swift IFA, UK, Bumi Laut Group, Indonesia, Larsen Shipping, Indonesia and Bhuwan IT, Muscat.
Over the years, PostMaster has been developed with many new features to cater to the demands of the customers. All the products developed by QLC are designed to cater to the need of the customers and serve them better with unique communication solutions. The range of QLC products has also grown in terms of size and additional features.
"We now have many other products under an umbrella, the IQuinox Suite. It comprises of SurfConsole, an Internet proxy server; AvAc, an anti-virus plug-in for PostMaster; and GatePass, an antispam module for PostMaster."
SurfConsole is the first Indian product 100 per cent Java certified by Sun Micro Systems, USA. While SurfConsole limits Internet access after a certain limit, the antispam developed by QLC is intelligent enough to recognise spam depending on which company it is addressed to.
For instance, if there is a word 'cancer' on the spam mail, GatePass would filter it while sending it to a corporate while it would send it across to a medical centre!
Years of struggle, devotion and hard work round the clock have paid off and strengthened the company's foothold in the market. While these innovations and products may hog the limelight and do the company good in the years to come, it has not been a smooth ride for Sharad Popli who went through a worst phase during the dot-com bust in 2000.
"We had to downsize our team by half. The worst part was no one was willing to accept any idea that had to do anything with technology," Sharad reminisces.
But all the while Sharad and his team learned the right lessons at the right time. It has paid off in the long run, as today the dynamic and competitive business environment has put his company in the forefront.
His formula for success lies in three simple words: passion, enthusiasm and perseverance. And, of course, a dose of luck!
"One has to be energised to the core. An idea should be pursued with a single-minded focus and we should also have an open-minded attitude as information technology is constantly evolving and innovations are taking place at a frenetic pace. So a person dealing with Internet or information technology has to be adaptable to the changes to succeed in his mission," Sharad says emphatically.
Sharad is upbeat about the future of Internet-based information technology in India. "The 'Made in India' tag is gaining prominence," he says.
He adds that many foreign companies are targeting India as it has the some of the best brains in the world and a good market. Internet usage too is growing in India, he says.
"Today a world without the Internet is difficult to imagine. It is medium with tremendous potential and here to stay. E-commerce and e-security and all applications to enhance the Internet will develop in the years to come and we will remain very much a part of this big revolution," says Sharad.
The company's vision is focused on deriving the maximum possible benefit from the Internet as a communications medium. "Our future plans are to constantly develop better software solutions and start SMS facility from e-mail. PostMaster's beta version to cater to high end customers will be his New Year gift and most importantly alliances with large organisations are in the pipeline," says Sharad.
The company has always believed in 'build more on what is available, remained ethical, efficient, do no evil.' A journey of triumphs and tribulations 'to build smarter communication solutions to meet real needs' continues at QLC. "And miles to go.," says an optimistic Popli whose zest to experiment and innovate knows no end.
So be it practising marital arts, hiking, writing or networking, Popli is at his very best. "I never think that I'm working, I enjoy whatever I'm doing. So be it martial arts or applying your brains in IT you need to enjoy what you are doing,''
Maybe that is the secret key word behind his success.
Also check out: www.sharadware.com
Image: Rahil Shaikh
Photographs: Jewella C Miranda