Continuing with our feature series on the members of TiE Boston, we spoke with TiE Boston Charter Member, Venkat Srinivasan, Founder and Managing Director of Innospark Ventures, Chairman at EnglishHelper, about his journey and what led him to TiE.
Tell me about yourself and how you ended up where you are today.
I grew up in New Delhi; the capital of India. I went to college, completed my undergraduate and CPA (chartered accountant) certification. I worked for a US multinational for a few years and then, really one thing led to another; I had two choices: I could have become a partner in the CPA firm, Deloitte Haskins and Sells. Or, I had an opportunity to come to the States to study for a PHD. Somehow, the PHD sounded more exciting than the CPA firm option.
I come, like so many others from India, from a middle class family. I literally had to borrow money for my air ticket from a friend and flew straight to Cincinnati. There, I became further fascinated by computing. I hung around the computer center even though I was really a finance/accounting guy. When I finished my PHD I got an appointment at Northeastern’s School of Business where I ultimately got tenured. I was a pretty good teacher but teaching was less exciting to me; it was research that attracted me and kept me intellectually engaged. I had the opportunity to consult with Fortune 500 firms like IBM and Apple. Eventually I realized while I was consulting that these companies needed intelligent software as the more permanent solution. I decided to use my sabbatical year to start a company.
This was around 1990. In the last 30 years, I’ve founded a number of companies and about five years ago, I exited RAGE Frameworks when I decided that I had spent enough time operating companies. I wanted to stay engaged though and decided to create a venture firm with a friend of mine, which is what I do these days. I’ve incubated four companies and we’ve invested in about twenty.
Can you tell us about how you became involved with TiE and your experiences with the organization?
My first exposure to TiE was when Desh was forming TiE Boston. I couldn’t join TiE at that time, because I was just too busy with my company, But I thought it was a wonderful idea and knew at some point, I would join. After a few years, I did join, I served on the board at TiE Boston. After a few years, we made way for new people. It’s interesting to see how robust the org has become and how it has grown.
Those days, TiE itself was a start-up! We went through our ups and downs; it took a few years to gain critical mass and support. TiE is a tremendous idea and has grown into a powerful eco-system for entrepreneurship. When we started our respective companies, we didn’t have any support or resources we could lean on. Today, TiE serves a vital function for entrepreneurs. It is an exemplary model where successful people pay back and support the org as charter members.
Has your relationship with TiE changed over the years since running and starting companies to now, running a venture?
My interactions with TiE haven’t changed much. I joined TiE as a Charter member. My startups were very R&D driven with proprietary knowledge. I didn’t really draw on the TiE community as much in my startup days but over the years I have worked with a lot of people who I met in TiE. I hope I am adequately giving back to the community as it has certainly helped me in many ways. TiE is as much a social network as it is a professional network. We enjoy the annual dinners and more recently the charter member socials. We attended a Global Retreat in Bali, Indonesia, some years ago. TiE has been a really healthy network to belong to.
When was that moment of realizing, I’m an entrepreneur?
I was always interested in entrepreneurship although I never thought I would actually be one. Growing up, I had some relatives who were entrepreneurial and I found it quite interesting. I am not a pre-meditated entrepreneur.. A normal trajectory would have had me working as a CPA.
I think the one trait that all entrepreneurs have is a willingness to jump into things with confidence they can handle it. The willingness to deal with unfamiliar territory. I think I have a lot of that.
The second trait for an entrepreneur, I have been a problem solver; I did a lot of that in the US multinational I worked at. An entrepreneur needs to be able to solve problems.
Third, is my interest in computing and AI. So while it became an entrepreneurial activity, I saw it more as, “Wow, it would be really cool to design something with AI and help people.”
Fourth, I had a chance encounter with an industry association which is how I transitioned to consulting. Once I started consulting I discovered the need for technology and applications. When I thought about how my clients might benefit from technology solutions, it led to the idea of creating an entrepreneurial venture.
I would say the final spark was the year I got tenured. It’s ironic, I got tenured and I decided to quit. In 1991, I got tenured. At the same time, my consulting clients pushed me to think about how I would support them in production use of the software we had created. And we also attracted investor interest. With that I decided to take the plunge.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
The single most important thing in my view is you have to be willing to take the plunge and not worry about the consequences. If you’re worried about failure, then you are not an entrepreneur. It’s not that you want to fail; nobody wants to fail. In my case, I had to be prepared to walk in and resign my tenure. My decision was made easy by my lovely wife, who has always stood behind my decisions.
Once you decide to take the plunge, then there’s a fine balance between not giving up and realizing it is not going to happen; this is not easy.
Don’t wait to figure everything out before you start because you will wait forever. Once you are in it, you must be convinced, you need to believe, and make everybody around you believe.
You also need to know when to stop. There have been so many stories of people going to incredible lengths financially to support their venture. I know of people who have mortgaged their homes because of their belief in whatever they are doing.
There are two kinds of entrepreneurs: those that raise a large amount of money and spend assuming they will be successful; second are people who bootstrap, focus on getting their product validated and markets established, and then raise larger capital. I prefer the latter but both models have worked for people.
Don’t be afraid of raising money as you ramp up.
Lastly, you are never going to grow out of a small lifestyle business if you have a control problem. Don’t be afraid of recruiting people you don’t know. It’s possible that you might not be the CEO at some point. You are going to limit yourself by being paranoid about control. It really does take a village.
What challenges have you faced in your entrepreneurial journey? What advice do you have on overcoming those challenges or navigating beyond roadblocks?
Think about the journey, don’t always lead with the result. It’s a series of short runs;. While aspiration is important and it often drives your passion, I focus on marketing a good product that addresses a customer need.
Focus on customer success. If customers are successful, you will be.
Take care of your people. When the dust settles, it is all about people.
Never tolerate politics. It starts at the top. Your teams will emulate your leadership style.
The advantage I have had is a significant level of people continuity in my successive ventures. These people knew exactly how I thought; and I knew exactly how they thought.
Do you have advice on how to find those people? I know, at least for some of our start-ups, that’s always one of the big questions. Who, and how do I hire?
If you don’t have people in your network, use a recruiter or look harder in your network. It’s not that I knew everybody I hired. I knew none of them initially, except a few when I started out. Over time, you build relationships and in time, you can often find people in your networks. In my case, several folks from my customer firms joined me because they were excited about the product.
In terms of your best people, I’ve always found, it is not necessarily how brilliant they are. It is always about teamwork.
You need to determine the type of entrepreneur you are. Are you the ‘crash and burn’ type of entrepreneur? Most are more the ‘march and grow’ type entrepreneurs. If you are, generally you tend to be patient and solve problems together. One piece of advice is to be genuine and transparent. If you pretend, people will see through it in a hurry.
What are you hopeful for, for 2021 and beyond? What are you excited about, what trends see happening?
There has been a lot of tragedy and pain these past two years.
As an entrepreneur I have to say I have seen people adopt technologies that have been around for 20 years but were never adopted before the pandemic. I am excited to see people adopting more digital technology to solve some of our challenges, e.g., education or healthcare.
I personally have gained a lot of time by not having to drive around for meetings. Let’s face it; we can do many meetings effectively on Zoom.
I hope we return to a good version of ‘normal’ and maintain some of the gains we have inadvertently made during the pandemic. I hope by the end of this year we head back to pre-pandemic living.