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Business Delhi Entrepreneurship India Life New Delhi Startups

Twelve Years of Indian Startups – Part I

March 11th 2019 marked the twelfth anniversary of the day I landed in New Delhi with my family with the intention of starting a company. It was a complicated, difficult, enlightening, fun journey and I thought it would be nice to share some details of how I decided to move to India, the challenges I faced, the failures I dealt with and all of the different adventures I had over the last twelve years.

I had been pretty lucky having gotten a job at JP Morgan & Co right out of college and two years later, landing a highly coveted job at Long-Term Capital Management which then turned into being one of the founding employees at GlobeOp Financial Services (a fintech startup that wasn’t called that in 1999, which went public in 2007 and was eventually acquired by SS&C in 2007).

After leaving GlobeOp in late 2004, a friend of mine from high school and I started working on our first tech startup. It was a social network before social networks or social media became a thing. My friend and I both weren’t developers but we started coding away furiously in Perl to get the first version of the application out the door. Unfortunately, we never actually launched the network. With LinkedIn and Facebook gaining ground rapidly, we really weren’t sure how just the two of us could keep up. We both wound up getting new jobs but continued working on this idea at nights and on weekends.

Trust me, this is incredibly embarrassing ( a la Reid Hoffman) but here are some screens circa 2005:

I think we finally stopped all further development of the project around the end of 2005 but we open sourced all of the code. While working on this project, I developed an insatiable appetite for all things tech entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much happening in NYC in 2005. I became an avid listener of Podcasts in 2005 and 2006 (specifically tech podcasts like John Furrier’s PodTech.net and Greg Gallant’s Venture Voice). Between TechCrunch and these podcasts, I had the entrepreneurial itch – again. I just needed to figure out how to scratch that itch. 

I began thinking of my problem. I loved listening to podcasts about tech entrepreneurship. However, this was before Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Spotify, Google Podcasts, etc. The only way to find podcasts was using Google. Unfortunately, Google didn’t index and make audio very searchable.

The Problem: Podcasts are hard to find

The Solution: Offer podcasters a service which will transcribe their podcasts for them and allow them to post the text on their blog/website with the podcast audio in an RSS feed.

I left the job I was at in middle of 2006 and started working on learning about the transcription industry. I found out that medical transcription was a huge business and a lot of it was run out of India. I started investigating and talking to companies that ran transcription businesses as well as offshore “development” shops that I could work with to build out an MVP for a marketplace. The solution above would be a reverse auction platform where podcasters can specify the length of their audio and put out an amount they would be ready to pay to have that transcribed. Transcribers in India, the Philippines and other places would be notified of these projects and could come in and bid on them. Payment would be helped in escrow by us and upon completion of a project, payment would be released to the transcriber and of course, both sides could rate the other (much like eLance, upwork, etc.)

As I started talking to these offshore development shops, I began realizing that most of them were a couple of friends moonlighting. I tried out a couple of them with very small work and was thoroughly annoyed but not surprised when things weren’t done. Notice, I never said I spoke to any actual podcasters.

I decided to take a trip to India in late 2006 and meet some dev shops in person as well as attend some conferences. The first entrepreneur in India I met was Amit Ranjan, author of Webyantra and co-founder of Uzanto (which eventually became Slideshare). I went to TieCon Delhi and a few other conferences but one thing really stuck out while I was in India. Every one of my relatives kept complaining about how they couldn’t find domestic help – a nanny, a cleaning person, a cook, a chauffeur, etc. I didn’t really know anyone in India other than relatives but as I was meeting people I started asking more questions about domestic help. I started seeing a pattern. It’s hard to find good help. It’s hard to retain help. It’s a word of mouth business, e.g. your cousin can ask their driver if he knows of a good driver and he will send someone to you (of course, your cousin’s driver will get a cut for helping him get a job).

It’s hard to find digital pictures from the pre-iPhone/smartphone days

I thought, this whole situation really could lend itself to a reverse auction platform so instead of focusing on transcribing podcasts, why not create impact by helping people to get jobs. With this idea and this alone, I convinced my wife that we should move to India and I should start a business to do exactly this.

More to come in Part II

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Finance Life Misc.

Twenty Years Ago Today, I Started Working at Long-Term Capital Management

Not many individuals other than some of the partners from Long-Term Capital Management have spoken or written anything public about their experience. I happened to be up in Greenwich, Ct a couple of days ago to meet with one of the partners from LTCM and I realized that it’s almost 20 years since I started working there.

This isn’t a story of what happened at LTCM. This is a reflection on how I arrived at LTCM 20 years ago, some of what I did while I was there, and what I learned.

LTCM

The Liar’s Poker Influence

Upon graduating from NYU, there were only a few things most students from Stern did. We went to Wall Street, Madison Ave., or, at the time, the Big Six consulting firms. I chose Wall Street, primarily, because I read the book Liar’s Poker as a Sophomore in high school and was completely convinced I wanted to be a mortgage trader when I grew up.

Plans changed by the end of college. Kind of. While I was in college, I was lucky enough to get an unpaid internship at Merrill Lynch. I picked up writing Excel macros and working with Microsoft Access 1.0. That was my first real experience working with technology and I loved it. I decided to do a double major in Finance and Information Systems.

At the end of my junior year, a friend of mine, Anil, shared my resume with a recruiter at JP Morgan & Co. I got the paid internship. After the internship was over, my boss, Paul, asked me if I’d consider joining after graduating. I was ecstatic and agreed.

Job Hunting

Fast forward a few years and I decided it was time to move on from JP Morgan. I had interviewed at a few places before getting called into LTCM. Once the interview was over, I immediately decided that I wasn’t going to interview anywhere else. Working at LTCM would mean an opportunity to work with John Meriwether (someone I first read about in Liar’s Poker six or seven years prior) and some of the smartest people in finance. That’s where I wanted to be. If you’re in tech, it was the equivalent of getting a job at Google, Uber, 500 Startups, Facebook or Twitter when there were less than 50 employees.

Weeks went by and I hadn’t heard a thing. Weeks turned into over a month. I was sure that I didn’t get the job and it was probably time to start looking elsewhere. Before I started sending out my resume, I got a call. LTCM wanted to see me again. I was very surprised that when they told me I was being considered for an analyst position in the US fixed income risk management group. It was a Friday afternoon and I got a call giving with a verbal offer. A written offer would be faxed over to me shortly. I had to make a decision by the end of the day.

Here I was, twenty-two years old, excited but also scared about going to work for this company that no one had ever heard of. This up-start in finance. This startup. I laid out the pros and cons to my dad and he said to me, “I don’t know anything about your line of work. I’ve heard of and know what JP Morgan is but I can’t tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. You need to trust yourself and decide what you think is right.” I made a decision to take the job. After having been at JP Morgan for two years, Monday morning I handed in my resignation to my boss, Jack (who had been a lifer at JP Morgan).

Long-Term Capital Management

Two weeks later on June 10th, 1996 I started working at Long-Term Capital Management. I was now the youngest employee at the firm, much to Howard’s chagrin. Traveling for workUp until I came onboard, Howard had been the youngest employee at the firm. Being at LTCM was an incredible experience. It turned out to be a lot more than what I had expected. In good and bad ways. A few months after I had started working at LTCM, during the summer of 1996, I suggested to my boss, Lawrence, that we should consider evaluating technologies like the Netscape browser and a web server to build an Intranet. Back in 1996, not many knew what an Intranet or the Internet were. The few that did, mainly used it for email, Yahoo and a few other things. My boss was pretty excited at the prospect of bringing new consumer technologies into the firm. He spoke to two of the partners, Greg Hawkins and Eric Rosenfeld. Greg asked me some detailed questions about my suggestion. At the end of the conversation, he told me to get a prototype ready in a month. I was perplexed. I knew nothing about setting up and creating content for an Intranet. I just knew how to use Netscape (Thanks Marc)!

After work, I hit a few bookstores and tried to figure out whatever I could about  Intranets, HTML and CGI apps. Roughly a month later, with the help of our SysAdmin, Avi, we had the Netscape Suitespot web server in production, hosting all of our US fixed income risk reports. That set off a push over the next 18 months and the little proposal to create and Intranet turned into a team of people dubbed the “ATI” or “Advanced Technology Initiative” building a platform for all reporting and some applications being moved to the browser or Java.

LTCM office in Japan
LTCM office in Japan

In early 1998 I moved out of the fixed income research group and ATI into the “systems” group. Here, I took on more of an infrastructure role. My job would morph again to focus almost exclusively on data over the coming months. I had just been given a project that would essentially rip out the whole market data infrastructure of LTCM and replace it with a new PC product from Reuters called Kobra. Essentially, everything affecting trading, research, risk and operations that required prices for various securities would need to be replaced. Every Applix Spreadsheet macro, every Perl script and module, every C library, every MarketVision screen would need to be re-written by December 31st 1998 – the last date the existing MarketVision infrastructure would operate. Then August 1998 rolled around and Russia defaulted and all hell broke loose in every corner of global capital markets.

The Collapse

By September, an offer from Warren Buffet to buy the assets of LTCM had come and gone. The hemorrhaging continued unabated. I kept working on replacing the market data infrastructure, unsure if there would be a need for the infrastructure at the end of it all. The partners took steps to ensure that all of the employees would not need to worry about our salaries. All we needed to worry about was sticking together and getting thru this. Within a few weeks, fourteen of the largest banks on the Street bailed out LTCM. Tough decisions were made by the “Oversight Committee” which was comprised of representatives from each of the fourteen banks. LTCM was scaled back considerably but by December 31st, thanks to everyone pulling together, we had a new market data infrastructure running on Reuters Triarch and Kobra.

LTCM Tokyo Trading Floor
LTCM Tokyo Trading Floor

The Aftermath

All of us were in maintenance mode at LTCM for about a year. We were kept around by the OC to keep the place running and fix problems if they occurred.

My friend Ritesh and I caught the startup bug and began working on plans for world domination. I don’t remember what the idea was but we made a trip to Boston to meet with Perot Systems. It didn’t work out but I had my first taste of a tech startup. Looking back, it was convenient that in October 1999, I got laid off from Long-Term Capital Management. It bothered me. A lot. Fortunately, though before the end of the year, I was back to working with Hans, Tom, Ira, Jim, Ritesh, Peter, Nandini, Marek, Rob, Claudette, Kin, Graham and many others on GlobeOp Financial Services.

I frequently tell people that I’ve been very lucky and fortunate in my life. My time and experience at Long-Term Capital Management has a lot to do with it. I was privileged to work with some of the best and brightest in the industry and lucky to learn some very important values very early on in my career at LTCM – humility, integrity and most importantly loyalty.

As I continue working on 500 Kulfi, I hope to build something that embodies these values as well as our core values at 500 Startups with Dave, Christine, Bedy, Khailee, Soaib, Shalini and everyone else in the #500STRONG family.

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