In his career, Sanjay Parthasarathy has seen two ends of the corporate spectrum: spending two decades at Microsoft and leaving a high-flying job to chase entrepreneurial dreams – building a Google Maps for products – from Chennai. In this podcast from July last year, Parthasarathy tells Pankaj Mishra about learnings from corporate career and his startup avatar. “A job at a large company is about career development much more outwardly focused whereas a startup journey is much more about character development and is much more inwardly focused,” he says, emphasising the importance of patience and awareness. Transcription credits with Kanika Berry for this lightly edited interview.
Pankaj: So, welcome to Outliers. This is a Podcast with Outliers, like we keep talking and you know today we are with Sanjay Parthasarathy. For those of you who are not aware of Sanjay, he is known more as a Microsoft veteran, one of the executives who led many important divisions and projects at Microsoft from .NET to even Microsoft.com and more famously who got Bill Gates attention to India. Of course, he has been a cricketer and he talks about the influence of cricket on his life and career. But these are not the reasons why I feel he is an Outlier. He started a very interesting entrepreneurial journey with Indix. And I have been having conversations with him for good 4-5 years and it’s been fascinating to watch him from outside. I have been meaning to sit down with him and get him to open up about how’s this journey been and how does that contrast with the gig at Microsoft. Sanjay, welcome to Outliers.
Sanjay: Thanks, Pankaj, it’s good to see you.
Pankaj: Before we started recording, you were chatting about this journey, the journey with Indix and you made a very interesting point which is about the startup journey was more inward focused. Let’s start with why did you become an entrepreneur and take us through the journey and the key learnings.
Sanjay: Well, I think it’s probably we are starting with the Microsoft piece which was my first job, out of college and I was there for almost 20 years and it didn’t feel like 20 years because it was more or less 10 different things of two years each and I was lucky enough to be there when it was still a small company and even when it was large it tended to act, you know, like kind of as a small company and so we had the freedom to do what we wanted, mostly. And you know what I enjoyed most was starting new things, new divisions, some of them ended up being fairly large divisions in the end. I started off as a product manager for multimedia and was involved in getting audio and video into the personal computers, this was in 1991-92. And after that, did a little work for Internet Explorer and then came to India to run the offices here and then left back into Microsoft.com and then .NET.
And you know why was I Microsoft so long because they gave me the opportunity to do different things – wildly different things but then also that led to a question about, ‘Should I try this without a safety net?’ and that really was one of the motivations to do a startup. Although, one of the other motivations was also to kind of bring the kids and the family back to where I grew up and spend some time here, so you know we were here as a family for about three years here in Chennai and I think it was a good experience for everybody. It coincided with starting the company in Chennai. It was intended to be a company for India, in India and then reality struck and so we moved back to build a product here but build a business in US.
Pankaj: But what’s the reality you are talking about?
Sanjay: The reality is, I mean we picked a very hard problem that is an all new category and just to describe what it is: we are trying to do for products what Google Maps did for location. So you know, our belief is that the next generation of shopping is going to be very different and it will impact advertising, shopping, couponing, you know even product search. We are building the kind of platform to help that become more integrated into everything that we do and you know that kind of a disruptive product doesn’t find a ready market in the emerging countries and so we realised that the customers were mostly in the US. Although, one of the more disruptive opportunity is in India, we can talk about that later. But that was the motivation once we’d raised money to go to where the customers were, which we did.
Pankaj: Take us through some of the key milestones or moments in your journey of building Indix where you would have said, ‘Let me go back, do something else.’ Were there such moments at all?
Sanjay: Of course, there are actually moments everyday where you question your sanity, you question your reason for existence. But that’s one of the things that I realised is, you never get to do that in a corporate job like at Microsoft. And that’s what I mean by, a job at a large company is about career development much more outwardly focused whereas a startup journey is much more about character development and is much more inwardly focused. And what I mean by that is the question you asked, you basically have to question yourself, your motivation, your core principles, your character because you know, that is just the normal part of being a founder of a startup. So to answer your question, the long winded way, yes, I do this every day. You question yourself every day because you have done something better or different.
Pankaj: How do you deal with those questions?
Sanjay: You know, there are lots of different ways. I think you start to focus on a few principles that matter because you then try to get some touchstones when you are in a particular situation, you figure out how to react based on what’s important to you. It’s kind of like, you know, your business metrics, when you are outwardly focused; when you are inwardly focused, you have a sort of a character metrics, what’s important to you. So you spend a lot of time and some people call it culture and that’s important for an organisation, that’s kind of the character metric for an organisation and so for us, the character metrics were the organisation, our culture is transparency and trust, big hard problems, support and fun. And similarly you should have a personal character metrics that is important to you. And that’s how you really make decisions over time.
Pankaj: People also talk about entrepreneurial journey as journeys like individuals. Some people even use terms like self-actualisation and when you talk about more inward focused, I would imagine it’s kind of like that… What’s changed in you as a person, as an individual, good, bad?
Sanjay: So, let’s take a couple of examples. When I was in Microsoft and again by the way, this is not generalisable, so use it at your own peril because it applies to me and maybe to nobody else. When you are at Microsoft or at a large company, you have the power, the brand, all of the assets and the resources of a large company at your disposal, so you tend to do things in a slightly different way. You can be impatient, you can talk more than you listen, not everybody does that, there are much more evolved beings at Microsoft who were patient, who listen and all that but I wasn’t.
But when you do a startup, those things have to change because as a smaller company you can’t force things to happen. You have to be more patient, you have to go with the flow, you have to roll with the punches and so one the more interesting things has been my journey on this dimension of patience where you manifest in lots of different ways, you don’t react to every piece of email. At Microsoft, you would be proud to respond to every email within three seconds of it coming and I used to be very proud of that. Now, I just let it lie for a little bit, to see if it fixes itself. Sometimes you just let it go and things just resolve themselves because either people have misunderstood or miscommunicated or it’s no longer important or they had a bad day or you know something external caused that email and you just let it lie for 24 hours and it just goes away sometimes. Most of the times it goes away, that’s a very simple way to think about patience.
The other thing is, you don’t realise until you start a company, that it takes 7-10 years to build anything worthwhile. You have all of these misconceptions about how you can build a billion dollar company in two years or four years and there are examples of that but those are the real, real, real exceptions. Most businesses, most startups, it takes a while, you have to be patient, you probably have to change your plan two or three or four times and so patience is one of those things that I have actually learned in the last seven years. Now I am not perfect and I am not as patient as I should be but it’s a very, very dramatic difference.
Pankaj: Patience can also be seen as a sign of weakness?
Sanjay: No, I think it’s a sign of strength because just reacting all the time is for me at least, would imply that I wasn’t listening, I was talking, it means that I didn’t take the time to understand, I didn’t take the time to kind of, you know, really wait for the right opportunity, for the right person. I mean, let’s take hiring. We tend to think that the world is going to end in a month, therefore, we have to hire the best person that we seek today. I have seen people being patient for six months to hire the right person. To me that is sign of strength because the benefit of hiring the right person even if it takes six months, is that in the longer term, it’s less costly, it’s better for the culture, it’s better for the business and so on.
When you are growing up, they tell you, ‘be patient’ but they never tell you how! Right! So most of us don’t actually know how to be patient. There are things you can do to understand what patience means. For example, again, comparing the past with the present, I used to play cricket a lot, I used to play squash a lot, I used to play all kinds of sports, a lot. Now I don’t play any sports but I run. Running is the ultimate sport for patience and there are others too, I mean like cycling and you know other things that can but for me running has taught me more patience because there is no ‘ho ho’, I don’t run races. You run because you enjoy the process, you enjoy the act of running as opposed to where you are going and that basically, I think teaches you patience. I mean my co-founder Sridhar runs ultra-marathons, I mean he just did the seven-day Sahara run carrying all his food but not his water, so I have learnt a lot from him about being patient and you know running is an example where you just do it, the process is more important than the goal. That’s one of the best things about patience is it helps you focus on the process which is far more important than the goal because in a startup, the goals will change, the process is more important.
Pankaj: Yes, as a rookie entrepreneur, I can relate to a lot of that, lots of learnings. The other thing, Sanjay is, when you are building a company and you talk about, it takes 7-10 years. (In) Indix, now, there would have been moments when of course, like you are saying every day you question why you are doing something and then on the other hand you will have a set of reasons for doing it. These journeys can be frustratingly painful.
Pankaj: Let me ask this, why have you stayed doing Indix? And at what point in time you thought, ‘I will screw it, I will keep doing this’ and I will have a follow up question but I want to understand why have you stayed with this?
Sanjay: And again, that’s partly character building because you realise about year three that this isn’t going to be easy and it isn’t a short kind of easy thing and you start to realise, ‘okay, now I have got lost and now there are three, four, five, seven years, how do I do it?’ One of the more interesting questions, as you see all of these pieces of advice, you know, stay with the journey but then you ask yourself, ‘How do I do that? What are the tools to help me stay the course?’ Because you are going to have these moments of panic, of anxiety… and depression is a pretty big deal in the founder and startup kind of leader community, how do you power through that?
Personally, I found a few things, running is one, meditation, mindfulness is another, having hobbies is important for me, it’s music, it’s art but there are also some constructs that are very important. You realise that if you focus too much on outcomes then you are more likely to be down a lot more. So, one of the things that I am starting to teach myself is to let go of outcomes, enjoy the process and let go of outcomes. The toughest piece of all of this and this is where I have had the most to learn is how to be positive every day. Because you have to smile in front of your employees, your customers, your board, your constituents and there are days where you have got this feeling in the pit of your stomach that things are not, you know, okay but you still have to be positive. How do you do that? What do you do to do that?
Now some people are lucky, they just innately are positive. You know I have a friend, Vishal Gondal, who I don’t think I have ever seen him negative about anything. Now I am sure he has his challenges, so I don’t want to minimise any of that but I envy people who can be positive all the time because that’s not my nature and I have to find the tools to remain positive. And you tend to, you know generally, I don’t want to over generalise, if you tend to be over analytical, you tend to have this bias towards looking at things half empty all the time.
So, how do you remain positive is one of the huge challenges and I don’t have all the answers but I have a lot of tools that I think that helps me be more positive during the day. Like I said, you know you get up early and you spend a little time by yourself, you organise yourself, you exercise, you enjoy your hobbies, you meditate and that actually has a knock-on effect from everything from patience to letting go of outcomes to being positive at the end. Am I being too philosophical here?
Sanjay: Ok. These are the things that I have learnt the hard way and I think are worth sharing. I told you earlier, I think many of the things that I thought were important at Microsoft like meeting revenue goals and user growth and things like that, they continue to be important because you can’t run a healthy business without them. But the more important things are the character related issues which kind of help you reach the goals but reach, you know, safe and sound because what’s the point of reaching your goal if you are just a rack.
Pankaj: So I have a question, now when you are doing a startup, when you are doing anything for that matter, you would look for signs or signals that help you make decisions whether you should keep doing it or not, now that metric will be so-called outcome based. Now you talked about how you were trying to move away from it. Now if an entrepreneur is stuck with a startup, you don’t know whether it is a good idea to keep doing it or when to quit, how do you make that decision? Because on one hand you will have this deep, I am not calling it philosophical but you know, I mean, entrepreneurs are also sometimes stubborn. How do you actually get to make this decision whether this is worth the journey or not, that is equally important because you could be wasting all your time.
Sanjay: That’s right. I think it’s some healthy balance between persistence and patience and you know, kind of a realisation that you need to change and the way we do it here and again it doesn’t apply in every situation is, you listen to other people. So you don’t just trust your instincts, I tend to be very stubborn. You know the founder is attached to their idea a lot and sometimes those ideas don’t work necessarily and so you have to listen to other people and that’s where patience comes in, that’s where the ability to listen comes in and we have pivoted it a couple of times and it’s basically because the organisation knows what to do and all you have to do is to listen to it. Your customers know, your organisation knows, the founder is usually the last to realise it. Right?! I mean, one, because they tend to have a little bit more of the stubborn streak but they are also doing a lot of things and so they don’t necessarily have kind of the depth and everything, the kind of to make that decision. So, it’s kind of like, you know, how do you fire someone, the founder is usually the last person to know that you should fire someone, everybody else has figured it out and they are void, same thing with pivots and changes and things like that. The people around you know when it’s time for change and you have these discussions and sometimes they are hard to realise but then you just kind of have to release the reins a little bit and listen to other people and they will tell you what to do.
Pankaj: There is no checklist?
Sanjay: No, there is no checklist. There is no checklist because when you look at outcomes, I mean, we have talked about this, it could be that just one more year of pounding at it could change the circumstance and it does sometimes. Or it could be that 10 more years would make no difference, right, so outcomes alone, I don’t think are going to tell you whether something is healthy or not, whether you need to change or not. For example, we killed a SaaS App when it was growing really fast and it looked very healthy but you know, something said that maybe that wasn’t the way to go and so we killed it when it was a substantial amount of revenue and we had no other revenue. So, it was meeting all the metrics but how do you make that change? And you make that change because some customers tell you, you start to see the signs, some people tell you and you listen. Now, in this game of things, I don’t even know if that’s the right decision but still, if you are going to make a change, you make it not just based on metrics.
Pankaj: Isn’t it also kind of the famous Hudson plane crash where Sully took the decision of landing it in the river and not follow the so-called checklist. People talk about this incident from an artificial intelligence point of view like when you have not dealt with a problem before, how do you deal with it. That’s why there is no checklist.
Sanjay: Well, you go with your instincts. First thing is, you listen to all the people because your instinct alone isn’t always the best because it’s got so many biases built in. So for me the most important thing is to listen to enough people and get advice, in terms of a particular issue. That’s why you have a board, I mean you got to make use of the board for example for this. And then you make a decision and you go with it and then you need a lot of luck. I mean, landing in the Hudson did require a little bit of luck, I mean it was a good decision in the end but you know there were a lot of things that were not completely in control, so luck comes into play. I think, we call it market timing, product market fit and all of that kind of stuff but it’s just you know a rationalist view of luck because you could be building absolutely the right product but the timing could be completely off.
Pankaj: I still remember talking to you four years ago when I was with TechCrunch about Indix and the talk was more around, how you will build the world’s biggest catalogue. Where you are on the journey and why are you doing Indix? Some people do it for world changing ambitions and things like that. What is the root cause of you doing Indix?
Sanjay: Yes, it’s the idea. The idea is really important. The most powerful things in the world are the ideas whether it’s good ideas or bad idea, the idea is what in the end lets people stay with something and stick with something. So the idea was, as I said, to do for product information what Google Maps had done for location.
Am not pitching a business here and not trying to sell what we are doing but just to explain it… The way we do shopping today, the way advertising is done today can be improved upon. My view is just as GPS is and location awareness was built into forms, you know the product awareness or the capability to buy Intel stuff will be built into these smart devices. The ability to recognise a product will be built into cameras, the ability to extract information from images or sounds or voices is going to be built into these smart devices. That should change the way, you know ads are done, for example, or the way you discover products, for example. And it’s interesting that Samsung is actually doing some of this stuff, you can take a picture of something and you can figure out how to buy it but it’s still an app, it will be integrated into the operating system – that’s my belief and that’s the belief from day 1.
That’s the idea that this notion being able to engage in commerce is such a core fundamental part of every business model and everything that we do in our lives that it needs to be built into operating systems and what we are doing is building kind of that skeleton, you know, I call it the catalogue, really building the skeleton of the platform to make that happen. The question is, is it going to happen tomorrow, is it going to happen five years from now, is it ever going to happen or not? But I think it will happen at some point just as the location awareness and location based services, you know the work started in 1995 and in the early 2000s, Google bought a set of companies including Keyhole systems and now 20 years later, we just take it for granted. That was the idea, to do the similar thing but for products because it can impact everything and everybody because commerce is an essential part of everything that we do. That’s the idea and that’s why people stayed for five years or six years or seven years because that idea is interesting, it’s powerful, it’s destructive, it’s worthwhile. We may not succeed but…
Pankaj: On a more final note, how do you handle or manage criticism because sometimes critics can dent confidence?
Sanjay: This again is the difference between career development and character development. In the career development orientation, goal orientation, you would respond. In a character development orientation, you would take the time to think about it. It’s just like email. There are some people who want zero inbox. That may not be the best thing because some things need to be thought through, especially criticisms, especially critical emails, don’t respond to it. It’s not the zero inbox that matters, it’s understanding what is being said, taken the time and I think this is where again patience comes in. And I have forced myself not to respond to critical comments which I wouldn’t have done 10 years ago. I have forced myself not to respond to critical emails because you want to take the time to understand what people are saying and what’s interesting is, you look at something at the end of the day and you come back to it the next day, your whole perspective has changed because you have come into it at the end of the day with the set of biases that have built up during the day and when you look at it with fresh eyes, your understanding is completely different. Sometimes I realise, I’d even misunderstood the email or misunderstood the criticism, you know in the moment. So giving it some time. Now if you are mindful and if you are perfectly mindful, your reaction will be the same whether it’s now or later but some of us have not evolved to that point and so, for those some of us, taking the time even if it’s half an hour, an hour or preferably overnight if it’s not urgent, it can make the biggest difference in how you react.
Pankaj: That makes sense, patience. Thanks, Sanjay, this was really, really enlightening and I think what I liked about this is, you could relate it with the real experiences and your own journey. It wasn’t academic at all. So thank you.
Sanjay: Alright, sometimes I worry, I am just too inside my head and all of this is philosophical mumble jumble but you know the entrepreneurial journey is hard. People say that it’s hard and everybody recognises it’s hard but there are all these tools for managing the businesses but there are no tools for managing yourself. There are tools but those are not well understood or appreciated or shared and I think more can be done.
Pankaj: Yes, clearly. Stay this way. Thank you.