Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Meeting With An Old Friend - Suresh Reddy, Chairman Ybrant Digital

There is something about that batch. Maybe Malcolm Gladwell who wrote the 'Outliers' would know more about it. I am talking of the 1982-84 batch from St. Alphonso' Junior College - then a little thatched roof setting at Greenlands, positioned as an alternative to the Little Flower Junior College which was the best junior college in town then for science students. The students at St. Alphonso's were a motley crew with boys from HPS, BHEL, IDPL and some from around the area. Overall it was considered a new but good junior college with good faculty and focus on academics.

Now the interesting part about this batch and the next of which I was also part of, was that there were many successful first generation entrepreneurs. Most came from normal middle class backgrounds with absolutely no connections with business environment. Ram Jayam who founded a software company and sold it off for a fortune was one. Jaganmohan Reddy who started Rain Calcining in Vizag is another, Sandeep Reddy of Gayatri Industries (not a first generation entrepreneur but entrepreneur nevertheless) , Sunil Ganapa who has set up a power plant, KRK Vijay Kumar who co owns Ybrant, Ramaraju who runs Gap Miners, Arjun Valluri and LV our juniors, and these are only some of the stories I know. There must be many more.
Suresh at the Ybrant Digital office

Prominent among this list of entrepreneurs is Suresh Reddy, the Chairman and Managing Director of Ybrant digital, a Hyderabad based company founded in 2000. Now in St. Alphonso's, Suresh belonged to the group that graced the first benches along with Ramaraju, Ram Jayam, Srinivas Meherji, Ruby Shankar and others, an ardent, studious gang of boys who studied hard and had clear ambitions of making it to elite engineering colleges. I was far removed from this gang as I occupied seats farthest from the front benches because I did not understand a word of what was happening and my academic ambitions were limited to passing the exams at best. Our worlds met rarely and the one person in this gang I was well acquainted with was KRK Vijay Kumar, a good and enthusiastic cricketer, and we played some inter group and inter college matches together. We all faded off to live our own lives until I bumped into my old friends a few years ago - almost 25 years later. They came to my book launches - Ramaraju, Ram Jayam and Suresh recently and watched the Golconda High School movie which was shot partially in Suresh's office. I wanted to know how Suresh went about building this company, acquired foreign companies in this space and grew it to this size, so we decided to meet for lunch.

It was an interesting story that Suresh told me when I met him yesterday for lunch. His father was an engineer in the defence and Suresh came to Hyderabad from Bangalore only in his seventh class. 'I was an average student till then. But when we moved here and joined Keshav Memorial school, I started topping the class. Much of this I attribute to my father who told me that state syllabus was really easy compared to my Kendriya Vidyalaya syllabus. That belief that he slipped into my mind worked  miracles well for me and my confidence soared after topping. Then I moved to St. Patricks in Secunderabad and later joined Alphonso Junior College. I studied hard those days and did well. I was keen on cracking the IIT and when I did not get it the first time, I joined JNTU for a year and then got through to IIT, Kharagpur later.'

Post IIT, Suresh left for the USA and did his MS in the University of Iowa circa 1990. He moved to Detroit for a job after his MS, and worked in the automobile industry with GM. Caterpillar, Chrysler for six years. It was then that the dotcom bubble began to grow and KRK Vijay who was in California then asked Suresh to join the bandwagon. Suresh laughs as he recollects how he studied a book on C programming, gave an interview and got the job. And then another job with a financial services company. In 1995 the two young turks from St. Alphonso's got the first bug of entrepreneurship. They started an e-greetings company called USAgreetings with some pictures uploaded from the many pictures KRK had taken!

Starting from that point on, they never really looked back. The model did not work - though there were many success stories being bandied about of similar companies being bought out for fortunes. Suresh and company went about now to create content - which they outsourced from India. Then Ybrant Technologies was headed by another of our classmates Ramaraju. Ad professionals were roped in to provide concepts, animations and copy. Greeting cards were developed in thousands and uploaded. Though they managed to survive, the model never took off. Suresh is disarmingly frank when he looks back at those years and confesses that they were really naive. But what worked for them when the entire dotcom bubble went bust was their resilience and never-say-die spirit. And of course a lot of heart and hard work. In his quest to meet any potential customers Suresh reminiscences traveling by train and meeting people. It was at a trade show called Ad Tech that Suresh finally met a bunch of young entrepreneurs in the same field; acquaintances that have remained with him till date. Acquaintances from a dinner called 'Last man standing'.

'One client gave me a mailing project to mail to his customers. I accepted it and we built the software and delivered the mailing solution which became a new revenue stream. We grew that business for a while until we realised that growth in this area was limited. At the same time I was still pitching for VCs. It was then that a friend of mine gave me some fine advise - to lie low for a few years, stop meeting VCs and develop a robust business model meanwhile. We moved into SEO and other web applications, until we finally found our calling - providing services and tools for enterprise marketing which covered the gamut of all that we did. Sometime in those years it also stuck me that we were operating from an engineer's paradigm - of making products and thrusting it on the market. We changed our thinking and started to be more aligned with what our customers wanted. That perspective helped us a lot. It also became the positioning statement of the company - something which I had never thought of till then. But by this time we had seen the worst periods and survived them, emptying our pockets and maxing our credit. But we stuck on instead of falling to the lure of going back to the job.'

What made you hold on, I asked. 'We were keen to make it work. We also had about 50 odd employees and we could not let them down. Most importantly we could not let ourselves down. Maybe that spirit changed the game for us. One thing led to another and we started growing the business by acquiring companies in the USA which were in similar businesses. We outsourced the work to our Indian ops. As the business started to grow bigger, we found support with investors. We were now a business that others were willing to take a business risk on. We kept on acquiring companies with similar businesses across the world that added value - in Israel, Serbia, Singapore. Now we have offices all over, new product and service mixes and plans for faster growth.' Ybrant has offices in 16 countries today, including US, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Ukraine, Serbia, Israel, China, India, and Australia, and with representatives or partners in Spain, Greece and The Netherlands.It has 450 employees.

Growing companies needs letting go and trusting others and this is the point I am most keen on knowing with first generation entrepreneurs. I asked Suresh how he did it. 'I was a hands on guy until I realised one day that it would not work. I cannot do everything myself if I wanted the company to grow. And I wanted it to grow. So I hired and let go. I never interfere with people and give them enough leeway to take decisions and work in the way they want. It has worked for me. So far people have given me no room for complaints. In fact they all took up the responsibility and did extremely good work. It is how I think we can get the best out of people.' I could not agree more. They say that the ultimate man manager is one who is similar to an expert horse rider. He knows that he has to hold the reins ever so slightly, light enough for the horse to feel free and just enough pressure to make it do what you want to!

I asked Suresh his philosophy of life and he had an interesting tale to tell. 'On my fortieth birthday I decided to just take off someplace where I wanted to be with myself. I told the travel guy to just book my tickets someplace so even I don't know where I am going. I landed in Chennai. And after some serious thinking by myself about me and my life I decided that what was more important was to be happy. Now we cannot be happy all the time so I decided that at least 80% of the time I'd be happy and 20% I'd leave to the not-so-happy times. Now to be happy 80% of the time I needed to spend 80% of my time with things that kept me in that state of mind. Which means that 80% of the people I meet needed to be people who keep me in that state of mind. My 80:20, 80:20, 80:20 formula for happiness!'

Suresh's enthusiasm, his energy and frankness are endearing. He is someone who does not wait for things to happen and moves around much, meeting people, trying out ideas. doing things - he makes things happen. He dreams big, has a vision that is well grounded in reality and backs it all with a lot of hard work. For someone who has taken up the responsibility of growing and visioning the company, he carries it all lightly on his shoulders - or so it seems. This leadership style is, according to me, one of the best as he gives each of his managers freedom and space and time and reaps the results of his trust. It is a shared responsibility with every one owning up his bit. Suresh is an avid reader of books and we discussed much on all kinds of books - fiction to philosophy. He loves Lao Tzu, Tao philosophy and the collection of books on his shelf makes really impressive reading. Between discussing books, movies, ideas, philosophies, time flew and it was a good three and a half hours after I had walked into his office, that I left, promising to meet again.

For any young entrepreneur Suresh's story tells the formula for success. Dream, sustain, innovate, hang on  and never give up in the hard times. I guess that's a good enough formula for life. Well done Suresh and I wish you good luck with all your future endeavours and growth plans. Ybrant Digital's website talks of a 700 crore IPO that is in the offing and a global expansion of business. Knowing Suresh,  I know that all his plans will be great successes - and soon!


Kiran Kumar Gutta said...

I am a follower of your blogs. I read your blog on your meeting with College Friend and now CEO of Ybrant Digital a Digital Marketing Solution Company. Mr. Suresh Reddy
Its really nice to read your blogs.

Today there is news about Ybrant Digital in the news paper that it has acqired Web 3.0, an Israel based digital media company. Thought of sharing with you.

Harimohan said...

Hi Kiran,
How are you? It is really nice to see you in this space. I am glad you brought Ybrant's new acquisition to my notice. I missed the news.
Keep in touch.

Kiran Kumar Gutta said...

Hi Hari Mohan Garu,

Feeling nice to read your reply to my comments. You know very well English is not Expressive language. But koshish jaari hain. I lost somewhere in the race to fulfill some of my duties in life.

I still remember the wonderful time spent at Chapel Road Office with you. I wanted to be like you writing the feelings. I used write those in my dairy.

Your daughter is looking very cute in SCHOOL DRESS. the article on school dress is very touchy.

When ever i read your blogs it ignite my thought processing.

M watching Nadal Vs Murry match and writing this . Its a wonderful match . Murry won the First Set.

Harimohan said...

Thanks Kiran. Keep in touch. I have happy memories of those times too.

Anonymous said...


it was a good article about our college and if you remember we played cricket behind begum pet railway line with all the greenery all around

Harimohan said...

Hi Sunil,
Nice to see you here. And thanks. There is much about our college that I have not written about. Maybe sometime I will. The matches behind the Begumpet Railway were probably our Inter faculty matches. Then Sudhakar organised some tournament near Maktha. I distinctly remember you taking a toss out of a tree you had climbed and hurting yourself rather badly. I wonder if anyone has pictures of the entrance to our college - Greenlands looks so different now!

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